Karl Marx: A Life Essay, Research Paper
Karl Marx: A Life. Francis Wheen. New York: Norton, 1999. 431pp
There were only 11 mourners at Karl Marx s funeral in Highgate cemetery on March 17th 1883, but within a hundred years of his death governments that professed Marxism as their guiding faith ruled half the world s population. Not since Jesus Christ has an obscure pauper inspired such global devotion or so been so calamitously misinterpreted. (p.1) It is easy to forget that Marx was also human. Neither his enemies nor his disciples have been willing to admit as much: in the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin he was declared a saint, while the West demonized him as the father of all evil. In Francis Wheen s Karl Marx: A Life he presents Marx as an intricate and vulnerable figure, a Prussian refugee who, in Wheen’s words, became a middle-class English gentleman; an angry agitator who spent much of his adult life in the scholarly silence of the British Museum Reading Room; a gregarious and convivial host who fell out with almost all his friends; a devoted family man who impregnated his housemaid; and a deeply earnest philosopher who loved drink, cigars and jokes. He was a prodigal son to whom his mother said, I wish you would make some capital instead of just writing about it. The permanently impoverished pamphleteer was inordinately proud of his wife’s aristocratic background, the father grieving bitterly over the loss of his child, the player of the stock market forever plagued by boils on the bum and tension headaches that paralyzed him for days. Unlike the legion of biographers who have dealt primarily with Marxist economic theory, it is Wheen’s goal to avoid another lengthy volume on class struggle, dialectical materialism and the triumph of the proletariat. Instead, the author is drawn to the more human aspect of the father of Communism in an attempt to demolish the myths that obscure the man behind the theories. Wheen does, however, acknowledge Marx’s lifelong assault on capitalism through his chapters on The Communist Manifesto, arguably one of the most influential political pamphlets ever published, and on the monumental undertaking that would eventually lead to Das Kapital.
It is not the Wheen’s goal to demonize or discover keys to Marx’s behavior; rather, it is to reveal his true nature as an individual who was genuinely human. Wheen gives the reader glimpses into the Marx household and the domestic, day-to-day side of this great intellectual, who was also a stern patriarch toward his wife and six children in their cramped north London apartment. Marx is caricatured as either a wild eyed revolutionary lunatic or a dry academic who spent his life in the British Museum. He did spend many years researching political economy, but his life was also punctuated by intense periods of political activity. He was hounded from country to country because of his agitation in support of the democratic revolutions of 1848.
The defeat of the revolutions of 1848 was a turning point that affected the whole working class across Europe. Marx withdrew from active politics for much of the dismal 1850s as a consequence. But he sprang back into activity with the revival of radical politics in the 1860s. The formation of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864 ushered in a period of frenetic activity. Marx was the central figure of the International until its demise following the defeat of the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx hated hypocrisy, stupidity, gross arbitrariness and bowing and scraping. He found it frustrating to be forced to fight with pinpricks instead of clubs. When Marx’s children submitted him to a parlor game questionnaire, he responded that his idea of happiness was to fight, his idea of misery was submission and the vice he most detested was servility.
Financially, Karl Marx lived a life of dependence. There is the endless cadging from relatives and friends (from Friedrich Engels especially, who stole petty sums from his family firm to support Marx) that was unaccompanied by any serious attempt on Marx’s part to find employment. When he did undertake paid assignments, from the New York Daily Tribune and, later, the American Cyclopaedia, it was Engels often wrote the articles. The Marx family was constantly in debt and hiding from its creditors. All gifts of money that he did receive were invariably squandered, leaving him and his family bereft and seeking yet more handouts. In spite of all of the financial difficulties that Marx had he remained a devoted family man to his wife and children throughout his life. He frolicked and picnicked with his daughters, read and declaimed to them his favorite passages from Shakespeare, and was genuinely concerned about their well-being. Yet he had no regard at all for his own mother, brothers, or sisters, whom he publicly ignored and privately derided. It is remarkable that the Marx s marriage survived the hardships and the disorders that plagued them: the moves from one city to another as they were expelled from one or another (Paris, Brussels, Paris again, Cologne, and yet again Paris, all in half a dozen years) and later, when they were settled in London, from one lodging to another (this time for financial reasons); the ailments that plagued both of them and the premature deaths of three of their children; the humiliating expeditions abroad to wheedle money from relatives; the lifelong reliance upon Engels for their sustenance and upon their maid “Lenchen” (Helene Demuth) for bringing whatever semblance of order there was in the household.
He also sees Marx s relevance for today. Wheen writes, The more I studied Marx, the more astoundingly topical he seemed to be. Today’s pundits and politicians who fancy themselves as modern thinkers like to mention the buzzword globalization at every opportunity without realizing Marx was already on the case in 1848. To those who reject Marx’s economic analysis he cites the boom-bust cycles of western economies in the 20th century , and the globe girdling dominance of Bill Gates Microsoft . And he urges Marx’s critics, including Tony Blair, to read Marx s Paris manuscripts, which reveal the workings of a ceaselessly inquisitive, subtle and undogmatic mind. Wheen is less good when explaining Marx s ideas. They are all too often trivialized instead of seriously examined. The reader can be left mystified by the two paragraph long explanation of how Marx developed a dialectical framework from Hegel: An idea, stripped naked, has a passionate grapple with its antithesis, from which a new synthesis is created; this in turn becomes the new thesis, to be duly seduced by a new demon lover. Two wrongs may make a right, but, soon after its birth, that right becomes another wrong which must be subjected to the same intimate scrutiny as its forebears, and thus we go forward. One would never know, from Wheen’s three-page account of the Communist Manifesto, that Marx’s prediction about the world market was integrally related to his prediction about revolution, for that would be achieved when capitalism was at its highest point of development, at which time the contradictions of capitalism would inevitably lead to revolution. One of these contradictions, and the most dramatic part of the Manifesto, involved the proletariat. For as industry progressed, Marx insisted, so the proletariat would regress: The modern laborer, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. It is a memorable portrait of the proletariat that emerges here: a class enslaved by the bourgeois system of labor, made into a commodity and appendage of the machine, stripped of every trace of national character and of such other bourgeois prejudices as law, morality, and religion, their families torn asunder and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor, and their wives nothing more than prostitutes. This impoverishment or degradation thesis that has haunted readers of the Communist Manifesto and troubled commentators for a century but not Wheen, who does not mention it in his account of the document. The fact that the Communist Manifesto is only referred to passively throughout the entire text was a large stain on the biography. When the reader begins to read the manifesto section on the book he or she can become excited, as it is a thoroughly interesting subject. But in just a few pages it was over and the reader can feel very surprised at the briefness of the explanation. The feeling of disappointment was felt throughout the biography, as there would be an odd mention of the Communist Manifesto here and there, but never did Wheen discuss in detail the full meaning of it. As it was a biography on Marx, it is understandable that the reader would come to expect an explanation.
Another weakness in the book was the reader could find it difficult to get a grasp on what time period Wheen is in. In one paragraph Wheen could be discussing one of Marx s theories and then in the next sentence Wheen would try to give his analysis on the theory. Only when he uses an example of something modern, such as McDonald s, can the reader realize that it is Wheen speaking and not Marx. This error occurred numerous times throughout the novel and was quite a nuisance. But for the most part biography did, as expected, go in chronological order events that happened in his life.
Wheen diligently lists Marx’s foibles, which there were many, is well able to describe what Marx said, what Marx did; but he never manages to pry open Marx’s inner world, does not attempt to explore what Marx felt or infer what he might have thought. Since we don’t approach Marx’s emotional life, we also never glimpse him in any psychological depth. Even Jenny, his wife and stalwart confidante, appears more as scenery than as major cast member. Wheen does succeed in painting Marx vividly human in some ways. But he’s far too preoccupied with frivolity, with recounting Marx’s alcoholic high jinks, discoursing on his flatulence and boil-ridden penis. Often Wheen portrays tragedy as mere mockery and is surprisingly unsympathetic toward a man who had four children predecease him (The two survivors, Eleanor and Laura, later committed suicide).
The target audience for Wheen s biography would probably be for 40+ age demographic. Wheen does not seem to have any shockingly new information about Marx so his book would not be steered to Marxists. Wheen basically tried to give an insight to Marx that had not been written about yet: Marx as a human being. Karl Marx: A Life was not a terribly difficult read, it was rather dull as it was repetitive. Marx was constantly begging for money from Engels, distant relatives, or whomever else would help him out, and Wheen, for some reason (maybe to show off his research), felt it necessary to make an account of exactly how much money he received and when. The constant bombardment of numbers lost its effect very quickly and the reader can lose interest rapidly as well. Since it was a biography, Wheen could only pick and choose where his personal insight could be the most effective. This did not hurt the overall impact of the book, but it did not help it either. To make the biography more interesting Wheen could have discussed his views more frequently.
Karl Marx, whose influence on modern times has been compared to that of Jesus Christ, spent most of his lifetime in obscurity. Penniless, exiled in London, estranged from relations and on the run from most of the police forces of Europe, his ambitions as a revolutionary were frequently thwarted and his major writings on politics and economics remained unpublished (in some cases until after the Second World War). He has not lacked biographers, but most have been more interested in the evolution of his ideas than any other aspect of his life. Francis Wheen’s fresh, lively and moving biography of Marx considers the whole man: brain, body, and beard. This is a very readable, humorous and sympathetic account of the life of Karl Marx. Yes, it is good to remind people that the class struggle still exists, but then you only have to take a look at what is going on in the current world to see that.