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on 5 January 2012
This is a very good biography of the eminent thinker and social philosopher - Karl Marx (1818-1893) - who, (despite being born in Prussia), spent the last 30 years or so, of his life living in London (UK). During this, and with the assistance of the library, which was then situated in the British Museum, Marx produced some of his most influencial work regarding the history of political economy, and was an important member of the First International, founded in 1864, being elected to the General Council, which he would eventually lead. No biography of Karl Marx would be complete without a considerable amount of biographical details of Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), the wealthy son of a successful business who continuously offered moral and financial support to Marx and his family, throughout his life.

The hardback (1999) edition contains 431 numbered pages and consists of an Introduction and 12 distinct chapters, as well as 3 Postscripts:

Introduction.
1) The Outsider.
2) The Little Wild Boar.
3) The Grass-eating King.
4) The Mouse in the Attic.
5) The Frightful Hobgoblin.
6) The Megalosaurus.
7) The Hungry Wolves.
8) The Hero on Horseback.
9) The Buildings and the Hyena.
10) The Shaggy Dog.
11) The Rogue Elephant.
12) The Shaven Porcupine.
Postscript 1: Consequences.
Postscript 2: Confessions.
Postscripy 3: Regicide.
Acknowledgements.
Endnotes.
Index.

This is a highly accessible rendering of the life of Karl Marx, his family, friends, enemies and colleagues and associates. Wheen, wherever possible, appears sympathetic to Karl Marx, particularly where other biographers have allowed unfounded prejudice and the deliberate misreading of events to seep into their respective narratives. In this respect, Wheen introduces the reader to other authors and their accounts of the life of Karl Marx. This book is not a comprehensive presentation of the academic output of Karl Marx, although, of course, the author has to mention briefly major aspects of that work, to give the biography a sense of gravitas. This is the life story of Karl Marx, a man with a brilliant mind who created a narrative through study that clearly shows the historical development of modern capitalism, and the exploitative nature of that development. This genius is juxtaposed with the details of, by comparison, the mundane, everyday life of Marx and those who shared it with him. He was never rich, often broke, a number of his off-spring died in their yearly, there is a rumour that he fathered a child with the family maid, his wife gave up a life of luxury to follow him, and when he died, his official designation was that of a 'Stateless Person'. This book is very well written and a very good introduction to the life of Karl Marx.
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on 4 September 2000
I cannot agree with the one and two star ratings on this book. It is definitely a five-star.
I studied Marx at University for my Philosophy degree, 20 years ago.
I found the book excellent. No, not for its explanation of Marx's theories. Those who want that are looking in the wrong place. Look to McLellean for that. This is a biography. The readers that complain about its lack of substance of Marx's theories need to note that.
Even so, it would be a useful compliment to some of McLelleans work as it puts the writings in context. I wish it was around when I was studying Marx. I would recommend it to any new Marx scholar.
It is sympathetic to Marx, which is rare, yet it revealed information which those who are sympathetic may not wish to hear, e.g. Marx's seemingly contradictory middle-class values.
Overall, an excellent book and it has rekindled my interest in Marx and Engels.
(PS. My email address is real. I just happened to find it available!)
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on 11 September 2011
As said in other reviews, this a biography not a critique of his theories. And what a biography! Its extremely well-written, and highly interesting - I read it over a couple of sittings as I just couldn't put it down; not the reaction I'd expected when I first started reading. Its a sympathetic account of Marx's life, without indulging in hero-worship. Wheen's expertise on Marx shines through, but so do his wit and humour. The book is also fascinating about many of the other individuals in Marx's life, and as soon as I finished this I bought Tristram Hunt's biography of Engels.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 November 2015
Francis Wheen’s aim with this book was to write a general book about Karl Marx for the intelligent reader. Francis Wheen gives a clear explanation of all of Marx’s works but spends as much time on the man himself, his contemporaries and his relationships.

I came away from this entertaining, interesting book with a good feel for his life and times: the boils on his bum, the numerous creditors, his ingrained procrastination, numerous fallings out with socialist rivals, his wife, his children etc. across his turbulent, chaotic but compelling life.

Born in the Rhineland city of Trier, Marx couldn’t wait to escape this tedious backwater, to the extent that he didn’t even return to attend his father’s funeral. Thus started a roving life until, after the unsuccessful European revolutions of 1848, and having been made unwelcome in Germany and Belgium, he pitched up in London, the last refuge of the rootless revolutionary where he lived in Dickensian poverty with bailiffs at his door

Helpfully, his friend Engels, a great cotton Lord and kind of secret agent behind enemy lines, sent him money to keep him afloat for years. It was only Marx's desire to keep up bourgeoise appearances that meant he was permanent spending more than he could afford including, hilariously, for a period, a preening, libidinous and incompetent private secretary, and only because he thought it appropriate for a man of his position to have one.

