Marx – not in a Class of his own

Posted: 1 December 2017 in Book Review, Understanding Others
Tags: , ,

9788483063279-us-300.jpgDemi-God for some, very-devil for others, Marx is a marked man.  So when a biography says he was fun – that’s worth looking at.

Francis Wheen’s account of Karl Marx (Fourth Estate) is hugely acclaimed.  And rightly so.  Karl’s famous image really gives the wrong sense of the man.  Francis says he ended up a bourgeois Victorian.  But she shows what a lively character he was.  Very sharp intellectually, man of thoughts and ideas, rather than cutlass and pistol.  Driven personality, hard arguer, verbal bully, intemperate, heavy smoker and drinker, devoted father and grandfather.  But – dry and dusty he was not.

Even so, he is not an attractive character.  As a pioneer of a great movement, he is no Jesus, or Gandhi.  Not a whiff of asceticism here.  Nor he is a creature of slaughter and cruelty –nothing of Stalin or Mao Zedong about him.  If you want to read about revolutionaries, try Robespierre, Lenin.  Try Simon Montefiore’s “The Young Stalin” if you want an exciting revolutionary read, (not that you’d want him in your family either).

Bright, intellectually omnivorous, he looked for the bigger picture.  But Karl was also hugely arrogant, a verbal and literary bully.  Spiteful and pursued vendettas.  He was arrogant in a literary way.  For instance the opening chapters of his great work, Das Kapital, are so dense as to put all but the faithful off.  This was brought to his attention, but Karl argued that the reader had to grasp these initial points if they were to understand the rest.  Really?

He was a sponger.  Always in debt, and only survived by handouts that Friedrich Engels got by stealing, yes, stealing from his employer.  He was a caring husband, but no so doting that he did not get his housekeeper pregnant.  He was a caring father and grandfather, and the many infant mortalities that family suffered are a reminder to us all, than even for Victorian lower middle classes, infant mortality was very common indeed.

An “Original Thinker”?  Clearly yes and an important one too.  But if say, he too had died in infancy instead of old age, we would still have had “Communism”.  As the biographer clearly illustrates, there were plenty of others advocating varieties of communism.  Some of them British too.  While radical political thinking is always prone to schism and internecine warfare, old Karl really gave is a vituperative quality.  Did it need to end up in the gulags?  The gulags and the systems that gave birth to them were a major tragedy, their legacy has cast a shadow over creative progressive thinking.  Marx’s thinking in the drive of “the means of production”, “alienation”, and “class consciousness” has use today as it did 150 years ago.

In the end, Marx was lucky.  The obscure radical, deemed harmless by the Foreign Office, got the attention he sought with his pamphlet “The Civil War in France”, 1871.  Published just too late to have an influence on the Paris Commune, it influenced how people saw those troubles.  Conservative governments across Europe sought to blame radical terrorists, rather than their deafness to the working classes.  And Marx was the ideal person to blame.  And Marx happily accepted the reactionary analysis as the justification of his theories.  Radical and reactionaries got into bed together- so to speak.

And the rest is, as they say, is …. History……

And as a Christian?  I seek to read the person from their own perspective.  Their own vision of the world.  But as a Christian, the man’s lack of personal integrity is repelling.  His lack of empathy for the poor suggestive, at best, of unbalanced intellectualism.  His unwillingness to leap into real revolution suggests a lack of fibre.  His sectarianism bled into Russian communism where they really did have cutlass and pistol.  And has subsequently stained radical thinking.

Christianity’s spiritual source and ethic starts unequivocally with the individual.  But it is deeply sensitive to the needs of humankind and the environment.  It may well be sympathetic to future radical ideas.  We need them.  This biography shows that many cook’s were doing the broth – and this cook didn’t really help.


  1. mitchteemley says:

    Thank you for the insights; I’ve had little but a one paragraph stereotype of Karl in my mind until now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s