Exile to the Ages (or, Returning Karl Marx To Our Time)

Karl Marx’s ideas no longer matter. At least, that’s what Jonathan Sperber seems to think.

By Geoff EleyOctober 28, 2013

    Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber. Liveright. 672 pages.

    KARL MARX’S IDEAS no longer matter. At least, that’s what Jonathan Sperber seems to think. Marx, he thinks, deserves a new biography now for this very reason: this quintessentially 19th-century thinker has been torn from his rightful time.

    For admirers, Marx figures as the herald of the future: a theorist of societal transformation in the modern age; the architect of a social theory of capitalism that still works for our contemporary world, especially now that global capitalism seems on the skids and economic crisis is back. For critics, in contrast, he seems the harbinger of totalitarianism, the armchair advocate of class conflict, collective violence, and proletarian dictatorship, whose ideas came to justify the worst horrors perpetrated in the name of socialism by 20th-century revolutionary governments. As two of his earliest biographers, Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen, put this in 1936:

    To some he is a fiend, the arch-enemy of human civilization, and the prince of chaos, while to others he is a far-seeing and beloved leader, guiding the human race towards a brighter future. In Russia his teachings are the official doctrines of the state, while Fascist countries wish them exterminated. In the areas under the sway of the Chinese Soviets Marx’s portraits appear on the banknotes, while in Germany they have burned his books.

    But now enough of such presentism, Sperber insists. The times are different. Communism is dead, the Soviet Union gone, socialist parties mired in pragmatism, China well down the capitalist road. Marx may finally be freed from those older narratives, each equally exorbitant in its present-based misrecognition. He can go back to the 19th century where he belongs.


    Few historians are better equipped to return Marx to his time. One of the most accomplished social historians of 19th-century Germany today, Sperber brings unrivaled command of his subject matters and materials. He is the author of four weighty monographs — two social histories of the mid-19th-century Rhineland (one on popular Catholicism, the other on democratic movements, each a highly regarded classic), a study of changing property relations across the century as a whole, and an authoritative account of voting under the Empire — plus the best overall guide to the 1848 Revolutions and a variety of general histories covering Europe’s long 19th century. He thus draws upon deep reserves of knowledge, a lifetime of involvement with both the largest and the more particularized questions of his new book. Alongside the specialized scholarly literatures, Sperber also works from a vital new source, the still unfinished collected edition of literally everything Marx and Engels ever wrote, commonly known as the MEGA after its German acronym. In all of these ways he trumps any of his predecessors. The result is an exceptionally erudite, accessibly written, and generous-minded biography, a work both popular and scholarly, which will be unsurpassed for many years to come.

    Getting Marx right means placing him firmly back in his own time, where the differences from the present loom far more than any farsightedness or continuing relevance. Capturing Marx’s usefulness for our contemporary purposes means seeing all of the ways in which his ideas no longer work. “The Next Big Thinker,” John Cassidy had called Marx at the top of his piece in The New Yorker in 1997: “Communism may be dead but Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism suddenly makes perfect sense – and even right-wing economists can be heard praising his views.” Yet while the Communist Manifesto was hailed the next year on its 150th anniversary for its startling prescience, Sperber begs to differ. To his mind, Marx was far more of “a backward-looking figure” shaped by the aftermath of the great French Revolution, the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel, and the political economy of British industrialization. Marx’s vision of politics, his perception of the social upheaval remaking the surrounding world, and his entire mental apparatus and idioms of thought were anchored far more firmly in an irretrievably foreign past than hitherto thought. Marx was beholden to the characteristics of “a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own.” He was gripped by those experiences, worked them brilliantly into a system, and “projected them into the future.”

    Little of this thinking ultimately transcended its origins, Sperber argues. Marx brought his “economics” to fruition in the first volume of Capital in 1867 and its posthumous companions of 1885 and 1894 just as the marginal revolution was rendering the labor theory of value obsolete. His world was the world of 19th-century nation-states — of revolutionary France, the British Empire, Prussian and Tsarist reaction, republican democracy, and “history-less peoples” as his friend Friedrich Engels called the smaller nationalities that were doomed to disappear. He saw colonialism as a destructive but necessary engine of progress in the world; Eurocentric to a tee, he had no inkling of our own globalization. He remained forever indebted to the Hegelianisms of his youth, adding to it principally the evolutionary developmentalism of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, along with the creeping effects of the scientific positivism gathering influence by the 1860s. The labor movements Marx envisaged had barely entered their infancy when he died in 1882; growing to maturity from the 1890s, they turned into profoundly different formations, whose 20th-century incarnations he could never have foreseen. Obsessed with the model of the French Revolution, fixated on the chances for recurrence, he got the course of Europe’s future hopelessly wrong. Most commentators miss these powerful 19th-century limitations, Sperber writes elsewhere, because so “many of the causes [Marx and Engels] advocated, while important at the time, did not carry on beyond their lifetimes – indeed, were already on their way out in the last quarter of the nineteenth century – and faded from view.”

