Karl Marx: A Biography; Fourth Edition Paperback – Illustrated, April 12, 2006
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'David McLellan's Karl Marx has been the standard English biography of Marx since its publication. The reappearance of this admirably balanced work in a new and updated edition is to be warmly welcomed.' - Eric Hobsbawm, FBA, Emeritus Professor, Birkbeck, University of London, UK
Reviews of the previous edition:
'An authoritative and thorough re-creation of Marx's life and thought - and the interaction between the two...undoubtedly the best one-volume biography of the great man in existence.' - Sunday Times
'It could be said that the biographers have only changed Marx in various ways; the point is to interpret him - and McLellan has filled a very real gap in doing this as fairly as he can...he has produced the most up-to-date, well-informed, reliable and sensible biography so far.' - New Society
About the Author
- ASIN : 1403997306
- Publisher : Palgrave Macmillan; 4th edition (April 12, 2006)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 502 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9781403997302
- ISBN-13 : 978-1403997302
- Item Weight : 1.44 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 1.18 x 8.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,991,433 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Furthermore, in each of those spheres, there isn't a lot of explanation. If you don't already have a fairly good grasp of Marx's ideas, you won't get it here. Likewise, McLellan is content to leave Marx's personality quite enigmatic. He gives a number of startling details that for a brief moment humanize him, but the overall impression the book gives is that it is hard to say anything firm about his personality or `what he was like' other than he was difficult. It's telling, I think, that the book ends with seven first-hand descriptions of him told from the viewpoints of people who knew he in very different ways.
The biography gives some context to Marx but it doesn't really do anything with it. For instance, Marx made numerous errors in his historical analyses and that leads to interesting questions about why. Were his sources off? Did he project his theory onto them? Did he misunderstand the statistics he was looking at? Likewise, some of his predictions about the future dynamics of capitalism read like the manuscripts were forgeries based off of today's headlines. The sheer eeriness of those would, I'd think, attract a biographer's attention.
Overall, the word that keeps coming to mind is `serviceable'. This biography gives you the basics of his life (on the assumption that you already have a sense of his ideas). It's not tainted by, say, imposing a Freudian interpretation on the subject matter. But then again, it's not going to give great insight into it either.
If the other three biographies on my list had not been published, Jonathan Sperber's KARL MARX: A NINETEENTH-CENTURY LIFE would easily be considered the finest book on the subject. Sperber, unlike his other biographers, is not a Marxist so much as a historian, his specialty being Nineteenth Century Germany HIstory. His strength is his ability to situate Marx in his century as a whole. His weakness is not providing an especially profound rendering of Marx's thought. It is a splendid biography, but if you are looking for an intellectual biography you should look elsewhere.
Francis Wheen's KARL MARX has established itself as the best short biography of Marx, as well as perhaps the best introduction to Marx as a personality. It is also the most fun of any of the other books under consideration here. If your concern is reading a shorter, entertaining biography rather than an in depth study of his life as a thinker, this is definitely the book to read.
I find it impossible to recommend only one biography as the best on Marx. We are lucky to have two absolutely stellar full-length biographies on the so-called founder of Communism (though it would be more accurate to call him the founder of Capitalism, even though he disagreed with it, since there was no real conception of what we now think of as Capitalism prior to Marx, not even Adam Smith in THE WEALTH OF NATIONS, which dealt with Smith's notion of the ideal form of market activity; he certainly had no systematic theory in mind). So call this a two way tie for first place.
Gareth Stedman Jones a few years ago produced what in my mind is the very best edition of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO in English. The value of his new version of the Penguin Classics edition lay as much in his gigantic preface, which was not too far short of 200 pages in length. Stedman Jones provided a degree of historical depth and context not seen in any previous edition of the book. The preface could have been published as a stand alone work and it would have been one of the finest book on Marx published in recent years. Given that there are dozens and dozens of editions of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, it would be an impressive accomplishment if one took precedent over any other edition, but I believe that that is precisely what Stedman Jones has achieved. If you don't own the more recent Penguin edition, edited by Stedman Jones, you should get it immediately. If you know that edition, then it would be accurate to say that Stedman Jones's KARL MARX: GREATNESS AND ILLUSION, is precisely what you would expect of the biographical equivalent of his preface for THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. It is a huge biography and he goes into depth on many aspects of Marx's thought not previously achieved by any other biographer. While the biography is essential for any student of Marx, it isn't perfect. I think he under appreciates the importance of Marx's works on the historical events in France of 1870 and 1871. He also neglects to a degree much of Marx's later work as a whole. Nonetheless, this is a very important biography of the first rank and should be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in Marx.
