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Karl Marx: A Life by Francis Wheen

Antony Flew

W.W. Norton • 2000 • 431 pages • $27.95

This book is described by the author as “an attempt to rediscover Karl Marx the man . . . a Prussian immigrant who became a middle class English gentleman; an angry agitator who spent most of his adult life in . . . the British Museum Reading Room; a gregarious and convivial host who fell out with almost all his friends; a devoted family man who impregnated his housemaid; and a deeply earnest philosopher who loved drink, cigars and jokes.”

In that attempt Francis Wheen has been remarkably successful. As a treatment of “Karl Marx the Man,” as opposed to Karl Marx the revolutionary thinker, Wheen’s book certainly deserved to become—as immediately on its first publication in the United Kingdom it did—a bestseller.

It is, however, unfortunate that Wheen is so very conscious of being the first person to produce a biography of Marx since the end of the Cold War. His superciliousness on this account leads him contemptuously to dismiss the classic work of Leopold Schwartzchild. For Schwartzchild had written in his splenetic biography, Karl Marx: The Red Prussian, that “it will hardly be disputed that it is he [Marx] who is manifested in the very existence of Soviet Russia and particularly in Soviet methods.”

Schwartzchild’s contention was, of course, about the actual consequences of implementing Marxist policies. It cannot therefore be refuted, as Wheen believes he does refute it, by speculating about what the reactions of Marx would have been had he lived to see those consequences. In fact, as Schwartzchild proceeded to show, Marx was again and again confronted with the charge that socialism, or at any rate socialism as he understood it, must involve slavery and despotism.

Since from his studies of what he called “the Asiatic mode of production” and what others know as oriental despotism, Marx must have realized that such charges have substantial force, and since no one could maintain that Marx was temperamentally disinclined to controversy, we have to conclude that the reason he never published any attempt to refute them was that he did not himself care whether or not they were true.

Wheen never discusses this, although he does quote, albeit incorrectly, the claim that Friedrich Engels made in his obituary address at the funeral of Marx: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” Although such claims have frequently been made by Marxists, above all by Lenin, the contention that the standing of Marx as a scientist is in any way comparable with that of Darwin is outrageous. The two do not even begin to be comparable either in their attitudes to inquiry or in their achievements of discovery.

In the first place, no one has ever found in all the works of Marx and Engels recognition of any difficulty for what in their correspondence they called “our view”—any difficulty of which they therefore hoped eventually to dispose. Thus when it appeared that the existence and persistence of oriental despotisms falsified the claims in The Communist Manifesto about the universality of class struggles, Marx failed to admit that that claim had either to be qualified or abandoned. Instead he simply lost interest in oriental despotisms, paying no further attention to the problems which they presented.

Again, although Wheen wants to make out that Marx’s notorious immiseration thesis applied only to a subproletarian underclass, the fundamental aim of the first and only volume of Das Kapital to be published in the lifetime of Marx was, in his own words, to demonstrate that “In proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer must grow worse. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole.” But by 1867, when that volume was first published, Marx had known for 15 or more years that that thesis was false. His response was merely to suppress the falsifying data. Thus in the first edition of Das Kapital various available British statistics—about the reliability of which there was no question—were given up to 1865 or 1866, whereas those for the movement of wages stop at 1850. In the second edition all the other runs were brought up to date, while that of wage movements still stops at 1850.

Can we refrain from ending by repeating the words with which Engels himself concluded that obituary address: “So war dieser Mann der Wissenschaft [Such was this man of science]”? Wheen would apparently have us regard Marx as a “man of science,” but the truth is quite otherwise.

Antony Flew is emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Reading, England.

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