Karl Marx: His Life and Environment

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Given the interesting details of Marx’s life, it’s a shame there are not more good biographies about him: his banishment from one country to another, his participation in the 1848 revolutions, the numerous petty squabbles he had with other 19th century revolutionaries, his involvement in the politics of the International, and his last great fight against Bakunin.

Many biographies focus on the philosophical instead of the historical, and Isaiah Berlin’s Karl Marx: His Life and Environment is a good example of this. For anyone who wants a biography that focuses more on the narrative, I would recommend Francis Wheen’s book, Karl Marx: A Life.

Isaiah Berlin does a good job of summarizing Marx’s life in under 300 pages, but most of the book lingers on Marx’s philosophical development, with whole long chapters devoted to topics such as “The Young Hegelians” and “Historical Materialism.”

One thing Berlin does which I thought was very interesting was that he emphasized the paradoxes in Marx’s legend. For example Marx lived during the age of romantic revolutions in which popular revolutionary figures like Herzen, Mazzini, Blanqui, and Lassalle commanded almost religious like followings. Marx spent most of his life in obscurity in the London library, and yet today his name is still known by almost everyone on the planet. Marx’s central thesis, that historical material conditions and not ideas influence history, has been undercut by its very success.

Or how the German and Austrian communists, who followed Marx’s advice about organizing from the bottom up, were eventually overwhelmed by the fascists, where as the Bolsheviks, who committed the most un-Marxist act of a revolutionary coup, was the first (and for a time the only) successful Marxist revolution.

Bakunin, as seems to be the case with any biography vaguely sympathetic towards Marx, comes off a bit badly here. I suppose that’s to be expected. In most biographies of Bakunin, Marx comes off badly.

There is no denying that Bakunin had his flaws. Anyone who has read any piece of analysis by Bakunin knows he didn’t have the brilliance of Marx’s pinky. He was a romantic without a clear ideology, and he didn’t share Marx’s horror for Revolutions that went off half-cocked with no chance of succeeding. And, as every biography of Marx makes clear, he was an anti-Semite.

And yet, he was right (well, not about the anti-Semite part). But history has shown all of Bakunin’s criticisms of Marx to be true. And, to his credit, Isaiah Berlin does include some of Bakunin’s extended quotations:

We believe power corrupts those who wield it as much as those who are forced to obey it. Under its influence, some become greedy and ambitious tyrants, exploiting society in their own interest, or in that of their class, while others are turned into abject slaves. Intellectuals, positivists, doctrinaires, all those who put science before life defend the idea of the state and its authority as being the only possible salvation of society-quite logically, since from their false premises that thought comes before life, that only abstract theory can form the starting-point of social practice they draw the inevitable conclusion that since such theoretical knowledge is at present possessed by very few, these few must be put in control of social life, not only to inspire, but to direct all popular movements, and that no sooner is the revolution over than a new social organization must be at once be set up; not a free association of popular bodies working in accordance with the needs and instincts of the people but a centralized dictatorial power concentrated in the hands of this academic minority, as if they really expressed the popular will .The difference between such revolutionary dictatorship and the modern State is only one of external trappings. In substance both are a tyranny of the minority over the majority in the name of the people-in the name of the stupidity of the many and the superior wisdom of the few-and so they are equally reactionary, devising to secure political and economic privilege to the ruling minority, and the enslavement of the masses, to destroy the present order only to erect their own rigid dictatorship on its ruins.

Berlin gives a surprisingly hostile account of the Paris Commune, which he appears to have based completely off the Bourgesious press. And he also advances the interesting idea that Marx actually opposed the Paris Commune because it was more along the lines of Bakunin’s revolutionary ideology, but once it was clear the Commune was going to fall, Marx embraced it for the cynical reasons of the desire to link his name with the most infamous revolution in Europe at the time. Berlin is the first writer I have come across who claims this, and while it certainly is not an impossible conclusion, it would be nice if he gave some more evidence for it.

Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, (Oxford University Press, 1963)

Author: mediamouse

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