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Karl Marx: A Life Paperback – July 17, 2001
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
A brilliant book, by a superb author, about a necessary man. -- Christopher Hitchens
A magnificent portrait of Marx.... Bravo! -- A. N. Wilson
Wheen's portrait of Marx's life is artfully shaped and makes delectable reading. -- New York Times
[E]xpertly researched, admirably objective, eminently humane, and plenty entertaining. -- Boston Book Review
About the Author
Francis Wheen is an award-winning columnist for The Guardian in London, and the deputy editor of Private Eye.
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I’m not sure how I managed it, but there was a mall with an actual physical book store close by the trail we were trying to walk. At one point I had at least a couple hundred dollars worth of books in my hand (hardbacks at bookstore prices). One of them was the new biography of Marx that had recently come out. I almost bought it but put it down because I realized that a life of Marx is one of those things that is hard to be objective about. I didn’t want to spend seven hundred pages with an author who was a staunch Hegelian mad about Marx’s subversion of their hero or some marginalist economist mad that the subject didn’t fully wrestle with the mathematics of their revolution. Or, you know, whatever else you could possibly see the life of Marx and his ideas being politicized somehow.
So instead of buying that unknown book, I went looking for people who had read various lives and what they would recommend to read. The Wheen biography came up a lot. So I bought that book, and then I put it on my shelf as a decoration and then forgot about it for the next several years. And recently, once I finished my MBA program, I found myself with time and inclination to go about reading some of the scores of books I own but haven’t read yet, and a familiar name looked out at me from the shelf.
For any student of the left, the life and career of Marx is knowable in broad strokes - youth in Germany, exile in England, friendship with Engels. Wheen fills all of those blank spots in. What Wheen does more than anything else is to humanize Marx from someone that is a boogeyman of the cold war to a guy with a family trying to make due in Victorian England.
I think Wheen, like myself, had already made his mind up about Marx before he approached this book. If there is any criticism to be had, I offer two. For one, it is only 400 pages. What lacks for me is a deeper engagement with the philosophy and economics of Marx. I’m not sure if that was a choice made to keep the book more accessible or why it was made. But I think it plays into my other criticism. I felt that the author may have been too sympathetic to Marx. He was a human who did make some bad choices (like maybe cheating on Jenny Marx) and I think glossing over that nuance in fear of attacking the subject makes the book less than what it could be. This sympathy is also evident where he addresses some of the more well-known intellectual rivals to Marxism, namely Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, so that these men and their followers are diminished in the book, the casual reader isn’t really let into why Marxian ideas are superior.
Overall, though, if you only know those broad strokes then the Wheen biography is a good entry point for learning about the life of Marx. If you want to get deeper into his ideas, there are other avenues, like the work of David Harvey or Paul D’Amato. Or you can just climb the mountain of Capital itself, something I need to do.
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. One feels the result is a clear-eyed view of Marx, carbuncles and all. The picture that emerges is of a brilliant polymath who evolved into a social revolutionary due to his personality and his times. These times consisted of oppressive, reactionary governments (royalty still reigned) and draconian exploitation of labor in newly established factories. In his prime Marx was a man of vast self-assurance. He directed withering scorn at anyone who disagreed with him. Agreeing with him often yielded the same result. He carefully avoided delineating the contours of the society he anticipated in the wake of the proletarian revolution. When someone asked him who would shine shoes after the revolution, he snarled, "You should."
Marx's lifestyle was curiously at odds with his ideals. Aside from meager earning as a journalist, he depended on stipends from his comrade Engels. To do so, Engels sacrificed his own revolutionary ambitions and became a manager in a family cotton mill. Whereas Engels lived with a former factory girl, Marx married a baroness. By the 1850s Marx was banned from most European countries, so he settled his family in dowdy England. He became a denizen of the British Museum reading room and participated in occasional pub crawls. Aside from the largess provided by Engels, he impatiently awaited family inheritances (!) while perpetually outstripping his income. Marx consistently advanced up the bourgeois social scale by inhabiting residences one or more steps beyond his means, even while his winter coats and his wife's silver languished in pawnshops. He claimed it was necessary in order to allow his daughters to marry well.
Marx seems to have reversed the usual progression from youthful curiosity to later dogmatism. The more he learned, the more he felt he needed to know. He taught himself calculus to develop economic formulas and Russian in order to study developments there. This prodigious mental activity resulted in thousands of pages filled with nearly illegible scribbles, but only glacial progress on "Das Kapital." The first volume finally limped off his desk in 1867; two more were assembled by Engels from the mountain of notes after Marx's death.
He witnessed the social upheavals of 1848 and 1870 be ruthlessly suppressed. The International he helped found eventually floundered in a sea of intrigue and bickering. As he aged, Marx seemed to accept that his attempts to manipulate both the pace and trajectory of history had failed. His secret wish that his daughter marry upward into English society was cruelly dashed when two of them instead wed French Socialists. Nevertheless, the last accounts of him depict a genial, devoted grandfather.
Francis Wheen's "Karl Marx: a life" is a fine biography.
An obviously intelligent man,for me more interesting as a philosopher than as a political animal.He strives to bring freedom and dignity to those who labour incessantly just to survive.I feel today ,that he is still wildly misunderstood.
An illuminating book.
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