Is Karl Marx relevant today? Reviewers have acted on the assumption that Jonathan Sperber, Marx's latest English-language biographer, thinks not. The argument of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life is that, to truly understand Marx, you have to see his life and career in a historically specific context. Rather than see him as a prophet, Sperber regards Marx as a backward-looking thinker less concerned with the communist future than with recreating Europe's Jacobin past. Typical of Sperber's approach is his commentary on a famous passage of The Communist Manifesto. He claims that English translators have given the phrase rendered as "All that is solid melts into air..." too general a context. As a result, they make Marx a prophet of the perpetual "creative destruction" of capitalism, when in reality, Sperber argues by referring to the original German text, Marx more likely meant to suggest only that the feudal traditions of pre-modern Prussia and Germany would "evaporate" under pressure from capitalist development. Sperber's assumption that Marx did not intend a more general interpretation isn't especially convincing, but it's fair to note that he doesn't contextualize or historicize Marx in order to belittle or marginalize him. He uses the same approach to rescue Marx from what he considers ahistorical charges of anti-semitism. Of Jewish heritage but raised a Protestant, Marx had harsh things to say about Judaism, but Sperber regards "anti-semite" as an anachronistic label because Marx, like his contemporaries, did not think of the Jews primarily as a race. It may be small consolation to those who recall nearly two millennia of violent Jew-hatred to think that, for instance, the Crusaders who massacred Jews throughout Europe weren't "anti-semites," but Sperber's main point, that Marx was not out to persecute the Jews, still holds. Rather, Sperber shows how Marx cited Tocqueville to portray the 19th century U.S. as a model of religious equality. There all religions could be equal because religion itself was separated from the state. Of course, Marx notoriously said that Jews eventually ought to emancipate themselves from their religion, but he felt the same way about all religions. He saw them as forms of "self-alienation" and impediments to the universal solidarity he considered mankind's rightful course, though he also saw the agitation of his generation's militant atheists as a distraction from the real work at hand. As Sperber argues, that "Jacobin" commitment predates Marx's commitment to the proletariat, which he may have seen mainly as a means to the higher end.
Political reform was Marx's first priority; labor came later. Many reviewers have noted with amusement the fact that, early in his career as a newspaper editor, Marx actually suggested the military suppression of communists. He did so while editing a paper dedicated to ending political tyranny in Germany, and Sperber suggests that Marx only embraced the proletariat once he realized that the bourgeoisie would not repeat in the German states the role he credited them with in the French Revolution. Analyzing this, Marx determined that the bourgeoisie had supported the rights of man only to the point when they got what they wanted. In effect, they wanted rights specific to themselves, rights to conduct business and so forth that were irrelevant to the poor. By the 19th century European governments had given the bourgeois many if not all of the rights they demanded while remaining politically repressive. In effect, the bourgeoisie ultimately became a special-interest group, treating their rights as privileges, while Marx eventually insisted that the proletariat could never be seen that way. The proletariat couldn't be a special interest because they demanded rights, not privileges -- rights for themselves rather than rights for their property. Because they could not claim privileges, the proletariat were the class that was not a class. Thus they were humanity in its authentic form and the rightful, necessary instrument of the communist revolution that alone, Marx decided, could achieve the political reform he wanted in the first place. Jacobinism strikes many observers today as a precursor of totalitarianism because it seems hostile to "civil society" or anything that gets in the way of citizens' complete identification with the state. But it isn't entirely wrong to worry that civil society, while providing a potential critical distance from the state, can turn into a network of privileges benefiting members only while excluding others from fulfilling their human potential. Marx certainly did not think he was proposing to limit anybody's individual potential. Instead, he insisted that under communism the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all -- and it's hard to be more individualist than that. The debate over what it means to be an individual and a citizen is ongoing, and whatever Sperber may think about Marx as an economist, I don't think he means to say that Marx has nothing more to say on the topic that may have meant the most to him. Most obsolete 19th century economists won't have biographies published this year. That Marx has a Sperber now suggests that his spirit still haunts our time. For some he's something out of Paranormal Activity, for others, something out of A Christmas Carol. Sperber's book is objective enough that readers can decide what they see for themselves.