Karl Marx

by Francis Wheen
Fourth Estate: £20.00
ISBN 1-85702-673-3
[Image: cover of the book]

To many, probably most, people, Marx is a deeply irrelevant figure to the modern world. The Soviet Union, which proclaimed itself a Marxist society, has collapsed, allowing the West to dismiss Marx’s ideas out of hand as discredited. Tony Blair has described him as “dogmatic”; a previous leader of the Labour Party, when it was still a left wing party, felt no qualms about boasting he had only made it to page two of Capital.

Marx has been demonised as the root cause of every evil visited on humanity by the Soviet Union — although I doubt that his critics would apply the same logic and directly blame Jesus of Nazareth for, say, the evils of the Inquisition.

The problem is that most people who disparage Marx and his work know nothing of him beyond the image of the prophet-like beard, often more from cold, grey busts than the somewhat twinkle-eyed gaze which looks out from many of his photographs, especially the final one taken in Algiers in 1882 which is on the cover of this book.

As with most Westerners talking of Islam, or fundamentalist Christians discussing anything of which they disapprove, ignorance of Marx allows almost any calumny to be directed at him and accepted with a minimum of proof. And yet, having said all that, in a recent BBC poll to find the greatest thinker of the past 1000 years, Karl Marx came top of the list, beating Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Immanuel Kant and René Descartes.

Francis Wheen has produced a very readable biography of a man who really did change the world. There is some discussion of Marx’s theories, of course, but this is not the focus of the book: the opportunity here is to learn what Marx the man was like. Wheen is not afraid to bring out the farcical side to some of the incidents in Marx’s life. Because Wheen never seeks to produce either hagiography or demonisation, the less attractive features are brought out alongside some of the finer qualities determined Marx detractors would rather deny.

The picture which emerges is of a complex, human person with many failings and many exceptional qualities, of someone gregarious yet prone to violent disagreement with most people who knew him; of a champion of the proletariat who was himself middle class, a descendant of rabbis, and married to the daughter of Baron Ludwig von Westphalen; of a theoretician who was nonetheless a man of a passionate nature. There is something quite appealing about the character who emerges, for all his faults, although it is clear he must have been infuriating to know in person.

In the treatment of his work, Wheen suggests that Marx should be seen as a satirist and Capital as a Victorian utopian novel. That should certainly be sufficient to start heated debate in some quarters! Certainly, it is clear from the evidence presented here that Marx did wield a deadly pen, and he did use some bitingly amusing illustrations in his work — but Capital as Marx’s Tristram Shandy?

If there is one thing which does shine out from this work, it is that any dismissal of Marx’s ideas as erroneous or outdated may be premature. To quote from the introduction:

Today’s pundits and politicians … like to mention the buzz-word ’globalisation’ at every opportunity — without realising that Marx was already on the case in 1848. The globe-straddling dominance of McDonald’s and MTV would not have surprised him in the least. The shift in financial power from the Atlantic to the Pacific … was predicted by Marx more than a century before Bill Gates was born.

There is, however, one development which neither I nor Marx had foreseen: that in the late 1990s, long after he had been written off even by fashionable liberals and post-modernist lefties, he would suddenly be hailed as a genius by the wicked old bourgeois capitalists themselves…. ’The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,’ a wealthy investment banker told [The New Yorker] …

Perhaps, as Wheen suggests at one point, Marx was wrong in seeing the birth throes of capitalism for its death agonies. Whether that is the case or not, the widespread ignorance of Marx’s actual, as opposed to caricatured, ideas needs to be addressed. This book does not do that, but by providing an accessible description of the life of the man, Wheen may send more people to the writings of one of the human race’s great minds.

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