Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber, Liveright/W W Norton
Like that other colossus of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx has been consigned by many Christians to the deepest circle of hell. Yet, as with Darwin, there are many Christians who have reconciled Marxist theory with their own faith, particularly Latin American liberation theologians. The Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul, likewise, agrees with Marx’s analysis of the problems of capitalism, though he has no time for the “solutions” of Marxists. But Marx is also often misunderstood, at least according to critic Terry Eagleton, who argues in a recent book that in most cases precisely the opposite of what is said about Marx is true. At the very least, if we are to criticise Marx, we should attempt to understand him.
Jonathan Sperber’s new biography argues that to understand Marx we must locate him in his own time rather than in subsequent developments in Marxism. Marx himself even remarked that he was not a Marxist. He was a product of the Enlightenment who fell in with a group of trendy philosophers who were followers of Hegel, and bohemian atheists, though he later fell out with these “Young Hegelians” for their lack of practical application. His writings wrestle with positivism, the influential philosophy of the day, which promoted scientific observation over theory. Marx also operated in the context of fears of overpopulation, and the political revolutions of the mid-1800s, as well as Europe’s continuing hierarchical society.
Not all Marx’s ideas were new. A form of communism was practised by the early church, while medieval theologians such as John Wycliffe also favoured it. And Marx was a prophet only in the biblical sense of the word, as a denunciator of contemporary injustices rather than crystal ball-gazer. He believed nationalism was fading, just before a time when the opposite became true. He looked back to the French Revolution most of all for his revolutionary ideas. His gaze was Eurocentric rather than global and his economics related more to the industrial revolution of early nineteenth century England than to anything resembling the capitalism of today.
He was a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but had literary flair, and digested an enormous amount of information. Although he was a ferocious atheist, he was not amoral, his theories stemming from concern over the conditions of the working poor. Marx himself spent much of his life in poverty and later in life suffered terribly from bad health, exacerbated by stress and overwork. It is impossible to think these didn’t affect his ideas, and the way he expressed them. His vitriol at opponents could be extremely personal. He also relished war and conflict, because he saw these crises as precursors to coming revolutions.
It is here that Christians might remain wary of Marx and the effect of his atheism, despite the fact that there is much in Marx that Christians of a social justice bent can agree on. He did not think that communism would happen without struggle but he saw progress as inevitable. Christians see nothing inevitable about human progress. Christians are traditionally realists about human nature, and optimists about God’s power. Things can improve, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, not some natural tendency of human beings. So rather than being opium, as in Marx’s famous analogy, Christian religion is a cup of strong coffee.
(reviewed for The Lutheran)