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International Socialism, Winter 1999


Peter Morgan

The man behind the mask


From International Socialism 2:85, Winter 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Francis Wheen
Karl Marx
Fourth Estate 1999, £20

‘Above all a revolutionary’

When Frederick Engels spoke at the graveside of his dear friend and political ally Karl Marx in 1883, he said:

It is impossible to measure the loss which the fighting European and American proletariat and historical science has lost with the death of this man ... For Marx was above all a revolutionary, and his great aim in life was to co-operate in this or that fashion in the overthrow of capitalist society and the state institutions it had created, to co-operate in the emancipation of the modern proletariat.

It is no easy task to write a biography of someone who has been described as the greatest thinker of the millennium. It is even harder when the subject is Marx, a man who has been vilified and attacked since the day he died. Yet Francis Wheen has done justice to his subject. He has written a compelling, refreshing and honest account of the founder of modern scientific socialism. Wheen says in his introduction that he has been keen to write a book about Marx and not about Marxism. ‘It is time’, he says, ‘to strip away the mythology and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man.’ It is to his credit, therefore, that Wheen has been able to capture some of that fighting spirit of which Engels spoke and give a taste of Marx’s intellectual stature. He has given a warts and all account of the life of Marx, which is made all the more candid because he has delved into the masses of letters and correspondence between Marx, Engels and his many other friends and political allies. Wheen has removed many of the myths that have distorted Marx’s ideas to give them relevance to those struggling to change the world today. I want to pick some examples of the way he has done this in this brief review of the book.

‘Only now do I know what real unhappiness is. I feel broken down ...’

The great strength of Wheen’s book, and what strikes the reader immediately, is that he shows the human side of Marx. Over the years this has often been overlooked – many people did not realise that beneath the great theoretician there was also a passionate polemicist and organiser, and a man who was caring to his family and loyal to his friends.

Nothing illustrates the human side of Marx better than the tragic case of his youngest son, Edgar. Marx adored his young son. Edgar was always in fine spirits and ready to amuse his family: ‘When his parents lapsed into despondency, he could always cheer them up by singing nonsensical ditties – or the Marseillaise, for that matter – with tremendous feeling and at the top of his voice’. [1] So when he was laid low with a gastric fever there was much concern in the Marx household. Although he recovered temporarily, his remission was short lived. He eventually took a turn for the worse, and a doctor diagnosed that there would be no hope of recovery. On 6 April 1855 he died in his father’s arms shortly before six in the morning.

The death of Marx’s dear son ‘shattered him to the core’. It was the third time one of Marx’s children had died, but for Karl this was the most painful. The funeral of Edgar took place at the Whitfield Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road, which was also the resting place for the two other children. One of the few things that kept Marx going and that sustained him over the coming months was his close friendship to Engels. The Marx family suffered in many other ways. They faced terrible poverty and destitution. The bailiffs were constantly on their doorstep and the police spies were always on the prowl. In the face of such harassment it is amazing that Marx survived, and survived with enough energy to make an enormous contribution to the socialist movement.

But although Wheen recalls the bad and difficult times, and there were many, he also tells of the good times. We read of Marx’s loving relationship with Jenny von Westphalen, his childhood sweetheart from Trier; his rowdy student days; his drunken pub crawls with friends up and down Tottenham Court Road which ended with them being chased by the police; his all night chess games with his friend Wilhelm Liebknecht (for chess buffs, one of the games is printed in the appendix); and the many Sundays spent on Hampstead Heath with children and friends. There is much here to reveal what Marx was like and what sustained him when things were hard.

Wheen also reveals the experiences which helped feed Marx’s genius. Marx led an extraordinary life, partly because he lived through such extraordinary times. He experienced the revolutions of 1848 and the strike wave of 1868–1869, and observed the Paris Commune of 1871. He contributed to, and edited, radical newspapers. He was a pamphleteer, an agitator and an organiser. He was central to the first workers’ associations that were formed to support the growing workers’ movement throughout Europe, and all the time he was a most prolific writer. His collected works extend to over 50 volumes, and his ideas have transformed the way we see the world and the way we go about changing it. Marx was a revolutionary, not just in what he wrote, but in what he did. Bringing this side of Marx to life is one of the book’s strengths. And at the young age of 30 he found out what revolution was all about.

