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Love and Capital Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution
By Gabriel, Mary
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2011 Gabriel, Mary
All right reserved.
Prologue: London, 1851
There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery.
IN THE IMPENETRABLE fog they appeared as ghosts. Haunting the doors and alleyways along Soho’s Dean Street, they had come to London by the tens of thousands—Queen Victoria’s London, the richest city in the world. Generous, liberal, it had signaled like a beacon in the black and roiling North Sea waters, offering sanctuary to the unfortunate and the friendless. The earliest among them had been the Irish fleeing poverty and famine, but after continent-wide revolts, Germans, French, Hungarians, and Italians dressed in the outlandish costumes of their homelands disgorged onto London’s streets by the boatload. These were political refugees on the run after failed attempts to topple monarchs and win the most basic freedoms. Now, in the lashing rain and bitter cold, the very notion of battling for one’s rights would have seemed preposterous. The beacon that was London had proved a mirage; the city had opened its doors but offered them nothing. They were starving.
Day and night a cacophony of anguished voices strained to be heard amid the din of the capital. To survive, the newcomers sold what they could—scraps of cloth, buttons, shoelaces. Most often, however, they sold themselves, by the hour or by the day, in labor or prostitution. These men and women wore their despair like a rough cloak, the misery driving some of the industrious among them to crime. Carts ferrying steaming carcasses of meat and pungent cheeses destined for richer districts picked up speed through the neighborhoods of Soho Square and St. Giles to avoid their notorious thieves and cutthroats. But in reality, most of the refugees were too weak to fight or steal. They had made the long journey to England brimming with hope; what remained of those dreams was all they had left to sustain them.
In a two-room attic three stories above Dean Street, an obscure thirty-three-year-old Prussian exile sat busily declaring war on the very system that condemned those below to their wretched existence. He made no attempt to conceal his purpose. Hunched over his family’s only table, piled high with sewing, toys, broken cups, and other debris, he scribbled out a blueprint for revolution. He was oblivious to the domestic hubbub around him or the children who, having made his bulky figure part of their game, clambered up his back.
In rooms throughout England men of vision were similarly hard at work: Darwin was considering barnacles, Dickens had just given birth to his favorite offspring David Copperfield, and Bazalgette was imagining the vast underground sewage network that would flush away London’s deadly waste. And in this room in Soho, cigar clenched in his teeth, Karl Marx plotted the overthrow of kings and capitalists.
Marx’s revolution would not be the kind he mocked as beer-house bluster, advocated by émigrés in secret societies where they divided the spoils of a war won in their imaginations. And it would not be the utopian uprising expounded by French socialists who dreamed about a model society without any notion of the tangible steps needed to construct it. No, his revolution would be rooted in the basic premise that one man did not have the right to exploit another, and that history moved in such a way that the exploited masses would one day triumph.
But Marx fully understood that those masses did not even recognize themselves as having a political voice, much less power. They also had no conception of how the economic or political system worked. Marx was convinced that if he could describe the historical path that led to conditions in the midnineteenth century, and thus reveal the mysteries of capitalism, he would provide a theoretical foundation on which to build a new, classless society. Without that kind of foundation, the result would be chaos. In the meantime his own family would have to sacrifice; until he finished his book, Capital, they would have to do without.
In fact Marx’s young family was already well acquainted with want. The distance between the Marxes and those less fortunate on the street was much less than the three stories that separated them. By 1851, when Marx began writing his book, disease resulting from deprivation had killed two of his children, their small bodies laid out in paupers’ coffins in the very rooms where the other children ate and played. His wife, Jenny, a Prussian baron’s daughter celebrated for her beauty, was reduced to pawning the family’s belongings, from silver to shoes, to pay off creditors who hammered relentlessly at their door. And Marx’s rascally son Edgar readily absorbed the lessons of the street from poor Irish children who taught him how to sing and then taught him how to steal.
But most worrisome of all for Jenny and Marx were their daughters. The men who visited their father day and night were nearly all fugitives. The children rarely had a place to play that was not crowded with exiles who fogged the room with cigar and pipe smoke, and filled their ears with coarse talk and revolutionary ideas. Edgar thrived in that environment. He relished the stories of drunken escapades and, to Marx’s joy, bellowed at top volume the rebel songs his father’s friends taught him. But both parents knew the girls’ only hope of escaping a lifetime of poverty was a bourgeois upbringing in the company of genteel young women. No matter how committed they were to the cause, neither Marx nor Jenny wanted to see their daughters condemned to a life with the kind of men who climbed the narrow Dean Street steps, arriving at their door with empty stomachs but heads full of radical dreams.
Jenny cursed the fates that condemned her children to a life of indigence in a miserable flat full of someone else’s broken furniture. But as bad as it was, she was also terrified that one more missed payment to the landlord might force the family onto the street below. There was but a vapor of income, a vacuum of savings; their very survival depended on the kindness of a friend or the mercy of a shopkeeper.
Marx assured Jenny that she and the children would not have to endure such suffering forever. Once his book was published, they would be flush and the world would thank them for their selflessness. In a rush of optimism in April 1851, Marx told his closest friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, “I am so far advanced that I will have finished the whole economic shit in five weeks time.” In fact Capital was not finished for another sixteen years, and when it was published, far from sparking the revolt of the workingman, it caused barely a ripple.
The Marx family sacrificed everything for that ignored masterwork. Jenny buried four of her seven children, saw her three surviving daughters robbed of anything approaching a proper girlhood, had her once lovely face ravaged by disease, and suffered the ultimate betrayal when Karl fathered a child by another woman. She did not live to see her daughters’ final sad chapters—two of the three committed suicide.
