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Karl Marx: A Life Hardcover – May 1, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0393049237 ISBN-10: 039304923X Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (May 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039304923X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393049237
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #945,604 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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his ambitions as a revolutionary were frequently thwarted, and his major writings on politics and economics remained unpublished (in some cases until after the Second World War).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 even the most distinguished 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, beard, and the rest of his body. Unencumbered by ideological point scoring, this is a very readable, humorous, and sympathetic account. Wheen has an ear for juicy gossip and an eye for original detail. Marx comes across as a hell-raising bohemian, an intellectual bully, and a perceptive critic of capitalist chaos, but also a family man of Victorian conformity (personally vetting his daughters' suitors), Victorian ailments (carbuncles above all), and Victorian weaknesses (notably alcohol, tobacco, and, on occasion, his housekeeper). But there is great pathos, too, as Marx witnessed the deaths of four of his six children. For those readers who feel Marxism has given Marx a bad name, this is a rewarding and enlightening book. --Miles Taylor, Amazon.co.uk

From Publishers Weekly

"It is time to strip away the mythology," writes Wheen, "and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man." In the first major biography of Marx since the end of the Cold War, Wheen does just that as he looks for the man lurking behind the myths of both enemies and disciples, the misinterpretations and the academic jargon. What he finds is somebody who will suit nobody's purposes--Marx, Wheen argues, lived his life messily. He was neither a clearheaded revolutionary nor an unrepentant hypocrite, but he wasn't the anti-Christ either. More or less incapable of holding down a steady, salaried job, he mooched off of his selfless wife, Jenny (an aristocrat fallen on hard times), and his well-to-do ideological partner, Friedrich Engels, and spent his time obsessively writing unreadable, unmarketable economics tracts. He also spent a good deal of time preaching the imminent revolution of the masses (with whom he appears to have had little affinity). Following Marx from his childhood in Trier, Germany, through his exile in London, Wheen, a columnist for the British Guardian, takes readers from hovel to grand house, from the International Working Man's Association to Capital, from obscurity to notoriety and back again. (Only 11 mourners attended Marx's funeral.) The narrative veers unsteadily from scorn to admiration for the bearded philosopher. Wheen begins by jeering at Marx's cantakerousness and ends by lauding him as a prophet and a brave survivor of poverty and exile. In the end, Wheen's breezy, colorful portrayal is as eccentric as its subject. 16 pages of illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

If you're interested in Marx-the-man, this is the book to read.
Poe Poe Poe
This is often done to Marxists because authors don't want to show what the theory of Marxism is.
Hoka Hey
Marx comes across as being very much more a man than a monster!
Frances E. Kinsella

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By E. Payne on May 2, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In the wake of fresh evidence (the near-fatal financial melt-down of 2007-2010) that whatever else capitalism may be it is not eternally rational, I read two biographies of Marx: the well-regarded one by David McLellan and this one. (Just to insure I wasn't inspired to immediately rush out and storm the barricades, I read a biography of William F. Buckley Jr in-between.)

In my opinion this biography is superior to the one by McLellan. Yes, McLellan attempts to push the reader into the depths of Marx's very deep thoughts, often with soporific effect. On these matters Wheen skates far more lightly. But for background a reader might be better served by reading the Wikipedia articles on Hegel and Dialectics. And Marx neatly summarized the key concepts he spread over thousands of maddening pages of "Das Kapital" in a 30 page address to working men entitled "Value, Price and Profit" (1865). Proof that, like William Faulkner, Marx could express himself in a straight-forward manner on those rare occasions when he chose to do so.

If Marx's ideas are better explored elsewhere, then the proper subject of a biography should be his life and times--and it is in this realm that Wheen shines. But beware: if you have an aversion to droll wit, go elsewhere. When describing Europe on the eve of the stillborn proletarian revolution of 1848, the author cribs a line from Bob Dylan, "There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air." Marx in his prime could unleash wit as well as massive erudition at his (many) opponents. So I find it nice that the author is similarly inclined--even when the target is occasionally his subject.

