British journalist Francis Wheen's highly readable biography of Karl Marx opens with a rather bold comparison: "Not since Jesus Christ has an obscure pauper inspired such global devotion-or been so calamitously misinterpreted. It is time to strip away the mythology and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man."
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 flesh-and-blood aspects of the father of Communism in an attempt to demolish the myths that obscure the man behind the theories.
The author does, however, acknowledge Marx's lifelong assault on capitalism through his chapters on the monumental undertaking that would eventually lead to Das Kapital. And we do not miss the numerous socialist associations Marx maintained while penning The Communist Manifesto, arguably one of the most influential political pamphlets ever published.
The man behind the myth
Wheen does not pretend to be an interpreter of the subject of Marx's intellectual fervor-scientific socialism. Rather, the author manages to bring to these pages aspects that the more scholarly studies have disregarded. We are given 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.
For the bohemian Marx, most days were rather inactive. Lounging in his book-filled study, he would sit for days until a particular idea crossed his mind. Then, in a fit of activity, he would spend days and nights on end until the thought had been thoroughly examined and incorporated into whatever conception he was engaged in at the time.
Wheen's overall opinion of his subject is not entirely positive. He describes him as "a tremendous show-off and a sadistic intellectual thug," who was constantly sponging money off his good friend Friedrich Engels in order to obtain the luxuries of the bourgeois class he despised.
But it is not the author'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-"that most formidable of all composite forces, a dreamer who thinks, and a thinker who dreams."
A troubled life
For Wheen, Marx's brain was only one of many notable body parts. Plagued by enduring health problems, such as painful carbuncles, insomnia, a liver ailment, migraines, biliousness and respiratory problems, Marx becomes something of a sympathetic character over the course of the work.
"I am as tormented as Job," Marx liked to say, "though not as God-fearing."
Other hardships visited the already troubled Marx during his lifetime. He would see five of his six children die (three in infancy and two at their own hands), maintain only one true relationship-with the long-suffering Engels- and be expelled from Prussia, France and Belgium for his political views.
In addition to revealing many of Marx's personal travails, Wheen strives to resolve several of the lingering debates that, though they have been thoroughly examined in countless biographies, continue to swirl. These concern Marx's views on the working classes, which he was rumored to despise; his animosity toward the anarchist and other revolutionary movements; and his misunderstood relationship with Charles Darwin. This is done with the help of the copious correspondence between Marx and Engels-a source Wheen relies on throughout most of the book.
If this biography can be faulted for anything, it is the author's lack of historical perspective. The London of the nineteenth-century that greeted Marx when he did step out his door was filled with corner sweatshops, laws that discriminated against the poor and a growing underclass that was surely noticed by a man who viewed everyone as an economic category. Such sordid conditions must have provoked at least a passing opinion from the revolutionary Marx, but, if so, this is an aspect noticeably missing from an otherwise comprehensive work.
Wheen's approach certainly brings us closer to Marx the man than the previous body of work permits. But why, readers may be asking, would one care to read a lengthy biography of a grumpy old man with carbuncles whose ideology led to one of the most stagnant bureaucratic regimes in history?
What may be viewed by some as anecdotal information tempers icons such as Marx for many others. And while there are no startling or consequential discoveries to be found in its 432 pages (even rumors that Marx, with the help of the family maid, fathered more than just communist ideology is considered old news), Wheen's refreshing presentation of his subject may actually make Karl Marx: A Life one of the more humanizing works written to date.
Rob Stout, 11 September 2000
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