Family, life, and revolution

Love and Capital:

Karl and Jenny Marx and the birth of a Revolution

LOVE AND Capital is a fascinating historical biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, telling the story of their marriage and extended family, set in the context of the world-historic political, social, and economic turmoil through which they lived and worked. Against this rich backdrop, biographer Mary Gabriel weaves a detailed depiction of the personal hardships and tragedies experienced by the Marx family, highlighting at the same time Karl and Jenny’s passionate commitment to each other, their children, and the political movement to which they gave their lives.

As described by Gabriel, the Marxes’ extended family included three daughters who grew to adulthood and four other children who died either in infancy or childhood, their close friend and political collaborator Frederick Engels, and their friend and housekeeper Lenchen (Helene Demuth). The author details closely how poor the Marx family was for much of the time, only surviving in some periods with funds from both their families, and more consistently and substantially from Engels who took up business in his father’s textile manufacturing company in Manchester. Gabriel shows that the Marx family was impoverished for so long largely because their radical political activities and publications were not of a kind to make much money. In addition, ongoing police surveillance and frequent expulsion orders forced them for years to relocate from one country to another across Europe, finally settling in London in 1849.

Love and Capital is filled with stories of the political organizations and other revolutionary exiles and associates—both fellow activists and those who became adversaries—that filled Karl’s and Jenny’s lives. Gabriel explains in the book’s preface that while her original intention had been only to tell the Marxes’ family story, she ended by including “more of Marx’s theory and a fuller description of the development of the working-class and labor movements than I had planned…. I don’t think the Marx family story would have been whole without those elements. This was the life they lived; they ate, slept, and breathed political, social, and economic revolution.”

Karl Marx was born in Germany in 1818 into a middle-class family in Trier in the Prussian Rhineland. His family lived near Ludwig von Westphalen, who was a baron, a government councilor, and an early advocate of socialism. When von Westphalen’s daughter Jenny was seventeen, she began, under his instruction, to study the German Romantics and

a new utopian philosophy from France called socialism.” Gabriel outlines the impact these ideas must have had on Jenny: “German Romantic philosopher Immanuel Kant had declared ‘The man who stands in dependence on another is no longer a man at all…. He is nothing but the possession of another man.’ Applying that statement to women, that possession was multiplied a hundredfold. The Romantics offered therefore nothing less than the prospect of true freedom for men and women—freedom not only to break rigid social bonds but to ultimately challenge the kings who had ruled virtually unchecked for centuries because they claimed to be God’s emissaries on earth.

At the same time that these ideas were impressing Jenny, their impact was also being reflected on the increasingly divided society in which she lived, split between “those who wanted to force the kings and their ministers to better serve a changing society, and those who wanted to protect the status quo.” The material impact of this gap in ideas showed itself dramatically in the world around Jenny and her family. Her father Ludwig began to see the need for his socialist ideal in the streets around him: the number of the poor in Trier had increased greatly, in part because of trade and tariff reforms. “By 1830,” writes Gabriel, “one in four residents was said to be dependent on charity, and all the usual maladies associated with extreme poverty surfaced—crime, begging, prostitution, and contagious disease. Ludwig believed society could not simply let people fail, it had a responsibility to alleviate such suffering.” Ludwig spread these ideas not just to his daughter Jenny but to anyone else who would listen. Gabriel writes that Ludwig’s “most eager student was the son of a colleague. The boy’s name was Karl Marx.”

In 1832, at the age of fourteen, Karl attended the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium and was a classmate of Jenny’s brother Edgar. The lives of the two families became intertwined, and under Ludwig’s tutelage, Karl became, as had Jenny, a passionate student of Shakespeare and the German Romantics, affected as well by the ideas of the early utopian socialists. Ludwig and Karl became great friends, roaming the hills and forests above their homes together and discussing a myriad of topics. Gabriel relates how “Marx remembered those times as some of the happiest in his life. He was treated as a man and an intellectual.” In addition to his friendship with Ludwig, Karl had soon made fast friends with Edgar, and not long after with Jenny. By 1835, Karl and Jenny’s courtship had begun, and when he left Trier at the age of eighteen to attend university, he and Jenny had declared their love and agreed to marry.