‘Our age, the age of democracy, is breaking ...’

So wrote an ecstatic Frederick Engels as revolution swept Europe in 1848. Engels and Marx had just completed their great pamphlet The Communist Manifesto. But, by the time it appeared, revolution had spread throughout Europe – in Palermo in January; in Paris in February; and in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Milan by the end of March. Barricades were set up. Workers took over the streets, and were even in the government in Paris. The sense of euphoria was everywhere, and it seemed that the old system was collapsing under the weight of popular uprisings.

Nowhere was this more true than in Germany. Compared to its western neighbours, Germany was still quite a backward country. It was dominated by agricultural production. German cities had grown little since the 16th century, German political structures were backward and Germany was still divided between 39 states. The demand for national unification was of central importance to all progressive democrats.

Two young German revolutionaries recognised this as the uprising they had been waiting for. Marx and Engels hurried back to their native Rhineland to intervene in the struggle. By May they had arrived in Cologne and founded the radical daily paper Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In a short time it was selling 5,000 copies a day, a huge circulation by the standards of the time. Its intention was to spread the revolution and to argue the case for the most left wing revolutionary course.

But such was the backwardness of German society and so timid was the German bourgeoisie that at every step it would rather compromise with the old order than align itself with the more radical elements that wanted to take the movement forward. The result was that by the end of 1848 the great revolutionary wave that had swept Germany went down to defeat and the old order was able to survive. The regime then took retribution against those who had fought against it. At the beginning of 1849 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels stood trial for insulting the public prosecutor. In an appeal to the jurors’ political conscience Marx declared:

I prefer to follow the great events of the world, to analyse the course of history, than to occupy myself with local bosses, with the police and prosecuting magistrates. However great these gentlemen may imagine themselves in their own fancy, they are nothing in the gigantic battles of the present time. I consider we are making a real sacrifice when we decide to break a lance with these opponents. But, firstly, it is the duty of the press to come forward on behalf of the oppressed in its immediate neighbourhood ... the first duty of the press now is to undermine all the foundations of the existing political state of affairs. [2]

There followed a period of loud applause from the crowded courtroom, and Marx and Engels were subsequently acquitted. The prosecution came back for more. The very next day Marx found himself in the dock, this time with two colleagues from the Rhenish District Committee of Democrats. Their crime was incitement to revolt. Considering that revolution was the order of the day, it would have been unusual for Marx not to be urging resistance against the old order. But once again, after an appeal to the jury, Marx and his colleagues were unanimously acquitted. In the words of one liberal weekly paper, ‘In political trials the government nowadays has no luck at all with the juries.’

The government decided that the only way to deal with the impetuous Marx was to kick him out of the country. On 16 May 1849 the authorities prosecuted half the editorial staff of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung and recommended the other half for deportation. The final issue of the paper was defiantly printed in red ink, with the editors announcing, ‘Their last word everywhere and always will be: emancipation of the working class.’ And with a band playing and a red flag flying from the rooftops, Marx and his fellow journalists marched out of the building, whereupon Marx fled to Paris, and then on to London, where he was to spend the rest of his life in exile.

Marx’s role in the revolution which swept Europe in 1848 and his analysis of what happened, in his book The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, revealed his true greatness, as it did that of his closest friend Frederick Engels.

‘Ten days that shook the world’

The phrase may be from John Reed’s book on the Russian Revolution, but Francis Wheen uses it to describe the first meeting between Marx and Engels in 1844, which also lasted for ten days. Engels said some 40 years later, ‘When I visited Marx in Paris in the summer of 1844, our complete agreement in all theoretical fields became evident and our joint work dates from that time.’ By the time of this first meeting Engels was already a political theorist in his own right. Initially Marx was suspicious of Engels – he came from Berlin and Marx thought he was still heavily influenced by idealist German philosophy. But this suspicion quickly disappeared after Marx read Engels’ essays on political economy which he had written for a German newspaper. They were, declared Marx, a work of genius. Partly this impact arose from Marx’s lack of knowledge about political economy, as Wheen explains:

