At a quarter to 3 in the afternoon on March 14, 1883, one of the world’s brainiest men, Karl Marx, ceased to think. He passed away peacefully in his favorite armchair. Three days later, a few miles up the road, the man was buried, a citizenless émigré, in London’s Highgate Cemetery. At the graveside, eleven mourners paid homage to the “Old Moor.” They listened to Marx’s longtime comrade and benefactor, Friedrich Engels–“The General”–remember his dear departed friend: “An immeasurable loss has been sustained both by the militant proletariat of Europe and America, and by historical science, in the death of this man. The gap that has been left by the departure of this mighty spirit will soon enough make itself felt.” His name, Engels predicted, “will endure through the ages, and so also will his work!”
One hundred and seventeen years down the line, Highgate Cemetery continues to receive a steady stream of Marx well-wishers, of all ages and nationalities, the curious and the converted, and fresh flowers and moving inscriptions, in almost every language under the sun, regularly adorn the revolutionary’s gravestone. Towering overhead, indomitably, is the man himself, or rather a gigantic bronze bust of him, with its menacing eyes staring out into the distance, perhaps even frowning at his conservative rival Herbert Spencer, whose remains lie across the path. This overwhelming iconic image of Marx is the one that most popularly endures today: the Marx of statues and flags, of dogma and gulags, of party hacks and holy orthodoxy; a vision of Marxism that invariably looks down upon (and frequently through) real mortals, people who exist in the messy, profane world below.
In a new biography, British journalist, broadcaster and gadfly Francis Wheen argues that Marx actually occupied this profane ground himself and strives to recover Marx the man–carbuncles and all–as opposed to Marx the myth, from posterity. What unfolds is a tale of an intricate and vulnerable figure, a Prussian refugee who, in Wheen’s words, “became a middle-class English gentleman; an angry agitator who spent much of his adult life in the scholarly silence of the British Museum Reading Room; a gregarious and convivial host who fell out with almost all his friends; a devoted family man who impregnated his housemaid; and a deeply earnest philosopher who loved drink, cigars and jokes.” Wheen reveals a feisty yet frail patriarch, a peripatetic vagabond who spent more than thirty years traipsing from one crummy apartment to another, avoiding debts, pawning what little he had, shrugging off illness.
In Wheen’s eyes, Marx’s own Marxism seems more like a Groucho Marxism, avoiding any club that would have him as a member: “I, at least, am not a Marxist,” Karl is once reputed to have told a French socialist. Karl Marx, the book, enters the intellectual and political fray at a time when the bearded prophet has been making something of a minor comeback. For the past few seasons, a spate of studies and sympathetic commentaries has hit the bookstores and circulated over the airwaves. (Marx was elected “Thinker of the Millennium” in a recent British Internet poll.) An unlikely 1997 issue of The New Yorker likewise feted “The Return of Karl Marx,” heralding him as “the next thinker,” wrong about communism but right about the problems of capitalism. Wheen’s line is less shallow and rejects such reappropriation. His Marx is no Marx-lite, no mere “student of capitalism”; instead, Wheen gives us Marx the “revolutionist,” someone who can still make history–even if, like his own life, it would be done under circumstances not of his choosing. And what a life–maybe not “wonderful” like Wittgenstein’s, but certainly full.