At the University of Berlin, Karl studied the ideas of Hegel, with their crucial emphasis on the inevitable dynamic of change and conflict that Hegel had called the dialectic. In 1837 Marx joined a group called the Young Hegelians that argued for social and political reform. He soon began writing for radical newspapers and gradually started working out his theory of historical materialism.

After several years of long-distance courtship, Karl and Jenny were married on June 19, 1843, and moved that year to Paris. Among the earliest articles Marx published in Paris was one that had first been written on their honeymoon, a critique of Hegel arguing that “theory alone could not create a revolution, but the proletariat, powered by the brute strength born of injustice and armed with the intellectual weapon philosophy, could.” Gabriel shows how, at about that time, Marx began “what he called ‘a reckless critique of everything that exists, reckless in the sense of a critique that fears neither its own results nor any conflict with the powers that be.’” The life he and Jenny led from then on was simply a continuation and carrying out of that critique and the essential actions that flowed from it. Gabriel argues from the outset that without Marx’s critique “the world would not be as we know it.”

The first major achievement of Marx’s writing career came in 1848 when his Manifesto of the Communist Party (written with Engels) was published in London, to be followed in 1867 by his masterwork Capital, Volume One.

Love and Capital shows clearly and dramatically Marx’s achievement in the sixteen-year creation of Capital, and depicts as well the enormous hardship and suffering he and his family endured in the process:

In this singular work, Marx incorporated lifetimes of labor and thought—his own and that of the economists and philosophers who came before him…. The man who wrote Capital 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 wealth.”

Love and Capital traces both the good times and the many hard times the Marxes spent together, enduring persistent, extreme poverty, and their children’s recurrent illnesses as well as their own.

There is no way to fully assess Gabriel’s portrayal of Karl and Jenny Marx’s marriage and their political achievement without also discussing her depiction of their friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels first met in Paris on August 28, 1844, and according to Gabriel, they “talked for ten straight days and as many nights.” A successful factory owner, Engels was also a passionate revolutionary whose first protest had consisted, at the age of eighteen, of writing and publishing “Letters from Wuppertal” describing factory workers, many of them children as young as six, who worked in dismal conditions that were “bound to deprive them of all strength and joy in life.” After his lengthy first conversations with Marx, Engels reported that they agreed completely in “all theoretical fields…and our joint work dates from that time.”

Gabriel writes that Marx “readily embraced” working with Engels at this point because he “was a rare combination, a man of ideas and a reformer who could write articles of great eloquence and immediacy, but also a man of business who knew the workings of industry from the owner’s suite to the factory floor. He understood the social, political, and economic ramifications of the new industrial system because he had lived it.” Marx called Engels his alter ego. Among the most important events through which the collaboration of Marx and Engels developed and to which their contributions were essential were the revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848.  Gabriel does a good job of describing these events as well as the 1871 Paris Commune and reviewing the historical works Marx and Engels wrote about them.

Finally, it is clear that without the regular financial assistance Engels provided to the Marx family, it is unlikely Karl and Jenny would have survived, let alone contributed so much to political theory and history. Another contribution Gabriel and most modern scholars of Marx’s life credit to Engels is having claimed parenthood for a son fathered by Marx in 1851 with Lenchen, the Marx family housekeeper and Jenny’s lifelong friend. Gabriel supposes that Engels’ motivation in doing so must have been to protect Jenny and Karl’s family life, as well as Marx’s reputation in the growing European socialist community.

Although not herself a Marxist, Mary Gabriel’s book is an extensively researched and well-written contribution to understanding the political history of revolutionary Marxism, including its balanced depiction of Marx’s lifelong work to produce revolutionary publications and build revolutionary organizations, and Jenny Marx’s essential and central role in that work. The political timeline in the front of the book provides a detailed listing of the many political newspapers Marx and Engels created and the numerous organizations in the ongoing international upsurge of working-class struggle in which they participated, many of which they led.

Love and Capital provides a vivid picture of the radical, socialist, and internationalist basis of working-class struggle to which Karl and Jenny Marx, and Friedrich Engels, contributed crucially, a picture that helps illuminate the revolutionary struggles of the past and the relevance of their work to the struggles of today.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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