Karl Marx: A Lifeby Francis Wheen
"A brilliant book, by a superb author, about a necessary man."Christopher Hitchens
In this stunning book, the first comprehensive biography of Marx since the end of the Cold War, Francis Wheen gives us not a socialist ogre but a fascinating, ultimately humane man, while still examining the criticisms of his detractors. A study in contradictions, Karl Marx
"A brilliant book, by a superb author, about a necessary man."Christopher Hitchens
In this stunning book, the first comprehensive biography of Marx since the end of the Cold War, Francis Wheen gives us not a socialist ogre but a fascinating, ultimately humane man, while still examining the criticisms of his detractors. A study in contradictions, Karl Marx was at once a reserved scholar, a fiery agitator, and a gregarious socialite, while his intellect and ideology were once described as "Rousseau, Voltaire, and Hegel fused into one person." He lived both at the center and on the fringes of his age, and his oratory and writing continue to change the contemporary world. In his entertaining, offbeat style, Wheen offers an eminently readable biography of one of history's most unforgettable figures. "Wheen's portrait of Marx's life is artfully shaped and makes delectable reading."New York Times "A magnificent portrait of Marx.... Bravo!"A. N. Wilson "[E]xpertly researched, admirably objective, eminently humane, and plenty entertaining."Boston Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
A train grinds slowly through the Moselle valley tall pines, terraced vineyards, prim villages, calm smoke in the winter sky. Gasping for breath in an overcrowded cattle truck, a young Spaniard captured while fighting with the French Resistance counts off the days and nights as he and his fellow prisoners are borne inexorably from Compiègne to the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald. When the train pulls up at a station he glances at the sign: TRIER. Suddenly a German boy on the platform hurls a rock at the grille behind which the doomed passengers cower.
Thus begins Jorge Semprun's great Holocaust novel, The Long Voyage, and nothing on that journey to extinction not even the anticipation of horrors to come at Buchenwald pierces the narrator's heart more agonisingly than the stone-throwing child. 'It's a goddamn dirty trick that this had to happen at Trier, of all places,' he laments.
'Why?' a puzzled Frenchman asks. 'You used to know it?'
'No, I mean I've never been here.'
'Then you know someone from here?'
'That's it, yes, that's it.' A childhood friend, he explains. But in fact he's thinking of an earlier son of Trier, a Jewish boy, born in the early hours of 5 May 1818.
'Blessed is he that hath no family,' Karl Marx sighed wearily in a letter to Friedrich Engels in June 1854. He was aged thirty-six at the time and had long since severed his own umbilical ties. His father was dead, as were three brothers and oneof his five sisters; another sister died two years later, and even the survivors had little to do with him. Relations with his mother were icy and distant, not least because she had been inconsiderate enough to stay alive and thus keep the rebellious heir from his inheritance.
Marx was a bourgeois Jew from a predominantly Catholic city within a country whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism. He died an atheist and a stateless person, having devoted his adult life to predicting the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the withering away of the nation-state. In his estrangement from religion, class and citizenship, he personified the alienation which he identified as the curse inflicted by capitalism upon humanity.
He may seem an odd representative of the oppressed masses, this respectable middle-class German, but his emblematic status would not have surprised Marx himself, who believed that individuals reflect the world they inhabit. His upbringing taught him all he needed to know about religion's seductive tyranny, arming him with the didactic eloquence and self-confidence to exhort humanity to throw off its shackles.
'He was a unique, an unrivalled storyteller,' his daughter Eleanor recorded, in one of the few surviving anecdotes from her father's childhood. 'I have heard my aunts say that as a little boy he was a terrible tyrant to his sisters, whom he would "drive" down the Markusberg at Trier full speed, as his horses, and, worse, would insist on their eating the "cakes" he made with dirty dough and dirtier hands. But they stood the "driving" and ate the "cakes" without a murmur, for the sake of the stories Karl would tell them as a reward for their virtue.' In later years when the playful girls had become respectable married women they were rather less indulgent towards their wayward sibling. Luise Marx, who emigrated to South Africa, once dined at his house while visiting London. 'She could not countenance her brother being the leader of the socialists,' a fellow guest reported, 'and insisted in my presence that they both belonged to the respected family of a lawyer who had the sympathy of everybody in Trier.'
Marx's determined efforts to cut loose from the influence of his family, religion, class and nationality were never wholly successful. As a venerable greybeard he remained forever the prodigal son, firing off begging letters to rich uncles or ingratiating himself with distant cousins who might soon be drawing up their wills. When he died, a daguerreotype photograph of his father was found in his breast pocket. It was placed in his coffin and interred in Highgate cemetery.
He was tethered however unwillingly by the force of his own logic. In a precocious schoolboy essay, 'Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of Profession', the seventeen-year-old Karl Marx observed that 'we cannot always attain the position to which we believe we are called; our relations in society have to some extent already begun to be established before we are in a position to determine them'. His first biographer, Franz Mehring, may have exaggerated when he detected the germ of Marxism in this one sentence, but he had a point. Even in ripe maturity Marx insisted that human beings cannot be isolated or abstracted from their social and economic circumstances or from the chilly shades of their forebears. 'The tradition of all the dead generations', he wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 'weighs like a mountain on the mind of the living.'
