Marxism and biography

Here I have assembled some biographies of preeminent Marxists, radicals, and other random intellectuals that have been written in the last hundred or so years. You can download them here:

Many have noted that the biography is an undertheorized literary genre: Mikhail Bakhtin, Lewis Mumford, and Leo Löwenthal, to name a few. Below is an abridged version of an essay by Löwenthal, a literary theorist associated with the Frankfurt School. Obviously, his view of the biography — focusing on the popular biography, a form perfected by authors like Emil Ludwig and Stefan Zweig — is fairly bleak. This was only fitting, however, given the quality that life itself had acquired under capitalism grown overripe. As Adorno wrote appreciatively to Löwenthal,

Ultimately, the very concept of life as a self-developing and meaningful unity has as little reality today as the concept of the individual, and it is the ideological function of the biographies to conjure up the fiction on arbitrarily selected models that there is still such a thing as life…Life itself in its completely abstract appearance has become mere ideology.

If anyone could scan and upload the Monthly Review biography of Lenin (done!!) by Tamás Krausz, it’d be greatly appreciated. Quite good. Enjoy.


Theory of biography

Leo Löwenthal
Essays in honor of



The biography (we are here excluding scholarly works of history) reminds us of the interior in large department stores. There in the rambling basements, heaps of merchandise have been gathered from all sections of the establishment. These goods have become outdated and now whether they were originally offered for sale on the overcrowded notion counters or in the lofty silence of the luxury-furniture halls, are being indiscriminately remaindered for relatively little money. In these basements we find everything; the only common principle is the necessity for fast sales. The biography is the bargain basement of all fashionable cultural goods; they are all a bit shop-worn, they no longer quite fulfill their original purpose, and it is no longer particularly important whether there is relatively much or little of one or the other item.

With almost statistical accuracy, the same material has been collected and displayed in about the same package. To be sure, from the outside it looks quite different. The biographies are presented as if in the intellectual realm they represent that which the exclusive and specialty stores represent in the realm of consumer goods. This comparison designates the social atmosphere in which the popular biography belongs: one of apparent wealth. It lays claim to the philosopher’s stone, as it were, for all contingencies of history of life situations, but it turns out that the motley mixture of generalizations and recipes is actually an expression of utter bewilderment.

An analysis of the popular biography is first of all an analysis of its reading public, and as such it comprises a critique of late European liberalism. Arbitrariness and contradiction have destroyed any claim to theory; ultimately this literature is a caricature of theory. During the ascendancy of the middle classes, when the educational novel characterizes narrative literature, the individual vacillated between his own potentials and the demands of his environment. The author drew material, which represented the substance of each individual destiny, from imagination; in only rare exceptions were data used for surface decoration and coloration. But, while imaginative, the educational novel was at the same time exact, because, as a product of poetic imagination, social and psychological reality were mirrored as they were observed within the social stratum of the author and his public. Wilhelm Meister, Illusions Perdues, David Copperfield, Éducation Sentimentale, Der Gruene Heinrich, Anna Karenina — these novels not only evoked the readers’ experience of déjà vu, but confirmed the salvation of the individual by demonstrating the burdens and good fortunes of an invented individual existence in such a way as to permit the reader to experience them for himself. In these works, specific individuals, consistent within themselves and living within a concrete world, are represented as a complex of subjects closely connected with the fate of living and reading contemporaries. This is “reality” conceived as historians have conceived it since the Enlightenment, and in this sense there exists a direct relation between scientific and literary realism and the theory of society: one formulates the concern about the individual, the other tries to sketch the conditions for his happiness.

The biography is both a continuation and an inversion of the novel. Documentation in the middle-class novel had the function of background — raw material as it were. Quite otherwise in the popular biography: there documentation, the pompous display of fixed dates, events, names, letters, etc., serves in lieu of social conditions. The individual who is fettered by these paraphernalia is reduced to a typographical element which winds itself through the narrative as a convenient device for arranging material. Whatever the biographies proclaim about their heroes, they are heroes no longer. They have no fate, they are merely variables of the historic process.


History and time have become reified in biography — as in a kind of petrified anthropology.

