This exhaustive biography of Karl Marx is informed by a specific guiding principle — to understand Marx’s life in the context of his own times. Since Marx is commonly studied with generous doses of hindsight, overshadowed by the interpretations of later followers and detractors, this distinction alone would make Sperber’s biography notable. Not only does Sperber evaluate Marx as a nineteenth-century thinker, his use of newly available archives and his nuanced re-translations of familiar works add immeasurably to our understanding of a complex man living in complex times. In light of the wealth of detail about Marx’s activities and associates, the reader will be relieved that Sperber chose a traditional chronological approach, charting Marx’s life and times from his birth in Trier in 1818 to his death in London in 1883. Major works by Marx are analyzed as well. Indeed, at critical points Sperber juxtaposes passages from Marx’s earlier and later writings — contrasting passages from the 1848 Communist Manifesto with his 1864 inaugural address of the Workingmen’s International Association, for example — to illustrate his shifts in tone. While this biography will be essential for Marx scholars, people with more tangential concerns, like Marx’s attitudes to his Jewish identity, for instance, will also find it useful. Bibliography, illustrations, index, notes.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.