Beatified in the Soviet bloc and vilified in the West throughout
the Cold War, Karl Marx has always been the victim of his own
notoriety. Wheen has gone some way, however, towards correcting
this. Like many geniuses Marx was monstrously egotistical, often
careless of the feelings of others and scornful of political
rivals. Born the son of a Jewish laywer in Trier he was forced to
flee the continent after the publication of the inflammatory
communist manifesto in 1848. In London, where much of the rest of
his life was spent in the scholarly silence of the British Museum
Reading Room, he and his family were often in poverty. Portrayed
here by Wheen as a rather Dickensian, middle-class English 'gent'
fallen on hard times, Marx was in fact a complex and contradictory
man; flamboyant, charming and even at times richly comic, he could
also be moody and irascible. He died in 1883, stateless and
intestate. An entertaining and balanced biography. (Kirkus UK)
Only a dozen mourners attended Karl Marx's funeral in Highgate cemetery, but within a hundred years of his death half the world's population was ruled by governments that professed Marxism as their guiding faith. Not since Jesus Christ has an obscure pauper achieved such astonishing global influence.
It is easy to forget that Marx was also human. Neither his enemies nor his disciples have been willing to admit as much: in the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin he was beatified, while the West demonised him as the begetter of all evil. In this biography Francis Wheen for the first time presents Marx the man in all his fiery brilliance and frailty: as a Prussian Jew who became a middle-class English gentleman; as an angry agitator who spent much of his adult life in scholarly silence in the British Museum Reading Room; as a gregarious and convivial host who none the less fell out with almost all his friends; as a devoted family man who impregnated his housemaid; as a deeply earnest thinker who loved drink, cigars and jokes; and as a prodigal son to whom his mother said 'I wish you would make some capital instead of just writing about it.'
Karl Marx emerges here as a flamboyantly unmistakable individual, not the stony head of a monolithic, faceless organisation. Indeed, rather like Groucho, Karl could hardly bear to be a member of any club that would accept him: he memorably dismissed a new French party that claimed to be Marxist, replying that, in that case, 'I, at least, am not a Marxist'.
Francis Wheen has written a captivating, at times richly comic biography of the dominant figure of our century, whose life and ideas, charm and irascibility are here revealed in all their glorious complexity and contradiction, the brilliant and provocative philosopher living the Dickensian life of a gent fallen on hard times.
The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction,
The Channel 4 Politico Award
The W.H.Smith Literary Award
The Orwell Prize
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