Love, suffering and the origins of socialism
Love & Capital: Karl & Jenny Marx & the Birth of a Revolution
By Mary Gabriel,
Little, Brown & Company 2011
707 pages, $39.99
The spectre of Karl Marx still haunts the capitalist world. Only 11 people attended his funeral in 1883 and the corporate press still loves to dance on his grave, constantly declaring that his ideas are irrelevant. Yet with every economic crisis all eyes return to Marx's masterpiece, Capital, to understand what is really going on in our economic system.
How did this extraordinary work get produced? What circumstances fed the creative process?
Through Mary Gabriel’s intimate biography we see that hardship ― unrelenting, heartbreaking miserable poverty ― was the physical context. But in greater measure, love and unstinting generosity of the spirit nurtured the flame of creativity and rebellion.
The author of The Communist Manifesto and Capital, Marx was hounded from country to country in Europe before settling in London to further his revolutionary work. With him every inch of the way, physically, intellectually and emotionally was his family.
Few lives have been lived as intensely as that of Karl Marx. And through this book the zeal that his entire family shared is honoured.
His wife Jenny, his collaborator, transcribed his notoriously indecipherable handwriting so that printers could read it. As such, she was fully united with his thought processes and shared his outlook.
As is clear in this book, she was fully as much a revolutionary as her husband, but in no way such a public figure.
However, she was recognised as a lynchpin of the exiles who swirled around their household, an essential part of the underground movement Marx and his key collaborator Frederick Engels were leading.
Their surviving three daughters were also his collaborators, first as his secretaries and then as revolutionary activists in their own right. Also part of the close-knit group were the household maid Helene Demuth (mother of Marx’s illegitimate son, Freddy) and Engels.
It was this household that was the core of the “Marx party” ― the revolutionary grouping that pulled together such a huge circle of revolutionaries that the political police of several countries spied on them ― and was a key origin of the world socialist movement today.
Marx and Engels’ project was to coordinate and lead, as far as possible, the entire revolutionary movement ― first in Europe and later the globe ― and to have Marx’s investigation of the operations of capitalism published.
Both tasks were Herculean and almost beyond the capabilities of human flesh. A well-funded political office could have achieved the first and a placidly tenured academic could have accomplished the second.
Trying to organise a revolutionary centre without resources in the stinking, disease-ridden backstreets of Victorian London was hard enough. But trying to achieve a ground-breaking analysis of the operations of the entire economic system with nothing but a desk and broken chairs was near impossible.
The stress of producing Capital drove Marx to near distraction. He missed deadlines (by decades), and his body rebelled against him. He suffered sleeplessness, headaches, boils all over his body and a persistent liver complaint.
Other political work would loom large and he would gain apparent relief from his research by diving into the political melee.
The force that drove Marx was shared by them all and made for a terribly difficult, poverty-stricken existence. When Capital Volume I was finally published, after 20 years in the writing, Marx observed that he had “sacrificed my health, happiness, and family” to complete the book. Among sacrifices shared with Jenny were the death of four children due to poverty.
We are lucky that Marx and just about everyone in his circle were great letter writers. This biography, which focuses on the personal and the familial, would have been impossible without the great trove of letters.
As Engels lived mostly in Manchester, daily letters between the two collaborators were necessary.
The Marx family, which essentially included Engels, was characterised by astonishing intellectualism, great playfulness and passion.
It is clear that Marx, for all his public political work, was an introvert. That trait made him prickly and challenging in public but a joy to his family and friends in private. Evenings at the Marx home would be spent with the family performing scenes from Shakespeare’s plays or reciting poetry in various languages.
Marx loved books and found relief from sickness and hardship through such things as teaching himself Danish or studying advanced calculus.
Gabriel pulls no punches about Marx’s personal failings. Marx was quite capable of selfishness and foolishness, not least of which was his fathering of a baby with Helene Demuth while Jenny was in Germany begging money from rich relatives so the family could survive.
Of all of the characters in this epic, Demuth and Freddy are the least developed, which is a great pity, because they were not minor figures. Evidently they wrote less than the others.
Engels looms large as the benefactor who generously opened his purse not only to the Marx family but to other revolutionaries in need.
Gabriel is no Marxist, rather she is a liberal who appears to have been awakened to Marx’s brilliance through researching this book.
She is very good at conveying the physical and political setting of each stage of the Marx family journey and she ably summarises important political texts. That is very useful for situating these writings in their context and makes this book a useful reading guide to Marx’s writings, similar to Alan Brien’s Lenin, The Novel for Lenin’s works.
Gabriel’s political grasp is a bit thin at times. Unaccountably, she underestimates the importance of Marx and Engels’ work in support of the Union forces in the American Civil War. She pictures Marx spending the war reading newspapers in a cafe.
In Marx at the Margins, Kevin Anderson showed that Marx was personally involved in the effective ban on slave cotton that the Manchester workers maintained for the duration of the conflict. That was at the expense of their own livelihood, an outstanding example of working-class solidarity.
Moreover, when the British government tried to enter the war on the side of the south, Marx was responsible for a huge demonstration that stopped the government in its tracks. In that manner, Marx and Engels made no small contribution to the victory over slavery in the US, a world historic event.
To counteract these deficiencies, this book could be read together with Anderson’s book and Karl Marx, Man and Fighter by Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen Helfen.
What shines through Gabriel’s book is not just the extraordinary hardships that were endured by the Marx family, but the love shared. This family was committed to a socialist vision and worked tirelessly towards it.
Turning these pages to find out what happened, both the joy and the heartbreak, is very easy. Gabriel draws the reader into their world.