Though he had already decided that abstract idealism was so much hot air, and that the engine of history was driven by economic and social forces, Marx’s practical knowledge of capitalism was nil. He had been so engaged by his dialectical tussle with German philosophers that the condition of England – the first industrialised country, the birthplace of the proletariat – had escaped his notice. Engels, from his vantage point in the cotton mills of Lancashire, was well placed to enlighten him. [3]

Engels had moved to Manchester in 1842 to work at the family firm, Ermen and Engels. At the time Manchester was the centre of the 1842 general strike and a city teeming with Chartists and industrial agitators. The book Engels wrote at this time – The Condition of the Working Class in England – remains, even today, one of the great studies of industrial capitalism:

What gave the book its power and depth was Engels’ skilful interweaving (he was a textile man, after all) of first hand observation with information from parliamentary commissions, health officials and copies of Hansard. The British state may have done little or nothing to improve the lot of the workers, but it had collected a mass of data about the horrors of industrial life which was available to anyone who cared to retrieve it from the dusty library shelf ... After quoting several gruesome cases of disease and starvation, published in the middle class Manchester Guardian, [Engels] exulted: ‘I delight in the testimony of my opponents’. One need only study the citations from government Blue Books and the Economist in the first volume of Capital to see how much Karl Marx learned from the technique. [4]

And yet Engels was keen to defer to the genius of Marx from the outset. He accepted that it was his duty to support and subsidise Marx without complaint but Wheen is right to recognise the contribution that Engels made to Marx, not just in terms of financial and moral support, but also intellectually. Engels was instrumental in the content of The Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto was commissioned by the Communist League – a grouping of radicals and workers committed to revolutionary communism – in 1847 as a ‘profession of faith’. Engels wrote an early draft in June 1847, which he then sent on to Marx.

Marx was keen that The Communist Manifesto be an open statement about the aims and intentions of communists. He wanted to break out of the conspiratorial tradition that dominated radical groups at the time. Why, he wanted to know, should revolutionaries hide their views and intentions? When the two men met at the end of November 1847 at Ostend en route to London for the second congress of the Communist League, Engels had revised his original draft. But even so, both he and Marx realised they had a fight on their hands to get it accepted by the delegates.

The venue for the second congress was a room above the Red Lion pub in Great Windmill Street, Soho. Marx and Engels submitted their proposals, and then a bitter and prolonged debate raged for ten days. Eventually Marx and Engels carried the congress with them, and they were given the job of writing the Manifesto in the name of the League.

The contrast between the June congress and that of November showed the extent to which Marx and Engels shifted the revolutionaries to a much sharper and harder analysis of capitalism. At the June congress (which Marx had not attended) the League’s aims were declared as ‘the emancipation of humanity by spreading the theory of the community or property and its speediest possible practical introduction’. By November the rules were much more combative: ‘The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society which rests on the antagonism of classes, and without private property’. [5] Engels’ ideas were important, but in the end Marx wrote the final Manifesto.

There was much else besides that Engels contributed to Marx. After the Communist League was dissolved in 1852, Marx was commissioned to write a series of articles for the weekly New York Tribune – a huge and influential paper with a readership of 200,000. A series of articles called Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany appeared in 19 instalments between October 1851 and October 1852 with Marx’s by-line. In fact it was wholly written by Engels. Such was Engels’ military understanding that, when he wrote anonymously on the progress of the Russo-Turkish war in 1853, rumour and gossip attributed it to an American general. And when Marx was commissioned to write entries on great generals and the history of warfare for a friend who was compiling entries for a new encyclopaedia, he happily accepted $2 per page and then got Engels to do all the work for him.

Their relationship suffered only one serious setback. On 7 January 1863 Engels wrote to Marx and informed him of the death of his partner, Mary Burns. The response from Marx hurt Engels immensely. Marx went on about his poor financial position, the problems with paying school fees for the kids and the difficulty of working. Engels was amazed, angered and hurt. It took a couple of weeks, and an apology (of sorts) from Marx, before friendly relations were restored. There is little than can be said in mitigation for Marx and, quite rightly, Wheen doesn’t try – there is no doubt that Marx was seriously out of order. But it was the only rift in what was a remarkable friendship, quickly forgotten and never mentioned again.

