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:

In the spring of 1865, after a packed meeting at St. Martin’s Hall, a Reform League was founded to campaign for universal manhood suffrage…. Marx and his colleagues from the International took charge: “The whole leadership is in our hands,” he revealed triumphantly to Engels. For the next year or so he threw himself into the crusade with gusto while also attending to the International, the manuscript of Capital, the demands of his family and creditors—and, of course, those blossoming boils on his bum, which were more prolific than ever. He hacked away at them with a cut-throat razor, watching with vicious satisfaction as the bad blood spurted over the carpet.

There is, of course, a place for “boils on the bum” in any biography of Marx. The agony they caused him as he tried to complete Das Kapital might be written up so as to evoke pity, explain his hatreds, or analyze his imagery. (He once described the Young Hegelians as the “putrescence of Absolute Spirit.”) But there is no pity in Wheen’s account. Its purpose is demythologizing: to unsettle the conventional hierarchy of seriousness by means of absurd juxtaposition. Its method is exploitative: to present Marx’s affliction for our appalled amusement, like film directors who let the camera linger on blown-out bits of people’s brains.

Wheen has also been influenced by contemporary critical theory, which treats works of literature as purely rhetorical, and criticism as the study of the means by which writers achieve their effects. The underlying idea is that there is no truth, or “thing in itself,” beyond the words we use, and therefore no task for criticism except to show how words are used. The economist Deirdre McCloskey has applied this technique, with some effect, to undermining the scientific claims of economic “models.”1 Wheen’s solution to the “death of Marx” problem is to treat Marx’s work as a literary genre, devoid of substantive significance.

That Marx was a rhetorician of genius is not in dispute. David McLellan has emphasized his use of “slogan, climax, anaphora, parallelism, antithesis and chiasmus.”2 (He was particularly addicted to the last, as in phrases like “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, supplant the criticism of weapons.”) Edmund Wilson (who entitled one of his chapters on Marx “Poet of Commodities”) rightly drew attention to Marx’s comic gift (in his diatribes against the Young Hegelians); he remarked of his writing that it was “either inhumanly dark and dead or almost superhumanly brilliant,” and noted that his “method of stating ideas was a dialectical sequence of paradoxes; of concepts turning into their opposites.” In a striking passage, which Wheen does little more than to reproduce, Wilson singles out Das Kapital as a masterpiece of irony, in the tradition of Swift.3 The Marxist story, starting with capitalism’s “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour,” and ending with the peroration “This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated,” has reverberated with hypnotic and inspiring effect.

Marx certainly had a gift for savage comic invention, which he could use to deadly effect. His use of the oxymoron to demolish the pretensions of Louis Napoleon is masterly: “clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery, an undecipherable hieroglyphic.” His very plasticity, Marx argued, allowed all classes and types to reinvent him in their own image. “Just because he was nothing, he could signify anything.” Louis Napoleon was a postmodern figure before his time. Clinton and Blair are lucky to have no latter-day Marx around to point out their similarities. A whiff of Marx’s more intimate humor comes from his description of the Emperor’s consort, Eugénie, in this letter to Engels:

The angel suffers, it seems, from a most indelicate complaint. She is passionately addicted to farting and is incapable even in company of suppressing it. At one time she resorted to horse-riding as remedy. But this having now been forbidden by her Bonaparte, she “vents” herself. It’s only a noise, a little murmur, a nothing, but then you know that the French are sensitive to the slightest puff of wind.

