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Three books on the life and thought of the `red terror doctor’

Reviews by Alex Miller

Karl Marx: A Biography
By David McLellan, Palgrave Macmillan
4th Edition 2006
487 pages, paperback

This is the fourth edition of David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, the first edition of which was originally published in 1973. McLellan’s biography has stood the test of time, and despite the much-publicised and over-hyped publication of Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx in 1999, McLellan’s book remains by far the best biography of Marx available in English.

Unlike Wheen, McLellan has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marx’s published work, and pulls off the difficult feat of interweaving exposition of Marx’s main works with a detailed and sympathetic account of his life, both public and private.

Compares well to classics

McLellan’s biography also compares well to some of the classic biographies in the Marxist canon. Franz Mehring’s Karl Marx: The Story of His Life is still very much worth a read, especially for the wonderfully clear chapter on the second and third volumes of Capital, which Mehring tells us was written as a favour by no less than Rosa Luxemburg. However, Mehring’s book was written in 1918 and thus predates the publication in the 1930s of such important works of Marx’s as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and the Grundrisse of 1857-8, as well as numerous items of Marx’s correspondence.

Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen’s Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, completed under the shadow of Hitler in Berlin in 1933, but not published until 1936, is another classic. However, as the authors make clear in their foreword, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter does not aspire to be a full intellectual biography, but concentrates primarily on Marx’s political activity, especially around the periods of the 1848 revolutions and the years of the First International from the mid-1860s to the early 1870s. McLellan’s book thus remains the best and most up-to-date biography of Marx covering the full range of his activities, both practical and intellectual.

It would be futile in a brief review to attempt to summarise McLellan’s succinct summaries of Marx’s main works, such as the 1844 Manuscripts, the political writings about the 1848 revolutions and their aftermath, the Grundrisse, the various volumes of Capital, through to the late political writings about the Paris Commune and the Critique of the Gotha Programme. I’ll simply encourage readers to pick up McLellan’s book for themselves. Although Marx’s writings can be extremely hard going, McLellan does an excellent job of extracting the main lines of Marx’s thought, and by deft quotation does so in a way that conveys a sense of Marx’s great skills as a writer. Readers are likely to leave McLellan’s volume with an appetite to read Marx’s works for themselves, which is the best sign of success in an intellectual biography.

Tempestuous life

However, this is more than simply an intellectual biography. McLellan seamlessly integrates his account of Marx’s writings with the story of his sometimes tempestuous and chaotic life, giving detailed accounts of Marx’s activities as a revolutionary in both continental Europe and in London, to which Marx was permanently exiled following the defeat of the European revolutions of 1848.

Again, I won’t attempt to summarise McLellan’s account of Marx’s political life here. Instead, I’ll limit myself to some observations about Marx the man, and some critical remarks about the short concluding chapter on ``Marx’s Legacy’’.

Marx’s most important works – the Grundrisse and Capital among them – were written in extremely difficult conditions, conditions that would surely have silenced many a lesser human being. Marx was living in London, with a family to care for and no regular source of income except journalistic commissions from the New York Daily Tribune. McLellan gives a vivid picture of the poverty and privations that Marx and his family suffered, privations that would have defeated even Marx had it not been for the generosity of Friedrich Engels, who selflessly subsidised Marx and his family for almost all of their quarter century in London. Engels – these days unjustifiably maligned as a crude ``simplifier’’ of Marx’s thinking – in many ways emerges as the real hero of the story. Writing to his daughter Jenny a few months before his death in 1883, Marx commented, ``Good old Fred may easily kill someone out of love’’.

Perhaps the most harrowing episodes in Marx’s life were the premature deaths of his children. Marx’s only son, Edgar, died in 1855 at the age of eight while the Marx family was living in a squalid two-room flat in Soho. Marx wrote to Engels on April 6: ``Poor Edgar is no more. He went to sleep (literally) in my arms today between five and six.’’

William Leibknecht, a friend of the family, wrote of what he saw:

The mother silently weeping, bent over the dead child, Lenchen sobbing beside her, Marx in a terrible agitation vehemently, almost angrily, rejecting all consolation, the two girls clinging to their mother crying quietly, the mother clasping them convulsively as if to hold them and defend them against Death that had robbed her of her boy.

A few months later, Marx wrote to Lassalle:

Bacon says that really important men have so many relations with nature and the world that they recover easily from every loss. I do not belong to these important men. The death of my child has deeply shaken my heart and mind and I still feel the loss as freshly as on the first day. My poor wife is also completely broken down.

Despite these setbacks and grinding poverty – probably only the handouts from Engels saved the Marx family from complete destitution, and Marx often was unable to go out because his coat was in the pawnshop – Marx worked incredibly hard, regularly researching in the British Museum from nine in the morning to seven in the evening and then staying up late into the night writing.