    In other ways, too, Marx was a creature of these early times. If hardly anti-Semitic in the later racialist sense, he habitually embraced the Jewish stereotyping endemic to the period, in common-sense usages that now jar our sensibilities, whether using invectives like "yid" or equating Jews with haggling, money, and capitalism. As the bourgeois paterfamilias he also displayed the conventions of the age. His family was at various times penurious, living in cramped and seedy accommodations with all manner of indignities, including the recurring miseries of illness, and the tragic deaths of small children. Contending for most of his career with poverty, illness, and exile, he constantly strove for greater respectability, holding on to what we would now see as a typically Victorian ideal. He wanted the best for his three surviving daughters in the fullest of respectable ways, with all the accoutrements of the dignified and educated life: private school; lessons in Italian and French, drawing, and music; classical learning; proper, if companionate marriages, albeit inside Western Europe’s emergent left intelligentsia. In all of these ways Karl Marx belonged to his time.

    In large degree, Sperber carries his case. For some purposes Marx should be read for his own time and not for ours. We should be focusing in the first instance on how the years between the 1840s and 1870s acted on his thought, although Sperber is not the first to make this point. (It was basic to George Lichtheim’s classic account in Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study published in 1961, for instance). The Marx we know now was not the Marx of that time. Our perceptions have been structured not just by the later course of the Marxist tradition, but also by those of Marx’s writings that were known only after his death, in some cases not until the 1950s and beyond. Here Sperber is surely right: posterity — and the labors of ideologists both for and against — plucked Marx out of history, blocking our access to what he stood for in his day. To arrive at the latter we have to look past the labyrinthine controversies about Marxism as a later tradition. We should set aside what we know about 1917, the Bolsheviks, and Communism. We need to treat very carefully the early philosophical writings of the 1840s, which had small relevance for the 1860s and 1870s and were in any case entirely unknown to contemporaries. Many of the disputes surrounding Marx’s overall corpus of thought — how, exactly, did his early wrestling with “alienation” continue to speak through his theorizing in Capital, for example — may be tabled for another time.

    While Marx was alive, only a handful of his writings could be consulted: a smattering of early philosophical tracts; the newspaper commentaries on the European revolutions (1847-53), plus the Communist Manifesto (1847-8); two works of economic theory (1857 to late-1860s); and political writings from the First International (1864-72). These appeared in various languages (German, French, English), passing quickly out of print. During 1853-58 another body of journalistic writing appeared under Marx’s name in the New York Tribune (487 articles in total, around a quarter ghostwritten by Engels), which Sperber does a fine job of resurrecting. Of the early writings, only two, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1869) and the Manifesto were republished in his own lifetime. The latter was not widely diffused until the 1872 German reprint, the first edition actually to bear Marx’s and Engels’ names. As a theoretician Marx’s reputation rested on the great economic writings — the Critique of Political Economy (1859), and Capital Volume One (1867). As a political figure, he was known vaguely for his exploits in 1848 — he had some notoriety as a leader of the First International, who backed the Paris Commune, and he had a growing reputation as an economic theorist and historian. Mostly, his ideas circulated inside the small networks of British and German socialists adopting his influence.

    The earlier 19th century looms appropriately larger in Sperber’s account. We do need a clearer grasp of the ideas and events in which the youthful Marx became so lastingly formed. Sperber is here the true master of his craft, marshaling every biographical detail and his own rich contextual understanding to provide brilliantly succinct but illuminating access to both the life and its times. Moving from an account of Marx’s origins on Germany’s western margin, his treatments of birthplace, family, adolescence, and courtship bring us to the student years in Bonn (1835-36) and Berlin (1836-41) with a confident sense of how these early influences continued to play out. If Trier’s stifling provincial Catholicism was the backwater from which an aspiring intellectual would need to escape, then the Rhine Province, newly annexed into Prussia, formed Germany’s dynamic and progressive leading edge, having for two decades been part of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. While the Jewish provenance of Marx’s parents left discernible traces for his future, it was rather the Enlightenment-inflected rationalist Protestantism into which his father had converted, probably in 1819 a year after Karl was born, that held the greater sway.

