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Issue 44, September 1999

Thinker of the next millennium

This Autumn it was announced that Karl Marx had topped a BBC News Online poll to find the greatest thinker of the millennium. TONY SAUNOIS reviews a new biography of the man who came in ahead of Einstein, Newton and Charles Darwin.

ONLY ELEVEN MOURNERS stood at the grave of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery, London, on 17 March 1883. 'His name and work', predicted Marx's life-long friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, 'will endure through the ages'. "It seemed an unlikely boast", comments Francis Wheen in his new biography, "but he was right".

Engels was right in spite of the political climate of the decade since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, when, as Wheen says, "countless wiseacres declared that we had reached what Francis Fukuyama smugly called the End of History". Works like The Communist Manifesto, which Wheen rightly describes as the most influential political pamphlet of all time, were dismissed as a 'quaint historical relic'.

The fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a wave of capitalist triumphalism. At the same time, however, it opened the way to a revaluation of Marx's life and ideas. In the post-1989 world, Marx's philosophy is no longer burdened by the grotesque distortion of 'communism' which existed in the former Soviet Union and its East European satellites. During the 1990s, moreover, a growing reaction against the world-wide effects on society of the unbound free-market has been awakening renewed interest in Marx as a source of anti-capitalist ideas.


top     Thoroughly modern Marx

WHEN WHEEN BEGAN work on his biography of Marx, his friends viewed him with pity and incredulity for writing and reading about such a "discredited, outmoded and irrelevant figure". But "I carried on regardless; and the more I studied Marx, the more astoundingly topical he seemed to be. Today's pundits and politicians who fancy themselves as modern thinkers like to mention the buzz-word 'globalisation' at every opportunity - without realising that Marx was already on the case in 1848. The globe-straddling dominance of McDonald's and MTV would not have surprised him in the least".

Wheen outlines Marx's and Engels' role in developing philosophy and then political economy to establish the ideas of scientific socialism. These are the essential tools for understanding capitalism and for guiding a fight for its overthrow and replacement by socialism as a higher and more developed form of society.

Wheen's portrait reveals Marx as an active fighter and revolutionary who made heroic sacrifices for the workers' struggle. Beyond the strict bounds of politics, he was an accomplished writer, with a knowledge of world literature. Dickens and Shakespeare were amongst his favourite writers. Marx was a lover of life; when asked what his favourite maxim was, he replied, 'Nothing human is alien to me'.

Wheen outlines how the young Marx developed the dialectic method of the idealist German philosopher, Georg Hegel, through the materialist, Ludwig Feuerbach, to dialectical, historical materialism. "Marx's own engagement with Hegel was itself something of a dialectical process", writes Wheen, "from which emerged the nameless infant that was to become historical materialism". Feuerbach had developed the idea that 'Thought arises from being, not being from thought'. Marx developed this idea much further, moving from the realm of abstraction to the real world of economy, politics, state, class and society. It was in his Theses on Feuerbach, written in 1845, that Marx penned the renowned aphorism: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it'.


At the age of 27 Marx, in collaboration with the even younger Engels, elaborated what became the foundation ideas of modern scientific socialism in The German Ideology. Boldly refuting the dominant trend in bourgeois philosophy, they wrote: 'It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness'.

top     The Communist Manifesto

MARX AND ENGELS had come together for ten days of debate and discussion in 1844 and arrived at political agreement. From that point onwards, they were life-long collaborators. That meeting represented, Wheen says, "Ten days that shook the world". Engels worked closely with Marx, and later saw it as part of his contribution to assist Marx financially whenever he could from the funds of his family company. This was not a relationship based upon 'exploitation' of the generosity of one by the other, but one of collaboration and support.

In January 1848 Marx and Engels published the Manifesto of the Communist Party. The "unforgettable first sentence", writes Wheen, "strikes like a thunderbolt": 'A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German police spies. Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as Communistic by its opponents in power?'

Marx and Engels had been asked to draft this pamphlet at the second congress of the Communist League, which met in the Red Lion Pub, Great Windmill Street, in Soho, London in 1847. Within days of publication, revolutions broke out throughout almost the whole of continental Europe, starting in Paris.


