First, let me clarify something: yes, I do appreciate the awful irony in scouring a new biography of Karl Marx for productivity tips, as I found myself doing the other day. That's how entrenched my false consciousness is. Looking to Marx for advice on becoming a more efficient worker is roughly as absurd as seeking advice on running a profitable business from Jesus (radical socialist) or on people skills from Genghis Khan (genocidal warlord). Which is to say that someone will probably write a self-help treatise along those lines soon, since they've already done so with Jesus and Genghis Khan. In the meantime, we have Jonathan Sperber's Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, just published by Norton – which, as part of its attempt to portray Marx as a real human, lets us peer round the study door to watch him work. So do you want to know How To Be Productive And Creative, The Karl Marx Way? Are you sure? Because it's not pretty.
Whatever you make of his ideas, let alone their later proponents, it's undeniable that Marx was astonishingly prolific: an unfinished project to publish his and Friedrich Engels' complete works is reportedly expected to run to 120 volumes. Yet, Sperber shows, he worked in conditions of profound disorder. To chronic financial anxieties, exile and personal tragedies were added spectacularly stress-inducing work habits: long days and nights of frenzied reading and writing, followed by collapses into exhaustion; a total inability to meet deadlines, even when his family's wellbeing depended on it; the "impenetrable chaos of books and papers… that was his study"; an obsession with completeness, combined with an inability to resist plunging off into new projects before finishing others; his neglect of personal hygiene. Sperber quotes another historian: "As soon as he had written something down, it was Marx's habit to stand up and walk around the table, faster and faster, until something occurred to him, and he then sat down again to write." The more disciplined Engels berated his friend for being so easily distracted that he failed to fulfil his potential. A bit harsh, given that Marx's work proved moderately influential, but his frustration is understandable.
One could submit this to a Marxist reading: bohemian habits as a refusal to conform to the values of a society he sought to transform. A more mundane lesson is that some creative people thrive on chaos. Every pop-psychology nostrum about creativity – the importance of balance, of cultivating undistracted focus, of getting plenty of exercise – is undermined by the many chaotic creatives whose lives looked more like Marx's. From Sperber's account, it's clear that disarray and anxiety were what energised his work; his very lack of balance and calm are what enabled his originality and volume of output.
None of which means balance and calm aren't nicer ways to live, of course. It's just a reminder that, contrary to the message of virtually every currently popular book on how to "think like Leonardo", "train your brain" for creativity, "do great work", etcetera, the most creative work isn't a matter of methodically implementing certain techniques (and thus, the implication goes, within the reach of us all). Nor is it necessarily compatible with a peaceable life. You want creativity tips from Marx? Be constantly anxious, angry, underslept and broke. Why not try implementing this approach at your Silicon Valley startup, or your edgy Soho marketing agency? The effects could be revolutionary!