Love in the Time of Capital

Love in the Time of Capital

Marx’s understanding of love tells us a lot about his interpretation of capital.

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

by Mary Gabriel
Little, Brown, 2011, 707 pp.

In 1843, a young Karl Marx called for the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” Marx was, at the time, an aspiring radical thinker, journalist, and scourge of bourgeois convention. He was also newly wed to the Baroness Johanna von Westphalen—or Jenny as she was less ostentatiously known. There is a puzzle here.

The Westphalen family had long figured prominently in Marx’s life. Jenny’s brother, Edgar, was his best—really, his only—childhood friend. Jenny’s father, the Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, had taken young Karl under his wing. The sixty-something aristocrat led his teenage companion on long walks where they discussed art and politics along the Moselle River. Marx, then a middling student, found himself enraptured: both with the man who had opened this new world to him and with his mentor’s daughter.

Jenny fell for him too. Not even the awful love poetry with which Marx inundated her—cringe-inducing lines such as, “Truly, I would write it down as a refrain/For the coming centuries to see/LOVE IS JENNY, JENNY IS LOVE’S NAME”—dissuaded her. When Marx returned from his first year at university, just a few months after his eighteenth birthday, he and Jenny became secretly engaged. Six years later, Marx completed his doctorate, Jenny overcame resistance from family members, and the two married. Establishing a theme that would run through their union, Marx brought luggage containing more than forty books on their honeymoon. He had work to do.

Mary Gabriel unfolds the story of this relationship in her latest work, Love and Capital. A former journalist and author of two previous biographies, Gabriel sets herself the task of writing “the bittersweet drama” of Karl and Jenny’s life together. But her book is more a recasting of Marx’s life as a Victorian novel than a dual biography. Gabriel’s real concern lies with those who made Marx’s work possible: a rotating cast of characters that shifted constantly as some rose in Marx’s esteem while others fell out of favor. She gives special attention to the Marx children born in the marriage—seven in total, three of whom survived to adulthood (all of the women, curiously, were given their mother’s first name). But in Gabriel’s telling, even Jenny seems less an autonomous entity than a reflection of light cast by Marx. Her duty, it seems, was not to help foment the coming revolution but to “humanize” her husband when he lost himself in theoretical abstraction.

Gabriel also seeks to humanize Marx. To a remarkable extent, she succeeds. She has a keen journalist’s eye, and hardly a page goes by without the excavation of a striking detail or telling thumbnail sketch. Many of the chapters soar, especially a captivating recreation of the Marxes—Karl and Jenny, with the children in tow—as they attempted to fan the revolutionary fervor of 1848.

Gabriel is on shakier ground when she reaches for the larger historical context, where she relies heavily on Eric Hobsbawm, a fine if predictable choice for an author of obvious Marxist sympathies. More problematic is her weakness for bending history to suit her (and Marx’s) preferences. She insists, for instance, “that from the mid-1860s on, all men in Europe and America worked for some form of wage.” It is a nice factoid, especially for one eager to detect the making of an industrial proletariat. Unfortunately, it’s not true. In the United States, at least, the proportion of farmers laboring for wages declined at the end of the nineteenth century.

But Gabriel’s readers—and judging by the book’s sales, there are quite a few—don’t ask for a rigorous academic reconstruction of the Marxes’ life. They want a romance, and they get it. Gabriel never loses sight of the human drama unfolding beneath grand historical events. From the fumbling courtship that opens the narrative to the images of the Marxes—now an old couple—gossiping about their daughters’ love lives, Gabriel brings her subjects vividly to life.

Vividly but, for good reason, not always sympathetically. Marx was quick to anger and slow to forgive or apologize. He cultivated resentments with the same care and intensity he devoted to his intellectual obsessions—maybe more so, as he did not abandon his growing number of resentments when drunk. His political and intellectual enemies were numerous, but, as the cliché goes, he hurt nobody more than the people he loved, especially his wife, his children, and Friedrich Engels. Marx had a fondness for describing capitalists as vampires, but the metaphor works just as well when applied to him. He used people, taking everything he could and discarding them if they proved recalcitrant. Unwilling to accommodate others, he demanded constant sacrifice from those around him. Even Gabriel, the most generous observer a Marx partisan could hope for, concedes that he was “deeply self-centered” and “maddeningly blind.” He dedicated his life to advancing the cause of humanity with a special concern for generations yet unborn. But actual humans—in particular, those who depended on him the most—were trickier.