But there are many lighter moments, including one hilarious episode in which William Leibknecht, Edgar Bauer and Marx get drunk on a pub crawl on the Tottenham Court Road.

`Shallow optimism’?

The short concluding chapter on Marx’s legacy is in many ways the weakest part of McLellan’s otherwise fine volume. For example, McLellan accuses Marx of ``shallow optimism’’ and cites the environmental crisis facing humanity as a problem for Marx’s world outlook:

Marx shared the common 19th-century view that progress was somehow inexorably written into the story of human development. There would no doubt be setbacks and sufferings, but humanity, in its struggle to dominate nature, would in the long run produce a society in which human capacities were more extensively exercised and human needs more fully met. But more recent developments in the productive forces, and particularly atomic energy, have led many to wonder whether humanity’s efforts to dominate nature have not taken a fundamentally wrong turning. The potentially disastrous impact of global warming is only just beginning to be realized. We have lost our nerve and our own inventions have made us more dubious about ‘progress’ than at any time for the last two hundred years.

However, in many ways the global environmental crisis is the perfect illustration of Marx’s idea – outlined in the famous Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, which McLellan earlier quotes – that the capitalist system of production relations, like the feudal system of production relations that preceded it, at a certain stage begins to fetter the development of the productive forces, the things necessary for the satisfaction of human needs. As well as fettering the development of the productive forces, the capitalist system of production relations, in which every aspect of life is subjected to the demands of the market and the pursuit of private profit, makes dealing with the problem of climate change effectively impossible, threatening the cessation of life on the planet altogether. Only planned production on a global scale can begin to address the challenge of climate change; but planned production requires co-operation between the owners of productive units, and the major players in the global capitalist system can no more co-operate to save the environment than a pack of wolves can co-operate to protect a baby lamb. It simply cannot happen: co-operation on a global scale between the owners of productive units can happen only on the basis of collective ownership of the productive forces on a global scale.

Despite this and other weaknesses in the concluding chapter, though, McLellan’s book remains the standard biography of Marx, scholarly and well informed, but at the same time an enjoyable and compelling read.

One thing that is clear is that Marx had an enormous sense of humour, so I will end this review on a light-hearted note. In the later years of his life Marx attained a certain degree of notoriety due to his association with the First International and was referred to in polite circles as ``the red terror doctor’’. But he also gained a degree of grudging respect, and in 1867 he was elected by his respectable English neighbours to the prestigious post of ``Constable of the sinecure of St. Pancras’’.

Marx declined the invitation with the comment, ``I should tell them that I was a foreigner and that they should kiss me on the arse.’’ His last recorded words on the UK were: ``To the devil with the British.’’


* * *

Marx’s London

Marx in London: An Illustrated Guide
By Asa Briggs & John Callow
Published by Lawrence & Wishart, in association with the Marx Memorial Library
Revised edition, 2008
110 pages

Australians visit London in their thousands every year, but the vast majority of us probably walk the streets of the British capital unaware that we are following in the footsteps of the founder of modern socialism, Karl Marx.

Fleeing continental Europe after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, Marx lived in London from 1849 until his death in 1883, and it was there that he wrote the great works on political economy on which his fame principally rests.

The first edition of this guide, written by the eminent social historian Asa Briggs, was published in 1982, and now a revised and updated version has been published with the assistance of John Callow, the chief librarian of the Marx Memorial Library.

The guide interweaves the social history of London with the story of Marx’s life and work, and with the aid of numerous maps and photographs guides the reader through the places most associated with Marx: Soho, where he lived on the edge of poverty in the early 1850s; the British Museum, where he did the research for his masterpiece, Capital; Hampstead Heath, where the Marx family regularly escaped the smoke and grime of the city on Sunday afternoons; Covent Garden, scene of the meetings of the First International; and Highgate Cemetery, the site of Marx’s tomb and a place of pilgrimage for socialists the world over.
If you’re visiting
London in the near future, give the usual tourist traps a miss and get along to the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell. You can see the tiny office where Lenin edited the newspaper Iskra in 1902-3, pick up a copy of this excellent guide for £8.99 and then trace the footsteps of Marx, Engels and Lenin. It will be cheaper than the Tower of London, and good for you as well.

* * *

The story of a book that shook the world

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography
By Francis Wheen
Atlantic Books 2006
130 pages

Francis Wheen, who produced an entertaining (if over-hyped) biography of Karl Marx in 1999, returns to Marx with a ``biography’’ of the revolutionary philosopher’s most famous and important single work, in the series from Atlantic called Books That Shook The World. Wheen gives a readable account of the genesis of Das Kapital, interweaving the tale of Marx’s personal and political life with brief descriptions of Marx’s earlier works in the lead-up to the oft-promised and oft-delayed publication of his magnum opus in 1867.

