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.’

David Ryazanov, born in Odessa in 1870, made his way to Europe at the age of 21 to visit the Russian Marxists in exile. Arrested at the frontier on his way home, he was sentenced to four years solitary confinement and hard labour under the Tsar but escaped again to Berlin in 1907, where he pored over the Marx–Engels letters and writings (bequeathed to the German SDP on Engels’s death), becoming their expert archivist and eventually piecing together the mice-nibbled pages of the Paris manuscripts of 1844. After the October revolution Ryazanov set up the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow and, taking issue with Mehring’s freehand characterization, produced a joint biography of Marx and Engels. His work fused the two into an indivisible pair, embedding them firmly within a patiently dogmatic exposition of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the francophile Moselle valley and the Bremen cotton mills; it still retains the narrow intensity redolent of the nineteenth-century artisans groups. (Ryazanov himself was arrested on Stalin’s orders and died in prison in 1938.)

Boris Nicolaievsky, born in the Northern Urals and seventeen years Ryazanov’s junior, joined the revolutionary movement while he was still at school and got his Menshevik education in the Tsarist prisons. Director of the Historical Revolutionary Archive in Moscow from 1919 to 1921, he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks and then expelled. In Berlin, he worked closely with the SDP through the Weimar years. The biography he co-wrote with Otto Maenchen-Helfen, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, was written on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power. ‘When Marx was asked what his idea of happiness was,’ they wrote, ‘his answer was, “to fight” . . . Our theme was dictated to us by the time in which we live. He who opposes Marxism today does not do so because, for instance, he denies the validity of Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall . . . The arena in which Marx is fought about today is in the factories, in the parliaments and at the barricades.’

Werner Blumenberg, the social-democrat son of a German pastor, coalminer, journalist and fighter in the underground anti-Nazi resistance (first in Germany and later in occupied Holland), was the first of Marx’s biographers to publish, in 1962, Louise Kautsky’s letter testifying that Marx had had a child with the family’s housekeeper, Helene Demuth (‘Heaven protect us from small-mindedness!’). In 1964 Heinz Monz brought out his portrait of Trier at the time of Marx’s birth, a densely detailed social canvas of a small and ancient Catholic town locked in a catastrophic agricultural slump. In Yvonne Kapp’s rich portrait of the London years (Eleanor Marx, Volume One: Family Life), Marx is the father, both a sheltering presence and a stormy, troubled one. David McLellan’s 1973 Karl Marx: His Life and Thought was the most punctilious of all as to dates and proper names, although the ultra-left complained of a bourgeois plot to send proto-Marxists to sleep. In Karl Marx and World Literature, published in 1976, S. S. Prawer attempted, if not exactly a biography, certainly a ‘life’; but here, a chronological narrative of Marx’s inner life, chronicling the engagement of his imagination with the world.

And now, for these post-communist and perhaps post-Marxist times, left-liberal Guardian columnist Francis Wheen presents an affable and readable new biography of Marx, whom he finds ‘astoundingly topical’, a prophet of globalization with ‘much to teach us about political corruption, monopolization, alienation, inequality and global markets.’ Following, perhaps, Mehring’s ambition to be ‘within the reach and comprehension of at least the most advanced workers’, Wheen’s text is laden with references to kiwi fruit, Monty Python, Haagen-Dazs, Pizza Hut, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Gates and MTV—daytime television as the heart of a heartless world, as it were, Oprah the sigh of the oppressed.

Like others, he rehearses the childhood pranks, the student duels, the discovery of Hegel; the apprenticeship on the Rheinische Zeitung; the meeting with Engels at the Café de la Régence; Brussels; the Manifesto; the year 1848; and then Soho, journalism, Das Kapital. Wheen has a fine feel for the energy of Marx’s prose and quotes plenty of heaven-storming periods. He has dug up some entertaining anecdotes and memoirs from the early Cologne days, such as Heinzen’s recollection of helping Marx back to his lodgings after several bottles of wine: ‘He sat down astride a chair with his head leaning forward against the back and began to declaim in a strong singing tone which was half mournful and half mocking, “Poor lieutenant, poor lieutenant! Poor lieutenant, poor lieutenant!” This lament concerned a Prussian lieutenant whom he had “corrupted” by teaching him Hegelian philosophy.’

He gives a spirited account, too, of Marx’s defence of press freedom in his first article for the Rheinische Zeitung, published in May 1842: