The Devil in Mr. Marx

The Devil in Mr. Marx

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.


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.

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.

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.

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