They say, and it does seem to be true, that we get the prime ministers and presidents we deserve. Now, it looks as if each generation is going to get the Karl Marx it deserves. There are advantages in watching the process of a Marx revived again and again according to the perceptions of social pundits: with each recasting and each self-appointed recaster of Marx representing the texture of current thought, we’ll have a chance to observe something about our state of mind, while, if we were there before, we can comfort ourselves with the notion that our Marx – naturally – was the real Karl. Right now, columnist, game-show pundit and biographer of Tom Driberg, Francis Wheen is here to tell us that all the previous practitioners and theoreticians of Marx’s work – both the governments and the academics (in economics, history, geography, sociology, literature) who professed themselves Marxists – have ‘calamitously misinterpreted’ his thought. The academics and zealots have had their day apparently, and it is time, Wheen says, ‘to strip away the mythology and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man’. If your immediate response is ‘why?’, you’ve probably been off-planet for a few years. The biographical obsession, personality-bound cod analysis, has got everywhere. We prefer to see the portrait of the man, rather than think about his thoughts. The retreat in search of lively personal origins as a form of explanation is less demanding than the perpetual examination of ideas and their development. In October 1998 the New Yorker named Marx as ‘the next great thinker’ (possibly following on from the author of The Little Book of Calm). Marx the Movie is surely just around the corner, and not long after we can – oh please can we? – expect the musical ‘Carbuncle!’; maybe, if we get very lucky, Disney will animate lovable, hairy Karl, or as Wheen describes him ‘squat and swarthy, a Jew tormented by self-loathing’ (voiced undoubtedly by a frantically guttural Robin Williams) scribbling The Communist Manifesto at his desk while a chorus of comically evil creditors sing a hummy hymn to capitalism, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose but our claims.’ Oh, what an exciting new century we have to look forward to.
Wheen wants to retrieve Marx the man and exonerate him from responsibility for what has been done in his name. Marxism is not Karl Marx, it is true, any more than Darwinism is Charles Darwin. You may not be astonished by this thought. ‘What neither his enemies nor his disciples are willing to acknowledge is the most obvious yet startling of all his qualities: that this mythical ogre and saint was a human being.’ Perhaps such an admission is so obvious, not to say banal, that neither enemies nor disciples thought it worth taxing their readers’ patience making the point. Wheen, however, feels the time is ripe for delivering this thought to the world, and perhaps, in a deeply dispiriting way, he is right.
The McCarthyite witch-hunt of the Fifties, the wars in Vietnam and Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square – all these bloody blemishes on the history of the 20th century were justified in the name of Marxism or anti-Marxism. No mean feat for a man who spent much of his adult life in poverty, plagued by carbuncles and liver pains, and was once pursued through the streets of London by the Metropolitan Police after a rather over-exuberant pub crawl.
I can’t say whether your heart races with eager curiosity at that list of devastating world events, or at the promise of learning more about Marx’s carbuncles and pub crawls, but my heart sinks at the idea that we are in a period when it’s these which are thought to have the greater claim on our attention and even to bear some serious relation to 20th-century history. We’ve had Protestantism blamed on Luther’s flatulence, and evolutionary theory dependent on Darwin’s neurotic bellyaches, why not Marxism on Karl’s carbuncles? Certainly, the life is interesting, and a biographer might, as several have, set out to discuss the way in which the dynamics of Marx’s life and psychology articulated with his work. No one, however, as far as I know, has suggested until now that a study of Marx’s daily life might clear up all confusions and errors that past and present students and interpreters of the work have fallen into.
Wheen’s crusade is to redeem Marxist thought for those who imagined that the demolition of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of the Marx project. It is a book for those who fear Marx is on the scrap heap of defunct ideas – those who might be feeling a little glum at the prospect that history has come to its conclusion. It is fair enough to be glum: there are not so many ideas in the world that we can afford to shred the more interesting ones, nor so many committed and vivid thinkers that we should allow them to sink into obscurity. But I wonder whether presenting the thinker as a godless Job afflicted with boils and a taste for liquor is quite the best way to do the job. Doubtless there will be those who say it doesn’t matter how it’s done, let the author of Capital and the Communist Manifesto become a cuddly old curmudgeon, so long as it keeps the ideas afloat. But a safe and cosy revolutionary is merely a new kind of mythologising. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste. Me, I like my radicals roaring.
