Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

Professor Joel Eissenberg, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Years ago, I was visiting Halle in the former East Germany and my host took me to the nearby town of Leipzig. While walking through town, he stopped at the shop window of a coin collecting store that displayed the defunct East German 50- and 100-Mark notes. My host remarked “Now you see why we loved Marx and Engels so much.”

Growing up during the Cold War, I’m very conscious of how it shaped the world that shaped me. I’ve read histories of Russia and China and biographies of Stalin and Castro. I was aware of Marx and Marxism, but never read any of Marx’s writing. I just finished reading the the Marx biography “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life” by Jonathan Sperber.

Marx excelled in gymnasium (high school) in all subjects except math. Mathematics, of course, is at the heart of all of modern economics. Throughout his life, Marx did a terrible job of managing his own finances, and yet ironically considered himself an authority on economics. He was usually in financial difficulty throughout his adult life. Significant relief came from inherited money, an amusing irony for a fervent communist and enemy of capitalism and the wealthy. Marx and his family were also subsidized by Engels who, ironically, became a prosperous businessman.

That he was ashamed of his inability to provide for his family attests to his bourgeois expectations of himself. As Sperber notes, “The great antagonist of the bourgeoisie was distinctly bourgeois in his private life.” Marx was committed to a bourgeois lifestyle for himself and his family, even as he posed as an advocate for the proletariat who enjoyed few, if any, of the amenities he had. While Marx and his family struggled financially, they always had a maid. They had a piano and paid for piano lessons for their daughters for some time while subsisting mostly on handouts from his family and wealthy friends.

Marx consistently advocated for violent revolution, yet only placed his own life at risk of violent death by challenging others to duels when he thought his personal honor was impugned. He embraced hardship, persecution, incarceration and death for others but absconded when it appeared any of those consequences would affect him personally. He grieved the loss of his son, yet cheered violent revolution that would necessitate many parents losing their sons. When his wife contracted smallpox, he was miserable at the possibility of her death, yet found the prospect of loss of the lives of others on the path to communist utopia to be a price he would be glad to pay.

Throughout his life, Marx proved remarkably thin-skinned for someone who imagined himself to be a political leader. His vituperation was not spared on those who were, overall, sympathetic to his larger goals but who differed with him on tactics. And Marx could never be wrong, he could only be wronged. At various points in his career, he changed his mind but never admitted it; he would just go on to write essays criticizing a viewpoint or philosophy that he had previously endorsed.

For Marx, global political revolution to replace bourgeois capitalism with a worker’s utopia was always just around the corner, evidenced in each report of local labor unrest. As the decades clicked by without the expected global revolution, his theories were revised to fit new circumstances but he never questioned his conviction that the world-wide revolution would occur in his lifetime. Over and over, he confronts the barriers to working-class solidarity—language, religion, culture—and simply ignores them, convinced that class identity must trump all other affinities. Evidence to the contrary was attacked.

From the vantage point of the third decade of the 21st century, Marx and Marxism seem quaint. The Soviet Union’s Stalinist experiment in Marxist “communism” collapsed, taking with it the worker’s paradises of East Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania and others. China, which rejected the Marxist mechanism, is only nominally communist today. Cuba is more socialist than communist. Only the hermit kingdom of North Korea pretends to be full-on communist, although it is closer to a hereditary monarchy.

I’ve never read any of Marx’s writing, but the summaries offered in this biography remind me of the fanciful, supercilious utopianism of libertarianism. In both communism and libertarianism, humanity is comprised of automatons with hardwired, predictable responses to environmental/economic stimuli. Both philosophies aspire to the perfectibility of society by defining and enforcing “laws” akin to the laws of physics. While we may stipulate that ultimately, human behavior is a result of chemistry, we are far from understanding how that chemistry works, let alone controlling or predicting it.

I’m glad I read this book. The author appears thoughtful and balanced. The chief virtue for me is that it situates Marxism in a place and time very unlike our own, and yokes Marx’s writing to his biography and personality. If I ever read Marx’s actual writing, which is invariably described as dense and turgid, I’ll have a better appreciation of the world he was experiencing and how his ideas emerged from it.