Love and revolution: Marx family biography has lessons

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A frequently heard quote from Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara is: "Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love."

A biography of the Marx family by journalist Mary Gabriel, published in 2011 and now available in paperback, should make all progressive activists reflect on Che's saying. For this story of Karl Marx and his wife, friend, lifelong lover and chief follower, Jenny von Westphalen, and their family and circle is both a love story and a historical-political account.

The book is "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution." It is, by the way, exceedingly well written.

Many books about the personal lives of people like Marx are annoying, because while they tell us interesting stuff about their illustrious subjects, the authors do not really understand their politics. Gabriel, however, "gets" Marx and Marxism. Though Marx's theories are not her main subject, she shows the reader why it was that Karl and Jenny Marx were willing to put up with persecution, poverty, sickness and the death in infancy or childhood of three of their six children, for the working class cause. At each step, she cleverly interweaves the political with the personal, and shows us how the Marx family and close friends functioned as a unit to lay the theoretical and practical foundation for the socialist and communist movements worldwide.

Marx and his wife were anything but cold-hearted ideologues, callous about the fate of those around them because of their fanatical adherence to an abstract doctrine.

First of all they loved each other deeply for all of their lives. They shared many things besides politics; their lively senses of humor were so attuned that sometimes they dared not make eye contact in a room for fear of getting the giggles. They loved their children tremendously and got endless delight from them. Gabriel reveals that when Marx was writing "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" he was harnessed to a chair because his children were playing horse and carriage and he was the horsey.

The deaths of their children, especially of little "Colonel Musch" at age 8, were exceedingly cruel blows. When Jenny died of cancer at age 68 in 1881, Marx was nearly destroyed. When his eldest daughter, also named Jenny, died (also of cancer) a year later, Marx became a shell of his former self, and died shortly thereafter, in 1883.

Unlike many who have written on Marx's family, Gabriel gives a sympathetic picture of Marx's father, as well as of Jenny's family, the Prussian aristocratic von Westphalens. Heinrich Marx, was worried by his son's political radicalism and bohemian lifestyle not only because he thought Karl would come to grief, but also because he feared for the future of Jenny, whom he had come to love as a daughter. Jenny's father, Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, actually introduced the young Karl Marx to radical politics.

The Marx family circle included, also, Marx's closest male friend and political collaborator, Friedrich Engels, Engels' common law wife Mary Burns (who introduced Marx's daughters to the Irish freedom struggle), and long-time Marx family "housekeeper" Helena "Lenchen" Demuth, with whom Marx probably fathered a son. These were more like family than mere friends. Having no children of his own, Engels treated the Marx children as such. Occasionally Engels expressed exasperation with Marx's perfectionism which led him to repeatedly miss publishers' deadlines, but he was always amazingly supportive both financially and emotionally.

Marx's three daughters (Jenny Jr. or Jennychen, Laura and Eleanor or "Tussy") were, like their mother, substantial figures in the socialist movement in their own right. They all were chief disciples and hard-working assistants of their father, but also developed their own political activities, including involvement with the Irish freedom movement, the Paris Commune and the British and European labor movements.

But the fate of all three was unbearably tragic. First, they all married losers. Jenny's husband, Charles Longuet, was a minor figure in French socialist politics who neglected his wife's needs. Laura married Franco-Cuban Paul Lafargue, who subsequently became so doctrinaire that he provoked Marx's famous quip, "If anything is certain it is that I am not a Marxist". Both the Lafargues died in what we hope was a joint suicide in Draveil, France in 1910 (there are doubts).

But Eleanor's fate was the worst: She fell in with a truly sinister character, the British dilettante socialist Edward Aveling, whose financial dishonesty stained her reputation, and who finally betrayed her by secretly marrying a young actress. Within a day of being informed of this, Eleanor Marx committed suicide, on March 31, 1897.

What is the lesson? Back to Che: A true revolutionary must be motivated by love. It is impossible to love the working class or "the people" in the abstract, without having strong love for those closest to you. But the lives of activists, let alone revolutionaries, often puts this love under terrific strain.

