Karl Marx: A Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Life

Jonathan Sper­ber
  • Review
By – February 6, 2013

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.

Discussion Questions