Keywords: Biography, Politics

Title: Karl Marx

Author: Francis Wheen

Publisher: 4th Estate

Media: Book

ISBN: 1841151149


At a time when the mainstream media has denied the very existence of class and class struggle, when the already faint dividing lines between Conservatism and Blairite 'Socialism' have disappeared for good, when the market is the measure of all things, Francis Wheen has written a biography of Karl Marx which aims both to remind the world of Marx's existence and to assert once more the relevance of the man and his work.

In many respects the Marx presented here is the most human of the Marx's portrayed to date. He is certainly not the heroic intellectual of Soviet-era hagiography. Nor is he the Red demon of bourgeois demonology. To his great credit Wheen presents Marx with a human face. The permanently impoverished pamphleteer inordinately proud of his wife's aristocratic background, the father grieving bitterly over the loss of his child, the master of the house who fathered a son with his maid, the player of the stockmarket forever plagued by boils on the bum and tension headaches that paralysed him for days. Wheen has rescued Marx from the tyranny of Marxist biographers, who had no greater wish than to sanctify the source of their dogma and to deny the contradictions, bourgeois conceits and down-right hypocrisies that afflicted their hero. That Wheen does so effortlessly and with good humour makes this a biography that's a joy to read.

While not falling prey to the blindness which has afflicted many previous biographers, Wheen does not deny his obvious sympathies with his subject. He has no time, for example, for those who dismiss Das Kapital as turgid, difficult or flawed. Das Kapital as interpreted by Wheen as a fine example of Victorian literature, a Dickensian tale as well as a political and economic treatise. Nor does he accept the separation between the younger Marx of the philosophic manuscripts perceptively analysing the meaning of alienation, and the older Marx mired in tables of numeric data and the minutia of economic development.

Wheen's willingness to go back to source material, and his readiness to challenge the more orthodox picture of Marx, does not, unfortunately, extend to those in the workers movement who opposed Marx. In this respect Wheen treads a well-trodden Marxist path, with Bakunin and the anarchists and mutualists on the receiving end of the kind of spiteful and sectarian invective that Mark himself pioneered.

Predictably much is made of Bakunin's disgusting anti-Semitic outbursts, though Marx's comments about LaSalle (the 'Jewish nigger' as Marx and Engels referred to him), are laughed off. And no Marxist can resist a re-telling of the Bakunin/Nechaev story. But it is not just Bakunin who is vilified, those who supported him in the First International come in for the same kind of treatment. While Bakunin is dismissed as a fantasist and conspiratorialist who could number his supported on the fingers of one hand, Wheen conveniently fails to explain how it is that entire sections of the International sided with the Bakunin against Marx. Although Wheen does not flinch from showing us the petty, argumentative and sectarian side of Marx, in the end he cannot bring himself to censure him.

Despite these strong reservations, in the end this is an enjoyable and informative read. Yes, it is good to remind people that the class struggle still exists, but then you only have to take a look at what is going on in the world to see that.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published March 29 2006