We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
During his lifetime—and after—Karl Marx baffled acolytes and enemies alike. Confused, perhaps, by his shifts in temperament, and with political agendas coloring their perception, Marx’s many observers had trouble pinning down the character of this elusive man. While the anti-Marx camp denounced him as a small-minded ideological tyrant and an abusive father, admirers presented him as a devoted revolutionary and a loving dad to boot. So baffling did Marx prove that even his physical appearance was in doubt. As Frank E. Manuel notes in A Requiem for Karl Marx, an innovative psychological portrait, Marx has been described as “slim or stocky, above average height or short, violent and formidable or benign and gentle, changeable or stubbornly uncompromising.”
Requiem takes stock of its subject’s contradictory nature; it also serves as a belated send-off for Marx (1818-83), whose ideas held sway during the century after his death but now seem consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history. In a series of interrelated essays on everything from Marx’s fortuitously symbiotic relationship with Friedrich Engels to his inability to finish his masterwork, Das Kapital, Manuel delves into Marx’s inner life, depicting a man whose internal conflicts colored every word he wrote. Requiem—less a biography than a psychoanalytic case study—suggests the limitations of a purely political approach to Marx. It is hardly a definitive work, and at times it is as disorderly as its subject. But Manuel, who writes with a circuitous elegance, raises questions that anyone interested in changing the world would do well to ponder.
It is perhaps only now that Marx’s once-overpowering influence has dwindled that such a goal is reachable; now that Marxism no longer has the power to change the world, its namesake can be seen as something other than a political symbol. Manuel, a professor emeritus at both New York and Brandeis Universities, goes about his task with the tone of a somewhat chastened utopian. Many historians have dwelled on Marx’s character, but most have done so with ulterior political motives, hoping to find evidence either of perfidy or saintliness. Manuel, while critical, is not exactly hostile; rather, he approaches Marx as a therapist might, looking beneath words and ideas to uncover deep motivations. He does not simply reduce Marx to the sum of his neuroses. But he does suggest that we cannot fully understand Marx the theorist until we understand Marx the man.
Marx’s psyche, as Manuel shows in considerable detail, was a volatile mixture of grandiose illusions and self-hatred. Born a Jew but baptized as a Lutheran at age 4, the atheistic Marx rejected his Jewish heritage, filling his writings with foul denunciations of Jews and “Jewishness” that would make any anti-Semite proud. Without a religion—and later without a country—Marx looked for spiritual substance in the grand mythology of the proletarian revolution. “The festering wounds of Marx’s self-loathing might have destroyed him,” Manuel writes, “had he not found salvation in the fantasy of an arena of combat in which he could lead the forces of the proletariat to victory.” The proletarians, in other words, would not only save the world—they would save Marx from himself. It is no wonder that Marx embraced the working class with such fervor.
In Manuel’s opinion, then, revolutionism for Marx was as much a psychological as a political necessity. Indeed, Manuel’s work suggests that Marx may have thus inspired generations of similarly narcissistic revolutionaries. The most admirable radicals—Martin Luther King Jr., for example—learn from those around them. But the worst—the Shining Path among them—deliberately close their ears, and the result is disastrous. Intolerant, dogmatic, with only tenuous ties to the working class, these volunteer saviors project their hopes and fears upon a mythical proletariat, and sometimes impose these projections upon the people by force.
Part of the reason the proletariat was such a blank slate to Marx, Manuel suggests, was that despite his own brushes with poverty he never had much contact with flesh-and-blood industrial workers outside meeting halls and the pages of radical magazines. The prototype of the middle-class revolutionary, Marx tended to project his own fantasies onto the class he believed would be the salvation of the world. He spoke enthusiastically of the “pure freshness, the nobility” of the workers, and looked upon every radical stirring with the naive hope that it might—just possibly—be a sign of the Marxist End Times.
The distinctly nonrevolutionary proletariat proved something of a political disappointment; more creative revolutionaries, such as Castro and Mao, tended to rely on intellectuals and peasants, not industrial workers, when it came time for the revolution to be made. Still, Manuel writes, “as each outburst of rebellious energy in the countries of Europe dissipated into thin air and left behind nothing but another cohort of disgruntled émigrés,” Marx never let his hopes die off entirely—in part, I suspect, because he identified so strongly with the proletariat (or at least his abstract conception of the class) that to give up on it would be to give up on himself as well.
Even today, true believers remain. But as struggles of class give way to vicious ethnic battles, as the simple polarity of worker and capitalist gives way to an array of occupational types, Marx’s model of history grows less and less relevant. “The myth of class struggle has been one of the most tenacious illusions Marxist thought has bequeathed to the twentieth century,” Manuel writes, with a note, almost, of sadness. If only, he seems to say, world events could fit such a logical model.
For all his implicit—and sometimes explicit—critique, Manuel ends his work on a sad and sympathetic note. Despite his skepticism, Manuel still can feel the pull of Marx’s utopian longings. “For the sufferings of Karl Marx the exile, we can feel compassion,” he writes, “for his elaborate theoretical system, benign doubt and perhaps selective approval; for the abominable practices instituted in his name, loathing.” And while we cannot absolve the often intolerant and imperious Marx entirely of the abominations of crude Marxists like Stalin and Mao, neither can we dismiss the utopian dream at the heart of the Marxian system. As Manuel notes, even the most “skeptical utopian…can still believe in the worth of the guiding principle: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”