Superb life of the thinker who, for better or worse, molded the 20th century.
Marx once proclaimed, famously, that he was not a Marxist. If pressed, British journalist Wheen would probably claim Marxist credentials—if of a distinctly irreverent stripe. (For example, his extraordinarily well-conceived biography of communism’s guiding light is probably the first to press the comedy troupe Monty Python into exegetical service.) Wheen’s satirical edge does not, however, make his study any less serious; it is as well-documented as Isaiah Berlin’s 1963 biography—and certainly more interesting to read. Marx, Wheen allows, was a paradoxical sort: a Jew who disavowed Judaism; an ardent moralist who fathered an illegitimate child by a servant; a communist firebrand who lived well beyond his means and aggressively mooched off well-to-do acquaintances (especially his forbearing colleague Friedrich Engels). But Marx was also fearless, unafraid of a good fight, and accustomed to a life in which “grubby police spies from Prussia lurked all too conspicuously outside, keeping note of the comings and goings, while irate butchers and bakers and bailiffs hammered on the door.” Wheen makes a number of useful revisions to the historical record; whereas many biographers paint Marx’s relationship with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin as a bitter and hateful rivalry, Wheen documents that the two were friendly in person and borrowed liberally from one another’s store of ideas. Engels emerges from the record, too, with his reputation restored: in Wheen’s pages he is not the toady of other biographies, but a critical and thoughtful—if sometimes beery—participant in the shaping of Marx’s thought. Wheen takes vigorous issue with those “countless wiseacres” who, on one hand declare that Marx’s thought leads directly to the Gulag and, on the other, hold that Marx’s ideas are irrelevant to the modern, post–Cold War world. Neither view, Wheen holds, is correct—and neither is useful to reckoning the extent of Marx’s role in making the world in which we live.
Respectful yet non-hagiographic, Wheen’s life of Marx deserves a wide readership.