Man of Yesterday: Karl Marx and His Place in History

A review of Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (New York: Liveright Publishers, 2013).

The great achievement of Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing biography of Karl Marx is to debunk the complementary images of Marx as a bogyman of the Right whose ideas are responsible for the horrors of Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Pot etc, and as an icon of the Left who laid bare the inner workings of the capitalist economic system, foretold the workers’ millennium and, like Moses leading the Israelites to the promised land, gave them the political weapons with which to achieve it. On the contrary, Sperber demonstrates convincingly that Marx was a man of his time – another ambitious systems builder, whose vision of politics was anchored in the French Revolution of 1789 and whose understanding of the economy was limited to the turbulent industrial expansion of early nineteenth century Britain.

It has often been said that Marxism grew from a fusion of German (Hegelian) philosophy, French socialism and English political economy. Sperber shows that insofar as this analysis is true these influences were as much a source of weakness as of strength, accounting for both Marx’s insights and blind spots, as well as the failure of nearly all his schemes and predictions. Far from being a prophet with words of wisdom for our own time (as some public figures rashly claimed at the time of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09), Marx should be understood “as a figure from a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own age: the age of the French Revolution, of Hegel’s philosophy, of the early years of English industrialization and the political economy stemming from it.” In Sperber’s view, Marx is “more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”

What makes this case especially convincing is the endless number of unsuccessful attempts “to bring Marx up to date”: the positivist Marxism promoted by Frederick Engels, quickly followed by Leninism, Stalinism, existentialist Marxism, Frankfurt Marxism, humanistic Marxism, Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung thought, structuralism, Althusser’s “scientific” Marxism, and many others. The fact that the first attempt to bring him up to date was made so soon after his death goes to show how rapidly his ideas lost relevance. The abundance of such efforts only serves to emphasise the rootedness of Marx’s thought in the period of the French and Industrial Revolutions, and the absence of any fundamental scientific discovery that could be the basis for future development and research. The most far-fetched effort to refashion or re-invent him for the late twentieth century was to associate his ideas with post-modernist relativism and multiculturalism, as though he was the champion of preserving local customs against modernisation.

Quite the reverse: Marx was fervent believer in progress, modernity and science, regarded traditional cultures as primitive and backward, and had no time at all for the romantic primitivism that passes for so much Left thought today. Far from defending them against the encroachments of globalizing capital (Lenin’s imperialism), he rejoiced in European colonization of underdeveloped regions and looked forward to the day when they would be completely absorbed into the world market. Far from defending the Indian “mutineers” as freedom fighters, Marx celebrated British rule in India for enlivening stagnant village communities, rooting out superstition, destroying the basis for oriental despotism and preparing the country for independence in the future. On this score at least, Marx did show some prescience: as a general rule, the countries that westernised most successfully are precisely those that are the most economically prosperous and politically stable today; those that have clung to or restored their traditional ways are more likely to have remained mired in superstition, poverty, inequality and endemic tribal warfare.

The pattern that emerges from Sperber’s judicious account is one of repeated disappointment and failure. The numerous theoretical syntheses in economics and philosophy that Marx planned were never completed; his newspapers folded after a few issues, never got off the ground, or were suppressed by the state authorities; the political groups he founded were riven by constant quarrels and either collapsed or were deliberately dissolved to prevent rivals from taking charge; his political interventions had little or no impact on the course of events; and the workers’ parties that developed in Germany were led either by his great rival Ferdinand Lasalle, or by the independent-minded Wilhelm Liebknecht, who admired Marx, but did not necessarily defer to his opinions. He never had the slightest influence on the British trade union movement, which remained moderate and reformist until well into the twentieth century.

