The Moor's Last Sigh

Financiers bemoan the dehumanizing excesses of global capitalism and Wall Street has become obsessed with Karl Marx. This shouldn't be surprising—today we wring our hands over globalization, but Marx was already on the case in 1848.

by Trevor Corson

Boston Book Review

Originally published in the June 2000 issue.


A FEW YEARS after the Cold War ended, CNN threw the white Christian conservative Pat Robertson and the black Christian radical Cornel West together for a debate on the television talk show Crossfire. During the conversation, West suggested that poor people might benefit from more jobs. Robertson, wagging his finger, retorted that he had traveled the world over and knew for a fact that "socialism doesn't work."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, statusquoticians like Pat stocked their quivers with this kind of convenient quip. True, the year 1989 was a damning enough indictment of dictatorship that few activists advocate communism anymore. But Soviet decay did not necessarily reflect on the efficacy of socialism, or the accuracy of socialism's critique of capitalism. And it hardly heralded a death knell for Marxism or the popularity of Marxism's progenitor, that bearded old bear, Karl.

Take Cornel West's rise to prominence as a mainstream pundit, on the campaign trail with Bill Bradley—West, the Marxist theologian. Or consider historian Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, who last year published Marx in Soho, a play that plops Karl down in Manhattan today to assay the ongoing crimes of capitalism. Zinn, a former shipyard welder, reminds us that Marx's worries about the plight of workers remain as relevant as ever: the merging of huge enterprises, the growing gap between rich and poor, the underclass of underemployed that keeps wages low. Cornel West's call for jobs sounds obvious; behind it is a more subtle suspicion that unregulated capitalism won't provide those jobs without prodding, because if it did, it would be contradicting its own interests. Even staid liberal democrats have to admit that we owe insights like this to Mr. Marx.

The obituaries for Marxism that sprouted in capitalist lands after the Cold War inspired Francis Wheen, an award-winning columnist for The Guardian in London, to take another look at Marx's life. But Wheen also traces his inspiration to another, more surprising attitude among the capitalist class: adulation. In 1997, the Atlantic Monthly featured financier George Soros bemoaning the dehumanizing excesses of capitalism. Not to be outdone, the New Yorker dedicated a special issue to Karl Marx and called him the "next big thinker." Accolades from Wall Street hardheads, applauding the accuracy of Marx's analyses, have accumulated apace. And with good reason, thinks Wheen. "Today's pundits and politicians... like to mention the buzz-word 'globalization,'" he writes, clucking that Karl 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. The shift in financial power from the Atlantic to the Pacific— thanks to the Asian Tiger economies and the silicon boom towns of west-coast America—was predicted by Marx more than a century before Bill Gates."

Ultimately, though, commendation and condemnation both miss the point: Marx was just a man. Wheen's new biography, Karl Marx: A Life, is neither an introduction to Marx's ideas nor a history of socialism; these have been handled often enough, and usually with an agenda. Wheen rescues the simple story, by turns humorous, tragic, and imbecilic, of a bourgeois intellectual too big for his britches. It is the tale of the man nicknamed "Moor"—as Marx's friends and family called him at the time (long before the era of political correctness) for what they considered to be his swarthy appearance. He was a sickly, ill-tempered, compulsive procrastinator with boils on his bum who was a doting father, an overdemanding friend, and a daunting adversary who challenged detractors to duels. Karl Marx's great insight was that the ideas and opinions in our heads do not form independently, but are the product of our social circumstances and station.

Wheen tasks himself with applying this insight to Marx's own life. The upshot is a hodgepodge of ironies and contradictions, almost worthy of Marx's critique of capitalism.

For starters, Karl Marx, architect of the infamous injunction "Workers of the world, unite!" never had a job. In his younger days he dabbled in editorships, inevitably short-lived due to his penchant for political commentary, which eventually got him deported: first from France, then Belgium, then Germany. By age 44, settled in England and increasingly frustrated by his mother's refusal to croak and equip him with an inheritance, Marx was so destitute that he couldn't even pay the undertakers to remove the body of a housekeeper who had dropped dead in his living room. After being arrested while trying to pawn his aristocratic wife's family silver, the author of the Communist Manifesto finally applied for work as a clerk, but was rejected for his illegible handwriting.

Marx earned a little income with a regular column on European politics for the New York Daily Tribune—or, at least, Marx submitted the columns with his byline. Like most of Marx's livelihood, much of this writing actually came from his lifelong friend, Friedrich Engels. A playboy dilettante from a clan of wealthy textile capitalists, Engels not only penned Marx's dispatches, but skimmed the tills of the family factory for decades to support Karl and his ever-ailing brood. "I don't suppose anyone has ever written about 'money,'" Marx joked to Engels in the throes of finishing his masterpiece Capital, "when so short of the stuff." Indeed, when Marx finally completed Capital after two decades of mulling on a shoestring, he noted sourly that publication of the book "will not even pay for the cigars I smoked writing it."