One of Marx's paternal ancestors, Joshue Heschel Lwow, had become the rabbi of Trier as long ago as 1723, and the post had been something of a family sinecure ever since. His grandfather, Meier Halevi Marx, was succeeded as the town rabbi by Karl's uncle Samuel. Yet more dead generations were added to the load by Karl's mother, Henriette, a Dutch Jew in whose family 'the sons had been rabbis for centuries' including her own father. As the oldest son of such a family, Karl might not have escaped his own rabbinical destiny but for those 'social and economic circumstances'.
Added to the weight of dead generations was the smothering spiritual tradition of Trier, oldest city in the Rhineland. As Goethe noted gloomily after a visit in 1793, 'Within its walls it is burdened, nay oppressed, with churches and chapels and cloisters and colleges and buildings dedicated to chivalrous and religious orders, to say nothing of the abbacies, Carthusian convents and institutions which invest, nay, blockade it.' During its annexation by France in the Napoleonic Wars, however, the inhabitants had been exposed to such unGermanic notions as freedom of the press, constitutional liberty and more significantly for the Marx family religious toleration. Though the Rhineland was reincorporated into imperial Prussia by the Congress of Vienna three years before Marx's birth, the alluring scent of French Enlightenment still lingered.
Karl's father, Hirschel, owned several Moselle vineyards and was a moderately prosperous member of the educated middle class. But he was also Jewish. Though never fully emancipated under French rule, Rhenish Jews had tasted just enough freedom to hunger for more. When Prussia wrested back the Rhineland from Napoleon, Hirschel petitioned the new government for an end to legal discrimination against himself and his 'fellow believers'. To no avail: the Jews of Trier were now subject to a Prussian edict of 1812 which effectively banned them from holding public office or practising in the professions. Unwilling to accept the social and financial penalties of second-class citizenship, Hirschel was reborn as Heinrich Marx, patriotic German and Lutheran Christian. His Judaism had long been an accident of ancestry rather than a deep or abiding faith. ('I received nothing from my family,' he said, 'except, I must confess, my mother's love.') The date of his baptism is unknown, but he had certainly converted by the time of Karl's birth: official records show that Hirschel began to work as an attorney in 1815, and in 1819 he celebrated the family's new respectability by moving from their five-room rented apartment into a ten-roomed property near the old Roman gateway to the city, Porta Nigra.
Catholicism might appear to have been the more obvious choice for what was, essentially, no more than a spiritual marriage of convenience: the Church to which he now belonged had barely 300 members in a city with a population of 11,400. But these adherents happened to include some of the most powerful men in Trier. As one historian has observed, 'To the Prussian state, the members of its established religion represented the solid, reliable and loyal core in a predominantly Roman Catholic, and somewhat dangerously gallicised, Rhineland.'
Not that Hirschel was immune to Gallic charm: during the years of Napoleonic dominance he had been steeped in free French ideas of politics, religion, life and art, becoming 'a real eighteenth-century "Frenchman" who knew his Voltaire and Rousseau by heart'. He was also an active member of Trier's Casino Club, where the more enlightened citizens gathered for political and literary debates. In January 1834, when Karl was fifteen, Heinrich organised a banquet at the club to pay tribute to the newly elected 'liberal' deputies to the Rhineland Assembly, winning raucous applause for his toast to the King of Prussia 'to whose magnanimity we are indebted for the first institutions of popular representation. In the fullness of his omnipotence he has of his own free will directed that the Diets should assemble so that the truth might reach the steps of the throne.'
This extravagant flattery for a feeble and anti-Semitic king might sound sarcastic, and was probably taken thus by the more boisterous revellers. ('The fullness of his omnipotence', forsooth.) But Heinrich was perfectly sincere; no revolutionary he. Nevertheless, the very mention of 'popular representation', however carefully muffled in sycophancy and moderation, was enough to alarm the authorities in Berlin: irony is often the dissident's only weapon in a land of censors and police spies, and the agents of the Prussian state ever alert for mischief were adept at detecting satire where none was intended. The local press was forbidden to print the speech. After a Casino Club gathering eight days later, at which members sang the Marseillaise and other revolutionary choruses, the government placed the building under police surveillance, reprimanded the provincial governor for permitting such treasonous assemblies and marked Heinrich Marx down as a dangerous troublemaker.
What did his wife make of all this? It is quite possible that he kept the news from her. Henriette Marx did not share her husband's intellectual appetites: she was an uneducated indeed only semi-literate woman whose interests began and ended with her family, over whom she fussed and fretted ceaselessly. She admitted to suffering from 'excessive mother love', and one of her few surviving letters to her son written while he was at university amply justifies the diagnosis: 'Allow me to note, dear Carl, that you must never regard cleanliness and order as something secondary, for health and cheerfulness depend on them. Insist strictly that your rooms are scrubbed frequently and fix a definite time for it and you, my dear Carl, have a weekly scrub with sponge and soap. How do you get on about coffee, do you make it, or how is it? Please let me know everything about your household.' The picture of Mrs Marx as a congenital worrier was confirmed by Heinrich: 'You know your mother and how anxious she is ...'
Once he had flown the nest, Karl had little more to do with his mother except when he was trying, seldom with much success, to wheedle money out of the old girl. Many years later, after the death of Engels's lover Mary Burns, Marx sent his friend a brutal letter of condolence: 'I am being dunned for the school fees, the rent ... Instead of Mary, ought it not to have been my mother, who is in any case a prey to physical ailments and has had her fair share of life?'
Karl Marx was born in the upstairs room of a house at 664 Brückergasse, a busy thoroughfare that winds down to the bridge over the Moselle river. His father had taken a lease on the building only one month earlier and moved out when Karl was fifteen months old. Yet this birthplace, of which he had no memories, was bought by the German Social Democratic Party in April 1928 and has ever since been a museum devoted to his life and times apart from a ghastly interlude between 1933 and 1945, when it was occupied by the Nazis and used as the HQ for one of their party newspapers. After the War, letters were sent out appealing for money to repair the damage done by Hitler's loutish squatters. One of the replies, dated 19 March 1947, came from the international secretary of the British Labour Party: 'Dear Comrade, I regret that the British Labour Party is not prepared as an organisation to support your international committee for the reconstruction of the Karl Marx house at Treves [the English name for Trier], since its resources are devoted to the upkeep of similar monuments of Karl Marx in England. Yours fraternally, Denis Healey.' A likely story: Londoners will search in vain for these monuments to which Healey allegedly 'devoted' his party's resources. Still, at least the house survives. A hundred yards away is the site of the old Trier synagogue at which so many of Marx's ancestors presided. The only token of its presence today is a sign attached to the lamppost at the street corner, which needs no translation: 'Hier stand die frühere Trierer Synagoge, die in der Pogromnacht im November 1938 durch die Nationalsozialisten zerstört wurde.'
Little is known about Karl Marx's early boyhood, apart from his habit of forcing his sisters to eat mud pies. He appears to have been educated privately until 1830, when he entered the Trier High School whose headmaster, Hugo Wyttenbach, was a friend of Heinrich Maxx and a founder of the Casino Club. Although Karl later dismissed his schoolfellows as 'country bumpkins', the teachers were mostly liberal humanists who did their best to civilise the yokels. In 1832, after a rally at Hambach in support of free speech, police officers raided the school and found seditious literature including speeches from the Hambach protest circulating among the pupils. One boy was arrested, and Wyttenbach was placed under close surveillance. Two years later, the maths and Hebrew teachers were charged with the despicable crimes of 'atheism' and 'materialism' following the notorious Casino dinner of January 1834. To dilute Wyttenbach's influence, the authorities appointed a grim-faced reactionary named Loers as co-headmaster.
'I found the position of good Herr Wyttenbach extremely painful,' Heinrich told his son after attending Loers's installation ceremony. 'I could have wept at the offence to this man, whose only failing is to be much too kind-hearted. I did my best to show the high regard I have for him and, among other things, I told him how devoted you are to him ...' But when Marx proved his devotion by refusing to speak to the conservative interloper, he earned a paternal scolding. 'Herr Loers has taken it ill that you did not pay him a farewell visit,' Heinrich wrote after Karl's matriculation in 1835. 'You and Clemens [another boy] were the only ones ... I had to have recourse to a white lie and tell him we were there while he was away.' Here is the authentic voice of Heinrich Marx, angry but timid, unhappy but obedient, forever letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would', like the cat in the adage.
His son, by contrast, always preferred to imitate the action of a tiger. 'Social reforms,' Karl Marx wrote, when warning the working class not to expect any philanthropy from capitalism, 'are never carried out by the weakness of the strong; but always by the strength of the weak.' One could argue that he embodied this principle. Though his intellectual power seldom faltered, the body which sustained this tremendous creative fecundity was a very feeble vessel indeed. It was almost as if he decided to test on himself what he advocated for the proletariat, by defying his physical limitations and seeking out the strength of his own weakness.
Even in the full vigour of youth before poverty, sleeplessness, bad diet, heavy drinking and constant smoking had taken their inevitable toll he was a fragile specimen. 'Nine lecture courses seem to me rather a lot and I would not like you to do more than your body and mind can bear,' Heinrich Marx advised, soon after his seventeen-year-old son started at Bonn University in 1835. 'In providing really vigorous and healthy nourishment for your mind, do not forget that in this miserable world it is always accompanied by the body, which determines the well-being of the whole machine. A sickly scholar is the most unfortunate being on earth. Therefore, do not study more than your health can bear.' Karl took no notice, then or ever: in later years he often toiled through the night, fuelled by cheap ale and foul cigars.
With his usual rash candour, the lad replied that he was indeed in poor health thus provoking another earnest sermon from his Polonius of a father. 'Youthful sins in any enjoyment that is immoderate or even harmful in itself meet with frightful punishment. We have a sad example here in Herr Günster. True, in his case there is no question of vice, but smoking and drinking have worked havoc with his already weak chest and he will hardly live until the summer.' His mother, fretful as ever, added her own list of commandments: 'You must avoid everything that could make things worse, you must not get over-heated, not drink a lot of wine or coffee, and not eat anything pungent, a lot of pepper or other spices. You must not smoke any tobacco, not stay up too long in the evening, and rise early. Be careful also not to catch cold and, dear Carl, do not dance until you are quite well again.' Frau Marx, one can safely say, was no skylark.
