March 14, 2013
I used to be rather a fan of Richard Dawkins. Not so much because of his most famous work, his spirited and systematic defense of atheism known as The God Delusion, but rather because of the inspired, eloquent, and sometimes brilliant way in which he has popularized natural science. Being a biologist, he has naturally made defending and explaining the achievements of that discipline a major topic, working up a complex and many-layered theory like evolution by means of natural selection into an intelligent but fairly straightforward narrative. But not just that: he has also emphasized – as must be done by anyone concerned with questions of the relationship between religion and science – the real aesthetic and sublime that can be had from a materialistic understanding of the world, in the philosophical sense. Dawkins famously cited Darwin about evolution that “there is grandeur in this view of life”, and in works such as Unweaving the Rainbow and A Devil’s Chaplain he has rather gone out of his way, unusually so for an Anglo-trained natural scientist, to engage with the sublime of religion and also of literature and art. He has also, not unimportantly for the purposes of this article, taken his time to examine the ways in which people have (rightly in the former case, wrongly in the latter) felt naturalistic philosophy and theory to undermine the experience of this sublime. Although from academia there is often much contempt and sneering to be heard behind closed doors about the colleagues engaged in ‘the public understanding of science’, it is an essential, invaluable, and by no means effortless task. Richard Dawkins has proven particularly adept at it, and has rightly been included not just in the Royal Society for his efforts, but also in the Royal Society of Literature. (In fact, as far as I can tell, he is currently the only living person to carry both the titles FRS and FRSL.)
For this reason, it has been a disturbing and disappointing trend to notice Dawkins’ increasing indulgence of lazy, narrow-minded, and often outright racist and imperialist thought, fitting the worst traditions of Oxford contempt. On his Twitter account, he has made numerous absurd statements, often (as many people have pointed out) following a pattern of purposefully insulting and ridiculous rhetorical questions, in order to respond to the ensuing outrage and irritation with a smug dismissal of the public’s inability to understand the rhetorical uses of analogy. Such Oxford debating tactics are elitist and unproductive enough in their own sphere, but with the considerable public audience and scientific prestige Dawkins commands, they are all the more unacceptable. Suggesting (be it rhetorically) that one support Christian missionary activity in Africa because “Islam is such an unmitigated evil” compared to it is not only endorsing imperialism, but also totally inconsistent. His repeated inability to understand the significance of sexism, including within atheist debate and campaigning organizations, is disturbing. He makes profoundly silly comments on abortion and women’s bodies, purposely choosing annoying analogies in the Oxonian style thereby further obfuscating a point intended to discuss late-term abortions in moralistic terms. He continuously engages in equivocation about Islam and Muslims which can serve no useful or scientific purpose. He associates himself systematically with figures like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who share not just a desire to put atheism forward as a political subject, but also immediately integrate this idea into a greater project of ‘reasoned’ Western imperialism. Similar is his coalition with neo-sociobiologists such as the Viscount Ridley, a former director of the failed Northern Rock bank who now pontificates on social darwinist views of the natural liberty of the market, and so forth. All this serves but to reinforce, as many of his political comments generally do, what James Blaut has called ‘the colonizers’ model of the world’. Read the rest of this entry »
August 19, 2012
The genre of the personal biography, when applied to famous historical figures, more often than not falls in the traps of sensationalism, moralism, or hagiography. This is not least the case when it comes to persons of considerable political controversy, such as Karl Marx and his friends and family. However, Mary Gabriel’s personal biography of the Marx-Engels clan studiously and brilliantly avoids all cliches and all sensationalism, portraying the characters ‘warts and all’, sympathetically but without making saints of them. Its almost 600 pages are unflaggingly interesting, intelligent, and informative even to those who are very well acquainted with Marxism’s theory and the chronology of its origins. But what’s more important is that it is virtually unique in its emphasis on the personal life of Karl and Jenny Marx, their children, their friends (not least of course Engels), and their many associates.
Although Gabriel makes sure to make clear the significance and substance of the various works Marx, Engels, and the family wrote or worked on during their life, this is not yet another political-romantic biography of the theoretical heroes of socialism. On the contrary, this book is a chronicle of their private hopes and pleasures, their struggles, and their difficulties. Also uncharacteristic for the many biographers of the Marx-Engels extended family is Gabriel’s courageous and timely decision to emphasize the significance of the lives and work of the women of the group: Jenny Marx, Karl’s wife; their three daughters, their only children to survive infancy; Freddy Demuth, the illegitimate son of Karl Marx; and the daughters’ partners, children, and friends. In the usual biographies of Marx and/or Engels, his wife appears merely in the background and his daughters are a footnote, but in Gabriel’s biography, they come into their own as serious and dedicated revolutionary thinkers and doers in their own right. In the process Mary Gabriel finally also clears up a number of small errors and confusions that have been copied from one biography to another, and she is to be commended for the great thoroughness with which she has conducted and presented her research on a topic many would think has been too fully mined to lead to any new gold.
In an era when both Marxism and the cause of women’s equality seem more under attack than ever before, and yet are more needed than ever, it is fitting and just that a great new biography should revive the founders of Marxism as human beings in all their glories and failings, and that for the first time the women in the family should play an equal role in the narrative. While the political and theoretical histories of Marx and Engels’ lives tend to be a story of triumph against adversity, Gabriel’s book makes it clear that this cannot by any means be said of the private lives of the family. More than anything else, it stands out clearly for the first time what a sad, difficult, and often despairing life they led, the women of the family especially. It has often been remarked on, but it only becomes clear from this work why the Marx women all died early, several to suicide; and it is clear that their lives were not as happy or as fulfilling of their own great talents, no less than those of the men, as they should have been.
Two great forces of their age made their lives more confined and more frustrated in its potential than anyone ought to accept of any society: on the one hand, Victorian moralism and the enduring power of patriarchal values; on the other hand, the more physical but no less destructive power of disease. The former held the women in restricted positions, endlessly sacrificing their wishes, their talents, and their very happiness to the cause of the men; the latter robbed them – the men no less than the women – of their strengths, energy, and future. In Gabriel’s book, there is rarely a moment that some member of the great Marxist family is not gravely ill. Many of Marx’s children as well as of his grandchildren died in childhood of vague diseases, caused by the poverty and inequality of their times, and incurable by the low level of medical expertise and the difficulty of affording it. In a time when both these great hostile forces, patriarchy and disease, are the prime enemies of the emancipation of humanity in most of the world, it is a sad but useful reminder of their impact to read how they destroyed the Marx family. Marx himself may well have lived longer and been much more productive, to the lasting benefit of our knowledge of socialism, had he not been perpetually ill and taken such medication as mercury and arsenic, never mind much alcohol, to alleviate it.
Love and Capital is therefore not necessarily a happy read. But it is a fascinating read, full of lively detail, engaging writing, and sound judgements. It does without the hypocrisy or moralism of many hostile biographers but also free of the pretense that the Marx family was flawless in their personal life. The author also does not shy away from the real revolutionary commitment of all the participants, not just Marx and Engels but their wives, Marx’s children and husbands also, and does not try to reinvent them as ‘democratic’ egghead theorists or irrelevant Victorian ranters. If one has to have an objection, it is some very minor errors and that the copious endnote apparatus often contains no further explanation of the many interesting and illuminating details first mentioned in the text. But those are just quibbles. On the whole, this book by a respected Reuters editor (of all people) is of enormous benefit to our understanding of the historical reality of the founding family of Marxism, and in particular of the real contribution of Marx’s wife and daughters to setting this great movement of history in motion. It deserves to be widely read and will surely become a classic in the history of Marxism.