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Francis Wheen’s book about Karl Marx – described by some as the father of communism, is part of an oeuvre by an author and journalist with an established reputation for writing about politics, social history and notable people, especially those on the left. His biography of Tom Driberg is particularly well known among those familiar with its contentious subject and he won the George Orwell prize in 2003 for his collected journalism, Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies.
Not surprisingly, the approach he takes with Marx is both affectionate and critical. Like many powerful, impressive individuals – Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson also come to mind – Marx was loveable, brave and dreadfully flawed, damaging both himself and those close to him. Some of the most enjoyable passages in this readable biography are where Wheen takes issue with those who idolised Marx, whether in the Soviet Union or the West and also with his more extreme detractors. During the Cold War, there were those who regarded Marx as a secular saint, others for whom he might as well have been Lucifer himself, responsible for all the world’s evil. As Wheen says:
‘Had he lived a few years longer, by now, some enterprising journalist would probably have figured him as a prime suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders.’ (Loc 45 in the Kindle edition.)
Indeed, it would have been only slightly more ludicrous than blaming Marx for the Gulags, which has happened on many occasions. The fact that certain people, out of fanaticism, opportunism or a mixture of both, seized on The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, treating them as Holy Writ when it suited them and ignoring them when it didn’t, is not Marx’s fault. He had no time for cults, either of personality or anything else, regarding revolution as a long, unglamorous grind of processes that might take generations to play out.
However, Wheen is not only readable when he is discussing his subject’s acolytes and detractors. The man himself was complicated; a generous, quarrelsome drunk with a horrible tobacco habit, numerous health problems, a taste for long running grudges and a wife and children he loved dearly and let down far too often. His life was often marred by poverty and this affected his relationships with others. He made no secret of his desire to see his elderly mother kick the bucket so that he could have his inheritance and although he loved his wife and children he was an improvident pater familias and not always a faithful one. There was a liaison with the housemaid, resulting in the birth of a boy, the only one of Marx’s sons to live beyond childhood. Marx’s rows with others on the left were an obstacle to him doing remunerative work and also impeded his scholarly pursuits. Wheen describes, very entertainingly, how Marx got bogged down in seemingly arcane battles about revolution and social change to the extent that the publication of Capital was delayed. Nor was Marx always a good friend. His financial straits put great pressure on his friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Engels, the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, was obliged to take up uncongenial employment in his father’s mill in order to support Marx and his family as well as his own rather expensive tastes. He seems to have done this for years without complaint, regardless of the unreasonable imposition it placed him under.
One of the characteristics of a well-written biography is that the writer doesn’t put all of his or her energies into the subject, but keeps something back for others in the subject’s life. Coming from the left, Wheen would be unlikely to have much time for the ideology of the lone genius, grafting away in the attic, owing nothing to anyone else. Even so, his depictions of Jenny Marx, the children, Engels, the various figures of the European left who Marx was involved with, even peripheral figures like Marx’s parents and Engels’ father are all vividly drawn. Also, although he doesn’t absolve Marx from personal responsibility for many of his problems, nor does he become mean-spirited. The Marxes had their battles with bailiffs and creditors, but they also had to deal with bad health and the deaths of their small sons. Not everything that afflicted them could be readily traced back to simple fecklessness.
Moreover, he tells us, Marx’s impetuous, careless behaviour came from the same generosity of spirit and vision that allowed him to see beyond the laissez-faire dictates of his age. A different kind of man might have had a healthier, more harmonious life. It’s not at all clear that he would have been the man who wrote The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.
Fourth Estate. London 1999. ISBN: 9780007387595.