The private life of Karl Marx

A new biography takes a humanizing look at the man who sparked a revolution

Topics: Biography, History, Nonfiction, Books,

The private life of Karl Marx

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.

Barnes & Noble ReviewThe 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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>