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Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life Hardcover – March 11, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Recent Marx biographies, such as Francis Wheen’s Karl Marx (2000) and Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital (2011), leave scholarly room for Sperber’s cradle-to-grave portrait. A specialist in nineteenth-century European history, Sperber maintains that Marx, the power of his ideas having “run their course,” must be anchored historically to his youthful inspiration by Hegelian philosophy and the French Revolution. According to Sperber, Marx’s intellectualism, despite his prophetic visions of a Communist society, was retrospective. Sperber’s interpretations of Marx’s ideas might rankle a modern Marxist, who believes in their contemporary relevance, which implies a subsidiary purpose of Sperber’s work, to depict Marx the man before there was Marx the “ism.” That aim results in Sperber’s most interesting and accessible sections, which underscore Marx’s birth into bourgeois society, the conventions of which he never relinquished; the influence of his parents; and the poverty and exile his wife and children endured because of his revolutionary activities. Including the cast of Marx’s enemies and acolytes, Sperber superbly recounts the life Marx led. --Gilbert Taylor


By locating Marx squarely in the society and intellectual currents of the nineteenth century, rather than interpreting him in the light of twentieth-century history, Jonathan Sperber’s excellent biography succeeds splendidly in reshaping our image of the man and his thought. (Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler: A Biography)

Absorbing, meticulously researched…[Sperber] 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. For all the books that have been written about America’s founding fathers, for example, we still await the historian who will do for them what Jonathan Sperber has done for Karl Marx. (Jonathan Freedland - New York Times Book Review)

Brilliant, original, and beautifully written, Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Marx dazzles. Neither a prophet nor a purveyor of a political system gone awry, Marx emerges in these pages as a man struggling, personally and intellectually, with the profound issues of his own time. With insight and erudition, Sperber weaves Marx’s life and time seamlessly together, and gives us the first deeply researched, engaging biography of Marx in more than three decades (Helmut Smith, author of The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town)

Doing for Marx what Ian Kershaw did for Hitler, Jonathan Sperber has given us more than just a landmark biography, but a magnificent literary and historical achievement. (Christopher M. Clark, author of Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947)

Starred review. This superb, readable biography of the most controversial political and economic thinker of the last two centuries achieves what scholars have been hard-pressed to deliver in recent decades: a study of Marx that avoids cold war, ideological, and partisan commitments and arguments. A major work, this is likely to be the standard biography of Marx for many years. (Publishers Weekly)

[A] scrupulously detailed account of its subject from cradle to grave. (Terry Eagleton - Harper's)

Including the cast of Marx’s enemies and acolytes, Sperber superbly recounts the life Marx led. (Booklist)

The first significant Marx biography in decades… Sperber details graphically the often-times scurrilous intrigues and competitive struggles, in doing so developing a panorama of a European-wide network of artisans, revolutionaries and intellectuals… In careful detail, [he] reconstructs the genesis of Marx’s works, the influences of David Ricardo and Adam Smith on Marx’s political economy, as well as his fascination with Darwin’s theories. (Alexander Cammann, author of Die Zeit)

Sperber credibly reveals Marx’s personal and political passions, ironies and contradictions… Authoritative. (Kirkus Reviews)

Working with sources not available to previous authors, Sperber offers a fresh perspective on Karl Marx and 19th-century European history in this remarkable work…. This brief review hardly does justice to a book that combines exceptional scholarship with exemplary exposition, and is among the best historical studies of this generation…. Essential. (Choice)

[A] balanced, fresh biography, putting the reader at ease and stimulating open-minded curiosity. (Sam Stark - The Nation)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (March 11, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871404672
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871404671
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.7 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #272,114 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Doctor Moss on July 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The closer you look at a thinker, the harder it is to say what he thought. The simplifying of Marx, often inspired by those both pro and con, reduces him to class struggle, theory of surplus value, dialectical materialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the falling rate of profit, etc. Sperber's biography goes a good way towards showing that Marx's actual thinking is much more dynamic, more complex, and less consistent.

