Mohr in Love


Karl and Jenny Marx, 1866

From Barnes and Noble Review:

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.

Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, by Mary Gabriel, reviewed by Troy Jollimore, Barnes and Noble Review