U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Karl Marx and Intellectual History

marxJonathan Sperber’s new biography, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, was the subject of two recent high-profile reviews. Both include passages that highlight concerns particular to US intellectual history.

The first review, by Jonathan Freedland in The New York Times, is very favorable, mostly in the terms laid out in this concluding paragraph:

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.

This passage raises a number of questions, including whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of founding historiography (beyond popular, McCullough-style books). For example: Does biography tend towards hagiography (or its opposite), especially when the subject is a revered (or despised) figure like Marx?

By far the more interesting review, in Harper’s, is by Terry Eagleton, one of my favorite living writers and cultural theorists. Eagleton obviously likes Sperber’s book, for reasons similar to Freedland, but he is not nearly as generous in his praise, and offers some pointed criticisms that should resonate with USIH readers. He writes:

Marx spent much of his life as a radical journalist and political activist, and the purpose of Jonathan Sperber’s new biography is to return him to his historical context. In this sense, then, the book is a materialist study of a materialist thinker. Sperber is no dewy-eyed disciple of the master, but treats him rather as Marx treated human beings, seeing him first and foremost as a practical agent. There is, however, a certain paradox here. We are interested in Marx’s life because of his work, but Sperber’s book pushes his work into the background in order to make room for the life. This is true of most intellectual biographies, which are in this sense a curiously self-defeating genre. Like most historians, Sperber is not at his most impressive in the realm of ideas, though he makes a brave, slightly perfunctory stab at summarizing some of Marx’s thought as he goes along.

Eagleton, then, agrees with Dan Wickberg, who wrote the following in an email to his graduate student LD Burnett: “There’s a lot of lip service to the autonomy of ideas and their independent power, but in practice, not so much.” Dan was referring to our discipline writ large (while implicitly making the case for intellectual history). Eagleton, on the other hand, is applying a general rule—that historians are not “most impressive in the realm of ideas”—to a specific sub-genre of intellectual history: intellectual biography. If Eagleton is right about Sperber’s perfunctory treatment of Marx’s ideas, that would be a serious flaw in my view: how does one write an intellectual biography of the most important nineteenth-century thinker without paying close attention to his thought? But are Eagleton’s more general comments about intellectual biography correct? The last such book I read was Eric Miller’s intellectual biography of Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time. There are criticisms to be made of that mostly excellent biography—I made a few here—but one isn’t that Miller ignored Lasch’s thought. So I ask: does biography make poor intellectual history? Or vice versa, does intellectual history make poor biography?

Another Eagleton passage raises issues I’d like to address here:

Rather curiously, Sperber lavishes a great deal of attention on the work of a man whose ideas he considers irrelevant today. “The view of Marx as a contemporary whose ideas are shaping the modern world,” he writes, “has run its course.” As a figure, Marx is of historical interest only, and this book has come more to bury than to praise him.

Eagleton obviously disagrees with this argument. (One of Eagleton’s most recent books, after all, is titled Why Marx Was Right!) It’s not that Marx should be ripped from his historical context, but that Marx’s ideas have continued relevance. Eagleton continues:

It is true that Marx’s ideas are no longer exactly shaping the world, but it is also true that they do a lot to explain how capitalism is not in charge of events. The younger generation today may not be made up of card-carrying Marxists, but a sizable chunk of them are increasingly and vociferously anticapitalist. This is not to say that they could give you a cogent account of the Asiatic mode of production. It is rather to say that they are revolted by the prospect of the state using the hard-earned wealth of its citizens to bail out a bunch of financial gangsters, and properly unconvinced that this is the only conceivable way of running a modern economy. In Britain each summer, thousands of young Marxists, some of them workers sacrificing their vacations, gather to discuss the possibility of a less brutal and obscenely inequitable way of conducting our civil affairs.

Although I agree with Eagleton’s political critique of Sperber, I’m more interested in the historiographical and epistemological questions raised by the notion that Marx’s ideas are dead. Why, I wonder, did Sperber dedicate what was presumably a large chunk of his life to researching and writing about a man famous for his ideas, if those ideas are irrelevant? And if he was out to prove their irrelevance, why didn’t he focus his analysis on Marx’s ideas? Moreover, what does this say about reception history? Marx and Marxism have continued to shape all sorts of discourses, in the academy and out. Obviously Marxist ideas take on different meanings in changed spatial and temporal contexts. But there must be something living in the original ideas for them to continue to inspire. The man is dead, but the ideas live on.

