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Irving Howe

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Karl Marx

(2 December 1946)

From Labor Action, VolVol. 10 No. 49/a>, 2 December 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by
Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Karl Marx: His Life and Work
by Otto Ruehle
New Home Library, 98 Cents

One of the best book buys on the market is this reprint of Otto Ruehle’s biography of Karl Marx. Though there is much in it with which one disagrees, it is a most valuable study of an intellectual titan of modern times, second in its field only to Franz Mehring’s magnificent biography of Marx, which is now out of print.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare Ruehle’s book with Mehring’s. For the latter is one of the jewels of socialist literature, a careful reading of which can provide a quite thorough Marxist education. But in the absence of a readily-available edition of Mehring’s book, the interested reader can turn with profit to Ruehle, provided he maintains a certain critical attitude toward Ruehle’s unfortunate tendency to indulge in amateurish psychology.

For the most part, Ruehle writes in the tradition which sees a biography of a great thinker as a history of intellectual development rather than an account of personal experience. Himself a trained Marxist, Ruehle traces in brief, succinct but encompassing sections the development of Marx from his position as a student under the influence of the liberal Young Hegelians to his position as a fully matured revolutionist and social analyst: the passionate defender of the Paris Commune and the rigidly careful analyst of capitalist society. Many intimate details of Marx’s life are given but these are usually subordinated to descriptions of his ideas and writings.

Marx as Thinker

Ruehle is clever enough to let Marx speak for himself in those instances where summary could result only in vulgarization, though the reader should be warned that he has an unfortunate habit of quoting paragraphs from different sections of a book which often do not quite hang together because of the omission of intervening material.

The full stature of Marx as thinker and intellectual pioneer again strikes the eye after rereading this book, which is by no means uncritical in its approach. One grasps the aweinspiring extent of the genius of a man who was deeply learned in the work of the best minds preceding him but bold enough to establish his own syntheses of ideas. But above all we are impressed by the picture of the thinker who is also at the same time, the doer: there is no longer in himself – as he urged in his famous Thesis on Feuerbach – the crippling divorce between thought and action which had characterized so many great minds before him. One is further impressed by the catholicity of his intellectual interests, the breadth of his mind which is such a vivid contrast to some of the intellectual moles who were afterward to take his name in vain.

Marx was a great economist, a brilliant historian and politician; but above all else, a totally devoted revolutionist. And for that devotion he suffered throughout his life. Some of the most moving pages in this biography describe his never quite successful struggle against want, because of his dogged devotion to the work and cause to which he dedicated his life.

One cannot leave this book without saying a word about Ruehle’s unfortunate psychologizing on Marx’s personal traits. There is conflicting testimony on Marx’s personal character. The valuable little memoir of Wilhelm Liebknecht speaks of him with veneration and love; Engels too painted a picture of him which is warm and endearing. Others, especially his opponents, wrote of him as being vain, egocentric, arrogant and extremely difficult to deal with. Ruehle leans to the latter interpretation.

He attempts to explain what he considers Marx’s neuroticism by applying the method of historical materialism to individual psychology, but the application seems to this reviewer not very successful. For Ruehle engages in a rather crude transference of materialistic criteria: he traces Marx’s “neuroticism” to his bad liver condition, his sense of inferiority caused by his Jewish descent, and his position as an only child. Now all of these three factors may and do play various roles in aggravating personality disturbances, but the mere assertion of their simultaneous existence is not yet proof of either the existence of the alleged symptoms or the operation of the alleged causes. Ruehle has by far oversimplified the factors in Marx’s personality; he has chosen to emphasize only those which permitted him to deprecate Marx; and; worst of all, he has substituted general factors for an analysis of their specific applicability.

If, however, one ignores Ruehle’s psychologizing and concentrates on his political sections, this book is a fine introduction to Marx and his thought; and in this cheap reprint it should find a wide circulation.

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Last updated: 19 July 2020