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March 21, 2013


This will be the first in a short series of kinder and gentler essays about Marx the man and some of the historical forces that shaped his opinions, opinions which were nothing new. Others had been there, done that. Writing about Marx with little attention to his political and economic views is akin to writing about Gandhi without writing about peace, Mother Teresa without writing about poverty etc. Mention Marx and you are immediately referred to his Das Kapital and Communist Manifesto and reams of propaganda from his competitors for attention (e.g., capitalists, socialists, libertarians et al.) in arranging the political and economic affairs of nation states to their respective advantages, real or perceived.

Biographers are attracted to people who have made history as a moth is to flame. One need not be a good man or woman to enjoy such attention; one need only be famous. Presidents, the superrich, religious figures, and such not-so-nice mass murderers as Hitler and Stalin enjoy the attention of biographers irrespective of their contributions or lack thereof to the ongoing tide of human history. Biographers, after all, want to sell books and appear on TV to discuss their take(s) on the people they write about. There are historical constraints, however, since history is not fact but someone’s story about fact, which, for example, is subject to author bias (e.g., read the history of the Civil War as written by a northern and a southern historian yet today). It’s the same war, same people involved, same outcome – but with different slants. One may well ask if truth is served by either or any slant.

Marx’s story was, unsurprisingly, the subject of multiple biographical efforts. The latest, and one from which I draw for these essays, is a load to read for the faint of heart – 672 pages – entitled: “Karl Marx, A Nineteenth-Century Life,” by Jonathan Sperber. This deeply researched book tells us more about Marx the man than Marx the communist, an endeavor which will not be appreciated by propagandists on the right, but one which is refreshing in an attempt to understand the man behind his theory of humans as economic units (which present-day anti-communist capitalists in America have emulated but without fanfare. Labor is just another cost, i.e., a “unit;” humanity, fair play and what’s good for America are not involved).

(Parenthetically, my degree in economics necessarily involved studies of Marxian theories, invisible hands of Adam Smith and other classical economists – though Marx was not an economist- in courses of economic theory, all of whom were vying for an adoption of their pet economic framework upon which nation states could best run an economy.) I concluded and still believe that any economic system has its long suits and shortcomings and is subject to adjustment via pragmatism (my favorite “ism”) since all economies are moving targets as they mature, come apart or plug along.

My only personal constant is that any such frameworks be subject to democratic control since control by any one sector leads to totalitarianism, as we saw in Russia and post-WW II Europe. We are on the verge of such control in this country at present by the banking-financial sector, in my opinion, with the tail wagging the dog due to lack of democratic control in the financial marketplace – a problem that can be solved by political processes (if we dare to regulate our own economy in lieu of Wall Street control).

The foregoing is prelude: Let’s get to Marx before this post becomes too long (though more will follow this one). Marx was born of a Jewish father and a Dutch mother in 1818, nine years after Lincoln’s birth in Kentucky. His father converted to Lutheranism in order to continue practicing law in his native Prussia (this was before the wars that united Germany as you and I know it). Karl Marx lived to be 65, dying in 1883. He suffered “throughout his life with hemorrhoids, rotten teeth, liver complaints, and excruciatingly painful carbuncles.” His death was probably due to “a mixture of tuberculosis, overwork, and grief at the death of his daughter Jenny, who failed to reach the age of forty.”

A lot happened in those 65 years. He wound up writing in several different countries, ranging from Belgium to France to England, where he moved to when he was 31. He was unloved in England, never attained citizenship, and was indeed stateless (though residing in London) for the last 34 years of his life. He was invited to leave England after he announced his support for the Paris Commune in 1871, but he did not leave. Later he became a celebrity.

He became famous at last with his publication of Das Kapital and even Queen Victoria dispatched an envoy to meet with him. Most of the world today thinks of Marx as some hard left communist out to destroy capitalism with his ranting and raving from the beginning; not so. Working on “this economic crap,” as he once contemptuously called it, was an obligation he felt he owed to those on the sticky end of the capitalist system, but it also kept him from writing a big book on Balzac.

Marx was neither an economist nor a political strategist but was rather an erudite thinker in the great European humanistic tradition. His heart was with Goethe and Hegel, not with the ratio of fixed to variable capital. It was the high moral conscience of the Hegelian philosophy that drove him to suspend his philosophical pursuits in the name of humanity. He apparently thought at the time (and I will write more on the political and economic environment he lived in later) that he was under an obligation to do something about the horrors of capitalism as then practiced (as did his contemporaries Thomas Hobbes and Charles Dickens – who took different routes to voice their displeasure with child labor, poverty etc.).

Marx (instead and reluctantly) took the socialism route to voice his displeasure with the immorality of English capitalism. It was not always thus; the younger Hegelian took five years to graduate from writing in a radical newspaper in Germany to becoming his own namesake – a Marxist. Five years before he officially became a “Marxist” with his publication of the Communist Manifesto, he was found “advocating the use of the army to suppress a communist workers’ uprising.” Communist ideas, he wrote, were genuinely dangerous and could “defeat our intelligence, conquer our sentiments.”

Some communist! But having become a Marxist, Marx then famously denied he was one!

I will write further and in the near future on the milieu in which Marx lived out his contradictions and his life with his family. Stay tuned. GERALD  E

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