23 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Sperber sounds like a historicist, or that he tends toward the fallacy of historicism (i.e. that events and ideas do not, or barely, translate out of their times). He would probably argue that it’s note “Marxism” that is discussed today, but only neo-Marxisms, or a nominal Marxism. And there’s always *some* truth to that. Then again, perhaps Sperber is offering more of a provocation than an absolute declaration when he asserts that Marxism has run its course? – TL

    • In addition, historicists are frustrating. They always feel, to me at least, like they are evading *one* of the central points of historical study: relevance. In Sperber’s case, is it just that Marx is interesting in the same way that Thomas Friedman is—personality, nice presentation, known for work on one particular topic?

    • Tim: Having not read Sperber’s biography of Marx (yet) I can’t say why he thinks Marx’s ideas don’t translate beyond the 19th century. I merely thought the reviews of the book opened up some interesting questions for intellectual historians. But surely Sperber thinks Marx is relevant, since he wrote a biography of the man. I guess we need to go to the source to see how he works this out.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. Your questions reminded me of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals–where “biography” is used to undercut subjects’ ideas. I’m not sure if that’s at work here. But it does point to the difficult task of intellectual biography. I set out to write one but ended up writing more a history of theology. Miller’s Lasch biography is wonderful intellectual genealogy. I think Richard Fox’s Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (1986) is the best I know of at interrelating biography and ideas.

  3. Thanks, Andrew:
    USIH – Day in and day out one terrific post after another.

    Although a new contemporary rendering would be nice to see Isaiah Berlin’s work is an excellent intellectual biography.

    In his conclusion Berlin writes that Marx “… set out to refute the proposition that ideas decisively determine the course of history, but the very extent of its own influence on human affairs has weakened the force of its thesis.”

  4. This post raises excellent questions, but I think it’s important not see them as forcing us to make false choices.

    Intellectual biographies can–and do–strike different balances between focusing on a subject’s life and explicating his or her ideas. Even people who are famous for their ideas lead lives that are interesting to explore. And one doesn’t need to be a vulgar historicist (on which more later) to feel that finding out about a person’s life can illuminate the ideas, even if those ideas are not the focus of a particular intellectual biography. On the other hand, some intellectual biographies tell the reader very little about the life and, instead, primarily recount the ideas in chronological order (a fine example of this would be Daniel Tanguay’s intellectual biography of Leo Strauss).

    Although the intellectual biographies I find most satisfying tell me about both the life and the ideas, and draw fruitful connections between them (Rüdiger Safranski’s biography of Martin Heidegger, e.g., does an excellent job of this), what that balance is varies a lot from thinking to thinker and and project to project. In short, I think the question of what the right balance is and how to strike it is, primarily, a practical not a theoretical one, and Eagleton’s suggestion that there is something necessarily anti-idea about intellectual biography as a genre is just wrong. (I do think it’s interesting that Freedland praises Sperber for the way he deals with the ideas (“All this is fascinating enough as human drama (complemented by Sperber’s provision of a comprehensive reading of every Marx-related text – whether speeches, letters, articles, grocery bills or invoices – in a winningly informal, readable style).”), while Eagleton essentially accuses him of avoiding dealing with them.)

    The question of whether to treat a thinker’s ideas in their historical context or as living on into the present can also become a false dichotomy. Ideas are always of their time. And those ideas that remain important for whatever reason also continue to have a life afterward. When I teach my US intellectual history survey, I always encourage my students to treat the texts we read as both historical texts and as living texts. Understanding ideas as rooted in the context(s) of their composition does not preclude us from also contemplating them in other contexts. Like Andrew, I haven’t read Sperber’s Marx book, so I can’t say what his position is on these issues. But it seems to me that the exercise of thinking about Marx’s ideas as the product of a nineteenth-century thinker, whose chief mode was journalistic (which I take it is what Sperber’s book does) is not, in an of itself, an assault on the notion that Marx’s ideas remain important today.

    The production of ideas is important. So is their reception–both at the time of their production and in the years, decades, or centuries since. Marx’s life, its relationship to Marx’s ideas, and the continuing importance of Marx’s ideas since his time are all important, all worth studying, and can be mixed and matched in a variety of scholarly projects, biographical and otherwise. There’s no one right way to do it. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

    • Great comments, Ben. I agree with them all, especially the last bit in support of methodological diversity. My intention was not to create any dichotomies. I just wanted to provoke discussion by drawing attention to how both of these reviews were framed around issues of immense importance to intellectual historians.