Much has been made of the 'errors' of Marx and Engels, who eagerly looked towards the victory of the working class. As Trotsky pointed out in a short pamphlet to celebrate 100 years of the Communist Manifesto, the error of Marx and Engels in regard to historical timing and dates flowed from an underestimation of the possibilities latent in capitalism and also an over-estimation of the revolutionary maturity of the working class. Any historically progressive role of capitalism is now exhausted, however, and it is necessary for the working class and socialism to develop the productive forces and society.

The revolutionary wave of 1848 did not result in the unfolding of the socialist revolution. Because of the political cowardice of the bourgeois democrats and the relative weakness of the emergent proletariat, the revolutionary wave ended in defeat, giving way to a period of repression and counter-revolution.

Nevertheless, the striking feature of the Communist Manifesto is its relevance to today. The historical foresight of Marx and Engels is all the more remarkable after 150 years. "The truly remarkable thing about the Manifesto", writes Wheen, "is that it has any contemporary resonance at all. In a London bookshop I countered no fewer than nine English editions on sale. Even Karl Marx... could scarcely have expected that his little tract would still be a best seller at the end of the millennium".

The development and domination of the world market and Marx's anticipation of rapid technological advances and their effect on the capitalist world are particularly relevant to recent debates on the 'globalised' economy:


"The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. In place of old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands". As Wheen points out - have a look in the fruit and veg counter in any supermarket.

"The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations, into civilisation".

Wheen ironically comments, "One can argue about whether Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Grisham and non-stop MTV really constitute 'civilisation', but the essential truth of his perception can't be denied".

Following the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 Marx and Engels were driven into exile by 1849. Refused refuge in France, Belgium or Switzerland, they arrived in London.

The defeat of the revolutions and political division eventually shipwrecked the Communist League and it was dead by 1850-51. It had never developed into a mass organisation but remained a propaganda group. Wheen, however, uses the demise of the Communist League to give credence to the idea that Marx was not capable of working with others and cites many of the disputes that arose during this period as evidence. What he fails to do, however, is put the schisms of this and other periods into a political context. Marx broke with many people, not for personal reasons but because of political differences. Some former collaborators became totally sectarian, others rejected socialist ideas and class struggle. Marx was defending and developing a principled political programme and set of ideas. Along with Engels, Marx had concluded that he should turn his back on the demoralised, confused sectarian exiles following the defeats of 1848 and after, and prepare the theoretical and political basis for a new movement that would eventually arise.


Francis Wheen brings out, although not fully, that Marx indeed was not simply a commentator but an active revolutionary, a participant in the class struggles of his day. By 1865 Marx was in reality, together with Engels, one of the principle leaders of the First International, The International Working Men's Association, which was founded in 1863. It was a broad mass organisation of trade unionists, socialists, anarchists and others. Marx drafted the founding declaration and was actively involved in its work. The pioneering and heroic work undertaken by Marx in the First International illustrated his ability to work with other people who held different views.

Wheen provides ample material to refute the idea that Marx was impatient in dealing with worker activists or patronising towards them. The examples he gives paint an entirely different picture, revealing his patience towards workers. Marx encouraged workers to the fore in leading the struggles in which they were involved, intervening in order to offer assistance organisationally and to clarify political issues.

top     The logic of Capital

IT WAS LARGELY because of this work that Marx was so delayed in completing the first volume of Capital. Wheen brings this out, but also echoes criticism of Marx's lengthy preparatory work for Capital.

Wheen quotes extensively from Capital and adds modern examples and comments that help introduce a first-time reader to it. Correctly, he refutes simplistic criticism that Marx is wrong because he predicted the continual worsening of the conditions of the proletariat. He exposes this as a myth based upon, "a misreading of Marx's 'general law of capitalist accumulation' in Chapter 25 of the first volume".


In Chapter 25 Marx, in fact, wrote, "Pauperism forms a condition of capitalist production, and of the capitalist development of wealth. It forms part of the incidental expenses of capitalist production: but capital usually knows how to transfer these from its own shoulders and the petty bourgeoisie".

