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Jonathan Freedland: Review of Jonathan Sperber's "Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life"

Jonathan Freedland is an editorial page columnist for The Guardian of London.

The Karl Marx depicted in Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing, meticulously researched biography will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics. Here is a man never more passionate than when attacking his own side, saddled with perennial money problems and still reliant on his parents for cash, constantly plotting new, world-changing ventures yet having trouble with both deadlines and personal hygiene, living in rooms that some might call bohemian, others plain “slummy,” and who can be maddeningly inconsistent when not lapsing into elaborate flights of theory and unintelligible abstraction.

Still, it comes as a shock to realize that the ultimate leftist, the father of Communism itself, fits a recognizable pattern. It’s like discovering that Jesus Christ regularly organized bake sales at his local church. So inflated and elevated is the global image of Marx, whether revered as a revolutionary icon or reviled as the wellspring of Soviet totalitarianism, that it’s unsettling to encounter a genuine human being, a character one might come across today. If the Marx described by Sperber, a professor at the University of Missouri specializing in European history, were around in 2013, he would be a compulsive blogger, and picking Twitter fights with Andrew Sullivan and Naomi Klein.

But that’s cheating. The express purpose of “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-­Century Life” is to dispel the dominant notion of a timeless Marx — less man, more ideological canon — and relocate him where he lived and belonged, in his own time, not ours. Standing firm against the avalanche of studies claiming Marx as forever “our contemporary,” Sperber sets out to depict instead “a figure of the past,” not “a prophet of the present.”...

Read entire article at NYT