In the end, all the family owned—all it would ever own—was Marx’s ideas, which for most of their lives existed solely as a storm brewing inside his turbulent brain, and which almost no one else acknowledged or even understood. Yet as improbable as it might have seemed during those years of hunger, Marx did what he set out to do: he changed the world.
Marx and the Baron’s Daughter
Trier, Germany, 1835
She required a true passion to relish, and above all some interesting weakness to protect and support.
—Honoré de Balzac
JENNY VON WESTPHALEN was the most desirable young woman in Trier.
There were others, to be sure, from much wealthier families, whose fathers had attained higher ranking among the nobility. And no doubt there were some who were considered more physically attractive. But it was generally agreed there was no one who combined such rare beauty with such a vibrant wit and intellect, as well as a respectably high social standing among the local aristocracy—both those born to it and the new class of men who had earned it. Her father, Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, was Trier’s government councilor, which made him the leading Prussian authority and highest paid official in the town of twelve thousand, nestled like a fairy village on the banks of the Mosel. Ludwig’s father had been ennobled for his service in the Seven Years’ War and had married the daughter of a Scottish government minister who was descended from the Earls of Argyll and Angus. It was to this Scottish grandmother that Jenny owed her first name, her green eyes and dark auburn hair, and also the rebellious streak that gave her features fire: Archibald Argyll was a Scottish freedom fighter beheaded in Edinburgh, and another relative, the reformer George Wishart, was burned at the stake in that same city.
In 1831, however, far from being a political rebel, seventeen-year-old Jenny was a fixture at the elaborate balls around Trier, where women dazzled in their gowns and elegantly arranged coiffures while men attempted to seduce them with finely cut evening coats and exquisite manners, but most of all with their most prized commodity, their wealth. It was a candlelit marketplace where young ladies were bought and sold, and Jenny danced from partner to partner, fully aware of the value of her appearance. The social expectations and boundaries were unmistakably clear—a velvet rope separated aristocrats like Jenny from other elements on the dance floor.
In a letter to their parents in April, her half brother Ferdinand remarked on the numerous men who courted her but said Jenny exhibited appropriate reserve. This changed, however, at a party that summer. There Jenny met a young lieutenant, Karl von Pannewitz, who ended an evening of intimacies in a fiery passion, asking for her hand in marriage. Jenny surprised her family, especially her father and the protective Ferdinand, by saying yes. It was a rash decision that she quickly regretted: within months she violated social protocol and broke her engagement.
News of the scandal spread through Trier. Ferdinand’s wife, Louise, described Jenny in December as shut off from the world, cold, uncommunicative, and withdrawn while her father negotiated an end to the affair. But by Christmas Eve, Jenny’s spirits had returned, and the entire family seemed happy to put the failed romance behind them. In a letter to her parents, Louise expressed shock and disapproval at what she called the strangely lavish festivities at the Westphalen home. “There must be no feelings at all in Jenny’s nature, otherwise she would have strongly rejected such an inappropriate festivity, alone due to sympathy for her unhappy (former) fiancé…. How long will it take until the first successor that comes along will replace Mr. von Pannewitz… the possible candidates have been made a bit shy by the treatment that befell him.”
By first accepting and then ending the engagement, however, Jenny had in fact temporarily exorcised the demon marriage that possessed her peers. She returned to the social circuit, but there were now no special men to attract gossip or the notice of her family. Instead, under the tutelage of her father, she began a program of study—a heady mix of the Romantics and a new utopian philosophy from France called socialism. Jenny particularly immersed herself in the former, dominated as it was by German authors, musicians, and philosophers. For them the highest good was to live for one’s ideals, to reject all that impinged upon one’s freedom, and—most important—to create, whether that creation be a new philosophy, a work of art, or a better way for men to interact with one another. It was not even necessary to succeed; the critical thing was to follow a dream to its conclusion, no matter the cost. Light, previously seen as emanating from a distant deity, became internal; man’s personal quest was now divine.
For Jenny, attempting to recover from her seemingly tiny rebellion against her engagement (which at that time in that society would have been a major revolt), Romanticism was heroic and exhilarating. And beyond her immediate circumstances, she saw another reason to embrace the movement: some of the Romantics espoused equal rights for women. German philosopher Immanuel Kant had declared, “The man who stands in dependence on another is no longer a man at all, he has lost his standing, he is nothing but the possession of another man.” Applying Kant’s statement to women, that possession was multiplied a hundredfold. The Romantics therefore offered nothing less than the prospect of true freedom for men and women—freedom not only to break rigid social bonds but to ultimately challenge the kings who had ruled virtually unchecked for centuries because they claimed to be God’s emissaries on earth.
By her eighteenth birthday, in February 1832, Jenny had begun absorbing these lessons at the very time the world around her seemed to be dividing into two camps—those who wanted to force the kings and their ministers to better serve a changing society, and those who wanted to protect the status quo. That division was evident even in her family: though a Prussian official, Jenny’s father admired Count Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, the founder of French socialism. The father’s passions would inspire his daughter, though he could never have foreseen how much.
Ludwig von Westphalen had long before been introduced to the French credo of equality and fraternity. He was eight years old when Napoleon won control of western Prussia, where Ludwig lived. With that conquest the lessons of the 1789 French Revolution and the Napoleonic Code were enshrined in the region, including equality before the law, individual rights, religious tolerance, the abolition of serfdom, and standardized taxation. But the French influence in western Prussia went well beyond the way society functioned at that time; it spoke to a changed future. French Revolutionary and Enlightenment philosophers believed in the inherent goodness of men and held that they would create a better society if they were freed from leaders who kept them ignorant in order to retain control. In this new order, achievement would be based on merit, not birth—a doctrine with enormous appeal to an emerging business class.