Shortly after his eighteenth birthday Marx was excused military service because of his weak chest, though he may well have exaggerated his condition. (The suspicion of lead-swinging is strengthened by a letter from his father advising him on how to dodge the draft: 'Dear Karl, If you can, arrange to be given good certificates by competent and well-known physicians there, you can do it with a good conscience ... But to be consistent with your conscience, do not smoke too much.') The supposed disability certainly didn't harm his enjoyment of student high jinks. An official 'Certificate of Release' issued after Marx's year at Bonn University, while praising his academic achievements ('excellent diligence and attention'), noted that 'he has incurred a punishment of one day's detention for disturbing the peace by rowdiness and drunkenness at night ... Subsequently, he was accused of having carried prohibited weapons in Cologne. The investigation is still pending. He has not been suspected of participation in any forbidden association among the students.'
The university authorities didn't know the half of it. True, the Poets' Club which he joined in his first term was not a 'forbidden association', but neither was it quite so innocent as the name suggested: the discussion of poetry and rhetoric was a cover for more seditious talk. 'Your little circle appeals to me, as you may well believe, much more than alehouse gatherings,' Heinrich Marx wrote, happily imagining his boy improving the shining hour with earnest literary debate.
As it happened, Marx was no stranger to alehouses either. He was a co-president of the Trier Tavern Club, a society of about thirty university students from his home town whose main ambition was to get drunk as frequently and riotously as possible: it was after one of their revels that young Karl found himself detained for twenty-four hours, though the imprisonment did not prevent his chums from bringing him yet more booze and packs of playing cards to ease his sentence. During 1836 there was a series of fights in pubs between the Trier gang and a posse of young bloods from the Borussia Korps, who would force the student layabouts to kneel and swear allegiance to the Prussian aristocracy. Marx bought a pistol to defend himself against these humiliations, and when he visited Cologne in April the 'prohibited weapon' was discovered during a police search. It was only a begging letter from Heinrich Marx to a judge in Cologne which persuaded the authorities not to press charges. Two months later, after yet another fracas with the Borussia Korps, Marx accepted a challenge to a duel. The outcome of this contest between a shortsighted swot and a trained soldier was all too predictable, and he was lucky to get away with nothing worse than a small wound above his left eye. 'Is duelling then so closely interwoven with philosophy?' his father asked despairingly. 'Do not let this inclination, and if not inclination, this craze, take root. You could in the end deprive yourself and your parents of the finest hopes that life offers.'
After a year of 'wild rampaging in Bonn', Heinrich Marx was only too pleased to let his son transfer to the University of Berlin, where there would be fewer extra-curricular temptations. 'There is no question here of drinking, duelling and pleasant communal outings,' the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach had observed while studying there ten years earlier. 'In no other university can you find such a passion for work ... Compared to this temple of work, the other universities are like public houses.' No wonder Heinrich was so eager to sign the necessary form consenting to the move. 'I not only grant my son Karl Marx permission, but it is my will that he should enter the University of Berlin next term for the purpose of continuing there his studies of Law ...'
Any hopes that the wayward youth could now concentrate on his studies without distraction were quickly dashed: Karl Marx had fallen in love.
The one schoolfriend from Trier with whom Marx maintained any connection in adult life was Edgar von Westphalen, an amiable chump and dilettante with revolutionary inclinations. This enduring friendship had nothing to do with Edgar's qualities but everything to do with his sister, the lovely Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen, known to all as Jenny, who became the first and only Mrs Karl Marx.
She was quite a catch. Revisiting his home town many years later, Karl wrote fondly to Jenny, 'Every day and on every side I am asked about the quondam "most beautiful girl in Trier" and the "queen of the ball". It's damned pleasant for a man, when his wife lives on like this as an "enchanted princess" in the imagination of a whole town.' It may seem surprising that a twenty-two-year-old princess of the Prussian ruling class the daughter of Baron Ludwig von Westphalen should have fallen for a bourgeois Jewish scallywag four years her junior, rather than some dashing grandee with a braided uniform and a private income; but Jenny was an intelligent, free-thinking girl who found Marx's intellectual swagger irresistible. After ditching her official fiancé, a respectable young second lieutenant, she became engaged to Karl in the summer vacation of 1836. He was so proud that he couldn't stop himself from boasting to his parents, but the news was kept from Jenny's family for almost a year.
The reasons for this long concealment are obvious enough at first glance. Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, a senior official of the Royal Prussian Provincial Government, was a man of doubly aristocratic lineage: his father had been Chief of the General Staff during the Seven Years' War and his Scottish mother, Anne Wishart, was descended from the Earls of Argyll. Such a thoroughbred magnifico would scarcely wish his daughter to saddle herself with the untitled descendant of a long line of rabbis.
On closer inspection, however, the secrecy is more puzzling; for von Westphalen was neither a snob nor a reactionary. After a conventional upper-class marriage which had produced four conventional upper-class children one of whom, Ferdinand, later became a fiendishly oppressive Minister of the Interior in the Prussian government the Baron was now married to Caroline Heubel, a plain, decent daughter of the German middle class, who was the mother of Jenny and Edgar. (His first wife, Lisette Veltheim, had died in 1807.) No longer obliged to put on airs and graces or fuss about his social status, Baron Ludwig had relaxed into his more natural character cultured, liberal and benign. As a Protestant in a Catholic city, he may have felt himself to be something of an outsider; certainly, he sympathised with life's outcasts. In official reports to Berlin he drew attention to the 'great and growing poverty' of the lower classes in Trier, though without proposing any cause or cure. He was an almost perfect specimen of the well-meaning liberal conservative, distressed by the privations of the poor but enjoying his own amplitude of life.
