The Greatest Mover and Shaker of the 19th century

The last decade and half have not been the happiest of times for those on the Left, specifically the Marxists among them. It has been a long receeding low tide for them, interuppted happily only by old man Marx getting voted, now and then, as the greatest thinker ever. It is often forgotten that it was after all Lenin who is responsible for launching Marx into the 20th century.On Lenin, perhaps a little later, but Francis Wheen’s talk in the BBC’s Radio 4 reminded me of his biography of Marx that he wrote five years back, and reviewed by this Reader for The Tribune then.
By Francis Wheen
W.W. Norton and Company, New York
Price $27.95 Pages 431

It is not incidental that a biography of Karl Marx should appear a decade after the fall of ‘existing’ socialism in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Pop prophecies that followed the demise of bureaucratic socialism have had no more than a fleeting existence. The much-celebrated Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ was quickly succeeded by what Samuel Huntington termed as the clash of civilisations. Robert Kaplan warns of what he terms as ‘the coming anarchy’.

The Left, caused unawares by the Titanic shift in world systems, is still in a state of defensive confusion, even if it has somewhat recovered from a state of shock. Perry Anderson articulates the dominant Left view that neo- liberalism is still in full deluge, while Eric Hobsbawm has confidently put forward the proposition that globalisation and the neo- liberalism riding piggyback on it is reaching its limits.

It is in this background that the need ‘to go back to Marx’ is evident in the book under review. Karl Marx, “the red terror doctor”- as he came to be known in his own lifetime- and who outlived all his contemporary revolutionists and opponents like Ferdinand Lassalle and Mikhail Bakunin, may as well outlive the current breed of neo- liberal proponents.

Wheen’s Marx comes across not only a person, whose life was identical with the history of contemporary socialism, as Isaiah Berlin treated his subject in his biography of Marx. Wheen’s Marx emerges as a man who loved his family, loved a drink, smoked continuously, chased his opponents with vehemence, was a voracious reader, an assiduous scholar and above all a revolutionary.

He married his childhood sweetheart and five years his senior Jenny Westphalen, adored his daughters and in old age was a grandfather who missed the company of his grandchildren when they were not around. At a different plane, his life long friendship with Frederic Engels that each cherished till the end, is touching and possibly unsurpassed.

Marx was also, and Wheen spends considerable effort on reminding us of this, the father of an illegitimate son whom he loathed. Engels practically owned up and adopted the son of Marx and his faithful housekeeper Helene Demuth. His son died in 1929 in a working class district of London, aged 77, not knowing that he was the son of the person in whose name the world shaking Bolshevik revolution had been carried out in his own lifetime.

On the whole, Wheen succeeds in this first biography of Marx to appear after the end of the Cold War in rescuing Marx from both the demonology that characterised sections of Western scholarship as well as the hagiography that Soviet biographers subjected him to. In an age when we are being told by post- modernists that Marx and Marxism are nothing more than any other ‘text’ and need to be merely ‘read’ as such, or writers who insist on ‘reading vampires in Capital’ in an exercise to understand the man or account for his tomes in his Jewish self- hatred, Wheen has come out with a very balanced biography. The lacuna, however, is evident when the author tries to explain some of Marx’s concepts in simplistic terms. From that perspective, Berlin’s 1939 (revised last in 1978) ‘Karl Marx’ still remains an essential reading (David Mcllean’s biography being out of print for a number of years now, Berlin’s is the easiest one to get).

The only other deficiency that one can identify is the blurring of the growing up years of Marx, between the ages of 10 to about 22. The Marx that we see after this age is a well developed thinker, immensely well read and already hailed by those who knew him firsthand to be the most promising living philosopher and successor to Hegel. How this happened is not dealt with in detail. The reason may be a sound one- not much information is available on this period of Marx’s life.

Did Marx’s own personality, powerful as it was, leave any imprint on his thought and the movements that it spawned? Though the author does not raise this question directly, there is enough material in the book to enable one to judge for himself.

On the downside, it was Marx’s abrasive, sometimes almost offensive and vituperative manner of attacking those who opposed him. Undoubtedly most of his opponents were pygmies in comparison with ‘the Moor’, and he made no bones about it, attacking them with the ferocity of an unleashed hurricane. His followers, at least for the better part of the 20th century, did indeed emulate their master in this regard, often with equal ardour against their own dissenting comrades. It may well be argued, though, that in this respect Marx was as much a product of the revolutionary circles of his age as its progenitor.

On the upside, it has been his exemplary self- sacrifice for the ideas that his reasoning led to. Perpetual poverty, constant illness and the resultant tragedies in his family did not deter Marx from pursuing what he believed to be the rational way of human emancipation. Perhaps the last of the great Enlightenment thinkers, he was the only true prophet of the second millennium, his sacrifices overarched only by the breadth of his thought and the appeal of his vision.

Many of his followers, including the Old Bolsheviks sent to the gallows or shot by Stalin in the 1937 purges, firmly believed till the end that their ideology, seemingly vindictive it had been on themselves, deserved any amount of sacrifice. Man does not live for himself alone, and there are causes that are higher than selling one’s labour each day.

But by far the most enduring stamp that his personality left was that of erudition and detailed study. No social and political movement has sent so many of its followers scurrying into libraries as Marxist socialism has. No other organised movement (except perhaps the anti- Nazi resistance movement in France) has also sent many an armchair philosopher into political battlefield.

What epitaph would Marx have chosen for himself? Wheen recounts an incident at the end of Marx’s life in lieu of an answer.

‘While holidaying in Ramsgate in the summer of 1880 Marx had met the American journalist John Swinton who was writing a series on ‘travels in France and England’ for the New York Sun. Swinton watched the old patriarch playing on the beach with his grand- children and then at dusk was granted an interview. He reported:

‘The talk was of the world, and of man, and of time, and of ideas as our glasses tinkled over the sea. The railway train waits for no man, and night is at hand. Over the thought of the babblement and the scenes of the evening, arose in my mind one question touching upon the final law of being, for which I would seek answer from this sage. Going down to the depths of language and rising to the height of emphasis, during an intersperse of silence, I interrupted the revolutionist and philosopher in these fateful words: What is?’

‘And it seemed as though his mind was inverted for a moment while he looked upon the roaring sea in front and the restless multitude upon the beach. ‘What is?’ I had inquired, to which in deep and solemn tone, he replied: ‘Struggle!’

At first it seemed as though I had heard the echo of despair, but peradventure it was the law of life.’

Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

3 thoughts on “The Greatest Mover and Shaker of the 19th century”

    A good review of the book…..Just now I like to attract yours attention towards the controversy regarding Marx’s illegitamate son Frederick Demuth (1851-1929). It was reported by David Mcllean as well as Wheen.
    Recently Terrell Carver disputed this claim forcefully. I feel if there is controversy about some historical fact, that fact should not be presented as the uncontested one. It is the responsibility of the Biographer to inform the reader about the claims and counter-claims. Only then he can favor a particular interpretation for establishing a fact. Unfortunately this has not been done by both biographers. Carver’s contribution is that he unfolded first whole controversy and then gave his opinion against the claim of illegitimate son.
    here is the link for Carver’s article.

    ishwar singh dost, Bhopal.

  2. I was told by the late Mohit Sen that Frederick Demuth’s picture bore a very strong resemblance to Marx. I havent been able to find his picture on the internet. Either way, I gues sit hardly diminishes Marx’s stature as a thinker. Does it dimish his moral stature? Perhaps it does. If indeed Frederick’s birth was the result of a passion, even if momentary, Marx should have owned it up.

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