Marx, as Wheen rightly notes, was an intellectual terrorist. His more serious writing remained undone while he vented thousands of pages of invective on fellow socialists, most of whose only claim to fame is to have been the subject of one of Marx’s verbose diatribes. “The sarcasms with which he assailed his adversaries had the cold penetration of the executioner’s axe,” wrote one victim. When Proudhon wrote a book called The Philosophy of Poverty, Marx denounced it in a polemic entitled The Poverty of Philosophy. In The German Ideology “300 unreadable pages were devoted to the follies of Max Stirner, an anarchic Young Hegelian author who proposed that heroic egoism and self-indulgence would liberate individuals from their imaginary oppression.” Practically all of those who worked with Marx stimulated his talent for insult: August Willich, “an uneducated four-times cuckolded jackass”; Ferdinand Lassalle, “the Jewish nigger.” Phrases like “petty bourgeois philistinism,” “rural idiocy,” “lackeys,” “curs,” “jackasses,” “blockheads,” “hyenas,” with which he laced his polemics, were to feature prominently in the Communist lexicon of abuse. Marx justified his extravagant verbal vendettas as demolishing the utopian and sentimental rubbish which stood in the way of the “real” liberation of the working class. But his enjoyment of his own invective is obvious; his overindulgence in it goes far to explain why, for all his intellectual dominance, he remained an isolated figure, and why communism repelled more than it attracted.

Wheen adds some notable details of his own. One cannot take the Communist Manifesto quite as seriously after learning that its famous opening sentence was first translated into English not as “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism,” but as “A frightful hobgoblin stalks through Europe….” The indeterminate meaning of “hobgoblin”—it can be either a “terrifying apparition” or “a mischievous tricksy imp or sprite”—allows the reader to choose between two views of Marx himself. Wheen similarly interprets Das Kapital 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,” quoting Marx’s phrase “Capital which comes into the world soiled with mire from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore.” His suggestion that Marx’s account of capitalism was influenced by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the tale of a monster which destroys its maker, is borne out by Marx’s remark in the Communist Manifesto that the bourgeoisie created the proletariat “like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

However, to treat Marx just as a black satirist, a pamphleteer in the tradition of Swift, or as a literary prankster—to analyze his work, that is, in purely literary terms—is, surely, as Wheen would say, “to miss the plot.” Das Kapital was not just a satire on “Mr. Money Bags,” but a call to revolution, based on what purported to be a “scientific” analysis of capitalism. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” he famously wrote. It must always be relevant to inquire into the truth or falsehood of a doctrine in whose name people are enjoined to wade through blood to a better future. That is why the instinct of those critics who directed their fire at the intellectual content of Marx’s writings was a sound one. Moreover, as no less an authority than Joseph Schumpeter has pointed out, Marx’s “scientific” achievement was far from negligible. So Wheen is wrong to vilify the efforts of thinkers like Popper to test Marx’s predictions against results.

The devastating effect of Wheen’s unwillingness to take such testing seriously is most starkly revealed in his dismissive comment, “Only a fool could hold Marx responsible for the Gulag.” Is this meant to imply that words have no consequences? Wheen amply testifies to a doctrine born of hatred, but doesn’t wonder about how out of so much hatred good can come. The demonization of opponents, the contempt for bourgeois constitutionalism, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—all this is part of Marx’s legacy. Wheen gives no sign of having thought about the enormity of Marx’s opportunistic espousal, at the end of his life, of a Communist revolution in a primitive country (Russia), in complete defiance of his own stage-theory of history. Is it not absurd to claim that because there is no need now to take Marx at face value, that what he said had no consequences for the millions of people who were murdered by people who used his theories to justify their actions?

Nor is Wheen consistent. He wants to have it both ways—to treat Marx’s propositions as pieces of rhetoric and to say that in some way they are valid. He is amazed at “how astoundingly topical” Marx seems to be. “Today’s pundits and politicians who fancy themselves as modern thinkers like to mention the buzz-word ‘globalization’ at every opportunity—without realizing that Marx was already on the case in 1848.” Well, yes—only he believed that the global capitalism of his day was about to self-destruct, and here we are still at it 150 years later. Wheen’s Marxist belief that “labor lags further and further behind capital, however many microwave ovens the owners can afford” is simply false: the relative shares of wages and profits in the national income of developed countries have remained remarkably constant over time.

After quoting Marx’s splendid passage in the Communist Manifesto which climaxes with “All that is solid melts into air…,” Wheen asks: “How could he be so wrong and yet so right?” This is, indeed, the key question, though I would have put it the other way around. Wheen goes on to compare Marx to a chess player who devises a brilliant strategy to mate his opponent’s king in six moves, not noticing that his opponent can mate him far sooner. He then spends a page describing a marathon chess session between Marx and Liebknecht, in which Marx at first gained the upper hand, but Liebknecht learned how to counter Marx’s deadly thrusts. As an analogy this is useful, but as an explanation of Marx’s predictive failures it is useless, because there are no closures in human affairs such as Marx might have achieved, by better tactics, on the chess board.

