Karl Marx Backward and Forward

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Joe Auciello

Karl Marx:
A Life
by Francis Wheen
(New York: W.W. Norton, 2000),
431 pages, $27.95 hardback.

Marx in Soho
by Howard Zinn
(Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999)
55 pages, $12 paperback.

THE COLLAPSE OF the Soviet Union and the Eastern European regimes all signaled an imperative to reexamine not only the history of these specific countries but also the general validity of Marxist theory.

The years 1989-1991 gave fresh impetus to the actually existing autopsy-of-socialism industry. A slew of books have been published, and a small library has mushroomed around the theme of Marxism’s demise. By now the titles are too numerous to list, though The Black Book on Communism has earned special notoriety.

In the universities, where this material is published and taught, there is less of a rethinking and more of a reassertion of the familiar anti-Marxist doctrine that for decades comprised the standard fare of undergraduate curricula. Not surprisingly, when the academic elite surveyed the corpus of Marxist theory, they triumphantly proclaimed the discovery of a corpse.

For most political scientists, historians and sociologists, the conclusion is self-evident: Marxism is dead. Again.

Reconsideration of Marxist theory inevitably leads to a reconsideration of Marx’s life, as the political present is used to reevaluate the biographical past. Millions of words of conventional analysis can be boiled down to a few simple axioms, the familiar chant of Cold War ideology, dusted off for new times: Communism was worse than fascism, and, because Marx suffered from boils, hundreds of thousands of Russians were murdered by Stalin.

In short, the latest trends in fashion recycle the old; the idea of “barbarism with a human face” returns along with capri pants and khakis.

What’s Old, What’s New

Francis Wheen, a journalist for the English Guardian newspaper and the most recent of Marx’s biographers, has also been caught up by the powerful tides of our times. He too has felt compelled to take another look at Marx, compiling a lengthy book with little to say.

Howard Zinn, on the other hand, author of A People’s History of the United States among numerous other works of passionately engaged scholarship, has written a biographical play about Marx that for all its brevity more thoroughly challenges the dominant, right-wing interpretation of the man and his work. For Zinn, Marx developed a thorough-going criticism of capitalism and alienation which is still relevant and necessary for today’s political and economic struggles.

The weight of received opinion declaring Marxism out-of-date or worse is so strong that leftists sympathetic to Marx are apparently unduly grateful for even the slightest voice raised on his behalf. What else can account for the favorable commentary that Wheen’s plodding and simple-minded biography has received from radicals and revolutionaries?

It is as if socialists today, more likely forgotten than feared, are thankful for any attention, adopting the old Hollywood adage “There is no bad publicity.” When the book was originally published in Britain, socialists there warmly greeted its appearance.

“Wheen has done the socialist movement a tremendous service by writing this biography of Karl Marx,” declared one reviewer. Another claimed, “We can count ourselves lucky” to have this new biography, which is “an excellent introduction to the man chosen as the most important figure of the last millennium.”

Writing for In These Times, Howard Zinn saluted the U.S. publication of Karl Marx A Life by commending the author on his “courage” to take up this “worthy enterprise,” daring to write about such a controversial figure. Zinn added, “It is to Wheen’s credit that . . . he treats the man’s ideas with great respect.”

Flawed Biography

In the introduction of his biography, Wheen disassociates Marx from Stalinism and cites Marx’s importance as a social thinker for modern times. He says, refreshingly, “Marx . . . would have been appalled at the crimes committed in his name . . . Only a fool could hold Marx responsible for the Gulag; but there is, alas, a ready supply of fools.”

It is also heartening to find that Wheen sees past the popular view: “When I started researching this biography, many friends looked at me with pity and incredulity. Why, they wondered, would anyone wish to write about — still less read about — such a discredited, outmoded, irrelevant figure?”

These introductory remarks give promise of a work that will not be doctrinaire, that will correct the misinterpretations of writers who find in Marx either a “demonic begetter of all evil” or a “secular God.” Wheen pledges instead to “strip away the mythology and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man.”

Wheen’s stated purpose does have merit. To give a sense of Marx as a living, breathing human being has not been the main priority of most Marx biographers or of his communist followers. Leon Trotsky, for instance, writing in a 1935 personal diary, referred to “the Olympian Marx” and “the titan Marx,” contrasting him to the “more human,” the “more approachable” figure of Engels.

For Trotsky, and presumably for most readers, Marx as a person remained far more distant than his closest co-thinker.

Biographers should be able to explain the character and personality of their subject. That is, after all, a major reason why a reader turns to biography. Unfortunately, despite his intentions, Wheen does not understand Marx as a man, as a thinker, or as a revolutionary.