    Sperber “gets” these matters far better that most other biographers, from the complicated valencies of conversion and the fragilities of the bourgeois social imaginary (licensed by the ethos of the Prussian state, embattled against clericalism) to the high stakes of family and career. His treatment of Karl’s courtship of Jenny von Westphalen, daughter of a senior provincial civil servant of enlightened outlook and dubious nobility (he failed as a landowner while his own father received title only in 1764), is especially insightful. Engaged at 18, with neither an assured career nor an income, to a woman four years his senior without a dowry, Marx was already bucking convention. As Sperber says, it was “his first rebellion against nineteenth-century bourgeois society.”

    To his father’s disquiet, Marx wasted much of his first student year in Bonn. But it was in Berlin that the life was really blown off course. The ensuing narrative, which follows Marx from his encounter with the Young Hegelians through his return to the Rhineland in Cologne (1841-43), and thence through the years in Paris (1843-45) and Brussels (1845-48) to the revolutions in 1848 itself, is superbly executed. Sperber combines biographical portraits with intellectual exegesis, political dynamics with social milieu, Marx’s journalism with the mechanics of newspapers and publishing, ideas with organized practice, the particular presence of Marx with the bigger picture of the revolutions. He embeds Marx and his ideas in an account of the Vormärz (“Pre-March”) and the revolution with consummate skill. He then follows him into his permanent London exile (from August 1849). All along the way he pauses carefully to consider each of the writings and the perspectives they contain. This is where Sperber’s specialized knowledge comes most impressively to bear. It is hard to imagine this part of Marx’s biography ever being better done, except of course via the kind of micro-historical density that detailed analyses of the particular could always provide.

    Yet, given Sperber’s specialty, it is perhaps no surprise to find the early 19th-century roots and the vividness of the events of the 1840s highlighted so decisively. His assessments of complex and contentious episodes of that era are impeccably sensible, grounded by superbly deployed contextual understanding. One example would be the Trier Casino affair of 1834, when a dinner that ended in the singing of revolutionary songs led to the disbanding of the town’s elite social club, to be replaced by two new ones separating the officers and civil servants from the rest of the bourgeois citizenry, whose leaders included Heinrich Marx, Karl’s lawyer father. Sperber’s capsule portraits of this period’s people and settings are perfectly judged, such as a three-page introduction to Hegel’s importance or his description of the classical schooling of the Gymnasium.

    Once he enters the second half of the century, especially the 1860s and 1870s, however, the narrative flattens and flags. When Sperber starts laying down his longer-term claims about the youthful habits and syndromes that supposedly structured Marx’s outlook ever after, problems arise. His quiet insistence that Marx’s thinking never relinquished its allegiance to Hegel’s Absolute Idea is only the biggest of other examples. As he well knows, precisely this question has been the object of countless interpretive disagreements on the part of many distinguished philosophers and intellectual historians. The exact character of the changes Marx underwent after 1849-50 requires a care and depth of critical readings whose implications will not be bracketed from a biography as easily as Sperber would like. He insists on a history that is not, in Croce’s sense, the history of the present. Rather, it should be placed entirely in the past. But then why would it still matter? Why, as Huck Finn famously asked, should we care “about dead folks”? Having given us a massive new Life, confusingly, Sperber wants us to care, yet not to care. Where is the rationale? To find one we will sorely need those theoretical debates of the later 20th century, which were not exactly about “1960s-era searches for alternative lifestyles” — one of the throwaway lines through which Sperber occasionally drops his guard. This is where the hard line he wishes to draw between Marx and our own time becomes tendentious.


    Again, on certain grounds Sperber is persuasive. The lasting effects for Marx of the debates of the 1840s about free trade and protection, or the enduring importance of his anti-Prussian and anti-Tsarist dispositions, are well worth emphasizing. Certain figures of thought first developed in relation to 1848 continued to recur in Marx’s thinking. These included the “stages” approach to revolutionary strategy (“bourgeois-democratic” versus “proletarian”) and the associated debates about coalitions versus confrontation, which certainly spoke through his thinking about the revival of working-class politics in the 1860s or his critical response to the German Social Democratic Party’s Gotha Program of 1875. But the recurrence of such thinking during the 20th century came not just from some doctrinaire Marxist imagination, slavishly beholden to the master’s time-bound toolkit. Rather, it bespoke fundamental dilemmas of left political strategy, around which diverse historical sociologies have continued to gather, not least since the 1960s. Another feature of Marx’s distinctive outlook Sperber astutely picks out, in ways others have missed, is his continuous attention to international affairs, likewise hardly pertinent for the earlier 19th century alone, despite some of Marx’s particular fixations (like the belief in an anti-Tsarist revolutionary war). For Marx, in any case, the key to any international crisis was always in the new spaces likely to be created for politics in the future.

