It’s a good idea to read a book about someone you have heard about but never encountered directly. Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx gave me that opportunity. Marx was a revolutionary firebrand in his youth, expelled from Germany, France and Belgium not once, but several times. He ended his life as a father and grandfather in suburban London, his basic ideas unchanged but his expression of them somewhat subdued. And in between these two points in this life we find The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital and Frederick Engels.
Marx devoted his university studies to philosophy and, when he took up the study of economics he continued to see the big picture:
Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.
Wheen presents Marx as a philosopher who drew on a variety of sources:
In the British Museum, Marx had discovered a reservoir of data about capitalist practice — government Blue Books, statistical tables, reports from factory inspectors and public health officers…. But his other main source, less often noticed, is literary fiction…. How can capitalists shrug off their responsibility for the human casualties of technological progress? Putting aside his census figures, Marx turns to a speech from the dock by Bill Sykes on Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
Although Marx dabbled from time to time in revolutionary politics during his years in England, his heart seems to have been in his writing. After years of labor he brought out the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. The remaining two volumes were edited by Engels after Marx’s death. Intended as a scientific analyses of the structure of capitalism and the inevitability of crises within that structure, the emotional drive which led Marx to write it came from his concern for the situation of the workers in an industrializing economy.
Marx himself was not a worker. Born into a middle class family, his lawyer father could afford to send him to the university. He experienced enough poverty in his early days in England so as not to romanticize the proletarian life. Quite the contrary, he wanted his daughters to be educated as ladies. Engels was not a poor boy either — his father was a partner in a textile concern — and worked for years in the business to support Marx and his family. In this biography one sees a portrait of a brilliant but difficult man — his wife called him “my wild boar” — who struggled to describe the world he wanted to change.