On Your Marx, Get Set….

Last Sunday, The Boston Globe ran my review of Mary Gabriel’s biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, Love and Capital  (even if you’re not interested in the piece it’s worth clicking on the link to see the beautifully redesigned Globe site.).

Here’s the first couple of graphs from the review:

With history or politics, ignorance is often the precondition of certainty. The less someone comprehends the world’s complexity, the more certain they are of their anemic ideas. Our current economic shambles has created a depressing amount of such lightless bluster. Each action the increasingly impotent Obama administration takes, or fails to take, is met by Tea Party denunciations of “socialism’’ or “Marxism.’’ Absurd on their face, such condemnations betray an absence of historical, economic, or political knowledge. The president is nothing like a socialist. For some members of the right, though, raising the specter of Marx is a convenient, if simpleminded, way to wrap an opponent in the cloak of an enemy of all that is good and true and American.

Such is the cultural climate that awaits “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,’’ Mary Gabriel’s beautifully written account of the “bittersweet drama’’ of Marx’s family life. Like all good biographers, Gabriel manages to humanize a subject who most know only as an institution or, as she writes, “a massive head atop a granite plinth at Highgate Cemetery.’’ Marx was an economist and philosopher, a historian and sociologist, but as Gabriel deftly shows Marx was most consistently a self-obsessed freelancer. The particular attraction of “Love and Capital’’ resides in the book’s unsparing portrait of a brilliant man who would never claim responsibility for his own failures when he could easily fob them off on financial, familial, or political obstacles.

I obviously review the book with an eye toward our current political moment.  I’m not the only person thinking that Marx’s insights should be brought to bear on our persistent financial catastrophe. Last month, for instance,  philosopher John Gray wrote an essay on Marx for the BBC, The Revolution of Capitalism, in which wrote:

Marx was wrong about communism. Where he was prophetically right was in his grasp of the revolution of capitalism. It’s not just capitalism’s endemic instability that he understood, though in this regard he was far more perceptive than most economists in his day and ours.

More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base – the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring.

But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re only now struggling to cope with.

And David Harvey’s brilliant Crises of Capitalism video, though getting a bit dated, deserves a watch if you think that Marx-inspired thinking is all about bread lines and totalitarianism.


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