Buck's Reviews > Karl Marx

Karl Marx by Francis Wheen
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
1450485
's review
Feb 02, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: life-writing, dismal-science

It’s strange but arguably true: millions of people died in Siberia because a philosopher in London had carbuncles on his ass. Chaos theory now makes a little more sense to me.

In a famous riff on Hegel, Marx once said that history repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Marx’s own biography suggests a different sequence. His life was a grubby, shambolic farce that somehow gave birth to a world-historic tragedy. Francis Wheen, the author of this generally excellent biography, snidely pooh-poohs the idea that Marx bears any responsibility for the Gulag, but this seems as naïve as the reductionism it was meant to counter. If Stalinism was a misreading of Marx, it was at least a plausible misreading. It can’t be a coincidence that every communist regime in history got Marx wrong in exactly the same way.

But, okay, Marx himself was no monster, and Wheen does a good job of humanizing the old bogeyman – almost too good a job, actually: his Marx is not just human, but hilariously, embarrassingly, disastrously human. For the first two-thirds of the book, Marx comes across as a bit of a loser, a schlemiel: living in rented rooms, shamelessly sponging off rich relatives and his good buddy Engels, refusing to get a real job, cowering in his study while his wife turned away creditors, fathering children with grim Victorian persistence (including one with the housekeeper), lancing the aforementioned carbuncles with a razor, getting massive boils on his penis, snoring on the sofa all day long while his kids romped among dirty dishes and broken furniture, confidently predicting revolution every other week (always wrongly), going on benders, writing thunderous, 200-page jeremiads against anyone who looked at him sideways, letting a friend fight a duel in his place (and take a bullet in the head), growing a freaky beard, malingering, and constantly, constantly, CONSTANTLY complaining...

And yet, damn it, the man was a genius. Deirdre McCloskey, a hardcore neoliberal (and therefore the furthest thing imaginable from a Marxist) calls him the greatest social critic of the nineteenth century. As a philosopher and economist, he was a horror show, but as a writer and all-around shit disturber, he has few equals. If only he’d stuck to journalism...

The last years of Marx’s life were spent traipsing around the fashionable spas of Europe, where he charmed the other guests with his witty anecdotes and impeccable manners. He was also a doting grandfather. Eleven people showed up for his funeral.
27 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Karl Marx.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

04/10/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-42 of 42) (42 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal ...constantly?


Buck Constantly, dude.


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I have a picture of me standing in front of Marx's grave. It's so wonderful.


Buck Ceridwen wrote: "It's so wonderful."

The grave or the picture?

Didn't I also see a picture of you standing in front of a Lenin monument somewhere? How many other heroes of the revolution have you collected?


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

That's easier though - there are roughly 80 gagillion statues of Lenin in the USSR, or there were when I was there in '91.

The picture is pretty wonderful. I wish it were easier to find, or I would make everyone behold the face engulfing glasses and weird haircut. That was the same trip I visited Freud's house in London. Ghoulish tour of modernist theorists, yay!


message 6: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I have a picture of me by the grave of Matthew Maury but somehow no one seems impressed by that.


message 7: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal C saw Yuri Gagarin's monument, too. Because she sucks.

HEY! I saw where James Dean died. Does that count for anything? I bet, given enough time, he would've portrayed Marx.


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

I do suck. Yuri's grave was awesome. I may even have a picture of that on fb?


Buck Miriam wrote: "I have a picture of me by the grave of Matthew Maury but somehow no one seems impressed by that."

Wait. The Matthew Maury? The father of modern oceanography and naval meteorology?

No, I'd never heard of him until now.


message 10: by Miriam (new)

Miriam The Pathfinder of the Seas!

In fact, I have the picture because my ancestor designed his monument, otherwise I wouldn't have heard of him either.


message 11: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye After liking this review, I sat with it on the screen wondering whether to make a comment, but I decided that anything I might say might detract from the playful tone of the review.

Now that BB has commented, I've changed my mind.

If Marx was on Good Reads, he'd read everything, review everything, be amazingly funny and erudite, everybody would vote for him and he wouldn't even need to utilise italic or bold font or images.

His ideas would wow us. And I don't just mean as a journalist.

Maybe it's the fact that I'm doing a tasting of some James Squire Stow Away India Pale Ales and I'm up to number three (the first two were inconclusive), but I got into a melancholy mood when I read that comment about the number of people who attended Marx's funeral.

If my wife and at least one of my daughters had predeceased me, I haven't got a clue who would attend my funeral or how many.

I did look up what happened at his funeral and I found it interesting to read the following:

Karl Marx's Funeral:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/...

Stephen Jay Gould: A Darwinian Gentleman at Marx's Funeral

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi...


message 12: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, BB. Fortunately, we are still both alive.

I post, therefore I am.

The presence of friends in spirit is the most any of us can hope for (and I'm sure there were shitloads of people at Marx's funeral in spirit).

I also appreciate the presence of friends with spirits.

Preferably rum.


message 13: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Bird Brian wrote: "Ian wrote: "If my wife and at least one of my daughters had predeceased me, I haven't got a clue who would attend my funeral or how many.."

If you kick off before me, I'll be at your funeral in sp..."


Bourgeois scum. In Soviet Russia, scotch drinks you!


message 14: by Ian (last edited Feb 25, 2012 12:54AM) (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Esteban wrote: "Bourgeois scum. In Soviet Russia, scotch drinks you!"

Vodka you talking about? Only the rumours were scotched back in the USSR.


message 15: by Buck (new) - rated it 4 stars

Buck I don’t know, Ian. If Marx were on Goodreads, he’d certainly get his share of votes (especially if he reviewed YA novels), but he’d also alienate his friends and followers just as fast as he made them. One of the reasons his funeral was so sparsely attended is that he pissed off everybody around him, except for the devoted Engels. He had a habit of excommunicating disciples for minor ideological deviations—and then crushing the poor buggers under reams of satirical denunciation. So, come to think of it, he probably would have been both a great reviewer and an incorrigible troll.

Personally, I’ve never given much thought to who will or won’t be at my funeral. All I know is, Wind Beneath My Wings will feature prominently in the service.


message 16: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Buck wrote: "Personally, I’ve never given much thought to who will or won’t be at my funeral. All I know is, Wind Beneath My Wings will feature prominently in the service."

Neither had I before I read this review. I can say with great certainty that that song won't be played at my funeral, otherwise I'd be rolling in my grave.


message 17: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Buck wrote: "One of the reasons his funeral was so sparsely attended is that he pissed off everybody around him, except for the devoted Engels. He had a habit of excommunicating disciples for minor ideological deviations—and then crushing the poor buggers under reams of satirical denunciation. "

I haven't read any bios of Marx for a long time and don't remember any comments like this.

Did you read them in Wheen's book?

To return to the essence of your review, the reason Marxists let Marx personally off the hook about Communism in practice is that he never wrote much about what would happen after the Revolution.

Stalinism was Stalin's personal contribution, although many say that it was already present in Lenin and probably would have been just as bad if Trotsky had been in power.

I put a lot of what happened down to a siege mentality that followed the revolution.

Others like Popper will argue that it was inevitable.


message 18: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye I've only ever seen you speak highly of deviations.


message 19: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Also, I don't tend to like my flaws when I detect them in you.

I haven't seen any mention of the spreadsheet before.


message 20: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! ...I haven't been good about maintaining my spreadsheet for the past few weeks. Also, if I haven't participated in a thread, I tend to forget it...sorry for bursting the bubble about the omniscience of my spreadsheet!


message 21: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Ah, if I could've, I would've linked the thread you spoke of above! Why would I withhold amazement?


message 22: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye I was hoping Eh! could do a Sam Potts diagram.


message 23: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! I did. In my miiiiiiind.


message 24: by Eric_W (new) - added it

Eric_W Great first line.


message 25: by Ted (new)

Ted Try To the Finland Station for a great arc-of-history overview of what Marx was talking about, from the French Revolution down to Lenin. Warning: Wilson is pretty leftist (like myself) so that may turn off some, but it contains not only great bio info on lots of players, but also does a decent job of explaining what the hell these people thought they were after.

And for another critical biography on Marx and his writings, see Karl Marx by Isaiah Berlin. Berlin is generally acknowledged to have been one of the most powerful thinkers of the 20th century. Thus if you disagree with him you need to come to terms with why that is.


message 26: by Mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mark Like all those who have died becasue 2000 years ago a jew thought he was the son of God?
big things come from small beginnings


message 27: by Buck (new) - rated it 4 stars

Buck Something like that, I suppose, except that Jesus never wrote a book. And crucifixion is presumably a bit more uncomfortable than carbuncles.


message 28: by Paul (new)

Paul Buck wrote: "If Stalinism was a misreading of Marx, it was at least a plausible misreading. It can’t be a coincidence that every communist regime in history got Marx wrong in exactly the same way." Sorry but that presupposes that every communist regime in history was Stalinist. Not so.


message 29: by [deleted user] (last edited Aug 23, 2012 07:09AM) (new)

Bird Brian wrote: On one hand, I'd like to think I'm open-minded, but something Ceridwen said in one of her reviews (where is Eh! with her spreadsheet?) that's really true: we tend to congregate with people who are approximately like-minded, and then debate and discuss all the niddling minor refinements which differentiate us. I think that's true, insightful, and probably just a feature of basic human nature.

Huh. Missed this conversation while it was happening. I think my observation is an appropriation of Freud's Narcissism of small differences which is pretty rad.

Not appropriation. Homage.


message 30: by Buck (last edited Aug 23, 2012 07:46AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Buck Paul wrote: " Sorry but that presupposes that every communist regime in history was Stalinist. Not so. "

Not every communist regime has been nominally Stalinist, but every communist regime has ‘misread’ Marx in the same way: i.e. dictatorship, prison camps, and bad poetry. Or am I overlooking some cozy, efficient little People’s Republic somewhere?


message 31: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Cuba had Che! He was centerfold dreamy...


message 32: by [deleted user] (new)

Dude was hot, not gonna lie.

But, alarmingly, so was Young Stalin:

stalin as a young man, with rakish hair

Don't you want to run your fingers through that autocratic hair? Raarrr.


message 33: by Buck (new) - rated it 4 stars

Buck True. And North Korea still has Kim Jong-un, who is...delightfully plump.

Incidentally, how is it that, whenever I get somebody sticking up for totalitarianism on one of my threads, it's always a sock-puppet-like persona from Norway or Glasgow or some unlikely place? I have no proof, but I think it's a communist plot.


message 34: by [deleted user] (new)

You're not exactly posting from the most likely place these days either, Canada. But there is a funny pattern. Maybe your philosophical milkshake just brings all the n00bs to the yard?

Sartre.


message 35: by Buck (new) - rated it 4 stars

Buck That occurred to me too. But at least I’ve posted the odd review over the years to lend my profile a sheen of plausibility. These communist plants don’t even try. Pure laziness.

Žižek.


message 36: by Esteban (last edited Aug 23, 2012 12:59PM) (new)

Esteban del Mal I've noticed a lot of the puppets have been originating in the British Isles lately. Methinks it has something to do with being irrelevant (beyond hosting the Olympics, of course).


message 37: by Paul (last edited Feb 26, 2013 07:19AM) (new)

Paul Sock-puppet? Harsh words. Well, anyway, well well done. And faith sir, I hope ye believe it, for the devil of the tales in the telling. Bienvenuto mon petite. Clash high on the stormy seas of internet rhetoric and feel the chill salt bite of the cybernetic cut 'n' thrust. Aloha from hell! Though methinks that characterizing a demand for clarity and the correct use of terms (like Stalinism) as a defense of totalitarianism suggests a certain intellectual inadequacy (dare I say impotence) on your own part. If I were uncharitable (which I am) I would perhaps describe this morbid sensitivity, verging on paranoia, as an expression of a penile deficiency, as the psychological manifestation of a genital lack. 'Swounds, why else be boiled in the bag by the rigours of conceptual usage, why else squeal with rage at the politest of historical truths, why else round out a perfectly vapid post with the cringing rhetoric of a pseudo-cosmopolitan, why else, sir - I ask you - hurl accusations and pat generalisations accusations perturbations at a hearty and hateless lad like myself without even enquiring after my health and the state of my good mind? God will have his prize, but I cannot help but detect a note of xenophobia in your glib - withal 'bourgeoise', O wot a bugbear of a word! I can already hear the cogs creaking into motion in your little brainbox, already predict the gobbets of coagulated cliche, the jissomy flumes of viral sputum that are even now coalescing into the next robust denunciation of Stalin PolPot or Mao-love, a rather easy task as it happens, especially since your men be straw your, opponents be absent, the field of battle lies clear - that is, I can't help but detect the unappetising rancour of the scoundrel in your good glib disdain for the swarthy wilds of Northern Europe. In which case, sir and sirs and madams and Adams and faith, whoever you happen to be in your dust jacketed climes, I do bid you adieu, a dieu, a God, ein Gott, un dieu, arrividerci, goodnight...Go with God. P.S. I am totally in love with all totalitarian monsters.


message 38: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez I feel like I should be wearing a cocktail dress to the unveiling of that comment, seeing as it has been in production for half a year. Did Peter Jackson direct it?


message 39: by Miriam (new)

Miriam A cocktail dress? No way. Not with all the vile fluids present in Paul's comment. You want something stain-resistant.


message 40: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez I hear "Vile Fluids" is the working title to the sequel.


message 41: by [deleted user] (new)

This reminds me of a joke involving clowns.


message 42: by Buck (new) - rated it 4 stars

Buck Like, wow. That guy's totally apeshit. I have no words.


back to top