Wheen clearly has a fondness and respect for Marx, but this never descends into mere hagiography.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Chad Bagley on September 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Enjoyable and witty read on the life of Karl Marx. If I have any complaints it's that when I finished the book I still didn't have a very good grasp of his economic and political philosophy or how he came to his conclusions within a historical context. Nevertheless, Francis Wheen does give a good view of Marx's family life and helps to clear up some common misconceptions about Mark's overall character.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Frances E. Kinsella on April 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is the first book to describe Marx as a person, a father, husband, friend and individual. Previous books have focused on his theories and/or philosophy. Thus they describe him as a genius or a devil depending on the author's political persausion. Well worth reading. Full of humour, and interesting anecdotes. Marx comes across as being very much more a man than a monster!
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Thomas J. Brucia on June 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book is chilling reading. It is difficult to put one's finger on the reason why. Perhaps because Karl Marx (1818-1883) was always a distant person - even while he lived As Marxism flickers out, Wheen takes us back in time to find the "historical Marx". A solid grounding in 19th century European history will make reading this work a lot more interesting. Wheen's book is whimsical, eclectic, comprehensive, and humorous, but it presupposes a knowledge of the 19th and 20th century European revolutionary and political history which is rapidly fading from our 21st century minds. This book dwells as much on Marx's family life as on his political life. ----Wheen's work is filled with fascinating anecdotes. It does not explain Karl Marx, but this man was so complicated that no one (including himself) may have ever understood his motivations. He was a family man, deeply devoted to his wife and six children, four of whom died before he did. (The other two who took their own lives!) On the other hand he quarreled with and was hated by scores - if not hundreds - of former friends. Karl Marx was not a likeable man. This book uncovers hundreds of gems about his life that most persons who studied "Marxism" or "Communism" would never stumble on: for example, the moves in a chess game he played in 1867 (he lost!). That he was precocious, to the point of being expelled from Prussia, France, and Belgium - each time by royal order - before he reached 30 years of age. While many are vaguely aware of Marx's friendship with Friedrich Engels, how many know that it began when Marx was 26 and Engels was 23? Or that Engels was one of only 11 persons present at Marx's funeral 37 years later! Wheen has done an excellent job on a very difficult topic!
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44 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Ralph H. Peters on May 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a highly-readable account of the life of a genuinely unpleasant and selfish man who changed the world. I have read several biographies of Marx, as well as wading through Das Kapital in the original, but none has done such a fine job of bringing the man himself to life. Wheen's research is excellent, and his prose, though sometimes just a bit too colloquial, is refreshingly cant free and smooth. I would gladly have given this entertaining (isn't it remarkable that a book about Marx can be called "entertaining?") book five stars, but the author has one flaw that ultimately becomes laughable. After repeatedly reporting what a noxious beast and vicious betrayer of friends and human trust Marx was his entire adult life, Wheen invariably hastens to excuse Marx and assure us that he was actually a lovely, pleasant, hearty, generous prankster of a fellow. The author has been seduced by his subject, and Marx, who did much wrong, can do no wrong for Wheen. All others are disparaged with relish (poor old Bakunin gets even worse than he deserves, and every other Socialist, anarchist, would-be Communist--even Engels--must be tramped down so Marx the noble soul can be elevated). Well, too much complaint. This is a good and useful book, taken with a few dozen grains of salt. And Francis Wheen did bring the selfish old self-centered huckster to life, while providing a sort of Marx For Dummies explanation of what the man wrote. Paradoxically, this book works best for someone who has already been through a good bit of Marx, and who also enjoys some familiarity of with the work and lives of his contemporaries--that way the text adds to one's knowledge while allowing for a bit of discrimination when Wheen starts gushing about Marx's underlying goodness. Reading carefully, one gets a fine picture of the man; reading without wit or context, the portrait of Marx becomes whoppingly distorted.
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