Blog post

Who was Karl Marx?

Marx biographer Sven-Eric Liedman asks this very question in his new book. Here he reviews the various biographies that exist – books that in one way or another claim to deal with the complete Marx, his life and his works. 

Verso Books 4 May 2018

Who was Karl Marx?

Eleanor Marx, his youngest daughter, was the first person who intended to write a biography of Karl Marx. But, apart from a few early articles, there were only incomplete notes, for reasons we will come back to. The notes are of great value as eyewitness accounts by a person who was intimately familiar.

The earliest full-scale biography is by Franz Mehring, and was published in 1918. Mehring’s book is solid; in addition, its particular strength lies in its historical proximity – Mehring knew Friedrich Engels personally. But his book, by today’s standards, has its inevitable limitations in that relatively few of Marx’s written works were yet known in 1918.

The shadow of actually existing socialism falls over the literature that came out during the more than seventy years of the Soviet Union’s history. Marx is either held up as the rst great inspiration, or he is spared responsibility for what happened. The succession of more or less of cial biographies in the Soviet Union and the GDR had to be brought into harmony with the current regime. This did not prevent knowledgeable, well-balanced accounts from coming out in such an environment. Heinrich Gemkow’s 1967 work, Karl Marx: eine Biographie should be held up in particular here.

In Western Europe and the United States, many good biographies came out alongside bitter propaganda efforts. Some of them attempted to directly counteract both the devout tributes and the demonization of Marx. One example is Maximilien Rubel and Margaret Manale’s 1975 work Marx Without Myth. The American author Allen Wood concentrated on Marx’s works, and dealt with the biographical details in only a few pages in his 1981 book Karl Marx.

Another American, Jerrold Siegel, went in the opposite direction. In his book from 1978, Marx’s Fate: The Shape of a Life he tried above all to capture Marx the man. It is an interesting personal portrait that nevertheless does not seem fully convincing. In his 1973 work Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, British author David McLellan strives to find a balance between the man and his works. It is an equally serious and ambitious biography that provides much important information. Marx’s works are treated conscientiously, but closer textual analyses are often set behind a swarm of lengthy citations.

One lucid, easily accessible – but also cursory – work is German author Werner Blumenberg’s 1962 book Marx in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, an English translation of which came out in 1972.

‘Analytical Marxism’ represents a special kind of interpretation of Marx. It aims at understanding and criticizing Marx’s works with the tools of modern analytical philosophy. Norwegian author Jon Elster is the only one of the central representatives of the school who has written something that could resemble a biography of Marx: his 1986 work An Introduction to Karl Marx. It is a handy little book in which Marx’s life is dealt with in a few pages, and the author keeps his works at arm’s length, certain of what is valuable and what is worthless in it. Elster’s book has the usual virtues of analytical philosophy – order and clarity – but also its shortcoming, an attitude of looking down at the object of study from on high.

Back in the 1960s, the most comprehensive work about Marx’s early development came out, in which Engels’s childhood and youth were also dealt with: French author Auguste Cornu’s Karl Marx et Friedrich Engels: leur vie et leur œuvre (1955–1970). Despite its four volumes, the work does not cover more than the time up until 1846, when Marx was twenty-eight and Engels twenty-six. It is written in the orthodox tradition but abounding in a wealth of detail, and it stays close to the sources. Anyone seeking the most certain information about Marx’s background and earlier development can turn with confidence to Heinz Monz’s 1973 book Karl Marx: Grundlagen der Entwicklung zu Leben und Werk.

After the Soviet epoch, the biographies changed their character. There is no longer a politically sanctioned tradition of interpretation to concur with or to repudiate. The relationship to Marx has also become more direct. British author Francis Wheen’s 1999 contribution to the genre, Karl Marx: A Biography, is marked by a certain infectious rashness and enjoyed international success. Wheen wallows in both the comical and the tragic details of Marx’s life, but only by way of exception does he go deeper into the reason Marx still arouses interest: his ideas and his works.

Less easygoing is American author Jonathan Sperber, who in his extensive 2013 biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-century Life prefers to paint its grey on grey. While most are astounded over the hunger for learning that pushed Marx further, as they are over the singular, colourful, and highly tragic in his life story, Sperber does not let himself be impressed. He absent-mindedly devotes half a page at the end of his account to Marx’s literary appetite, which was aimed at everything from Aeschylus to Balzac. The metre- high stacks of excerpts that Marx produced under an intense life of readership elicit only a comment from him that it was terribly untidy in Marx’s workroom with all those disorganized notes.