Recently we saw the publication in English of a biography on Marx that had appeared in Swedish by Sven-Eric Liedman, entitled A WORLD TO WIN: THE LIFE AND WORKS OF KARL MARX. As with Stedman Jones's biography, this is a book of many virtues to go along with some significant vices. Like Stedman Jones's biography, this should be in the library of everyone who considers themselves a student of Marx's work. Unlike any of the other books listed here, Liedman excels at showing precisely why Marx is such an important thinker, indeed why he can be considered one of the two or three towering figures of the past two centuries. Despite its length, his biography is nearly as enjoyable as Wheen's, despite being focused less on Marx the person than Marx the thinker. While he does not go into Marx's thought in the depth that Stedman Jones's does in many places, he does a magnificent job of looking at Marx's thought from his pre-revolutionary period all the way through the final economic and revolutionary writings. I've learned a great deal from this book, despite having read several other biographies - some not mentioned here. I have to confess that I read this book with a degree of excitement that was missing from the reading of any of the other books mentioned in this review. The biggest problem with the book are the endnotes. This shouldn't have been the case. The endnotes are frequently wonderful and profoundly informative. I found myself scribbling down the name of several books mentioned there, and the effects of this book will be felt for some time in the future through the additional titles he mentions. However, the notes are a mess. The copyeditor - if the book even had a copyeditor - left a host of books originally written in English sourced in the Swedish translation. A host of other books written in either German or French were also cited in Swedish. I copyedited around 30 books while in grad school, nearly all of them academic titles, so I know a bit about whereof I speak. The rule a book published in English is this: for a book in English translation, if a work cited originally appeared in English, you much cite the book in the English edition, even if the writer initially cites the book in their own language. Furthermore, if the writer a work in another language, but an English translation exists, you should cite the English translation. And if the author cites a translation in her or his language for which an English language translation exists, you should cite the English translation. The same should hold true for copyeditors in other languages, but all of this holds especially true in a book originally written in a language that is not widely spoken, like Swedish. To cite a book in Swedish for someone in the United States or Great Britain is essentially to mean that you can never track down that citation. No American library is going to stock a Swedish translation of a philosophy book originally written in English or German or French, not even huge collections like at Harvard, Yale, the University of Illinois, or the University of Texas (at one point I believe that those were the four largest university libraries in America - I had a carel on the 6th floor of Yale for three years and I don't believe that I ever saw a Swedish translation of any philosophy book; I don't believe I ever saw a German or French or Spanish translation of a work of philosophy, or for that matter any subject). The end result is that endnotes are an amazing resource for anyone doing in depth work on Marx as a philosopher, but that they are such a mess that they are a source of endless frustration. On a few dozen occasions I found Liedman bringing up a writer or scholar whose book I wanted to know more about, where I had to do additional work to see if a translation into English exists, and if not, what the original language of the work might be. I believe Liedman's biography to be a great book, but it was needlessly marred. And advice to whoever copyedited this book: before taking on a copyediting project, negotiate a flat fee rather than an hourly pay rate. I preferred asking for $750 or $900 (depending on the size of the manuscript) and then doing additional work in the library to correct errors like in the endnotes of this book. I took a huge amount of additional effort to make sure a manuscript was as perfect as possible, but I knew the publisher was going to squawk at paying me for the additional ten hours I spend cleaning up a bibliography or footnotes. Still, this rates as one of the most exciting books that I've read in a while, and not just on Marx.
Note: There is one other book to consider. Isaiah Berlin was not sympathetic towards Marx nor especially Marxism. He was born in Russia, but his family was exiled from the country during the Revolution, and like many other ex-patriots was not kindly disposed towards or even particularly interested in Karl Marx. But in the 1930s it was widely assumed that the Communist Revolution in Russia was intimately connected with the thought of Karl Marx (Marx, in fact, would have been horrified to see his name in any way connected to it; not only did the Soviet Union violate his passionate belief in democratic government and his hatred of oppressive states, he did not even think Communism was possible in a country with an economy as weak as Russia's; Communism was, among other things, something that was only possible in a strongly developed capitalism economy; one of the ironies of history has been that his ideas have only been adopted in countries with weak economies), and as a Russian speaker and a fresh graduate of Oxford University's graduate program in philosophy, Berlin was invited to write the volume in a series of somewhat popular accounts of the thought of the major philosophers. Berlin knew little about Marx at the time, but he threw himself into his assigned subject and he produced one of the earliest studies on Marx by an academic philosopher that still bears rereading. I bring this up because his book is worth reading, though one must keep in mind Berlin's inherent bias against him. Ironically, though it has now been in print for 80 years in one edition or another, it would be the only book-length study of any subject that Berlin would complete; all of his other exceptional works were collections of essays. The latest edition of the book, the Fifth, is a greatly expanded book, but I think the decision to eliminate the long bibliographic essay to be a horrible mistake. I therefore encourage those who are especially interested in looking at earlier books on Marx, but don't know where to turn, to look at the Fourth Edition of Berlin's book. So many bibliographies in books sympathetic to Marx published prior to the end of the Cold War valued other books on Marx on the degree to which they adhered to the official party line. Berlin's scepticism towards Marx put him in position to assess the historical or philosophical value of books in a way that true believers were generally incapable. So my advice would be to read Berlin's book in the Fifth Edition, but to consider purchasing a very cheap copy of the Fourth Edition for the blbliography.