Why do some rare individuals become the vehicles of universal ideas?


Photograph by Pierre Wolfer.

From The Nation:

Born on May 5, 1818, in Trier, a city in the German Rhineland, Marx was the third child of Jewish converts to Christianity. His father Heinrich, né Herschel, had no choice except to fall in with the Lutheran Church if he wished to practice law in Prussia, but he also seems to have felt some genuine esteem for what he called “the pure morality of the Gospel.” Heinrich worked as jurist for the local appellate court, and in his father’s comfortable household Marx acquired bourgeois tastes that as an adult he never shed, even in the depths of poverty. (Clothes must be respectable, and at least one servant kept.)

Stedman Jones chides the teenage Marx for “a high degree of self-absorption” and speaks of his “infatuation with the idea of himself as a poet.” But you don’t often get a kid as bright as Marx without some self- absorption. Nor was Marx wrong in the estimate of his verbal gifts; in adulthood, they simply went to prose instead of verse. The summer he was 18, Marx became engaged to a young aristocratic woman, four years his senior, named Jenny von Westphalen, for whom he copied out these lines: “Jenny! Do I dare avow / That in love we have exchanged our souls / That as one they throb and glow / And that through their waves one current rolls?” As overheated juvenilia go, this pledge of union was not inaccurate, in a darker way than either youthful soul-exchanger could guess. Seven years into their engagement and not long after the death of Jenny’s wary father, she and her bourgeois suitor wed at last. Together, Jenny and the Moor (who some 20 years later was proud to note her lasting reputation as “the most beautiful girl in Trier”) would endure exile, much hardship and illness, and the death of four children.

“Every word is Deed and Fire / And my bosom like the Maker’s own,” Marx’s poem went on. The ambition of all committed writers is that words should amount to fiery deeds, but Marx was not at first a dedicated agitator or writer. In his early college days in Bonn, he preferred drinking and dueling; only after transferring to the University of Berlin did he buckle down to serious study. Disappointed not to have obtained a teaching position after submitting his dissertation on the materialist philosophy of Epicurus, he went on to a peripatetic career as a journalist and editor.

Marx returned to the German Rhineland, and aged 24 he was named editor in chief of Cologne’s Rheinische Zeitung, where the policy was to question the legitimacy of the Prussian state without running afoul of its censors. In 1843, when the government appeared poised to ban the increasingly confrontational Zeitung, Marx resigned. He had grown tired, as he explained to a friend, of “bowing and scraping, dodging and hair-splitting over words. Consequently, the government has given me back my freedom. I can do nothing more in Germany.”

“Marx’s Revenge”, Benjamin Kunkel, The Nation