Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution

Karl Marx did not know what we know: he did not know that he was Karl Marx. Had this knowledge been available to him, it would have consoled him during the many moments when he wondered whether his life's work would matter to anyone, whether the sacrifices he and his family endured in the process of constructing the edifice of his thought would ultimately be justified by his role in history. Perhaps even we, with the benefit of hindsight, still cannot answer that question: whether the effects of his work have been good or bad, on the whole, is an impossible question to answer, given the impossibility of imagining a Marx-less twentieth century. It cannot be doubted, though, that Marx had a profound and radical impact on that century and will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. The man who sometimes expressed skepticism about the power of ideas to alter reality and who famously wrote, "Philosophers have tried to describe the world -- the point is to change it," could not possibly have known the extent to which his ideas would alter the course of world events.

The influence of Marx's ideas has been so momentous that at this point the name Karl Marx hardly even seems to attach to a person. It is easy to forget that a human being stands behind those voluminous and forbidding books, and the even more forbidding system of thought those books express. As Mary Gabriel's new biography of the Marx family, Love and Capital, makes clear, though, Marx was indeed human: a philosopher and revolutionary thinker, yes, but also a husband and father who loved his family and who experienced a tremendous anxiety over his failure to provide for them.

Marx's more human aspects have been played down by both his detractors and his supporters. Some Marxists, Gabriel notes, went so far as to try to suppress knowledge not only of certain scandalous aspects of their idol's history and conduct (the fact, for instance, that he fathered an illegitimate son with the family's housekeeper while his wife was in Europe pleading with her relatives for financial assistance) but also of such innocuous facts as that Karl had a nickname (his close friends and relatives called him "Mohr").

But the attempt to cleanse Marx's profile of human elements is both silly and misleading. The idea that "the personal is political" has become commonplace if not a cliché, but it is nevertheless true, and Karl Marx's life and thought provide a quite compelling example of their inseparability. One cannot fully understand the radical elements in Marx's thought without being acquainted with the details of his life. To take an obvious example, the fact that he witnessed the political persecution of family members and their associates at an early age surely contributed to his resistance to the authority of the state, and his awareness of the variety of ways in which that authority could be used as a means for limiting human liberty and maintaining the status quo. "Freedom," he wrote in 1875, "consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it" -- a statement that clearly indicates the distance between his own views and many of the programs that were eventually implemented in his name.

More broadly, it surely helps us understand the overall meaning and intent of Marx's economic critiques to know that he and Jenny, his wife, spent the majority of their life together in considerable and frequently miserable poverty, relying on contributions from supportive friends (most reliably Friedrich Engels, Marx's lifelong intellectual companion and coauthor of The Communist Manifesto). "The man who wrote Capital," writes Gabriel, "was an extraordinary philosopher, economist, classicist, social scientist, and writer, but he was also someone intimately acquainted with the slow death of the spirit suffered by those condemned to poverty while surrounded by a world of wealth."

If this was hard on Marx, it was surely harder still on Jenny. Born in Prussia in 1814, four years before her future husband, Jenny von Westphalen was raised in an aristocratic family but inherited her father's relatively radical political views. Though she knew that in uniting with the young Karl she was turning her back on a life of comfortable privilege, she could not possibly have predicted just how uncomfortable and impoverished her life with Marx would prove to be. Karl Marx's journalistic writings earned him little, his philosophical writings nothing at all. Both he and Jenny lived in the expectation that his masterwork, Capital, would earn enough capital to relieve their debts and render them financially secure. But the book took far longer than expected to write -- Marx missed the publisher's deadline by sixteen years -- and when the first royalty check arrived, sixteen years after that, it had to be delivered to his children because both he and Jenny had died some years before.

The tardiness of Capital, while extreme, was characteristic of Marx. More than once in his life he promised some publisher a brief pamphlet on some topic or other, only to turn in, months or years past the deadline, a work of several hundred pages. Gabriel writes of Marx:

[He] never met a deadline, adhered to length limits, or completed an assignment in the manner requested it (the sole exception to this last was The Communist Manifesto). The problem was not lack of initiative but his inquisitive mind. Marx simply could not set aside research and begin writing; he was enthralled by the unknown and felt he could not commit his theories to paper until he understood every angle of his ever-evolving subject. But that, of course, was impossible -- the halls of knowledge are infinite and mutable, and though he would have been happy to wander through them for the rest of his days, a contract required that he stop.

Moreover, Marx's intellectual curiosity was far from his only distraction. His political activities drew the attention of authorities wherever he went, and his family spent several years relocating from one European country to another before finally finding a home -- London -- they would not be expelled from. He spent much of his life in poor health and constant pain as a result of various ailments. (One particularly humanizing moment has him writing to Engels that he had had to give up going to the British Museum Reading Room on account of his hemorrhoids, which "afflicted me more grievously than the French Revolution." ) And there were other, profounder sufferings: four of the couple's seven children -- including all three sons -- died before reaching adolescence. Perhaps the most poignant moment in Love and Capital has Marx at the funeral of his second son, the eight-year old Edgar, or "Musch," shouting at those who attempted to comfort him, "You cannot give me back my boy!"