‘I simply cannot understand’, wrote Engels in 1881, nearly 40 years after first meeting Marx, ‘how anyone can be envious of genius; it’s something so very special that we who have not got it know it to be unattainable right from the start.’ As Francis Wheen acknowledges, for Engels, ‘Marx’s friendship, and the triumphant culmination of his work, would be reward enough’. [6]

‘What resilience, what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians’

There was no controlling Marx’s excitement at the events in France’s capital city on 18 March 1871, as workers established the Paris Commune. Of the 92 communards elected by popular suffrage on 28 March, 17 were members of the International Working Men’s Association (First International) – the group that had been set up in September 1864 to further the cause of workers’ revolt, and which had Marx as one of its guiding figures. The central role that Marx played in the Association blows a hole in one of the most popular myths about him – that he was an intellectual interested only in studying books. In fact, as Francis Wheen shows, Marx’s role in the Association demonstrates the coming together of his revolutionary politics with his revolutionary activity.

Marx himself wrote about the Paris Commune for the General Council of the Association in the extraordinary pamphlet The Civil War in France. But it did not appear until after the Commune had been drowned in blood. Why the delay? For some biographers, this delay is attributed to Marx’s personal ambivalence. But as Wheen demonstrates,the delay was much more due to mundane and routine reasons – at the time Marx suffered bronchitis and liver trouble that prevented him from writing. When it did appear, The Civil War in France was a brilliant analysis of what the Commune had achieved – demonstrating for the first time what form workers’ power would take. The pamphlet was an immediate success. The first two printings of 3,000 each sold out within a fortnight. When it became known that Marx was the author he rapidly became notorious, and so too did the Association, which became the subject of a witch hunt.

The response of those in positions of power ‘who can never believe that ordinary people might be able or willing to challenge them’ is to hunt for the ‘trouble makers’, as Wheen says: ‘whether a single Mr Big or a “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” that has been pulling the strings’. [7] Yet in defending the role of the Association in the uprising of Parisian workers, Marx knew of only one response to such intimidation:

Our Association is, in fact, nothing but the international bond between the most advanced working men in the various countries of the civilised world. Wherever, in whatever shape, and under whatever conditions the class struggle obtains any consistency, it is but natural that members of our Association should stand in the foreground. [8]

The movement in France was effectively smashed and the Association was weakened. The French section was outlawed, the German section faced heavy repression, and in Britain two of the trade union leaders who were on the General Council resigned to join Gladstone’s Liberal Party. The Association was dying, but for Marx there was another problem to deal with – that of the anarchist Michael Bakunin, who was threatening to take over the Association from within.

Bakunin was a romantic revolutionist and conspirator with a rather confused anti-authoritarian programme. He is often described as the father of modern anarchism, although, as Wheen notes, ‘he bequeathed no great theoretical scripture’. Wheen then proceeds to demolish the arguments of those, such as Isaiah Berlin, who imply that Bakunin was some kind of free thinker and libertarian spirit whereas Marx was just a dogmatic and literal minded plodder.

Bakunin’s International Alliance of Socialist Democracy had entered the Association in 1868. This prompted a vicious faction fight that went on for the next four years between Marx and the General Council on the one hand and Bakunin and his supporters on the other. When the struggle in Europe was at its peak the faction fight was of less importance. Once it went down to defeat, however, Bakunin saw his chance. In this situation Marx and Engels had only one option. At the Hague congress that Marx attended in person both he and Engels succeeded in winning the majority of delegates to have Bakunin expelled. But, fearful that Bakunin might make a comeback and take over the organisation that had clearly had its day, Engels proposed that the Association be moved to New York, a motion that was narrowly passed by the delegates.

Engels later described the First International as the force in European history on whose side the future lay. And he was to be proved correct. Half a century later Lenin and Trotsky looked back at the Paris Commune and the role of the International, and they used The Civil War in France as the blueprint for the 1917 Russian Revolution.’

‘So, this volume is finished. I owe it to you alone that it was possible ...’

