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What’s Left of Marx?


When Karl Marx was twenty-four, a contemporary wrote of him: “Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel fused into one person…and you have Dr. Marx.” Marx was not one of those brilliant young men who fail to live up to their promise. He produced the most powerful, coherent, and influential secular system of ideas ever devised to explain man’s past, analyze his present, and predict his future.

What he “fused” together was a dialectical theory of historical stages, a materialist theory of history (in which the struggle of classes replaces Hegel’s struggle of ideas in humanity’s ascent), an economic and moral critique of capitalist civilization (embodied in the exploitation and alienation theses), an economic demonstration that capitalism was bound to collapse (because of its contradictions), a call to revolutionary action, and a prediction (perhaps more an assurance) that communism would be the next—and final—historical stage. His system’s most developed, though incomplete, expression is to be found in his great book Das Kapital, in which the theory of class struggle is linked to the problems of a profit-making economy in such a way as to bring about the collapse of capitalism and its supercession by socialism. Since Marx died in 1883, Marxism has collapsed as a system. What is left are disconnected fragments of a once-coherent design.

First to be discredited, at least in the developed world, was the prediction that capitalism would implode; with that went the collapse of the revolutionary political project. Capitalism has had periods of crisis but has failed to produce mass pauperization; it could be reformed without self-contradiction. Apart from this, the appeal of communism was dimmed by the economic inefficiency and terroristic methods of the actual Communist regimes established in Russia and China. The dynamism of capitalism and decrepitude of the USSR finally put paid to Marx’s theory of history: there was no dialectic in capitalism which leads to its supercession by socialism.

What was left from the debris was, first, Marx’s moral critique of capitalist civilization, which was by no means distinctive to him. In the 1960s, the “Young Marx” of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts was hailed as the philosopher of alienation, often in a strained union with Freud. Historical materialism—the idea that “it is not consciousness that determine life, but life that determines consciousness”—also retains its fascination, though it is no longer linked to any scheme of historical stages. Marxist phrases have continued to be serviceable for any group anywhere which feels itself “excluded” by existing power structures. His essay “On the Jewish Question” is predictably topical. Following the collapse of communism, the Marx of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 has been revived as a prescient critic of globalization. The shifting interpretations of Marx’s legacy have faithfully tracked shifts in the demand for Marx’s ideas, thus seemingly vindicating his own belief that societies use the ideas they need, rather than need the ideas they use.

Francis Wheen’s is the first “post-Marxist” life of Marx. All previous biographies, whether sympathetic or hostile, assumed that Marxist ideas mattered, for good or ill; that they needed to be defended or attacked, or at least seriously discussed; that Marx’s life was part of the still-unfinished history of socialism. But the last of such biographies was in the 1970s. The political and cultural context of Wheen’s book is not just the collapse of Marxism, but the collapse of the Enlightenment project, of which Marxism was an offshoot; the collapse, that is, of the view that history has a “meta-narrative” linking the past to the future which can be rationally discerned, and in the light of which explanations can be given and tasks undertaken. Today we live entirely in the present. For most people the past has little meaning; there is no future on the horizon except more of the present, apart from the ambiguous promises offered by science. History ends, it seems, not with socialism, but with capitalism.

Given this situation, how is one to write about Marx? There seem to be two possible biographical strategies. The first is to treat Marx’s life as a monument to misplaced exertions and hopes. The materials of his life and times could have been so assembled as to explain their bitter and eventually withering fruit, Marxism; and the biographer would have made some attempt to explain why the edifice collapsed, and which bits can still be salvaged from the ruins. In other words, the narrative of Marx’s life could have been set in the context of his project and its failure.

Had I been tempted to write about Marx I think I would have tried to write this kind of life. It would not have been a gloating biography, more a tragedy. There was something grand about Marx’s vision and heroic about the intellectual system he constructed to support it. Its collapse is a relief, but also leaves one with a sense of loss.

Wheen’s approach is different. His book is about Marx without Marxism, the little history cut off from the big history. It starts in Trier, in the Rhineland, where Marx was born in 1818 to Jewish parents who had converted to Protestantism, takes us through his university days in Berlin, where he fell under the influence of Hegel, follows him through the revolutionary politics of Germany and France, which culminated in the revolutions of 1848, and ends with his long exile in Britain, the only country which would give him sanctuary. After eighteen years in London, much of it spent in the British Museum Reading Room, Marx produced, in 1867, the first volume of the work for which he is chiefly known, Das Kapital. He never finished it. It was in London, to whose inhabitants and affairs he remained supremely indifferent, that Marx died in 1883, a burned-out case.

