Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Notes: Karl Marx by Francis Wheen

The iconic image of the heavily bearded Karl Marx is familiar to all those of us who grew up under the shadow of the Cold War. Honest assessment of his life and work was impossible for us though, because his image was inevitably adjacent to that of Lenin, hung behind the glowering jowls of Leonid Brezhnev as he inspected May Day parades of military hardware generally aimed in our direction. Such impressions were re-enforced in my mind when as a teenager I visited Russia in the latter years of The Soviet Union. Carved busts of Marx still decorated the streets and public spaces of Moscow and Leningrad, as the sacred iconography of the secular faith of the USSR.

Francis Wheen notes, in his introduction to his biography of Karl Marx, that previous biographers have either set out to idolise or demonise this most remarkable historical figure. Wheen though was determined to produce a more honest assessment of the man, in his context, than many of his predecessors whose agenda was little more than to honour their prophet or vandalise the legacy of an opponent. His attempts to neither worship not vilify Marx, enable him to engage far more richly and productively with the man and his ideas. For instance on the Communist Manifesto, he begins:
Any text from the 1840s will include passages that now seem slightly quaint or outdated; the same could be said of many party election manifestos or newspaper editorials published only a year or two ago. It was never intended as a timeless sacred text, though generations of disciples have sometimes treated it as such. The very first paragraph - with its refernces to Metternich, Guizot and the Tsar - emphasises that this is a perishable commodity, written at a specific moment for a particular purpose, without a thought for posterity. The remarkable thing about the Manifesto, then, is that it has any contemporary resonance at all. In a London bookshop recently I counted no fewer than nine English editions on sale. Even Karl Marx, who never suffered from false modesty, could scarcely have expected that his little tract would still be a best seller at the end of the millennium.(p124)
What emerges from Wheen's hugely acclaimed efforts, is a highly readable exploration of all aspects of this extraordinary life. Wheen engages with Marx as a boy, as a refugee, a family man, a rogue, a patient, a parent as well as a political agitator, and political-economic theorist. His charting of Marx's intellectual development through Hegelianism and onto his own distinctive dialectical materialism, is nicely constructed. The book is highly informative and extensively researched with special attention given to the private letters and correspondence of Marx and Engels.

Studying politics and political theory at University meant that I spent a huge amount of time studying Marx's writings, ideas, legacy and followers. What I was less aware of was Marx's role as a would-be political agitator, and promoter of revolution in his own lifetime. Wheen's work on the heady-days of the 1848 revolutions, which Marx and his compatriots on the left really thought was of almost millenarian significance, was fascinating reading. The Marx I had engaged with previously was only the later, more reclusive figure alone in the reading room of the British Museum, engaged with the construction of his epic work on Capital. What was intriguing here, was not just that the expected revolutions never lived up to their billing, but the way in which left-wing agitators behaved in those idealistic days. Marx comes through in Wheen's biography as a domineering intellectual bully, who imposed himself unrelentingly on any group, in any context in which he worked. He saw anyone who disagreed with him as an utter fool worthy of mockery, satire and vitriol, and anyone who rivalled him as a threat to be outmanoeuvred and ousted. This style of political machination and subterfuge to control the associated societies and movements would not have looked out of place in Simon Sebag Montifiore's biography of Stalin! While there is, of course, no moral equivalence between that Kremlin despot, and this studious academic, the political shenanigans and connivances look surprisingly similar, especially if we only consider how Stalin behaved before he had real power.

Ideologically, Wheen takes a sensible and measured view of Marx's accomplishments. On Capital (ie. Das Kapital) he notes:
As capitalism matured, he predicted, we would see periodic recessions, an ever-growing dependence on technology and the growth of huge, quasi-monopolistic corporations, spreading their sticky tentacles all over the world in search of new markets to exploit. If none of this had happened, we might be forced to agree that the old boy was talking poppycock. The boom-bust cycles of Western economics in the twentieth century, like the globe-girdling dominance of Bill Gates's Microsoft, suggest otherwise. (p299)
In many instances, Wheen demonstrates that Marx was rather astute at diagnosing the problems of capitalism (either in general, or in relation to the specifics of mid Nineteenth Century capitalism). Writing in 1999, not long after the Iron Curtain had fallen, and The Soviet Bloc had collapsed, this was a far-from popular or well received view. However, the ongoing economic shocks which have shuddered around the globe since Wheen wrote these words, continue to demonstrate their relevance.

Such theory sat alongside his friend Engels' vivid descriptions of the wretched lot of the working poor in England - which added such moral power to his theory. It would be equally valid to observe the ongoing crisis of poverty in our globalised world today, and to observe that the moral outrages which drove these Victorians leftwards are no less prescient now.