Consider, e.g., “The stronger will of history is indifferent to the innermost will of individuals, often involving persons and powers, despite themselves, in her murderous game,” or else: “the sublime breaths of history sometimes determine the rhythm of a period at times even contrary to the will of the genius that animates it,” or history, “the sternest of the goddesses, unmoved and with an incorruptible glance” looks over “the depths of the times and …with an iron hand, without a smile or compassion” brings “events into being,” or history, “possibly the most terrible and most depriving sea journey, …the eternal chronicle of human sufferings,” “almost always justifies the victor and not the vanquished,” when she “in the ultimate sense is based on force; or, history acts “neither morally nor immorally”; “0ne comes to term with her,” so decrees the biographer personifying world-reason which, however, does not deter him from occasionally calling history also “the supreme judge of human actions.” At times history even permits herself to choose “from the million-masses of humanity a single person in order to demonstrate plastically with him a dispute of Weltanschauungen.”

In statements of this kind history acquires the traits of an overpowering robot, who, however, hardly seems to be the result of human production, but with considerable stamping and with incomprehensible arbitrariness drives mankind before it.

To be sure, compared with the imagination of film producers and technocratic dreamers, this robot is rather paltry. The enumeration of its qualities is its appropriate interpretation: This is a cliché-robot — even with regard to concrete things.

For instance, concerning Erasmus, “He instinctively time chose correctly,” in him: “time saw the symbol of calm but unceasingly operating reason”; during his life: “the times forced him into the tumult to the right and to the left,” and in the end: “but don’t deceive yourself, old man, your true time is over…” Needless to say, the period-cliché and the century-cliché are used extensively. The Middle Ages, “a gloomier period,” were “a cruel and violent age”; when they are over, we have “a turn of the century which becomes a turn of the times.” There is the “great and contradictory nineteenth century,” with “the people of the nineteenth century,” which “does not love its youth”; and it is said of the seventeenth century: “the curious century, whose child she [Christine of Sweden] was in good and ill, died with her.”

The serious European historians of ideas had neither place nor time for such pomp. These intellectuals wanted to be educators, to delve into the past to better understand the present, in which definite tasks had to be done — even if it was only the task of equipping new philologists or historians with sharper tools. True, historiography was exposed to the wrath of Nietzsche, who often tortured himself with the idea that mankind was actually doomed, that “one can recognize the basically evil nature of every human being in the fact that none of them can bear to be scrutinized carefully and closely.”[1] An historical fatalism, which had taken hold of European middle classes long before the authoritarian state practiced it, led him to remark that none “who today consider themselves ‘good’ are able to tolerate a biography.”[2] He thus evaluated in advance present-day biographers who magically produce a historical sphere, about which they profess to know everything. They assure us that “history” or “the century” does this or that or has this or that quality, and the historical person appears as a mere product. With this device the popular biography — although in a distorted form — mirrors reality: the literati and the consumers of their products were becoming subjected to the “rigid rhythm of world history,” the pitiless Zeitgeist, and the general expressed in these high-sounding phrases destroys the particular of individuality. In the biographies this is glossed over; although the mirror into which the reader looks hangs crookedly, he nevertheless finds reflected there something of his own historical substance. The qualities of “history” are here described somewhat in the way the person of the authoritarian “leader” and the co-ruling elite would have to be characterized: pitiless, indifferent, only intent on success; equipped with the will and the necessary apparatus to pronounce and execute decisions affecting the overwhelming majority. Such historical philosophy betrays a social attitude toward life — which at all times acknowledges its subjugation to the highest power in command. The rules of this power, so to say the drill book of history, are contained in innumerable generalizing assertions with which biographical literature abounds.


The biographer is the supplier of sociology for mass consumption. What is happening here is a caricature of that inductive method which attempts to develop from empirical observations reliable rules of the game of human life across the ages. The political sociology of the biographers is the “sunken cultural heritage” of social research concerned with laws. A cue for this sociology is the little word “always,” a favorite in Stefan Zweig’s vocabulary, which bestows upon accidental data the dignity of the normative. Whatever was, was always that way, is that way, and so it will remain — this is the wisdom of all generalizing methods and of their popular offspring as well.

The favorite themes of popular biography are politics, power, and the leader. The new point from which the political power-apparatus and its mechanisms are discussed is that of the spectator who cannot do anything about them and who contents himself with observation. These biographers behave as if actually the whole matter was of no concern to them, as if in their wildest dreams it would not occur to them that they themselves had a stake in the matter.