    We can draw out continuities like these, surely, without sucking Marx back entirely into the deep 19th century. Smiling knowingly about the German patriotism Sperber thinks Marx displayed on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, or the readiness of a 24-year-old Marx to envision the use of troops against workers, may be fair enough. But there were some vital departures in Marx’s mature years, with profound and lasting importance for the future, that Sperber decides to miss.

    This myopia takes two main forms. One concerns the continuing usefulness of Marx’s ideas for our own time, which Sperber perversely denies. But the other is more historical, very particular to the 1860s and 1870s and their longer-term reach. This concerns the watershed of 1850 — the profound disjunction between revolutionary furor and what followed. Of course Sperber sees this. Some of his best writing describes the disappointments of the revolutionaries and the melancholy of exile. Marx knew the signs had been misread. As Engels ruefully remarked, Marx and he mistook capitalism’s birth pangs for its death throes. But Sperber mutes the impact. The recognition sent Marx back to his desk. In the Manifesto, the exploited proletariat was already the motor of change: social classes and their needs, defined by dynamics of economic life, supplied the agency, not revolutionary conspiracies, however determined. Now, from the despond of defeat, he sought to deepen this understanding. He reapplied himself to the inquiry that eventually culminated in Capital. He broke with the Communist League, whose survivors hankered after the old conspiratorial temptation. Revolutions were no mere feat of the will, he told them, but came from gradually maturing conditions. Workers were now facing a politics of the very long haul: “If you want to change conditions and make yourselves capable of government, you will have to undergo fifteen, twenty, or fifty years of civil war.” Behind this was a general principle:

    While this general prosperity lasts, enabling the productive forces of bourgeois society to develop to the full extent possible within the bourgeois system, there can be no question of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible when two factors come into conflict: the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production.

    And: “A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself.”

    Sperber himself cites this recognition, yet backs away from the political conclusions Marx proceeded to draw. After 1850, Marx felt the full rush of revolutionary optimism only once again, during the first great cyclical crisis of the new global capitalism in 1857, when he laid out the basic framework of his “economics” in the seven notebooks of the famous Grundrisse, which stayed unpublished for 100 years. There resulted a far tougher emphasis on the social forces and underlying conditions: if these constrained people’s capacities for changing their social environment, they ultimately made it feasible. From this central insight came the political perspectives sharply separating Marx and Engels from rival traditions of the 19th-century left. While the philosophical materialism already dated from the 1840s, it now became a general theory of economics — the capitalist mode of production and its “laws of motion” — which in turn delivered a distinctive politics, bringing 1848-49 into sober perspective and projecting a future capitalist collapse. “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and mental life. It is not the consciousness of people that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Or: “According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life.” Sperber entirely underestimates the meanings of this departure, unfortunately. They defined Marx’s legacy for the subsequent socialist tradition, what later socialists mainly understood by “Marxism.” They revolved around the role of the “economic factor” in history, the determining hold of material forces on human achievement, and the linking of political openings to the movements of the economy. In a nutshell: revolutionary politics would need to wait for the economic forces and societal crises necessary to sustain them.

    Marx also keenly grasped the sudden impact of a dramatically changed political conjuncture. For him, the events of the 1860s were an eye-opener. After the previous decade’s deep reaction, a fresh drama of constitution-making utterly transformed Europe’s map. Italy and Germany were created for the first time. Labor movements resurged, including the craft unionism of the Trades Union Congress in Britain and workers’ associations all across Germany. Labor organizing became European through the strike wave of 1868-74, with the spectacle of the Paris Commune at the heart. What reignited Marx’s involvement was not the return of class conflict per se, but its reshaping of politics, manifest in the founding of the First International in 1864. Still more: labor’s revival was now occurring in an entirely new constitutional setting. For Marx and Engels, new nation-states in Germany and Italy had become the decisive breakthrough, giving impetus to capitalism in those two societies and creating a framework for workers’ advance. Together with the Second Reform Act in Britain (1867), the passage from the Second Empire to the Third Republic in France (1871), the constitutional compromise of Austria and Hungary in the Habsburg Empire (1867), liberal revolution in Spain (1868-69), constitutional reforms in Greece and Serbia (1864, 1869), and even reforms in Russia (1861-64), this was a decisive redrawing of the political map. As a result, liberal constitutionalism gained the normative ascendancy in Europe, assembling the generalized conditions of political life for the half-century ahead. It gave labor movements their first chance for legal activity on a national scale.