Despite his reputation for hard-headed analysis, Marx’s political judgement was erratic and often naive. He continued to trust two Austrian police spies long after his colleagues had woken up to and warned him about them, and he inadvertently supplied them with information that helped the Prussian government to frame the defendants in the Cologne communist trial of 1852. Led astray by his obsessive hatred of Czarism, whose claw he detected behind every move on the European chessboard, Marx was equally gullible towards the crazy Islamophile David Urquhart, for whom he wrote a series of newspaper articles proving that Lord Palmerston was a paid Russian agent. At the time of the 1848 revolutions he vacillated between supporting the middle class democrats in the Frankfurt Assembly and denouncing them as petit-bourgeois conciliators and exploiters of the working class. When the workers of Paris established the commune in the wake of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war Marx ridiculed the idea; it was only when he was falsely accused of being the evil genius behind their excesses that he hailed it as the harbinger of a future communist society. He ignored pleas from his own International Workingmen’s Association to offer useful advice until it was too late, and then (when the commune had been brutally suppressed by the troops of the provisional government) wrote a polemical tract in which he told them how they should have handled matters.

Nowhere was Marx’s failure greater than in the area where he believed he had made his greatest breakthrough – political economy. Although one volume was published during his lifetime, his life’s work – Capital – was never completed; his collaborator Frederick Engels cobbled the remainder together from the voluminous notes and drafts left at his death. Even if Marx had brought his magnum opus to completion, there is no reason to think that the result would have been any more definitive. He was emotionally committed to the pessimistic visions of David Ricardo – that the workers would become increasingly impoverished as capitalists ceased to invest and the economy stagnated – and of Thomas Malthus – that the poor would always be with us. He attempted to prove and explain their insights by means of his twin laws: the labour theory of value and the tendency for the rate of profit to decline.

But neither Marx himself nor any of his followers were ever able to prove these laws theoretically or demonstrate them in practice, and the gulf between what they predicted and the realities of the economic system only widened as the nineteenth century advanced. Workers were not becoming impoverished, but increasingly affluent, even bourgeoisified. If the tendency of the rate of profit to decline was a true law, the most profitable industries ought to be those with the lowest proportion of fixed capital (machinery etc); yet it was the handloom weavers and independent craftsmen who were being driven out of business by the vastly greater productivity of the mechanized factories. If the flow of capital was any guide, the most profitable industries were those with the highest proportion of fixed capital. Marx was conscious of these problems, and towards the end of his life was bitterly aware that he had “no proof of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.” Yet this law was the lynchpin of his entire economic system and the revolutionary consequences that, he believed, must inevitably flow from it; without it, the grand edifice is a hollow shell.

Marx’s analysis of capitalism was based largely on British manufacturing in the first half of the nineteenth century. He never caught up with post-1850 developments, such as the rise of the limited liability company, the expansion of credit (of which he was as suspicious as any small town widow) or the explosion of consumer goods production, and he had little or nothing to say about the sectors that make up the bulk of the contemporary (21st century) economy: financial and other services, resources and construction. Sperber emphasizes that Marx was far more interested in agriculture than in the business corporation, and demonstrates that his theories were dictated and circumscribed by time and place.

Nowhere was Marx more spectacularly wrong than in his claim that the working class had no country. As the response of the socialist and social democratic parties in 1914 revealed, national allegiances proved stronger than those of class, and since that time divisions of ethnicity, gender and religion have been more significant motors of history than class struggle. The Marxists get around this obvious fact by arguing that the class struggle expresses itself as a struggle between the sexes, ethnic groups or religious affiliations – which is just the kind of academic sleight of hand you can easily accomplish if you are adept in Hegelian dialectics.

But is nationalism so evil and un-Marxist? One of the most interesting points to emerge from Sperber’s study is the extent to which Marx himself was a south German nationalist whose aim was to free his (largely Catholic) region from (Protestant) Prussian domination. Marx remained suspicious of Prussian authoritarianism throughout his life, and rightly so, since it was the repressive policies of the pious Frederick William IV (king from 1840) that denied university and government jobs to the young intellectuals who had grown up on Hegel’s philosophy, and drove them into oppositional journalism and subversive political activism. Before his flight to France and exposure to socialist ideas, Marx was a liberal democrat who supported, and in his journalism argued vigorously for such bourgeois principles, freedom of expression, equality before the law, guaranteed civil liberties and the separation of church and state; and he particularly attacked the heavy-handed Prussian control of the press. Given his polemical talents, Marx could have become a leader of the middle class movement to overthrow Prussian autocracy and establish a constitutional monarchy over a united Germany; instead, by urging the workers to fight for socialism he frightened the democrats and drove them into the arms of the reactionaries.