In recompense they offer the general consolation: “one who has committed himself to politics is no longer a free agent and must obey other laws than the holy ones of his nature.” A philistine impotence hides behind the at times grandiose, at times cynical, words, that politics ruin the character. Politics “has always been a science of contradiction. It is forever in conflict with simple, natural, sensible solutions.” It has been reified like the concept of history: “The individual man or woman simply does not exist for history; they amount to nothing when compared with tangible and practical values in the great game of world affairs.”

Behind the jaundiced view of politics hides the psychological corollary of infatuation with success, consciously decried: to study the politician requires a preoccupation with the phenomenology of power. The same social repression mechanism, which constructs reifications out of concepts such as history, time, and politics so that they are no longer recognizable as a reflex of social relationships, also affects the concept of power. Thus we read: “Power promises, even when it is silent and does not promise anything”; “…a power can persevere, but not reveal.”

The language is equally eloquent when it deals with the favorite topic of the individual in relation to society. For here is the opportunity to speak about the universal laws of the leader. Impartiality is self-evident. Regarding the relationship of society to a dictatorship, there are certain rules for the prehistory, for the beginning, for the climax, and for the decline.

Here in this spiritual department store we find a Machiavellian sociology of politics and, in the next moment, a utopian conception of history. It is particularly characteristic for the social function of these biographers that they combine both of these concepts. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, materialistic or idealistic as well as optimistic or pessimistic interpretations of the course of history were clearly related to the goals of different social groups. But in the lukewarm and played-out political and moral climate, in which the biographies thrive, everything goes: one puts up with the pessimistic perspective partly by exorcising it with magic and by categorizing it, as if the knowledge of its eternal recurrent formulas would make it harmless to the individual involved, or by playing the role of the cynical observer, who really is not affected. Optimism is created by the assurance that in the end the good will win. We encounter this pluralism of viewpoints time and again; it belongs to an attitude which takes nothing seriously, least of all the intellect. Its ultimate wisdom is relativism.

However, the overriding theme of the biographers’ political sociology, when they speak about the social fate of morality, is that after all the good will always be victorious. This is recited in such a stereotypical and pathetic manner that it is reminiscent of the moralizing consolation verses in certain popular tunes, namely, that it cannot go on much longer in this way and that eventually things will improve. Just as the moral philosophical systems, which can turn into a critical weapon against that which exists, are characteristic for progressive tendencies of liberal thinking, so is the contention that truth and freedom always come out on top characteristic for the retreat from the sphere of action:

Toscana defended the eternal feeling of freedom. This ideal of freedom survives the existence of all powers at large. One day of freedom topples pyramids of slavery, which seem to rise into the sky for all eternity. Freedom always returns, caresses humanity, shows it its dignity, God in her bosom, and tests the swords.

Or quite monumentally: “Truth always wins again…Truth in the end always wins! Only those who know this are immune against the apparent eternally victorious infamy.”


Finally, the relationship between nature and history belongs in the general section of this pseudo-system of a social philosophy. It is treated in the spirit of a bad monism.[3] When biographical literature at times speaks of the alleged identity of natural and historical laws and at times uses natural phenomena for clichéd comparisons with human life, it creates thereby an atmosphere of worn-out pantheism.

This literature takes on almost mystical traits in which anything and everything merges into a great gray sameness. This is the mystique of relativism, which is shared by victims and masters alike.[4] To the latter it is the appropriate expression for the conservation of power at any price; the former confess almost masochistically how little they still value their own thoughts or the application of their minds to serious intentions. This is the place where the ideological origin of modern biography reveals itself. It hails from that Lebensphilosophie [philosophy of life] which, with its radical rejection of the severe rules of philosophical system, and its equally decisive opposition to any criticism of political economy, helped to prepare for the brutal vitalism of authoritarian practice in a typical manner. At times it hides behind assurances that what the biographers deal with are ultimates — a rhetoric of make-believe grandeur and magnanimity which in truth hides their own uncertainty. As in speaking about the everlasting stream of life, eternally in motion and yet always the same, one chatters about the original, the eternal, and the ultimate. We hear of “the eternal man,” of “the eternal march of mankind toward the eternal goal,” of “the arch-eternal man issued from the mortal body of cultural man,” of freedom and justice, “the two archetypal forces,” “the archetypal instincts of the human instinct world.”

