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Book Review

Leaving his Marx: A man of weak character, strong ideas

(David King Collection, London Circa 1836)
By Michael Washburn
October 2, 2011

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With history or politics, ignorance is often the precondition of certainty. The less someone comprehends the world’s complexity, the more certain they are of their anemic ideas. Our current economic shambles has created a depressing amount of such lightless bluster. Each action the increasingly impotent Obama administration takes, or fails to take, is met by Tea Party denunciations of “socialism’’ or “Marxism.’’ Absurd on their face, such condemnations betray an absence of historical, economic, or political knowledge. The president is nothing like a socialist. For some members of the right, though, raising the specter of Marx is a convenient, if simpleminded, way to wrap an opponent in the cloak of an enemy of all that is good and true and American.

Such is the cultural climate that awaits “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,’’ Mary Gabriel’s beautifully written account of the “bittersweet drama’’ of Marx’s family life. Like all good biographers, Gabriel manages to humanize a subject who most know only as an institution or, as she writes, “a massive head atop a granite plinth at Highgate Cemetery.’’ Marx was an economist and philosopher, a historian and sociologist, but as Gabriel deftly shows Marx was most consistently a self-obsessed freelancer. The particular attraction of “Love and Capital’’ resides in the book’s unsparing portrait of a brilliant man who would never claim responsibility for his own failures when he could easily fob them off on financial, familial, or political obstacles.

Marx was born into a comfortable middle-class home in Prussia where he was acquainted with Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a minor Prussian noble. From the beginning Marx made the couple’s life difficult. Marx’s radical social advocacy kept him from obtaining a university position, so he began writing and editing for a series of radical papers in Europe. Under the best circumstances, the freelance life is precarious, but given Marx’s propensity to irritate governments - not to mention that he never received a deadline that he didn’t blow - the couple was constantly on the political and financial run.

Before settling into a role as the elder of European socialism and living a relatively comfortable life, the family’s life is a decades-long Dickensian ordeal. Marx was always in debt to a long list of creditors, but when he would earn a small amount of money he would spend it recklessly. Several of Marx’s children died in childhood (and two of the three that lived to adulthood committed suicide). On one occasion the family stowed a body in a spare room until they could borrow money for a funeral. If Gabriel didn’t possess such powerful narrative gifts these incidents would succumb to melodrama. Gabriel is dry though. Marx, she writes, only “recognized economy when he wrote about it.’’

It’s perhaps the most banal critical observation one can make, but “Love and Capital’’ shows how often history is merely an accumulation of contingencies. Without Jenny’s nearly naive dedication, Marx’s work would probably not have been completed. Likewise, if not for the financial generosity of Friedrich Engels, Marx’s longtime contributor and friend, the family might have starved to death. Even “Capital,’’ Marx’s masterpiece, was written in a hapless, almost accidental manner. If Marx had been arrested, as was often threatened, or if he had not been fired from his position as a foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune, the calculus would have been off, and the book might have remained incomplete. Pause on this momentarily. Without “Capital’’ the last century of political history would have been radically different.

Which isn’t to say that Marx was singular. Gabriel contextualizes Marx masterfully alongside the growing working-class discontent around the world, and she relays all of the infighting and espionage, the backstabbing and real politick undertaken by Marx and his fellow socialists.

But Marx’s family life is the heart of “Love and Capital.’’ Gabriel repeatedly stresses Marx’s love for his family, but it’s not quite convincing. To take but one example, after Jenny barely survives smallpox and remains disfigured by the scarring, Marx visits Holland. Marx ostensibly planned the trip to borrow money, but he extends his time abroad by weeks in order to pursue an attractive young niece. Marx also fathered a child with the family’s longtime servant and domestic helper. From each according to her ability to each according to his need.

So, yes, Marx was a lout with money and a scoundrel to his family. His life consists of a series of nasty contradictions. Gabriel narrates these inconsistencies and hypocrisies alongside an even-handed, if somewhat muted discussion of Marx’s thinking. She doesn’t contrive profound implications about Marx’s work from his deeply flawed character, but given our acrimonious politics this commanding book will surely be greeted as anti-Marx ammunition. “There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system,’’ Marx wrote, “which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery.’’ For some reason, this remains a contentious statement in America. Small-minded folks who assume that balancing a checkbook gives them insight into global financial systems will surely read Marx’s weak character as evidence that all of his ideas are fraudulent, if they bother to read the book at all.

Michael Washburn is a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. He can be reached at www.michaelwashburn.org.

LOVE AND CAPITAL: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution

By Mary Gabriel

Little, Brown, 709 pp., illustrated, $35