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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

“Karl Marx: A Life”, by Francis Wheen


448 pages, Fourth Estate Classic House, ISBN-13: 978-1857026375

In Karl Marx: A Life, author Francis Wheen tried to write a book about Marx which talks about the Man rather than simply about the Ideas. Sounds great, right? Except that in Wheen’s hands, the relationship of the life-to-the-ideas and the ideas-to-the-life are brutally banalized to the point of boredom; thus, Wheen tries to follow the current fashion amongst many academics and divorce the man and the politics, often done to Marxists because today’s authors don’t want to show what the theory of Marxism is and the horrors it led to. Nevertheless, a biography must accomplish two important things to be considered successful: the subject should come alive; and one should come away from the book feeling that they know just what made the subject tick; while Karl Marx: A Life accomplishes the first goal, it fails at the second. The book has many colorful anecdotes, and Wheen is a rather good writer, so Marx does come to life for you: you can just picture the burly man with his beard and lion’s mane of hair bullying his associates and always getting things his own way – like any good communist. You can also picture him as a loving husband and father, thoroughly – dare I say it? – bourgeois in his home life. But after I read this book I didn’t get the feeling I really knew what made Marx tick. How could he be so selfish and insensitive and brutish one moment and loving and caring the next? Why would a man who enjoyed middle-class life and to be in the bosom of his family subject himself and them to a life of penury? You don’t get an answer from this Wheen.

Wheen is also very selective about his comments concerning Marx’s works, for while he doesn’t hesitate to criticize Marx the man, he is extremely reluctant to criticize Marx the political and economic theorist. He often comes to Marx’s defense and shows where Marx has been misunderstood or where Marx has been shown to be right in his predictions or descriptions concerning capitalism, but equal time is not given to the areas where Marx has been shown to be wrong; indeed, Wheen tries to deflect criticism from Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie – or Capital: Critique of Political Economy to you English-exclusive folks like me – when he says that Marx never claimed his economic analysis was scientific and that he considered his writing to be “artistic”. Oh? Really! So Marx – and his benighted acolytes – never claimed that he was correct and everybody who criticized him was wrong? Or that his theories were the only “scientific” way in which to order society for the betterment of all? We certainly have the ability to test his theories, as it is 100+ years since Marx’s death and 25+ since the Soviet Union imploded, and capitalism still seems to be getting on quite well, thank you very much. Or better yet, just ask the Venezuelans suffering under Marx’s latest disciples which works better, Capitalism or Communism.

Marx’s writings on the uprisings across Europe in 1848 show that he was indeed interested and active in the politics of his time; indeed, The Communist Manifesto actually grew out of his work with the so-called League of the Just, a utopian socialist and Christian communist group devoted to the ideas of Gracchus Babeuf rather than the teachings of Christ, founded by German émigrés in Paris in 1836. As any revolutionary will tell you: its ideas that count, not men. Revolutions, penury, loneliness, down-swings…the life of a revolutionary revolves around the smell of fresh print, the man and the idea become bound together flesh and blood, and to separate Marx from his ideas is to cut off his influence, leaving nothing but a messy bookworm in toiling away in the British Museum Reading Room.


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