- - Tuesday, January 10, 2017




By Gareth Stedman Jones

Belknap Press/Harvard, $35.00, 750 pages

Nothing succeeds like excess. Karl Marx — and the ill-defined, shape-shifting “ism” bearing his name — have achieved immortality in spite of the flawed nature of the man and the dismal failure of the “ism” wherever it has come to power, usually at gunpoint. While Marx in his lifetime denounced religion as the “opium of the people,” Marxism was destined to become the opium of the intelligentsia. Disaster followed as zealous social revolutionaries from Lenin and Stalin to Mao and Pol Pot imposed their personalized versions of the Marxist pipe dream at the cost of millions of innocent lives.

One of the many virtues of Gareth Stedman Jones’ substantial new biography of Karl Marx is that it traces the ways in which the intense imaginings and flawed theorizing of one man — including many ideas he himself discarded before his death — came to play a major role in shaping the bloody 20th century. Mostly, it should be added, in ways Marx himself never dreamed of and would probably have found appalling.

This led to the ironic situation in which the supposedly zealous keepers of the Marxist flame, both inside Russia and as dissident exiles in places like Switzerland, were often their patron saint’s most rigorous censors. Consider the case of a purloined 1881 letter — written by Marx to the leaders of the exiled Russian Group for the Emancipation of Labor in Geneva — that recipients claimed to have no recollection of in a clear case of ideological amnesia. “We cannot know why in 1923 the former leaders of the Group … forgot Karl’s 1881 letter urging them to support the village community rather than follow the supposedly orthodox ‘Marxist’ strategy of building an urban-based workers’ social-democratic movement,” Mr. Stedman Jones reflects. “But this only reinforces the point that the Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth.”

The author is at his best when he concentrates on the 19th century man in the flesh, a highly intelligent but also irascible, arrogant sponger with a “shrill voice” and a “larger than normal sense of entitlement”: just the sort of fellow who, today, would aspire to a tenured professorship in the political science or sociology department of a well-heeled university. While some readers may be put off by Mr. Stedman Jones’ device of referring to his subject as “Karl” — one hopes he will not follow up with a biography of “Joe” Stalin or “Vladi” Lenin — his meticulously researched and highly evocative portrayal of the man behind the “ism” have earned him the right to a little familiarity.

We learn, for example, that if religion was the opium of the people, and Marxism the opium of the intelligentsia, Marx himself was at times a heavy consumer of opium itself. And, though he had little use for scripture, he suffered a severe case of carbuncles and a veritable plague of boils that would have done credit to Job. Following his doctor’s advice, and perhaps his personal inclinations, Marx’s response was to consume “3-4 glasses of port and half a bottle of claret daily and four times as much food as usual” with the addition of one and a half quarts of “the strongest” London stout, just in case the port and the claret didn’t do the trick.

When it came to personal quality of life, “Karl” had strictly bourgeois tastes, although he sometimes used his daughters as a rather lame excuse, in an 1865 letter rationalizing that, “It is true my house is beyond my means … But it is the only way for the children to establish themselves socially …” Even from a merely commercial point of view, he told his wealthy patron Friedrich Engels, “to run a purely proletarian household would not be appropriate in the circumstances, although that would be quite all right, if my wife and I were by ourselves or if the girls were boys.”

Sure, Karl, it’s all your daughters’ fault.

A particularly nasty aspect of Marx’s character was his deep loathing of his Jewish roots. Witness his description of a well-bred Jewish woman of scholarly attainments who had the misfortune of being seated next to our hero at a dinner party in his honor. She was, wrote Marx, “the ugliest creature I ever saw in life, a nastily Jewish physiognomy, a sharply protruding thin nose, eternally smiling and grinning, always speaking poetical prose, constantly trying to say something extraordinary, playing at false enthusiasm, and spitting at her [listeners].”

He may not have lived the life of a proletarian, but Karl Marx was obviously no gentleman.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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