Unlike most commentators, Wheen conveys a vivid sense of Das Kapital’s vastly under-appreciated qualities as a great work of literature, infinitely superior in this regard to the bourgeois political economists whose work Marx trounced on purely scientific grounds: ``The book can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created.’’

Wheen does a good job of destroying some of the myths that surround the book. For example, he recounts how British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson claimed never to have read it, giving up because of a page-long footnote on page 2. As Wheen points out, a glance at page 2 of the book reveals this to be a wild exaggeration.


Another example concerns the familiar claim that Marx’s predictions about the progressive immiseration of the proletariat under capitalism have been refuted by the actual development of capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: ``Countless pundits have taken this to mean that capitalism’s swelling prosperity would be achieved by an absolute reduction in the workers’ wages and standard of living, and they have found it easy to mock. Look at the working classes of today, with their cars and microwave ovens: not very immiserated, are they?’’. Wheen points out that the idea that Marx has been refuted in this way is based on a complete misreading of Chapter 25 of Das Kapital: Marx in fact argued only that under capitalism there would be a relative – as opposed to absolute – decline in wages, and Wheen shows that this is in fact ``demonstrably true’’.

In addition, Wheen makes the excellent point that ``immiseration’’ concerns not just the wages workers receive, but how long and how hard they have to work in order to get them. And in fact: ``The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, as against 69,000 hours in 1981. Far from losing the [capitalist] work ethic, we seem ever more enslaved by it’’. Wheen quotes Marx’s uncanny prescience regarding this in a passage in Chapter 12: ``We may read on one page that the worker owes a debt of gratitude to capital for developing his productivity, because the necessary labour time is thereby shortened, and on the next page that he must prove his gratitude in future for 15 hours instead of 10.’’ So much for the imminent leisure age predicted in the 1970s by apologists for capitalism!

Selective quoting

There are parts of the book where Wheen is less convincing. For example, in the chapter on the influence of Das Kapital after Marx’s death, by highly deceptive selective quotation from What Is To Be Done?, Wheen portrays Lenin as laying out an abstract blueprint for the future tyrannies of Stalinism. This is an all too familiar trick, and it is a pity that Wheen succumbs to the temptation to play it.

Also, Wheen objects to the labour theory of value (according to which the exchange value of a commodity is determined by the socially necessary amount of labour time required to produce it): ``Why do people sometimes pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for a single diamond ring or pearl necklace? Mightn’t these extraordinary prices also owe something to scarcity value, or perceptions of beauty, or even to simple one-upmanship?’’

But this is a weak objection. For one thing, there is a difference between the concepts of exchange value and price. True, Marx and the classical political economists generally held that in the long run, the prices of commodities tend in the direction of their exchange values. However, this clearly does not imply that the price of each and every commodity sold on the market is equivalent to its exchange value.

Moreover, even waiving this point there is a further problem with Wheen’s objection: as almost any modern philosopher of science will attest, empirical explanatory theories are confirmed or disconfirmed on the basis of their capacity to furnish a whole body of predictions. The holistic nature of theory confirmation means that a theory can issue in an inaccurate prediction yet still be confirmed overall if the theory’s predictions on sufficiently many and sufficiently important other matters are sound. So even if the labour theory of value did yield the wrong prediction about the exchange value of a diamond ring, it might still be justified in virtue of its capacity to predict the exchange values of more common commodities or, at a further remove, the long-term qualitative characteristics of the capitalist mode of production.

And, indeed, Wheen acknowledges the greatness of Marx’s achievement in just this regard: despite some wildly over-optimistic predictions about the imminence of socialist revolution, Marx pulled off the remarkable feat of accurately portraying the general shape and qualitative character of globalised capitalism in the 21st century from the vantage point of its infancy in one small part of the world in the 19th century. In this respect, no bourgeois economist or social scientist has ever come near to Marx.

Wheen concludes: ``Marx’s errors or unfulfilled prophecies about capitalism are eclipsed and transcended by the piercing accuracy with which he revealed the nature of the beast. While all that is solid melts into air, Das Kapital’s vivid portrayal of the forces that govern our lives – and of the instability, alienation, and exploitation they produce – will never lose its resonance, or its power to bring it into focus. Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the 20th century.’’

Readers of Wheen’s stimulating book will leave it with the desire to tackle Marx’s masterpiece for themselves: for this especially, Wheen is to be commended.

[Alex Miller is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party and of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in the Australian Socialist Alliance. Abridged versions of these reviews first appeared in the Australian socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly.]

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