BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
'Karl Marx', by Francis Wheen
, April 8, 2000
by Francis Wheen
Rec. price: $49.00
Francis Wheen convincingly demonstrates that an entire dismissal of Marx's ideas, on the basis that communism has come and gone, is premature. Whilst Marx's deterministic view of history is simplistic and was proven spurious even within his own lifetime, many aspects of Marx's analysis of the dynamics of capitalism are valid.
In his introduction, Wheen points to the tributes paid to Marx's analysis of capitalism in the last few years by right-wing economists and journalists, beginning with an article in the October 1997 edition of the New Yorker, which billed Marx as the next big thinker.
Marx's discussions, for example, about global monopolies, sound eerily prophetic. He also predicted, with the growth of capitalism, periodic recessions and an ever-growing dependence upon technology.
Similarly, Marx spoke about the pauperisation of the lowest group of society as a product of capitalism. Whilst the entire working class can hardly be said to be poor, most Western countries have witnessed in recent decades the emergence of what is fast becoming an entrenched group of poor, who subsist on welfare handouts and have limited prospects of breaking out of the poverty cycle.
The subject matter is treated by Wheen largely in chronological order.
Born in Trier in 1818 to a middle class Jewish family that had converted to Protestantism, Marx studied at Bonn and then at Berlin University, where he came under the influence of Hegelianism. His membership of the Young Hegelian movement and his editorship of the Rheinische Zeitung, engendered the opposition of the Prussian Government which vetoed the possibility of an academic position for Marx, on account of his involvement in the Young Hegelian movement and closed his paper down on account of its opposition to articles on economic questions. Marx then emigrated to Paris at the end of 1843, only to be expelled in 1845.
It was in Paris that Marx became a communist. He then lived in Belgium before travelling to London for a meeting of the Communist League in 1847.
At this time, Marx and Engels set forth their position in The Communist Manifesto
(first published 1848), which began with the well known lines, "A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism".
After brief sojourns in Paris and Cologne, Marx sought refuge in London in 1849, where he was to remain until the end of his life, living in Soho and later in North London, where he died in 1883.
The writing of Marx's principal work, Capital,
is discussed at length. The work is extremely difficult to read, given its rambling nature. It would be true to say that it is an unread book. Wheen goes so far as to suggest that it is best read not as an economic treatise but as a work of the imagination: a Victorian melodrama, or a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created (capital); or perhaps a satirical utopia like Swift's land of the Houyhnhnms.
He argues that Capital possesses these qualities partly because of the sources. In any one section of his writing, Marx saturates the reader with data from government reports, only to follow this with quotations from texts such as Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.
Wheen also devotes considerable space to describing the chaotic nature of Marx's personal life. Marx was forever short of money and frequently in debt. When he acquired money, he spent it recklessly, often on moving to a more expensive residence.
Ironically, the man who was to devote his writing life to an analysis of the negative effects of capitalism upon the working class himself experienced financial problems largely because he tried to maintain a middle class lifestyle.
Throughout their married life, Karl and Jenny Marx employed at least one servant, travelled, entertained - often lavishly - and sent their daughters to private schools. Marx also endured poor health, particularly in later years, details, many of which are quite egregious, are noted by Wheen.
Similarly ironic is Marx's inability to earn a living when he provides a sustained critique of how the bourgeois classes are able to do so. What small amounts of money Marx earned directly throughout his life were from publications and editorships of journals. Most of the journals he edited were short-lived, some being closed by hostile governments, others through want of subscribers.
It was only in the latter stages of his life, with the publication of volumes of Capital that he began to realise a moderate income from his published work. Marx's main source of income were hand outs, mainly from his lifelong friend Friedrich Engels (one of the few he was able to retain) a fellow critic of capitalism, whose source of income was his factories.
Karl Marx is a highly readable and informative biography of this significant economic philosopher. One of the great strengths of this biography is Wheen's familiarity with Marx's works (including the more obscure works) and surviving papers, indicated by his frequent references to them.
Whilst there are extensive endnotes, it is a pity that the author has not provided a bibliography of the extensive source material.