A review of the Wheen biography of Marx

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Jun 23 07:27:19 MDT 2000

The Nation, July 10, 2000

The Devil in Mr. Marx


At a quarter to 3 in the afternoon on March 14, 1883, one of the world's
brainiest men, Karl Marx, ceased to think. He passed away peacefully in his
favorite armchair. Three days later, a few miles up the road, the man was
buried, a citizenless émigré, in London's Highgate Cemetery. At the
graveside, eleven mourners paid homage to the "Old Moor." They listened to
Marx's longtime comrade and benefactor, Friedrich Engels--"The
General"--remember his dear departed friend: "An immeasurable loss has been
sustained both by the militant proletariat of Europe and America, and by
historical science, in the death of this man. The gap that has been left by
the departure of this mighty spirit will soon enough make itself felt." His
name, Engels predicted, "will endure through the ages, and so also will his

One hundred and seventeen years down the line, Highgate Cemetery continues
to receive a steady stream of Marx well-wishers, of all ages and
nationalities, the curious and the converted, and fresh flowers and moving
inscriptions, in almost every language under the sun, regularly adorn the
revolutionary's gravestone. Towering overhead, indomitably, is the man
himself, or rather a gigantic bronze bust of him, with its menacing eyes
staring out into the distance, perhaps even frowning at his conservative
rival Herbert Spencer, whose remains lie across the path. This overwhelming
iconic image of Marx is the one that most popularly endures today: the Marx
of statues and flags, of dogma and gulags, of party hacks and holy
orthodoxy; a vision of Marxism that invariably looks down upon (and
frequently through) real mortals, people who exist in the messy, profane
world below.

In a new biography, British journalist, broadcaster and gadfly Francis
Wheen argues that Marx actually occupied this profane ground himself and
strives to recover Marx the man--carbuncles and all--as opposed to Marx the
myth, from posterity. What unfolds is a tale of an intricate and vulnerable
figure, a Prussian refugee who, in Wheen's words, "became a middle-class
English gentleman; an angry agitator who spent much of his adult life in
the scholarly silence of the British Museum Reading Room; a gregarious and
convivial host who fell out with almost all his friends; a devoted family
man who impregnated his housemaid; and a deeply earnest philosopher who
loved drink, cigars and jokes." Wheen reveals a feisty yet frail patriarch,
a peripatetic vagabond who spent more than thirty years traipsing from one
crummy apartment to another, avoiding debts, pawning what little he had,
shrugging off illness.

In Wheen's eyes, Marx's own Marxism seems more like a Groucho Marxism,
avoiding any club that would have him as a member: "I, at least, am not a
Marxist," Karl is once reputed to have told a French socialist. Karl Marx,
the book, enters the intellectual and political fray at a time when the
bearded prophet has been making something of a minor comeback. For the past
few seasons, a spate of studies and sympathetic commentaries has hit the
bookstores and circulated over the airwaves. (Marx was elected "Thinker of
the Millennium" in a recent British Internet poll.) An unlikely 1997 issue
of The New Yorker likewise feted "The Return of Karl Marx," heralding him
as "the next thinker," wrong about communism but right about the problems
of capitalism. Wheen's line is less shallow and rejects such
reappropriation. His Marx is no Marx-lite, no mere "student of capitalism";
instead, Wheen gives us Marx the "revolutionist," someone who can still
make history--even if, like his own life, it would be done under
circumstances not of his choosing. And what a life--maybe not "wonderful"
like Wittgenstein's, but certainly full.

* * *

The man who famously urged us to change the world, not just interpret it,
was born in the Rhineland town of Trier in 1818. A precocious schoolboy
raised in a fairly well-to-do household (father Heinrich, Jewish and a
lawyer), young Karl soon fled the nest, and, rather than earn capital, he
embarked on career studying and trying to overthrow it, much to the chagrin
of his dear mother (Henriette). We follow Wheen through the well-trodden
ground of Marx's stormy rites of passage. At 17 he studied law at Bonn
University, blithely ignoring his father's advice about clean living: Marx
Jr. frequently burned the midnight oil, imbibed cheap ale, puffed away on
foul cigars and once got thrown in the clink for noisy, late-night
reveling. No wonder Heinrich was relieved when his son transferred to the
University of Berlin, where he switched to philosophy, discovered
Romanticism, idealism and French socialism, and also fell in love with an
aristocratic beauty, Jenny von Westphalen, daughter of a Trier baron and a
distant relative of the British Earl of Argyll. Karl and the future Mrs.
Marx initially kept their affair secret; neither's parents were amused when
"the twenty-two year old princess" and "the bourgeois Jewish scallywag four
years her junior" formally announced their engagement in 1836.

