In October of 1861, an obscure foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune led his readers through recent American history — the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the bombardment of Fort Sumter — in the course of scornfully refuting the London newspapers' perverse insistence that the U.S. Civil War was a mere tariff war having nothing to do with the institution of slavery. "The question of the principle of the American Civil War," he wrote, "is answered by the battle slogan with which the South broke the peace": Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens "delcared in the Secession of Congress that what essentially distinguished the Consitution newly launched at Montgomery from the Constitution of the Washingtons and Jeffersons was that now for the first time slavery was recognized as an institution good in itself, and as the foundation of the whole state edifice."
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The correspondent's name was Karl Marx. His dispatches for the Tribune, as Marilynne Robinson reminds us, would have been read by Lincoln. One doubts the president suspected that the ideas of the journalist would soon change the course of world history. But this perennially broke German Jew — with his friend Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy cotton baron — had already, in 1848, published a curious document whose thunder, like the cannon of that revolutionary year, would resound far beyond its immediate occasion. Its unforgettable opening sentence: "A frightful hobgoblin stalks through Europe ...." That, anyway, is how the first English edition of "The Communist Manifesto" had it in 1850. Samuel Moore's 1888 translation is the one everyone knows: "A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism."
I have the hobgoblin from Francis Wheen's excellent biography of Marx, published in 1999. As Jonathan Sperber notes in his new biography of this "passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising, and intransigent" man, Marx had used the comparison — of a "childish 'fairy tale' of ghosts with the reality of communist ideas" — before, in an 1842 article for the Rhineland News.
Both Wheen and Sperber are concerned to confront the childish image of Marx as either a hobgoblin or a deity with the reality of the man, who could barely support his family and suffered from periodic eruptions of carbuncles (one of which, according to Wheen, he described to Engels as "a second Frankenstein on my back"). "This mythical ogre and saint," Wheen writes, "was a human being." And Sperber has in the course of his extensive research discovered that Marx was not "a wizard" but "a mortal human being."
I suppose it is still necessary to inform popular audiences that Marx is not to blame for Stalinism, so both Wheen and Sperber begin their studies by doing so. "Only a fool could hold Marx responsible for the Gulag; but there is, alas, a ready supply of fools" (Wheen). "Marx was a proponent of a violent, perhaps even terrorist revolution, but one that had many more similarities with the actions of Robespierre than those of Stalin" (Sperber). (Much more interesting to my mind is Slavoj Zizek's insistence on the importance of the question of why communism led to Stalin, but that is hardly to endorse the notion that Stalinism in some way invalidates Marx's ideas.)
Only W. W. Norton knows why we need a new biography of Marx in English so soon after the last one, since they publish both books (Liveright is a division of Norton). In any case, Wheen's account is superior in most respects to Sperber's, with its often clumsy prose. (As Terry Eagleton noted in his review for Harper's, "The sentence 'Trier remains today, even as it was in Marx's youth, a very old city' does not display the author at his most intellectually acute.") Wheen stumbles occasionally — it is not Hegel's but Fichte's less complex version of the dialectic that employs the triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
But Wheen is a journalist, as Marx was, and he knows how to write well, as Marx did. A sense of Sperber's style may be gleaned from the aforementioned anti-wizardry passage: "Here it seems appropriate to ask how a mortal human being, and not a wizard — Karl Marx, and not Gandalf the Grey — could successfully look 150 or 160 years into the future." This is the sort of thing that passes for wit in Sperber's book. Gandalf and Marx both had long gray beards, you see, although Gandalf is not renowned for his prognosticative powers, so far as I recall.
But the sentence, awful as it is, telescopes a larger problem: Sperber is perversely intent to deny that Marx's writings can teach us anything about conditions under contemporary capitalism. "Marx certainly did understand crucial features of capitalism," he writes, "but those of the capitalism that existed in the early decades of the nineteenth century, which both in its central elements and in the debates of political economists trying to understand it is distinctly removed from today's circumstances." The first part of this sentence is almost tautological; the second part — well, it's complicated. It depends upon what "central elements" we're talking about, and Sperber isn't forthcoming. Certainly if the elements include the barriers to expansion and accumulation that produce periodic crises within capitalism and are met with technological and organizational innovations, which Marx understood better than anyone, then Sperber is simply wrong, as contemporary debates of political economists after the financial crash of 2007-08 could have taught him.
Not that Sperber is always entirely clear on what Marx actually argued. He tells us that the labor theory of value was advanced by Adam Smith, formulated by David Ricardo, and endorsed by John Stuart Mill. So far so good. But then he writes that "this theory stated that the value of a good was given by the amount of labor needed to produce it. 'Socially necessary labor time' was the phrase Marx used." But the concept of "socially necessary labor time" is precisely what differentiates Marx's labor theory of value from Smith's and Ricardo's — it is, in fact, Marx's correction of their theory. For Smith and Ricardo, value is indeed equal to the amount of labor that goes into it. For Marx, this misses the all-important social relation of value.
Sperber gets other details wrong, too: It is preposterous to claim that late-20th- and early-21st-century feminists "have not embraced Marx." Don't tell Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici, Leopoldina Fortunati, Selma James or Maria Mies. His shaky command of such basic matters helps to make sense of Sperber's otherwise bizarre charge that "all too often, works about Marx focus on his ideas, his philosophical, historical, and economic theories." The absurdity of writing a book about a man who was a philosopher, a historian and an economist that focuses on his philosophical, historical and economic theories is presumably self-evident.
I get the sense that a specter is haunting Sperber — the specter of Wheen. "Karl Marx," Wheen writes in his introduction, "was a philosopher, a historian, an economist …." On the previous page he says that "the more I studied Marx, the more astoundingly topical he seemed to be. Today's pundits and politicians … mention the buzz-word 'globalization' at every opportunity — without realizing that Marx was already on the case in 1848." Sperber, on the other hand, is adamant that Marx "is not our contemporary" and can tell us nothing about "today's circumstances." By the same logic, Hobbes is obviously irrelevant to the study of political philosophy; Jesus' ideas have no application beyond the immediate context of Roman imperialism; Shakespeare, Descartes and Newton are historical relics.
If Sperber were more practiced in the dialectical thinking mastered by his subject, he might be able to see that Marx both is and is not our contemporary. As Fredric Jameson has written, the crises and catastrophes of today's capitalism, "like those of the past, are both the same as what preceded them [and] also different and historically unique." An understanding not only of Marx's thought but of capitalism itself requires the simultaneity of this perspective.
A better introduction to this inexhaustible thinker than any biography is David Harvey's "A Companion to Marx's Capital" (2010). Or one could return to the writings of Marx himself — "the greatest ironist since Swift," Edmund Wilson called him. No hagiography is necessary to see Marx's relevance to the present — it is all around us. "Look at your money," the poet Allan Peterson writes. "No one is smiling."
Michael Robbins is the author of the book of poems "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book "Equipment for Living."
→"A Companion to Marx's Capital" by David Harvey, Verso, $19.95
→"Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx" edited by James Ledbetter, Penguin Classics, $14
→"Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life" by Jonathan Sperber, Liveright, $35
→"Karl Marx: A Life" by Francis Wheen, Norton, $19.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun