Karl Marx, writes Jonathan Sperber in this splendid new biography, was “a true and loyal friend, but a vehement and hateful enemy”. To be in his small circle was to feel part of something historic, but also to be exposed to constant critical scrutiny. Once he feared for his political reputation, Marx let no politesse hold him back. One close colleague, Karl Liebknecht, remembered him as “the most accessible of men … cheerful and amiable in personal relations”. It was as well, perhaps, that Liebknecht remained unaware of his sniping remarks about him in private letters. Marx’s closest friendship was with Friedrich Engels, a man many found to be extremely off-putting in person: strongheaded, rather vain and arrogant. It may be that his buddy relationship with Engels licensed Marx to ditch responsible leadership and blow off steam, and their mutual correspondence is certainly full of unedifying abuse of almost everyone they knew. But it is Marx’s ability to inspire loyalty and awed respect that comes through most clearly from the recollections of those who knew him.
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