A Human Being

Jenny Diski

  • Karl Marx by Francis Wheen
    Fourth Estate, 441 pp, £20.00, October 1999, ISBN 1 85702 637 3
  • Adventures in Marxism by Marshall Berman
    Verso, 160 pp, £17.00, September 1999, ISBN 1 85984 734 X

They say, and it does seem to be true, that we get the prime ministers and presidents we deserve. Now, it looks as if each generation is going to get the Karl Marx it deserves. There are advantages in watching the process of a Marx revived again and again according to the perceptions of social pundits: with each recasting and each self-appointed recaster of Marx representing the texture of current thought, we’ll have a chance to observe something about our state of mind, while, if we were there before, we can comfort ourselves with the notion that our Marx – naturally – was the real Karl. Right now, columnist, game-show pundit and biographer of Tom Driberg, Francis Wheen is here to tell us that all the previous practitioners and theoreticians of Marx’s work – both the governments and the academics (in economics, history, geography, sociology, literature) who professed themselves Marxists – have ‘calamitously misinterpreted’ his thought. The academics and zealots have had their day apparently, and it is time, Wheen says, ‘to strip away the mythology and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man’. If your immediate response is ‘why?’, you’ve probably been off-planet for a few years. The biographical obsession, personality-bound cod analysis, has got everywhere. We prefer to see the portrait of the man, rather than think about his thoughts. The retreat in search of lively personal origins as a form of explanation is less demanding than the perpetual examination of ideas and their development. In October 1998 the New Yorker named Marx as ‘the next great thinker’ (possibly following on from the author of The Little Book of Calm). Marx the Movie is surely just around the corner, and not long after we can – oh please can we? – expect the musical ‘Carbuncle!’; maybe, if we get very lucky, Disney will animate lovable, hairy Karl, or as Wheen describes him ‘squat and swarthy, a Jew tormented by self-loathing’ (voiced undoubtedly by a frantically guttural Robin Williams) scribbling The Communist Manifesto at his desk while a chorus of comically evil creditors sing a hummy hymn to capitalism, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose but our claims.’ Oh, what an exciting new century we have to look forward to.

Wheen wants to retrieve Marx the man and exonerate him from responsibility for what has been done in his name. Marxism is not Karl Marx, it is true, any more than Darwinism is Charles Darwin. You may not be astonished by this thought. ‘What neither his enemies nor his disciples are willing to acknowledge is the most obvious yet startling of all his qualities: that this mythical ogre and saint was a human being.’ Perhaps such an admission is so obvious, not to say banal, that neither enemies nor disciples thought it worth taxing their readers’ patience making the point. Wheen, however, feels the time is ripe for delivering this thought to the world, and perhaps, in a deeply dispiriting way, he is right.

The McCarthyite witch-hunt of the Fifties, the wars in Vietnam and Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square – all these bloody blemishes on the history of the 20th century were justified in the name of Marxism or anti-Marxism. No mean feat for a man who spent much of his adult life in poverty, plagued by carbuncles and liver pains, and was once pursued through the streets of London by the Metropolitan Police after a rather over-exuberant pub crawl.

I can’t say whether your heart races with eager curiosity at that list of devastating world events, or at the promise of learning more about Marx’s carbuncles and pub crawls, but my heart sinks at the idea that we are in a period when it’s these which are thought to have the greater claim on our attention and even to bear some serious relation to 20th-century history. We’ve had Protestantism blamed on Luther’s flatulence, and evolutionary theory dependent on Darwin’s neurotic bellyaches, why not Marxism on Karl’s carbuncles? Certainly, the life is interesting, and a biographer might, as several have, set out to discuss the way in which the dynamics of Marx’s life and psychology articulated with his work. No one, however, as far as I know, has suggested until now that a study of Marx’s daily life might clear up all confusions and errors that past and present students and interpreters of the work have fallen into.

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