Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
W.W. NORTON & CO., 2013
There are many biographies of Marx; not quite one for every imaginable taste, but nonetheless a striking variety of interpretations and approaches, to say nothing of degrees of accuracy and bile. Moreover, there are few signs of the supply drying up. The best-selling Francis Wheen volume--even if it was not entirely to the taste of the humourless and academic (including the present reviewer)--will be familiar to many; a subsequent if less well-known volume by Mary Gabriel focused on Marx's family relationships (offering a heady cocktail of romance and revolution); and the grapevine reports as forthcoming an intellectual biography by Gareth Stedman Jones (commissioned by Penguin). Older authors of well-known biographies written in English include: Isaiah Berlin; E.H. Carr; David McLellan; Saul K. Padover; Jerrold Seigel; Frank Manuel; Robert Payne; and many others.
Yet none of these extant volumes--holy or profane, heavy or light--has established much in the way of sustained popular or critical predominance. It is hard to know why. Perhaps the personal, political, and philosophical dimensions of Marx's life mitigate against any completely successful single volume (no matter how thick). Perhaps the definitive biography simply remains to be written.
Jonathan Sperber's justification for adding to the pile is the continuing emergence of new information (although there are no real revelations here), and, perhaps more importantly, his dissatisfaction with the existing offerings. Indeed, he expresses some surprisingly expansive distaste for the contemporary study of Marx's writings; not least, the 'singularly useless pastimes' (p. xviii) of, either updating Marx's ideas, or religiously uncovering their original purity. It is not clear just how much of contemporary Marx scholarship these remarks are intended to leave unscathed, but we can presume that Sperber's own biographical project, at least, escapes censure.
Sperber's biographical project is an austerely historical one; simply put, to return Marx to the nineteenth century, and then to remind us of the historical gulf between his world and our own. There looks to be a tempting contrast here: at a time when many others are enthusiastically rediscovering Marx's continuing relevance in a period of international economic crisis and widespread revolutionary upheaval, Sperber is keen to place Marx in his historical context, and to distance that historical context from our own. The biography is not heavily illustrated, but it is telling that the picture it includes of Marx's last resting place in Highgate Cemetery is a sketch of the original modest grave and not the better-known monumental...