My history hero: Karl Marx (1818–83)

Chosen by Francis Wheen, writer

The 19th-century political and social theorist Karl Marx; co-author (with Friedrich Engels) of The Communist Manifesto (1848). (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2009 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Although a relatively obscure figure during his lifetime, Karl Marx was the most influential political and social theorist of the 19th century, laying the foundations for modern communism with the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto, co-written with Friedrich Engels. Born in Prussia, Marx spent half of his life in England where he worked as a European correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. In 1867, he unveiled the first volume of his masterwork, Das Kapital. After his death, the second and third volumes were published by Engels, aiding the spread of the ideas that subsequently determined much of the world’s political landscape.

When did you first hear about Karl Marx?

If you grew up in the Cold War, there was never a time when you didn’t hear the words ‘Marxism’ and ‘Marxist’. But I knew nothing about the man behind the ‘-ism’ and didn’t read him until I was in my twenties. I tried for years to find a book that would tell me about Karl Marx the man – most books about him seemed to be written by academics or zealots. There didn’t appear to be anything aimed at the intelligent reader, treating him as you might treat any other great 19th-century figure. That’s why I ended up writing about him myself.

What kind of person was Marx?

He was tremendously energetic given the conditions of his life. He lived in penury and squalor with endless domestic disasters and tragedies, but somehow, amid all this chaos, he produced an extraordinary body of work. He neglected himself – he was often ill and stayed up all night smoking and drinking and writing furiously. He wasn’t an immediately attractive person. He was very combative, but I find him curiously admirable.

What made him a hero?

I tend to resist hero worship and so did he. Quite a bit of his work tried to warn other people on the left to avoid being seduced by, as he put it, “heroes on horseback” – the dynamic leader, the messiah-like rescuer. In a paradoxical way, I think it’s one of the most heroic aspects of him. He said, put not your trust in heroes, do it yourself. You can only make your own revolution.

What was his finest hour?

Actually managing to complete volume one of Das Kapital. He’d been working on it for decades. When he was researching, every time he’d find some line of inquiry he’d disappear to the British Museum for months to look that up. And yet he did finish it, in spite of having to write the last chapter standing up at his desk because he had these boils on his bum that made it too painful to sit down.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I don’t have carbuncles! Marx was a working journalist for much of his life – insofar as he did ever earn a living, he did so through journalism. And he had all the qualities of a good journalist – scepticism about official versions of events and an insatiable curiosity about what was really happening in the world. I like to think that we’re kindred spirits in that we’re both journalists and, of course, therefore we drink a lot as well!

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Oh, lots. He fell out with most of his friends because he was so quarrelsome and wasted far too many years pursuing petty feuds. Why spend all year writing a 350-page attack on some forgotten figure when you could have been getting on with something more substantial? The point was that he was touched with genius and those people tend to be difficult. But one wouldn’t expect him to be a wholly admirable figure. He was a man with a mission.

Francis Wheen was speaking to Nige Tassell

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Francis Wheen is a journalist on Private Eye and a panellist on The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4. He is the author of Karl Marx and Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. His latest book, Strange Days Indeed (Fourth Estate, 2009), examines the political turmoil of the 1970s.