Rather like Heinrich Marx, in fact. The two men met soon after von Westphalen was posted to Trier in 1816 and discovered that they had much in common, including a love of literature and Enlightenment philosophy. Though they were unquestioning monarchists and patriots, both argued sotto voce and with the utmost politeness for some mild reforms that might temper the excesses of Prussian absolutism. Like Heinrich Marx, Ludwig von Westphalen joined the Casino Club and was therefore treated with wary suspicion by his superiors in Berlin.
The two wives had nothing in common at all. Caroline von Westphalen was a lively and generous hostess, forever organising poetry readings or musical soirées; Henriette Marx was narrow-minded, inarticulate and socially awkward. To the Marx children, the von Westphalens' house on Neustrasse was a haven of light and life. Sophie Marx and Jenny von Westphalen were intimate friends for most of their childhood: when the five-year-old Jenny first set eyes on her future husband, he was still a babe-in-arms. Like her brother, who was one year older than Karl, Jenny soon fell under the spell of this dark-eyed, domineering infant ('he was a terrible tyrant') and never escaped.
The Baron, too, began to notice their precocious playmate. Unlike his own son, Edgar, the Marx boy had a hunger for knowledge and a quick intelligence with which to digest it. On long walks together, the old man would recite long passages from Homer and Shakespeare to his young companion. Marx came to know much of Shakespeare by heart and used it to good effect, salting and peppering his adult writings with apt quotations and analogies from the plays. 'His respect for Shakespeare was boundless: he made a detailed study of his works and knew even the least important of his characters,' Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue recalled. 'His whole family had a real cult for the great English dramatist; his three daughters knew many of his works by heart. When after 1848 he wanted to perfect his knowledge of English, which he could already read, he sought out and classified all Shakespeare's original expressions.'
In later life Marx relived those happy hours with von Westphalen by declaiming scenes from Shakespeare as well as Dante and Goethe while leading his family up to Hampstead Heath for Sunday picnics. 'The children are constantly reading Shakespeare,' he reported to Engels, with immense paternal pride, in 1856. At the age of twelve, Marx's daughter Jenny compared his former secretary Wilhelm Pieper with Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing whereupon her eleven-year-old sister, Laura, pointed out that Benedick was a wit but Pieper was merely a clown, 'and a cheap clown too'. During the long years of exile in London, Marx's only forays into English culture were occasional outings to watch the leading Shakespearean actors Salvini and Irving. It is no coincidence that one of the Marx children, Eleanor, went on the stage and another, little Jenny, yearned to do likewise. As Professor S. S. Prawer has commented, anyone in Marx's household was obliged to live 'in a perpetual flurry of allusions to English literature'. There was a quotation for every occasion to flatten a political enemy, to enliven a dry economic text, to heighten a family joke, or to authenticate an intense emotion. In a love-letter to his wife, written thirteen years after their wedding, Marx revealed once again the Baron von Westphalen's enduring influence:
There you are before me, large as life, and I lift you up in my arms and I kiss you all over from top to toe, and I fall on my knees before you and cry: 'Madame, I love you.' And love you I do, with a love greater than was ever felt by the Moor of Venice ... Who of my many calumniators and venomous-tongued enemies has ever reproached me with being called upon to play the romantic lead in a second-rate theatre? And yet it is true. Had the scoundrels possessed the wit, they would have depicted 'the productive and social relations' on one side and, on the other, myself at your feet. Beneath it they would have written: 'Look to this picture and to that.'
That last phrase, as Jenny would not have needed telling, was plucked from Hamlet.
Why, then, were Karl and Jenny so reluctant to tell her parents of the betrothal? Perhaps Karl thought that the difference in their ages would count against him: marriages to older women were still rare enough to seem a crime against the laws of nature. Or perhaps they feared that, for all his generosity of spirit, the old man would try to dissuade his adored daughter from throwing in her lot with a brilliant but volatile nonconformist. Life with Karl Marx would never be dull, but it held little promise of stability or prosperity.
Apart from Jenny von Westphalen, the most important passion of Marx's youth was a dead philosopher, G. W. F. Hegel. It followed much the same course as many love affairs: shy wariness, followed by the intoxicating thrill of a first embrace, followed by rejection of the beloved as the amour fou wanes. But he remained grateful for this initiation into the secrets of adulthood. Long after repudiating Hegelianism and declaring his intellectual independence, Marx spoke affectionately of the man who led him out of innocence. He had earned the right to chide Hegel with the robust honesty of an intimate friend; strangers were permitted no such licence.
'The mystificatory side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion,' he wrote in 1873. 'But just as I was working at the first volume of Capital, it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre epigones, who now talk big in cultured Germany, to treat Hegel in the same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing's time treated Spinoza, i.e. as a "dead dog". I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a conscious and comprehensive manner.' It was very rare indeed for Marx to pay such a compliment to someone with whom he had disagreed: usually, those who fell foul of him could expect to be condemned as curs and jackasses for ever afterwards. Heinrich Heine was an exception, since Marx believed that one had to forgive great poets their shortcomings; and it seems he had a similar rule for great though flawed philosophers. For the second-raters, however the poetasters, the posturing ninnies, the self-important numskulls no epithet was too harsh. When he saw Hegel attacked by lesser minds, Marx knew at once whose side he was on.