Insofar as the young Marx was a child of the European Enlightenment he comes across as a surprisingly sensible and attractive figure. Secularism, democracy, representative institutions, the rule of law, personal autonomy, human rights, and freedom of expression were values worth fighting for then, and worth defending today; and the pre-socialist Marx was a fearless champion of these ideals. But other thinkers have advocated and advanced these principles more comprehensively and consistently, with none of the impenetrable Hegelian metaphysics, the authoritarian excesses or the insistence on collectivism and groupthink unity that disfigure Marx’s later political practice. The writings of John Locke, Diderot, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Benjamin Constant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and J.M. Keynes, for example, not to mention such seminal documents as the English Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, have contributed far more to the best features of the world which we now inhabit, and they will continue to have relevance long after the works of Marx have gone the way of other speculative system builders, such as Fourier, Comte, or Freud. Karl Marx was a great nineteenth-century thinker whose relevance to the modern world is close to zero.

The proposition that Marx has nothing to say to the 21st century, and thus that Marxism is no more alive than Fourierism, Comteism or indeed Couéism, may seem to be contradicted by the publication of this comprehensive biography (critical yet sympathetic), as well as by some of the bizarre effusions that have greeted the 200th anniversary of his birth. Die-hard Marxists might take comfort in the reflection that every attempt to bury Marx only gives him a new lease of life, like Herakles hurling Antaeus to the ground. Yet scholars continue to study and write books about ancient philosophers and mediaeval theologians without insisting that anything they have to say has relevance to the pressing issues of our day. We can still read Plato, with pleasure and profit, as an intellectual discipline, for training in rhetoric and argument, as the founding voice of Western philosophy, and for insights into the culture of ancient Greece; but in doing so we do not need to believe that the table on which we write is merely an imperfect representation of the idea of the perfect table that exists in a purely spiritual realm somewhere else. Marx will no doubt continue to be read and written about for much the same reasons – not because he is relevant, but because his voluminous writings provide endless scope for exegesis, commentary, and sermonizing.


Dr Robert Darby is an independent scholar and author of ‘A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain’ (University of Chicago Press). Follow him on Twitter @RobDarbyCanberr

Filed under: Review


Dr Robert Darby is an independent scholar and author of 'A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain' (University of Chicago Press). He lives in Canberra.


  1. Evan Osborne says

    Interesting. I teach economics, and had the pleasure of teaching (only once, alas) a class on Marx’s economics and the twentieth-century castrophes inflicted in his name. My understanding of the environment that produced him was similar to yours. I remember discussing with my students whether this was a materialist argument.

  2. Jack B. Nimble says

    Meanwhile, in Trier, Germany, a 15-foot-tall statue of Marx is being unveiled today, a gift from China to Germany.

    What do Chinese leaders think of Marx?

    ‘…President Xi Jinping on Friday gave a high-profile speech praising Marx as the greatest thinker of modern times.

    He urged China’s ruling Communist Party to go back to the roots of Marxism and said the Chinese communist party would forever remain its “guardians and practitioners”.

    Students and most civil servants in China have to complete mandatory courses in Marxist theory….’

    Hmmmm…… A 15-foot-tall Marx? Well, he WAS always a larger-than-life figure.

    BTW, this is a well-written and balanced article.

    • dirk says

      Go back to the roots of Marxism means, going back to the Schiefer soils of the Mosel, where the Riesling wines are made, Marx himself was a Winzer (Winemaker), though more a philosopher and armchair academic than a real farmer. But he really got mad , as a journalist, to see that poor farmers around were arrested by the police because they harvested some twigs and old wood (for the stove) from bushes in the neighbourhood , “belonging” to an owner (with title deed) far away in the city and not even a farmer himself. So, it all started just in the rural scene. Where, that must be clear, a lot of injustice is, and was, rampant.

