Karl Marx has been one of the most revered and vilified intellectuals in modern history. Communism, a political theory and system of government that held sway over much of the world’s population during the twentieth century, traced its origins to the work of Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels. In the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, and many developing nations, Marx was hailed as almost a saint. Noncommunist socialist parties and movements also frequently claimed to have been founded on the principles of Marx. By contrast, in the United States and other countries opposed to China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War that followed World War II, Marx was often portrayed as a singularly evil character, a chronically unemployed agitator whose ideas brought enslavement to millions.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the waning of communism as a force in global power politics, new perspectives on Marx are in order. Without the pressures of the Cold War, it has become easier to see him as neither a demon nor an angel, but as a man struggling with the difficult social issues of his time. The changing political climate has also raised questions about his relevance, though. Does the apparent failure of the Soviet Union mean that Marx is now a historical curiosity, creator of ideas that led to a dead end and have now become irrelevant to the problems of the present day? If Marx was not a savior or the enemy of humankind, how should one evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of his personality, and what did these strengths and weaknesses contribute to his work? At the beginning of the twenty-first century, how should one read the books of this man of the late nineteenth century?
Francis Wheen’s new biography of Marx, then, comes at a time when a reexamination of this social thinker is particularly relevant. An earlier British edition, published in 1999, met with wide public acceptance and was favorably reviewed. Wheen’s primary goal is to “rediscover Karl Marx the man.” Accordingly, the book is mainly the story of Marx’s life rather than a strictly intellectual biography. Still, Wheen does offer some interesting and frequently original, if sometimes eccentric, perspectives on the thinker’s work. Wheen is not an academic specialist, but a journalist. His previous books include The Sixties: A Fresh Look at the Decade of Change (1982) and Television: A History (1985). Wheen’s biography of British politician Tom Driberg, Tom Driberg: His Life and Indiscretions (1990), was short-listed for the prestigious Whitbread Prize for biography. Wheen’s amateur perspective does enable him to see Marx somewhat differently from how a professional scholar would. It should also, though, make readers suspicious of Wheen’s persistent claims that only he has understood clearly the life and work of Karl Marx.
Wheen’s journalistic background is apparent in the style of the book. It is written in a breezy, irreverent, informal manner. This generally makes the book pleasant to read, but the mocking tone can sometimes be annoying. Of Marx’s attitude toward his aristocratic wife, for example, Wheen remarks, “He was ridiculously proud of having married a bit of posh.” Regarding Marx’s revolutionary activities in Brussels, Wheen writes that if the Belgian authorities could connect Marx with the supply of weapons, “he would be in the soup right up to his bushy eyebrows.” At one point, Wheen even compares an early version of Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848; The Communist Manifesto, 1850) to a sketch by the Monty Python comedy group. These lighthearted flourishes give the impression that the author is straining to be witty at the expense of his subject.
This new biography offers few new facts on Marx’s personal life. It is now widely accepted that the father of communism fathered an illegitimate son by the family servant, Helene Demuth. Wheen does correct the common misconception that Marx had offered to dedicate Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1886, 1907, 1909) to Charles Darwin and that Darwin had refused the dedication. As Wheen explains, Darwin actually wrote a letter declining to be the subject of a dedication to Edward Aveling, the lover of Marx’s daughter, and Aveling filed this letter with some of Marx’s papers. Even this correction, though, is not the result of a discovery by Wheen himself, but may be found in published work by professional scholars. In this instance, as throughout the book, Wheen’s contribution lies in placing what is known about Marx before a broad readership, not in scholarship.
(The entire section is 1915 words.)