Book Review: “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution” by Mary Gabriel 1/19/12
In the world of literature about Karl Marx, I would say this is a book like no other. So many books about Marx or Marxism are heavy-handed tracts designed to score political points for or against socialism. Other books focus on attacking Marx for crimes that occurred long after he died.
This book sets out to do something else altogether. In novel-like fashion, it tells the story of Marx, his wife Jenny and his wider family, including Engels. It combines the political and the personal, setting the lives of the Marx family against the drama of 19th century European politics. The book takes on questions like:
— What early experiences pushed and inspired Marx?
— What were the everyday lives of Marx and Jenny like?
— What was it like to be a 19th century revolutionary intellectual at the birth of the socialist movement?
— How did Marx and Engels collaborate and how did Engels help Marx and his family as a friend, comrade, and financial benefactor?
— Beyond their theoretical projects, what roles did Marx and Engels play as political activists?
“Love and Capital” succeeds in giving a feel for the lives of the Marx circle including Engels. It pulls no punches but at the same time it sympathetically chronicles the family history. It avoids the snark so common in books or even book reviews about Marx. The book does a great job in showing the human hardships and tragedies that befell the Marx family. While Marx literally changed the world, an enormous achievement for any man, the price he paid was staggering.
This is not some light tale about a dreamy romantic intellectual. I think it is fair to say Marx suffered enormously for his contributions. The long-term financial impoverishment, the repeated political deportations and exiles, the trials for treason and libel, the devastating deaths of four children, the illnesses, the anxieties – this was no easy life. The European ruling class gave no pass.
Gabriel quotes from a Prussian spy’s report on the Marx household:
“Marx lives in one of the worst – therefore, one of the cheapest – quarters of London. He occupies two rooms…In the whole apartment there is not one clean and solid piece of furniture. Everything is broken down, tattered and torn, with a half inch of dust over everything and the greatest disorder everywhere. In the middle of the living room there is a large old-fashioned table covered with an oil cloth, and on it there lie his manuscripts, books and newspapers as well as the children’s toys, and rags and tatters of his wife’s sewing basket, several cups with broken rims, knives, forks, lamps, an ink pot, tumblers, Dutch clay pipes, tobacco ash – in a word, everything topsy-turvy, and all on the same table…To sit down becomes a thoroughly dangerous business. Here is a chair with only three legs, on another chair the children are playing at cooking – this chair happens to have four legs. This is the one which is offered to the visitor, but the children”’s cooking has not been wiped away and if you sit down, you risk a pair of trousers.”
Interestingly, the spy also reported that Marx led the existence of a real Bohemian intellectual. He liked to drink; he had no fixed time for sleeping and getting up. The spy said that neither Marx nor Jenny were embarrassed by their poverty. He wrote that spirited and agreeable conversation made the discomfort tolerable.
In reading this story, I have to admit that I previously had no idea about Marx’s desperate financial plight. Gabriel says financial free fall was Marx’s way of life. Marx and his family were constantly in debt, hounded by creditors. He almost never had enough money to pay them. He practically lived in the pawnshop. Time and again, Engels was his financial savior and bailed him and his family out of numerous jams. It is amazing that Marx was able to write as voluminously and do the political work he did considering how bad his personal money situation was. However, during his lifetime, his writing, both books and journalism, barely brought in a trickle of money.
Gabriel raises some painful questions about Marx’s poverty. Marx’s delightful 8 year old son Edgar, nicknamed Musch, died of intestinal tuberculosis, a condition exacerbated by poor nutrition and unhealthy living conditions. Gabriel asks if Marx and Jenny’s life choices contributed to Musch’s death and she concludes they did. Yet, she sympathetically shows the degree of Marx and Jenny’s despair. She quotes Marx writing to Engels:
“I cannot tell you how we miss the child at every turn. I’ve already had my share of bad luck but only now do I know what real unhappiness is. I feel BROKEN DOWN. Since the funeral I have been fortunate enough to have such splitting headaches that I can neither think nor hear nor see. Amid all the fearful torments I have recently had to endure, the thought of you and your friendship has always sustained me as has the hope that there is still something sensible for us to do together in the world.”
Marx was incredibly fortunate to have a wife like Jenny and a friend like Engels. Both were undyingly loyal and both served him through thick and thin. Marx was an almost obsessively self-absorbed man although he was exceedingly cosmopolitan and witty. Jenny put up with him in spite of all the adversities including his infidelity. Jenny’s love for Marx is all the more impressive as she was born a noble and absolutely did not have to live a life of struggle and privation. Jenny helped Marx as an editor and as someone who could decipher his handwriting. She transcribed him. She was a rock.
