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Professor Jonathan Sperber – Karl Marx

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (Liveright Publishing, 2013)

2014 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Biography

"absorbing, meticulously researched biography" – New York Times


Curator Professor Emeritus of History, University of Missouri

Member, German Studies Association

Member, American Historical Association


Selected works

  • Popular Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Germany 

  • The Kaiser's Voters: Electors and Elections in Imperial Germany 

  • Revolutionary Europe, 1780-1850 

  • The European Revolutions, 1848-1851

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Episode #1

Q: Professor Jonathan Sperber  Karl Marx – A Nineteenth Century Life


  • Red Diaper baby

  • Thought I knew Marx well

  • Discovered “contradictory” Marx writings

  • Delved into Marx & his life

Episode #2

Q: What is the MEGA Project?


  • Huge Undertaking

  • All works of Marx & Engels

  • Including notes on envelopes, letters

  • Started century ago in Soviet Union

  • Taken up in East Berlin

  • Supported by Germany / Helmut Kohl

Episode #3

Q: What were the early influences that shaped Marx?


  • Three early influences

  • Father, who ready Voltaire to son

  • Gymnasium head: Johann Wyttenbach

  • Introduced Marx to Kant

  • Hegel / Young Hegelians / University of Berlin

Episode #4

Q: Did Marx receive any Jewish Education?


  • Marx was baptized at age 5

  • First Religious writing was on Gospel of John

  • Marx Family, many converted

  • Some Trier relatives remained Jewish

Episode #5

Q:  Marx: Prophet of the Future?


  • Tend to view Marx in contemporary terms

  • Far seeing prophet

  • Predictor of future economic collapses

  • Or devil who led to Stalin and Mao

  • Marx was product of French Revolution

  • And of Industrial Revolution

  • Needs to be understood as 19th century figure

Episode #6

Q: Was Marx An Accomplished Economist?


  • Marx deeply researched economics

  • Economics in 19th century was called “Political Economy”

  • Not as we view it today

  • Marx was a philosopher

  • Economists at that time came from varied backgrounds

Episode #7

Q: Was Marx A Marxist?


  • Marx himself said, I’m not a Marxist

  • Engels really coined Marxism

  • Marxism can better be called Engelsism

  • Engels: Darwin discovered natural order

  • And Marx discovered law of social order

  • Recent work: Invention of Marx

Episode #8

Q: What Was Marx’s Personality?


  • Marx was good one on one

  • He could be charming

  • But also brusque if you argued with him

  • Good dinner guest

  • Educated in philosophy, arts, literature, music

Episode #9

Q: How does the Communist Manifesto Rank?


  • Communist Manifesto & Das Kapital are best known

  • Part of canonical Marx writings

  • But many other important Marx writings

  • Ideas of young Marx that later developed

  • Journalism writings are significant

  • And then there is the “weird stuff”

Episode #10

Q: Was there a Contradiction between Marx’s private life & writings?


  • Marx’s focus on his personal finances

  • Had a servant & child out of wedlock

  • Received money from Engels

  • Perception in 19th century was different

  • Not as scandalous –private vs. public

Episode #11

Q: How did Marx View Judaism & the Jewish People?


  • Essay on the Jewish People

  • Wrote about his Jewish descent

  • Certain writings are nasty, anti-Jewish

  • Lens of 20th/21st centuries – Nazi/Stalin like

  • 19th century perspective - viewed Judaism as narrow

Episode #12

Q: What is Marx’s Essay on the Jewish Question?


  • Background: Jews not citizens of Germany

  • Germans must be Christians

  • Even Protestants – Judaism/Jews inferior

  • Bruno Bauer: The Jewish Question

  • Secular State – Jewish Rights

  • But Jews need to abandon Judaism

  • Marx’s Essay a response to Bauer

  • Marx favors Separation of Church and State

  • Marx however equates (evil) Capitalism with Jews

  • Communism = No Capitalism = No Judaism/Jews

Episode #13

Q: Did Marx face anti-Semitism?


  • Not really

  • Prussia attacks Marx / Communists

  • Wilheim Stieber accusations

  • Cologne Communist Trials1852

  • Jewish descent referenced

Episode #14

Q: What would Marx have said about the 1917 Russian Revolution?


  • No heaven for Marx

  • In 1858 Max thought there would be a revolution

  • Can Communism survive in a Capitalist controlled world?

  • Question Soviet Union, Cuba & China grappled with

Episode #15

Q: Why Should Young People Study Marx?


  • Question: Why Study the Past

  • Past is not predictor of the present

  • Past is not the present

  • But past events are the origins of the present

  • Marx was a 19th century figure

  • Ideas of Marx can be expanded to understand present

Full Interview - Professor Jonathan Sperber

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