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Jonathan Sperber

Jonathan Sperber

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

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.

Selective

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.

Positivist?

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”.

‘Static’ economics?

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.

[Barry Healy is a member of Socialist Alliance in Perth, Western Australia. A shorter version of this review appeared in Green Left Weekly.]

Source: LINKS: International Journal of Socialist Renewal – http://links.org.au/node/3530

 

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Karl Marx & Jenny Marx

THE MARX PARTY – KARL MARX’S REVOLUTIONARY HOUSEHOLD

Love & Capital: Karl & Jenny Marx & the Birth of a Revolution

By Mary Gabriel,
Little, Brown & Company 2011
707 pages, $39.99

Review by Barry Healy

October 19, 2012 — Green Left Weekly — The spectre of Karl Marx still haunts the capitalist world. Only 11 people attended his funeral in 1883 and the corporate press still loves to dance on his grave, constantly declaring that his ideas are irrelevant. Yet with every economic crisis all eyes return to Marx’s masterpiece, Capital, to understand what is really going on in our economic system.

How did this extraordinary work get produced? What circumstances fed the creative process?

Through Mary Gabriel’s intimate biography we see that hardship ― unrelenting, heartbreaking miserable poverty ― was the physical context. But in greater measure, love and unstinting generosity of the spirit nurtured the flame of creativity and rebellion.

The author of The Communist Manifesto and Capital, Marx was hounded from country to country in Europe before settling in London to further his revolutionary work. With him every inch of the way, physically, intellectually and emotionally was his family.

Few lives have been lived as intensely as that of Karl Marx. And through this book the zeal that his entire family shared is honoured.

His wife Jenny, his collaborator, transcribed his notoriously indecipherable handwriting so that printers could read it. As such, she was fully united with his thought processes and shared his outlook.

As is clear in this book, she was fully as much a revolutionary as her husband, but in no way such a public figure.

However, she was recognised as a lynchpin of the exiles who swirled around their household, an essential part of the underground movement Marx and his key collaborator Frederick Engels were leading.

Their surviving three daughters were also his collaborators, first as his secretaries and then as revolutionary activists in their own right. Also part of the close-knit group were the household maid Helene Demuth (mother of Marx’s illegitimate son, Freddy) and Engels.

It was this household that was the core of the “Marx party” ― the revolutionary grouping that pulled together such a huge circle of revolutionaries that the political police of several countries spied on them ― and was a key origin of the world socialist movement today.

Marx and Engels’ project was to coordinate and lead, as far as possible, the entire revolutionary movement ― first in Europe and later the globe ― and to have Marx’s investigation of the operations of capitalism published.

Both tasks were Herculean and almost beyond the capabilities of human flesh. A well-funded political office could have achieved the first and a placidly tenured academic could have accomplished the second.

Trying to organise a revolutionary centre without resources in the stinking, disease-ridden backstreets of Victorian London was hard enough. But trying to achieve a ground-breaking analysis of the operations of the entire economic system with nothing but a desk and broken chairs was near impossible.

The stress of producing Capital drove Marx to near distraction. He missed deadlines (by decades), and his body rebelled against him. He suffered sleeplessness, headaches, boils all over his body and a persistent liver complaint.

Other political work would loom large and he would gain apparent relief from his research by diving into the political melee.

The force that drove Marx was shared by them all and made for a terribly difficult, poverty-stricken existence. When Capital, volume 1, was finally published, after 20 years in the writing, Marx observed that he had “sacrificed my health, happiness, and family” to complete the book. Among sacrifices shared with Jenny were the death of four children due to poverty.

We are lucky that Marx and just about everyone in his circle were great letter writers. This biography, which focuses on the personal and the familial, would have been impossible without the great trove of letters. As Engels lived mostly in Manchester, daily letters between the two collaborators were necessary.

The Marx family, which essentially included Engels, was characterised by astonishing intellectualism, great playfulness and passion.

It is clear that Marx, for all his public political work, was an introvert. That trait made him prickly and challenging in public but a joy to his family and friends in private. Evenings at the Marx home would be spent with the family performing scenes from Shakespeare’s plays or reciting poetry in various languages.

Marx loved books and found relief from sickness and hardship through such things as teaching himself Danish or studying advanced calculus.

Gabriel pulls no punches about Marx’s personal failings. Marx was quite capable of selfishness and foolishness, not least of which was his fathering of a baby with Helene Demuth while Jenny was in Germany begging money from rich relatives so the family could survive.

Of all of the characters in this epic, Demuth and Freddy are the least developed, which is a great pity, because they were not minor figures. Evidently they wrote less than the others.

Engels looms large as the benefactor who generously opened his purse not only to the Marx family but to other revolutionaries in need.

Gabriel is no Marxist, rather she is a liberal who appears to have been awakened to Marx’s brilliance through researching this book.

She is very good at conveying the physical and political setting of each stage of the Marx family journey and she ably summarises important political texts. That is very useful for situating these writings in their context and makes this book a useful reading guide to Marx’s writings, similar to Alan Brien’s Lenin, The Novel for Lenin’s works.

