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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 36, No 11 May 30th, 1973

Karl Marx: A Biography by Werner Blumenberg, translated by Douglas Scott. New Left Books 1972. Paperback $2

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Karl Marx: A Biography by Werner Blumenberg, translated by Douglas Scott. New Left Books 1972. Paperback $2

Karl Marx has had at least fifteen bio-graphics since his death, so one would not expect to find much of great impact in the most recent account of his life. This being so, it is hard to see why New Left Books, who are publishing at the present time a number of translations of central importance to Marxism, should have bothered with this work.

The author, Werner Blumenberg, was a German Social Democrat who ended a long and active political life as a member of the International Institute for Social History at Amsterdam. "Karl Marx: A Biography" attempts to unveil Marx 'the man' and it is antagonistic to any treatments which 'mythologise Marx or cover up his 'weaknesses'. This aim in itself is admirable enough, and one which has often been repressed in the past, not least by Muscovite efforts to destroy evidence of Marx's illegitimate son. Blumenberg has succeeded with a sensitive portrayal of the 'events' and 'personality' of Marx's life.

As a contribution to Marxism, however, the book poses certain problems, all stemming from the central question of the role of personal biography in Marxist study. This problem is faced neither by Blumenberg himself (despite a misleading title on the first chapter) nor by Gareth Stedman-Jones in his apologetic foreword to this edition. If we are to understand Marxism as a living, growing phenomenon, we can only question the value of biographies of Marx as a (historically limited) man.

Many of the components of Marxism, after all, existed before Marx or were developed after him. Similarly the importance of Marxism rests in the role it has played in the world. Marxism then is defined through its interrelations with reality and ideology. To tie it to one man is to artificially limit it historically.

This said, one must admit to a certain intellectual curiosity as to how Marx lived and worked, as to the real 'nature' of the man. It is to such curiosity that biography — particularly a personal biography such as this — panders. Marx himself often found that his personal circumstances affected his work. Indeed as Blumenberg shows the production of "Capital" lasted over a couple of decades more because of poverty and ill-health rather than on account of theoretical difficulties. Marx commented wryly that the bourgeoisie would one day rue the boils from which he suffered great pain during his studies in the British Museum — they made him write more savagely.

Such thoughts, however, add little to Marxism as an on-going process, however much more pleasant they make the study of Marx as an historical artifact. The serious defence of a biography of Marx seems to rest on a vulgarisation of Marxism. Blumenberg justifies his treatment in the following way: "There is no reason to exclude Marxism from the Marxist Law, which says that every idea is a product of the social conditions of the period in which it arose. Hence, Marx's life must be important for an understanding of Marxism".

Karl Marx and his wife

What is depicted by Marx's life, however, is not "the social conditions of the period" but a very specific subset of those conditions. Marxism is not an interpretation of Marx's life, but an interpretation of life under capitalism — of which Marx's life is in few ways representative. One of the major contributions of Marxism is that it, recognises the necessity of regarding all social relations as historical, and therefore as transient. This insight enables Marxism to stand outside of the system itself (which is not to say that Marists themselves can do so). What is important is Marxism, not Marx, and Marxism is defined not by Marx's life but by the general social conditions of the time and since. For this reason a study such as Licht-heim's "Marxism" gives one a better picture (for all the faults of that book) of the development of Marxism as an intellectual force and as a practical political activism, than does any biography.

These things said, one must admire this latest biography on its own grounds. Its treatment of Marx is rigorous and informed and presented in an eminently readable style. Politically, it betrays heavily (on occasions) the convictions of the author. Stedman Jones picks him up on his treatment of Marx and the Paris Commune, but perhaps a more glaring example is his careless assertion that "Marxism is not his (i.e. Marx's) creation, the person chiefly responsible for this was Karl Kautsky." Kautsky was certainly a populariser of Marxism, but as Lenin pointed out 'a gulf separates Marx and Kautsky as regards their attitudes towards the proletarian party's task of preparing the working class for revolution." (V. Lenin, 'The State and Revolution", 128). It is hard to see how a man can be described as the "person chiefly responsible for Marxism" when he differs on such fundamental points from Marx and all later Communist parties. Indeed, Kautsky was a precursor of the very Social Democrat Party to which Blumenberg belonged!

For all that, the book makes good reading, and is more reliable than most other biographies of Marx. Pictures of Marx, his family, contemporaries and notebooks liberally sprinkle the neat but inexpensive publication. For Marxists with coffee-tables, its a must.

This book is distributed in New Zealand by the Auckland based Book Project. The Book Project is now the sole N.Z. distributor for Falling Wall Press, Bert rand Russell Peace Foundation, Institute for Workers Control, Lawrence and Wishart, Merlin Press, New Left Books, Partisan Press, Pluto Press, Spokesman Books and others. In addition the Project acts as a club for people who wish to keep informed on what is happening in left wing writing. Members of the Book Project get a free copy of the N.Z. Left Books Review, lists and catalogues, and also obtain books distributed by the Book Project at a discount of 20%. Inquiries should be sent to: The Book Project, P.O. Box 704, Auckland I.