Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Karl Marx: A Life by Francis Wheen

 (Book Review)
Following my interest in Marx, I’ve been looking for a good biography for quite some time. This proved impossible in Japan, and even in the US it takes a bit of searching. Try out this experiment the next time you’re in a good-sized bookstore: Walk around the biography section, and check out the rows and rows of books about just about everyone you can imagine, and try to find a biography of Karl Marx. I’m guessing there won’t be one. Given Marx’s huge influence on history, isn’t that a little strange? I mean I know Karl Marx was never very popular in heartland America, but then neither were Hitler, Stalin, or Che Guevara, and you never have any trouble finding their biographies.

Anyway, just a little question for you to ponder....Onto the book itself...
Francis Wheen’s book is highly readable, and serves as an excellent introduction to Marx’s life. Wheen writes for the general public, and has a good eye for picking out the interesting antidotes and leaving out the boring stuff.

Marx lived during very interesting and revolutionary times with the Revolutions of 1848 and later the Paris Commune. And yet Marx himself never fought on a barricade. (Wheen suggests that one of the reasons Marx was so prickly in regards to his fellow revolutionary exiles is that he felt inadequate compared to their genuine experiences in revolutions). Although in his younger days, Marx was expelled from one European country to another, once he settled in London his travels were done.

So, since there are no stories of revolutionary bravado to tell, Wheen instead chooses to focus in all the juicy Victorian gossip. Such as the Marx’s illegitimate child with his housekeeper. Or the time Marx wrote a thoughtless condolence letter to Engels, and almost ruined their friendship. Or the duel Marx fought in his younger days. Or his family squabbles with his parents, and then later in life with son-in-laws. Lots of very interesting tidbits about Marx’s life are included.

Wheen’s writing style is very refreshing as well. He doesn’t get bogged down in academic writing, and there’s a lot of dry humor mixed into his prose. He’s not above poking a bit of fun at his subject, and one of his favorite techniques is to quote a letter from Marx, and then comment ironically after it. At times he brings in pop culture references like Monty Python to illustrate his point.

This book is meant mainly as an introduction to Marx, although occasionally Wheen will take digressions away from his narrative to correct what he views as false assumptions. This book is generally a very easy read, although the sections explaining Marx’s philosophy I had to take a little slower. To be honest I was hoping for a book that was almost all about Marx’s life and none about his philosophy, but maybe it’s impossible to write a biography of a philosopher and completely ignore his ideas. I suppose it would be a little strange to read, “Oh, and by the way, also that year Marx published ‘Capital’.”

Wheen makes a lot of fun at Marx, such as his tendency to write long polemics against his personal rivals when he should have been doing more productive work, or his lifelong inability to make his finances balance even with his ample support from Engels. However on most serious philosophical matters Wheen is usually sympathetic to Marx and seeks to rescue him from his critics. Of particular interest to me was Wheen’s account of the Marx/Bakunin rivarly. Wheen paints a very ugly picture of Bakunin (the father of modern anarchism) which was at odds with most of what I had previously read about the man.

All in all, a fascinating read even if I didn’t agree with every word of it. If you’re looking for a good biography, and you want to know more about the man who shaped so much of world history, this is a good book for you. (Check the internet or your library. I doubt your bookstore would have it).
Useless Wikipedia Fact
In the final season of "The Flinstones" a new character named the Great Gazoo was introduced. He is a tiny, green, floating alien having been exiled to Earth from his home planet Zatox. The only people who are able to see him are Fred, Barney, and the children. He was parodied on "The Simpsons" by Ozmodiar.

Link of the Day
How US hid the suicide secrets of Guantanamo

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