Gabriel’s political grasp is a bit thin at times. Unaccountably, she underestimates the importance of Marx and Engels’ work in support of the Union forces in the American Civil War. She pictures Marx spending the war reading newspapers in a cafe.

In Marx at the Margins, Kevin Anderson showed that Marx was personally involved in the effective ban on slave cotton that the Manchester workers maintained for the duration of the conflict. That was at the expense of their own livelihood, an outstanding example of working-class solidarity.

Moreover, when the British government tried to enter the war on the side of the south, Marx was responsible for a huge demonstration that stopped the government in its tracks. In that manner, Marx and Engels made no small contribution to the victory over slavery in the US, a world historic event.

To counteract these deficiencies, this book could be read together with Anderson’s book and Karl Marx, Man and Fighter by Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen Helfen.

What shines through Gabriel’s book is not just the extraordinary hardships that were endured by the Marx family, but the love shared. This family was committed to a socialist vision and worked tirelessly towards it.

Turning these pages to find out what happened, both the joy and the heartbreak, is very easy. Gabriel draws the reader into their world.

Originally at LINKS: http://links.org.au/node/3067

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Capitalist Crisis

U.S. MARXIST-HUMANISTS NOVEMBER 2010

FROM U.S. MARXIST-HUMANISTS

(http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/)

NOVEMBER 2010

NEW ARTICLES AND FEATURES:

1. Kevin Anderson, author of Marx at the Margins,

“French, European Strikes Reveal Mass Discontent… and Its Limits”

The French and European-wide strikes reveal mass discontent, but also illustrate the limitations facing today’s labor and leftist movements. 

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/articles/kevin-anderson-french-european-strikes-reveal-mass-discontent-and-its-limits/

2. Paresh Chattopadhyay, author of The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience,

“Marx Made to Serve Party-State”

[A review of On Socialism: Selections from Writings of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, V. I. Lenin, J .V. Stalin, Mao Zedong, edited by Irfan Habib, New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2009]

In critiquing the assumptions of the Indian Marxist historian Irfan Habib’s statist and ultimately market-oriented concept of socialism, Paresh Chattopadhyay elaborates Marx’s concept of socialism as pointing toward a society free of all forms of domination, whether of capital or the state.

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/articles/marx-made-to-serve-party-state-by-paresh-chattopadhyay/

3. Sandra Rein, author of Reading Dunayevskaya (forthcoming)

“Reading Luxemburg Through Dunayevskaya for Today, Theory as Practice”

It is argued that today’s crisis is best confronted through a return to Rosa Luxemburg’s key contributions to Marxist philosophy viewed through the Marxist Humanist lens of Raya Dunayevskaya, with a particular emphasis on the relationship of theory to practice. This chapter originally appeared in Gender Activism: Rosa Luxemburg Annual Seminar, Institute for Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University, South Africa, 2008

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/articles/reading-luxemburg-through-dunayevskaya-for-today-theory-as-practice-by-sandra-rein/

4. Dyne Suh, student activist,

“October 7 Day of Action at University of California”

Protests at University of California, Santa Barbara over soaring costs of an education were part of an international day of action by students around the world.

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/articles/october-7-day-of-action-at-university-of-california-by-dyne-suh/

5. Ba Karang, Africa-Links,

“Rwanda – From the Horrors of Genocide to Democracy?”

Rwanda’s recent election, its turn toward authoritarianism, and the involvement of Western capital are analyzed.

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/articles/rwanda-from-the-horrors-of-genocide-to-democracy/

6. Kamran Afary, author of Performance and Activism, Grassroots Discourse after the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992, and Kevin Anderson, author of Marx at the Margins,

“Los Angeles Protests Against Police Killing Reveal the Real Grassroots”

Protests against the police killing of a day laborer in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles – populated by impoverished Central American immigrants – reveal the real grassroots of US society as it suffers through the Great Recession.

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/articles/los-angeles-protests-against-police-killing-reveal-the-real-grassroots-by-kamran-afary-and-kevin-anderson/

7. Richard Abernethy, Hobgoblin Collective,

“Bangladesh: The People Who Make Your Clothes Demand a Living Wage”

A mass strike of garment workers has exposed poverty wages and attracted international support, but met with severe state repression.

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/articles/bangladesh-the-people-who-make-your-clothes-demand-a-living-wage-by-richard-abernethy/

8. Reviews of Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity:

Angelica Nuzzo, Hegel-Studien, Bd. 42 (2007)

Stacey Whittle, “Philosophy on the Barricades, International Socialism (Summer 2010)

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/books/power-of-negativity/

9. Reviews of Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies:

Colin Barker, Socialist Review (July-Aug. 2010)

Nagesh Rao, “When Marx Looked Outside Europe,” International Socialism (Sept.-Oct. 2010)

Barry Healy, “Was Karl Marx ‘Eurocentric?” Links (Oct. 22, 2010)

http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/books/marx-at-the-margins-on-nationalism-ethnicity-and-non-western-societies/

THE SITE ALSO INCLUDES OTHER ARTICLES FROM THE PAST DECADE BY U. S. MARXIST-HUMANISTS.

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Karl Marx