Wheen’s taste, if his style is anything to go by, seems to be of the boys’ boarding-school variety: this is Marx as his story might have been written by Billy Bunter’s friend Cherry, or Jennings and Darbishire – tongues out, pencils poised, after stocking up in the tuck shop. If it is an attempt to repackage difficult Marx in popular language, Wheen’s timing is out by several decades. It is very bizarre to read that young Karl pestered his otherwise neglected mother by trying ‘to wheedle money out of the old girl’, and to be told how surprising it was that a young woman from the Prussian ruling class (Jenny von Westphalen) ‘should have fallen for a bourgeois Jewish scallywag’. The ‘I say, Jeeves’ language continues with such antique treasures as Marx mixing with ‘the most reactionary boobies in Prussia’, Engels writing ‘squiffy letters after lunch’, Marx and Engels composing The German Ideology ‘theorising like billy-o’, and Marx forming ‘opportunistic partnerships with some pretty rum coves’. Rum coves? New revelations that Marx and Engels were funded by liquor smugglers? There must be an entire generation who would need access to a dictionary of historical slang, and certainly my spell-checker failed to recognise ‘squiffy’ and ‘billy-o’, neither of which, I confess, I added to its baffled dictionary. But then Wheen is no devotee of literary style. In a recent column in the Guardian he railed against the Booker committee for failing to include Posy Simmonds’s unremarkable cartoon parody Gemma Bovery in the shortlist of best novels of the year. Apparently, ‘each of Simmonds’s beautifully observed drawings is worth at least a thousand words of descriptive prose’ – not an encouraging thought as you approach the start of Wheen’s own four hundred pages. Still, it depends whose prose one is talking about. Wheen unfortunately did not invite Posy Simmonds to draw his life of Karl Marx and save his readers the bumpy journey through his own descriptive prose. This is not just an aesthetic complaint: it is strange to set out to re-present Marx as contemporary and relevant, and then use the defunct language of the British prep school to try to achieve it.
The fact is that the texture of Marx’s life is portrayed as vividly, movingly and elegantly as anyone could want in the first volume of Yvonne Kapp’s life of Eleanor Marx, written in 1972. Nothing in Wheen’s biography supersedes her insights and asides on the family life in relation to the work, or, as Wheen also points out with a small sneer, the paradox of a man driven to overspend in order to get his daughters properly educated and acceptable for bourgeois English society, while analysing the structural flaws underlying that society. This tells us little more than that Marx lived as a man in his time, while envisaging something rather different (‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness’). As to the relevance of Marx’s writing to the present time, Wheen does not express Marx’s power with anything like the energy, charm and impassioned conviction of Marshall Berman’s collection of essays, Adventures in Marxism.
Berman’s clean, personal prose comes as sweet relief after the dreary O-level-set-text style of Wheen’s plodding descriptions of the 1848 revolutions. Berman, now approaching 60, has lived, struggled with and taught Marx since he was 18, when his professor of religion, Jacob Taubes, told him about a book, only just published in the States, that Marx had written ‘when he was still a kid, before he became Karl Marx’. What the young Berman found in the young Marx – i.e. in the 1844 manuscripts – was a passionate description of the kind of American capitalist who he felt had betrayed and killed his father. He discovered in the text a reverence for the individual as a worker, creative force and even lover that places Marx in the company of ‘Keats, Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence’. Marxist thought and the Modernist tradition converge for Berman, as both try to grasp and confront the modern experience: Marx’s ‘new-fangled men ... as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself’; Rimbaud’s ‘il faut être absolument moderne.’ His adolescent discovery led him towards ‘Marxist humanism’, far removed from the orthodox Marxists ‘who have at best ignored Modernism, but all too often worked to repress it, out of fear, perhaps, that ... if they kept looking into the abyss the abyss would start looking back into them.’ Berman was part of the New Left, which he now pronounces the Used Left, and his preference for the early ‘humanist’ texts puts him in contention with more theoretical, but less sentimental Marxist thinkers. ‘Reading Capital,’ Berman insists, ‘won’t help us if we don’t also know how to read the signs in the street.’ In response to a critique by Perry Anderson of his book All That is Solid Melts into Air, he declares his position: ‘Another reason that I’ve written so much about ordinary people and everyday life in the street ... is that Anderson’s vision is so remote from them. He only has eyes for world-historical Revolutions in politics and world-class Masterpieces in culture; he stakes out his claim on heights of metaphysical perfection, and won’t deign to notice anything less.’ Wheen, too, reads the work as a vivid analysis of contemporary Western life, but he feels the need to spin the philosopher back into favour. Marx, he would have us know, was an ironist.
Irony is one of those words that I feel we might do well to put in storage for a while until we have recovered an understanding of what it actually means. Irony, at the fag end of the 20th century, has come to signal nothing much more than ‘cool’ represented to the Baby Boomers of the Sixties. If it’s ‘ironic’ we can breathe easy, it’s OK, we can laugh knowingly, while knowing nothing much, and thinking even less. Ironic chic has been with us since Woody Allen set us all smiling smugly in the cinemas, but lately it has got out of hand. TV’s Eurotrash gives permission to wallow in silicon-enhanced breasts and cultural impoverishment with an ironically raised Gallic eyebrow. Chat-show host and DJ Chris Evans announces quite regularly that what he does is ‘ironic’, whereas those not hypnotised by the word know that ‘vacuous’ is a better description. If you suspect something you have produced is poor and pandering, just call it ‘ironic’ and the queues will snake around the block, happy to be seen as part of the cunning plot. Irony is quite the thing, de rigueur, so I worry when I’m told that I can admire Marx, after all, because he is a master of irony. Never mind the collapse of the Soviet Union, feel the irony. ‘To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated, sometimes even waterlogged, with irony – an irony which has nonetheless escaped almost every reader for more than a century.’ Wheen proves his point with Marx’s satire on the productive usefulness of the criminal: ‘The criminal ... produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc; and all these different lines of business, which form just as many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human mind, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them.’ According to Wheen, this bears comparison with Swift’s Modest Proposal. And in spite of his contention that the world has been blind to Marx’s irony, Edmund Wilson, he tells us, managed to see it, calling Marx ‘certainly the greatest ironist since Swift’. In 1976, S.S. Prawer, in Karl Marx and World Literature, noted ‘Marx’s witty disquisition on the “productive” nature of crime’. Word does seem to have got about. Nor have Marx’s style and wit escaped Marshall Berman’s attention:
The irony of bourgeois activism, as Marx sees it, is that the bourgeoisie is forced to close itself off from its richest possibilities, possibilities that can be realised only by those who break its power ... the bourgeoisie have established themselves as the first ruling class whose authority is based not on who their ancestors were but on what they themselves actually do ... they have proved that it really is possible, through organised, concerted action, to change the world.