What he is referring to is the most down-trodden sections of the working class - the unemployed, the sick, the old and the destitute. Who could doubt this development today, with the vast increase in the differentiation between rich and poor that has taken place on a world scale and within the most 'developed' imperialist countries?

For Marx poverty was not only a question of wage levels. It was also the increased alienation from society that capitalism brings with it. Marx explained that capitalism raises productivity by, amongst other things, "distort(ing) the worker into a fragment of a man... they transform his lifetime into working time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaught of capital... accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalisation and moral degradation at the opposite pole".

An examination of the effects of increasing work-loads, lengthened hours, and increased stress levels in modern society, all more than vindicate Marx's comments.

Wheen dismisses those such as former Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, who boasted that he had never got beyond page two of Capital, or Tony Blair and others who attack Marx for being rigid or dogmatic. "Marx's work has often been dismissed as 'crude dogma', usually by people who give no evidence of having read him. It would be a useful exercise to force these extempore critics - who include the present British prime minister, Tony Blair - to study the Paris manuscripts (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844), which reveal the workings of a ceaselessly inquisitive, subtle and undogmatic mind".


Wheen, however, argues that Capital is not really a scientific hypothesis or economic treatise. "More use-value and indeed profit can thus be derived from Capital", writes Wheen, "if it is read as a work of imagination; of Victorian melodrama, or a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created ('Capital which comes into the world soiled with mire from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore'); or perhaps a satirical utopia, like Swift's land of the Houyhnhnms, where every prospect pleases and only man is vile". Marx's critique of capitalism is certainly a great imaginative work, a satiric indictment of the system. Nevertheless, Capital is fundamentally a scientific work that provides the only real understanding of the inner logic of capitalism. By itself, it cannot automatically provide a full understanding of the capitalist system today, but it provides an indispensable method of analysis for understanding contemporary capitalism.

top     'Above all, a revolutionary'

WHEEN CORRECTLY HIGHLIGHTS the significance of the great Paris Commune of 1871 and Marx's celebrated work, The Civil War in France. The Commune was crushed with 20,000 slaughtered. Its repercussions rocked Europe at the time and allowed Marx and later Lenin to draw upon this experience. Marx quoted the boast from a leaflet issued at the time. The proletariat of Paris had made themselves, 'masters of their own destiny by seizing upon government power'. Through the Commune, for the first time in history, the working class temporarily formed its own government.


The Commune abolished the political police, established an armed people in place of the standing army, disestablished the church, abolished religious control of schools, and introduced the election of all public servants subject to recall. The lessons of this defeat regarding the nature of the capitalist state and the need for a revolutionary party were essential in allowing the Bolsheviks to lead the working class to power in 1917.

The Civil War In France was published by the First International and the first two print runs of 3,000 each were sold out within a fortnight!

Marx was not only a great theoretician for the workers' movement and an active fighter for his ideas. Marx and his family made heroic sacrifices. Police persecution and exile were all a part of their life, as was extreme hardship and poverty. This is graphically illustrated throughout the book. Of his six children, four died from poverty-related diseases and two committed suicide. Both Marx and especially his wife Jenny suffered at the hands of bailiffs and money-lenders. Lack of adequate food and poor housing inevitably affected their own health. But Marx's determination to overthrow capitalism never wavered. 'Marx was, before all else, revolutionary', declared Engels at Marx's graveside: 'His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society. Fighting was his element'.

Francis Wheen's biography does a service in providing a positive introduction to the life, work and ideas of Marx, making them accessible to a new generation of fighters for socialism who are coming into contact with Marxist ideas for the first time. This biography is overwhelmingly favourable to Marx and his ideas, and written in a lively, humorous style.


Throughout the book, moreover, Wheen links Marx's ideas to the modern world in order to illustrate their relevance. His attempts to do this, however, tend to hang in mid-air because he offers no conclusions about an alternative to global capitalism. And in some passages Wheen's sense of humour gets the better of him and he lapses into journalistic flippancy which presents some of Marx's ideas and actions in a one-sided manner that can be misunderstood. These deficiencies, however, will not deflect from the overwhelmingly positive impression of Marx and his ideas that will be left on the reader.

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