By Chet Yarbrough
By Jonathan Sperber
Narrated by Kevin Stillwell
Johnathan Sperber has gathered an impressive amount of data in a history of Karl Marx’s life. Sadly, his presentation is not equal to his collection. Unlike biographies done by Robert Caro (wrote “The Power Broker” about Robert Moses, the land planner of New York, and former President, Lyndon Johnson) or William Manchester (a Winston Churchill Biographer), Sperber fails to bring his subject to life.
Marx is considered by some to be one of the three most influential economists that ever lived (Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes being the other two.) That influence is not felt by a reader or listener of Sperber’s biography. Sperber offers facts but leaves coherence to the consumer.
Marx means something to the 21st century. Some might argue America is reaching a point, in the history of capitalism, that is foretold by Marx’s theory of economics. As Sperber notes, Marx believed capitalism was a step in the economic evolution of the world. Marx believed capitalism would reach a nadir of conflict between haves and have-nots, leading to a revolution, because of social inequity inherent in capitalist economies.
As Sperber notes, Marx lived through and wrote about social conflict created by feudalism and capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Raised in Prussia, ruled by a Czar in a feudal economic system, Marx witnessed Prussian’ suppression and growing discontent of a feudalist working-class Russia. Marx and his family moved to England, living a life of poverty while observing child labor abuses made famous in Dickens’ classic stories of England’s industrialization. Marx created a theory of economic evolution showing feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism as progressive improvements in the lives of all people.
Feudalism grew out of the rule of Kings and Czars with a small aristocracy receiving privileges of wealth and property with the bulk of human civilization indentured to the privileged class. As the indentured and oppressed populations grew, discontent led to revolution. In 1776, America broke with English aristocracy; in 1789, the French population broke with Louis XVI’s absolute monarchy; in 1848, German states rebelled against the aristocratic Prussian confederation of thirty-nine states. Each of these revolutions led to more liberal, more democratic, and more capitalist economy. A mercantile economy evolved from feudalism. Aristocracy became more broadly defined by wealth rather than inheritance. Parliaments and congresses were created to represent wider population interests.
However, as Sperber explains Marx’s view of life, the greatest part of the population in this mercantile economy remained in poor economic condition. Marx, looking at the economic condition of the world, noted that transition from feudalism to mercantilism only marginally improved living conditions for the majority of state citizens and, in fact, actually worsened the condition of the young, and impoverished who worked long hours for little pay. Marx developed the labor theory of value to suggest that classical economic theory explained by Adam Smith leaves too many people in the gutter. Marx felt that Smith did not properly quantify the value of labor. Marx argued that capital was created to primarily benefit owners by unfairly valuing or paying labor.
Marx believed that a capitalist aristocracy continued to victimize the working class, trading one form of indenture for another. Marx suggested capitalism was an evolution of economies that widened the benefited population but still left most workers underpaid, undernourished, and disadvantaged.
Sperber clearly points out that Marx did not believe that communal ownership of property redressed the inequities of feudal, mercantile, or capitalist’ economies; i.e. Marx argued that inequity is caused by capital creation that only benefits ownership and undervalues labor that created the capital. However, “The Communist Manifesto” demands that all private property be held by the government with the government as rent collector in a communist state. This remains one of the main philosophical disagreements with Marxist belief in the evolution of economies.
Marx supported public education. He argued for worker unionization’s effort to equalize benefits through a more equitable distribution of capital. He was deeply involved in the “International Workingmen’s Association” (aka First International). Herein lays the evolution of capitalism to socialism and Marx’s belief in the fairness of economic communism.
One can disagree with Marxian theory but the widening gap between haves and have-nots, the 1% and 99%, is a real-world concern in the 21st century. Moneyed interests have become the new aristocracy, as repressive and privileged as the Kings and Czars of the mid-19th century.
Marx’s solution for economic inequity is wrong but the condition he describes in the evolution of economies seems prescient. When CEOs of companies are making over 300 times average laborers’ income, there is a glaring problem in the current condition of capitalist economies.
When political power and action is determined by 1% of the population, the aristocracy-of-wealth victimize the poor and middle class. This inequity is exacerbated by inequality-of-opportunity in the United States.
The American Dream has become a myth; there is no chance that a member of the poor or middle class will ever become part of the upper class rich, let alone the 1% super-rich. Marx believed that revolution will come to capitalist economies from an evolutionary process that correlates self-interest with nascent greed; e.g. the Bernie Madoffs of the 21st century, the banking crises of 2007, precipitous loss-of-wealth by the middle class, failure of government to regulate financial markets, the inability of government to pass legislation, etc..
Sperber offers a lot of information about Marx’s family life and Friedrich Engels, his primary benefactor (ironically, a capitalist factory owner). But, this is a disappointing book because it garners too little interest in the power and influence of Marx’s economic theory.