frontline volume 2, issue 6. March 2008


Karl Marx: A Biography
By David McLellan, Palgrave Macmillan 4th Edition 2006
487 pages, paperback £19.99.

Review by Alex Miller.

This is the 4th edition of McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, the 1st edition of which was originally published in 1973. For the 4th edition McLellan has updated the detailed footnotes at the end of each chapter, as well as the extensive and very useful annotated bibliography at the end of the book.


McLellan’s biography has stood the test of time, and despite the much-publicised and over-hyped publication of Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx in 1999, McLellan’s book remains by far the best biography of Marx available in English. Unlike Wheen, McLellan has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marx’s published work, and pulls off the difficult feat of interweaving exposition of Marx’s main works with a detailed and sympathetic account of his life, both public and private. McLellan’s biography also compares well to some of the classic biographies in the Marxist canon. Franz Mehring’s Karl Marx: The Story of His Life is still very much worth a read, especially for the wonderfully clear chapter on the 2nd and 3rd volumes of Capital, which Mehring tells us was written as a favour by no less than Rosa Luxemburg. However, Mehring’s book was written in 1918 and thus predates the publication in the 1930s of such important works of Marx’s as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and the Grundrisse of 1857-8, as well as numerous items of Marx’s correspondence. Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen’s Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, completed under the shadow of Hitler in Berlin in 1933 but not published until 1936, is another classic. However, as the authors make clear in their foreword, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter does not aspire to be a full intellectual biography, but concentrates primarily on Marx’s political activity, especially around the periods of the 1848 revolutions and the years of the First International from the mid-1860s to the early 1870s. McLellan’s book thus remains the best and most up-to-date biography of Marx covering the full range of his activities, both practical and intellectual.

It would be futile in a brief review to attempt to summarize McLellan’s succinct summaries of Marx’s main works, such as the 1844 Manuscripts, the political writings about the 1848 revolutions and their aftermath, the Grundrisse, the various volumes of Capital, through to the late political writings about the Paris Commune and the Critique of the Gotha Programme. I’ll simply encourage readers to pick up McLellan’s book for themselves: although Marx’s writings can be extremely hard-going, McLellan does an excellent job of extracting the main lines of Marx’s thought, and by deft quotation does so in a way that conveys a sense of Marx’s great skills as a writer. Readers are likely to leave McLellan’s volume with an appetite to read Marx’s works for themselves, which is the best sign of success in an intellectual biography.

However, the volume is more than simply an intellectual biography: McLellan seamlessly integrates his account of Marx’s writings with the story of his sometimes tempestuous and chaotic life, giving detailed accounts of Marx’s activities as a revolutionary in both continental Europe and in London, to which Marx was permanently exiled following the defeat of the European revolutions of 1848. Again, I won’t attempt to summarise McLellan’s account of Marx’s political life here. Instead, I’ll limit myself to some observations about Marx the man, and some critical remarks about the short concluding chapter on “Marx’s Legacy”.

Poverty and Tragedy

Marx’s most important works – the Grundrisse and Capital among them – were written in extremely difficult conditions, conditions that would surely have silenced many a lesser human being. Marx was living in London, with a family to care for and no regular source of income except journalistic commissions from the New York Daily Tribune. McLellan gives a vivid picture of the poverty and privations that Marx and his family suffered, privations that would surely have defeated even Marx had it not been for the generosity of Friedrich Engels, who selflessly subsidised Marx and his family for almost all of their quarter-century in London. Engels – these days unjustifiably maligned as a crude “simplifier” of Marx’s thinking – in many ways emerges as the real hero of the story. Writing to his daughter Jenny a few months before his death in 1883, Marx commented, “Good old Fred may easily kill someone out of love”.

Perhaps the most harrowing episodes in Marx’s life were the premature deaths of his children. Marx’s only son, Edgar, died in 1855 at the age of 8 while the Marx family was living in a squalid 2-roomed flat in Soho. Marx wrote to Engels on April 6th: “Poor Edgar is no more. He went to sleep (literally) in my arms today between five and six”. William Leibknecht, a friend of the family, wrote of what he saw:

“The mother silently weeping, bent over the dead child, Lenchen sobbing beside her, Marx in a terrible agitation vehemently, almost angrily, rejecting all consolation, the two girls clinging to their mother crying quietly, the mother clasping them convulsively as if to hold them and defend them against Death that had robbed her of her boy.”

A few months later, Marx wrote to Lassalle:

“Bacon says that really important men have so many relations with nature and the world that they recover easily from every loss. I do not belong to these important men. The death of my child has deeply shaken my heart and mind and I still feel the loss as freshly as on the first day. My poor wife is also completely broken down.”

Marx the Man

Despite these setbacks and grinding poverty – probably only the handouts from Engels saved the Marx family from complete destitution, and Marx often was unable to go out because his coat was in the pawnshop – Marx worked incredibly hard, regularly researching in the British Museum from nine in the morning to seven in the evening and then staying up late into the night writing. But there are many lighter moments, including one hilarious episode in which William Leibknecht, Edgar Bauer and Marx get drunk on a pub-crawl on the Tottenham Court Road. Marx liked his beer: there is surely something comforting for SSP members in the fact that he never claimed to be a teetotaller.


The short concluding chapter on Marx’s legacy is in many ways the weakest part of McLellan’s otherwise fine volume. For example, McLellan accuses Marx of “shallow optimism” and cites the environmental crisis facing humanity as a problem for Marx’s world outlook:

“Marx shared the common 19th-century view that progress was somehow inexorably written into the story of human development. There would no doubt be setbacks and sufferings, but humanity, in its struggle to dominate nature, would in the long run produce a society in which human capacities were more extensively exercised and human needs more fully met. But more recent developments in the productive forces, and particularly atomic energy, have led many to wonder whether humanity’s efforts to dominate nature have not taken a fundamentally wrong turning. The potentially disastrous impact of global warming is only just beginning to be realized. We have lost our nerve and our own inventions have made us more dubious about ‘progress’ than at any time for the last two hundred years.”

However, in many ways the global environmental crisis is the perfect illustration of Marx’s idea – outlined in the famous Preface to A Critique of Political Economy, which McLellan earlier quotes – that the capitalist system of production relations, like the feudal system of production relations that preceded it, at a certain stage begins to fetter the development of the productive forces, the things necessary for the satisfaction of human needs. As well as fettering the development of the productive forces, the capitalist system of production relations, in which every aspect of life is subjected to the demands of the market and the pursuit of private profit, makes dealing with the problem of climate change effectively impossible, threatening the cessation of life on the planet altogether. Only planned production on a global scale can begin to address the challenge of climate change; but planned production requires co-operation between the owners of productive units, and the major players in the global capitalist system can no more co-operate to save the environment than a pack of wolves can co-operate to protect a baby lamb. It simply cannot happen: co-operation on a global scale between the owners of productive units can happen only on the basis of collective ownership of the productive forces on a global scale.

Despite this and other weaknesses in the concluding chapter, though, McLellan’s book remains the standard biography of Marx, scholarly and well informed, but at the same time enjoyable and compelling reading. One thing that is clear is that Marx had an enormous sense of humour, so I will end this review on a light-hearted note. In the later years of his life Marx attained a certain degree of notoriety due to his association with the First International and was referred to in polite circles as “the red terror doctor”. But he also gained a degree of grudging respect, and in 1867 he was elected by his respectable English neighbours to the prestigious post of “Constable of the sinecure of St. Pancras”. Marx declined the invitation with the comment “I should tell them that I was a foreigner and that they should kiss me on the arse”. His last recorded words on the UK were: “To the devil with the British”.