Review: Michael Heinrich, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society (2019)

Few figures have been so extensively biographized as Karl Marx, much less theorists. More than a dozen accounts of his life have been written in English alone, to say nothing of those that originally appeared in foreign languages (many of which have since been translated).1 Usually such treatment is reserved for politicians and literary giants, who were either responsible for major world events or left significant oeuvres. Perhaps in the last hundred years sports and movie stars or musicians, if celebrities of sufficient magnitude, have received a similar degree of attention. Even then, they seldom warrant so many biographies. Like other historical personages, however, the frequency of these books tends to mirror public interest. With Marx the initial batch was released at the height of the international labor movement he inspired, most of them in the twenties and thirties, while the next came during the New Left, in the sixties and seventies. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, Marx’s critique of capitalism has held a renewed salience. The latest effort to contextualize his writings, from 2018, is by the German scholar Michael Heinrich.

Heinrich is known to the Anglophone world mainly through his Introduction to the Three Volumes of Capital. One might quibble with certain claims in that book—some have taken issue with Heinrich’s rejection of the law of the rate of profit to fall,2 while others object to his category of “worldview Marxism”3—but on the whole it is the best overview of the trilogy available, at once accessible and sophisticated. It is excellent at explaining the abstraction of labor that occurs under capitalism,4 and that Marx’s critique is not rooted in morality.5 Yet another work on Capital, which focuses on the opening chapters of Volume I, has recently been rendered into English as well.6 In Germany Heinrich is widely regarded as the successor to Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, the premier second-generation representative of the neue Marx-Lektüre. Whereas the founders of this reading emphasize the “esoteric” over the “exoteric” side of Marx,7 Heinrich is devoted to its popularization. Another difference is that Backhaus and Reichelt are more narrowly indebted to the critical theory of Theodor Adorno, who was their teacher, while Heinrich is also influenced by the problematics of Louis Althusser.8 Someday soon an English translation of his landmark study Die Wissenschaft vom Wert will hopefully be published.9

Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society promises to be the definitive biography of the revolutionary thinker. It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive chronicle of his life, provided that subsequent installments maintain the rigor of the first. As far as single-volume endeavors go, some of the twentieth-century classics remain quite strong: the one by Boris Nikolaievsky and Otto Mänchen-Helfen is a pinnacle among the early profiles, while David McLellan wrote the best of the postwar bios. Sven-Eric Liedman’s splendid 2015 account is the most up to date in terms of the current scholarship, if a bit light on biographical narrative. The rationale for revisiting the life of Marx today is severalfold, according to Heinrich. First of all, past examinations have suffered from significant archival gaps. Only in the last few decades has the second Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, the exhaustive historical-critical edition, begun to circulate more widely. Moreover, even those biographies which do avail themselves of this broader reservoir of information often draw questionable or unsupported inferences from the sources. Last but not least, there is a tendency to read later developments back into earlier portions of his life. Heinrich points out that, despite his eventual antipathy toward them, Marx was initially quite close with contemporaries such as Bruno Bauer and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.10 Very few biographers seek to understand why he once held some of their works in such high esteem, and continued to do so long afterward.11

No other book on Marx’s life is so self-conscious about its own conditions of possibility. A short appendix on “How is Biographical Writing Possible Today?” reviews the history of the genre from antiquity to modernity and considers its methodological underpinnings. Scholarly biographies really took off in the nineteenth century, during the heyday of historicism, and departed from their belletristic antecedents insofar as they sought to systematize the relationship between an individual persona and his historical world. Criticisms of this approach arose in the twentieth century from a couple different angles, first from the Annales School and then from poststructuralists like Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Bourdieu. Heinrich addresses some of these criticisms, on the one hand conceding their partial validity while on the other insisting biography can still be salvaged as a site of scientific inquiry. Obviously, it would be an error to treat a subject as an isolated monad, or homo clausus, in keeping with the common caricature. But even beyond this, Heinrich argues that a biographer of Marx must be especially scrupulous about the shifting reception of his work over time and the specific circumstances surrounding interventions he made.12 Furthermore, where conclusive evidence is lacking, one should be forthright about any areas of speculation. Karl Marx and the Modern World carries out its mandate with painstaking precision, and if there is ever uncertainty, phrases like “it is quite possible” or “it seems likely” appear.

One of Heinrich’s central contentions is that the contemporary world is not so dissimilar from that of Marx. This is intended as a rejoinder to the historian Jonathan Sperber, who consigns his relevance to the nineteenth century, and to a lesser extent Gareth Stedman Jones.13 Heinrich also takes Sperber to task for any number of factual inaccuracies (“fictions,” mostly concerning the legal education of Marx’s father)14 and interpretive blunders (in particular the manner in which he organized his biography, its “arbitrarily drawn demarcations”).15 Yet the point Heinrich is making here goes much deeper. Despite the variations that have accompanied its global spread, Marx discerned dynamics of the capitalist mode of production which obtain throughout. Perhaps because he saw this epochal transformation up close, witnessing the upheavals inside the ancien régime firsthand, he perceived capitalism’s fundamental features with exceptional clarity. His historical vantage granted him unique insight into the workings of the modern world, even though the level of technology was much lower. Undoubtedly, capital as a social relation is far more universal at present than it was in Marx’s day. When he formulated his theories, the epicenter of the industrial revolution was limited to a handful of countries in Western Europe and North America. Marx was a genius, to be sure, but no amount of brilliance would have allowed him to stand outside the “laws of motion” he sought to describe and ascertain them from without. Some of his biographers have remarked upon this reflexivity as well,16 but none so explicitly as Heinrich.

Removed from the context of a Marx biography, several sections could serve as standalone essays on the status of Jews prior to German unification,17 constitutionalism after the Napoleonic wars,18 secondary education in Prussia,19 and theological debates among the Hegelians.20 Heinrich relies on solid research in his discussion of these milieux, but never wanders too far afield, always doubling back to show how they shaped the outlook of the young man. Beyond this, he is extremely resourceful in tracking down unusual materials that allow him to sketch the backdrop to Marx’s life. Notes from the professors whose classes Marx attended in Bonn, usually indicating he was “diligent and attentive,”21 give a sense of what he was like as a student. Eduard Gärtner’s 1831 painting of the Parochialstraße in Berlin offers an image of the city just a few years before Marx went to university there, near the neighborhood where he lived. In covering the history of Trier, his provincial Prussian hometown, Heinrich produces passing descriptions by luminaries like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernst von Schiller.22 These quotes are swiftly supplemented by sociological data, however, that demonstrate the degree to which modern class society had already begun to impinge on the quaint “Biedermeier idyll” around this time.23 Other records Heinrich uses are more well known, detailing Marx’s drunken escapades and numerous debts.24

Some of the more controversial claims may be reserved for later volumes, especially regarding the purported epistemological break(s) in Marx’s thought. Ever since Althusser demarcated the “young” Marx from the “mature” Marx back in the 1960s, clearly preferring the latter to the former, this has been a hotly disputed topic.25 Heinrich has long been adamant that there were multiple ruptures—i.e., “discontinuities, interruptions, and new beginnings”26—over the course of his career, whether or not he acknowledged them himself. “Marx’s work is not just a torso; it is a succession of torsos,” Heinrich explains in the introduction. “It consists of a continuous sequence of attempts that were broken off… These different approaches contain not only thematic shifts and substantive tangents, but also, again and again, …breaks with previous [theoretical] conceptions.”27 Incompleteness is one of Heinrich’s dominant motifs in all his works on Marx, though he was not the first to notice this about him. Arnold Ruge, Marx’s fellow editor at the Rheinische Zeitung, thus complained in 1844 that “he finishes nothing, cuts off everything and plunges himself ever afresh into an endless sea of books. He always wants to write on what he has just read, but then he always reads wider and makes new excerpts. I still think it possible he will produce a really big and truly abstruse book, into which he will shove everything he has been piling up.”28

Already in the first installment of his Marx biography, Heinrich identifies a transition in the young man’s thinking that took place around 1837. This had to do with an “idealistic” belief in the potential for poetry to bring about social change: “improving the world and humanity by means of art, by contrasting, poetically, the bad ‘is’ with the better ‘ought.’ ”29 Heinrich even analyzes some of Marx’s youthful poems, which other biographers for the most part either ignore or downplay as an embarrassment. Marx was certainly no Heine,30 whom he would befriend after moving to Paris, but Heinrich notes a marked improvement in his verse over the period of a few years. In so doing, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society challenges the judgment passed by the famed socialist literary critic and Marx biographer Franz Mehring, who dismissed these poetic efforts as unremarkable juvenilia.31 Regardless, he abandoned them following his conversion to Hegelianism in Berlin, and in this Heinrich plausibly speculates that Marx was inspired by Hegel’s famous critique of the Romantics.32 The book provides an outstanding summary of key elements of the Hegelian philosophy, which were so pivotal to his intellectual development.33 Since Hegel died in 1831, Marx was forced to learn about it through intermediaries. Particularly important here was the influence of Eduard Gans, a close friend of the late philosopher, whose lectures on international law would counterbalance those of the archconservative Friedrich Carl von Savigny on jurisprudence.34 Based on his studies, Marx tried to draft a legal treatise but ultimately decided to scrap it.35

Volume I of Karl Marx and the Birth of the Modern World covers everything from his childhood and upbringing to his courtship of and engagement to Jenny von Westphalen,36 leaving off with him joining the Doctor’s Club.37 Finally, Heinrich closes by going over his 1841 dissertation on Epicureanism.38 Keeping up the same level of detail for the better-documented portions of Marx’s life might require additional volumes, or at the very least much longer ones than the first. If Heinrich is forced to revise his original plan for a four-volume biography, it could almost be seen as an object lesson in the thesis he has elsewhere advanced (with regard to Capital, specifically) about the revisions that any planned series of books must inevitably undergo in execution.39 However many there may be, this is a promising start to this project. The present reviewer’s German is far too rudimentary to assess the overall fidelity of the translation, but suffice it to say that Heinrich’s crystalline prose shines through. Sadly, typos and editorial oversights are scattered throughout the text, rendering a disservice to both the author and his translator. One hopes that a reprint will eventually be issued with these errata corrected, and that the sequels will not be delayed.40

  1. The following biographies were in English: John Spargo (1910), E.H. Carr (1934), Karl Korsch (1938), Isaiah Berlin (1939), John Lewis (1965), Robert Payne (1968), David McLellan (1973), Saul Padover (1980), Francis Wheen (2001), Vincent Barnett (2009), Mary Gabriel (2011), Paul Thomas (2012), Jonathan Sperber (2013), Gareth Stedman-Jones (2016). Others have received English translations: Franz Mehring (German, 1918), Achille Loria (Italian, 1919), Otto Rühle (German, 1926), David Riazanov (Russian, 1927), Boris Nikolaievsky & Otto Mänchen-Helfen (German, 1933), Leopold Schwarzschild (German, 1954), Maximilien Rubel (French, 1957), Werner Blumenberg (German, 1962), Petr Fedoseev (Russian, 1968), Heinrich Genkow (German, 1968), Rolf Hosfeld (German, 2009), Sven-Eric Liedman (Swedish, 2015), Marcello Musto (Italian, 2016). Heinrich counts more than thirty in all.↩︎
  2. Paul Mattick, “Trend and Cycle,” Theory as Critique: Essays on Capital (Boston, MA: Brill Publishers, 2018), 229–232. In 2013, there was a roundtable on an article by Heinrich which included a critique by Guglielmo Carchedi and Michael Roberts, a response by Shane Mage, and another critique by Fred Moseley. Heinrich then answered his critics.↩︎
  3. Karl Reitter feels the term is too broadly applied, and the editors of Viewpoint add that “the bête noire of the new reading… cannot be so readily dismissed.” Reinhard Jellen, “ ‘There is a Tendency to Fetishize the Fetish’: An Interview with Karl Reitter” [5 September 2015], translated by Kelly Mulvaney, Viewpoint Magazine, 6 October 2015.↩︎
  4. Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Capital [2004], translated by Alexander Locascio (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2012), 48–52.↩︎
  5. Ibid., 35–36, 96, 102–103, 129, 220.↩︎
  6. Michael Heinrich, How to Read Marx’s Capital: Commentary and Explanations on the Beginning Chapters [2018], translated by Alexander Locascio (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2021).↩︎
  7. Ingo Elbe, “Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms: Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory” [2010], translated by Alexander Locascio, Viewpoint Magazine, 21 October 2013.↩︎
  8. Generally, Heinrich rates Althusser’s writings from the sixties on the scientific revolution inaugurated by Marx higher than those of the seventies, which he sees as a regression to crude “standpoint logic.” Michael Heinrich, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert: Die Marxsche Kritik der politischen Ökonomie zwischen wissenschaftlicher Revolution und klassischer Tradition [1999] (Münster: Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2014), 17, 25, 45–46, 87, 122, 143–144.↩︎
  9. According to a recent interview this was supposed to happen in 2021, but there have been no further updates. Kathrin Witter, “Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: An Interview with Michael Heinrich,” translated by Anselm Meyer and Jacob Blumenfeld, Journal of the History of Ideas, 25 November 2021.↩︎
  10. Michael Heinrich, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society [2018], translated by Alexander Locascio (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2019), 24–30.↩︎
  11. Marx would maintain in 1865 that Proudhon’s Qu’est-ce que la propriété? was of “epoch-making” significance, standing “in approximately the same relation to Saint-Simon and Fourier as Feuerbach stands to Hegel.” See Karl Marx, “On Proudhon” [24 January 1865], translated by Barrie Selman (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1985), 26.↩︎
  12. Heinrich, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society, 323–340.↩︎
  13. Ibid., 16–22. Geoff Eley makes a similar point in his review of Sperber’s biography. “Exile to the Ages (Or, Returning Karl Marx to Our Time),” Los Angeles Review of Books, 28 October 2013.↩︎
  14. Heinrich, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society, 54–56.↩︎
  15. Ibid., 31–32.↩︎
  16. One noted that “the materialist study of history is of course subject to the very laws of historical motion that it itself lays down. It is the product of historical development; it could not have been imagined in any earlier period by even the most brilliant mind. The secret of the history of mankind could only be unveiled when a certain historical level had been reached.” Franz Mehring, On Historical Materialism [1893], translator unlisted (London: New Park Publications, 1975), 5.↩︎
  17. Heinrich, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society, 47–51, 59–66, 111–113.↩︎
  18. Ibid., 68–83.↩︎
  19. Ibid., 91–101.↩︎
  20. Ibid., 228–251. At least one reviewer has chosen to focus on this aspect of the biography. See Chris Byron, “Review of Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society,” 3 June 2020, Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.↩︎
  21. Heinrich, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society, 126.↩︎
  22. Ibid., 39–40.↩︎
  23. Ibid., 42–46.↩︎
  24. For information regarding his arrest for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, see ibid., 132–133; for information regarding his financial difficulties, see ibid., 123, 216–218.↩︎
  25. One of Heinrich’s Swedish disciples remarks: “To Althusser’s credit, he did place Marx’s works in separate periods, thus ensuring that they were no longer read as a single coherent system… Althusser’s mistakes were basically two. The one was that, however right he was in establishing that Marx in 1845, in Theses on Feuerbach and in The German Ideology, broke with the anthropological conceptions inspired by Feuerbach that were contained in the Manuscripts, he was wrong in considering Marx’s break from his earlier views to apply as well to Hegel. This error led to Althusser’s underestimation of the strong effect that Hegel’s conceptions had on the method and structure of Capital. Instead, Althusser’s own concepts of overdetermination and metonymic causality, redundant in this context, came to the fore. Althusser’s second mistake was that, although he correctly identified another, much more essential break that Marx made, some ten years later, with classical political economics (a break that can be dated to the period of the writing of Grundrisse in 1857–1858), Althusser subordinates this to the ‘epistemological break’ of 1845, a time when Marx was preoccupied with entirely different problems. This second error had the effect of making Marx appear to be something of a universal genius in the sense of his in some mysterious way continually antedating his own arduously gained insights.” Anders Ramsay, “Marx? Which Marx?” [2008], translated by Michelle Koerner and Steven Cuzner, Eurozine, 21 December 2009.↩︎
  26. Michael Heinrich, Capital after the MEGA: Discontinuities, Interruptions, and New Beginnings” [2011], translated by Cindy Zeiher, Crisis & Critique, Volume 3, № 3: November 2016, 92–138.↩︎
  27. Heinrich, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society, 27.↩︎
  28. Arnold Ruge, “Letter to Max Dunker” [29 August 1844], translated by David McLellan, Karl Marx: Interviews and Recollections (New York, NY: The Macmillan Press, 1981), 8–9. Ruge and Marx had already fallen out by this point.↩︎
  29. Heinrich, Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society, 187.↩︎
  30. “That the literary products of a nineteen-year-old don’t at all approach those of a Heinrich Heine should not be surprising.” Ibid., 183–184.↩︎
  31. Heinrich points out that Mehring only had access, via Laura Marx, to two albums of Marx’s poetry. Other collections have subsequently come to light. Ibid., 175–177.↩︎
  32. Ibid., 189–196.↩︎
  33. Ibid., 150–159. Heinrich dispels the popular myth that Hegel was a thinker with his head in the clouds. Surprisingly, on page 155 he even conducts an analysis of a celebrated portrait of the philosopher that he believes has contributed to this mistaken view.↩︎
  34. Ibid., 160–169.↩︎
  35. Ibid., 170–172.↩︎
  36. On his family life, see ibid., 109–111; on his friends from youth, see ibid., 113–116; on his relationship with Jenny, see ibid., 140–144; on her father’s mentorship of young Karl, see ibid., 83–91.↩︎
  37. Ibid., 289–292.↩︎
  38. Ibid., 293–317.↩︎
  39. Marx’s magnum opus was at first intended to have six volumes, divided into the following parts: “capital, landed property, wage-labor; the state, foreign trade, world market.” Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” [1859], translated by S.W. Ryazanskaya, Collected Works, Volume 29: 1857–1861 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1987), 261. For an in-depth look at the way his plan changed over time, see Henryk Grossman, “The Change in the Original Plan for Marx’s Capital and Its Causes” [1929], translated by Geoffrey McCormack, Collected Works, Volume 1: Essays and Letters on Economic Theory (Boston, MA: Brill, 2018), 183–209.↩︎
  40. In the heading of the odd pages from 57–115, it reads “forgotton youth.” The apostrophes on pages 83–85 are backwards. Andreas Reinke’s surname is misspelled “Reinecke” on page 48. Philip Konrad Marheineke’s surname is likewise misspelled as “Marheinke” on page 275, and then his first name is then misspelled in the index on page 388. On page 181, sentences like the following show up: “Although not everything that Mehring writes is wrong, but even in the early poems…” Either “although” or “but” should be eliminated. Many other examples could be adduced.↩︎

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