[Marxism] 707 page book about Karl Marx's personal life

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 25 08:58:10 MDT 2011

NY Times September 23, 2011
At Home With Karl Marx

Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution
By Mary Gabriel
Illustrated. 707 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $35.

“I first encountered the Marx family story in the back of a London 
magazine,” Mary Gabriel writes in the opening line of her intimate 
account of Karl Marx and his family. It is not a reassuring start for 
the reader, particularly when the publisher promises a book that 
uncovers “the unyielding love that bound together a man and woman in the 
midst of history’s whirlwind.” Gabriel should try to have whoever came 
up with that one fired.

The history of Marx the man, father, husband and journalist is dramatic 
enough to require no overwriting, and indeed “Love and Capital” is a 
huge, often gripping book. It gives an entertaining and balanced 
portrait of Marx, Engels, their colorful milieu of exiles, freaks and 
revolutionaries, and the little-known Marx family, dominated by Karl’s 
political obsession. It also details illicit love affairs, the deaths of 
children and financial struggles, all based on vast research and 
narrated with empathetic passion. At the same time, it is too long by 
200 pages and often undermined by flagrantly purple throbbings, minor 
mistakes and portentous overegging.

In the prologue we learn that London “signaled like a beacon in the 
black and roiling North Sea waters”; for us English pedants, the city 
stands on the Thames. One sentence ploddingly reads: “In rooms 
throughout England, men of vision were similarly hard at work.” Marx is 
described as “a man-child,” whose mind is “as hard and brilliant as a 
diamond.” Emperor Napoleon III, a shrewd politician whose career may 
have ended in disaster but who managed to dominate France and to some 
extent Europe for 20 years, is said by Gabriel to have had “the placid 
face of a dimwit.”

Gabriel, the author of a biography of Victoria Woodhull, argues that 
Marx’s private life is especially relevant now, because in 2008 “as I 
moved from research to writing, belief in the infallibility” of 
capitalism “began to waver,” making Marx’s analysis seem “more prescient 
and compelling.” But this is surely an argument for a new work on 
Marxism, not on his private life. No one should disagree with Plutarch’s 
view that personality matters in history, but Gabriel writes in her 
introduction that without the women in Marx’s life, “there would have 
been no Karl Marx, and without Karl Marx the world would not be as we 
know it.” Is that really true? Did the Dickensian facts of Marx’s family 
life, no matter how delicious, change the world?

In fact, “Love and Capital” is enjoyable not so much because of any 
brisk analysis of Marxist theory that it provides or its endless catalog 
of political feuding, but because of the details of family life and 
family politics that Gabriel offers up — her vivid portrait of a 
struggling, obsessional bohemian intellectual in the capitals of 
mid-19th-century Europe.

Gabriel’s heroine is certainly Marx’s wife, a beautiful aristocrat. As 
the author puts it: “Jenny von Westphalen was the most desirable young 
woman in Trier,” so well connected that her brother later became 
Prussian interior minister even while Marx was planning the downfall of 
the reactionary kingdoms of Europe.

Jenny remains her own person as she copes with the mountainous 
selfishness and self-regard of her husband. When they have sex before 
they actually marry, she writes to him: “I can feel no regret. When I 
shut my eyes very tightly, I can see your blessed smiling eyes. . . . Oh 
Karl . . . I am happy and overjoyed. . . . Each happy hour I lived 
through again.” Marx may have been brooding, wild, intolerant and 
implacable in his political feuds, treating enemies with contempt, but 
as Gabriel describes him, he also loved dancing, luxury and gossip, and 
was attractive to women and men alike. Even when he was immersed in the 
interminable arcane economics of Marxism, he managed to maintain a 
quality of wisdom and modernity: he wisely commented that “children must 
bring up their parents,” and he valued Christianity — that opium of the 
people — because it taught adults to love children.

Jenny always supported him: “Do not suppose that I am bowed down by 
these petty sufferings. . . . I am among the happiest and most favored 
few in that my beloved husband, the mainstay of my life, is still at my 
side.” And so we follow the couple from Cologne to Paris to Brussels, 
back and forth until they find their final home in the attics of London 
and then immortal rest in Highgate Cemetery.

The marriage may have been happy and passionate, but it was cursed by 
the tragedies of infant mortality, financial despair and Marx’s 
infidelities. One of them was nonsexual: it was with Marx’s intellectual 
partner, the wealthy, irrepressibly promiscuous bon viveur, Friedrich 
Engels, who paid Marx a salary from the profits of his capitalist 
factories. Here is one of Gabriel’s typical descriptions: “His clear 
blue eyes sparkled at the prospect of adventure — whether it be 
revolutionary or, perhaps even better, sexual.” There is a priceless 
moment reminiscent of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn episode, when a 
fellow leftist, Moses Hess, accuses the womanizer Engels of raping his 
mistress, Sibylle: “If, by the by, the jackass should persist in his 
preposterous lie about rape, I can provide him with enough . . . details 
to send him reeling,” Engels said. “Her rage with me is unrequited love.”

Between Marx’s lovers and his work, Jenny’s life was never easy: “While 
she pleaded with his family for assistance,” Gabriel writes, “he was 
having sex with Lenchen on Dean Street.” (At exactly the same time? How 
does she know where?) Lenchen was the family’s companion and 
housekeeper, Helene Demuth, with whom Marx fathered a child. Or as the 
author explains unnecessarily: “It isn’t known whether this was the 
first or the last time the two had intercourse.” Why this either-or? 
Surely it may have been the second or the 20th time — and, at the risk 
of challenging Gabriel’s eerily omniscient sexual-Marxist research, 
things worth doing once are often worth doing again. Either way, Lenchen 
gave birth to a son, Freddy. Engels pretended to be the father of the 
boy, who became one of the secrets of Marx’s biography: Stalin himself 
ordered it buried in the archives.

Gabriel’s story becomes heartbreaking with the deaths of four of the 
Marx children: when Franzisca, age 1, died, they lacked the money to buy 
a coffin. “Our three living children lay down by us, and we all wept for 
the little angel whose livid, lifeless body was in the next room,” Jenny 
wrote. When a son, Musch, died, Marx shouted, “You cannot give me back 
my boy,” and he told Engels, “I’ve already had my share of bad luck, but 
only now do I know what real unhappiness is. I feel ­broken down.” His 
only consolation? “The hope that there is still something sensible for 
us to do together in the world.”

When Jenny died in 1881 and Karl in 1883, their surviving children, 
Tussy and Laura, and the men in their lives, became the leaders of the 
movement, especially after Engels left them a significant portion of his 
$4.8 million estate. But it’s hard not to feel that somehow Karl’s 
obsessive mission destroyed those who came after: both daughters 
committed suicide, Tussy in 1897, driven to it by a callous partner; 
Laura in 1911, in a death pact with her ­husband.

There is a key moment in 1910 when a Russian couple bicycle over to 
visit Laura when she is living in France. They are Lenin and his wife, 
Krupskaya, who mused, “Here I am with Marx’s daughter!” Yet the only one 
of the Marxes still alive to see Lenin and his Marxist Bolsheviks seize 
Russia was Karl’s secret illegitimate son, Freddy.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of several books, including 
“Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” and “Jerusalem: The Biography,” 
which will be published in the United States next month.

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