I liked this biography of Marx (from about twenty year ago, but hardly out of date). Rather pleasantly, it doesn’t feel particularly ideologically driven. Wheen is more interested in Marx as a human and conjures up both his boisterous, argumentative side and his (surprisingly) gentle side. Family life plays a huge role here, and it helps to bring out the personal edge to his professional interactions. The politics and philosophy is covered too, but it’s not heavy going – there’s also an eye on keeping the book readable.
There have been more than a few previous Marx biographies (not that I’ve read them) and Wheen seems particularly pleased when he gets a change to offer a different interpretation of some aspect of the story. The two that stand out are Frederick Demuth, who Wheen places as Marx’s illegitimate son, and the interactions between Marx and Charles Darwin. Despite his faults, it’s hard to read the book and not end up with sympathy for Marx and his personal struggles (although the Telegraph seems to have).
Where my previous read on the French Revolution (the original one) was a somewhat conservative choice (Simon Schama) – this one (by Verso books) was squarely on the left wing radical side of things. And by a Frenchman as well. That means that a little more knowledge may be expected going in – references to historians like Michelet, Jaures and Lefevbre are scattered throughout. Actually that’s rather the point of the book – dredging up real quotations from the revolutionary press (Marat, Hebert) and speeches by the politicians (Robespierre in particular) to challenge the standard interpretations and narratives.
The copy and paste approach doesn’t make for the smoothest read, but it does make its point well – the chosen quotes making Robespierre and even Marat seen much less extreme than their reputations. However, the obvious lack of balance detracts from this. It’s difficult to get sucked into Hazan’s argument without being familiar with the arguments from the other side.
It also feels a shame (and not necessarily Hazan’s fault) that we don’t actually hear much from the “people” here, the closest we get is a bit of focus on the sans-culotte leadership. The english title of the book is definitely less accurate than the more mundane French title Une histoire de la Révolution française.
I did enjoy the book despite the flaws, but it isn’t the best of introductions to the period.