Sperber's intention is to treat Marx, as the subtitle indicates, as a nineteenth century figure, in the context of nineteenth century thought and events. And he does so admirably. He avoids the iconic Marx, created primarily by twentieth century thought and events, allowing us to see Marx as a thinker among thinkers and as a revolutionary among revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries of his own time.

I am not a Marx scholar by any means. I have not studied Marx as closely as other 19th century thinkers (Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche), and I don't have the background in the history of economics to pick up the subtleties of Capital or to criticize Marx's principal contentions there and elsewhere. But Sperber's book does give me the broader context and at least the rudiments of Marx's thinking to put together for myself an historical picture of Marx's intellectual development and something of the development of the culture of revolutionary thinking during the mid-nineteenth century.

Marx never had the leisure to be a "philosopher" in the traditional sense. He never held academic positions. Instead he pieced together a career as a journalist, surprisingly even a popular journalist at times, to help make ends meet for himself, his family, and his causes.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Hans G. Despain on May 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is a valuable biography. After the Great Recession of 2007 there emerged a revival of Marx. One way to engage Marx as a young intellectual is to read a new biography. Sperber's book provides a very sober political biography of Marx. Sperber writes "Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world has run it course" it is time to understand Marx in his own historical context.

Thus, Sperber argues Marx's analysis of capitalism was a "nineteenth century" capitalism, quite different from capitalism in 2013 according to Sperber. This is undoubtedly warranted. Nonetheless the real intrigue of Marx for a new generation of anticapitalists will be Marx's analysis of its limits. And for Marx these limits were timeless and universal to the system which is based of a human created legal relationship of private property, economic exploitation, and the inability of price adjustment to equilibrate the macro-system all of which Sperber is impressively weak.

Marx is best known for five aspects of his work: (1) philosophy, (2) political theory, (3) political activity, (4) social theory (history, sociology, psychology, etc.) and (5) economic theory. Marx's life is also interesting with respect to his (6) personal family and friendships and (7) intellectual relationships.

Sperber fails to adequately address (and/or understand) Marx's philosophy and social theory; these aspect of Marx are not time sensitive, thus it is difficult to appreciate Sperber's neglect. He is terribly weak on Marx's economic theory, even in a purely nineteenth century context. On the other four areas, political theory, political activity, personal family and friendship, and intellectual relationships, Sperber's book is nothing short of brilliant.
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65 of 81 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 4, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
During our current economic crisis, a handful of prominent critics if far fewer politicians acclaim Marx's relevance. For example, Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right--expanding his briefer "Marx" monograph (both reviewed by me in 2012)--champions a social-democratic visionary rather than a heartless prophet. Hauling donations to Occupy L.A. encampment's lending library, I noticed Marxian pamphlets scattered, underfoot, piled up, neglected.

This leads to the theme of Jonathan Sperber's biography. Rather than promoting a spokesman for our times, he argues that Marx's ideas have run their course. More a product of the French Revolution and Hegel, early English industrialization and political economies of the emerging modern age, than any avant-garde inspiration, Marx "is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure," who from his own century's first half took the facts "and projected them into the future."

As a professor of history at the University of Missouri, Sperber aims this work at a general audience. I welcomed this approach. I'd been searching after Eagleton's lively if rapid apologia for a popular, if more in-depth, entry to Marx's work within the perspective of "a nineteenth-century life" and his times.

Sperber draws upon the MEGA edition of Marx and Frederick Engels' writings--a project inherited from the Soviets by the newly unified German nation--which includes correspondence of all sorts (notes scribbled on envelopes) and letters addressed to the pair as well as from them. He widens contexts beyond the usual political and economic texts into more idiosyncratic works. He opens up Marx's public and private complexities to show him as an intellectual and an activist, not always in the most flattering light.
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