How can we hope to capture the life of someone whose thinking has really mattered? Few human beings have affected the lives of more of their fellows than Karl Marx. Few besides the founders of the world's great religions can have done so in ways more drastically at odds with their own expectations or intentions. No one, perhaps, who has done so on such an epic scale and with such disconcerting outcomes, has been so scornful of the impact of individuals, or of the mind as such, on the shaping of human history. It is an important question how the great monsters of modern history (Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin) acquired the power to wreak their overwhelming harms; and even with them, some of the answer must always depend on the idiosyncrasies of their imaginations. Yet once they were safely dead, no one felt much inclination to ascribe their political dominance to cognitive mastery. Marx certainly did not make history as he wished (any more than Jesus Christ did). But he equally certainly made the chaotic and alarming history, to which he did in the end contribute, by thoughts that came to him and which he contrived to convey with startling persuasive force to huge numbers of eager followers scattered across space and time, despite a practical life that never firmly displaced the political convenience of any European ruling class.
Francis Wheen's biography is uneven in many different ways. It cannot really be said to try to make the faintest sense of Marx's intellectual or practical legacy. It varies widely in patience and sensitivity in its handling of Marx himself and of the many
others who suffered, more or less intimately, at his hands. What it is best at conveying is the courage, energy, obstinacy and arrogance at the centre of Marx's life: the sheer personal force that drove his endless inquiries and sustained the political animus that kept him at the task, through physical traumas, emotional catastrophes and social humiliations that would have crushed a weaker or less egocentric person. Written with the ease and (sometimes excessive) assurance of the experienced journalist, it has enough vitality, enough fascinating information, and just enough insight, to hold the reader's attention throughout.
I do not see how anyone could derive from it a coherent conception of why Marx's thinking really mattered, or even of what he was trying to understand, or why he wished the societies of his day to change as he did. It conveys little idea of where he drew his sense of what was important and what was not in the European societies of his day. It casts no light on what he assumed and what he doubted at virtually any point in his life (despite citing dutifully his favourite motto, in the parlour game Confessions, De Omnibus Dubitandum ). No one can doubt everything at the same time and think on at all; and few of Marx's contemporaries saw him as crippled by doubts of any discernible kind. But he thought with immense vigour and exuberance about a remarkable range of questions; and there is every reason to believe that his judgement on many issues altered drastically at different points in time, both under the pressure of continuing political and economic experience, and as a result of intellectual exertion itself.
Wheen, of course, could have chosen not to concern himself with Marx as a thinker at all, and treated him simply as a figure in a 19th-century novel of social misadventure and personal tragedy, recast, and perhaps written down, for a late 20th-century sensibility. Some of his judgements are surely more appropriate in tone to a biography of Tom Driberg than to the tortured, splenetic, powerfully intelligent and overwhelmingly engaged figure that Marx was to become, and perhaps already must have been even as quite a young man - by the time, for example, that he chose to have visiting cards printed for his aristocratic wife as "Mme Jenny Marx - née Baronesse de Westphalen", earning from Wheen the lapidary rebuke that "He was ridiculously proud of having married a bit of posh". Since the cards seem to have been deployed largely in the endless struggles with tradesmen and bailiffs and in doing his best to secure the eventually disastrous prospects of his daughters, and since Jenny's family was grand enough for her half-brother to become Prussian minister of the interior and go out of his way to persecute her husband, it is unclear that either the existence or the content of the cards provides evidence for narrowly personal vanity. Lifestyles have changed greatly since the 1850s - even if some passages in Marx's own life may have been reminiscent of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell .
Wheen, however, clearly much admires some elements in Marx's thought and writing, without exactly wishing to take on the burden of trying to explain what made them possible, or why Marx himself came to think or write them. As preferences go, this is more prudent than cowardly. But it was bound to make the resulting biography all the more tantalising just where it is more successful. In a way, Karl Marx is a surprisingly close parallel to Wheen's Tom Driberg: His Life and Indiscretions . But the scale of the life in Marx's case, and still more the amplitude of the indiscretions, ensure that following this model could scarcely hope to prove as effective. It is hard to judge quite what Wheen was confident of bringing to writing Marx's life, apart from literary confidence itself and a capacity for hard work. He is not a scholar of 19th-century socialist politics or the history of London. He does not seem to have a distinctive political viewpoint of his own that he wishes to set out and make compelling, though he often corrects with some gusto scholarly slips or political special pleading from Marx's more prominent modern intellectual critics: Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Shlomo Avineri, Leszek Kolakowski. In the end it is not even clear how far he sees Marx as hero, villain or fool, or even that he is especially interested in judging why he was at the time, or has since proved to be, one rather than another. At its best Karl Marx is vivid and moving enough to make you wish that Wheen had tried very much harder, or, if it would simply have been absurd for him to do so (involving him in an attempt at something he well knew to be beyond him), that at least he had thrown down a clearer challenge to others to take up the task he wisely laid aside.
There have been some fine biographical studies of Marx's circle (notably Yvonne Kapp's haunting two-volume life of his daughter Eleanor Marx), and some service-able scholarly biographies over the decades of Karl himself. There has also been, as Wheen notes, some real shockers. The worst of these have come more from enemies than from devotees; but almost all have been distorted to greater or lesser extent by the demands of polemic. The hagiographical element has been kept to some degree in check, though more by the manifest absurdity of any attempt to vindicate the essential validity of Marx's historical vision and political judgement by expounding the circumstances of his life (contrast Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc) than by the intellectual chastity of his followers, while the critics have often abandoned themselves with minimal inhibition to the pleasures of political vituperation. No biography has yet begun to do justice to the scale and drama of his legacy, or the pain, squalor, conceit and nobility that made that legacy, in all its gross ambivalence and awesome mystery, possible at all. Has the time come to try to do it justice? If not yet, will it ever come?
Wheen's biography is most convincing on Marx at his most emphatically embodied: the hairiness, the interminable boils, the paterfamilias playing gaily on the heath with his beloved grandchildren. He is sometimes almost as good, following in the footsteps of some of our most dashing recent biographers (Claire Tomalin, Peter Ackroyd) on the physical setting of mid- 19th-century London. But these materials are just what prompted Coleridge to scorn the potential of the biographical genre in the case of great figures of the imagination: "a Pilgrimage to see a great man's Shin Bone found unmouldered in his Coffin". ("A Shakespeare, a Milton, a Bruno," he insisted, "exist in the mind as pure Action, defecated of all that is material and passive.") You do not need to be a High Romantic of the life of the mind to see great intellectual discoveries, as Walter Benjamin did, as instantaneous - flashes of lightning - and the texts that convey them as the long-drawn-out thunder rolls that follow. Conventional intellectual biography, unsurprisingly and sensibly, strongly privileges the long march through the texts. It may miss the revelatory bedazzlement of the lightning flashes (the mind at work at its most incandescent); but at least it shows the mind's product at a pace and with a fullness that equips the reader to consider its implications for themselves. It would take someone with Marx's own overweening self-confidence to try to judge either the sources or the character of his legacy definitively at any point; and it would take a genius to do so in a way that stood the test of the future.
What could be done now, and done by those of more quotidian talent, would be to summarise the lines of exploration and inference set out in the texts in an open-minded and scrupulous way, and to show how the impetus for exploration and analysis in each case came from the densely embodied experience of a single very remarkable, if not wholly attractive, man. In the end Wheen makes some headway with the second half of this task, and so does a modicum of justice to Karl himself. He is far less delicate in his treatment of Marx's long suffering family, let alone his political enemies. (No one who has lost a young child of their own could possibly see the record of Jenny Marx's appalling history of loss, misery, endurance and dogged loyalty as grounds for judging her "an effete wife".) For all its intermittent vulgarity and occasional heartlessness, this biography is an effective resuscitation of some of the life of a figure whose thinking in the end mattered awesomely much and in ways with which we have still scarcely begun to come to terms: far more than the Shin Bone, and found still very little mouldered.
John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.
Author - Francis Wheen
ISBN - 1 85702 637 3
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £20.00
Pages - 431