Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Jonathan Sperber's "Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life"

Jonathan Sperber, the author of The European Revolutions, 1848–1851, is the Curators’ Professor of History at the University of Missouri. He has written extensively on the social and political history of nineteenth-century Europe.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life deals with Marx’s first public writings about communism. These were formulated in the fall of 1842, when Marx was the acting editor of the Rheinische Zeitung (the Rhineland News) in the German city of Cologne,. The newspaper was sponsored and funded by businessmen and professionals in Cologne, who inclined to the liberal opposition in the kingdom of Prussia, to which the city then belonged. The newspaper’s editorial polices were a typical example of nineteenth century European liberalism, strongly supporting free trade and the free market economy (a characteristic feature of nineteenth century liberalism, very much unlike today, when we usually associate these ideas with conservatives) and calling for a constitution in Prussia, ruled at the time by an absolute monarch.

The occasion for the piece Marx wrote was an article in another, more conservative newspaper, attacking the Rheinische Zeitung for advocating communist ideas. Marx strongly denied was the case. He asserted that as a political movement communism was not particularly dangerous, because the army could always be called out to suppress a communist workers’ uprising. As an intellectual movement, he went on, it might be more dangerous, infiltrating its ideas into other political tendencies, and he suggested that it was conservatives who were actually propounding communist ideas.

The episode described on this page is an example of three major themes of the book. One is Marx’s political and intellectual development. When he first considered communist ideas he was definitely no sympathizer with them—quite the opposite. In his first public political role, Marx’s ideas were much closer to those of moderate liberal constitutional monarchists than to communists. In fact, during the revolution of 1848, when one of the moderate liberal leaders, Ludolf Camphausen, a banker and president of the Cologne Chamber of Commerce, was appointed Prussia’s Prime Minister, he actually asked Marx to come to Berlin and join his staff. By then, Marx was already a revolutionary communist, and chapters 3-6 of the book trace Marx’s development in that direction.

Another theme of the book from page 99 is the way that Marx used his own experiences as a basis for his political ideas. Five years after writing this article for the Rheinische Zeitung Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, at the very beginning of which (the famous passage about the specter of communism haunting Europe) he asserted that conservatives denounced liberals and radicals as communists, and radicals hurled the accusation back at conservatives. It is certainly true that conservatives of the 1840s frequently denounced their opponents as communists, but the responding accusation was quite uncommon—except when Marx himself had done it.

This point brings up the third and most important theme of the book articulated on page 99—that Marx’s intellectual and political development needs to be understood in its nineteenth century context. Although we use the same phrases to describe political tendencies today as in the nineteenth century—phrases like conservatism, liberalism, radicalism or communism—their meanings are quite different. The nineteenth century capitalism Marx analyzed was very different from today’s globalized corporate capitalism. Marx’s own ideas were, in many respects, quite different from those of his twentieth and twenty-first century followers. For much of the twentieth century, the image and ideas of Marx had been caught up in the Cold War and the confrontation between the western powers and the eastern bloc. Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, this Marx biography seeks to return Marx to the nineteenth century matrix of his ideas and actions.
Learn more about Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue