The many biographies of Karl Marx bring out a basic paradox in Marxism. Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism, or “the materialist conception of history,” as the young Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels called it, warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes. In particular, they argued that abstract ideas grew out of material circumstances instead of the other way around—and yet what secular ideology or political tradition emphasizes the special contribution of a lone thinker more than Marxism?
Marx himself would have been sensitive to this paradox. Of the half-dozen most important books in his bookish youth, one was a biography that downplayed the importance of a famous individual by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. David Strauss’s Life of Jesus was published in 1835, when Marx was in his late teens. Strauss didn’t deny the validity of Jesus’s teachings or question his historical existence; his book scandalized or, as in the case of Marx and Engels, excited German readers by arguing that the events of the Gospels weren’t factual occurrences but myths, collectively dreamed up by early Christians many years after Christ. Bruno Bauer, Marx’s mentor when he was working on his dissertation in Berlin, went further and declared Jesus an outright invention of the Gospel writers. The point was not, however, to undermine the “absolute idea” (in Bauer’s Hegelian vocabulary) of Christianity; it was to establish “human self-consciousness as the highest divinity,” as Marx (borrowing another Hegelian term) summarized the argument. Sacred truths were to be recognized as collaborative human artifacts, without necessarily forfeiting their truth in the process.
All of this may be so, but it leaves another problem intact: Why do some rare individuals become the vehicles of universal ideas, when almost all others do not? Socialism and communism predate Marx, and an international workers’ movement would have arisen in the 19th and 20th centuries had he never lived. (Of Marx’s eight siblings, only three saw the age of 25.) But Marx did live to write Capital and other evidently imperishable texts, and so we are left to contemplate an intellectual current and political tendency that has cited him at every step. His thought so deeply inflects later history that his and Engels’s dictum about the nature of historical change—“Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life”— can appear upended.
In perhaps the most enduring biographical portrait of Marx in English, the chapters devoted to him in Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940), Marx culminates a series of historical thinkers that begins with Michelet and inaugurates a lineage of political actors that ends with Lenin. Wilson’s perspective belongs to the 1930s, the decade in which he wrote the book, and there is also a hint of self-portrait in his description. This Marx is at the center of the ongoing enterprise of mastering—in the senses both of understanding and controlling—history, even after he finally collapses over his worktable as another man might die in battle.