Tikkun Magazine

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

Cover of Karl MarxKarl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
Jonathan Sperber

Liveright Publishing Company, 2013


Karl Marx remains one of the most influential thinkers of the past two hundred years. This new biography is startling in part because it roots Marx so squarely in his own time, neither as a prophet nor a devil, but as another flawed human being like the rest of us: “patriarchal, prudish, bourgeois, industrious, independent (or trying to be), cultured, respectable, German with a distinct patina of Jewish background.” Sperber portrays Marx as largely conventional, with a private life that hardly reflected his revolutionary views, but he notes that “the demonstration of public commitments in private became a measure of individual authenticity in the twentieth century, as it never was during Marx’s lifetime.” Sperber’s presentation of Marx’s anti-Semitism as a conventional nineteenth-century attitude understates the way that German Jews had systematically sought to distance themselves from their own heritage. It forgives Marx too quickly for formulations that were at best disrespectful if not outright hate-filled—formulations in which he identified Jews with selfishness and a hunger for money. Yet Sperber offers a real service by bringing readers more fully into the context of Marx’s nineteenth-century reality, rather than letting communists and anti-communists’ twentieth-century appropriations and distortions of Marx’s message cloud his biography.