There is however, the other side of the story. Wheen puts his finger on the issue precisely; on p283.
"Mostly, he allowed the facts to speak for themselves, larding the document with official statistics... to justify his claim that that the misery of the working masses has not diminished from 1848 to 1864. But, as ever, his attempt to imagine an alternative was as formless as a bowl of blancmange: Like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind and a joyous heart." (p283)
Perhaps a generous critic would say that Marx died before his life's work was complete and that perhaps he would have gone on to explore what a post-revolutionary state would look like. He might have had a well formulated understanding of what would make associated labour toil with a joyous heart - but never got round to it. A fairer response it Wheen's derisory "as ever, his attempt to imagine an alternative was as formless as a bowl of blancmange". This is routed in Marx's naivety about human nature, and his assumption that all of societies ills stem from the broken relationship between labour and value; in the class struggle; and the subsequent alienation of the worker. Once freed, from this, all would be well. In fact, history is the story of the inevitable process of that liberation. Unless of course, humans are not just trapped within problematic systems; but are themselves problems - in which case utopia might not be so easily obtained. Marx's weakeness here left his legacy open to all manner of interpretations; but the process of the dictatorship of the proletariat leading to the withering away of the state remained, as Wheen notes; blancmange-like in substance.

All told, Wheen does a marvellous job at presenting the reader with a vision of Marx as great thinker to be reckoned with, whose insights into the foibles and cruelties of our economic system remain powerful and relevant to this day. However, it is equally clear that we are not to regard him as some kind of secular prophet, to treat his works with sort of papal-style claim to infallibility; but to recognise them as products of their time; containing flaws, and troubling omissions.

Stragely though, it is not Wheen's assessment of Marx the thinker and writer than leaves the deepest impression upon the reader. Rather, it is his descriptions of Marx the man, and his family life which are the most vivid elements of the book. The Marx family, were driven from country to country; repeatedly exiled because of Karl's revolutionary views and writings. When they finally settled in London (where they remained), they were exceptionally poor. Marx's income was always sporadic, their tastes often expensive, and his commitment to his work all-consuming. The pawning of clothes and cutlery seemed to be a regular way of life for Jenny Marx, Karl's long-suffering wife. Child-mortality was a tragic reality of life in the Victorian City, a pain and grief the Marx's were to experience twice amongst their own children and several times amongst their grandchildren. Jenny Marx wrote, amidst one of these tragedies:
"In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear..... because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks." (p292)
The Marx's certainly had a hard, tumultuous life; not all of which was of their own making. Wheen is a sympathetic biographer who enables us to see picture Jenny Marx struggling to keep the household afloat, while Karl (in a fog of cigar smoke) read, paced the floor, and wrote late into the nights. Jenny's sorrow at the revelation that Karl fathered a child with the housemaid, is another sad episode in her life. Marx himself was frequently unwell, with long periods of inactivity, delays in submitting work, and significant pain to endure. Many of the conditions he had were exacerbated by stress, which meant he was in pain for much of the time. Yet, in between these melancholic episodes Wheen introduces us to a loving (if not somewhat severe and sometimes puritanical) father; a doting grandfather who was partial not just to a grand debate about economics - but also a hearty pub-crawl down the Tottenham Court Road. The final part of the book details the demise of the Marx family. While two of the Marx's children died in infancy, a third was to die of cancer while still a young adult. Finally, after the father's death, the two remaining children took their own lives in separate and unrelated incidents. Wheen is a critical biographer of Marx's ideas, but a remarkably sympathetic one, to the trials of the family.

Strangely, if there is a hero who emerges from this book it is Friedrich Engels. It was Engels who was about the only person (aside from Jenny), who was on good terms with Marx throughout his life. Engels who financially propped up the Marx family for decades, supplying cash advances and cases of port, and finally a pension. It was Engels who worked tirelessly encouraging Marx in his work and writing. Engels was an equally unconventional person, who was passionately committed to the cause of a workers revolution, in his own right. What we see in Wheen's biography is that Marx without Engels would have completely floundered.

Wheen has done a splendid job in humanising Karl Marx and rescuing him from caricatures, of either the glowing or demonic variety. Given the weight of the material, and ideas presented, Wheen manges to make this an absolute page-turner, which makes the reader admire the man, without necessarily liking him or bowing at the shrine of his ideology. It's rare to read a biography as well-crafted, and stimulating as this. Normally, rave reviews which groan on about the book being an "achievement" are but the prelude to disappointment. In this case, Wheen has well-earned his accolades.

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