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New Left Review 1, January-February 2000

Susan Watkins on Francis Wheen, Karl Marx. The latest biography—a man for postmodern times?



For all his posthumous fame, Marx has so far defied any attempt to write a definitive version of his life. Each political period has found something different to say about him. It was the mud and mustard gas of World War One that spurred Franz Mehring to write the first biography in 1918. The work was dedicated to his fellow SDP members, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, whose friendship, Mehring wrote, ‘has been an incalculable consolation to me at a time when blustering storms have swept away so many “manly and steadfast pioneers of socialism” like dry leaves in autumn winds.’ The importance of Marx’s life for Mehring—a witty and independent-minded Berlin editor and bon vivant—was political: a salutary message for the party that had so calamitously failed to oppose the war, in which ‘lifelong followers of Marx, men who had brooded for three or even four decades over every comma in his writings’ he wrote, ‘failed utterly at an historical moment when for once they might and should have acted like Marx.’

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Susan Watkins, ‘The Nine Lives of Karl Marx’, NLR 1: £3

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