The triumphs of Karl and Jenny Marx

March 13, 2012

Paul Le Blanc reviews a book that provides a rare picture of Karl Marx and his family.

THIS BOOK delivers much more than it promises. Richly researched, at times reading like a good "page-turner" novel, it provides a wealth of little-known information, not only about Karl and Jenny Marx, but also about their children (including those who died in early childhood), their parents and siblings and best friends, their comrades and the left-wing political activities in which they were involved, and the history of the times in which they lived.

Its author, Mary Gabriel, in the course of her 20-year journalistic career with Reuters, became intrigued by snatches of the personal story of Karl and Jenny Marx, and sought a more complete understanding of these remarkable people. When she began her quest, the "collapse of Communism" had seemed to settle once and for all that Marxism was the road to nowhere. Such a study may have seemed a fitting tombstone to a dead ideology:

Few questioned the capitalist system that dominated the globe--capitalism was in the midst of one of its periodic boom cycles. But as I moved from research to writing, belief in the infallibility of the system began to waver until, as a result of the financial crisis that reached its first peak in the autumn of 2008, academics and economists openly questioned the merits of free-market capitalism and pondered aloud what an alternative might look like. Marx's writing, in the wake of this turmoil, seemed all the more prescient and compelling.

Jenny von Westphalen and Karl Marx
Jenny von Westphalen and Karl Marx

Indeed, far more than simply biographical details, Gabriel provides clear, reasonable accounts and evaluations of Marx's major political works.

This is particularly impressive because it is clear that the author is by no means a product of the Marxist movement, a fact that comes through in an occasional terminological or theoretical slip. On page 140, she fumbles with references to "proletariat rule" and "proletariat class" where one of the initiated would say proletarian. On pages 352-354, her discussion of Marx's explanation of capitalist exploitation misses his key distinction between actual labor that creates wealth and the "labor-power" (ability to work), purchased by the capitalist from the workers, from which that value-laden labor is squeezed.

But such terminological slips--inconsequential in any case--are rare, and clarifications of Marx's economic theory can easily be found in other popular works. The primary thrust of Marx's thought is taken seriously and fairly conveyed, made vibrant through the way Gabriel connects it to historical and biographical realities.

MORE THAN perhaps any book ever written about Marx, this one brings him vividly to life precisely because it places him in a family context, within which his wife and children are also brought to life.

It also clearly presents the achievements that placed Marx firmly on the historical map--the writing, with Frederick Engels, of the Communist Manifesto as the revolutionary upsurge of 1848 was about to sweep Europe; the composition of his monumental economic analysis in Capital; his leadership of the influential International Workingmen's Association (what came to be known as the First International--one of the essential seedbeds of the modern labor movement); and his public defense of the working-class uprising and fleeting political rule that became known as the Paris Commune of 1871, whose profound meaning he did so much to reveal after its bloody defeat.

We also see Marx, his family and his political co-thinkers (an important network sometimes referred to as "the Marx party") engaged in a variety of liberation struggles, solidarity efforts, defense campaigns, refugee assistance and--always--educational efforts in support of democratic and working-class movements.

One of the finest attributes of this study is making available to us the impressive, admirable and brave Jenny von Westphalen who became Jenny Marx.

Her aristocratic father was animated by a humanistic radicalism unusual for members of the privileged upper classes: highly cultured in the realms of philosophy, art and literature, his Enlightenment notions shaded off in egalitarian and democratic directions, spiced with a heroic Romanticism, intertwined as well with early socialist ideas, all of which he shared with his young daughter and then with a brilliant neighbor boy, four years younger than Jenny, named Karl Marx.

Such influences helped propel young Karl along a pathway to achieve, as he put it in a school essay at the age of 17, "the welfare of mankind and our own [personal] perfection," concluding that this would mean a life in which "no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed hot tears of noble people." Gabriel writes:

That was the Romantic rebel Jenny von Westphalen fell in love with. This provincial man-child, who dared to declare himself a tool for the improvement of all mankind, embodied the heroes in the books her father gave her--he was Goethe's Wilhelm Meister and Schiller's Karl von Moor, and he would be Shelley's Prometheus, chained to a precipice because he dared to challenge a tyrannical god.

When they were united in marriage several years later, Jenny just as romantically stepped away from her privileged position, and joined her young husband in democratic and socialist rebellion against powerful social and political tyrannies, daring also to challenge rising capitalist forces--full of immense power, promise and destructiveness--that were increasingly dominating Europe as well as more and more of the Earth.

Due to her own brilliance, Marx regarded Jenny as an intellectual equal who understood his work and contributed to it. "She was not only his friend and lover," Gabriel notes at one point, "but had been his most trusted intellectual sounding board since their honeymoon 13 years earlier. Neither his heart nor his head functioned without her."

It is unlikely, one could argue, that we would have the Karl Marx we know today without Jenny von Westphalen. Gabriel notes that "throughout his life, Marx held only one other person in a position of such high esteem and trust, and that was his alter ego and collaborator, Friedrich Engels."

