Jonathan 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.