Not merely ironic, but, if that is what you are after, inspiring stuff.
One problem for those who set about redeeming a 19th-century reputation is that they are liable to be required to justify to the present day the mores of the time. Wheen wants to rescue his ‘squat and swarthy’ Jewish hero from accusations of anti-semitism. A tough one this, given Marx’s second essay on the Jewish Question:
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self interest. What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling. What is his secular God? Money ... We therefore recognise in Judaism the presence of a universal and contemporary anti-social element whose historical evolution – eagerly nurtured by the Jews in its harmful aspects – has arrived at its present peak, a peak at which it will inevitably disintegrate. The emancipation of the Jews is, in the last analysis, the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.
This quote, according to Wheen, has been taken out of context: ‘From Judaism, nota bene, not from the Jews. Ultimately, mankind must be freed from the tyranny of all religions, Christianity included.’ Not anti-semitic so much as secular socialist – and as such, rather more palatable. What then, later in Wheen’s book, when Marx takes issue with the Daily Telegraph’s editor, Joseph Moses Levy? ‘But what does it profit Levy to attack Mr D’Israeli and to change ‘I’ to ‘y’ when Mother Nature has inscribed his origins in the clearest possible way right in the middle of his face ... Levy’s nose provides conversation throughout the year in the City of London.’ Or when he describes Ferdinand Lassalle as ‘Lazarus’, ‘Baron Izzy’ and ‘the Jewish nigger’? There’s really not much to be done about this except to sigh that times were different then. Berman, while attempting to redeem Marx’s anti-semitism by calling it a passing phase, takes the same quote on the Jewish Question more seriously than Wheen. It seems, he says, that the primal Jewish sin, for Marx, is a sense of self, as in ‘practical need, self-interest’. He connects this directly with the legacy of Platonism and Christianity, where self is evil and virtue becomes self-sacrifice. ‘In the 20th century this cliché would be reinvented by Stalinist Communism.’ Berman allows himself doubts, but opts in the end for optimism: ‘Did Marx himself ever believe anything like this? I can’t swear he didn’t, but if he did, it wasn’t for long. Very soon, and in all his great works, he would affirm practical need and self-interest as primal forces that make life go on.’ The Jewish question remains unresolved and painful in Berman, but I can live with it better than I can with Wheen’s unconvincing gloss.
Of course, the great paradox of Marx’s life, as everyone, Berman and Kapp, as well as Wheen, recognises, is the disjunction between the theory and the driving poverty, or lack of thrift, that provides a perfect example of alienated labour. Wheen recognises, as Kapp did before him, that while the Marxes failed to live on relatively handsome sums either inherited from time to time, or donated by the angelic Engels, Marx himself was trapped by bourgeois standards into the social requirements of a family man with three daughters to marry off. The girls needed the accomplishments offered by South Hampstead School as well as extra drawing and music lessons, and a decent address to bring their friends home to.
In this, as in the rest of the book, Wheen works his way through the life and works of Karl Marx as others have done before him. Clearly, he has done his research, but much of what he quotes and comments on in the work is standard stuff that will be familiar even to those with only an elementary knowledge of Marxism. And it is astonishing to read Wheen’s crowing claim that on the subject of Marx’s analysis of the alienation of the worker ‘no Marxian scholar or critic has drawn attention to the obvious parallel with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’, which, he tells us helpfully, is ‘the tale of a monster which turns against its creator’. Look no further than Berman in his original essay ‘All That is Solid Melts into Air’, written in 1978: ‘Marx’s bourgeois sorcerer descends from Goethe’s Faust, of course, but also from another literary figure who haunted the imagination of his generation: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These mythical figures, striving to expand human powers through science and rationality, unleash demonic powers that erupt irrationally, beyond human control, with horrifying results.’
Perhaps, if you’re starting from scratch with Marx, you might read Wheen and get the basic facts, but I’d rather put Berman’s slim, thoughtful book of essays into any enquiring hand to feel that Marx the thinker’s future was assured.