A third aspect of Wheen’s approach is the way he uses the playfulness of his own style to subvert Marx’s seriousness. There was a revue put on at this year’s Edinburgh festival called MacHomer, in which the characters of The Simpsons TV cartoon act out the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Wheen’s book on Marx is partly written in the manner of P.G. Wodehouse, whose own style was a parody of the English public schoolboy slang of eighty years ago. (We can almost hear Bertie Wooster say: “A bit under the weather, old boy. Boils on the bum.”) Wheen playfully draws attention to Marx’s hirsuteness: “Like Esau [Marx was] an hairy man”; Bakunin, too, was “a hairy Russian giant.” Marx, Wheen writes, was “perpetually skint.” He “wheedl[ed] money out of the old girl [his mother],” who “one can safely say was no skylark.” One source of his financial problems was his marriage to “a bit of posh [Jenny von Westphalen].” In the circumstances, “[he] could ill-afford to go off on a bachelor’s bender to gay Paree.”

As for his boozing and roistering, the university authorities “didn’t know half of it.” Engels, Marx’s benefactor, did an inordinate amount of “boozing and sex” too; he seems to have been “more or less squiffy” for the whole of a holiday in Switzerland. “Fat chance!” Wheen exclaims when Engels urged Marx to finish a book on political economy; the two friends spent the winter of 1845-1846 “theorising like billy-o.” Of Marx’s collaboration with David Urquhart, who introduced Turkish baths into England, Wheen writes that he was consorting with “some pretty rum coves.” A life of Karl Marx written by P.G. Wodehouse is a good postmodernist joke.

The mask of good humor only slips when Wheen contemplates previous writers on Marx. These he dismisses with contempt as “academics and zealots,” half-wits and wise- acres. “Only a half-wit—or an economics lecturer,” he writes, could misinterpret Marx as predicting the impoverishment of the worker. In good Marxist fashion, he directs a stream of abuse against a book no one has heard of called Was Karl Marx a Satanist?


So what is left of Marxism?

  1. The main prop of Marx’s economics, the labor theory of value, is damaged beyond repair.

Marx needed the theory that labor is the sole source of value (which he got from Adam Smith and Ricardo) to demonstrate that capitalism exploits the worker. Labor, like any commodity, is paid only what it costs (the socially necessary labor time it takes) to produce itself, including the costs of producing the next generation. But the capitalists are in a position to make workers work more hours than it takes to keep them alive and working and rearing families. Therefore, as Marx says in Das Kapital, “the value of labor must always be less than the value it produces.” The difference between the two values goes to the capitalist. Marx called it “surplus value,” or roughly the capitalist’s profit. Unpaid labor time alone is the source of profit.

The labor theory of value was crucial in Marx’s scheme, not because it showed that real wages cannot rise (a mistake in interpretation, though some phrases in Das Kapital do suggest the growing pauperization of the population), but because it showed that capitalism cannot exist without exploiting the worker. It failed the scientific test, because it could not explain why actual prices, wages, and profits are what they are. It also failed to take into account the rewards to enterprise, risk-taking, and saving in the cost of producing goods and services.

Nevertheless, the intellectual challenge posed by Marx required a revolution in economic theory to dispose of it. The revolution, associated with the Austrian economist Karl Menger and the British economist William Stanley Jevons, substituted the marginal utility theory for the cost-of-production theory of prices. (The path-breaking books of both men were published in 1871.) According to this theory, relative prices are explained not by hours of labor time, but by the relative scarcities of goods and services, including those of labor and capital, which in turn reflect the ratios of the marginal utilities—i.e., expected individual welfares—they yield to the consumer. (If I say cheese yields me one tenth more utility than butter, I am saying that the ratio of utility of butter to cheese is ten to eleven. Marginal utility theory says that the prices of equal quantities of butter and cheese will be, say, $10 and $11.) Enterprise, for example, is more highly rewarded than manual work because it is scarcer. The Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk used this theory to demolish Marx’s exploitation theory. In a state of equilibrium—when supplies and demands in a competitive labor market are balanced—workers are paid what they are worth. This revolution in theory occurred over ten years before Marx died. Was that why he never finished Das Kapital? Did he go to his grave knowing that he was wrong? It is a tantalizing thought.

When the effect of this demolition work sank in, it was inevitable that the exploitation theory would be reformulated (in the non-Communist world at least) as a theory of alienation. What the worker was being robbed of was not his labor power, but his “ownership” of what he produced and the processes of work. Under capitalism, labor is a commodity, to be bought and sold in exchange for other commodities: this relationship Marx calls commodity fetishism. Notice that it is a consequence not just of capitalism but of the division of labor, the specialization that is a feature of any modern economy, capitalist or Communist. (Workers don’t eat the steel they produce, as earlier farmers ate the bread they produced. They get paid money, which buys them bread among other things.)

This strand of Marxism is still alive (mixed up with other traditions) as a protest against the mindless consumption which may be interpreted as the compensation modern society offers for the loss of human significance in the work many people do. Its effect on contemporary politics, particularly those of the left-center, is seen in the rhetorical extension of the concept of ownership to include control of the processes by which decisions are made and human lives affected. This ramifies into arguments for participation, decentralization, and communitarianism, and animates ecological politics, gender politics, and so on. It could be argued that the new electronic technologies generated by capitalism work to the same end by creating “virtual” communities linked through the Internet. Evidently, there is a great deal more to be said about the human consequences of capitalism.

  1. Marx’s theory of the class struggle as the motor of social change is also dead, though it may have had some validity in the past. Capitalism, he said, created the proletariat which would destroy it, by concentrating all the means of production in a few hands. (On how the destruction would come about Marx was unclear, since he never succeeded in proving that capitalism was economically unviable. He relied on the accumulation of contradictions resulting from this situation to bring about the transformation to socialism.) In practice, it is capitalism, not communism, which has been the greater dissolver of classes, by enabling an ever-increasing fraction of the population to acquire assets other than their labor power, in the form of shares, small businesses, and other entitlements to streams of income not deriving from work. This is exactly the reverse of what Marx foresaw.

There remains a puzzle. In his preface to A Critique of Political Economy (1859), Marx wrote:

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have developed; and newhigher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.

Why then did he expect a successful socialist revolution in the infancy of the industrial system? In reply, it is tempting to venture a non-Marxist generalization. The danger to the established order is greatest in the youth of capitalism, when traditional society comes under challenge. It recedes as capitalism gets established, contrary to Marx’s scheme, in which it grows with capitalist contradictions. All the major anticapitalist revolutions of modern times occurred at the wrong time and in the wrong place for Marxists, particularly in Russia and China, but they bear out this general principle. Had tsarism had ten more years, Russia would never have experienced the Bolshevik nightmare.

  1. In its crude form historical materialism is untenable. It ignores both the fact that the set of circumstances shaping the way people think and feel goes beyond their place in the productive system and that ideas change much more slowly than the methods of production. Yet a less intransigent version of historical materialism remains the only secular alternative to religious metanarratives. Thinkers in the Marxist tradition, or influenced by ideas of historical materialism, such as Daniel Bell, Fredric Jameson, and Perry Anderson, have been by far the most interesting interpreters of the changes in the economy, state, society, and culture which have occurred in the last twenty-five years. But they are just interpreters, fulfilling the function Marx gave philosophers. Many of them have highly paid jobs in American universities.
  2. Although Marx failed to clinch his demonstration that capitalism was bound to collapse, he understood, rightly, that it was a system with deep and persistent problems. The expectation of large-scale economic crises has receded from our consciousness. This does not mean that they will not happen. Then the discourse will change once more.

All this, and much more, might have been said by a fin de siècle biographer of Marx. But such matters were not in Wheen’s province; his achievement is quite different. In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx wrote that “all…personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” For all his prescience, Marx could scarcely have predicted that this would be his own fate.

This Issue

November 16, 2000