  3. My favourite anecdote about Marx is from Alex Butterwortg’s The World That Never Was: a True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents.

    Marx’s inner circle had been so thoroughly penetrated by secret agents that Marx invited one, passing himself as a doctor, to examine his haemorrhoids.

  4. Charles White says

    An interesting book review. I was particularly intrigued with the fourth paragraph, that is certainly not an aspect of Marx promoted by either side of the spectrum.

    This looks like a balanced book to read.

  5. markbul says

    Based on this review, I was ready to request this book from my library. Then, I saw this: A Surgical Temptation: Dr Robert Darby is an independent scholar and author of ‘The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain.’ Sorry, but I can’t trust a single word from a person I know is a male circumcision kook.

    • Marina says

      What do you mean by ‘circumcision kook’? It’s a barbaric practice with zero benefits. Anyone with scientific/intellectual inclinations comes to that conclusion by examining the medicine and history behind it.

  6. POC says

    I don’t see how one can write about Marx without noting that his real legacy is an ideology based on utopianism and historicism that repeatedly resulted in totalitarian regimes that murdered tens of millions of people in the 20th century. Karl Popper develops this idea in The Open Society.

    That some people still glorify him and pursue his policies is both incomprehensible and horrifying. That’s his true relevance today.

    He may have been great guy and sophisticated thinker but let’s not forget the body count.

  7. dirk says

    When president Xi (see Jack Nimble above) honoured him with an expensive statue, whereas promoting strict capitalism without social backlash (in the hinterland) in his own country , then the memory of Marx (an ideological journalist of a small local journal, the Rhein Post or something, comparable with the ideology of the Quakers anti-slavery movements) is not more than just a hoax, a joke, not worth further attentions.

  8. ga gamba says

    The great achievement of Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing biography of Karl Marx is to debunk the complementary images of Marx as a bogyman of the Right whose ideas are responsible for the horrors of Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Pot etc

    Then Sperger’s biography sounds entirely too charitable. Leftists foresaw Marx’s horror too.

    Marx is a “a destructive spirit whose heart was filled with hatred rather than love of mankind… extraordinarily sly, shifty and taciturn. Marx is very jealous
    of his authority as leader of the Party; against his political rivals and opponents he is vindictive and implacable; he does not rest until he has beaten them down; his overriding characteristic is boundless ambition and thirst for power. Despite the communist egalitarianism which he preaches he is the absolute
    ruler of his party; admittedly he does everything himself but he is also the only one to give orders and he tolerates no opposition,”
    said Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, a contemporary of Marx’s in the International Workingmen’s Association in the mid-1860s.

    Michael Bakunin, the revolutionary anarchist and contemporary of Marx in the International Workingmen’s Association stated in 1869 what would be the legacy of Marx’s theory of Communism: statism.

    The reasoning of Marx ends in absolute contradiction…. To appropriate all the landed property and capital, and to carry out its extensive economic and political programs, the revolutionary State will have to be very powerful and highly centralized. The State will administer and direct the cultivation of the land, by means of its salaried officials commanding armies of rural workers organized and disciplined for this purpose. At the same time, on the ruins of the
    existing banks, it will establish a single state bank which will finance all labor and national commerce.

    It is readily apparent how such a seemingly simple plan of organization can excite the imagination of the workers, who are as eager for justice as they are for freedom; and who foolishly imagine that the one can exist without the other; as if, in order to conquer and consolidate justice and equality, one could depend on the efforts of others, particularly on governments, regardless of how they may be elected or controlled, to speak and act for the people! For the proletariat this will, in reality, be nothing but a barracks: a regime, where regimented
    workingmen and women will sleep, wake, work, and live to the beat of a drum; where the shrewd and educated will be granted government privileges; and where the mercenary-minded, attracted by the immensity of the international
    speculations of the state bank, will find a vast field for lucrative, underhanded dealings.