    Sperber marks these changes, to be sure. Yet, by fastening so avidly onto the earlier 19th century, he neglects what shifted so radically later on. The changes inspired a fundamentally new mode of working-class politics: the independent mass party of labor. This was independent by organizing separately from liberal parties. It was mass by requiring broadly based public agitation. It was labor by emphasizing class-based organization. It was a party by proposing permanent, centrally organized, programmatically coordinated, nationally focused and directed activity. In contrast with his radical contemporaries, Marx argued consistently for this model, which he used the First International to promote. Workers needed a political class movement, he argued, which definitely valued trade unionism and other reforms but hitched them to the ulterior purpose of acquiring state power, taking maximum advantage of the new frameworks of parliaments and the rule of law. Marx never expected this to happen overnight, and his lifetime brought only a single case of such a nationally organized socialist party: the SPD in newly unified Germany. But, for good or ill, this was a key departure bequeathed by Marx for the future, which had little to do with either Hegel, free trade, or the Jacobin climax of the French Revolution.

    The case for this political model — for national trade union and party organizations “as organizing centers for the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation,” as Marx called it while addressing delegates to the 1866 Congress of the International — could only be made by defeating the bearers of the older competing traditions. These included liberal reformists of various kinds, especially the British trade unionists; the French followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who opposed both unions and politics aimed at the state; and the anarchist partisans of Mikhail Bakunin, whose weakness for insurrectionary conspiracies drew on what remained of that older revolutionism inspired by Louis-Auguste Blanqui. Though he failed with the British trade unionists, who kept to their Liberal Party affiliations, Marx vanquished these other rivals all along the line. Indeed, this was the First International’s main point. Though the latter had small impact organizationally (by 1872 it was defunct), it vitally clarified how distinctively socialist politics would be developed. The practical program of labor legislation and trade union reforms was laid out in Marx’s “Instructions” for the delegates to the Geneva Congress in 1866; public ownership was adopted at the Brussels Congress two years later; and the resolution on “The Political Action of the Working Class” at the London Conference of 1871 called for “the constitution of the working class into a political party.” Each of these became the fixed referents for the socialist parties that came into being in Europe, country by country, during the 1880s and 1890s. Marx could never have anticipated many of the coming debates about social reform or how far to participate in given political institutions, whose terms quickly troubled those parties in the decades after his death. Nonetheless, Marx supplied the guiding perspectives for the earliest generations of social democratic politicians and the movements they wanted to build.

    These vital departures are barely noticed in Sperber’s account, which by the 1870s buries any active political significance for Marx in a personal story of ill health and physical decline. Yet it was precisely here, in the break from the main pre-1848 revolutionary tradition, that the enduring effects for the future may be found — certainly for the first two-thirds of the 19th century, by extension for our own contemporary world too. Until the Paris Commune, the imagery of barricades, popular insurrection, disciplined conspiratorial leadership, heroic individualist sacrifice, and necessary dictatorship still defined what a revolution was supposed to be. But after 1850 Marx broke decisively with those older vanguardist and conspiratorial ideas, insisting on the broadest popular democracy instead, whether in public agitation or internal relations.

    Grounded by the idea of the working class as the agency of progress, whose societal majority followed from capitalism’s unfolding, this transformed the image of revolution. Henceforth, it meant not a voluntarist uprising hatched by a self-appointed conspiracy, but the coming to power of a class, the vast majority of society, whose revolutionary potential was to be organized openly and democratically by the socialist party. That party would campaign through elections for the virtues of its program — dispossessing an ever-narrowing circle of exploitative capitalist interests, reorganizing society’s economic, social, and cultural goods. A compelling glimpse of the kind of polity this implied — participatory rather than parliamentary, “a vision of democracy without professionals,” in Richard N. Hunt’s words — was provided by Marx’s written response to the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France, published in 1871. This too is passed over in Sperber’s account.


