The Devil in Mr. Marx | The Nation


The Devil in Mr. Marx

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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!"

About the Author

Andy Merrifield
Andy Merrifield, a Marx scholar, writes frequently about urbanism and politics. His last book, The Urbanization of...

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In September 1940, with a weak heart and even frailer nerves, Walter Benjamin carried on an old smugglers' path in the French Pyrenean foothills a big black briefcase stuffed with a manuscript th

To my distress and perhaps to my delight, I order things in accordance with my passions.... I put in my pictures everything I like.

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.

The man who famously urged us to change the world, not just interpret it, was born in the Rhineland town of Trier in 1818. A precocious schoolboy raised in a fairly well-to-do household (father Heinrich, Jewish and a lawyer), young Karl soon fled the nest, and, rather than earn capital, he embarked on career studying and trying to overthrow it, much to the chagrin of his dear mother (Henriette). We follow Wheen through the well-trodden ground of Marx's stormy rites of passage. At 17 he studied law at Bonn University, blithely ignoring his father's advice about clean living: Marx Jr. frequently burned the midnight oil, imbibed cheap ale, puffed away on foul cigars and once got thrown in the clink for noisy, late-night reveling. No wonder Heinrich was relieved when his son transferred to the University of Berlin, where he switched to philosophy, discovered Romanticism, idealism and French socialism, and also fell in love with an aristocratic beauty, Jenny von Westphalen, daughter of a Trier baron and a distant relative of the British Earl of Argyll. Karl and the future Mrs. Marx initially kept their affair secret; neither's parents were amused when "the twenty-two year old princess" and "the bourgeois Jewish scallywag four years her junior" formally announced their engagement in 1836.

Karl's other burning passion then was Hegel, the great idealist thinker, who'd held a chair at Berlin years before the fledgling socialist arrived. Young Marx even wrote a charming ditty in Hegel's honor: "He understands what he thinks, freely invents what he feels. Thus, each may for himself suck wisdom's nourishing nectar." Marx's lifelong debt to Hegel was the dialectic, the method and thought system he'd later appropriate for himself in Capital, grasping all contradictions and paradoxes, fluxes and flows, theses and antitheses, life and the mind, as some sort of coherent whole. With Hegel, everything was in the mind, in the idea, which reached its absolute state in the self-critical, self-conscious human being, free from unhappy consciousness and bad faith. Although Marx eventually turned Hegel right side up, viewing the idea as "nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought," in Berlin he became the brightest and booziest member of a rowdy crew called the "Young Hegelians."

That was until his father's death, a deeply painful blow. Despite the ups and downs, Karl always loved his father and kept a small daguerreotype of Heinrich in a breast pocket. (It accompanied him to the grave.) Oddly, Wheen avoids engaging with the complexity of the Karl/Heinrich relationship, being content to mock the apparently insensitive progeny smoking and drinking away his inheritance and breezing through a thesis on the classical Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus.

As a relatively free agent who recognized that his inquisitive, expansive mind would never be accepted in the stuffy German academy, Karl wrote brilliant polemics instead, for Rheinische Zeitung, a Cologne newspaper. He railed against press censorship under King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, denounced new wood-theft legislation, flirted with communism. He also raised a few friends' eyebrows, who marveled at the young man's erudition: "Dr Marx," Wheen quotes one saying, "will give medieval religion and philosophy their coup de grâce; he combines the deepest philosophical seriousness with the most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel fused into one person--I say fused, not juxtaposed--and you have Dr Marx." But said doctor was too clever for his own good: The Prussian government soon closed down the subversive newspaper and gave the newly wed Marx his marching orders.

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