    Are Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot not the proof of the accuracy of Bakunin’s prophesy?

    Other peculiarities include Marx never set foot on a factory floor; he mooched off of others most of his adult life; he employed a maid who he denied a regular wage – she lived off of non-monetary gifts – and may have sexually abused and impregnated her, if Engels’s deathbed confession was true; and, like many of his time, Marx was an anti-Semite.

    Marx’s essay, On the Jewish Question, originally published in 1844 contains the following: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.…. Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities…. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange…. The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general…. the Jewish religion has contempt for theory, art, history, and for man as an end in himself.

    In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” www(dot)philosophersmag(dot)com/opinion/30-karl-marx-s-radical-antisemitism

    In his article, The Russian Loan, published in 1856, Marx wrote:

    Thus we find every tyrant backed by a Jew, as is every pope by a Jesuit. In truth, the cravings of oppressors would be hopeless, and the practicability of war out of the question, if there were not an army of Jesuits to smother thought and a handful of Jews to ransack pockets.

    … the real work is done by the Jews, and can only be done by them, as they monopolize the machinery of the loanmongering mysteries by concentrating their energies upon the barter trade in securities… Here and there and everywhere that a little capital courts investment, there is ever one of these little Jews ready to make a little suggestion or place a little bit of a loan. The smartest highwayman in the Abruzzi is not better posted up about the locale of the hard cash in a traveler’s valise or pocket than those Jews about any loose capital in the hands of a trader.

    … Thus do these loans, which are a curse to the people, a ruin to the holders, and a danger to the governments, become a blessing to the houses of the children of Judah. This Jew organization of loan-mongers is as dangerous to the people as the aristocratic organization of landowners… The fortunes amassed by these loan-mongers are immense, but the wrongs and sufferings thus entailed on the people and the encouragement thus afforded to their oppressors still remain to be told.

    Today’s Marxists contort themselves to rationalise his anti-Semitism, stating his critics misread him or don’t get Marx’s irony. Meanwhile, the same school of fools denounce figures of long ago for then-lawful acts that are today’s crimes.

    Historian Gary North documented all of Marx’s income and spending through the years, and it gasts the flabber how successful he was cajoling others to fund his life. His ‘income’ was, for all but 15 years, many times more than skilled labour, and, after 1869, Marx’s regular annual pension from Engels placed him in the upper two per cent of the British population. North wrote what I think to be the greatest summation of Marx and his influence on today’s bourgeois campus intellectuals, heretical middle-class pastors, and power seeking tyrants-to-be.

    Karl Marx set the pattern, both intellectually and financially, for the present generation of well-fed, well-subsidized, bourgeois intellectuals. An economist who could not economize, a revolutionary organizer whose organizations invariably fell apart, a secular prophet whose prophecies did not come true, a
    self-proclaimed autonomous man who spent his life on Engels’s dole and in hock to the pawnbrokers, the self-proclaimed spokesman of the working class who never did an hour’s manual labor in his life, the inventor of a theory of inevitable industrial revolutions that have in fact only occurred in backward rural societies, the man who predicted the withering away of the State whose
    ideas revived the ancient quest for world empire,
    Karl Marx’s life serves as testimony to the failure of bad ideas.

    A beneficiary of capitalism’s fruits and liberalism’s freedoms, Marx did his best to undermine the very foundations of his own existence.

    Marx wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

    Indisputably, twentieth-century Marxism was tragic. Are today’s Marxists that second farcical occurrence?

    • Pizza Pete says


      This was great. Thank you.

    • POC says

      Excellent comment. Gives great insight into the hearts of today’s Marxists. Thanks.

    • Mork says

      Thank you for this great comment. Indeed, this book is much too charitable.

    • K says

      I’ve come to appreciate the comments here at Quillette as much, and sometimes more, than the articles themselves.

      Marx only occupies about 30 pages of the book, but Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals really whetted my appetite for more of the sort of information you shared above (and never hear in mainstream articles) about the *great* man.