As with the imposition of any foreign laws, however, the citizens of the occupied region grew resentful, and many worked to defeat the French. In 1813 Ludwig, who was among the agitators, was convicted of treason and sentenced to two years in a Saxon fortress. He was released soon after sentencing, however, when Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig, and though Ludwig had seemingly turned against the French, he, like many of his western Prussian countrymen, continued to practice their way of thinking.
In 1830 trouble again emanated from France. An uprising that July overthrew King Charles X after he ignored the demands of the new grand bourgeoisie—bankers, bureaucrats, and industrialists whose power derived from money, not necessarily titles or land—and tried to undo steps his predecessor had taken toward granting the people a limited constitution. Charles was replaced by the “Citizen King,” Louis-Philippe, whom French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described as seeking to “drown revolutionary passion in the love of material enjoyment.” The bourgeoisie and educated classes throughout Europe were inspired by this French monarch, who saw the virtue in extending some freedoms in order to increase the flow of cash through France’s economy. These admirers soon took to the streets clamoring for reform in their own countries.
The subsequent revolts that year were in the main put down quickly and savagely, most notably in Poland. But there were some lasting victories: Belgium won independence from Holland, and significant changes occurred below the state level, where important new players emerged. Leading the charge were the grand bourgeoisie, whose members believed a liberal, industrial society inevitable. Also appearing was a previously unrecognized army of laborers, the proletariat, whose hands would actually build the new industrial world. And the French revolt was the first fought by socialists, then a middle-class movement that identified man as a member of a broader society, with all the responsibilities for his fellow man that this entailed.
In this early manifestation, socialism was a benign philosophy, reassuringly Christian for Catholic Frenchmen. Outside France, however, it and the swelling chorus calling for change raised alarms. Fearful German leaders responded to events on their western border with brutal repression. Throughout the thirty-nine states, dominated by Prussia and Austria, that fell under the German Confederation (or “Bund”), doors to increased freedom, development, and opportunity slammed shut with an iron finality, the nobility unwilling to relinquish one bit of its privileged status.
Nevertheless a group calling itself Young Germany agitated for more rights, tapping into long-simmering resentment in a population that felt betrayed by Prussia’s king Friedrich Wilhelm III, who fifteen years earlier had dangled the promise of a constitution if the people helped defeat Napoleon. The people had answered his call to arms, the rising business class helped finance the battle for the perennially cash-poor aristocrats, and Napoleon was defeated. But the Bundestag that emerged after 1815 was a federal assembly of kings and princes—or, as one observer called it, “a mutual insurance society of despotic rulers.” They built statues to fallen liberation fighters but did not reward the living with reform. Indeed, those rulers used their powers to further suppress dissent, instituting a crackdown on already limited freedoms. Riots erupted and sporadic violence lasted for almost a year as agitators were hunted down and arrested.
Jenny’s half brother Ferdinand was fifteen years her senior and the son of Ludwig’s late first wife, Lissette. He was as conservative as his father was liberal. In 1832 Ferdinand was building a career as a Prussian government official and a proud servant of the king. His father, however, was studying the very socialists the government wanted to suppress. In them Ludwig von Westphalen heard the familiar call of fraternité et égalité of his youth. He found merit not only in the coherence of the socialist ideal, but justification for its implementation in the street: the number of poor in Trier had grown dramatically, partly as a result of trade and tariff reforms. By 1830, one in four residents was said to be dependent on charity, and all the usual social maladies associated with extreme poverty surfaced—crime, begging, prostitution, and contagious disease. Ludwig believed society could not simply let people fail, it had a responsibility to alleviate such suffering. He began proselytizing those beliefs to anyone who would listen. Besides Jenny, his most eager student was the son of a colleague. The boy’s name was Karl Marx.
In 1832 Marx was fourteen and attended the state-run Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium along with Ludwig’s youngest son, Edgar. Though Karl had shown an aptitude for Greek, Latin, and German, he was weak in math and history, and did not stand out particularly among his classmates. He had a lisp, which he struggled to overcome and which may have made him shy. Under Ludwig’s guidance, however, he developed a passion for literature, especially Shakespeare and the German Romantics Schiller and Goethe. Marx also began to absorb the early utopian socialist ideas, which in those days were as fanciful as the plays and poetry he devoured. Sixty-two-year-old Ludwig and his young friend roamed the hills above the wide and languid Mosel River, through forests of towering pines, discussing the latest thinking. Marx remembered those times as some of the happiest in his life. He was treated as a man and an intellectual by a learned and distinguished aristocrat. Ludwig apparently also delighted in their talks, because they continued for years. Given Marx’s middling academic performance, Ludwig may have been surprised at how quickly the boy at his side absorbed his lessons, but he shouldn’t have been: for centuries—as far back as fourteenth-century Italy—Marx’s family tree on both sides included some of the most prominent rabbis in Europe. If the Westphalens descended from Prussian and Scottish men of action, Marx descended from a line of Jewish thinkers whose authority in religion extended into politics.
In Trier the Marx family had included rabbis since 1693. One, on Karl’s father’s side, was Joshua Heschel Lvov, who in 1765, several years before the American War of Independence and more than two decades before the French Revolution, wrote Responsa: The Face of the Moon, which advocated democratic principles. So great was his reputation that it was said no important decision was made in the Jewish world at that time without Lvov’s opinion. Karl’s grandfather, Meyer Halevi, who died in 1804, was known in Trier as Marx Levi and eventually adopted the surname Marx after he became the city’s rabbi. And the family’s rabbinical tradition continued into Karl’s own boyhood: his uncle Samuel was senior rabbi of Trier until 1827, and Karl’s maternal grandfather was a rabbi in Nijmegen in Holland. These men’s duties combined the spiritual and the practical; as their communities’ rafts amid waves of social change, they were effectively the civic authorities for Jews.
