Biography & Memoir Karl Marx by Jonathan Sperber | Review roundup | The Omnivore

Published on July 5th, 2013


Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

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Blurb: For nearly a century, Karl Marx has been imprisoned by “isms”, misinterpreted through the writings of Engels and the totalitarian aspirations of Lenin and Stalin. Challenging this antiquated portrait, Jonathan Sperber demonstrates that Marx had more in common with Robespierre than with twentieth-century Communists. Using the recently opened complete Marx and Engels database, Sperber juxtaposes the private man against the public agitator who helped foment the 1848-49 Revolution and whose incendiary books inflamed the dissident world of Europe. Sperber not only animates Marx’s personal life but also presents Marx’s story against a backdrop of contemporaries. Like Peter Gay’s Freud and Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, Karl Marx becomes the defining portrait of a towering historical figure. (W. W. Norton & Co.)

Is Marx still relevant | Jonathan Sperber | The Guardian

Richard J. Evans, London Review of Books 

“It quickly becomes clear that he is ideally qualified to carry out the task he has set himself … He has given us a Marx for the post-Marxist age, a superb 21st-century biography that sets its subject firmly in his 19th-century context but also explains why his legacy continues to be fought over.”

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Jonathan Freedland, The New York Times

“Absorbing, meticulously researched … he succeeds in the primary task of all biography, recreating a man who leaps off the page … Sperber forces us to look anew at a man whose influence lives on. And he also offers a useful template for how we might approach other great figures, especially the great thinkers, of history — demystifying the words and deeds of those who too often are lazily deemed sacred.”

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Ben Wilson, Telegraph 

“Sperber succeeds magnificently … [He] shows how the development of Marx’s ideology was shaped not just by contemporary events but by personal miseries, financial woes and, most interestingly, by “factional pettiness” in the ranks of the socialists. Sperber does a brilliant job at recreating these poisonous conflicts and inflated egos, taking us into the murky world of émigré revolutionaries in the middle of the 19th century.”

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Richard Overy, Literary Review

“Excellent … This is an important corrective to much of the literature on Marx, which is often impatient, like the utopian socialists before 1914 were, to see his vision realised rather than to understand Marx in his context.”

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Tristram Hunt, The Guardian 

“Compelling and convincing … Sperber’s understanding of Marx’s personality is much deeper than that of other biographers – he was a tortured, bullish, emotional, obviously Anglo-German bourgeois figure. But the failings of Sperber’s approach are also apparent. Part of his ambition in placing Marx within his 19th-century milieu is to allow us to understand a man in his times, but also distance him from present controversies about globalisation and capitalism. Yet this risks a predominantly Atlanticist perspective.”

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Sheila Rowbotham, Times Higher Education

“This biography sees Sperber follow the historical Marx with consummate skill, but he seems perplexed by the impact of Marx. He succeeds well in conveying Marx the mighty and Marx the petty with superb erudition and impressive clarity. He does not, however, communicate the intellectual excitement surrounding a man who has been reinvented by several generations since his death and who will undoubtedly be recreated by future ones. Surely it is possible to recognise great thinkers in their own times as historical figures and consider their ideas in relation to the present.”

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Briefly Noted, The New Yorker

“Occasionally, Sperber’s zeal to identify every conceivable contemporary influence, however slight, on Marx’s thought risks tiring even the most dedicated reader. But Sperber’s rigor also yields gems, as when he deduces that the Marces must have conceived their first child in the summer of 1843, while on a visit to Marx’s mother-in-law.”

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