Science & Society, Vol. 84, No. 4, October 2020, 555–559
A Marx biography was the last thing that Marx wanted. He made this clear at
least on two occasions. In 1868, he wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann that he was
asked to provide one for Joseph Meyer’s Konversationslexikon. “Not only did I
not send one; I did not even reply to the letter” (Marx, 1988, 144; Heinrich,
2019, 9). About ten years later, he told Wilhelm Blos that “neither of us [i.e.,
Marx and Engels] cares a straw for popularity. . . . such was my aversion to
the personality cult that at the time of the [First] International when plagued
by numerous moves . . . to accord me public honor, I never allowed one of
these to enter the domain of publicity, nor did I ever reply to them, save with
an occasional snub” (Marx, 1991, 288; Heinrich, 2019, 9).
It is indeed an irony of the history of Marx scholarship that, for Marx’s
friends and foes, Marx biographies figure as a medium to either admire or
bury the “great master.” Just before the “Marx boom” on his 200th birth anniversary
in 2018, we had Jonathan Sperber’s (2013) and Gareth Stedman
Jones’ (2016) massive takes in this genre. Depicting Marx largely as an outdated
figure of the 19th century, both authors advised their readers not to
exaggerate Marx’s significance. Anyone who is eager to “apply” a past theory
to the present, the argument went, should at least keep in mind that, say,
no contemporary physicist explains quantum mechanics by means of 19th
We have also had rather positive portrayals of Marx, even bordering
on hagiography, such as Heinrich Gemkow’s legendary work (1967) or Auguste
Cornu’s much earlier multi-volume account (1954–1968). Though,
for instance, Cornu may have not managed to complete his undertaking,
he provided us with one the most sophisticated and comprehensive documentations
of Marx and Engels’ early years, based on MEGA research. Now
Michael Heinrich’s Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society13 claims that title.
Admittedly, this is a work that many of us have been waiting for. But
what finally arrived is somewhat more than just another biography of Marx.
It contains some surprises, to say the least. For instance, I did not expect to
find an appendix (Heinrich, 2019, 323–340) dedicated solely to philosophical
theories and the history of biographical writing. This looks strange in a Marx
biography at first glance. But on a second thought it makes all the more
sense not just to question what is said in a Marx biography but also to put
up for debate how philosophical theories, political worldviews or ideological
beliefs inform the ways Marx is portrayed. After all, what particular shapes
“Marx” takes in any biography are co-determined by the present problems
that one tries to solve; biographers have various reasons to return to, and
rewrite, the well-known or forgotten episodes of Marx’s life from one angle
or another. Heinrich’s concern is, first and foremost, to get young Marx’s
story right. The methodological premise that underlies this ambitious task
consists of the ways in which social and political contexts shape an intellectual
and revolutionary figure. The central issue is not just what and who has
influenced Marx but also Marx’s impacts upon others.
The material gathered in this volume highlights Marx’s rather less discussed
early years starting from his childhood and family circle, and it covers
the period until the end of Marx’s dissertation projects in 1841. The
book is divided into three very large chapters: Marx’s childhood and youth
(1818–1835), his intellectual awakening (1835–1838), and the beginning of
his Young Hegelian adventures (1838–1841).
Born in rural Trier on May 5, 1818, “around two o’clock in the morning”
in a house on Brückengasse, the third child of Heinrich and Henriette —
both of Jewish origin, though converted to Protestant Christianity — “Carl”
(his first name on the birth certificate), “Karl Heinrich” (the name he used
when enrolled at the University of Berlin) or simply “Karl” (as we call him)
(Heinrich, 2019, 34–35) grew up in a middle-class household in a newly
emerging epoch (named “modern society” in Capital). Much of the first
chapter takes into consideration the social history of the idyllic yet poor Trier,
the political environment and religious views dominant in the area, and the
educational background and profession of the family members.
Significantly, Heinrich Marx enjoys great attention. Here we find not
merely a father figure, a successful lawyer or a moderately enlightened monarchist
but also a source of intellectual influence on Karl. Placing great
burdens upon Karl, Heinrich Marx was not simply pressing the son to fulfill
his expectations; he was, for instance, also drawing Karl’s attention to Kant’s
anthropology in passing, or exposing him to a sense of enlightenment rationality
not very untypical of the Prussian middle/upper-class milieu (cf.