Before and after the French occupation of western Prussia, Jews were often looked upon with suspicion, if not open hostility, as outsiders in the Christian kingdom. But during the period from 1806 to 1813, when the region was under French control, a sliver of equality was extended to Jews. Heschel Marx, Karl’s father, took advantage of the opportunity to get legal training and become the first Jewish lawyer in Trier, taking his place in civil society and even serving as president of the local bar association. He, like Ludwig von Westphalen, was perhaps more French in his thinking than Prussian. He knew Voltaire and Rousseau by heart, and no doubt saw his future through their rational lens, expecting it would be free of the fear and prejudice that had prevented Jews from entering a profession or government service. But with the defeat of Napoleon, the Prussian government repealed the rights given to Jews and in 1815 officially excluded them from public office. A year later the government banned Jews from the legal profession. Only three men in Prussia’s westernmost province, the Rhineland, were affected by the ruling. Heschel Marx was one of them, and thus forced to decide whether to convert to Christianity and continue practicing law or remain a Jew. He chose his profession. In 1817, at the age of thirty-five, Heschel became a Lutheran named Heinrich Marx.
At that time Heinrich had been married for three years to Henrietta Presburg, who was neither educated nor cultured but came from a wealthy Jewish family in Holland. The couple already had two children, and a year later, in 1818, they had another boy, this one named Karl. Out of respect, Henrietta did not convert while her parents were alive, and the children did not do so until 1824. Once again conversion was not a religious decision but a practical one: Karl, who was six that year, could not attend public school as a Jew.
Thus, young Karl grew up in the crosscurrents of conflicting cultures. He was Lutheran in a Jewish household in an overwhelmingly Catholic city, raised by a father and tutored by a mentor, both of whom outwardly served the Prussian crown and abided by its repressive laws while secretly admiring the French philosophers who championed individual liberty—and, more treacherously in the case of Westphalen, their radical offspring, the socialists.
Many biographers have said the Marx family and the Westphalens were neighbors. Heinrich’s family did briefly live several streets away from the Westphalens the year Karl was born. But the Marxes then purchased a smaller home in 1819 on Simeonstrasse, just off Trier’s bustling market square and yards from the massive Roman edifice the Porta Nigra, a dark concretion that seemed to groan under the weight of its sixteen centuries. The Westphalens lived south, across town, nearer the river on Neustrasse, in a tall house with elegant long windows that gave passersby a glimpse into the rich life inside.
The two households were divided by both distance and culture. The Westphalen home sparkled in a whirl of social activity, with Dante, Shakespeare, and Homer frequently introduced to the festivities by Ludwig (who could recite Homer from memory and the Bard in English), and Latin and French floated into conversation as naturally as if they were mere extensions of the family’s native German. Guests were entertained with dramatic sketches and poetry as the household staff laid the table for sumptuous dinners that stretched late into the evening and spilled out noisily onto the street as guests rattled away in liveried carriages.
By contrast the Marx home, which by 1832 had grown to include eight children, was still. Karl’s father was a cautious intellectual, one who spent his time reading rather than reciting, while his mother spoke German poorly and with a heavy Dutch accent. She was not part of Trier society and appeared not to have any inclination to extend her world beyond the immediate needs of her family. The home was loving but not particularly joyous, moderately prosperous—Heinrich’s hard work and the family’s thrift had allowed them to buy two small vineyards—but without a sense of abundance. Marx respected his father, even if he often rebelled against his advice. But from an early age his relations with his doting mother were strained. He seemed to blame her for the gloom that pervaded the household.
Despite the differences between the two families, however, their lives were intertwined. Ludwig von Westphalen and Heinrich Marx were among the city’s mere two hundred Protestants and belonged to the same select social and professional clubs. Karl Marx and Edgar von Westphalen were classmates; in fact Edgar was the only lasting friend Karl made in school. And Sophie Marx, Karl’s oldest and closest sister, was friends with Jenny von Westphalen. The children roamed from one house to the other, and it may have been Karl’s friendship with Edgar, rather than his relationship with Jenny’s father, that first brought him to her attention. Edgar, who was five years younger than Jenny, was her only full sibling, and she confided to a friend many years later that he was “the idol of my childhood… my sole beloved companion.”
Edgar was fine featured and handsome with unruly hair that suggested poet, but he was not an intellectual; he was boyishly reckless and therefore protected (and spoiled) by his parents and older sister. The relatively studious Marx may have been seen as a good influence. Whatever the case, Karl was quickly absorbed into the family: by Edgar, who would become Marx’s first disciple; by Ludwig, who was charmed by the young man’s remarkable brain; and by Jenny, who could not have remained indifferent to this teenager who so impressed the two men she loved most.
In 1833 and 1834 the government’s crackdown on dissent struck close to the two families. Up to that point, schools in Prussia had been left remarkably free of official interference as long as the debates therein were about German philosophy. (The government hoped to counter the influence of corrupt French ideas with healthy German ones.) But after the death in 1831 of Germany’s greatest living scholar, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, some of his followers drifted into more dangerous territory, focusing on Hegel’s theory that change was inevitable. Prussian officials began looking more closely at universities and schools to root out radicals who might interpret “change” to mean “political change.” A government spy’s report on Trier identified some of the teachers at Marx’s school as too liberal, saying their students read banned literature and wrote political poetry. Eventually one boy was arrested and a popular headmaster sidelined.
