Source: In These Times
In the September 2000 issue of In These Times, Howard Zinn wrote this review of a book about the life of Karl Marx by Francis Wheen. On the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, we present Zinn’s review in full, in which he discusses how “Marx predicted the world of today, with ever increasing concentrations of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with capitalism roaming the globe in search of profits, with a deepening contradiction between the colossal growth of production and the failure to distribute its fruits justly.”
It takes some courage to write still another biography of Karl Marx, especially if the writer has dared to go through the 40 volumes of his writings and his correspondence. Francis Wheen seems to have done that research scrupulously, open to both colorful stories and thunderous ideas.
The time is right for a new appraisal of Marx because ignoramuses and shitheads (the spellcheck on my computer rejected this, suggesting instead “hotheads, catheads, whiteheads, skinheads”) on all parts of the ideological spectrum have distorted his ideas in ridiculous ways. Forgive me, but I want to give you the flavor of Marx’s personality, which included frequent insults directed at those, whether bourgeois or left intellectuals, who drove him to distraction by disagreeing with him—not, I agree, an admirable trait, but we must be honest about people we otherwise admire.
Marx has been stupidly (there, I’ve caught the virus of virulence again) linked with Stalin, by both Stalinists and apologists for capitalism. So this is a good time to set the record straight. The reviewer of Wheen’s book in the New York Times Book Reviewseemed to think that the lack of Marxists in departments of economics, history and philosophy is somehow proof of the inadequacy of Marx’s theories and, absurdly, wonders “why the rest of us should bother with Marx’s ideas now that the Berlin Wall has fallen.”
Wheen lets you know immediately where he stands on this matter: “Only a fool could hold Marx responsible for the Gulag; but there is, alas, a ready supply of fools.” Marx “would have been appalled by the crimes committed in his name.” He has been “calamitously misinterpreted.” And the misinterpretation has been bipartisan, as “all these bloody blemishes on the history of the 20th century were justified in the name of Marxism or anti-Marxism.”
This is a worthy enterprise, to distinguish Marx himself from the actions of the so-called Marxists (who led an exasperated Marx at one time to say: “I am not a Marxist.”), as well as to keep alive his still-accurate critique of capitalism.
Wheen provides a colorful romp through Marx’s life. Marx grew up in a middle-class German family, with rabbi ancestors on both sides, but his father converted to Christianity for practical reasons. (Karl in fact was baptized at the age of six.) At 18 he was engaged to the beautiful Jenny von Westphalen, whose aristocratic family admired the young Karl for his remarkable intellect, and whose father took long walks with him, reciting Homer and Shakespeare.
Marx studied first at the University of Bonn and then the University of Berlin, as a rather wild and fun-loving student even while seriously pursuing the teachings of Hegel and writing a doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy. His thesis, comparing the ideas of Democritus and Epicurus, is a ringing declaration of freedom from false authority, insisting that the true purpose of philosophy was to deny “all gods of heaven and earth who do not recognize man’s self-consciousness was the highest divinity.”