Clear-eyed prophet. The basic ideas of Karl Marx have been ruthlessly parodied and vulgarised. But his critique of capitalism, argues Tariq Ali, has never been more relevant in our debased times

Karl Marx

Francis Wheen <em>Fourth Estate, 432pp, £20 </em>

ISBN 1857026373

France, in the last half of the 19th century, was the country most favoured as an exile by fractious German poets and philosophers. In 1844, two of their finest, Heine and Marx, were both at their desks in Paris. Heine was working on a poem, "Germany", in which he sees the Kaiser in a dream and they have a conversation. The poem is a savage, prescient and vivid lampoon of the Prussian ruling class: "And now it's the Prussian eagle! It grips /My body and pecks at my liver,/It gobbles the liver from out my breast,/I wail and moan and quiver."

Marx, who admired Heine greatly, did not wail and moan like his friend; he tried to understand. In that same year, he was working on a set of essays which were discovered, edited and published almost a century later in Moscow by the great Soviet scholar David Ryazanov. He was subsequently arrested on Stalin's orders and executed, one of the numerous independent-minded Marxist victims of the cockroach moustache.

Ryazanov's own biography of Marx was the best of a genre which degenerated rapidly into hagiography. There have been far too many of these and most of them are worthless. For over 50 years, the basic ideas of Marx, ruthlessly vulgarised, were taught as a secular catechism to millions of children in dozens of languages in Russia, China, Vietnam, North Korea and eastern Europe. Most of these ideas were presented in manuals written by hack academics, supervised by ideological committees, to ensure the extermination of critical reason. Marxism was transformed into a secular religion for the citizenry and so lost much of its pungency and meaning. Marx, who saw himself as a latter-day Prometheus implanting fire in the mind of the proletariat, would have found this religious colouring given to his work extremely offensive.

It is barely worth mentioning that the hateographies are worse. Most of these are compendiums of slander and ignorance, concocted by unworthy opponents who have little idea of the dynamic in Marx's thought. In these he is always the devil who fathered Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. The cold war years did not encourage objectivity on either side.

What, then, do they know of Marx who only Marxism know? Not very much is the assumption of this new biography, which comes as a pleasant and timely surprise. Francis Wheen's Marx is a thinker of deep and genuine passion, whose ideas shaped this century. It was a life replete with personal tragedies and intellectual triumphs. He was possessed of a reckless and deep-rooted scorn for the meanness of everyday bourgeois life and a great love for the classics of European literature, which he drew on heavily for his own work. Wheen's suggestion that the structure of Kapital was inspired by Tristram Shandy rather than Hegel may or may not be true. It is certainly original.

What is extremely refreshing about this book, what gives it a certain integrity, is that Wheen comes to his subject without any dogmatic preconceptions. As the book proceeds and as one realises that the author has read more and more of Marx, one senses the surprise and excitement. We are informed that Marx, even if he had been nothing else, would have been remembered as the greatest journalist produced by the 19th century. His vivid lampoons of numerous enemies - his choleric and polemical temper - entertain his latest biographer as much as they did his close friends at the time. The result is a lively and well-written book, one that will appeal to any intelligent reader seeking refuge from the trivia that dominate the TV screens and airwaves of contemporary Britain and the US.

Marx was a thinker ahead of his time; as Wheen reminds the reader, the current state of global capitalism would not have surprised him in the least. His world view was a synthesis of German philosophy, English economics and French politics. Of these three, the last was the most significant, with its cycles of revolutions and counter-revolutions. But the real originality of Marx and Engels lay in their insistence on the historic potential of the new class that had been created by capitalism and would become its grave-diggers. The economics and philosophy essentially underpinned this view of history, politics and class struggle. Historical materialism was never intended simply as a method to understand the past. It was a weapon to change the present and ensure a different future.

Marx's ideas would be an empty shell without the theory of proletarian revolution. In these twilit times of neo-liberal triumphs on a global scale and the collapse of revolutionary hope everywhere, Marx's political theories have been consigned to the dustbin or put on a backburner marked Utopia; but hasty verdicts might turn out to be premature as capitalism gets worse, not better. Social democratic reformism, which gave the system a human face for much of this century, has, in the wake of 1989, also collapsed, reminding us of the extent to which the New Deal in the USA and reforms in western Europe were a response to the Russian revolution.

So the middle of the next century might be a more suitable time for more definitive judgements on the politics of Karl Marx. That he refuses to leave the stage, and is hailed by many on the right as an astute historian of capitalism, is a sign of the times. The enduring interest in Marx and his ideas reminds one of Nietzsche's comment on the fate of Schopenhauer: "What he taught is put aside,/What he lived, that will abide/Behold a man!/Subject he was to none."

The merit of this work is that it links together what Marx taught and how he lived; and in these bad times one can ask for nothing more. Far-sighted though he was in the sphere of political economy, in the sphere of personal relations he remained wedded to his time, more noticeably so than Engels, his closest friend and comrade. The voluminous correspondence between the two men reveals casual prejudices, Marx even referring to the "mulatto blood" of his own son-in-law, Paul Lafargue.

Marx and Engels often berated the German Social Democratic Party for its lack of militancy, but where a layer of the SDP was genuinely advanced was in the realm of sexuality. In 1895 Eduard Bernstein defended Oscar Wilde in the party newspaper. In January 1898, August Bebel became the first member of the Reichstag to introduce a resolution in favour of homosexual law reform. Others, such as Hirschfeld and Ulrich, had earlier produced numerous pamphlets in defence of homosexuality.

One of these was sent by Engels to Marx, who responded thus: "Here are the most unnatural revelations. The pederasts are beginning to count themselves and find that they make up a power in the state. Only the organisation is lacking, but according to this it already exists in secret. And since they count such significant men, in all the old and even the new parties, from Rosing to Schweitzer, they cannot fail to succeed. Guerre aux cons, paix aux trous-de-cul will be the call now. It is only luck that we are personally too old to have to fear that on the victory of this party we'll have to pay the victors bodily tribute. But the young generation! Moreover, only in Germany is it possible for such a fellow to appear, transform filthiness into a theory, and solicit."

It's a pity Wheen neglected to include this riveting exchange in this otherwise admirable biography. It might have drawn his old Private Eye comrades, Richard Ingrams and Auberon Waugh, much closer to Marxism.

Tariq Ali is a writer and broadcaster

This article first appeared in the 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities