With five novels and multiple essays published alongside a stint on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Jonathan Sperber is much more than a professor at the University of Missouri. Sperber is a historian with extensive knowledge on European revolutions and Karl Marx, which is in the same vein of his latest novel, "Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life."
Jeremy Brunger: Karl Marx is a name to which is attached much opprobrium in the United States. I'll posit that most of his lay detractors have not read much of his scholarly work beyond, perhaps, "The Communist Manifesto." The academic community appears to be the only community that sees his work not as a series of failed ideologies, but rather as a source of intellectual inspiration. Why do you think the schism between popular opinion and academic interpretation is so vast in his case?
Jonathan Sperber: Interest in Marx in American academia is, ultimately, a product of the student radicalism of the 1960s — both from those who actually experienced the 60s and younger people who wished they had. Hostility to Marx among other Americans reflects the age of the Cold War, when Marxism was the official ideology of the national enemy. Among younger people, who have grown up after the Cold War, I do not find particular hostility to Marx and Marxism; for most of them, Marx is just another figure of the distant past.
JB: Do you think either the popular or the academic study of economics will continue along orthodox lines or will it rhizomatically branch off into new Marxisms, new Austrian Schools, new syntheses of development?
JS: I am not an economist and do not play one on TV, in spite of my appearance with Jon Stewart. But I have been struck by the way that the global economic crisis of 2008 did not lead most economists — there are admirable exceptions — to question their basic assumptions. This does rather suggest that neo-classical economic theory will continue to be the dominant form of economic thought.
JB: You say that biography is a "new genre" for you. Was it a difficult form to adopt? Was it tough to reconcile Marx's reputation with the living, though now dead, theorist of society?
JS: As a social historian, someone whose scholarly development was heavily affected by Thompson and by the writers of the Annales school, I was, for a long time, an adherent of studying masses of people, often not very articulate, and trying to elucidate their views of the world. The idea of writing a biography of Marx grew out of work I had done in that vein, especially the history I wrote of the revolution of 1848 in western Germany and another book on family, property and the law in the 19th century. I tried to understand Marx's life, his political activities and his theories in the light of the 19th century society I had been investigating.
JB: What are your opinions on world-systems theory and how it relates to social history and the economic zeitgeist now expressing itself amongst Western youth? Capital continues to inspire thought and praxis in numerous fields. Do you think it bears out a good relation with, say, the work of Wallerstein? Or is it a relic?
JS: Lately, I have become increasingly interested in global history, which I think is a key to understanding the recent past, say the decades since the end of the Second World War. I can't say that I'm very impressed with world-systems theory, though.
JB: Is the university all that it once was, or are the nay-sayers correct when they say it has somehow devolved? And finally, is the hubbub about the crisis of the humanities spot-on or merely the product of gloomers and pessimists?
JS: From the mid-1970s onward, American academia has been struggling with problems of under-funding and a job crisis for Ph.D.s. Since this "crisis" has lasted for 40 years, it's probably not a crisis any more, but a chronic condition. The advice I give undergraduates who are contemplating going to graduate school and interested in a scholarly and academic career is only to do it if they deeply, deeply love their scholarly subject and cannot imagine living without it. If they think otherwise, the long-lasting economic difficulties, then the risks of unemployment, the modest income most academics enjoy – especially compared to other members of the professional and managerial class – and the generally depressing atmosphere of graduate school are just not worth it.
Jeremy Brunger is a senior in English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.