The book is clear about Marx’s many unattractive traits, however it also paints a delightful portrait of a loving, involved father and husband, and a passionate philosopher. It's a balanced, compact and very readable account of one of most influential thinkers of his era.
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As anyone who reads Private Eye and has read 'Mumbo Jumbo' knows, Wheen is a writer of charm and intelligence who believes that Reason needs defending in an age rather inclined to disregard it. His book is a useful biography and that is its strength, being informative and entertaining on a life begun in the Rhineland Roman city of Trier and ending with the still struggling Marx in London, where he lies graced by a marvellous bust atop his Grave in the modern half of Highgate Cemetery. The vital relationship with Engels is deftly established, the difficult family life of many children and those famously painful boils also. The fundamental aspects of his theory both in Young Hegelian, pre mid 1840s, (but not published until 1930s) and seized on by Althusser in the 1960's for his 'symptomatic' reading then the transition to 'the dismal science', culminating in 'Capital,' are evident in the move from a stress on 'alienation' to economics per se. Here, though, David McLellan's earlier biography remains superior and Wheen is less strong on intellectual history than on the personal, Lezsek Kolakowski's marvellous 'Main Currents in Marxism,' a tour de force, remains essential also. It is a good read - no mean feat - but I will not be mothballing the earlier books just yet. The occasional verbal infelicity grates, Marx "theorizing away like billy-oh" was a particular carbuncle for this reader. But I AM rather fastidious in such matters. Perhaps best for the precocious teenager or the unacademic? I am not trying to patronise anyone and Wheen's is in itself is a signal achievement, but it is journalism rather than a rigorous academic study.
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on 14 April 2008
Francis Wheen's biography of Marx is excellent. It's witty, realistic, sympathetic, well written, easily read and thoroughly enjoyable - so read it.

Usually, Marx is caricatured as either a wild eyed revolutionary lunatic or a dry academic who spent his life in the British Museum. He was, of course, neither.

What is very clear from Wheen's book, is the fact that Marx was a practising revolutionary as well as a theorist. Marx would throw his energies into the waves of revolutionary political activity that occurred during the 1840's and again at the end of the 1860's/early 1870's. When these waves were defeated, Marx would retreat into theoretical study in order to learn the lessons and hone the theoretical understandings he hoped would enable the working class to liberate itself and, thus, humanity.

Unfortunately, I think Wheen adopts a rather mocking tone towards Marx's political activities which I think detracts from his biography.

Marx also comes out of Wheen's book as a human being with all the strengths and weaknesses present in all of us, complete with binge drinking and an illegitimate son, not at all the distorted figure at the centre of a Stalinist personality cult.

I had started reading 'Capital' and had just read the first three, apparently most difficult, chapters before feeling in need of a break by reading something else. One of my 'something elses' was Wheen's biography, which motivated me to go back to reading 'Capital'. It's a great introduction to Marx the man and to his ideas.
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on 18 January 2002
I never knew Karl Marx was so much fun! Here Herr Marx leaps from the pages destroying enemies with invective, scorn and stinging wit; loving his wife and family as a kindly paterfamilias; continually, hideously and pitifully suffering from the most wretched physical health; and drinking, (!) excessively, with fellow left wing lights. Francis Wheen gives us a Marx we can love whilst setting to right many of the myths that have grown-up about Marx. He, in particular, pays attention to his dismissal by British Academia correting many false assumptions about him. Marx is more a prophet than a destructive Red Terror. He is more a wit, than a tedious economist. He is more creator than destroyer. A very fine and interesting read that moves along in an attractive, zestful prose style with an enlightening amount of intellectual stimulation. Brilliant!
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This biography was hyped when it came out but Wheen really isn't a match for Isaiah Berlin. Berlin''s biography captures the man and the excitement of Marxism, and in only 200 pages brings the 19th Century to life.

The Doctors of Revolution: 19th-Century Thinkers Who Changed the World
by Shlomo Barer is a 1200 masterpiece! Barer's tome also captures the excitement of communism and shows the reader the psychology of why they did what they did.

I'm afraid Wheen's effort, with his Karl Teddy Bear approach can only show to the reader the calibre of a journalist.
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on 24 November 2015
I must admit I hadn’t heard of Francis Wheen, but I knew all about Karl Marx, having first encountered him in O Level Sociology in 1984 (as a mature student). Karl Marx taught me all my feelings about being Alienated (working in a factory). Francis Wheen has written a marvellous book about Karl Marx making the grand old man very real, and very human. One thing which surprised me about Karl Marx was, he spoke English and read Classic 19th Century Classic English Literature. My own thoughts about Karl Marx were he simply buried himself in the London Library, and never learnt English. Francis Wheen’s book shows the awful vicissitudes Karl Marx suffered in his life in the 19th Century -pretty much as anyone did at that time – constant ill health and penury. If like me you are interested in Sociology/Political/Social Reality then this is the book for you. It is an immeasurably readable book, and well worth the purchase price. Karl Marx like many other greats is considered as what is know as “Grand Theory,” which can be neither proved nor disproved – but Karl Marx was a human being, and Karl Marx contributed to the study of Capitalism and it’s inherent evils. I thoroughly and completely endorse this book as being very interesting, illuminating, and very readable and a great testament to a great man of Sociology, Politics, Economics, a man who made a massive impression upon 20th/21st thought.
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on 11 August 2013
It's remarkable that Francis Wheen manages to fit so much into 383 pages of biography. As well as a good account of Marx's life, there's explanation of his thoughts and theories in the context of the times, history, gossip, and plenty of anecdote about his personal life.

Wheen achieves this by taking a chatty, fast-paced approach to the biography. Chapters are split into long-ish periods and move fluently between personal life, writing, and the broader historical context. Wheen is obviously attracted to Marx as a philosopher and as a character, and he could be criticised for being overly sympathetic at times, but overall I came to feel similarly forgiving, and quite charmed by Marx. The book bursts with funny asides, anecdotes, and sharp observations about Marx and his associates. The monolith of Marx himself, as well as his family, becomes much more human under that sort of light.

I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in Marx, and I don't think you'd need much background knowledge to tackle it. It's also fascinating if you're more broadly interested in European politics and history of the mid nineteenth century. There are many more thorough books on Marx, but few as enjoyable, and this is a great introduction to his life and times.
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