BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
How Marxist was Marx?
, June 22, 2013
A Nineteenth-Century Life
by Jonathan Sperber
(New York: Liveright)
Hardcover: 672 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Someone once commented that the 19th-century Bible scholars who claimed to have discovered the “Historical Jesus” looked at Christ down a deep well, and saw their own faces reflected at the bottom.
Even today, liberal theologians in Australia seem to come up with a Jesus who, if he were physically present in the world today, would read the Fairfax press, listen to the ABC, vote Green, demonise the United States and support gay marriage.
There is always a tendency to interpret historical figures in terms of our own era, and Jonathan Sperber believes that this process has produced two Marxes.
For his supporters, he is the economic Nostradamus who foresaw exactly how capitalism would develop into its 21st-century form, and whose writings contain prescient prescriptions to forestall global financial crises which will otherwise inevitably overwhelm us.
For his opponents, he is the totalitarian and sadistic Machiavelli who planned that, beyond the grave, his future followers, such as Stalin, Mao, Hoxha, Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung, would create communist hell-holes perpetrating dictatorship, starvation, torture and execution.
Sperber is determined, as his title indicates, to replace Marx firmly in his 19th-century context.
The first thing he reminds us about Marx is that, apart from his bohemian work habits and occasional bouts of drunkenness with male companions, he was a model of bourgeois rectitude, especially during his last 34 years in London.
Despite his chronically inadequate income from his intermittent journalism (alleviated periodically by the capitalist and factory-owner, Friedrich Engels), he strove to maintain a respectable establishment.
He was faithful to the same wife for 38 years (except for an illegitimate child to their servant, whose paternity he covered up), and an affectionate father to his children, whom he sent to private schools.
He held very traditional views on propriety and gender roles, which emerged in his dealings with his daughter’s suitors.
How is the following extract for a classic model of an edict from a Victorian paterfamilias to a potential son-in-law?
Marx wrote: “If you wish to continue your relationship with my daughter, you will have to give up your way of paying court.… true love is expressed in reserve, modesty … not in letting loose passion and demonstrations of a premature familiarity….
“If you do not know how to express your love to her in a form appropriate to London’s latitude, then you will have to content yourself with loving from a distance.”
In its firmness and formality, this letter is not only typical of his adherence to civilised norms in his private life, but is a model of restraint compared with the frenzied, scurrilous and utterly unscrupulous style which he deployed against anyone who disagreed with him in the field of political minutiae.
Marx had a fastidious middle-class contempt not only for Jews (despite being Jewish himself) and “niggers”, but also for members of the ignorant, uneducated working-class which, according to his prognostications, was one day to inherit the earth.
Finally, in a gesture which seems perhaps even aspirationally aristocratic, he was given to challenging opponents to duels!
Moving from the personal and the domestic, Sperber next draws attention to Marx’s philosophical, economic and political preoccupations, all of which were very much those of his era.
Philosophically, he was committed to Hegelianism; but, in retrospect, despite his modifications to it, both idealism in general and Hegelianism in particular seem quaint and old-fashioned. So too does the positivism to which he was sympathetic because of its science, materialism and atheism, despite its lack of a master dynamic, which he believed his customised Hegelianism provided in the form of the dialectic.
As for economics, Sperber contends that Marx’s theories were based on the capitalism of the early 19th century, and that he did not even keep up with industrial and financial developments in his own lifetime, let alone foresee the complexities and sophistication of the global economy during the next century and beyond.
Politically, his template for revolution was the French Revolution, especially its Jacobin-dominated Convention of 1793-4 and the Terror which it perpetrated, and he assumed that any future revolution would inevitably emulate its stages.
He also closely followed the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 across Europe, the Crimean War of 1853-6, the American Civil War of 1861-5, and the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune of 1870-1.
None of these, of course, contained much clue as to the nature and scale of the 20th-century’s revolutions and wars.
Unlike his later disciples, Marx tended to be Eurocentric, and showed little interest in colonialism, or what long afterward came to be known as the developing world of Asia and Africa.
Sperber attributes this to his living before the full efflorescence of European imperial ideology in the decades immediately following his death.
Marx today is associated with an anti-liberal political totalitarianism, or at least severe authoritarianism; but in fact throughout his career he displayed a real ambivalence toward liberal democracy.
It would perhaps not be too much of an oversimplification of Sperber to sum up his Marx as having a liberal heart and a dictatorial head.
In theory, he believed that liberal democracy was a bourgeois racket, which every country would eventually experience, but which would eventually and inevitably be transcended by the workers’ revolution and consequent utopia.
In theory, then, liberalism represented merely a stage in the predetermined progress towards the final ideal, and the cognoscenti were to outwardly encourage it, while deriding it amongst themselves.
In practice, however, Marx evidenced a heartfelt loathing of reactionary despotisms such as Prussia and Russia, and a desire for the freedom of the masses which went much farther than just tolerating liberal reforms as a step toward the dictatorship of the proletariat.
At different times he therefore both encouraged and discouraged co-operation with liberal reformers, and he similarly vacillated between nudging along the revolutionary process, and waiting for the cataclysmic economic crisis which would be the essential catalyst without which any revolutionary activity would be a waste of time.
In other words, despite all his theorising, he was in many respects just another classic 19th-century radical.
Whatever might be made of those theories today — and even anyone who thinks that everything he wrote was completely wrong would still have to concede that he has been at least an unignorable stimulus to argument and research in the fields of history, politics and economics — Marx was undoubtedly an intelligent, widely read and well educated man.
He had indeed a typical 19th-century educational foundation in Greek and Latin, and an appreciation of good literature, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for quoting Shakespeare.
That being said, it must also be admitted that he had a weakness for idiosyncratic theories of a slightly less academic nature, such as his conviction that his rival influence in the International Working Men’s Association (the First International), the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, along with British prime minister Lord Palmerston, were both secret agents of the Russian czar.
While Sperber has done a superb (pun fully intended) job of situating Marx back in his historical milieu, we are left with two questions.
First, how did Marx later come to be associated with murderous totalitarian 20th-century tyrannies of which he could barely have conceived?
Second, how did he come, even later, to be associated with the dominant dogma of our contemporary humanities and social sciences, that the only ultimate reality is power?
These are complex issues, but an important part of the answer to both questions must be the influence of Lenin, born 13 years before Marx’s death, through whom Marx’s ideas were refracted and politically applied.
Lenin’s whole theory of history and humanity, of course, was summed up in the single, two-word apophthegm, “Who, whom?”
On the basis of Sperber’s portrait, it is not unreasonable to suppose Marx himself might have considered that to be something of a reductio ad absurdum, rather than a logical conclusion, of his ideas.
But then, as Sperber demonstrates, Marx was quite susceptible to self-deception.