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Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

by Jonathan Sperber

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“Absorbing, meticulously researched. . . . [Sperber] succeeds in the primary task of all biography, re-creating a man who leaps off the page.” —Jonathan Freedland, New York Times Book Review
In this magisterial biography of Karl Marx, “likely to be definitive for many years to come” (John Gray, New York Review of Books), historian


“Absorbing, meticulously researched. . . . [Sperber] succeeds in the primary task of all biography, re-creating a man who leaps off the page.” —Jonathan Freedland, New York Times Book Review
In this magisterial biography of Karl Marx, “likely to be definitive for many years to come” (John Gray, New York Review of Books), historian Jonathan Sperber creates a meticulously researched and multilayered portrait of both the man and the revolutionary times in which he lived. Based on unprecedented access to the recently opened archives of Marx’s and Engels’s complete writings, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life provides a historical context for the personal story of one of the most influential and controversial political philosophers in Western history. By removing Marx from the ideological conflicts of the twentieth century that colored his legacy and placing him within “the society and intellectual currents of the nineteenth century” (Ian Kershaw), Sperber is able to present a full portrait of Marx as neither a soothsaying prophet of the modern world nor the author of its darkest atrocities. This major biography fundamentally reshapes our understanding of a towering historical figure.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Jonathan Freedland
…absorbing, meticulously researched…The express purpose of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life is to dispel the dominant notion of a timeless Marx—less man, more ideological canon—and relocate him where he lived and belonged, in his own time, not ours. Standing firm against the avalanche of studies claiming Marx as forever "our contemporary," Sperber sets out to depict instead "a figure of the past," not "a prophet of the present." And he succeeds in the primary task of all biography, recreating a man who leaps off the page.
Publishers Weekly
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 University of Missouri historian, Sperber (The European Revolutions: 1848–1851) achieves this aim by securing Marx firmly in his 19th century, and keeping him out of ours. Sperber brilliantly weaves life and ideas together in this sympathetic, if duly objective, portrait of a difficult man. Not shy of criticizing his subject’s ideas and evaluating their limitations—both philosophically and as products of their particular time—Sperber provides lucid explanations of Marx’s many complex theoretical formulations and arguments. Marx the man comes to life not only as a thinker always struggling to make ends meet, but also as a husband and father, philosophical combatant, activist, German patriot, and exile in London. Marx’s contemporaries also make vivid appearances, resulting in a book that is as much a chronicle of the events and dense ideological fights of the time that so embroiled its principal subject as a biography. A major work, this is likely to be the standard biography of Marx for many years. 34 illus. (Mar.)
“Including the cast of Marx’s enemies and acolytes, Sperber superbly recounts the life Marx led.”
Ian Kershaw
“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.”
Helmut Smith
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”
Christopher M. Clark
“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.”
David Blackbourn
“Karl Marx is our contemporary, interpreted anew by each generation—and that is as it should be. What Jonathan Sperber has done, and done wonderfully well, is return Marx to his own time. He makes us look again at the writings, through nineteenth-century eyes, and gives a vivid account of Marx's often difficult personal circumstances. Deeply researched but highly readable, this is a biography to savor.”
Harper's - Terry Eagleton
“[A] scrupulously detailed account of its subject from cradle to grave.”
Alexander Cammann
“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.”
New Yorker
“Sperber prefers a firmly historicist approach, and attempts, by viewing his subject purely in the context of the times, to show us a quintessentially ‘nineteenth-century life'…Sperber’s rigor…yields gems.”
Jonathan Freedland - New York Times Book Review
“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.”
Terry Eagleton - Harper's
“[A] scrupulously detailed account of its subject from cradle to grave.”
“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.”
Sam Stark - The Nation
“[A] balanced, fresh biography, putting the reader at ease and stimulating open-minded curiosity.”
Library Journal
Karl Marx has been the subject of countless biographies and his writings have been adapted to the purposes of those on both the Left and Right. In this new biography, however, Sperber (history, Univ. of Missouri; The European Revolutions: 1848–1851) asks us to step back from our contemporary views of Marx and instead see him through the prism of his own life and time. Sperber argues that to understand Marx's ideas, it is not enough to know their intellectual content and context; it is also necessary to understand them within the framework of his historical period. Considering Marx's relationship to the major events of his era, including the French Revolution, European politics in the 1840s, and English industrialization, says Sperber, gives readers a nuanced and deeper understanding of his theories. VERDICT Written for a popular but thoughtful audience, this biography is lively and readable yet retains the authority of an author who thoroughly understands his sources and subject. Highly recommended.—Jessica Moran, Metropolitan Transportation Commission-Assoc. of Bay Area Govts. Lib., Oakland, CA
Kirkus Reviews
A thorough but starchy portrait of the father of modern communism. Sperber (History/Univ. of Missouri; Europe 1850–1914, 2008, etc.) aims to put Karl Marx (1818-1883) squarely within the context of his time, when the French Revolution was long over and the Industrial Revolution was taking hold. He follows Marx through the watershed events of his life, tracing his restless evolution through Hegel's systematic philosophy and Ludwig Feuerbach's atheist humanism, ultimately emerging as the full-tilt revolutionary firebrand and economic diagnostician who believed communism was "the solution to the riddle of history." He also believed that capitalism was in its death throes, and--unless it sank of its own weight--only violent revolution could put it out of its misery. Sperber credibly reveals Marx's personal and political passions, ironies and contradictions; he was both Jewish and anti-Semitic, and he was an enemy of the bourgeoisie who lived off the profits of his friend Friedrich Engels' family cotton mill, which had its own share of exploited workers. For Sperber, Marx's theories of class struggle and profit were shaped by his lifetime, became hardened with age and began to seem dated not long after his death. Also, under the careful husbandry of Engels, those ideas flowered into Marxism (or as some have suggested, Engelsism), which arguably had only a tenuous connection with its founder. Sperber delivers an objective portrait, but his insights are wrested at exhaustive length and demand enormous patience from readers. His writing is dry and clumsy, and the book is so top-heavy with obtuse theoretical explanations that the life itself often gets lost. After awhile, Marx comes across as a tiresome Teutonic windbag. Authoritative in its scope, but dense and unnecessarily difficult.

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Liveright Publishing Corporation
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Sperber, the author of The European Revolutions, 1848–1851, is the Curators’ Professor of History at the University of Missouri. He has written extensively on the social and political history of nineteenth-century Europe.

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