      I suspected Eagleton of overstating a few things, including the anti-intellectualism of intellectual biography as a genre. I also am sure that Eagleton used this review as an occasion to do what he often does when writing about Marx, sell Marx as relevant to an ethical understanding of the world.

      I should just go ahead and read Sperber.

  5. Great post, Andrew. Two problems jump out at me with Sperber’s formulations. First, it is impossible to know whether a thinker’s ideas have “run their course.” It’s hard to think of a more irritatingly op-ed-y (and less materialist) way to talk about a philosopher. Second, such a historicist vision undercuts the very Hegelian activity of retroactive reframing that was so central to Marx’s thought and so central to Marxism.

    Finally, we should avoid seeing Eagleton as having the last word on why Marx matters. Marx didn’t invent anticapitalism; people would be protesting finance capital’s abuses and dreaming of egalitarian alternatives whether or not Marx had ever written Capital. It’s what people do. To be honest, Gerard Winstanley is a better guide to anticapitalist communalism than Marx.

    In fact, the significance of Marx, in particular, points in a different direction: not simply the impulse to negate the existing order (here Eagleton could be correctly accused, I think, of Eurocentrism in his veneration of Marx as the sine qua non of anticapitalism). Rather, on the contrary, what Marx argued was that within the game of accumulation, one is forced to play out one’s role as capitalist or worker. The warrant for socialism is provided, in fact, by the simple truth that there is no Bartlebyan margin to which one can retreat to escape complicity with the market economy. Thus, Marx’s moralizing was reserved, by and large, for the system’s boosters and apologists–the intellectuals like Say, Ure, Mill, etc. who ratified inequality and rationalized suffering.

    • Kurt: Nobody has the final say on why Marx matters, including Eagleton. But it should be noted that Eagleton said in his review that Marx was not that original in the context of anti capitalist thought. Rather, Eagleton argues Marx made two original contributions. He writes:

      “What, then, is truly innovative about Marx? Apart from some rather esoteric reflections on the forces and relations of production, he made at least two strikingly original contributions to human thought. The first was to break with much previous philosophy by viewing individuals primarily as practical agents. That this sounds unremarkable enough is a sign of just how obtuse philosophers can be. What would the human narrative look like, he asked himself, if we were to start from men and women not as contemplative spirits but as self-determining individuals who create a history in common, and who need to do so because of the nature of their bodies? Is there a way of getting from the body’s needs and capabilities to politics, ethics, and culture? It is not certain that there is; but to imagine so is a vastly exciting enterprise, one that Marx launched at a disgracefully precocious age in his Paris manuscripts and then more or less abandoned under pressure of his economic inquiries.

      Marx’s other original move was to identify capitalism as a specific historical system, powered by its own peculiar laws. It was no longer simply the invisible color of everyday life, too close to the eyeball to be objectified. What he did in this respect was exactly what crises of capitalism—like that of 2008— tend to do. Such crises prove embarrassing to those who run the show not only because they involve some people rummaging in trash cans while others fill up their Cadillacs. They are embarrassing also because by throwing the workings of the system into stark relief, they disclose the disagreeable truth that the system represents one particular way of doing things among a range of other possibilities. If the past did things differently, so might the future. It is far simpler to pretend that the Inca traded in futures just like we do, or that the ancient Assyrians lost sleep over the alarming size of their deficit.
      Marx may have shown the limits of the capitalist system, but he was by no means a fanatical opponent of it. In Marx’s admiring view, the middle classes had in the brief span of a few centuries transformed the face of the earth and swept the anciens régimes into the ash can of history. (It is true that one or two ves- tiges of that past were carelessly let slip—Prince Charles, for example— but otherwise the job was remarkably thorough.) These sober, prudent creatures had toppled autocracies, freed slaves, dismantled empires, invented human rights, launched feminism and liberal democracy, produced a resplendent artistic culture, and laid the foundations for global community. It was true that they had had their catastrophes: famines, world wars, and the like. Indeed, they had proved not only the most enthrallingly emancipatory force in history but also the most savagely exploitative. Their precious achievements were everywhere steeped in blood. These two aspects of the middle-class capitalist narrative were in Marx’s view as inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of paper.”