A good deal of Love and Capital is devoted to the three surviving Marx daughters. Like their father, they tended to be intellectually adventurous and possessed a zeal for social reform. And like their father, they lived lives plagued by personal difficulties -- indeed, two of the three ended up dying by their own hand. It is hard not to feel compassion, and at times admiration, for these women and for their mother, all of whom ended up living, in more than one sense, in Marx's shadow. Yet one ends the book still feeling somewhat remote from them -- as one does, despite Gabriel's efforts, from Marx himself. Love and Capital is well researched and does a fine job of relaying historical facts, but it will leave at least some readers longing for a deeper delving into the daily texture of its subjects' lives, an intimate portrait rather than a deftly sketched big picture.

Perhaps to some degree this is due to the nature of its primary subject, who, Gabriel writes, was "often fiercely argumentative, intellectually arrogant, and notoriously impatient with anyone who disagreed with him. His frequent drinking episodes...often devolved into verbal if not physical fights. He had little time for niceties; for someone so conceptually fascinated by the alienation of man, Marx routinely alienated those who encountered him." Yet on the same page she notes that "in private Marx was warm, loving, kind, and generally described as excellent company when he was not plagued by sleepless nights or stricken by disease, both due to anxiety over his work." Many visitors to the Marx home, indeed, remarked with surprise on how warm, hospitable, and charming the great theoretician turned out to be.

Some of the book's most touching moments center not on Marx's relations with his wife and daughters but on his friendships; it is here, perhaps, that he managed to be most fully human. Following Marx's death, Engels took it on himself to go through his voluminous papers, trying to assemble the later volumes of Capital that his friend had so often claimed were near completion. At one point he wrote to an acquaintance, "For the past few days I have been sorting letters from 1842-62. As I watched the old times pass before my eyes they really came to life again, as did all the fun we used to have at our adversaries' expense. Many of our early doings made me weep with laughter; they didn't after all ever succeed in banishing our sense of humor." A long-dead figure's sense of humor, and other such subtleties of character, are tremendously difficult for the biographer to capture. But in this and other passages we get hints of another Marx, a shadow Marx who has somehow contrived to escape even the re-humanized depiction Mary Gabriel has given us.

Comments
by Andrea_D_Merciless on ‎09-19-2011 08:15 AM

"Perhaps even we, with the benefit of hindsight, still cannot answer that question: whether the effects of his work have been good or bad, on the whole, is an impossible question to answer, given the impossibility of imagining a Marx-less twentieth century. It cannot be doubted, though, that Marx had a profound and radical impact on that century and will continue to matter for the foreseeable future."

 

Wow, this Mary Gabriel is a real heartless piece of work. Let me see... in the Soviet Union, communism killed anywhere from 15-20 million, created a vast prison economy, and forbade political freedoms for seven decades. There was progress in some fronts but far less than in capitalist democratic nations. Worse, it was the rise of communism that panicked forces on the Right--as well as moderate forces--in the West, thus leading to the rise of Fascism and Nazism.

No communism in the USSR, then no Nazism in Germany. Conservative forces aided the Nazis out of fear of communists, not because they loved Nazis.

It should also be noted that Mussolini started out as a radical leftist and lifted many ideas from Marx. Mussolini and Hitler, though anti-communist, took inspiration from Marxism-Leninism, the first truly modern totalitarian system with vast networks of secret police, political prisons, and ruthless repression.

During the Cold War, all of Eastern Europe lived under communist tyranny with Soviet bayonets fixed on their throats, but I guess it's too early to tell if that was good or bad.

 

In Asia, Mao came to power, and his policies killed anywhere from 30 to 50 million people, but I guess it's too soon to tell if that was noble or ignoble. South Korea thrived under capitalism whereas North Korea--along with Cuba, the only surviving communist nation on Earth--remains one of the poorest, with millions dying of starvation during peacetime. But I guess we'll have to wait to see if communism is good or bad for that country. And maybe the Khmer Rouge weren't so bad in Cambodia either. Only time will tell. And let's not be too hasty to condemn the Vietnamese communists for expelling all those 'boat people', over a million of them, half of them drowned at sea. I mean we should wait maybe 50 yrs to see if that was beautiful or ugly.

 

True, all systems and movements have blood on their hands. Even capitalist democracies spilt blood and committed acts of oppression. But we can see a trajectory of real change, progress, and reform in capitalist democracies or even capitalist dictatorships through their histories. China since the 80s, though not a democracy, has made profound progress thanks to MARKET REFORMS, not Marxian economics.