We must make sure that we are working in a way that reflects our love not only for humanity, but also for those closest to us. And that is a collective task for the movement, not something which families should struggle with alone.

Book information:

"Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution"

By Mary Gilbert

Back Bay Books, 2012, paperback, 784 pages, $19.99

 

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  • Excellant review!

    Blaming Marx for the crimes of others is like blaming Jesus for the millions murdered in the name of Christianity. There have always been and will always be maniacal personalities that persecute their fellow human beings in the name of something.

    This book keeps Marx the man in context. It took great love and courage to say the king has no clothes.
    Thank you Marx!

    Posted by mike g, 03/17/2013 10:59pm (2 years ago)

  • In fact Marx did go to Algeria to try to recuperate his health after the death of his wife Jenny von Welsphalen. The last photograph ever taken of Marx, during his Algeria trip, is reproduced in the book.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 03/06/2013 1:27pm (2 years ago)

  • Thank you, brother Emile Schepers for putting the Marx quip, "..I am not a Marxist" in context.
    Thanks for revealing the internationalist content of Marxism/Leninism, from Germany to France to Ireland-to Cuba-the Americas.
    "The Moor"(Marx)-probably made a trip to Africa-Algiers, as his faithful to death bud Engels and co-polymath fought to restore to health this loving hero of humanity until death.
    Most of all, thanks for showing the motivation of love in this very human lover of humankind, who wrote that he, himself needed the Biblical patience of Job, but had not.
    Through 'Love and Capital'-solving the centuries old riddle of Capital, the Marx family, as family unit and inter-generational, in-laws and blood, both as one and many, helped to establish "E Pluribus Unum" if you will, socialism and communism-real human democracy-with love and collectivity, as we shall.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 02/26/2013 3:18pm (2 years ago)

  • Yes, Marx has inspired many despots over the years. Their blood cries out from the graves of the millions starved and murdered in his name. His misguided followers are still quoting his gibberish. Che's "love" was only for himself and the power he could wield over others. Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Mao, Pol Pot all are despicable. No account of their loving family life will ever erase the true history of their crimes and the misery they caused.
    Other than that...a nice review for the cause...may it wither and die.

    Posted by Laika Max, 02/25/2013 10:35pm (2 years ago)

  • A nice review of one of my very favorite books. Another chance to see Marx as a real human being. Howard Zinn's Marx in Soho also attempts to humanize the great philosopher. There are a couple new movies coming out soon about Marx that hopefully will fill in the missing pieces about one of the most prominent figures of the 19th Century that most people know little about.
    And thanks for reminding comrades to be loving human beings also.

    Posted by bill meyer, 02/22/2013 2:28am (2 years ago)

  • This book is going to make best seller's list in no time! It's written about the giant lover of the Proletariat, Karl Marx and his family, in perfect timing with re-rise of Marxism. We will all have many things to earn from it, especially those who haven't let Marxism into their hearts. And yes, Marxism is about the love for the Proletariat and for the mission: "Workers of all lands unite."

    I personally commend Mary Gilbert for her courage to write this Book and Emile Schepers for writing this tremendous article.

    Please keep an eye on my new political-economy and educational magazine called "The Marxist" or "La Marxista" in Spanish, which I just registered in Caracas, Venezuela which will printed in the United States in three languages, Arabic, English and Spanish.
    Yes, it is time for America to give a chance to Karl Marx to not only save the American economy, but the global economy and humanity from self-destruction!

    Dr. Waleed N. Akleh, J.D., LL.M.
    Former Dean of American College of Law

    Posted by Waleed Akleh, 02/21/2013 5:09pm (2 years ago)

  • If PW keeps publishing book reviews like this I'm going to go broke. Old folks like me need to start agitating for Social Security to come with a book allowance.

    Posted by Rev. Paul White, 02/21/2013 4:51pm (2 years ago)

  • Excellent article! Now to get the book!

    Posted by Harvey Smith, 02/21/2013 4:40pm (2 years ago)

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