In the midst of this, Marx’s father brushed up against the government over a speech he delivered at a club to which he and Ludwig von Westphalen belonged. The Casino Club, Trier’s most exclusive private association of professional, military, and business men, met in January 1834 to honor liberal members of the Rhineland diet (provincial assembly). Heinrich Marx had helped organize the gathering and addressed the group, thanking the king for allowing the diet to meet as a representative body of the people and applauding him for listening to the wishes of his subjects. But while his speech was sincere, it was interpreted as ironic and raised alarms among government officials. Weeks later the club met again, and this time the speeches (some in tribute to the 1830 French uprising) gave way to banned “songs of freedom,” among them France’s “Marseillaise,” which monarchies considered an incitement to revolt tantamount to raising a red flag. What alarmed officials was not only who sang the rebel songs—the pillars of the Trier community—but that they knew the lyrics by heart. The “frenzy of revolutionary spirit” (as described by a military officer at the event) could not be dismissed as an aberration. The club was put under surveillance and Heinrich Marx regarded with suspicion by the government.
Karl was an impressionable sixteen-year-old when his headmaster was demoted and his law-abiding father unjustifiably scrutinized. It is easy to imagine the impact the state’s repression would have had on him. If the notions of freedom of speech and equality before the law were previously abstract concepts for him, they were so no longer. Marx now experienced at first hand the Berlin government’s terrifying and seemingly arbitrary reach, and the anger and indignity a man felt when he realized he was powerless to confront it.
Marx scholar Hal Draper has noted that Prussia’s heavy-handed control had the unintended consequence of making “revolutionaries of very mild reformers.” Indeed, government efforts to suppress talk of democracy and socialism only ensured that the concepts were discussed—if sometimes in whispers—from the schoolhouse to the dinner table, across the social spectrum. And the more they were discussed, the less they were viewed as French imports; they became ideas that had relevance and representatives in Germany.
In 1835 a pamphlet by the father of German socialism, Ludwig Gall, appeared in Trier. It described society as divided between laborers, who produced all the wealth, and a ruling class, who reaped all the benefits. Heinrich Heine had become the most popular poet in Germany, despite a ban on his work. He had moved to Paris after the government issued a warrant for his arrest (one minister called for his execution), and his lamentations on this forced exile were enthusiastically copied and read in schools and universities where students were awakening to the potential of organized dissent.
Not surprisingly the atmosphere at the Westphalen home was charged. Jenny, Edgar, and Karl had all been schooled not only in the Romantics, who screamed out to them to recognize and confront injustice, but also the socialists, who blamed the ills of society in part on an exploitative new economic system that drove farmers off their land and artisans into factories. Germany still lagged far behind Britain in industrial development, but the Rhineland was its most industrialized area, and the effects could be seen in the new wealth on display in Trier and the new poverty. Marx needed only to look around to see the shapes that cast the shadows.
In 1835 Karl, now seventeen, prepared to leave Trier for university. In a school essay on choosing a career he carefully examined the allure of ambition, the inadequacy of his own experience, and what he called “relations in society,” which had already limited his aspirations to some extent because of his father’s social position. Concluding, he wrote:
The chief guide which must direct us in the choice of a profession is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection… man’s nature is so constituted that he can attain his own perfection only by working for the perfection, for the good, of his fellow men…. If he works only for himself, he may perhaps become a famous man of learning, a great sage, an excellent poet, but he can never be a perfect, truly great man….
If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.
That was the Romantic rebel Jenny von Westphalen fell in love with. This provincial man-child, who dared to declare himself a tool for the improvement of all mankind, embodied the heroes in the books her father gave her—he was Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Schiller’s Karl von Moor, and he would be Shelley’s Prometheus, chained to a precipice because he dared to challenge a tyrannical god. In the young man four years her junior who stood before her bursting with self-confidence and courage, absolutely convinced of the powers of his intellect (even if he wasn’t sure where those considerable powers and that intellect would take him), she recognized her idol.
Despite scattered calls for gender equality, the most an early-nineteenth-century woman with Romantic aspirations could hope for was to bravely, and with much self-denial, provide emotional and domestic support to the man who chose to pursue his bold dreams. Such was the commitment Jenny made to herself and Karl. It is not known whether they declared their love for each other that summer before he left Trier for the university in Bonn, but within a year they had: in 1836 Jenny von Westphalen secretly agreed to marry Karl Marx.
Set me at the head of an army of fellows like myself, and out of Germany shall spring a republic compared to which Rome and Sparta will be but as nunneries.
—Friedrich von Schiller
MARX’S FIRST YEAR at university was drowned in alcohol. The seventeen-year-old who left Trier declaring himself ready to sacrifice all for the good of mankind rented the most expensive student apartment available in Bonn, joined the university’s Poetry Club, and became president of the bourgeois Tavern Club. He grew a wispy beard, wore his black curly hair long and disheveled, and on one occasion was imprisoned overnight for drunken rowdiness. He was threatened with arrest for carrying a pistol and fought saber duels against members of a rival aristocratic club. He also spent freely amid his champagne-quaffing fellow students. The few letters he sent home were generally appeals for money as he sank deeper and deeper into debt.
That was not the start Marx’s father had envisioned for his son. Karl was the first member of his family to attend university, and the day he left for school, on October 15, 1835, the entire clan went to the riverboat at four in the morning to bid him farewell. As the oldest boy, he represented the Marxes’ future: he would be the support—moral and financial—for his five sisters and his mother, and the rock upon which Heinrich Marx’s legacy would be built. He would also be the first man in the family to construct a life completely outside the confines of the Jewish tradition, and his father saw avenues of opportunity from law to literature to politics awaiting him. This proud father told Marx shortly after the young man arrived in Bonn, “I should like to see in you what perhaps I could have become, if I had come into the world with equally favorable prospects. You can fulfill or destroy my best hopes.”