But there are also expressions which are taken yet directly from the relativistic thought and linguistic style of the Lebensphilosophie. “Man is a ceaseless wanderer”; for man “in the last analysis the highest goal is limitless abundance of life.” The stream of life at times is also called destiny: “But it is the tendency of destiny to mold the life particularly of the great into tragic forms. It tests its powers on the strongest, steeply it pitches the paradox of events against their strength, interweaves their lifespan with mysterious allegories, obstructs their paths, in order to confirm them in the right action. However, it plays with them an exalted game: because experience is always profit.” The rhetoric about the game is revealing. It belongs to the relativistic aestheticization of history. It too is a disguise of impotence, of the enforced role of the spectator.

The biographers ventured forth to conquer the kingdom of highest wisdom. They did not tarry for trifles — they aimed for the imperium of the intellect in which the riddles of history, time, nature, politics, morals, of life as such are solved. They returned with an herb and bottle collection. They feel as at home in the sphere of highest abstraction as the positivist in the realm of so-called facts. With them generalities supplant facts; they hurry from observation to observation gathering the most divergent generalizing statements from the well-known pastures of philosophy and the social sciences. Out of these phony facts, which neither reflect empirical reality nor sketch its theoretical picture, a veil is woven which transforms history into a mythology of no significance. On the other hand, modern biography is indiscriminate because it is perplexed. As numerous as are its myths of universality, as casual are its delvings into the reservoir of past human lives. As if anyone and everyone, generals, poets, chiefs of police, rulers, composers, inventors, and religious founders, were good enough to justify a consistency of the individual in which one no longer believes. History and its contents become the occasion for world historical chatter; its banner is a relativism which takes nothing seriously and which no longer is taken seriously.

Paradoxically, this relativistic mentality of the biographers is also present when they turn from perplexing generalities about the individual as merely a variable of the pace of “history” to his specificity and uniqueness. According to Hegel, the work of reason consisted in encasing the phenomena of nature and man in adequate concepts by searching for precise and “determinate negation,” i.e., the unequivocal designation of a phenomenon by excluding all the moments which are neither generically nor genuinely attached to it. The biographers, however, whose overt business is the exact portrayal of the essence and activity of a given human being, pervert Hegel’s conceptual model into a muddy stew where nothing and nobody is conceived in terms of specific characteristics. True, at first sight the biographers seem to pay the greatest honor to their subjects, and, alongside the speculation about the general as the truly powerful, we find at the same time the praise of the individual. Alongside a conviction of the radical determinism of cosmic-historical laws and sociological rules, stands, in smooth and unobtrusive irreconcilability the hymn of individuality. But closer inspection reveals that the categories within which individual uniqueness is described are closely related to universal phrases which negate the autonomous nature of man. The hymn to the individual is a mere pretense, and reflects a convulsive attempt to conjure up a wish dream of the individual’s autonomy and steadfastness. But this realm of freedom is deceptive, for the biographer handles the person in the same way that he handles events and objects, and under his fingers the individual is inflated into an artificial colossus. One browses through the index of a mail-order house which depends on a large turnover. Everything is the best and the most expensive, the opportunity of a lifetime. People are described as “unique” in terms of sameness, and everybody is marked by a price tag and a sales plug making such outrageous claims that no single person in reality shows any specificity because the distinction of uniqueness is conferred on all.

The outstanding quality of the “personality” merchandise (which turns out to be a mass article) is plugged by an indiscriminate use of the superlative. Here are some examples:

Index of Superlatives

          • Barthou: “The most significant statesman of Europe.”
          • Bismarck: “The two strongest German politicians of that epoch” (i.e., Bismarck and Lassalle).
          • Burckhardt: His “Greek cultural history, the most profound that we have on the Greeks.”
          • Calvin: “The darkest messenger of God in Europe.”
          • Caesar: “The most sagacious Roman.”
          • Cleopatra: “The shrewdest woman of her epoch.”
          • Cosimo di Medici: “The mightiest man in civilian, non-military dress; the world’s wealthiest banker.”
          • Francis Drake: “one of the most ingenious of Magellan’s heirs and successors.”
          • Elizabeth of England: “this most remarkable of all women.”
          • Erasmus: “The first — and really the only — German reformer.”
          • Fouché: “The intellectual kind of all of this most remarkable of political beings”; “the most perfect Machiavellian of modern times”; “psychologically the most interesting person of his century”; “the most accomplished intriguer of the political stage”; “most unreliable character and most reliable diplomat.”
          • Lloyd George: “most cunning, agile, and marvelous of contemporary statesmen.”
          • Hindenburg: “most celebrated German soldier of the last epoch.”
          • John Knox: “perhaps the most accomplished example of the religious fanatics.”
          • Lenin: “the most sincere, yet at the same time the coldest fanatic of our epoch.”
          • Leonardo da Vinci: “In abundance of faces, Leonardo remains unique.”
          • Leopold of Belgium: “the only personality of first rank among all the crowned heads of Europe.”
          • Ludendorff: “during the war the most interesting figure and the most dangerous.”
          • Luther: “Of all ingenious men perhaps the most fanatical — the most indocile, unpliable, and discordant.”
          • Magellan: “history’s greatest seafarer”; “the greatest deed of seafaring of all time.”
          • Mary Stuart: Her deed, “perhaps the most perfect example of the crime of passion”; “perhaps no woman who would have been sketched in such an irregular form.”
          • Marie Antoinette: “one of the most beautiful” tragedies “of this undesired heroism.”
          • Masaryk: “the great European man.”
          • Mussolini: “in conversation the most natural man in the world.”
          • Napoleon: “this foremost field commander of his time”; “concerned for the smallest matters, because he wants the great”; “the burning European youth finds no greater model of warning than he, whom, of all western men, created and suffered the greatest shocks.”
          • Nietzsche: “the brightest genius of the intellect.”
          • Plutarch: “the most modern of all portrait painters.”
          • Rathenau: “as a critic of the times, after Nietzsche almost without competition”; of “the noblest taste.”
          • Romain Rolland: “he will always be tied by his relation to the most powerful.”
          • Stanley: “the clearest, most sensible example of a hero”; “he accomplished the boldest and most successful reporting.”
          • Freiherr vom Stein: “a German, the best whom the nation has produced in its fall and deliverance.”
          • Talleyrand: “perfection of this life as the greatest achievement possible to man.”
          • Tolstoi: “the most powerful…the mightiest of the Russian land”; “the most human of all men”; “the nineteenth century knows no counterpart of similar primeval vitality.”

The index of greatness is at the same time an index of monads. Alienation hides behind a specificity which is no longer to be surpassed. The reification of man has been broken down into a roster of qualities on which this commodity, man, is being measured, and each then represents a particular kind of merchandise. What one happens to have in stock is offered as the incomparable. It is a travesty of the development of mankind.

This whole realm of the superlative is a wish dream of the free economy. For each one it is important to reach the summit of the pyramid; only when all competitors have been removed from the field has the highest imaginable goal for an individual existence been reached. The individualism of the superlative conveys the true social meaning of this view: individualism rests on the exclusiveness of possession of a quality.

The myths of earlier humanity express the dichotomy of the natural and the historical; the cliché-like myths which the biographers report of their darlings make of each man his own myth.

Relativism is only seldom the manifest belief of this literature — but it is always present in a latent form. It is presented as an arbitrary interchange between the general and the individual, thus making clear the function of relativism in late European liberalism: a cloak for the helplessness of the vanquished on the eve of the age of the “leaders.” The pace of world history, as well as the mythical shading of oversized individuals, do not join into one theory of man and his destiny. This biographical jungle amounts to an ideology of weariness and weakness; it is an ideology of tired epigoni who lost their way.


[1] Nietzsche, loc. cit., note 1.
[2] Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Anchor Books, p. 275.
[3] See Leo Löwenthal, “Knut Hamsun,” in Literature and the Image of Man, Beacon, 1957, pp. 190 ff.
[4] See Max Horkheimer, “Der neueste Angriff an die Metaphysik,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, vol. VI (1937), p. 33.

5 thoughts on “Marxism and biography

  1. Ross , You have performed a brilliant service providing all these Marxist works online . I am an active Trotskyist in Britain and have always been interested in Spinoza and other Marxists , The comment by Plenkhavov am I an Old Spinoist always interested me. Illenykov has written about Spinoza in depth and is a true Marxist Philosopher. Once again thanks

  2. Pingback: History and time have become reified in biography | BIMing Argentina

  3. Pingback: The Marxism of Roland Barthes | The Charnel-House

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