For his family, there was the travel from country to country in search of fertile revolutionary ground or in flight from hostile governments. Poverty followed them wherever they went, along with too frequent neglect from the man who often seemed happiest scribbling away in a library or indulging his affection for binge drinking. His friends were not treated much better, although unlike Marx’s family they did not rely upon him for financial support. More often, it was the reverse. A sadly typical letter from Marx would consist of grand proclamations that a much-delayed treatise would soon arrive, grumblings about the latest colleague he felt had slighted him, and then a lengthy exposition of his pecuniary woes, concluding with oh-so-unsubtle requests for cash.

Engels was treated to a virtuoso display of Marx’s narcissism after the death of his companion, Mary Burns. Marx’s letter of condolence offered two lines of sympathy and thirty-one lines about his troubled finances and the toll placed upon him by his role as “silent stoic.” (Marx has been described in many ways, but he is perhaps the only person to have suggested that he was “silent.”) Engels replied a week later, “All my friends, including philistine acquaintances, have on this occasion, which in all conscience must needs afflict me deeply, given me proof of greater sympathy and friendship than I could have looked for. You thought it a fit moment to assert the superiority of your ‘dispassionate turn of mind.’” The two soon patched up their friendship—Engels was sending Marx checks again by the end of the month—but memory of the rupture lingered.

The injuries Marx dealt his wife were by far the greatest. Marx inflicted many wounds on Jenny over their decades together, but none matched what Gabriel describes as his “ultimate betrayal”: fathering a child with their family’s maid, Helene Demuth. Jenny and Demuth had known each other for most of their lives. Demuth had begun working in the Westphalen household when she was eleven and Jenny was seventeen. In 1845, Jenny’s mother had sent Demuth to the Marxes to assist the pregnant Jenny in caring for her growing family. She proved an invaluable aid, a kind of Engels for the home.

If Demuth had not given birth, there is little chance we would ever have known of Marx’s affair. There is no mention of it in any of the Marx family’s letters, just allusions to a bleak time when Marx complained that “at home everything’s always in a state of siege” and declared himself “infuriated by floods of tears” that poured from his wife. Jenny’s memoirs were equally mum about their turbulent home life. “In the early summer 1851,” she recalled, “an event occurred which I do not wish to relate here in detail, although it greatly contributed to increase our worries, both personal and others.”

Gabriel spends considerably more space on the incident than Jenny allowed herself. Conception occurred, she concludes, in the summer of 1850, while Jenny was in Holland pleading with her family for financial support. Demuth gave birth the following year—in the “early summer” of Jenny’s memory—to a healthy boy she named Henry Frederick Demuth. “Henry,” perhaps, for Marx’s father; “Frederick” for Engels, the man who later claimed paternity of the child to save Marx’s reputation. The boy was left to a foster family and spent his life trying to prove that Marx was his father.

Marx’s relationship with Demuth should be central to any account of his marriage to Jenny. The three had lived together for almost a decade at the time of Freddy’s birth, and they would stay together for decades more. Demuth, in fact, outlived both her employers, and is buried with them. But any evidence that might shed light on the life these three made has long been destroyed. Gabriel does admirable work with the material she has but no amount of research can provide a full account of this household. A voluminous paper trail can deceive us into thinking we know more than we do. Marx courted Jenny passionately. Almost half a century later, just a year after her own passing, he died with a picture of her in his pocket. What happened in between is a mystery.

But why should we hunger for scenes from this marriage? A world with Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashian clan already has lifetimes’ worth of gossip. To be sure, there is an undeniable—and, for opponents, delicious—irony in Marx’s hypocrisy, that all those great denunciations of capitalist predation sprang from a ferocious exploiter of his friends and family. Yet Marx was neither the first nor the last radical to discover that his politics could not protect him from getting mired in what he referred to as “petty-bourgeois muck.” He matters today not because he was as flawed as the rest of us but for the same reason so many were willing to sacrifice so much for him in his lifetime. Marx was a genius. Those closest to him knew that, and his ideas, as Gabriel puts it, were “the steel mesh” that bound his family together.

