Karl Marx: Before all else a revolutionary

By David Yaffe

The first short biography of Karl Marx could be said to have been produced by his great friend and collaborator Frederick Engels on March 17, 1883, in a speech heard by the ten other people gathered together in Highgate Cemetery for Marx's funeral. It offers very clear guidelines to those who would take it upon themselves to write future biographies. Marx, said Engels, was before all else a revolutionary:

His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.

So the appearance of yet another biography of Karl Marx, this time by Guardian columnist Francis Wheen, claiming that "it is time to strip away the mythology and rediscover Karl Marx the man", should put us on our guard. For Marx the man cannot be separated from his real mission in life and the dedication and commitment that invariably accompanied it.

Faint praise

A biography, like any other commodity, has to have a market niche. Another tabloid-style denunciation of the man and his works would have little mileage. Neither would a revolutionary vindication of Marx. Wheen knows his punters he writes weekly for them in the Guardian. They reject Thatcherism and a Labour Party gone Thatcherite. They are disturbed by untrammelled market forces, corporate domination, financial speculation and increasing stress and insecurity at work. They are alarmed by environmental destruction and Third World poverty but want well-stocked supermarkets supplied by global markets. They want to see change but not revolutionary change. Wheen's Karl Marx is the man for the job.

Wheen tells us that the more he studied Marx, the more topical he seemed to be. Marx was already on to globalisation in 1848. Long after Marx had been written off by fashionable liberals and postmodernist leftists, a wealthy investment banker, writing in the New Yorker in October 1997, considered Marx to be "the next big thinker" with much to teach us about political corruption, monopolisation, alienation, inequality and global markets.

The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), Wheen argues, reveal the "workings of a ceaselessly inquisitive, subtle and undogmatic mind". They demonstrate how alienation and poverty, growing concentration of capital, intense competition and overproduction are ever present features of capitalist society even under favourable conditions of growing wealth. The Communist Manifesto (1848) foresaw globalisation. Wheen quotes liberally from the well-known passages: The bourgeoisie "has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms has set up that single, unconscionable freedom Free Trade". The exploitation of the world market has given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. None of Wheen's points are original. They were made during the many discussions of the Communist Manifesto on the 150th anniversary of its publication in 1998.

The Communist Manifesto was, however, written for the Communist League, whose aim, adopted at its second congress, was "the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of bourgeois society which rests on the antagonism of classes, and the foundation of a new society without classes and without private property". This, clearly, is far too radical for run-of-the-mill Guardian readers. And yet, it is all there in the Communist Manifesto. "What the bourgeoisie, therefore produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." And not only there, but also in Marx's major scientific work on capitalist society, Capital, as an historical tendency of capitalist accumulation :

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production … Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.[1]

Wheen is quick to reassure his readers. With the complacency that hindsight allows, he states that at the time of the Manifesto, what Marx took to be capitalism's death throes "were in fact nothing more than birthpangs", even though, as Wheen acknowledges, revolution did break out across much of continental Europe within days of the Manifesto's publication. "But it was doused just as quickly and bourgeois triumphalism began its long reign." So not to worry, dear readers! "Marx's optimism was misplaced, even though his vision of the global market was uncannily prescient."

Whimsical tomfoolery

So how could Marx be so wrong and yet so right? Here Wheen is simply out of his depth and takes refuge in sophistry so reminiscent of his columns in the Guardian. He compares Marx's thinking to that of a chess player who, in working out how he will checkmate his opponent six moves ahead, fails to notice that his opponent can mate him far sooner. It requires the other player to make a mistake if Marx is to win. Propitiously, Marx had similar problems with actual games of chess. In support of his argument, Wheen conjures up a comrade of Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, who recalls that, in chess, Marx's technique was to try "to make up what he lacked in science by zeal, impetuousness of attack and surprise"(no source given), a description, Wheen says, "that might be applied to the Communist Manifesto".

But what of Capital? Can that be dismissed so shamelessly? Here Wheen simply threshes around like a drunk unexpectedly fallen into a swimming pool:

More use-value and indeed profit can … be derived from Capital if it is read as a work of the imagination: A Victorian melodrama, or a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created … or perhaps a satirical utopia like Swift's land of Houyhnhnms ...

He goes on to say that the absurdities in Capital, while reflecting the madness of the subject, not the author, should be treated like a shaggy-dog story. The first chapter should be regarded as a "picaresque odyssey through the realms of higher nonsense". It reminds Wheen of the last lines of Marx's beloved Tristram Shandy:

L d! said my mother, what is all this story about?

A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick; and one of the best of its kind ever heard.

It is not that Capital is full of "abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery" but that this biography of Marx has got out of its depth.

Wheen makes great play of the influence of Marx's extensive literary reading on his work, but, as in the nonsense above, overplays his hand. The opening passages of the 18th Brumaire were taken, almost word for word, from a letter Engels wrote to Marx on December 3, 1851, and were not directly connected with a passage from Marx's "humouristic novel" written under the spell of Tristram Shandy. "Estrangement" and "alienation" of human labour in Marx's economic writings had roots in German romantic idealism and later Hegelian philosophy. Such literary parallels as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a monster which turns against its creator, were used by Marx in his letters and writings as a literary device to illuminate his point. This has been noted, without the exaggeration and hyperbole of Wheen, in a serious work of scholarship, Karl Marx and World Literature by S.S. Prawer (1976), a book Wheen refers to only once and briefly.

… and the victory of the proletariat?

At the beginning of this biography, Wheen tells us how his many friends regarded him with pity and incredulity for wanting to write a biography of such an apparently discredited, outmoded and irrelevant figure as Karl Marx. Countless wiseacres, after all, had declared that we had reached the end of history and Communism was as dead as Marx himself.