    Thus there is a major problem in how Sperber has chosen to cast this new Life. Grinding his early 19th-century axe, he allows anything else to drop from view. He rightly emphasizes the degree of Marx’s embeddedness in the 1830s and 1840s. Far better than most predecessors, he shows Marx’s thought to have been powerfully formed by its context, often in ways that were highly time-bound. The indebtedness to Hegel and to everything he learned with the Young Hegelians was one aspect of this; the lasting impact of the British political economists was another. But in each case he also found his own very distinctive way. And in the third of Sperber’s areas — loyalty to the political model deriving from the French Revolution — Marx made decisive breaks. Indeed, precisely that Janus-faced ambivalence defined the full course of a career. He took the measure of his own times the better to enable the future, allowing its true challenges and promises to be seen. Yet why, if we can show the reach of the former, must the latter then be effaced?

    Of course there were limits to how Marx could anticipate the future. He never systematically theorized the state, nor the transition to socialism and the character of post-revolutionary society. He had little new to say about internationalism, whose main features came down from the earlier 19th century, decisively marked, as Sperber says, by the French Revolution. Marx thought conventionally about the nation; his belief in revolutionary war came from the Jacobin tradition; on nationalism he voiced many prejudices of the age. But such fetters can be found in any major thinker. As Sperber patiently shows, Marx mounted a variety of peculiar hobbyhorses that make sense only in their very particular time. His obsession with Tsarism was one, leading to various unlikely arguments and associations, including an alliance with the Russophobe and pro-Ottoman campaigning former diplomat and parliamentarian, the eccentric David Urquhart. Yet even here Marx broke into strikingly new directions, devoting much of his time in the 1870s to the emergent populist claims about the peasantry, as Teodor Shanin showed in Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the “Peripheries of Capitalism” (1983) many years ago.

    The point of historicizing any major thinker is always twofold. By locating ideas more accurately in their own time, we see better how to abstract them for our own. Sperber scorns efforts at accomplishing the latter as “singularly useless pastimes.” Yet Marx’s thinking about politics directly resonated through the later 19th and 20th centuries — not as facile versions of totalitarianism would charge, but in the laying down of some vital democratic goods. Marx’s thought became basic to the intellectual architecture of the modern world, whether as inspiration or anathema, moreover, as most intellectual historians have seemed to accept, from H. Stuart Hughes in Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930 (1958) or George Lichtheim’s Europe in the Twentieth Century (1972) through the oeuvre of Anson Rabinbach or Martin Jay. Simply to dismiss the resultant corpus of intervening social and political thought as useless “Marxology” seems either intellectually lazy or willfully naïve.

    Sperber believes that Marx’s ideas have run their course. The job is to clear the rubble left behind. But for any historian (the mantle, after all, that Sperber dons) the legacies can hardly be wished away. In one form or another, their presence remains — a theory of societal development enabling the periodizing of history; a model of social explanation proceeding upwards from material life; a theory of social change based on the widening distribution of inequalities and their effects; an objectivist approach to social understanding. The presence of these intellectual commitments in contemporary historiography would be very hard to deny. They even move, subtly and discernibly, through Jonathan Sperber’s own works too, I would dare to imply. Certain of Marx’s primary innovations have become less secure — the axiomatic materialism of his philosophical anthropology, for example; or his fundamental acceptance of the sovereignty of the economy; or his conviction that capitalism would have a finite life. But these ideas, too, continue exercising their present effects. With Marx’s writings many of our most valued contemporary theorists have continued to think, whether about the state and power, about class and social distinction, or about ideology, discourse, and culture, even where Marx’s own ideas stayed in a practical and inchoate state.

    Measured against these possibilities, Sperber’s own conclusion seems lame. Whether or not “intellectual connections” can be found to the present, he says, is “beside the point.” The most important thing about Marx, the source of his “deepest and most resonant appeal,” was his “passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising, and intransigent nature,” his performance of an oppositional way of life. His “actual ideas and political practice,” in contrast, remain bound by “the matrix of the early 19th century.” Yet this seems surprisingly removed from the ground where much of the best historical thinking is actually being done. As description, it seems neither accurate nor realistic. Confining Marx to the world of the 1840s is as likely to succeed as identifying capitalism with spinning jennies, steam engines, and joint stock companies alone.


    Geoff Eley is the Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan.

    LARB Contributor

    Geoff Eley is the Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan.


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