Love and revolution: Marx family biography has lessons

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




Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.