Clear-Eyed Prophet

By Ali, Tariq | New Statesman (1996), September 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Clear-Eyed Prophet


Ali, Tariq, New Statesman (1996)


The basic ideas of Karl Marx have been ruthlessly parodied and vulgarised. But his critique of capitalism, argues Tariq Ali, has never been more relevant in our debased times

France, in the last half of the 19th century, was the country most favoured as an exile by fractious German poets and philosophers. In 1844, two of their finest, Heine and Marx, were both at their desks in Paris. Heine was working on a poem, "Germany", in which he sees the Kaiser in a dream and they have a conversation. The poem is a savage, prescient and vivid lampoon of the Prussian ruling class: "And now it's the Prussian eagle! It grips/My body and pecks at my liver,/It gobbles the liver from out my breast,/I wail and moan and quiver."

Marx, who admired Heine greatly, did not wail and moan like his friend; he tried to understand. In that same year, he was working on a set of essays which were discovered, edited and published almost a century later in Moscow by the great Soviet scholar David Ryazanov. He was subsequently arrested on Stalin's orders and executed, one of the numerous independent-minded Marxist victims of the cockroach moustache.

Ryazanov's own biography of Marx was the best of a genre which degenerated rapidly into hagiography. There have been far too many of these and most of them are worthless. For over 50 years, the basic ideas of Marx, ruthlessly vulgarised, were taught as a secular catechism to millions of children in dozens of languages in Russia, China, Vietnam, North Korea and eastern Europe. Most of these ideas were presented in manuals written by hack academics, supervised by ideological committees, to ensure the extermination of critical reason. Marxism was transformed into a secular religion for the citizenry and so lost much of its pungency and meaning. Marx, who saw himself as a latter-day Prometheus implanting fire in the mind of the proletariat, would have found this religious colouring given to his work extremely offensive.

It is barely worth mentioning that the hateographies are worse. Most of these are compendiums of slander and ignorance, concocted by unworthy opponents who have little idea of the dynamic in Marx's thought. In these he is always the devil who fathered Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. The cold war years did not encourage objectivity on either side.

What, then, do they know of Marx who only Marxism know? Not very much is the assumption of this new biography, which comes as a pleasant and timely surprise. Francis Wheen's Marx is a thinker of deep and genuine passion, whose ideas shaped this century. It was a life replete with personal tragedies and intellectual triumphs. He was possessed of a reckless and deep-rooted scorn for the meanness of everyday bourgeois life and a great love for the classics of European literature, which he drew on heavily for his own work. Wheen's suggestion that the structure of Kapital was inspired by Tristram Shandy rather than Hegel may or may not be true. It is certainly original.

What is extremely refreshing about this book, what gives it a certain integrity, is that Wheen comes to his subject without any dogmatic preconceptions. As the book proceeds and as one realises that the author has read more and more of Marx, one senses the surprise and excitement. We are informed that Marx, even if he had been nothing else, would have been remembered as the greatest journalist produced by the 19th century. His vivid lampoons of numerous enemies - his choleric and polemical temper- entertain his latest biographer as much as they did his close friends at the time. The result is a lively and well-written book, one that will appeal to any intelligent reader seeking refuge from the trivia that dominate the TV screens and airwaves of contemporary Britain and the US.

Marx was a thinker ahead of his time; as Wheen reminds the reader, the current state of global capitalism would not have surprised him in the least. …

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