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

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 19 06:28:54 MDT 2011


September 12, 2011
Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution
Reviewed by Troy Jollimore

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.

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