b i o g r a p h y consider this to be a problem because he took our social character for granted. In short, Norman recruits Burke as a supporter of today’s revisionists who think we ought to value wellbeing more than GDP. No doubt Burke would concur, but he would be unlikely to pose the question in such terms. Norman is better on Burke in his own time than on Burke as our contemporary. We learn that ‘the basic task of politics is simply to preserve social capital and moral community’. Hard to disagree, but not a great improvement on Burke’s own words.
The problem in advancing Burkean politics as a model for the present lies in having some sense of how the abstractions of the 18th century refer to the problems of today. There is one major difference between then and now that makes this almost impossible: Burke’s milieu was essentially Christian and ours is not. Whatever view one may take of Christianity as a religion, its politics was one in which fallible creatures were understood to make decisions within the ‘narrative’ of Creation. As with any belief system, Christianity had its darker aspects, but its understanding of the world was compatible only with modest ambitions for public power. This moderation was lost in the Enlightenment.
Burke realised this. The Jacobins, and then Napoleon, had liberated themselves from the inhibitions of a notionally created world, and were free to invent public policy according to abstract ideas and whatever might seem desirable. The age of ideology had arrived. The horrors of the civil war in France discouraged revolution in Europe for a century, but Napoleon’s political adventures in the pursuit of glory through the domination of Europe cost France alone an estimated two million lives and left that great Enlightenment civilisation fatally weakened, in contrast to rising German power. History has shown that, among masterful rulers, Napoleon was far from the worst, and the mark of his intelligence remains with us – faintly echoed in the EU, for example. Burkean wisdom is important and we need it badly, but it cannot compensate for the embedded moderation of Christianity that has been lost. We live in a liberated world and only perhaps a Burkean sensibility can help us realise where that is leading us. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 19
r i c h a r d o v e r y
Capital Fellow Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life
By Jonathan Sperber
(Liveright 648pp £25)
Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography
By Rolf Hosfeld (Translated by Bernard Heise)
(Berghahn Books 190pp £18)
It is a commonplace to see the German philosopher and economist Karl Marx as a towering figure in the 20th century. Banners with his benign, elderly, bearded face – rather like Renaissance pictures of God – fluttered all across communist Europe and Asia for decades. Something called Marxism flourished in one insurgency after another across the developing world. To those who loathed what they thought Marx represented, he was less of a god, more of a Mephistopheles.
What both these excellent new biographies aim to do is to make Marx a figure of the 19th century. He was not a towering figure then. He became one later only because his thought was boiled down by sections of the European Left into simple mantras about the necessity for revolution and the debilitating contradictions of capitalism. The Marx of the future was reduced, as Jonathan Sperber puts it, to an icon. The vast and disorganised body of Marx’s thought simply does not lend itself to crude reduction. The issues he addressed, the language he used, and the political figures he crossed swords with were rooted in the mid-19th century. His revolutionary model was the Jacobin stage of the French Revolution; his philosophical guru (despite his later criticism) was Georg Hegel, idealist champion of the modern state, whose profound insights into the nature of historical change shaped a great deal of Marx’s own thinking.
This is an important corrective to much of the literature on Marx, which is often impatient, like the utopian socialists before 1914 were, to see his vision realised rather than to understand Marx in his context. Perhaps the most important argument of both these books
Marx: armchair revolutionary is the need to locate Marx’s communism firmly in the years before 1848, when the term was first widely used among what Sperber calls, rather oddly, ‘leftist’ circles. Communism grew out of the radicalism of the French Revolution and its aftermath, from Gracchus Babeuf in the 1790s to the self-styled communists of the 1840s. Marx tried to reconcile their utopian ambitions with the deeper historical realities presented by the modern age. This was, as Rolf Hosfeld makes clear in his brief but
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