Karl's other burning passion then was Hegel, the great idealist thinker,
who'd held a chair at Berlin years before the fledgling socialist arrived.
Young Marx even wrote a charming ditty in Hegel's honor: "He understands
what he thinks, freely invents what he feels. Thus, each may for himself
suck wisdom's nourishing nectar." Marx's lifelong debt to Hegel was the
dialectic, the method and thought system he'd later appropriate for himself
in Capital, grasping all contradictions and paradoxes, fluxes and flows,
theses and antitheses, life and the mind, as some sort of coherent whole.
With Hegel, everything was in the mind, in the idea, which reached its
absolute state in the self-critical, self-conscious human being, free from
unhappy consciousness and bad faith. Although Marx eventually turned Hegel
right side up, viewing the idea as "nothing but the material world
reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought," in
Berlin he became the brightest and booziest member of a rowdy crew called
the "Young Hegelians."

That was until his father's death, a deeply painful blow. Despite the ups
and downs, Karl always loved his father and kept a small daguerreotype of
Heinrich in a breast pocket. (It accompanied him to the grave.) Oddly,
Wheen avoids engaging with the complexity of the Karl/Heinrich
relationship, being content to mock the apparently insensitive progeny
smoking and drinking away his inheritance and breezing through a thesis on
the classical Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus.

As a relatively free agent who recognized that his inquisitive, expansive
mind would never be accepted in the stuffy German academy, Karl wrote
brilliant polemics instead, for Rheinische Zeitung, a Cologne newspaper. He
railed against press censorship under King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, denounced
new wood-theft legislation, flirted with communism. He also raised a few
friends' eyebrows, who marveled at the young man's erudition: "Dr Marx,"
Wheen quotes one saying, "will give medieval religion and philosophy their
coup de grâce; he combines the deepest philosophical seriousness with the
most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and
Hegel fused into one person--I say fused, not juxtaposed--and you have Dr
Marx." But said doctor was too clever for his own good: The Prussian
government soon closed down the subversive newspaper and gave the newly wed
Marx his marching orders.

* * *

Paris beckoned anyway. For the honeymooning Marxes, the French capital set
the tone of their future destiny: domestic chaos, personal turmoil,
economic uncertainty. Somehow, though, Marx managed to write. Perversely,
he even seemed to write better, the more dire the situation. He rolled off
the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), already knowing
firsthand what "estrangement" means, and how money becomes a supreme
alienating power. Next came the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), The German
Ideology (1846) and the Communist Manifesto (1848), invoking revolutionary
practice and class struggle. By then, he and Engels had bonded and found
big trouble together, especially from Prussian, French and Belgian
authorities, who bid Marx good riddance from the European mainland. In
1849, with nowhere else to run, the Marx entourage finally ended up in
teeming Victorian London. And yet, as Wheen makes graphic, London would be
no home away from home. "Never," Marx joked, with typical gallows humor,
"has anyone written about money in general amidst such a total lack of
money in particular." By all accounts, too, Marx's "encounters with the
natives were almost always disastrous, especially if he had a few drinks
inside him." "One night," Wheen notes,

"he set off with Edgar Bauer and Wilhelm Liebknecht for a drunken jaunt up
the Tottenham Court Road, intending to have at least one glass of beer in
every pub between Oxford Street and Hampstead Road...by the time they
reached the last port of call he was ready for a rumpus. A group of
Oddfellows, enjoying a quiet dinner, found themselves accosted by this
drunken trio and taunted about the feebleness of English culture. No
country but Germany, Marx declared, could have produced such masters as
Beethoven, Mozart, Handel and Haydn; snobbish, cant-ridden England was fit
only for philistines. This was too much even for the mild-mannered
Oddfellows. 'Damned foreigners!' one growled, while several others clenched
their fists. Choosing the better part of valour, the German roisterers fled

Marx was considerably more tolerant toward London's many young street
urchins and ragamuffins, and he would often pause to stroke their hair and
slip a halfpenny into their little hands. Still, says Wheen, Marx's pub
experience "taught him that British adults do not take kindly to strangers
with alien accents." It's bizarre that Wheen should then cast his Marx in
such Oxbridge tonality, such plummy Brideshead English. American audiences
might find this frightfully quaint, if not jolly perplexing ("chivvy,"
"squiffy," "theorising like billy-o," "gamey stew," "bachelors' bender in
gay Paree"). Wheen seems to have quaffed a few too many postprandial ports
himself, and he projects his own Evelyn Waugh tendencies onto a distinctly
Germanic subject. It's Garrick Club banter that quickly wears thin.

