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National Observer Home > No. 44 - Autumn 2000 > Book Reviews

Karl Marx

by Francis Wheen

London, Fourth Estate, 1999, pp. 386 and appendices, endnotes and index.

A spectre is haunting Europe; the spectre of communism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the U.S.S.R., the opening words of The Communist Manifesto seem to be, in the words of Shakespeare full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Whereas even twenty years ago, these words seemed to be eerily prophetic, now most former communist countries are undertaking, with varying degrees of success, their first forays into a capitalist economic system. Even China is permitting a greater market economy. Perhaps the only old-style communist state left in the world is North Korea. In the mind of the average person, Marx appears to be little more than a discredited philosopher: the less said about him the better. Wheen, however argues that a new biography of Marx is timely. He argues that with the fall of communism, a more objective analysis of Marx may be possible, since he is no longer the great prophet of communism or the wicked false prophet of the west.

Whatever our attitudes may be towards him, Marx has become one of the most influential thinkers in the last two centuries. Wheen argues that an entire dismissal of Marxs ideas, on the basis that communism has come and gone, is pre-emptory. However Marxs deterministic view of history is simplistic and was proven spurious even within his own lifetime. Wheen observes that, for example, the proletarian revolutions that Marx eagerly awaited in much of the industrialised world, particularly in the early 1870s when the collapse of an American Bank sparked a recession, failed to materialise. However, some aspects of Marxs analysis of the dynamics of capitalism are valid. Marxs discussions, for example, about global monopolies are in some respects correct (although it may fairly be commented that any writer who is wrong on many matters may be expected to be right on some others). He also predicted, with the growth of capitalism, periodic recessions and an ever-growing dependence upon technology. Similarly, Marx spoke about the pauperisation of the lowest group of society as a product of capitalism. Whilst the entire working class can hardly be said to be poor, with high rates of home and car ownership amongst them, most western countries have witnessed in recent decades the emergence of what is fast becoming an entrenched group of poor non-workers who subsist on welfare handouts and have limited prospects of breaking out of the poverty cycle. However the fact that Marx was correct on some matters does not negate the disastrous consequences of his many errors, which resulted in the needless deaths of tens of millions of victims.

Wheen discusses at length Marxs writing of Das Kapital. The work is extremely difficult to read, given its rambling nature. It would be true to say that it is virtually an unread book. Wheens anecdote about Darwins congratulations is telling. Despite sentiments of congratulation written by Darwin on one of his volumes of Das Kapital , the pages of a large portion of the volume remain uncut and the rest do not contain the copious notes Darwin made throughout the books that he read. Indeed, Wheen goes so far as to suggest that Das Kapital is best read not as an economic treatise but as a work of the imagination: a Victorian melodrama, or a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created (capital)...; or perhaps a satirical utopia like Swifts land of the Houyhnhnms. He argues that Das Kapital possesses these qualities partly because of its sources. In any one section of his writing, Marx saturates the reader with data from government reports, only to follow this with quotations from texts such as Charles Dickens Oliver Twist.

The chaotic nature of Marxs writings is a reflection of Marxs personal life. Wheen devotes considerable space throughout the biography to describing Marxs lifestyle. Marx was forever short of money and frequently in debt. When he acquired money, he spent it recklessly, often on moving to a more expensive residence. Ironically, the man who was to devote his writing to an analysis of the negative effects of capitalism upon the working class himself experienced financial problems largely because he tried to maintain a middle class lifestyle. Throughout their married lives, Karl and Jenny Marx employed at least one servant, traveled, entertained often lavishly and sent their daughters to private schools.

Similarly ironic was Marxs inability to earn a living when he provided a sustained critique of how the bourgeois classes are able to do so. What small amounts of money Marx earned directly throughout his life were from publications and editorships of journals. Most of the journals he edited were short-lived, some being closed by hostile governments, others through want of subscribers. It was only in the latter stages of his life, with the publication of volumes of Das Kapital, that he began to receive a moderate income from his published works, but the amount earned was far less that what he needed to live on. Marxs main sources of income were handouts, mainly from his lifelong friend Friedrich Engels (one of the few he was able to retain rancorous fallings out with many associates being one of Marxs characteristics) a fellow critic of capitalism, whose source of income was his factories.

Karl Marx is a highly readable and informative biography of this significant economic philosopher. Wheen demonstrates his familiarity with Marxs works and surviving papers through his frequent references and citations. Whilst there are extensive endnotes, it is a pity that the author has not provided a bibliography of the extensive source material used by him.

Michael Daniel

National Observer No. 44 - Autumn 2000