For one thing, he was still in the old boy's debt, as he admitted all those years later. Hegel used a radical methodology to reach conservative conclusions. What Marx did was to keep the dialectical framework but discard the mystical mumbo-jumbo rather like a man who buys a deconsecrated chapel and converts it into a habitable, secular dwelling.
What is dialectic? As any schoolchild with a set of magnets or, for that matter, any dating agency will confirm, opposites can attract. If it were not so, the human race would be extinct. Female mates with male, and from their sweaty embrace a new creature emerges who will, eventually, repeat the process. Not always, of course, but often enough to ensure the survival and progress of the species.
The dialectic performs much the same function for the human mind. An idea, stripped naked, has a passionate grapple with its antithesis, from which a synthesis is created; this in turn becomes the new thesis, to be duly seduced by a new demon lover. Two wrongs may make a right but, soon after its birth, that right becomes another wrong which must be subjected to the same intimate scrutiny as its forebears, and thus we go forward. Marx's own engagement with Hegel was itself something of a dialectical process, from which emerged the nameless infant that was to become historical materialism.
I simplify, of course; but one is obliged to simplify Hegel since much of his work would otherwise remain impenetrably obscure. As an eighteen-year-old, soon after arriving at Berlin University, Marx himself had mocked this opaqueness and ambiguity in a series of epigrams titled 'On Hegel':
Words I teach all mixed up into a devilish muddle,
Thus, anyone may think just what he chooses to think;
Never, at least, is he hemmed in by strict limitations.
Bubbling out of the flood, plummeting down from the cliff,
So are his Beloved's words and thoughts that the Poet devises;
He understands what he thinks, freely invents what he feels.
Thus, each may for himself suck wisdom's nourishing nectar;
Now you know all, since I've said plenty of nothing to you!
Marx included the poem in a notebook of verse 'dedicated to my dear father on the occasion of his birthday as a feeble token of everlasting love'. The old man must have been delighted to learn that his son hadn't succumbed to the epidemic of Hegel-worship which was infecting almost every institution in the land. In one of his letters to Berlin, Heinrich warned Karl against the contagious influence of Hegelians 'the new immoralists who twist their words until they themselves do not hear them; who christen a flood of words a product of genius because it is devoid of ideas'.
Someone as limitlessly curious and disputatious as Karl Marx was unlikely to resist for long. Hegel had held the chair of philosophy at Berlin from 1818 until his death in 1831, and by the time Marx enrolled at the university, five years later, his intellectual heirs were still fighting over the legacy. In his youth Hegel had been an idealistic supporter of the French Revolution, but like so many radicals then as now he became comfortable and complaisant in middle age, believing that a truly mature man should recognise 'the objective necessity and reasonableness of the world as he finds it'. The world in question the Prussian state was a complete and final manifestation of what he called the Divine Spirit or Idea (the Geist). This being so, there was nothing left for philosophers to discuss. Any further questioning of the status quo was the merest vanity.
Naturally, this line of argument made him very popular indeed with the Prussian authorities, who brandished it as proof that their system of government was not only inevitable but unimprovable. 'All that is real is rational,' Hegel had written; and since the state was undoubtedly real, in the sense that it existed, it must therefore be rational and above reproach. Those who championed the subversiveness of his earlier work the so-called Young Hegelians preferred to cite the second half of that famous dictum: 'All that is rational is real.' An absolute monarchy, buttressed by censors and secret police, was palpably irrational and therefore unreal, a mirage or spectre that would disappear as soon as anyone dared to touch it.
As a student in the Berlin law faculty, Marx had a front-row seat at the arena. His lecturer in jurisprudence was Friedrich Karl von Savigny, a thin, severe reactionary who, though not a Hegelian, nevertheless agreed that the development of a country's law and government was an organic process reflecting the character and tradition of its people. To challenge Prussian absolutism was to defy nature: one might as well demand a reform in the structure of oak trees, or the abolition of rain. The alternative view was represented by the chubby and cheerful professor of criminal law, Eduard Gans, a radical Hegelian who believed that institutions should be subjected to rational criticism rather than mystical veneration.
For his first year at Berlin, Marx struggled to ignore the temptations of philosophy: he was, after all, meant to be studying law. Besides, hadn't he already rejected the devilish Hegel and all his works? He distracted himself by writing lyrical verse, but produced only 'diffuse and inchoate expressions of feeling, nothing natural, everything built out of moonshine, complete opposition between what is and what ought to be, rhetorical reflections instead of poetic thoughts ...' (Out of the quarrel with others, as W. B. Yeats said, we make rhetoric; from the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry.) He then set about composing a philosophy of law 'a work of about 300 pages' only to discover the same old gulf between what is and what ought to be: 'What I was pleased to call the metaphysics of law, i.e. basic principles, reflections, definitions of concepts, [was] divorced from all actual law and every actual form of law.' Worse still, having failed to bridge the gap between theory and practice he found himself unable to reconcile the form of law with its content. His mistake for which he blamed von Savigny 'lay in my belief that matter and form can and must develop separately from each other, and so I obtained not a real form but something like a desk with drawers into which I then poured sand'.