But it is unlikely Marx was listening as he plunged into his new student life. He enrolled in the law faculty, signing up for ten courses for the year. He was drawn to philosophy and literature, and he had discovered his voice as a poet. His father worried that in addition to an overly active social life, he was taking on too much academically, and warned, “There is no more lamentable being than a sickly scholar.” He also frankly said he did not understand Marx’s poetry: “In short, give me the key, I admit that this is beyond me.” And he wondered incredulously, “is dueling then so closely interwoven with philosophy?”
Heinrich was at times terrified by the unbridled egotism that impelled his son. He struggled to comprehend as he watched Karl lash out in disparate intellectual directions—he wanted to be a lawyer, a playwright, a poet, a theater critic. Both he and Henrietta implored their son to show restraint, out of regard for his health, his and their reputations, the family’s finances.
In the spring of 1836 Karl fought a saber duel and was cut above the eye. It was more a badge of honor than a serious injury, but it was enough to make his parents insist he leave Bonn and enroll at the more respected and serious University of Berlin. School officials at Bonn released him on August 22, 1836, with a letter noting his excellent or very diligent attention to his studies, but said by way of character reference, “He has incurred a punishment of one day’s detention for disturbing the peace by rowdiness and drunkenness at night…. Subsequently, he was accused of having carried prohibited weapons in Cologne.” To Karl’s credit, however, it was added that he had not engaged in any forbidden association—that is, political association—with his fellow students.
Jenny von Westphalen had no doubt been kept abreast of Marx’s antics by her friend Sophie Marx, whose postscripts to her father’s letters sounded breathless in anticipation of the next installment from her beloved brother. Karl’s adventures were wildly cosmopolitan and bold compared with life in Trier. If he was spending the family’s modest fortune in the meantime, so be it—living vicariously did not come cheap.
It had been only ten months since he set off from Trier, but the boy who left returned an eighteen-year-old man—more physical, more intellectual, and more exotic. Jenny too had changed. She was twenty-two and at the height of her beauty. The two who had known each other so well as family friends, and more intimately as students of Jenny’s father, were shy when they rediscovered each other. In a letter to Karl, recalling their encounter, Jenny wrote, “Oh, my darling, how you looked at me the first time like that and then quickly looked away, and then looked at me again, and I did the same, until at last we looked at each other for quite a long time and very deeply, and could no longer look away.”
Sometime between August and October, when Karl left for Berlin, the two became engaged. They told Marx’s family but not the Westphalens: there were so many possible objections on their side, from the difference in the couple’s ages to the fact that Karl had no money and no clear future. The unspoken objection, however, was social. In the rigid hierarchy of Prussian society it was permissible to associate across the stratosphere of the higher classes, but condescending to marry outside the aristocracy was a sacrifice most parents would not want their daughters to make. There was also the question of religion. Karl reacted furiously years later to the suggestion that his having been born a Jew impeded his marriage. But throughout his life Marx was regarded by friend and foe alike as Jewish, and it was unlikely his father’s conversion erased this heritage from the minds of Trier society. (In the Rhineland even marriage between Catholics and Protestants was controversial.) Heinrich Heine, a Jew who did not change religions, called conversion an “entry card into the culture of Europe.” It did not, however, guarantee acceptance.
Karl and Jenny, with the connivance of the Marx family (Heinrich Marx said he felt like a character in a romance novel), agreed to keep their engagement secret and not correspond directly until a way could be found to make the marriage palatable to Jenny’s parents. Fueled with a passion he said consumed him, Marx set out on a five-day journey by coach for Berlin, resolved to study diligently, find a career, and establish himself as an independent man and worthy husband. For her part, Jenny began her wait. She was no longer the seventeen-year-old who impetuously agreed to marry a military man, only to realize she had no interest in him beyond his appearance and skill on the dance floor. She was committed to Marx. Being forced to battle society to have him only made the affair more delicious.
Still, it would have helped considerably in persuading her parents to accept the match if Marx had distinguished himself at university, proving he was destined for the brilliant career Jenny knew awaited him. There is no doubt he understood that. But as would happen throughout their lives when Marx felt under pressure to produce or perform, he was paralyzed by distractions. There would always be one more book to study, some new data to digest, a language to learn in order to study crucial texts in the original. And in Berlin, Karl would find distractions to last a lifetime.
During his first term Marx succumbed to what one writer called the romantic “cult of isolated genius.” Perhaps it was a response to the size of the school—at two thousand students the university was nearly three times larger than the one in Bonn. Or it could have been Berlin: the city had about three hundred thousand residents and was the Bund’s second largest city after Vienna. Or Marx might simply have absorbed the academic culture in which he’d been immersed: Berlin was one of the most distinguished universities in Europe, and emphasized individual study and original research. Likely all of those factors, as well as Marx’s longing for Jenny, turned him into the haunted figure his father described in a fit of pique: “Disorderliness, musty excursions into all departments of knowledge, musty brooding under a gloomy oil-lamp; running wild in a scholar’s dressing-gown and with unkempt hair instead of running wild over a glass of beer; unsociable withdrawal with neglect of all decorum… in this workshop of senseless and inexpedient erudition.” Heinrich beseeched his son to straighten up. He tried to convince Karl of the poetry inherent in fulfilling one’s duty. But by then his son was already well beyond the reach of his father’s advice.
Marx explained what he called his “moment of transition” in a long letter to Heinrich written after his first year at Berlin, the only letter to his father from his university days to have survived.
When I left you, a new world had come into existence for me, that of love, which in fact at the beginning was a passionately yearning and hopeless love. Even the journey to Berlin, which otherwise would have delighted me in the highest degree… left me cold. Indeed, it put me strikingly out of humor, for the rocks which I saw were not more rugged, more indomitable, than the emotions of my soul, the big towns not more lively than my blood, the inn meals not more extravagant, more indigestible, than the store of fantasies I carried with me, and, finally, no work of art was as beautiful as Jenny.
