By Jonathan Sperber
Between his birth in 1818 and his death sixty-five years later, Karl Marx became one of Western civilization's most influential political philosophers. Two centuries on, he is still revered as a prophet of the modern world, yet he is also blamed for the darkest atrocities of recent history. But no matter in what light he is cast, the short, broad-shouldered, and bearded Marx remains as a human being distorted on a Procrustean bed of political "isms," either perceived through the partially distorting lens of his chief disciple, Friedrich Engels, or understood as a figure of twentieth-century totalitarian Marxist regimes.
Returning Marx to the Victorian confines of the nineteenth century, Jonathan Sperber, one of the United States' leading European historians, challenges many of our misconceptions of this political firebrand turned London émigré journalist. In this deeply humanizing portrait, Marx no longer is the Olympian soothsayer, divining the dialectical imperatives of human history, but a scholar-activist whose revolutionary Weltanschauung was closer to Robespierre's than to those of twentieth century Marxists.
With unlimited access to the MEGA (the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, the total edition of Marx's and Engels's writings), only recently made available, Sperber juxtaposes the private man, the public agitator, and the philosopher-economist. We first see Marx as a young boy in the city of Trier, influenced by his father, Heinrich, for whom "the French Revolution and its aftermath offered an opportunity to escape the narrowly circumscribed social and political position of Jews in the society." For Heinrich's generation, this worldview meant no longer being a member of the so-called Jewish nation, but for his son, the reverberations were infinitely greater namely a life inspired by the doctrines of the Enlightenment and an implacable belief in human equality.