Art of a party animal

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Karl Marx by Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate, pounds 20, 431pp)

Karl Marx by Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate, pounds 20, 431pp)

The history of the twentieth century is Marx's legacy". So Francis Wheen opens his stunning new biography, a trifle defensively: "the more I studied Marx, the more astoundingly topical he seemed." Will the "philosopher, linguist, economist, literary critic and revolutionist" mean as much to the 21st century as to this one? It is an interesting speculation in a decade that has seen his obvious influence fade. Looked at one way, Marx has never seemed more old hat. Looked at another way, political fashion is fickle. It will only take another catastrophic depression to send sales of Capital and The Communist Manifesto zooming upwards.

Whatever the future may hold, there is certainly a need to get the life into common-sense perspective. It is Wheen's achievement to have done precisely that in a witty, subtle and beautifully written study that neither idolises the old seer nor dismisses him. This is a work of synthesis and interpretation, not a scholarly tome. However, it does not dodge the difficult topics, contains a good deal of original detective work and does the modern reader an inestimable service by translating heavy complexity into limpid prose.

The account of Marx the flesh-and-blood person is a convincing and oddly beguiling one. Wheen's Karl is a warm, rumbustuous, impulsive, irresponsible, bumbling giant with a big heart and a vast ego, who is domestically completely impossible. The author doesn't use the word "humbug" to describe this often monstrous figure, perhaps because he knows it will so obviously come to the reader's mind. Instead, he presents some interesting conundrums. In particular, a mystery surrounds the root compulsion of a self-made revolutionary who - by the standards of his time - had little initial grounds for political complaint. The leading exponent of historical "determinism" seems, in his own life, to have been remarkably undetermined.

Marx was born in 1818 into the German middle bourgeoisie, the son of a vineyard-owning Jewish attorney who had converted to Catholicism and changed his name for career reasons. If Karl became a "self-hating Jew, who sprayed antisemitic insults" almost as liberally as he used the word "bourgeois" as a term of abuse, that was scarcely the product of any major persecution. Not only did Karl's father hold a respected position within a predominantly Christian community. Karl was able to attend the best German universities (Bonn and then Berlin) as a student of law. More remarkably, when he fell in love with the beautiful and highly eligible daughter of a Prussian aristocrat, there was little opposition either to the irregular relationship or the eventual marriage.

From the start, indeed, Marx occupied two separate and barely-connected worlds: as a precocious enthusiast for Shakespeare and Hegel, driven by harsh intellectual rationality; and as an emotionally uncoordinated overgrown schoolboy, wholly incapable of planning his own life, let alone making provision for a proliferating family. One enterprising Prussian spy, penetrating the Marx lair, observed with distaste that "Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk." That was only a part of it. Challenging or being challenged to duels, fending off creditors, fighting eviction, putting furniture in and out of pawn, peppered the great man's life.

Karl's children adored him as much as he did them. They called him "Moor" on account of his swarthy complexion, and liked to be carried on his back ("Moor", one daughter recalled, was "a splendid horse"). Yet without the generous patronage of Friedrich Engels ("a kind of substitute mother", according to Wheen, "sending him pocket money, fussing over his health, reminding him to study"), Marx might never have completed a book. Marx liked to read Don Quixote to his children as a bedtime story. There was a Quixote-like, windmill-tilting aspect to his own personality which - as it seemed to some contemporaries - was founded on dreams.

There were other contradictions. Physically, and in manner, Marx was a stage-revolutionary before revolutionaries were invented. "Half Prometheus, half Mr Rochester", his "lion-like head with the jet-black mane" made him stand out in any gathering. Though some found him a good teacher, with "a ceaselessly inquisitive, subtle and undogmatic mind", others felt him to be arrogant and intolerant. "How he rejoiced," recalled Wilhelm Liebknecht, "when he had tempted a `little student' to go on the ice and demonstrated in the person of the unfortunate the inadequateness of our universities and of academic culture."

His biographer describes him unkindly as "a tremendous show-off and a sadistic intellectual thug", which seems accurate. He was not, however, a particularly successful thug. Though he dominated meetings and was described by admirers as a leader, in reality he wasn't one.

Wheen suggests that Marx was personally inspirational. Actually, he seems to have frightened people as much as he uplifted them. He had almost no capacity for political compromise. His instinct was to annihilate opposition, rather than to persuade. Although he denounced others as sectarians, he was a sectarian himself, who edited obscure little newspapers that wasted valuable space by obsessively denouncing deviant elements. His inability to rally others in his own support clearly bothered him. A poor public speaker, with a distracting lisp, he "loathed fine speeches" from others "and woe betide anyone who engaged in phrase-mongering".

He had little experience of physical danger. He had to flee to Britain for political reasons, and was present in Paris during the Commune. However, most of his adult life was spent scribbling in the comparative freedom of London, addressing obscure meetings of the International Working Men's Association, studying in the British Museum, and buying beer at Jack Straw's Castle.

Yet if Marx was an armchair revolutionary, the impact of his outpourings - in his lifetime, as well as later - cannot be exaggerated. By the 1880s, he was known in political circles everywhere, except Britain, where most of his major work was still not published. The explanation for his international influence is yet to be properly unravelled but it is surely to be found, not just in Marx's erudition and eloquence, but also in his extraordinary ability to touch the imagination of European intellectuals in a period of confusion and tumult. He gave events a pattern, and offered hope.

Much debate has taken place over whether he was "right". However - as Wheen points out - that may be the wrong measure. Marx was never a scientist, or a "scientific" economist. In the most positive sense, he was a fantasist, making stories out of disparate fragments of bewildering facts and giving them a degree of order that his private circumstances so painfully lacked.

Marx himself remarked, with characteristic self-regard, that "the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole". Wheen's correctly seizes on this observation. Marx's work has been followed, exploited, misunderstood, and been the cause of alarm, for a century and a half in rapidly changing world conditions. If viewed as a blueprint, it will seem less and less applicable in the third millennium. As an artistic account of the human condition, it will not be forgotten.

Ben Pimlott is Warden of Goldsmiths College, London