He described breaking off all personal relations in Berlin and throwing himself into study and creative experimentation. His first inclination was to write poetry, and he produced three volumes for Jenny, but he said they were inadequate in expressing the “extent of a longing that has no bounds.” Next he devoured the law and the classics. He studied criminal, civil, and canon law, translated into German the first two books of ancient Roman civil law, the Pandect, and wrote his own three-hundred-page philosophy of law. He translated part of Aristotle’s Rhetoric from the original Greek, the historian Tacitus’s Germania and the poet Ovid’s Songs of Sadness, or Tristia, from Latin. He also began to teach himself English and Italian, and wrote a humorous novel, Scorpion and Felix, and a Faust-inspired play, Oulanem. And yet, he said, despite these multitudinous pursuits, “at the end I emerged not much enriched.”
What in fact resulted was a physical and mental breakdown. A doctor ordered Marx to leave the city for a stay in the countryside. Taking his advice, Karl walked nearly four miles from the university southeast to the fishing village Stralau on the River Spree. There he found accommodations, went hunting with his landlord, and, he offhandedly told his father, “While I was ill I got to know Hegel from beginning to end, together with all of his disciples.” The German philosopher had been dead for six years, and though his star had waned slightly among the younger professors and students at the University of Berlin (where he had been a professor), if Marx was going to advance on his intellectual quest, he had to pass through Hegel.
The most basic premise of Hegel’s philosophy was that the history of mankind was the result of conflict. Two ideas clash and the result is a third idea, which in turn comes into conflict with another and gives birth to something new. The nature of life is therefore dynamic; change is at its very core. Hegel saw this as inevitable, and called it the dialectic. Though the root of the dialectical process was based on tension, this was actually reassuring, because it said, in effect, that conflict was not arbitrary but necessary to historical progress. Hegel’s dialectic gave conflict meaning—or, as Engels would say, “mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence.” Hegel also advanced the notion of the Geist, or Spirit, which he held pervaded a people grouped together by historical circumstances, and its alternative, alienation, which occurred when a man did not recognize himself in the greater world or his productive contribution to it.
Hegel’s eloquent philosophy dominated the Romantic era in Germany and spawned dozens of “Hegelians” who discussed his theories until they, as he would have expected, produced something new. It is easy to see how exciting the hope inherent in his dialectic would have been to the generation studying in Berlin, where the movement was headquartered. They had witnessed initial calls for reform repressed and basic freedoms reversed in favor of stasis. And yet they could see beyond their borders to the west, in France, Belgium, and England, that political, artistic, and economic advances were being made because kings were not afraid to allow their people to speak, write, and, in some cases, vote. They saw steel being turned into rails that sent trains screaming deep into virgin countryside at previously unheard-of speeds of sixty miles per hour, and they heard the crackle of electric current, which had produced the first battery and stimulated the invention of a new and seemingly magical way of communicating called a telegraph. Applying Hegel’s teachings to this new world, the Young Hegelians saw in his conflict theory the potential not just for change but for social revolution.
Hegel had made Berlin a magnet for restless souls from within Germany but also countries east, most notably Russia, whose people strained under the feudal yoke of an even more repressive system. When Marx regained his health and returned to Berlin from Stralau, his romantic isolation was over. He joined a group of Young Hegelians in the bohemian Doctors’ Club, where he combined two of his favorite activities—philosophical debate and drinking.
Marx’s difficult first months in Berlin were matched by Jenny’s back in Trier. Because they had agreed out of deference to her parents not to correspond, she fell victim to jealousy and presumed neglect. Imagining that Karl in faraway Berlin had forgotten her, she became ill, exhibiting a lethargy her parents believed was physical but Heinrich Marx identified as depression. (Karl used the news of Jenny’s illness as a partial excuse for his own breakdown.) Heinrich, who acted as epistolary go-between for the young lovers, was nearly as tormented as she. In letter after letter to his son he spoke of Karl’s sacred duty toward Jenny and how only his efforts to win people’s goodwill and favor would ensure that “she is exalted in her own eyes and the eyes of the world.” He described the “priceless sacrifice” Jenny had made when she agreed to become his wife, and added, “Woe to you, if ever in your life you could forget this!”
Karl answered with the three volumes of poetry he had written for Jenny, which he sent to her via his family at Christmas in 1836. The first two were called “The Book of Love,” and the third “The Book of Songs.” They were dedicated “To my dear, eternally beloved Jenny von Westphalen.” Years later Jenny, who kept the volumes, laughed at his adolescent expressions of passion, but that December, on receiving the verses as her first messages from Karl after months of silence, she wept tears of delight and pain. Karl’s sister Sophie assured Marx of Jenny’s love and said Jenny would gradually try to prepare her parents for the news of their engagement.
That preparation, however, was only a new source of torment. No letters exist from Jenny during this period, so we hear of her struggles only through Heinrich, whose correspondence with his son increasingly included not only admonitions for him to set his sights on a career, but also advice on how to court and soothe the troubled Jenny. On the one hand, he was an exceedingly loving father trying to rescue and guide what he saw as an intellectually and morally dissolute son. On the other, Heinrich himself was not unlike a disappointed, if necessarily distant, suitor who saw the object of his love offering her youth and beauty to an unworthy rival. In one particularly poignant (and prescient) letter to Karl in March 1837, Heinrich wrote:
At times my heart delights in thinking of you and your future. And yet at times I cannot rid myself of ideas which arouse in me sad forebodings and fear when I am struck as if by lightning by the thought: is your heart in accord with your head, your talents? Has it room for the earthly but gentler sentiments which in this vale of sorrow are so essentially consoling for a man of feeling? And since that heart is obviously animated and governed by a demon not granted to all men, is that demon heavenly or Faustian? Will you ever… ever be capable of truly human, domestic happiness? Will—and this doubt has no less tortured me recently since I have come to love a certain person like my own child—will you ever be capable of imparting happiness to those immediately around you?…
I note a striking phenomenon in Jenny. She, who is so wholly devoted to you with her childlike, pure disposition, betrays at times, involuntarily and against her will, a kind of fear, a fear laden with foreboding, which does not escape me, which I do not know how to explain, and all trace of which she tried to erase from my heart, as soon as I pointed it out to her. What does that mean, what can it be? I cannot explain it to myself, but unfortunately my experience does not allow me to be easily led astray.
