Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book 29: Karl Marx

I picked this up since I'm doing one of my final papers this term on something related to Marx.  It's still a bit hazy - doesn't help that I thought I was in a "special topics" class called "Societal Contract, Wealth and Class" for half the term only to realize it was a great books class ... yes, I realized the great books featured heavily on our reading list and syllabus but I guess I thought they were to provide the historical context rather than the pure focus of the class.  The joys of online programs!
Anyway, this was a very approachable book to Marx's life and to an extent, Friedrich Engels and Jenny Marx.  I definitely appreciated that this wasn't very dry, and that it was a relatively engaging read.  However, I felt like I wanted something deeper.  I think the author did a good job of explaining what Marx was doing and how his life progressed, but I am not sure I always understood the why.  Why did this middle class German who was connected to aristocracy by marriage become the revolutionary he is now known as?  Wheen discusses Marx's interest in the philosopher Hegel in college and how that influenced him, but I can't say I quite understood how that led to his later ideas (apparently, no one really understands Hegel?).  He also mentions that Marx knew little about communism when working as a newspaper editor in Cologne, but sat down to learn more about economic theory while in Paris.  It was after this study that he went from liberal to Communist, and started tracing the root of everything back to economic disparity.  I feel like I got the basic understanding of the man but not a deeper look into what made him tick.
In the first part of the book, I got the idea that Wheen didn't like Marx but by the second half he was listing his accomplishments and achievements that people tend to ignore or not give him credit for.  Early Marx is portrayed as a very volatile and abrasive man, brilliant but uncompromising, leading to several arguments and feuds within communism itself to ensure it was properly defined.  And yet Wheen also showed a man that could draw back when required, so I'm not sure if the author overemphasized Marx's harshness.  Once is a noteable exception; more than that, and I start doubting your argument.  Either way, it is clear that Marx could be very demanding and unforgiving.  I had no idea before this how instrumental Engels was to everything - he wrote articles for Marx when Marx was unable or ill and financially supported him.  Despite the amount of money Engels gave Marx, the Marx family still spent quite a bit of time in dire poverty, and this seems to be less because Engels didn't give them enough, and more because they couldn't manage money that well, having a bit of a "enjoy it while you have it" attitude.  And they of course were also concerned with keeping up appearances.
Marx appears to mellow later in life, and in the book he comes across as a deeply flawed, brilliant but sympathetic man.  However, since the book didn't focus as much on what Marx wrote as who he was and how he lived, I'm not sure what specifically made him brilliant.  He appears to have had a great memory, and great insight even if he didn't always take everything into account.  Wheen basically compares Marx's theories to his chess strategy - he could see brilliant moves, and could see what would happen as long as his enemy didn't do anything.  Basically, Wheen argues Marx was correct in predicting where the working class was headed if the aristocracy and bourgeois did absolutely nothing.  However, the proletariat wasn't acting in a vacuum and the revolutions he foresaw didn't occur because the upper classes adjusted.
This isn't a bad place to start to just learn about the man, but I think there may be other biographies that go more into depth, and place things into a greater historical context.  For example, we get hints of what is going on in Prussia/Germany and Europe throughout but in some ways, I felt like I could have used a bit more background and insight into the political situations of the time.