  6. Just the subtitle of this book is telling if one is truly concerned about assessing what is living and dead in Marx’s thought and Marxism after Marx. As a lifelong avowed Marxist in many respects (my worldview is a bit of a hodgepodge, Marxist ideas being one part of the whole), I’m clearly convinced of the continued relevance of Marx’s ideas, especially when it comes to a systemic understanding of the nature of capitalism. I probably will never read the book in question, as I rarely find intellectual biographies worth the trouble (I have enjoyed several such treatments: on Spinoza, Sartre, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and C.L.R James, but these are the proverbial exceptions), particularly if one is first and foremost interested in ideas and only secondarily in the biographical context from which those ideas emerged and took shape, the genre being extremely difficult for even the best of writers. In any case, I wanted to let folks know that I have compiled a (‘very select’) bibliography of works on Marx’s thought and Marxism (a little over 100 titles, in English) that I think would be essential to assessing the strengths and weaknesses or what’s living and what’s dead, in both Marx’s oeuvre and the Marxist tradition more broadly (which, to be sure, is quite a motley, and thus I’ve selected what I take to be the crème-de-la-crème from that tradition). Should anyone want a copy, I’ll be happy to send it along.

  7. Marx remains important, indeed crucial, because it is virtually impossible to understand any of the debates over political economy practically anywhere in the world from 1917 to 1989 without understanding the political hopes and fears that Marx’s ideas induced in various audiences. Relatedly, for the vast majority of social theorists born between, say, 1880 and 1970 or so, wrestling with Marx and his legacy was a central act in his or her intellectual development. Trying to understand the intellectual history of the 20th century without grappling with Marx, in other words, is like trying to understand 16th century Europe without grappling with the details of Christian doctrine.

    As to continued relevancy, then, Marx remains relevant so long as you think understanding something about the 20th century remains at all useful for understanding the 21st.

  8. Please forgive me one last observation:

    Sartre captured at least one reason why Marx will remain relevant for some time, namely, the fact that as long as this or that form of capitalism persists, Marx and Marxists have something to teach us: “As soon as there will exist for everyone a margin of real freedom beyond the production of life, Marxism will have lived out its span; a philosophy of freedom will take its place. But we have no means, no intellectual instrument, no concrete experience, which allow us to conceive of this freedom or of this philosophy.” However, I don’t think it’s true that “a philosophy of freedom,” or least the conceiving of such freedom, requires as a necessary condition the prior generalized concrete transcendence of capitalism (although no doubt such an experience will further contribute to such a philosophy), as Marx himself provided a taste of such freedom insofar as he envisioned what social and economic progress beyond capitalism entailed, even if his speculations regarding “communist” society were fairly meager and disappointing in comparison, say, to the works of utopian socialists and others both in his time and since: see, for example, Jon Elster’s essay, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989), as well the work of the late G.A. Cohen, who goes some distance in demonstrating the significance of a demanding notion of equality as integral to any socialist or communist conception of freedom.

    It does seem we are, as yet, a rather long way from overcoming the “aristocracy of capital” and the “economization of social relations” that make up the marrow of capitalism, or the widespread appreciation of the fact that the best life, or at least happiness and well-being, are not defined by criteria and standards derived from consumption, conspicuous or not. It does seem we’re far from a state in which the best interests of workers, or the masses generally, are not canalized into the pursuit of economic advantage, in other words, a state of affairs in which the masses can live without a chronic (explicit or subterranean) sense of material uncertainty, insecurity, and anxiety. It does appear that we are some distance away from the day in which the economy is no longer dependent on the production and cultivation of distorted and artificial needs and individually and socially debilitating desires, a time and place in which the masses are not bound and bewitched by an overwhelming need to be psychologically indemnified by possession and consumption of goods and services. This would be a world in which egregious displays of conspicuous consumption no longer unabashedly exists alongside (geographically and otherwise) absolute and relative poverty. This would be a world in which the aristocracy of Capital no longer contributes to the systematic dehumanization of workers in the form of commodified labor and labor markets, in which the false promises of a good life defined by consumption and irresponsible affluence no longer make mincemeat of the pursuit of happiness or systematically and thus ruthlessly thwart the capacities and capabilities of individuals alone and in concert to uniquely realize self-chosen values or exemplify the endeavor to live a virtuous life. Marx and Marxists will continue to speak to us so long as we remain unable to fully articulate and significantly realize the ends made possible by universal achievement of the satisfaction of basic material human needs, those ends associated with the recognition and fulfillment of moral and spiritual values, virtues, and needs by way of the subordination of economic life to the goals of establishing the conditions necessary for the generalized pursuit of self-actualization or self-realization. Marx and Marxists will continue to speak to us so long as most of us lack the innate incentive toward worthy living, for realizing in some significant measure, and within the constraints of dignity and self-respect (as the late Ronald Dworkin said), a capacity for self-realization in which autonomous, self-directed living is a the same time an associative life characterized by an interdependence based on a division of labor with respect to the realization of values.