They see the blood-curdling threat with which Marx concluded the Communist Manifesto as no more than a quaint historical relic: "Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!" And, Wheen reports, they add:

The only fetters binding the working class today are mock-Rolex watches, but these latter day proletarians have much else they'd hate to lose microwave ovens, holiday timeshares and satellite dishes. They have bought their council houses and their shares in privatised utilities; they made a nice little windfall when their building society turned into a bank. In short, we are all bourgeois now. Even the British Labour Party has turned Thatcherite.

Despite all this, the steadfast Wheen carried on to write this biography, although he appears to share the disparaging view of the "countless wiseacres" about the proletariat, at least in countries like Britain: "In the England of today toffs and workers alike buy their food from Tesco superstores and watch the National Lottery draw on Saturday nights".

At the same time, towards the end of his book, he makes an intelligent defence of Marx's position on the "progressive immiseration" of the proletariat in the chapter on the General Law of Capital Accumulation, pointing out that the pauperism referred to is not of the entire proletariat but the "'lowest sediment' of society the unemployed, the ragged, the sick, the old, the widows and orphans". These are the "incidental expenses" which must be paid by the working population and the petty bourgeoisie. And, he asks, can anyone deny that such an underclass still exists? Likewise, he states, Marx was predicting a relative decline of wages when he wrote "in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse" a point self-evidently true. But other than saying that Marx's definition of poverty is as much spiritual as economic, this is all hanging in the air and in no way contributes to an understanding of the political role of the working class.

Wheen tells us that even Marx's view of the English proletariat "oscillated between reverence and scorn". So Marx could laud the British workers' support for the North in the United States Civil War and, after a Hyde Park demonstration in July 1866, rail against their moderation in a letter to Engels, arguing that only after a really bloody encounter with the ruling powers would "these thick-headed John Bulls" get anywhere. Wheen cannot throw any further light on this. Ridiculously, he quotes the historian Keith Thomas, who suggests that "the preoccupation with gardening, like that with pets, fishing and other hobbies … helps to explain the relative lack of radical and political impulses among the British proletariat". Yet the very writings and letters of Marx and Engels which Wheen cites hold the key to an understanding clearly beyond his grasp.

Marx and Engels' relations with the Chartist leader Ernest Jones deteriorated when he called a conference between the Chartists and bourgeois radicals to bring about political reform. Eventually they broke off relations with him when he failed to take their advice that such alliances would disorganise the Chartist movement and lead to its demise. Engels' letter to Marx on October 7, 1858, about Jones' action is quoted by Wheen, but he leaves out a crucial section. Engels said that Jones's new move, together with other more or less successful attempts at such an alliance, was bound up with the fact that "the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie". Wheen quotes this but then stops, missing the real significance of what comes next. Engels continues:

For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable. The only thing that would help here would be a few thoroughly bad years, and since the gold discoveries these no longer seem so easy to come by. [My emphasis.]

Here Engels associates opportunism, "bourgeois infection" within the working-class movement, with Britain's domination of the world market. He gives it a materialist foundation.

This significant point was developed by Marx and Engels in their later writings, and the importance was particularly drawn out through their remarkable political work in the First International on Ireland, later the inspiration for Lenin's writings on imperialism.[2] 3]Before the Socialists, 1965). The possibility of bribing the upper strata of the English working-class movement to take the side of the bourgeoisie and the government came from the profits from Britain's monopoly of the world market and the colonies. Engels' comments on the state of the organised working-class movement, in a letter to Kautsky on September 12, 1882, make this clear:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as the bourgeoisie think. There is no workers' party here, you see, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England's monopoly of the world market and the colonies.

Marx and Engels' work on Ireland is totally left out of Wheen's discussion of the First International. Nor is there a considered discussion of British colonialism or any reference to imperialism. This is hardly surprising from a writer who recently took the side of imperialism in the war against Yugoslavia, supporting NATO's bombing of Serbia under a cloak of humanitarianism and writing an article in the Guardian "Why we are right to bomb the Serbs".

Today we live in a world of imperialist domination, obscene inequality and threatened ecological disaster. It is a world where a small minority of humanity, mainly living in the imperialist countries, wallow in extreme wealth, while the vast majority, including growing numbers of people within the wealthy imperialist countries themselves, are denied their basic needs. A new biography of Marx could do justice to his life's achievement and work only if it started from a commitment and determination to change this state of affairs. Building on Marx's own political thought and action, it would have to show how, and under what conditions, the working class will take up the political fight again to overthrow capitalism a fight, as Engels stated at his funeral, that was Marx's mission in life.

Wheen could not write such a biography. He is too committed to a status quo which, in spite of its inequity, serves him and the class he represents rather well. As a consequence, his biography has created a Marx without revolutionary significance.

Karl Marx, by Francis Wheen, Fourth Estate, London, 1999, 431 pp. £20.


1. Capital, Vol 1. Collected Works Vol 35, p. 750.

2. See David Reed, "Marx and Engels, The Labour Aristocracy, Opportunism and The British Labour Movement"' in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! March 27, 1983, and David Reed, Ireland, the key to the British revolution, Larkin Publications, 1984. For a discussion of the British Labour movement and imperialism see R. Clough, Labour: a party fit for imperialism, Larkin Publications, 1992.

3. The Hague Congress of the First International (1872), Minutes and Documents, Lawrence and Wishart, 1976, p. 124, p. 37 and p. 702.

David Yaffe is editor of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, the newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Group in Britain, and a writer on Marxist economics.