Who, then, is Karl Marx, the “figure of flesh and blood”? According to Wheen, Marx is “a supremely bourgeois patriarch,” “a bourgeois intellectual,” “a Jew tormented by self-loathing,” but one vain enough to be “ridiculously proud of having married a bit of posh,” an “angry agitator” who mellowed in old age to “a playful, purring pussycat.”

At times Wheen is unable to make up his mind about Marx, though the biographer seems not to have noticed his own contradictory assertions. In one instance Wheen claims that “Marx was undoubtedly a tremendous show-off and a sadistic intellectual thug.” Earlier, though, Wheen had noted, “Marx was often accused of being an intellectual bully . . .” After weighing the accusations, Wheen concluded: “the charge of bullying cannot be upheld.”

So, according to this biographer, Marx is a thug but no bully. Readers who can discern a difference are free to do so.

A careful reading of the accounts that give rise to these opinions allow for a different conclusion: Political principle and clarity mattered greatly to Marx, and he argued strongly and passionately for his views. Wheen’s contradictory judgments reveal less about Marx and more about the biographer, who has no real understanding of the man he is writing about or of revolutionary politics.

Poetry or Political Economy?

If he has no clear comprehension of Marx the man, Wheen is completely baffled by Marx the thinker. Wheen’s explanations of the Communist Manifesto and the first volume of Capital, to cite only two instances, show his unease with political theory.

Wheen praises the Manifesto for its truthful perceptions of how capitalism functions, but explains the Manifesto’s weaknesses by a foolish analogy intended to illustrate Marx’s pattern of thinking: the errors of strategic analysis in, of all things, Marx’s chess game.

Why did Marx fail to foresee the long-term survival of capitalism? Because of his short-sighted gamesmanship: “brilliant strategy, fragile tactics.” Apparently Marx was the kind of chess player busily planning victory in six moves but “not noticing, all the while, that his opponent can mate him far sooner.”

Put less fancifully, Wheen is saying that Marx can’t see the forest for the trees. This kind of analogy says little about Marx’s political thinking and method, but it does lead Wheen to some judgment of Marx’s character, which the biographer naively assumes is the key to Marx’s work.

“[T]he Manifesto was a weapon of revenge against his smugly superior adversaries, forged and fashioned during sleepless nights of burning rage.” The document, then, is treated as the expression of Marx’s own personality, his desire for revenge. To Wheen, Marx is expressing his sense of self, writing poetry, as it were, in the guise of writing politics.

Of course, this equation is the opposite of Marx’s intentions and method. Marx and Engels meant the Manifesto as a document of scientific socialism — that is, an explanation of the inevitability of class struggle under capitalism and the material potential for the working class to create a new society without classes and exploitation.

For Marx and Engels, this meant deliberately rejecting the methods of their utopian predecessors who created visions of society out of their own imaginings (or secret conspiratorial circles).

The Communist Manifesto was an effort to describe and guide the real, verifiable course of history. But to view Marxism as a confluence of specific historical factors, is, except on the most superficial level, beyond Wheen’s capability.

Wheen’s explanation of Capital is of similar quality, though the implicit equation between poetry and politics is unfortunately made more explicit. Because Marx said his book should form an “artistic whole,” Wheen has concluded that Capital “is not really a scientific hypothesis, nor even an economic treatise.”

Instead, Capital should be “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 . . .”

A few pages later Wheen changes his mind: “we are in fact reading a shaggy-dog story,” one that is “saturated, sometimes even waterlogged, with irony — an irony which has yet escaped almost every reader for more than a century.” Wheen’s analysis of Capital may be the least useful ever written.

Actually, Wheen fares better when he discusses Marx’s work as a journalist, especially in the 1840s. Wheen’s summaries are more sure, and he is more concerned to situate these writings in their historical context.

Perhaps Wheen is led to these richer explications by the nature of Marx’s articles. As contemporary polemics, they require a more rounded explanation in order to be understood by a modern reader. At any rate, the success of these chapters of the biography highlights its overall failure.

These chapters aside, readers who already do know a good deal about Karl Marx won’t need Wheen’s book; those who don’t know much about Marx won’t want it. To paraphrase a criterion from a “Seinfeld” episode of a few years ago, this book is not “shelf-worthy.”

Marx Resurrected

In its portrait of Marx as man and thinker, Marx in Soho is far more successful than Karl Marx A Life. In Howard Zinn’s play, Marx reappears on Earth in the Soho area of New York City. Blame a “bureaucratic mix-up” — Marx had wanted to reawaken in London’s Soho where he had lived in the 1850s. No matter. He is back and he has plenty to say.

Zinn’s political purpose in writing his play is similar to Wheen’s biography. Zinn, too, wants “to rescue Marx not only from those pseudo-socialists who established repressive rule in various parts of the world, but also from those writers and politicians in the West who now gloated over the triumph of capitalism.” Zinn, too, “wanted to show Marx as few people knew him, as a family man . . .”