Wheen offers us—he claims for the first time—“Marx the man,” not the historical actor, Marx the human being, not the humanist. At one level, he succeeds brilliantly; his book is very readable. Marx himself is brought to life, warts, including boils, and all—the boils rather too prominently. He may have aimed at “the intellectual destruction of classical political economy,” but he emerges most vividly from Wheen’s pages, especially in his younger days, as a kind of hooligan, who not only threw his intellectual weight around, but sponged off others, told smutty jokes, went pub crawling, challenged people to duels, and smashed street lights. Marx, in Wheen’s account, was one hell of a lad.

This loutish Marx is succeeded by the (mostly) faithful husband and doting and playful father. Wheen is good on Marx’s money problems—this “economic shit” as Marx called them—and the humiliations and tragedies they inflicted on his family. (Three of his children died young, almost certainly victims of the insalubrious dwellings to which Marx’s early poverty in London drove the family.) Later still he became the Victorian patriarch familiar from his portraits, with roast beef on Sundays, and strolls across Hampstead Heath with his daughters and grandchildren.

Wheen offers arresting and often amusing portraits of Engels, Lassalle, Bakunin, and Marx’s other associates, and well conveys the “whirligig of intriguing, score-settling and striving for mastery” which tore apart the revolutionary groupscules which congregated around him. His book benefits greatly from Marx’s own scabrous sense of humor, especially as revealed in the unexpurgated Marx-Engels correspondence. Marx’s main ideas, and their derivations, are presented in short, taut paragraphs that barely interrupt the narrative flow.

What Wheen fails to do is to convey any sense of Marx’s intellectual grandeur. He asserts that he was a great thinker, a prodigious worker, and that his collected writings fill fifty volumes, but the reader gets no real sense that his seriousness was the point of Marx. What was it about Marx’s, and Europe’s, situation in the first half of the nineteenth century that led to such an explosion of revolutionary energy, both intellectual and political? We are very little the wiser from Wheen’s book. He is equally incurious about Marx’s psychology. Yet from whence came those volcanic hatreds and scatological images which were among his main bequests to communism? The result is a curious half-life. The first “human” Marx turns out to be the first dehumanized Marx, a Marx cut off from the story of humanity.

Every book inevitably reflects the talents and interests of its author, and one could simply say that Wheen is strong on story, weak on analysis. But there is more to be said about the cultural context in which his book was produced and received. This context may be loosely called postmodernist, by which I mean to refer to a culture which has lost any sense of being part of a “grand narrative,” and whose characteristic products are therefore marked by playfulness and inconsequentiality. In his book Marxism and Form, the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson traces the growth of the postmodernist sensibility to the novelty of postwar capitalism. In a service economy, the “realities of production and work” no longer determine our consciousness. “Never in any previous civilization,” he writes, “have the great metaphysical preoccupations of being and of the meaning of life seemed so utterly remote and pointless.” Wheen’s biography is a product of the post-modern sensibility. In its jokiness, its startling juxtapositions, its disjunction between style and content, it continuously subverts our expectation of what a biography of Marx should be like.

Wheen’s technique is heavily indebted to journalism (he is a colum-nist on the English newspaper the Guardian). Dostoevsky used to say that he loved reading the newspapers, because the stories on the page were all disconnected: each column tells a different tale; they are joined up by no causal or logical connection, but solely by the demands of design and good copy. Wheen treats Marx’s life in a similar way. The Marx-Engels correspondence is, as he puts it, “a gamey stew of history and gossip, political economy and schoolboy smut, high ideals and low intimacies.” The same image may be applied to Wheen’s biography.

In the older journalism, there was still an accepted order of significance. A gruesome murder might make a juicy story, but for most papers the important “news” was still connected with the public sphere or what was called “the public interest.” We no longer believe this. We believe, or are led to believe, that events in the public sphere are largely ersatz: even the wars we watch on TV are pastiches of previous wars, in which few if any casualties are experienced (at least on our side). With the language and symbols of politics having become a debased currency, our only way of connecting with the public sphere is through the “human interest” story, and on the whole this is the diet that the press and TV feed to us. But in a world dominated by circulation and rating wars this approach readily degenerates into simple voyeurism, masked by the defense that the media are serving the “public interest.” Wheen’s exploitation of the collage technique for voyeuristic effect is shown in the following passage:

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