But what did communism produce after its decades in power? Anyone who thought communism had done wonders for Russia and Eastern Europe back in 1989 would have been crazy. It was evident as day: communism wasn't just an economic failure but one of the biggest moral crimes against humanity.  But what with the Left controlling the academia and media, a kind of imposed and willful amnesia has set in. We are either to forget all the horrors that happened in the USSR or Mao's China(not to mention Cambodia, Mengistu's Ethiopia, etc) or pretend that they were not really communist or Marxist but something or the other. So, TRUE MARXISM may still await us in the future. All this proves is that intellectuals, having rejected religion, need a messianic secular religion of hope and redemption-of-mankind of their own.  One thing for sure, even Marxism was never a science but more a faith system.

 

Of course, if most of the victims of communism had been Jews, Mary Gabriel wouldn't have made such a stupid remark. Jews are a holy(or so we are told), so any system that murders millions of Jews cannot be evil. I mean can anyone imagine anyone saying, "it's too early to tell if Nazism was good or bad, not least because its shadows haunt too much of the 20th century, and it's impossible to imagine a Nazi-less 20th century"? Well, we can't imagine a cancer-less 20th century, but I think it's safe to say it's NOT a good condition. We can't imagine a slaveless Southern American history up to 1865, so should we conclude we can't say whether slavery was good or bad for America?  

 

But alas, most of the victims of communism were gentiles, Christians, Asians, Latin Americans, Africans, and the like. I suppose their lives are expendable in the implementation of a theory. Also, many Jews loyally served the communist cause, and I suppose anything endorsed by the Jewish community cannot be such a bad thing... even if it leads to the deaths of tens of millions(mostly non-Jews).

Who is this Gabriel? Probably just another academic or 'intellectual' who knows the world through theories but hasn't a clue as to how it really works or what it really is.

If at this point in history, people like her are STILL undecided as to whether Marx's legacy was good or bad, they will never learn. Even by the 1930s, it was evident to anyone with eyes and honesty that communism was a new kind of hell. Even the socialist George Orwell wised up as to the nature of communist tyranny.

 

The only lesson to learn from communism is NEVER BRING IT BACK AGAIN, not MAYBE IT WASN'T SO BAD AND WE SHOULD TRY YET AGAIN. Gabriel, like most intellectuals, hungers for power as a philosopher-king(or queen, as the case may be), and of course Marxism is appealing to her ilk since it promises total power to radical intellectuals with full control of government.

by Saksin on ‎09-19-2011 11:16 AM

We do not need more Marx hagiography, but the truth about the small man and thinker that he was until Engels founded the Marx myth with his eulogy at his friend's funeral. We do not need hand-picked quotes about freedom from Marx, but analysis of the incoherence of the ramshackle edifice that goes by the name of his "thought." And more than anything we need an understanding of the sources of its appeal despite the false view of history, economics, and societal dynamics that it presents. And the means to such understanding are close at hand: all we need to do to be disabused of the Marx myth is to read, not ABOUT him, but read his own writings, from his early letters to his father during his dissolute student days in Berlin and onwards to the last scribblings he consigned to paper in a haze of cigar smoke in his London study. If diligently pursued we may then finally come to an understanding of the peculiar secret of Marxism, namely that its source of appeal lies exactly in its errors, in the false view of history, economics, and societal dynamics that it presents. And once we understand that we can begin to see that the monumental crimes perpetrated in the name of Marx during the 20th century, far from being perversions of his ideas, were direct consequences of attempting to put them into practice in a world whose inner workings he never fathomed. For more on this, see Book II of "Vehicles of Hope", at www.pathsplitter.net

by Lightfantastic on ‎09-20-2011 03:46 PM

Andrea,

 

I am glad you found an online bookstore. One of the things you can do with a bookstore is read a book. I recommend actually reading Marx. Marx was not the architect of the gulags or anything Mao did. He was an economist, an idealist and deeply committed to finding a solution to the evils of capitalism even as he admired its astounding achievements.

In any case, it is clear you never read Marx, but maybe you can have somebody read him to you or explain it better in a way you can understand. Yeah, actually, many millions of people have died for the cause of markets and free enterprise.

 

Of course, an idiot like you would want to drag "the Jews" into this. Yes, some Jews were communists. Not all communists are/were Jews. In fact only a minority of Jews were communists--especially once in power the Eastern European version of communism repressed Jews and persecuted them and their culture. Mostly the tools of the communist party were fools a lot like you--easily confused and manipulated.

 

Mao, by the way, was not Jewish. Nor were the many tens of millions of Chinese who participated in Mao's disastrous Great Leaps Forward program. I know that is confusing for you, since you have found a "big idea" to make sense of the world. Most communists, the vast majority of them, were not Jews.

 

Still, I am glad somebody showed you the way to a bookstore. I suspect that you will not be able to make use of the website beyond spreading your unbelievably stupid ideas. Maybe that should be your Great Leap Forward, pick up a book, like Das Kapital, or the Manifesto and learn something.

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