It is here that Gabriel stumbles. She intersperses her narrative with brief sketches of Marx’s work—two pages on the Manifesto here, three on The Eighteenth Brumaire there, and so on down the corpus. Readers lacking prior familiarity with Marx could be forgiven if they finish Gabriel’s book with only a vague sense that Marx tried to develop a scientific account of exploitation under capitalism, that he cared a lot about labor, that he developed some interesting theories of history, and that Capital is a difficult read. Of course, innumerable volumes explicating Marx’s work already exist. But without a sense of why Marx’s thought was so revelatory, he can seem like just another narcissistic intellectual stuffed with delusions of grandeur.

Love and Capital’s subtitle promises an account of “the Birth of a Revolution.” But the only things Karl and Jenny ever gave birth to were children, and Gabriel never explains what “revolution” the couple allegedly spawned. The book closes with Lenin exhorting spectators at the 1911 funeral of Marx’s last remaining daughter to rebel in the name of the proletariat, but what twentieth-century figure or movement deserves the title of Marx’s heir, other than Freddy, remains ambiguous and hotly debated.

Gabriel’s neglect of Marx’s thought is especially unfortunate because his understanding of love tells us a lot about his interpretation of capital—and, well, everything else. She hints at this question in her discussion of The German Ideology, a work co-written with Engels that contains one of their richest elaborations of historical materialism. Men, in their telling, were defined by labor, the brute necessity of satisfying the exigencies of human life. “The first historical act,” they concluded, was “the production of material life itself.” Harsh reality lay underneath whatever superstructural curlicues might spin out of the material base—a fact as true under mature capitalism as it was for the first tribes.

Sex provided Marx with the foundation of his thesis. “Cries from Marx’s top floor [were] surely in mind,” Gabriel claims, when he and Engels contended in The German Ideology that “the first division of productive labor was between a man and a woman for child breeding.” Men and women had no choice but to fulfill the roles inscribed in their bodies. Families emerged from this natural order of reproduction, the first instance of a social structure growing out of material necessity. Love, or at least sex, came before, and made possible, capital. No modes of production appear without, first, reproduction. Sex established the division of labor, for Marx, and families provided a model of historical development that Marx and Engels could then extend to society as a whole.

As should be expected from the philosopher of praxis, Marx’s theoretical commitments had practical consequences. Fixation on the material led him to a politics obsessed with fostering of class-consciousness among the industrial proletariat instead of focusing on the many other areas of exploitation and alienation in the modern world. Those who drew attention to these other areas—even those who were allies on the left—were regarded, at best, as woolly-headed utopians and unscientific pseudo-socialists.

Gabriel has a deep familiarity with the consequences of Marx’s myopia. Her first biographical subject, Victoria Woodhull, was one of its most prominent victims. Suffragist, newspaper editor, faith healer, free-love advocate, stockbroker, and 1872 candidate of the Equal Rights Party for president of the United States, Woodhull published the first English-language edition of the Communist Manifesto in the United States and headed a section of the International Workingmen’s Association, later remembered as the famous First International.

A craving for celebrity and a propensity for adopting seemingly incompatible political beliefs made Woodhull an imperfect advocate for her early fusion of socialism and feminism. Whatever her faults, Woodhull’s call for “the Political Equality and Social Freedom of men and women alike” seems remarkably prescient today.

Marx loathed her. He denounced Woodhull as a “banker’s woman, free-lover and general humbug.” With Marx’s support, she was driven out of the IWA, helping to close a brief moment when it seemed that a more expansive socialist coalition might be forged.

Woodhull does not appear in Gabriel’s latest book, and Marx has only a cameo in her first. But Woodhull’s ouster from the IWA highlights some of Marx’s most glaring deficiencies. Contrary to Marx, the promotion of radical politics need not marginalize claims that fall outside the familiar ambit of political economy. We are freer than Marx could imagine, which means we cannot rely on history—or History—to do our work for us. Recognizing this is the first step toward completing the project that eluded Marx—both in theory and in life—that of creating a world beyond exploitation, not just for its workers but for everyone.

Timothy Shenk is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University.

Photo: Karl Marx and his wife, Jenny von Westphalen, 1850