Sperber’s dour image of Marx may well be contrasted with the glowing colours in a biography a few years older – that of the famous French economist, author, and political adviser Jacques Attali’s light and elegant 2005 work, Karl Marx – l’esprit du monde. Attali’s chief merit is that he does justice to the many facets of Marx in an enjoyable way. But despite everything, even 

this is a book that deals more with his life than with his works. Descriptions form a beautifully shimmering diversity, but do not really create any idea of why this old German would still be topical.

Anyone who wants a genuinely penetrating introduction to Marx’s works has reason to turn to a somewhat older book that nevertheless comes out in constantly new, reworked, and expanded editions: Michael Heinrich’s 1991 work, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert (The Science of Value). The entire great project of Capital is in focus there. In this way, it joins a hard-to-grasp and rapidly growing specialized literature, which will here be presented in its given context. But Heinrich’s actually follows Marx’s develop- ment in its entirety, and can therefore also be seen as an intellectual biography that places great demands on its reader, but also yields bountiful rewards.

The once-vigorous Italian literature on Marx and Marxism has more or less run dry since the Italian Communist Party passed into being a general party of the left. There are exceptions, however. Philosopher Stefano Petrucciani wrote a handy 2009 biography simply titled Marx. Since then, he has gone further with a more inspired 2012 study titled A lezione da Marx (Taking Lessons from Marx), in which he discusses how we can approach Marx’s texts today.

A number of introductions to Marx’s works have come out over the past few years, intended to initiate new readers into the old master’s world of ideas. The foremost example is Thomas Petersen’s and Malte Faber’s solid, thought-provoking 2015 book, Karl Marx und die Philosophie der Wirtschaft (Karl Marx and the Philosophy of Economics), the third edition of which has already come out.

Finally, I would like to mention a few short pamphlets by the celebrated British literary scholar Terry Eagleton. In 1999, he published Marx, a very small biography – in format, a longer essay – and in 2011, the somewhat more extensive Why Marx Was Right followed. The latter is not as apologetic as the title hints at, but is primarily an attempt to explain why Marx is still a current thinker in the twenty-first century.

That is an ambition that also inspires my book, A World to Win.

After this review of the literature – in which many more titles could have been mentioned and where the selection is also marked by my ignorance of a number of important languages – it may seem odd to write yet another biography of this man who already has had so much written about him.

There is a crucial reason that I did it, after all. I believe myself capable of bringing something new in relation to previous biographies. One important reason is that I have devoted greater attention than usual to Marx’s work in the biographical literature about him. His life history is also included here, in both its grand and its trivial details. But it is his writings that make Marx memorable, influential, and still important. I have carefully gone through everything he left behind, both complete documents and manuscripts. I have even reviewed the things that most researchers of Marx browsed past with a reflexive flick of the thumb. As regards the important works – with the great project bearing the name of Capital in the centre – I have tried to summarize current research and have also provided an overview that is entirely my own.

On a number of points, I feel I am capable of renovating the image of Marx the thinker and scholar. I show that the concept of alienation has a changed, but still central, place in his later works as well. It thereby also becomes possible to elaborate his little- developed theory of ideology. In general, I believe myself capable of explaining his relationship to his philosophical predecessors, particularly Hegel and his central conceptual framework. At the same time, I can indicate the significance of a broad cultural – and in particular, literary – structure for the whole body of Marx’s work. I can derive his rapidly changing political position from his view of the relationship between political and social change. I can locate the border between him and his followers – yes, even between him and Engels: what is called Marxism, I argue, should by rights be called Engelsism. Marx did not create a system. As a scholar and author he is more of a Faustian gure, constantly on the way deeper into the endless world of knowledge.

The Marx I wish to depict is firmly anchored in the nineteenth century. Its horizons were also his. At the same time, he stands out as a suitable red-hot critic of the capitalism that rules the world of the twenty-first century. 

Sven-Eric Liedman is the author of A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx.

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]

An epic new biography of Karl Marx for the 200th anniversary of his birth. Building on the work of previous biographers, Liedman employs a commanding knowledge of the nineteenth century to create a definitive portrait of Marx and his vast contribution to the way the world understands itself. He shines a light on Marx’s influences, explains his political and intellectual interventions, and builds on the legacy of his thought. Liedman shows how Marx’s masterpiece, Capital, illuminates the essential logic of a system that drives dizzying wealth, grinding poverty, and awesome technological innovation to this day.

A World to Win

A World to Win

Karl Marx has fascinated and inspired generations of radicals in the past 200 years. In this new, definitive biography, Sven-Eric Liebman makes his work live once more for a new generation. Despite...

Filed under: marx200