The Devil in Mr. Marx
Paris beckoned anyway. For the honeymooning Marxes, the French capital set the tone of their future destiny: domestic chaos, personal turmoil, economic uncertainty. Somehow, though, Marx managed to write. Perversely, he even seemed to write better, the more dire the situation. He rolled off the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), already knowing firsthand what "estrangement" means, and how money becomes a supreme alienating power. Next came the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), The German Ideology (1846) and the Communist Manifesto (1848), invoking revolutionary practice and class struggle. By then, he and Engels had bonded and found big trouble together, especially from Prussian, French and Belgian authorities, who bid Marx good riddance from the European mainland. In 1849, with nowhere else to run, the Marx entourage finally ended up in teeming Victorian London. And yet, as Wheen makes graphic, London would be no home away from home. "Never," Marx joked, with typical gallows humor, "has anyone written about money in general amidst such a total lack of money in particular." By all accounts, too, Marx's "encounters with the natives were almost always disastrous, especially if he had a few drinks inside him." "One night," Wheen notes,
he set off with Edgar Bauer and Wilhelm Liebknecht for a drunken jaunt up the Tottenham Court Road, intending to have at least one glass of beer in every pub between Oxford Street and Hampstead Road...by the time they reached the last port of call he was ready for a rumpus. A group of Oddfellows, enjoying a quiet dinner, found themselves accosted by this drunken trio and taunted about the feebleness of English culture. No country but Germany, Marx declared, could have produced such masters as Beethoven, Mozart, Handel and Haydn; snobbish, cant-ridden England was fit only for philistines. This was too much even for the mild-mannered Oddfellows. 'Damned foreigners!' one growled, while several others clenched their fists. Choosing the better part of valour, the German roisterers fled outside.
Marx was considerably more tolerant toward London's many young street urchins and ragamuffins, and he would often pause to stroke their hair and slip a halfpenny into their little hands. Still, says Wheen, Marx's pub experience "taught him that British adults do not take kindly to strangers with alien accents." It's bizarre that Wheen should then cast his Marx in such Oxbridge tonality, such plummy Brideshead English. American audiences might find this frightfully quaint, if not jolly perplexing ("chivvy," "squiffy," "theorising like billy-o," "gamey stew," "bachelors' bender in gay Paree"). Wheen seems to have quaffed a few too many postprandial ports himself, and he projects his own Evelyn Waugh tendencies onto a distinctly Germanic subject. It's Garrick Club banter that quickly wears thin.
Indeed, Wheen diligently lists Marx's foibles--of which there were many--and is well able to describe what Marx said, what Marx did; but he never manages to prize open Marx's inner world, does not attempt to explore what Marx felt or infer what he might have thought. (I know this is an admirable biographical restraint in some circumstances--more modern, fully documented lives--but Wheen surely owes it to us to try here.) Since we don't approach Marx's emotional life, we also never glimpse him in any psychological depth. (Even Jenny, his lifelong partner and stalwart confidante, appears more as scenery than as major cast member.) Karl Marx pales alongside Jerrold Seigel's Marx's Fate, which captures the man's darker powers with greater texture and with more intellectual finesse, and Yvonne Kapp's bio of Marx's youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx, which beautifully lays bare the intimacies of the Marx household and the drama of their family romance.
True, Wheen succeeds in painting a Marx vividly human in some ways. Yet he's far too preoccupied with frivolity, with recounting Marx's alcoholic high jinks, discoursing on his flatulence and boil-ridden penis, having him come on more like Joe Gould, with Capital his best-kept secret. Often Wheen portrays tragedy as mere farce and is surprisingly unsympathetic toward a man who had four children predecease him. (The two survivors, Eleanor and Laura, later killed themselves.)
Marx's personal pains far exceeded his political woes. The death of Edgar, the Marxes' third-born, at the age of 8 became Marx's greatest paternal suffering. He never really got over it. For a few pages, Wheen is untypically generous: "Edgar--the impish, round-faced Colonel Musch--was the favourite. A sickly lad, whose huge head seemed far too heavy for his feeble body, he was nevertheless an inexhaustible source of drollery and high spirits; Marx adored this cunning little slyboots." At the boy's funeral, where he was put to rest beside brother Guido and sister Franziska, a distraught Karl buried his head in his hands and howled, "You can't give my boy back to me!" A page and a half on, Wheen is back to familiar tricks, happily castigating Marx for grumbling that Jenny's uncle's death at 90 "had delayed the redistribution of his considerable wealth." We hear no more about how the loss of Edgar may have affected his father's political will and intellectual drives. Wheen makes light of Marx's telling letter to Engels, dated April 12, 1855:
The house is naturally quite desolate and forlorn since the death of the dear child who was its life and soul. The way we miss him at every turn is quite indescribable. I've been through all kinds of misfortune in my time, but it's only now that I know what real unhappiness is. I feel myself broken down. It's a good thing that since the day of the burial I've had such furious headaches that I can't think or see or hear. In all the terrible agonies I've experienced these days, the thought of you and your friendship has always sustained me, and the hope that, together, we may still do something sensible in the world.
Marx, of course, did do something sensible in the years that followed, often with Engels, pioneering the First International. He did a lot more alone, in the British Museum, drafting his unfinished opus. Marx didn't hand back his entrance ticket to humanity; he plunged headlong into it, getting down to steady work on a gigantic critique of bourgeois political economy. And, like Balzac's mad, obsessive artist in The Unknown Masterpiece, Marx relentlessly tinkered with its form and content while Engels pleaded with him to finish someday soon, to have at least one volume fit for public scrutiny, to help arm the workers in their bloody struggle. The many layers of paint Marx sets down on his canvas, and the absurdities found in his perfect painting, "reflect," Wheen says, "the madness of the subject, not the author."
Karl Marx was a bestseller in Britain when it was released last year. It's perhaps churlish to knock any text that prompts people to read about Marx, especially in an age when he's often treated, as Hegel was in Marx's own day, as a "dead dog." The dog still barks, though, and retains some bite. It's nice that Wheen has taken the trouble to announce this to the world. But the real story of Marx the man--the "total man," the activist, thinker, husband, lover, father, refugee, outsider, Jew, all rolled into one--we've yet to see. Maybe this is the stuff of epic fiction, or maybe, as Howard Zinn showed recently in a play, Marx in Soho, it's better explored onstage. Maybe, in the end, we should just let Marx speak for himself, find a way to let his own voice ring out, have people read his best books again; read them not just as dusty Dickensian tales of hard times but as stories about modern times as well, about realistic hopes and visions of an open-ended culture, forever changeable and always up for grabs. Then we might recognize Marx's story as our story, de te fabula narratur, as he says: a tale about us, necessary for today, indispensable for tomorrow.