Book Review from the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
Karl Marx by Francis Wheen. Fourth Estate, London.
Journalist Wheen has performed a staggering feat. In just over 400 pages, he has traced the action-packed life of Karl Marx from childhood in Triers in the Moselle valley to university life in Bonn and Berlin and political exile in France, Belgium and finally London.
In the hands of Wheen the story is one of almost cinematic action. The heady student days of feverish philosophical debate fuelled by too much wine and beer are vividly portrayed. His foray into political journalism, his jousts with state censors and his eventual political banishment, leading to the life of a stateless person trekking through the capitals of Europe in poverty and constant harassment by state authorities and police spies are dealt with in a lively and readable fashion.
The real strength of this book, however, does not rest on the colourful biographical detail, but on its depiction of Marx as a human being, rather than (as has been too often the case in the past) as a god or a devil. Interestingly enough Wheen mentions in his introduction a book, written by an American evangelical preacher, entitled "Was Karl Marx a Satanist?" The other side of the coin, of course, are the books that are nothing less than hagiographies. As the jacket cover says, "Karl Marx emerges as a flamboyantly unmistakable individual, not the stony head of a monolithic, faceless organisation."
Socialists might have wished for more emphasis on Marx's ideas, but when Wheen does this he does an excellent job. Considering that his intention was to deal with Marx more as an individual rather than as an economist, historian, philosopher or revolutionary, the author's discussion of the works of Marx is generally speaking difficult to quarrel with and easy to admire. He distances the writings and actions of Marx from his so-called supporters like Lenin, Stalin and Mao. He has a pop at Karl Popper's criticism and absolutely devastates the attacks on Marx by the likes of Paul Samuelson. The role of Marx in the International Working Men's Association is particularly well documented and his jousts with Michael Bakunin and the anarchists are vividly drawn.
A lot of people are going to hate this book. Left-wingers who see every industrial dispute or petty social unrest as the harbinger of a transformation of society will be reminded (if they ever knew) that Marx's view was that a long period of education and organisation was necessary before the working class could establish socialism. Anarchists with their 19th-century romanticism about conspiracy and direct action will be less than pleased at the reporting of the antics of their anarchist heroes in the International. The academics who have dismissed Marx's views as outdated are not going to like Wheen's view that Marx's criticisms of capitalism are still valid today.
Even if a lot of people are going to hate this book, this socialist loved it and advises readers to get down to their local library immediately. If you are going to buy only one book this year, then this is it.