ENGELS WAS the son and heir of a wealthy member of the rising capitalist class who nonetheless fully shared the political passions and commitments of Karl and Jenny Marx. His life-giving assistance saved the young couple from destruction as their youthful dreams collided--sometimes quite horribly--with the brutal realities of the status quo.

When the excitement of revolutionary ferment died down, after the defeats of 1848-49, and after they had burned their bridges to the income and employment and support networks of "respectable" society, Karl and Jenny found themselves overwhelmed in the stark poverty of exile--for a number of years living in unhealthy slums with bill collectors perpetually beating at the door.

This might not have been quite so bad for a couple of uncompromising rebels passionately linked together, but there were seven children born to the couple, which completely and qualitatively altered the equation. "Financial free fall was a way of life," Gabriel aptly notes. "Marx had been able to earn, borrow and shuffle debt in such a way that the family remained just barely afloat, year after year." Yet the stresses and wretchedness associated with their quality of life took a terrible toll on all of them--and resulted in the deaths of four out of seven children.

Gabriel's talent as researcher and writer results in vivid characterizations not only of Karl and Jenny Marx, but also of Engels, of Helene Demuth (nicknamed "Lenchen," the loyal yet spirited young housekeeper sent by Jenny's family to help with her growing family), and of each of the children as well. Their distinctive personalities shine in these pages, which is sometimes heartbreaking, as Franzisca, Guido and even Edgar (the vibrant and seemingly sturdy "Musch") die in childhood, to the devastation of parents and siblings.

The much-loved daughters who survived to adulthood--Jenny, Laura and Eleanor--all proved to be as brilliant and creative as their parents, naturally embracing their revolutionary politics as well. Significantly, the parents both strived to prevent the girls from following the path of Jenny von Westphalen--of intertwining their lives with political radicals who would be incapable of providing comfort and security. In her preface to the book, Gabriel offers an apt summary:

The story I discovered was of a love between a husband and wife that remained passionate and consuming despite the deaths of four children, poverty, illness, social ostracism and the ultimate betrayal when Marx fathered another woman's child. It was the story of three young women who adored their father and dedicated themselves to his grand idea, even at the cost of their own dreams, even at the cost of their own children. It was the story of a group of brilliant, combative, exasperating, funny, passionate and ultimately tragic figures caught up in the revolutions sweeping 19th century Europe. It was, above all, the story of hopes dashed against the bulwark of bitter reality, personal and political.

We are certainly exasperated time and again with the person who was Karl Marx--self-absorbed, a one-man "force of nature," who could often be difficult to deal with, who in his 20s and 30s all too often proved to be laughably unrealistic and irresponsible when it came to the "mere" financial and material means of ensuring such things as food, clothing, shelter and health for himself and his loved ones. This is quite aside from the episode of sexual disloyalty, involving Lenchen. She bore a son who was raised by others and never acknowledged by Marx.

YET LOVE and Capital presents a story involving much more than dashed hopes and bitter realities. Gabriel shows us the strengths of Marx's personality that caused so many who knew him (Jenny, Lenchen, Engels, and "countless others") to see beyond the personal flaws to "the brilliant qualities--his mind, his wit, even his capacity for love and loyalty."

Marx was a man of great feeling who deeply cared about people--loving to family and close friends, personally generous even to political opponents. He proved to be highly principled in multiple contexts, seeking to live his life according to his beliefs, remaining true all of his life to the radical humanism to which he pledged allegiance at the age of 17.

Both Karl and Jenny Marx remained for all of their lives--not only in words but in the way they lived--absolutely committed to the working-class movement which both had become part of in the 1840s. Both of these "old campaigners" (as Jenny referred to herself in the 1860s) proved themselves time and again, in personal interactions and deeds.

Increasing numbers of workers committed to the cause of labor, democracy and socialism came to their door--fleeing, as Karl and Jenny had done, from political repression, in many cases--to be nourished by their friendship and inspired by their example. This reality, which Gabriel recounts, illuminates the meaning of Engels's ongoing assistance. To a significant degree, it was seen as something political more than personal: financing the building up of what would be a strong socialist workers' movement.

In their final two decades, when Engels was finally in a position to ensure their financial security, Marx and his family were released from their long-term poverty as exiled revolutionaries. This coincided with the publication, translation and slowly growing reputation of Marx's masterwork Capital, and with the widening recognition of his central role in helping to nurture and positively influence the European and North American labor movements.

"The bad thing now is to be 'old' so as to be only able to foresee instead of seeing," Marx complained in 1881, shortly before Jenny's death from cancer, and two years before his own, his health broken by age 64. In the years after their deaths, the influence of what came to be labeled "Marxism" deepened further and went global.

Despite all the hardship and tragedy, these qualities, this reality of who and what they were, and also the influence of the insights and ideas that were so central to their lives, stand as the triumph of Karl and Jenny Marx, and of their children and their comrades.

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