In the early hours of 16 August 1867 Marx finished revising and correcting the proofs of his greatest work, Capital. In a letter to Engels he praised the sacrifice his friend had made for him: ‘Without your self sacrifice for me I could not possibly have managed the immense labour demanded by the three volumes. I embrace you full of thanks ... Salut, my dear, valued, friend’. [9]

While completing the last pages Marx was in considerable pain. For years he had suffered a whole host of physical illnesses, in particular the carbuncles that regularly afflicted him. Through the winter of 1866–1867, however, they could no longer thwart his determination to finish his great work. As Wheen explains, ‘He wrote the last few pages of volume one standing at his desk when an eruption of boils around the rump made sitting too painful ... Engels’ experienced eye immediately spotted certain passages in the text “where the carbuncles have left their mark”, and Marx agreed that the fever in his groin might have given the prose a rather livid hue. “At all events, I hope the bourgeoisie will remember the carbuncles until their dying day”, he cursed. “What a swine they are!”’ [10]

But despite the physical problems, Marx produced a book of such immense power and influence that Engels later described it as ‘the bible of the working class’. Wheen launches an admirable defence of Capital. He attacks the philosopher Karl Popper, who claims that Marx’s economic laws are nothing other than historical prophesies. In fact, says Wheen, ‘it would be easy to subject Marx’s economic assertions to ... experiment by studying what has happened in practice during the last century or so. As capitalism matured, he predicted, we would see periodic recessions, an ever growing dependence on technology and the growth of huge, quasi-monopolistic corporations spreading their sticky tentacles all over the world in search of new markets to exploit. If none of this had happened, we might be forced to agree that the old boy was talking poppy cock’. [11] He also defends Marx from those who claim that, because workers have not got progressively poorer since the early days of capitalism, this somehow disproves the theory. ‘What Marx did predict’, argues Wheen, ‘was that under capitalism there would be a relative – not an absolute – decline in wages’. [12] And finally he attacks Leszek Kolakowski, who claims that ‘Marx’s theory of value does not meet the normal requirements of a scientific hypothesis, especially that of falsifiability.’ Unfortunately Wheen’s defence of Capital is weakened by the fact that he compares it to ‘a Victorian melodrama or a vast gothic novel’, rather than in appreciating the real scientific breakthrough that Marx achieved. But his admiration for the great work shines through.

Sometimes Wheen’s attempt to explain some of the Marx’s ideas lead to him trivialising them. His explanation of the dialectic – which was so crucial to Marx’s early intellectual development and, later, to his writings on economics – is too simplified to be convincing. But, at the same time, Wheen is not scared to take up some of the arguments and some of the theoretical questions that have dogged studies of Marx for many years. For example, there has been a debate in the history of Marxism about whether there is a sharp break between the young Marx and the old Marx. The old Marx, it has been claimed, was the scientific and economistic Marx, whereas the early one was the idealist philosopher. What is Wheen’s conclusion? He makes this tongue-in-cheek comment: ‘Wine may mature and improve in the bottle, but it remains wine for all that.’ But then he does go on to describe the Grundisse (1857–1858) – Marx’s fragmentary compilation of notes which look at alienation, dialectics, labour power and surplus value, and which anticipated the later writings in Capital – as the missing link between the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) and Capital (1867). His argument is not wholly conclusive, but he does come down on the right side.

This is a book, though, that once you start reading you don’t want to put down. Finishing Wheen’s Karl Marx gives the reader an immediate desire to want to know more. Many readers of this book will be hungry to learn more about the life and revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx. They will want to read Capital for the first time, or read it again. They will want to remember the excitement of the Paris Commune in the pages of The Civil War in France. Above all, for many there will be a burning desire to follow in the footsteps of this great revolutionary and finish off the great task that Marx set himself – the overthrow of capitalism. That is no bad thing.


1. F. Wheen, Karl Marx (Fourth Estate 1999), p. 216.

2. Quoted ibid., p. 143.

3. Ibid., p. 75.

4. Ibid., pp. 82–83.

5. Ibid., p. 118.

6. Ibid., pp. 83–84.

7. Ibid., pp. 330–331.

8. Ibid., p. 331.

9. Ibid., p. 298.

10. Ibid., p. 294.

11. Ibid., p. 299.

12. Ibid., p. 300.

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