If anyone comes off as a great guy in this story, it is Engels. Engels was a bit of a playboy, a great drinking buddy and a party animal but most importantly he was Marx’s protector, collaborator and friend. He recognized Marx’s intellectual genius and he did his all to promote Marx’s views which were his own. On an early trip to England in 1845, Marx and Engels were profoundly affected by what they found in Manchester and London. It was Marx’s first personal exposure to working class life. Gabriel describes a veritable hell on earth.
“In the workers’ residential area, low cottages consisting of two rooms, a cellar, and a garret housed an average of twenty people each, with one outdoor toilet for every 120 residents. The stench of human and animal excrement was pervasive; houses were packed so tightly the wind could not reach the courtyards to blow away the foul odor…
In this desperate world, family life disintegrated. Mothers who had to work but had no one to care for their youngest children gave the infants opium to keep them sedated until they returned. Girls as young as twelve were “married” off to ease the family’s financial burden and boys as young as six began their lives int he street for the same reason. Fathers, who had once enjoyed the dignity of supporting their loved ones now competed against their teenage sons for work that earned them a pittance. Sickness was one more luxury the poor could not afford; death was considered preferable and more merciful than injury or disease, because a hurt or ill worker meant another burden on already broken families. Indeed, funerals for the poor, especially the Irish poor, were raucous affairs in honor of the lucky one who’d passed on…”
As Gabriel shows, Marx and Engels were fired up by their personal experiences. Marx became obsessed with describing the awful world around him. Whatever the wrong predictions of Marx and the unrealized expectations in his writings, I think it is his analysis of capitalism and his class analysis that remains of lasting value. In the pantheon of worldviews, a class perspective strikes me as valid as any other perspective. It is holistic and relational and it can, if not vulgarly deployed, be a fine tool for explaining social reality.
Marx lived in a world where royals ruled and people looked to religion for explanation. It was radical to see humans, not supernatural forces, at the center of life. I do think Marx would be amused by 21st century politicians who complain about those who acknowledge class as fanning class struggle as if it did not already exist. Apparently acknowledging class is too much; better to pretend we are all the same in some vague amorphous middle class. Outside the United States, particularly in Europe, class analysis is more recognized as a fact of life and accepted. Americans are innocent, bordering on naive, about class. C. Wright Mills may be the last American who took on the task of applying a class analysis of the United States in an intellectually elegant way.
Marx was uncompromising in his formulations. Gabriel quotes him describing the perverse effects of money on the rich. I quote this just because I think it is so dead on.
“I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money…I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and hence its possessor…I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself…Does not all my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?”
While I guess this could be seen as over-the-top, I find it hard to argue with in our era of Occupy Wall Street, the 1% and the 99%. Economic inequality has gotten far worse but we have no modern day Marx who uncompromisingly describes it. It is rare to find any brave writers who step outside narrow accepted opinion. Marx and Engels had moxie and they were fearless as far as looking deeply at their economic system.
I did not know how important a role both Marx and Engels played in the formation of the First International. Gabriel describes Marx’s political fight with Bakunin as well as his efforts to organize and educate workers all over Europe. Whatever stereotypes may exist about Marx, Gabriel shows that Marx was a realist politically. He did not favor military adventurism. He was often criticized by anarchists for opposing violence. Marx keenly followed political developments although Gabriel says that Marx had a terrible sense of timing. He almost never produced intellectual work when due. He was invariably late for publication and Gabriel wrote that this weakness greatly harmed his book sales.
Marx died at age 64 in 1883 in the aftermath of the death of his wife Jenny and his daughter Jennychen. Engels described him accurately as the “best-hated and most calumniated man of his time”. During his lifetime he never saw socialism become more than marginal movement.
Gabriel credits Engels and Marx’s daughters for their untiring efforts to preserve Marx’s ideas. Volume II and III of Capital did not go to press until 1885 and 1894 respectively. Engels was responsible for taking text and piles of notes and turning Volume III into a finished work. “Love and Capital” carries the Marx saga through the largely sad stories of his daughters. They were strong political activists in their own right but unfortunately all married men who had great financial trouble supporting families. Eleanor Marx, known as Tussy, had a disastrous marriage to a conniving womanizer and con man, Edward Aveling.
There are many dimensions to “Love and Capital”. It is rich as biography, history, and as a great story. Because of the experience of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, it is not uncommon to see Marx blamed along with Lenin, Stalin etc. “Love and Capital ” is a corrective to that perspective. Blaming Marx for developments after his death is about as fair as blaming early robber barons for the depredations of capitalism in 1929 or 2008. Both social democrats and socialists owe a huge debt to Marx.
Gabriel ends with a quote from William Morris that is particularly apropos. “Men fight and lose the battle and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out to be not what they meant.” That quote is close to the truth.