  9. If you don’t mind the author weighing in, I have three observations.

    First, it’s a bit much to condemn, or at least criticize, a book, based on a review, without having read it yourself. Had you done so, you might have found that Eagleton’s contention I didn’t pay much attention to Marx’s ideas (I’ll leave aside the issue of whether my discussion of them is “clumsy,” as Eagleton states–not an impression of other reviewers) is problematic. The book contains a lengthy discussion of the Paris manuscripts, Marx’s theories of revolution, the influence of Hegel, the Young Hegelians, David Ricardo and Charles Darwin on Marx’s formulations. All that is without considering the chapter on Marx’s social theory (entitled “The Theorist”) and the one on Marx’s economic theories, esp. in Das Kapital (“The Economist”).

    Second, as to being a historicist, I have no problems with that label. In fact, I’m a student of a student of a student of Friedrich Meinecke. Historicism helps us to understand the present by delineating its differences with the past. That’s a major point of the biography, showing the differences between the world in which Marx formulated his ideas and our contemporary condition. Ironically, Eagleton, in his Harper’s essay, argues that one of the two major intellectual innovations of Marx was to assert the differences between a capitalist society and past historical eras. He explains that Marx’s ideas teach us not to imagine that the Incas were speculating in futures, since they lived in a society based on different modes of production. That’s fine, but that’s also historicism.

    Finally, there is a political point, here–the issue of the world after 1989-91, and the end of purportedly Marxist regimes. People who take a critical attitude toward the unregulated global capitalism developing since then, and the results of this development that we have seen since 2008 (I’m one of them) have to consider whether the best way to understand these developments and to propose alternatives is to resurrect past Marxist ideas and to look favorably in retrospect at the regimes of the former Eastern Bloc, or to find newer ways to think about problems of capitalist market economies and to remember the problematic results of twentieth century anti-capitalist regimes. In this respect, I think that Eagleton and I have rather different opinions.

    • Professor Sperber: You are absolutely correct. I should have refrained from criticizing your book before having read it. My point in this admittedly shallow blog post was to highlight some points made by Freedland and Eagleton that are relevant to the practice of intellectual history. I will refrain from commenting further on your book until I read it, which I plan to do as soon as time permits. After that, I promise to write something at this blog that speaks directly to my interpretation and not somebody else’s. Cheers.

    • Honestly, because of the history applied Marxian thought, I see the *necessity* of a more historicist biography. I too would probably a consider a strong historicist position for that project—much like I would a book about Aquinas or Weber or Hegel. Their thought has been applied and misapplied so many teams that strict contextual analysis is totally needed. – TL

      • Errata: (1) First sentence, “…of the history OF applied…”, and (2) Last sentence, “teams” = times.

    • Jonathan Sperber — regarding your final paragraph — there has been a spirited debate going on over the last three weeks related to this topic at Crooked Timber in the form of a symposium of reviews of Erik Wright’s book Envisioning Real Utopias, and long threads of comments on some of those reviews, particularly the last one, entitled Socialism Without a Map. Of course you have to skim through a lot of crap and put up with derailments, but you might find some of it worthwhile.

  10. I have to say that I enjoyed Sperber’s biography, though not because I accept his argument that the 19th century has a monopoly claim on the 19th century. Unlike Professor Sperber, I happen to think that the world in which I live has a lot in common with the world in which Marx lived. And I also think that Marx’s analysis of his world is a good place for us to begin an analysis of ours. But even if I’m skeptical about the historicist reading of Marx’s life that Sperber gives us, I learned a lot from this biography. For one thing, it’s beautifully written. And all the details on radical in-fighting and Marx’s financial and familial woes are fascinating. Knowing what Marx had to go through to produce his theoretical formulations makes those formulations more, not less, compelling.

Comments are closed.