JONATHAN SPERBER’S NEW BIOGRAPHY SEEKS TO BURY KARL MARX, NOT PRAISE HIM
Karl Marx, A Nineteenth Century Life
By Jonathan Sperber,
Liveright Publishing, 2013
A Review by Barry Healy
September 26, 2013 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In life Karl Marx lived a tumultuous, revolutionary life and in death he has likewise been less than tranquil. Alive, he was the best hated man in Europe. For the ruling classes and police spies he personified the “spectre” that was haunting the continent, the demonic rise of communist revolution.
After his death he was bleached of his humanity, canonised by his admirers and slandered by his bourgeois enemies. Both misrepresented him.
His enormous collection of notes and half-formulated writings were bequeathed first to his long-time political collaborator Frederick Engels and later to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Engels laboured long and hard and managed to produce the second and third volumes of Capital.
Stumbling across Marx’s notebooks on anthropological research, Engels also managed to write The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the classic Marxist statement on the topic. Karl Kautsky of the SPD cobbled together the volumes of the Theories of Surplus Value, which formed the last instalments of Capital.
Along the way Kautsky and the SPD turned themselves into the arbiters of Marxism, the font of all wisdom on the man and his work. Kautsky was even referred to as the “Pope of Marxism”.
The messy details of Marx’s life – such as fathering an illegitimate child – were buried and the image of the prophet who foretold the inevitable collapse of capitalism was manufactured.
Below that edifice was buried Marx’s radicalism. Within the German SPD, social reform replaced revolution – the perfect justification for the party’s bureaucratisation and adaptation to peaceful coexistence with capitalism.
A leading SPD intellectual, Eduard Bernstein, propagated a version of Marxism in which the working class would slowly take over and socialise society — through building the SPD. This would be an organic process based on social evolution driven by scientific developments, which would take an extended period.
That strand of defanged Marxism exposed itself when the SPD supported the German government in WWI. However, as if in an historical horror show, the Stalinised Soviet Union took over the care of this mummified version of Marxism.
The Communist Party of Great Britain symbolised this process in 1954 by moving Marx’s remains and erecting the granite monolith that glowers over Highgate Cemetery today. The simple, original gravestone lies broken at the first grave.
The Stalinists seized control of Marx’s intellectual legacy by gathering all his writings and overseeing the production of his collected works (known by their German initials as the MEGA). Careful selection kept Marx’s dangerous thoughts from the eyes of the masses.
With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, these collected papers have been translated by a new group of academics, producing what is known as MEGA2. This enlarged body of work is available for scholars. We can expect in years to come that historians and others will be mining it for nuggets of information similar to how Jonathan Sperber has done in this minutely researched volume.
Sperber, an expert in early 19th century Germany and the German language, should be perfect for this task of revealing the real Karl Marx. In many ways he is, but unfortunately his eye is selective.
He has come not just to dust off the accretions of history from the real Marx, but to bury Marxism for all time. Sperber’s tome, which he sets the mission of being the authoritative text on Marx has some peculiar assertions and omissions.
The book begins quite insightfully, exploring Marx’s early history by situating him in the revolutionary times in which he lived. By delving into the faction fights in which Marx engaged, not only is Marx’s point of view reported, but also the arguments raised against him, which fills out the record.
However, Sperber revels in any hostile gossip that opponents piled onto Marx or Engels. Any tirade is accepted as fact, whereas Marx’s polemics are subjected to minute, critical examination.
Sperber’s method at times turns peculiar. He insists that this famous sentence from the Communist Manifesto is mistranslated: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
He contends that in English it should read: “Everything that firmly exists and all the elements of the society of orders evaporate, everything sacred is desecrated and men are finally compelled to regard their position in life and their mutual relations with sober eyes.”
Why does he insist on a bland translation? Because Sperber’s project is to demonstrate that Marx is irrelevant to this century and his translation is part of his case.
Marx was not describing the epic results of capitalism on society in that sentence, Sperber says. He was only commenting on the bourgeois overthrow of feudalism (“the society of orders”). Sperber’s point is that the Manifesto was only looking backwards, not referring to the ongoing revolutionising effects of capitalism.
Such an argument is a wilful misreading not only of the Manifesto, but of the entire body of Marx’s works. Sperber pronounces that, being mired in old-fashioned irrelevancy, Marxism means nothing today.
Oddly, in this he refracts, as if though a glass darkly, arguments that Bernstein raised against the Communist Manifesto. For Bernstein the Manifesto was a product of a younger, hot-headed radical Marx, emerging from the conspiratorial matrix of the French Revolution and should not be considered relevant to the modern age.
Sperber also goes into a long-winded critique, covering many pages, in which he insists that Marx was not a dialectician, but was an unconscious, though inconsistent positivist. Now this really is passing strange.
Logical positivism was still evolving during Marx’s lifetime. But its progenitor, Auguste Comte, wrote in the early 19th Century and had followers in and around the workers’ movement. Marx ripped into Comte, calling his work “trashy”.
Positivism held that society was evolving towards a more sophisticated future through scientific advancement.