Cigars, indeed. Profits from exploited textile workers bankrolled the middle-class indulgences of Karl Marx—a sweet hypocrisy, of course, to his detractors today. But it's more complicated than that. As penniless as he invariably was, Marx never did pretend to be a member of the proletariat. He whined that the English working class remained "slavish" and "sheepish" because they were deluded by "the bourgeois infection," but meanwhile appealed to Engels for funds to tutor his daughters in French, Italian, drawing, and music; for dancing lessons and ballgowns; and for cases of claret to host parties—all so that the girls would not "lose caste."

Marx's forthrightness about his class as a householder, though, translated into attendant modesty as an activist. When the International Working Man's Association proposed to elect Marx president, he demurred, reporting to Engels, "I declared that under no circumstances could I accept such a thing." Wheen locates the minute-book for this meeting, where it is recorded that Marx "thought himself incapacitated because he was a head worker and not a hand worker." Marx preferred hiding out in his study to organizing workers anyway.

And so when the reader of Wheen's book arrives at the year 1871—after watching Marx mull, toil, quarrel, dillydally, implore, and boggle (and puff) his way through decades of ineffectual obscurity—it comes as a hilarious surprise when the entire European press corps erupts into hysteria over Karl Marx, newly fingered as the "mastermind" behind the Paris Commune uprising. One cannot but marvel at this premonition of McCarthyism and its unfounded fears. In fact, Wheen reveals, by 1872 Marx was so disillusioned with the idea of working-class solidarity that he tricked the International Working Man's Association into moving to America, where he knew it would wither and die. A decade later, an exhausted Marx banished himself and did the same.

• • •

Karl Marx: A Life is expertly researched, admirably objective, eminently humane, and plenty entertaining. Marx's shortcomings are on full display: depending on your point of view, his primary flaw might have been his quixotic, uncompromising intellectualism, divorced from the ways that workers actually cope, and his secondary error the failure to provide for his long-suffering family. (The handouts from Engels didn't suffice: his wife was ill most of her adult life, four of Marx's children predeceased him, and the two surviving children committed suicide.) But Wheen also vindicates Marx where the man has been misunderstood, and corrects the record on several counts: in particular, Marx's relationships with Charles Darwin and the anarchist Michael Bakunin.

Perhaps Wheen's most penetrating point is that Marx never claimed to be a scientist. Critics of Marxism, then and now, have argued that Marx's prescriptions hang on unscientific pseudo-laws, which have little basis in economics. Well, even thoughtful capitalists—George Soros is one of them—know that a-whole lot of economic reality is unresolved by economics: start with the immorality of inequity, civic estrangement, and the alienation of workers from their work. "Capital is not really a scientific hypothesis," Wheen comments on Marx's magnum opus, "nor even an economic treatise, though zealots on both sides of the argument have persisted in regarding it thus. The author himself was quite clear about his intentions."

Those intentions, Wheen holds, were to create a work of art, not science, that drew on economics but also history, philosophy, and even literary fiction to expose the injustice and suffering endemic to an exploitative social system:

The absurdities to be found in Capital, which have been seized on so readily by those who wish to expose Marx as a crackpot, reflect the madness of the subject, not the author. Capital is full of systems and syllogisms, paradoxes and metaphysics, theories and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery. To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx's text is saturated, sometimes even waterlogged, with irony.

And as Wheen puts it delicately, "only a half-wit or an economics lecturer" could miss Marx's point, as expressed here in Capital: "accumulation of wealth at one pole is ... at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labor, slavery, ignorance, brutalization, and moral degradation at the opposite pole."

Wheen admits that the working class today is more comfortably equipped than Marx would have expected: with cars, satellite dishes, fast food. But Wheen reminds us that the focus of Marx's concern was "the 'lowest sediment' of society—the unemployed, the ragged, the sick, the old, the widows and orphans. These are the 'incidental expenses' which must be paid by the working population and the petty bourgeoisie. Can anyone deny that such an underclass still exists?"

Wheen makes a convincing case that though Marx's predictions for capitalism may have been untestable, in retrospect they have withstood the test of time. They can be argued away by a retreat into the pseudo-science of laissez-faire economics, but that misses the point. "Marx's definition of poverty," Wheen concludes, "like Christ's, was as much spiritual as economic."

This is fitting, because another of the great misunderstandings about Marx is his atheism. Marx's proclamation that "religion is the opiate of the masses" distracts from how fundamentally Christian Marx's search for utopia was, and how directly his thought was based on the church-friendly philosophy of Hegel. The Enlightenment, after all, enabled the idea that people could move toward something akin to heaven here on earth. This notion has inspired activism for social improvement ever since. In a way, that is why Cornel West being a Marxist theologian makes perfect sense. Pat Robertson, take note: jobs for the poor isn't just socialist. It's spiritual. ❦