      • dirk says

        Right K, that’s how it is with me too, I often start with all the hilarious and surprising comments, before even having read the article itself (often too long), quite wrong of course, but that’s my preference.

        • K says

          I’ve actually read comments here that were more informed and which made a more coherent argument than the article itself. The other thing about the comments is that civility seems to be the norm here. There’s a tad bit of snark here and there, but, by and large, the comments add to the conversation and reflect a more scholarly approach to topics as opposed to other sites where ideologues argue like children.

    • SamsaPDX says

      Absolutely beautiful. Thank you. If only you were teaching my kid’s high school history class. Instead of Howard Zinn.

    • Victoria says

      The (thorough and germane) information in your response sort of discredits the article. A lot of Quilette writers go for the ‘only adult in the conversation’ posture, which often amounts to a moderation fallacy.

  9. dirk says

    Marx “may have sexually abused his maid”, and was responsible for the horrors of Maoism, Stalinism and Pol Pot (as Jesus might have been for the Crusades?), plus other allegations on so called antisemitism and the like, shame on you Ga Gamba, that’s talk like that of an SJW or new left. Try to judge our famous philosophers of once, so important for human progress, on their real weight and impact, and not on trivials or time dependent weaknesses.

      • dirk says

        I did Sol, because my comment was written directly under his, and I mentioned his name. However, reactions in Quillette may shift lower and lower, the more reactions there are, with the result that, if somebody says -absolutely fantastic-, it is not sure to whom it may concern (to the article?, to one of the former ractions?). Therefore, I have learned to always mention the name to whom it applies. In the article on Kuwait I thanked him for extra info given.

  10. Victoria says

    “The Right” does not reject Marx in personal terms, but rejects the host of authoritarian and utopian worldviews that have developed from his work.

    Marx’s social theory has proven more resilient than his economic views. In fact, a toxic mix of neoliberal economics and neo-Marxist doctrine like Critical Race Theory is becoming the received wisdom of political and cultural elites.

  11. dirk says

    I wonder whether Marx was all that authoritarian himself, anyhow, he was fervently for a free press. As with many eschatologists (christian/judean/Hegelian) his look into the future indeed, was not the best he came with, but, don’t forget, his time was not that of services and internet, but one of the horror of factories and childlabour, in a more literarary way described by Dickens, in a social and statistical way by him. What I miss in the aftermath of Marx these days: he learned himself Russian to be able to read the so called Zemstvo reports, about the situation of the Russian peasantry. These peasants were then collectivised by Lenin and Stalin, very much against Marx ideas, what would hav happened if cooperatives and services (like now in Europe) would have got a chance? As, for example, preached by Chayanov and other left wing Russians in the time of the New Economic Policy? I really miss this side of Marx legacy, maybe once it will be discovered and given more attention, it still isn’t too late! (especially not now)

  12. KBD says

    Excellent discussion. Wonder what M would have made of the problem of automation?
    Makes me want to go back and read the old testament on Marx by Isaiah Berlin.

  13. Anders Bruun says

    Marxism fails to provide a foundation from which one can rebut the folly of moral relativism, the curse of our times. We will migrate back to a more selective view of the Enlightenment (though Steven Pink won’t be leading the way) as our understanding of humanity deepens through the work of evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and others develops more fully. This will take many generations before we will come close to something resembling certainty. Until then the Loony Left and the Nutbar Right will continue to probe the outer limits of rationality and usefulness for our amusement.

  14. Pingback: Skepticlawyer » Marx at 200 Robespierre at 260

  15. dirk says

    I read an eye-opener in my newspaper by writer and columnist Arnon Grunberg (he has a small appartment in New York, and uses his kitchen to store his junk, so has to eat out daily): Marx’s influence on society now has weathered, because very few people feel solidarity with their economic class (worker class is meant, though,in my time and my place, workers felt more for the factory or the boss they worked for, than for their class as such), instead, ethnicity, religion or sex has become the identity to hide within.

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