Sperber, while arguing his positivist case against Marx, does not actually define what he means by the term. By inference it appears that it includes, for him, the collection of evidence and the analysis of data – in short the scientific method – plus a teleological belief in the steady advance of human civilisation. These are certainly elements of positivism and lend it its semi-religious flavour, even though it is secularist. Positivism is an extreme form of empiricism that reifies the scientific method and imposes it on sociology.
The degenerate bureaucrats of the German SPD were certainly influenced by positivism, because it let them off the hook of having to organise and lead the class struggle. Stalinism, with its mechanical materialist worship of the Five-Year Plan wilfully mixed dialectics with positivism.
Sperber says that philosophically Marx was stuck halfway along a line that stretched from Hegel at one end, with his “distrust of empirical evidence”, and positivists at the other end with their “scientific method and scientific form of empiricism”.
Now, to say that Hegel, who studied the scientific developments of his day, “distrusted empirical evidence” is quite something. To picture Karl Marx as a kind of philosophical muddle-headed wombat is to take a leap into void.
Hegel taught that every moment contains within it the possibility of future developments. This future-that-is-not-yet-present is a metaphysical concept. Hegel used the word geist (spirit) to describe the motivating force that drove these possibilities to fruition.
Marx stripped the metaphysics out of Hegelianism, turning Hegel on his head as it were, and developed what is now known as historical materialism to explain how history is driven forward.
Sperber has it wrong. Above all, Marx believed that the possibility of social progress depended on human intervention – revolutionary activity expressed through class struggle. Positivism passively depends on the advancement of science.
Marx’s argument against positivism was that it failed to discern the inner dynamics of society, which dialectical social science could expose. He granted that Comte, as a mathematician and physicist, was certainly “superior” to Hegel in scientific knowledge. However, “even here Hegel is infinitely greater when one considers the whole”. In fact, Marx said, “compared with Hegel” Comte was “wretched”.
Sperber is also at pains to criticise supposed failings in Marxist economic theory, which he delves into over 10 pages. It is a brave writer who tries to summarise Marxist economics in such a brief space and Sperber more than fails the job.
Following on from his inability to understand Hegelian or Marxist dialectics, Sperber can’t see the dynamic thrust of Marx’s economics. For Sperber, Marx’s grasp of economic reality was “static”, effectively “snapshots of the 1860s”.
However, just opening volume I of Capital and reading the list of contents confounds this. The process of the production of capital, the relationship of use value and exchange value making up the commodity, the fetishism of the commodity, the transformation of money into capital, the labour process and valorisation process, etc. Every page is drenched in the application of dialectics, which is the understanding of reality in movement, to economics.
To drive his points home Marx quotes from the British government factory inspectors’ reports to illustrate of the reality of working class conditions (these are “snapshots” according to Sperber).
Sperber is on slightly surer ground when he criticises Marx’s theorising about the tendency of the rate of profit to decline over time. Over the years Marx made several different attempts at explaining this tendency and never succeeded to his own satisfaction.
Sperber also delves into Marx’s newspaper editorships, indicating that his papers were dominated by strident, unreadable polemics. However, he makes no mention, for example, of the prominence of poetry in Marx’s newspapers. S.S. Pawer, in Karl Marx and World Literature, available since 1976, records the trouble to which Marx went to get the best of contemporary radical poets into his papers.
Sperber thinks that Marx’s literary allusions in his journalism were unintelligible to a mass audience, whereas Pawer shows that that his contemporaries were able to pick up the references easily. Interestingly, Sperber totally misses the myriad Biblical references and advanced use of theological logic in Marx’s writings.
Similarly, for Sperber, Marx’s organising activities to keep Britain from entering the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy are absent. In fact, Marx’s keen interest in North American events appears right in the preface to Capital volume I and his activity was immense.
The development of Marx’s thinking about British rule in India Sperber dismisses as a strain of “petit-bourgeois” radicalism. The evolution and intellectual vigour of Marx’s engagement with the question is masterfully discussed in Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, which was available while Sperber was at work on his book, but rates no mention.
On and on it goes. Sperber’s conclusion is that Marx’s ideas are stuck in “the matrix of the early nineteenth century, the age of the French Revolution and its aftermath, of Hegel’s philosophy and its Young Hegelian critics, of the early industrialisation of Great Britain and the theories of political economy emerging from them”.
Sperber misses the point
Sperber completely misses the point: when Marx inverted Hegel’s dialectics and applied it to political economy he did not just create a new economic theory with some attendant radical posturing. Marxism is a philosophy of human action aimed at the complete liberation of the entire human race and the rescue of the planet from capitalist over-exploitation.
Marx was a critic of capitalism and, ironically it is capitalism that has kept its nemesis, Karl Marx alive. Capitalism’s myriad oppressions demand analysis and resistance. In that, the ideas and revolutionary example of Karl Marx are vibrant.
It is only with the death of capitalism that Karl Marx will finally be buried, because we will no longer have need of his world historic contribution. Notwithstanding Jonathan Sperber, Marx will then rest in peace with the grateful blessings of all humanity.
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