Heinrich, 2019, 112–113). Patient readers will notice that this narrative is
always accompanied by careful scrutiny of alternative accounts. Some unwarranted
claims of Sperber (2013, 24), for example asserting that Heinrich
Marx had lied about his aspirations to study law, are critically examined and
traced back to their sources (cf. Heinrich, 2019, 54–55). Such details may
not matter much to “ordinary” students of Marx, but they clearly show that
all the historical and secondary sources have been cross-checked with great
Also impressive is the depiction of young Marx’s relation to his future
father-in-law, the Prussian state officer Ludwig von Westphalen, to whom
Marx dedicated his dissertation (Heinrich, 2019, 83–91). This is followed by
a closer look at Marx’s school curriculum. Most notably, when mentioning
Marx’s German paper “Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of a Profession,”
we are offered this comment, by Marx’s teacher Wilhelm Hamacher:
“Here as well to the error quite common to him of an excessive quest for
a rare expression rich in imaginary” (ibid., 103; Taubert, et al., 1975, 1198,
1200). Even the professional profile of Marx’s school teachers, Marx’s exam
papers (Heinrich, 2019, 104–109) and later careers of his classmates at the
time are thoroughly documented. The book seems to cover literally everyone
and everything that was involved in young Marx’s life in one way or another.
We are provided with a comprehensive account of student life around
1830 in Bonn; the literature circle Marx joined (monitored by the police);
his first acquaintance with the future “True Socialists” such as Karl Grün
(attacked in The German Ideology); and Marx’s tavern life and fencing duels
(Heinrich, 2019, 133–135). It is well-known that Marx wrote poems, but
it is not clear what turned him away from (Romantic) poetry to another
intellectual orientation, such as (Hegelian) philosophy. Since at least Franz
Mehring’s biography (1918), scholars have a strong inclination to identify
Marx’s poetry with Romanticism. Accordingly, Marx is usually taken to depart
from it and turn first to idealism, and then to materialism. Regarding
Romanticism, Heinrich takes up a group of classical yet forgotten studies,
including Leonard Wessel’s book on Marx and romantic irony (1979) and
Günther Hillmann’s magisterial work Marx and Hegel (1966). For Heinrich,
categorizing Marx as a “Romantic” is justified to some extent, but an alleged
transition from “German Idealism” to “Materialism” from the angle of young
Marx is highly dubious (2109, 156).
Contra Mehring, who explained Marx’s turn away from Romantic poetry
by a lack of talent, Heinrich argues that Marx went through a process of
philosophical self-criticism that gave birth to a transition towards Hegelian
philosophy (Heinrich, 2019, 186). Heinrich comes close to characterizing
Marx’s Romanticism largely as showing a certain sense of emotional subjectivity
and an “inner experience” of “(unrealizable) longing for an ineffable
other” (ibid., 177). It is this emotional attitude of the young poet that Marx
himself charged with “idealism,” for he no longer assumed that literary art
can change the world by positioning “ought” against “is,” or more broadly
idealism against realism (ibid., 188–189).
However, it does not follow that Marx had adopted an anti-materialist position
by this turn away from his Romantic poetry. The presupposed dualism
between idealism and materialism is largely a neo-Kantian invention that
many biographers readily project onto the young Marx (Heinrich, 2019,
156).14 To explain Marx’s Hegelian turn, Heinrich consults Cornu’s account.
We are told that Cornu exaggerates the impact of the Hegelian philosopher
of law Eduard Gans. Rather, Hegel’s criticism of Romantic art as well as
his conceptual holism and representational realism attracted Marx to the
philosophical terrain. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Marx decided
to pursue his academic career in philosophy. Having met such an ambitious
Hegelian as Bruno Bauer in the Doctor Club, Marx found enough courage
to go so far as to work out, along with Bauer, an atheistic Hegelianism in
1841–1842 around the time when he became a journalist and newspaper
editor at the Rheinische Zeitung.
If you are looking for a good Marx biography, you need to read this book.
Currently, Heinrich is writing the second volume. It will open with the year
1842, a very long year for young Marx, when so much began and ended for
him. Spoiler alerts: his “brother in arms” Bruno Bauer will become a fierce
sectarian enemy; Marx will erect and then destroy a “Feuerbach cult”; and
finally he will discover political economy that will “eat him up” for the rest
of his life.
- Kaan Kangal
Center for Studies of Marxist Social Theory
Department of Philosophy
Xianliu Campus, Qixia District, 38
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