His labours weren't entirely wasted. 'In the course of this work,' he revealed, 'I adopted the habit of making extracts from all the books I read' a habit he never lost. His reading list from this period shows the breadth of these intellectual explorations: who else, while composing a philosophy of law, would think it worthwhile to make a detailed study of Johann Joachim Winckelmann's History of Art? He translated Tacitus's Germania and Ovid's Tristia, and 'began to learn English and Italian by myself, i.e. out of grammars'. In the next semester, while devouring dozens of textbooks on civil procedure and canon law, he translated Aristotle's Rhetoric, read Francis Bacon and 'spent a good deal of time on Reimarus, to whose book on the artistic instincts of animals I applied my mind with delight'.
All good exercise for the brain, no doubt; but even the artistic animals couldn't rescue his magnum opus. Abandoning the 300-page manuscript in despair, young Karl turned again to 'the dances of the Muses and the music of the Satyrs'. He dashed off a short 'humoristic novel', Scorpion and Felix, a nonsensical torrent of whimsy and persiflage that was all too obviously written under the spell of Sterne's Tristram Shandy. It does, however, have one passage that deserves quotation:
Every giant ... presupposes a dwarf, every genius a hidebound philistine, and every storm at sea mud, and as soon as the first disappear, the latter begin, sit down at the table, sprawling out their long legs arrogantly.
The first are too great for this world, and so they are thrown out. But the latter strike root in it and remain, as one may see from the facts, for champagne leaves a lingering repulsive after-taste, Caesar the hero leaves behind him the play-acting Octavianus, Emperor Napoleon the bourgeois king Louis Philippe ...
No previous writer on Marx appears to have noticed the resemblance between this jokey conceit and the famous opening paragraph of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written fifteen years later:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a great tragedy, the second as a miserable farce. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848-1851 for the Montagne of 1793-1795, and the London constable [Louis Bonaparte] with the first dozen indebted lieutenants that came along for the little corporal [Napoleon] with his band of marshals! The eighteenth Brumaire of the idiot for the eighteenth Brumaire of the genius!
Apart from that suggestive echo, there is little in Scorpion and Felix that need detain us; and even less in Oulanem, an overwrought verse drama that groans under the weight of Goethe's influence. After these experiments, Marx finally accepted the death of his literary ambitions. 'Suddenly, as if by a magic touch oh, the touch was at first a shattering blow I caught sight of the distant realm of true poetry like a distant fairy palace, and all my creations crumbled into nothing.' The discovery had cost him many a sleepless night and much anguish. 'A curtain had fallen, my holy of holies was rent asunder, and new gods had to be installed.' Suffering some kind of physical breakdown, he was ordered by his doctor to retreat to the countryside for a long rest. He took a house in the tiny village of Stralau, on the banks of the River Spree just outside Berlin.
At this point, he seems to have become slightly unhinged. Still striving to ignore the siren voice of Hegel ('the grotesque craggy melody of which did not appeal to me'), he wrote a twenty-four-page dialogue on religion, nature and history only to find that 'my last proposition was the beginning of the Hegelian system'. He had been delivered into the hands of his enemy. 'For some days my vexation made me quite incapable of thinking; I ran about madly in the garden by the dirty water of the Spree, which "washes souls and dilutes the tea". [A quotation from Heinrich Heine.] I even joined my landlord in a hunting excursion, rushed off to Berlin and wanted to embrace every street-corner loafer.' Interestingly, Hegel himself had undergone a similar crack-up at the time when he was jettisoning his ideals and embracing 'maturity'. It is no coincidence that both Hegel and Marx wrote at length about the problem of alienation the estrangement of humans from themselves and their society. For in the nineteenth century 'alienation' had a secondary meaning as a synonym for derangement or insanity: hence, mental pathologists (or 'mad-doctors') were known as alienists.
While he was convalescing restoring his strength with long walks, regular meals and early nights Marx read Hegel from beginning to end. Through a friend at the university he was introduced to the Doctors' Club, a group of Young Hegelians who met regularly at the Hippel café in Berlin for evenings of noisy, boozy controversy. Members included the theology lecturer Bruno Bauer and the radical philosopher Arnold Ruge, both of whom were to become intellectual collaborators with Marx and, a few years later, his sworn enemies.
On the night of 10 November 1837, Marx wrote a very long letter to his father describing his conversion, and the intellectual peregrinations that had led him to it. 'There are moments in one's life,' he began, 'which are like frontier posts marking the completion of a period but at the same time clearly indicating a new direction. At such a moment of transition we feel compelled to view the past and the present with the eagle eye of thought in order to become conscious of our real position. Indeed, world history itself likes to look back in this way and take stock ...'
No false modesty there: at the age of nineteen he was already trying on the clothes of a Man of Destiny and finding that they fitted him handsomely. Now that he had begun the next stage of life, he wanted to erect a memorial to what he had lived through 'and where could a more sacred dwelling place be found for it than in the heart of a parent, the most merciful judge, the most intimate sympathiser, the sun of love whose warming fire is felt at the innermost centre of our endeavours!'