Zinn has Marx return to life to comment on present-day capitalism, the debacle of Stalinism, and the possibility of a humane future. Zinn hopes, in short, to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Marx, to show how modern life can best be understood through basic Marxist categories.

When Marx looks at a newspaper, he can’t help but find evidence for Das Kapital. “’An official report: the United States’ Gross National Product (yes, gross!) last year was seven thousand billion dollars. Most impressive. But tell me, where is it? Who is profiting from it? Who is not?’

“Reads from the newspaper again. `Less than 500 individuals control two thousand billion dollars in business assets. Are these people more noble, more hard-working, more valuable to society than the mother in the tenement, nurturing three children through the winter, with no money to pay the heating bill? Did I not say, a hundred and fifty years ago, that capitalism would enormously increase the wealth of society, but that this wealth would be concentrated
in fewer and fewer hands?’

“Reads from the newspaper. `Giant merger of Chemical Bank and Chase Man<->hattan Bank. Twelve thousand workers will lose jobs . . . Stocks rise. And they say my ideas are dead!’”

Passion for Freedom

Both Wheen and Zinn create, or at least favor, a figure of Marx made in their own image, whether as an outspoken journalist or as an historian/activist championing themes of individual freedom. These figures can indeed be found in Marx, but it is clear that each writer responds more deeply to some particular aspect of Marx’s life and political thought.

Zinn’s Marx often echoes themes from Zinn’s own books and articles. Zinn values the Marx who describes alienation and exploitation in simple, human terms. In a 1988 essay, “Je Ne Suis Pas un Marxiste,” Zinn had complained that Marx “was unnecessarily dense in his economic analyses (too much education in German universities, maybe)” and that “many of his writings were impossibly abstract . . . But he departed from that constantly to confront the events of his time . . .”

In the play these objections are given to Marx’s wife, Jenny, “my severest critic.” “Jenny believed in my ideas. But she was impatient with what she considered the pretensions of high-level scholarship. `Come down to earth, Herr Doktor,’ she would say.”

Zinn’s influential 1960s essay, “Marxism and the New Left,” placed an emphasis on militant action to create “enclaves of freedom,” counter-cultural institutions, “to carry through a new kind of revolution.”

In a 1971 introduction to Jack London’s socialist novel The Iron Heel, Zinn explicitly rejects both “the ballet and the bullet” (Malcolm X’s phrasing) in favor of a “new mode of revolution” in which “People everywhere would begin to live cooperatively . . . in small groups based on working together, resisting the state together.”

Zinn expands on this vision in the chapter “The Coming Revolt of the Guards” in A People’s History of the United States. Marx in Soho echoes these ideals when Marx and Bakunin wrestle together — literally as well as intellectually.

Marx’s “critique of capitalism in those Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts [1844] did not need any mathematical proofs of `surplus value,’” Zinn notes in “Je Ne Suis Pas un Marxiste.” “It simply stated (but did not state it simply) that the capitalist system violates whatever it means to be human.”

The Marx of Marx in Soho admits: “’All right, let us say only a hundred people in world history have ever understood my theory of surplus value.’ Gets heated. `But it is still true!’” Because of this truth, an exploitation which confines people to “living as they do not really want to live, so that a good life is possible only in dreams, in fantasy,” Zinn’s Marx tells his audience, “you must stand up. You must move, you must act.”

Socialism as Common Sense

“Action is preferably organized, thought-out action,” Zinn wrote in “Marxism and the New Left.” “[W]e should not be preoccupied with prediction or with measuring immediate success — but rather should take the risk of acting. We are not totally free but our strength will be maximized if we act as if we are free.”

Zinn personally, as he writes in his autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is optimistic about ordinary people “because they have a deep-down common sense, and sooner or later they find a way to challenge the power that oppresses them.”

In the conclusion of the play, Zinn’s Marx appeals to that common sense. “Let’s not speak anymore about capitalism, socialism. Let’s just speak of using the incredible wealth of the earth for human beings . . . Don’t ask who deserves it. Every human being deserves it.”

Zinn’s play, then, is an interpretation of Marx consistent with Zinn’s writings for more than thirty years. It is also passionate, funny, intelligent and inspiring — much like Zinn himself.

Marx in Soho is well worth reading and even better in performance. A forty-seven page play cannot be expected to give a definitive account of Marx’s life, but it does provide an entertaining and stimulating one. In difficult times when even some socialists believe socialism is dead, this short play is an occasion for gratitude, celebration and renewed commitment to a socialist future.

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)

1 comment

  1. Unfortunately we get a lot of spam on this website, which is why comments are moderated. Usually I just delete them, but wanted to share a comment that a spambot tried to post here (with a link to a website where you can buy purses:)

    “Karl Marx has its own way of fashion…. His style and choice of outfit was quite extraordinary and was quite awesome… An extremist and an all rounder….”

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