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Karl Marx: A Biography Paperback – 9 Jun 1995
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This expertly informed book sets the man and his ideas clearly against the historical sweep of his times. It follows Marx from his middle-class origins in Trier and student days in Bonn, through the years of travel across Europe in search of sanctuary, to London and then finally to the cemetery at Highgate. An epilogue brings together pen portraits of Marx from several contemporaries and Professor McLellan concludes with an invaluable chronological table and extensive critical biography.
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Furthermore, in each of those spheres, there isn't a lot of explanation. If you don't already have a fairly good grasp of Marx's ideas, you won't get it here. Likewise, McLellan is content to leave Marx's personality quite enigmatic. He gives a number of startling details that for a brief moment humanize him, but the overall impression the book gives is that it is hard to say anything firm about his personality or `what he was like' other than he was difficult. It's telling, I think, that the book ends with seven first-hand descriptions of him told from the viewpoints of people who knew he in very different ways.
The biography gives some context to Marx but it doesn't really do anything with it. For instance, Marx made numerous errors in his historical analyses and that leads to interesting questions about why. Were his sources off? Did he project his theory onto them? Did he misunderstand the statistics he was looking at? Likewise, some of his predictions about the future dynamics of capitalism read like the manuscripts were forgeries based off of today's headlines. The sheer eeriness of those would, I'd think, attract a biographer's attention.
Overall, the word that keeps coming to mind is `serviceable'. This biography gives you the basics of his life (on the assumption that you already have a sense of his ideas). It's not tainted by, say, imposing a Freudian interpretation on the subject matter. But then again, it's not going to give great insight into it either.