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Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life

This new Marx biography refrains from judging its subject with contemporary values, helping readers to understand the man's ideas in the context of his life.


Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life by Jonathan Sperber
672 pp.

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For readers who hold certain beliefs about politics and economics, Karl Marx represents the Devil, because Marxism has become synonymous with Communism. And Communism, in turn, spawned the allegedly evil empires of the Soviet Union, Mainland China, Cuba, and other national governments in their sphere of influence.

To readers who hold opposite beliefs, Marx is something of a hero – not because his ideas spawned contemporary Communist governments, but because he was a thinker who dared to adopt a rebellious form of intellectualism.

Although Marx, who died in 1883, has not been a physical presence for a long, long time, he seems very much alive in certain circles of both scholars and workers.

Hogwash, says Marx biographer Jonathan Sperber, a history professor at the University of Missouri. Marx formulated his ideas in a long-ago century under conditions that no longer apply circa 2013. Sure, Marx is worth studying, as are many other men and women who made a mark while alive. But to believe Marx is responsible for the shape of the modern world demonstrates a logical flaw, Sperber states compellingly in the introduction to Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, his hefty, well researched, clearly written biography, the latest in a large stack of Marx biographies.

All serious biographers know they should avoid judging their subjects by contemporary values if the subjects are long dead. But many biographers cannot help themselves, violating the reasonable tenet because they get carried away with the subjects’ legacies. Sperber never falls into that trap. There is a sound reason the book’s subtitle stresses a “Nineteenth-Century Life” and not a “Twenty-First Century Life.”


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