Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The extraordinary labors of a revolutionary in Sperber's Karl Marx

From The Week of May 20, 2013

No life is without challenges, moments of crisis and uncertainty that leave us grasping for answers and yearning for stability. The daily intersection of personalities and fortunes essentially ensures that something, at some point, will go wrong. But it's one thing to understand that life has its difficulties; it's entirely something else to deliberately steer one's existence into the winds of such uncertainties, to face them head on with brashness and truculence, and to do so while knowing full well that it may be decades, even centuries, before any of one's labors will make a meaningful difference. The will that must be required to never take the easy road, to forever endure the hardships of deprivation, in the name of a singular goal is remarkable. Mr. Sperber elucidates in his winningly thorough biography.

One of the most pivotal figures of the last 200 years, Karl Marx was a German political philosopher and armchair economist who lived during the twilight of empire. A polemicist who believed strongly in the corruptive power of the elites, his writings provided the intellectual fuel for a series of revolutions that would, after his death, sweep away the monarchies of eastern Europe and replace them with a powerful and equally corruptible proletariat, or people's party, that aimed to create a Marxist heaven on Earth by empowering the collective whole at the expense of the greedy individual. Though he would not live to see any of his predictions, or his beliefs, put into practice on a national scale, he became, in death, a people's hero, an intellectual whose complete and eloquent rejection of the disproportionate allotment of power and money in western society made him the godhead of 20th-century communism.

But though we know the legend well, how well do we know the man? For while Marx's role as the father of the resistance to capitalism is well known, almost forgotten is his poverty, his love for his children and his enduring devotion to his wife who, despite her upper-class upbringing, stood with Marx throughout his tumultuous life which was characterized by a scarcity of, and thus a desperation for, money. His partnership with Freidrich Engels is well-documented, but less so his unwillingness to let go of a decades-old family dispute, nor his struggles to maintain ownership of the movement he was creating, nor his deficiencies as an orator which counterbalanced, in every way, his excellence as an author. Hell, he spent more time as a newspaper columnist than he did as a revolutionary, a fact which, along with the other revelations of the man's existence, make this towering figure a creature of complexity and fascination.

Though it delves, at times, too deeply into the murky waters of economic theory and German philosophy, Karl Marx is a potent and thorough biography of a most dour and engaging man. Mr. Sperber, a professor at the University of Missouri, has gathered up Marx's works and his letters, his deeds and his friendships and fashioned from them a chronicle of the life of a giant of history, a man who has had as many deeds done in his name as some deities. The portrait that emerges from this meticulous assembly is of a man who struggled to find his place, a man who fought his enemies and his slighters at every turn, a man who spent more of his life as a political refugee than he did of a citizen of any country, and a man who knew everything about money and power except for how to make either. For this, he is both a creature of amazement and pity.

The author's characterization of Marx is simultaneously the work's best and worst feature. On the positive side of the ledger, Mr. Sperber removes the mask that history has placed on Marx, revealing him to be an emotional individual whose stubbornness often outstripped his good sense. His willingness to invest his entire life in the erudite refutation of capitalism, as practiced by the western powers, is downright remarkable in light of the Sisyphean nature of the war he was trying to wage against a completely entrenched system. And yet, this brings us to the negative. For Mr. Sperber does very little to actually explain why he was so devoted to an unwinnable war. The author illuminates Marx's influences, his schooling, his family history, his citizenship of the authoritarian Prussia, all of which go some way to sketching out an outline for his motive. But the unimaginable personal deprivations Marx suffered in the name of simple defiance demands a clearer description of what drove him to such atypical lengths. This is a man who endured the better part of a lifetime of financial humiliation, all in the name of exposing a rotten system. Why, when he so clearly possessed the talents to excel within that system?

In every other way, Karl Marx is a satisfying read that breaks the philosopher's life down into manageable sections, each of which succeeds in shedding light on Marx and his world, on 19th-century politics and 19th-century despotism, and on the eternal conflict between socialism and capitalism. But its occasional detours on the road to enlightening its readers prevents it from being truly great. (4/5 Stars)

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