Indeed, Wheen diligently lists Marx's foibles--of which there were
many--and is well able to describe what Marx said, what Marx did; but he
never manages to prize open Marx's inner world, does not attempt to explore
what Marx felt or infer what he might have thought. (I know this is an
admirable biographical restraint in some circumstances--more modern, fully
documented lives--but Wheen surely owes it to us to try here.) Since we
don't approach Marx's emotional life, we also never glimpse him in any
psychological depth. (Even Jenny, his lifelong partner and stalwart
confidante, appears more as scenery than as major cast member.) Karl Marx
pales alongside Jerrold Seigel's Marx's Fate, which captures the man's
darker powers with greater texture and with more intellectual finesse, and
Yvonne Kapp's bio of Marx's youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx, which
beautifully lays bare the intimacies of the Marx household and the drama of
their family romance.

True, Wheen succeeds in painting a Marx vividly human in some ways. Yet
he's far too preoccupied with frivolity, with recounting Marx's alcoholic
high jinks, discoursing on his flatulence and boil-ridden penis, having him
come on more like Joe Gould, with Capital his best-kept secret. Often Wheen
portrays tragedy as mere farce and is surprisingly unsympathetic toward a
man who had four children predecease him. (The two survivors, Eleanor and
Laura, later killed themselves.)

* * *

Marx's personal pains far exceeded his political woes. The death of Edgar,
the Marxes' third-born, at the age of 8 became Marx's greatest paternal
suffering. He never really got over it. For a few pages, Wheen is
untypically generous: "Edgar--the impish, round-faced Colonel Musch--was
the favourite. A sickly lad, whose huge head seemed far too heavy for his
feeble body, he was nevertheless an inexhaustible source of drollery and
high spirits; Marx adored this cunning little slyboots." At the boy's
funeral, where he was put to rest beside brother Guido and sister
Franziska, a distraught Karl buried his head in his hands and howled, "You
can't give my boy back to me!" A page and a half on, Wheen is back to
familiar tricks, happily castigating Marx for grumbling that Jenny's
uncle's death at 90 "had delayed the redistribution of his considerable
wealth." We hear no more about how the loss of Edgar may have affected his
father's political will and intellectual drives. Wheen makes light of
Marx's telling letter to Engels, dated April 12, 1855:

"The house is naturally quite desolate and forlorn since the death of the
dear child who was its life and soul. The way we miss him at every turn is
quite indescribable. I've been through all kinds of misfortune in my time,
but it's only now that I know what real unhappiness is. I feel myself
broken down. It's a good thing that since the day of the burial I've had
such furious headaches that I can't think or see or hear. In all the
terrible agonies I've experienced these days, the thought of you and your
friendship has always sustained me, and the hope that, together, we may
still do something sensible in the world."

Marx, of course, did do something sensible in the years that followed,
often with Engels, pioneering the First International. He did a lot more
alone, in the British Museum, drafting his unfinished opus. Marx didn't
hand back his entrance ticket to humanity; he plunged headlong into it,
getting down to steady work on a gigantic critique of bourgeois political
economy. And, like Balzac's mad, obsessive artist in The Unknown
Masterpiece, Marx relentlessly tinkered with its form and content while
Engels pleaded with him to finish someday soon, to have at least one volume
fit for public scrutiny, to help arm the workers in their bloody struggle.
The many layers of paint Marx sets down on his canvas, and the absurdities
found in his perfect painting, "reflect," Wheen says, "the madness of the
subject, not the author."

Karl Marx was a bestseller in Britain when it was released last year. It's
perhaps churlish to knock any text that prompts people to read about Marx,
especially in an age when he's often treated, as Hegel was in Marx's own
day, as a "dead dog." The dog still barks, though, and retains some bite.
It's nice that Wheen has taken the trouble to announce this to the world.
But the real story of Marx the man--the "total man," the activist, thinker,
husband, lover, father, refugee, outsider, Jew, all rolled into one--we've
yet to see. Maybe this is the stuff of epic fiction, or maybe, as Howard
Zinn showed recently in a play, Marx in Soho, it's better explored onstage.
Maybe, in the end, we should just let Marx speak for himself, find a way to
let his own voice ring out, have people read his best books again; read
them not just as dusty Dickensian tales of hard times but as stories about
modern times as well, about realistic hopes and visions of an open-ended
culture, forever changeable and always up for grabs. Then we might
recognize Marx's story as our story, de te fabula narratur, as he says: a
tale about us, necessary for today, indispensable for tomorrow.

(Andy Merrifield, a Marx scholar, writes frequently about urbanism and
politics. His last book, The Urbanization of Injustice (NYU), was edited
with Erik Swyngedouw.)

Copyright ©2000 The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Unauthorized
redistribution is prohibited.

If you liked what you just read, you can subscribe to The Nation by calling
1-800-333-8536 or by following this link.

Please attach this notice in its entirety when copying or redistributing
material from The Nation. The Nation encourages activists and friends of
the magazine to share our articles with others. However, it is mandatory
that academic institutions, publications and for-profit institutions
seeking to reprint material contact us for permission. Click here for
further information or to make a request.

Louis Proyect

The Marxism mailing-list: http://www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list