Sunday, October 2, 2016

Man Not Boogeyman: "Karl Marx: A Life" by Francis Wheen


About three or four years ago, I went to go on a walk in the woods with my wife. It was early spring and the sun was shining, so we hoped to take the day and make the most of it. Or she did, and I have problems saying no to her when she asks because she’s just so darn persuasive. The walk didn’t last long. No one told the snowpack on the trail that it needed to have melted so that we could walk on the trail.


I’m not sure how I managed it, but there was a mall with an actual physical book store close by the trail we were trying to walk. At one point I had at least a couple hundred dollars worth of books in my hand (hardbacks at bookstore prices). One of them was the new biography of Marx that had recently come out. I almost bought it but put it down because I realized that a life of Marx is one of those things that is hard to be objective about. I didn’t want to spend seven hundred pages with an author who was a staunch Hegelian mad about Marx’s subversion of their hero or some marginalist economist mad that the subject didn’t fully wrestle with the mathematics of their revolution. Or, you know, whatever else you could possibly see the life of Marx and his ideas being politicized somehow.


So instead of buying that unknown book, I went looking for people who had read various lives and what they would recommend to read. The Wheen biography came up a lot. So I bought that book, and then I put it on my shelf as a decoration and then forgot about it for the next several years. And recently, once I finished my MBA program, I found myself with time and inclination to go about reading some of the scores of books I own but haven’t read yet, and a familiar name looked out at me from the shelf.


For any student of the left, the life and career of Marx is knowable in broad strokes - youth in Germany, exile in England, friendship with Engels. Wheen fills all of those blank spots in. What Wheen does more than anything else is to humanize Marx from someone that is a boogeyman of the cold war to a guy with a family trying to make due in Victorian England.


I think Wheen, like myself, had already made his mind up about Marx before he approached this book. If there is any criticism to be had, I offer two. For one, it is only 400 pages. What lacks for me is a deeper engagement with the philosophy and economics of Marx. I’m not sure if that was a choice made to keep the book more accessible or why it was made. But I think it plays into my other criticism. I felt that the author may have been too sympathetic to Marx. He was a human who did make some bad choices (like maybe cheating on Jenny Marx) and I think glossing over that nuance in fear of attacking the subject makes the book less than what it could be. This sympathy is also evident where he addresses some of the more well-known intellectual rivals to Marxism, namely Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and  Mikhail Bakunin, so that these men and their followers are diminished in the book, the casual reader isn’t really let into why Marxian ideas are superior.

Overall, though, if you only know those broad strokes then the Wheen biography is a good entry point for learning about the life of Marx. If you want to get deeper into his ideas, there are other avenues, like the work of David Harvey or Paul D’Amato. Or you can just climb the mountain of Capital itself, something I need to do.