Ornate flattery got him nowhere. Heinrich was neither sympathetic nor merciful as he read, with rising horror, the full story of his son's intellectual adventures. To have a Hegelian in the family was shaming enough; worse still was the realisation that the boy had been squandering his time and talents on philosophy when he should have been concentrating solely on obtaining a good law degree and a lucrative job. Had he no consideration for his long-suffering parents? No duty to God, who had blessed him with such magnificent natural gifts? And what of his responsibility for his wife-to-be 'a girl who has made a great sacrifice in view of her oustanding merits and her social position in abandoning her brilliant situation and prospects for an uncertain and duller future and chaining herself to the fate of a younger man'? Even if Karl cared nothing for his fretful mother and ailing father, he must surely feel obliged to secure a happy and prosperous future for the gorgeous Jenny; and this could hardly be achieved by sitting in a smoke-filled room poring over books about arty animals:
God's grief!!! Disorderliness, musty excursions into all departments of knowledge, musty brooding under a gloomy oil-lamp, running wild in a scholar's dressing-gown and with unkempt hair instead of running wild over a glass of beer; unsociable withdrawal with neglect of all decorum ... And is it here, in this workshop of senseless and inexpedient erudition, that the fruits are to ripen which will refresh you and your beloved, and the harvest to be garnered which will serve to fulfil your sacred obligations!?
This stinging reprimand which is also a brilliant description of Marx's lifelong working methods was delivered in December 1837, when Heinrich was already dangerously ill with tuberculosis. It sounds like the last desperate howl of a dying man who has placed all his hopes in the next generation only to see those hopes crumpled like so much waste paper. Fortifying himself with a fistful of pills prescribed by his doctor, he hurled grievances galore at the wastrel son. Karl scarcely ever replied to his parents' letters; he never enquired after their health; he had spent almost 700 thalers of their money in one year, 'whereas the richest spend less than 500'; he had weakened his mind and body chasing abstractions and 'giving birth to monsters'; he never returned home during university holidays, and ignored the existence of his brothers and sisters. Even Jenny von Westphalen, who had previously been praised to the skies, was now revealed as yet another irritant: 'Hardly were your wild goings-on in Bonn over, hardly were your old sins wiped out and they were truly manifold when, to our dismay, the pangs of love set in ... While still so young, you became estranged from your family ...' True enough; but this litany of complaint was scarcely calculated to reunite them. Karl's parents begged him to visit Trier for a few days during the Easter vacation of 1838; he refused.
The truth was that Marx had left his family behind. The distance between them can be gauged by a letter from Heinrich in March 1837 suggesting that Karl make his name by writing a heroic ode: 'It should redound to the honour of Prussia and afford the opportunity of allotting a role to the genius of the monarchy ... If executed in a patriotic and German spirit with depth of feeling, such an ode would itself be sufficient to lay the foundation for a reputation.' Did the old man really think that his son would wish to glorify either Germany or its monarchy? Perhaps not. 'I can only propose, advise,' he conceded ruefully. 'You have outgrown me; in this matter you are in general superior to me, so I must leave it to you to decide as you will.'
Heinrich Marx died, aged fifty-seven, on 10 May 1838. Karl did not attend the funeral. The journey from Berlin would be too long, he explained, and he had more important things to do.
Meet the Author
Francis Wheen is an award-winning columnist for The Guardian in London, and the deputy editor of Private Eye.
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Francis Wheen¿s book, ¿Karl Marx: A Life¿ is highly engaging, well researched, and often witty, much like the great man himself. Karl Marx, author of ¿The Communist Manifesto¿ and ¿Capital¿, was quite possibly, for good or ill, the most influential political and economic philosopher of all time, though many of his ideas would be later misinterpreted and misapplied. However, this book delves not so much on what became of Marx¿s ideas, but on the man himself, his world, and how both he and his ideas were shaped by it. An outstanding read for someone wanting to come to terms with one the world¿s greatest thinkers, with his genius and flaws intact.
Frances Wheen biography on Marx is a bench mark in recent books about main philosophers. The way he comprehends Karl personality as a human being and a political philosopher in the context of its time adds light to previous anaysis of Marxism. Like Nietzsche, Marx was a man condemned and rarely accepted out of the circle of German emigrés in Paris or London. Francis analysis of Marx-Engles cumplicity is much enlightning as Marx dimension as a bourgeois man of family and its rarely known sympathy with the English society. When there is a new return to Marx thought by sociologists and political scientists, I must stress Francis passionate and iluminating contribution to know better the man and the thinker without falling in the renewing of the myth maid by the communists in decades. For a complemented data on Marx check Raymond Aron, ''Les étapes de la pensée socilogique'' Leo Strauss ''History of Political Thought''or Karl Popper ''The open society and its enemies''.
Francis Wheen gives us a sympathetic portrait of Karl Marx. Marx is presented as a deeply flawed and troubled man, a product of his times, more bourgeois casualty than the legendary intellectual leader of the working class. The book is approachable to readers without a background in Marx's work. Wheen writes a great deal about the maladies Marx suffered while working, or more often failing to work, on Das Kapital. If you have read Marx's magnum opus, you will enjoy Wheen's detailing of the birth pangs. If not, you will be at a loss to understand why the man went through all the travail involved in writing it. Wheen's book is an easy, enjoyable read, and that is high praise for a book dealing with any aspect of Marx or Marxism.
The book is a good account of Karl Marx's life, and is an excellent insight into the details of his personal relationships. After reading it you will have gained a an understanding about his motivations and priorities as a person. In addition, the book is rather upbeat and provides some well written commentary by the author which can be funny at times. On the down side, there is little to be gained about Marx's works. Following a reading of Karl Marx: A Life, you will not have gained a strong understanding of the basis of his socialist convictions or even of the associated importance of each of his works, except in how they affected Marx's life directly. In addition, I found it difficult to follow. The multitude of references to future and past make the chronolgy difficult at times.