Heinrich told Karl he had long hoped to see his son’s name held in high repute (and though he never mentioned it, he may have seen the alliance with Jenny as raising the entire family’s social status), but now he wanted only to know that his son was capable of love. “Only then would I find the happiness that for many years past I have dreamed of finding through you; otherwise I would see the finest aim of my life in ruins.” As for Jenny, he said, “only a lifetime full of tender love can compensate her for what she has already suffered…. It is chiefly regard for her that makes me wish so much that you will soon take a fortunate step forward in the world, because it would give her peace of mind… you see, the bewitching girl has turned my old head too, and I wish above all to see her calm and happy. Only you can do that and the aim is worthy of your undivided attention.”
But Marx’s attention was divided, between this romance—which he told his children years later made him a wild Roland in his desperation to see and hold his Jenny—and his new circle of friends among the Young Hegelians. It may have been the proximity of those friends, or the blind (one might say obsessional) dedication to things intellectual that he would exhibit all his life, but Marx seemed at least temporarily to have chosen his life in Berlin over his love in Trier.
Marx had been taken under the wing of Adolf Rutenberg, a geography teacher allegedly fired after being found drunk in the gutter but who was more likely relieved of his duties for writing provocative newspaper articles. Karl also fell under the influence of the radical theologian Bruno Bauer. Bauer picked up where an earlier follower of Hegel, David Friedrich Strauss, left off in his 1835 book, The Life of Jesus, which argued Christianity was based on a historical myth. Hegel had held that God, a rational force, directed the dialectic of history. The Young Hegelians disagreed. Harking back to the Romantics, they argued that man was the author of his own destiny, that it was not imposed upon him by an unseen, however benevolent, being. And, if one followed that train of thought, the next logical but dangerous conclusion would be that if God was not the puppet-master, the king was not activated by his hand. Instead the king was a mere man whose authority could be—and should be—challenged by other men.
This was political dynamite, and nineteen-year-old Marx was at the center of the debate. He had been quickly accepted as a leader among his peers, even though most of them were not peers at all but established professors and writers at least ten years his senior. (One of these elders said without equivocation that young Marx was Rousseau, Voltaire, Heine, and Hegel combined in one person.) In these fervent and subversive discussions Marx was developing the uncompromising style that would earn him so many enemies, while also beginning to formulate, fragment by tiny fragment, the philosophy that decades later would come to be known as Marxism. Karl must have felt himself on fire. Ludwig von Westphalen’s reading of the utopian socialists while he and Marx walked the hills of the Rhineland would have seemed like the recitations of fairy tales compared with the debate that rumbled like a storm through Berlin coffeehouses and beer halls.
The Karl Marx who was being hatched in that heady environment was known as Mohr. This was an allusion to his jet-black hair and dark complexion, but also a reference to Schiller’s murderous but charismatic Robin Hood–like character Karl von Moor in The Robbers, who led a band of brigands waging war on a corrupt aristocracy. For the rest of his life, all of Marx’s intimates would address him by that nickname.
Heinrich Marx, however, did not recognize this son, this Mohr, sensing only the growing distance between Karl, his family, and, he feared, Jenny. In August 1837 Heinrich wearily accused Karl of neglecting his home, where his eleven-year-old brother Eduard was gravely ill (he would die four months later), his mother was frantic with worry, and where Heinrich himself had been unwell for seven or eight months. He said he could not entirely rid himself “of the thought that you are not free from a little more egoism than is necessary for self preservation.” In December, still trying to get through to his distracted child, he spelled out Karl’s obligations in numbered points. Under category number 1, “Tasks of a young man,” it said regarding Jenny: “procure her a future worthy of her, in the real world, not in a smoke-filled room with a reeking oil-lamp at the side of a scholar grown wild.” Heinrich said Karl owed a great debt to Jenny’s father, who had consented that spring to the marriage despite much familial opposition. “For, in truth, thousands of parents would have refused their consent. And in moments of gloom your own father almost wishes they had done so, for the welfare of this angelic girl is all too dear to my heart.”
Angrily, Heinrich declared that he and Karl had “never had the pleasure of a rational correspondence” and he blamed his son, whom he described as self-consumed to the point of irreverence. He rejected a letter from Karl that contained a few lines and an extract from a diary entitled “The Visit” as a “crazy botch-work which merely testifies how you squander your talents and spend your nights giving birth to monsters.” And he accused “Herr Son” of spending more money in one year than the richest of men, mockingly asking how “a man who every week or two discovers a new system and has to tear up old works laboriously arrived at, how can he, I ask, worry about trifles?”
Heinrich’s fury was exacerbated by the knowledge that he was dying. He had pinned his life’s hopes on his son, but he would not live to see them realized, and worse than that, could not imagine that they ever would be. In his last full letter to Karl, in February 1838, Heinrich did not apologize for his irritation and said he was only laying down his arms at that point because he was too tired to fight. But he wanted Karl to know that the source of his anger was love: “Always believe, and never doubt, that you have the innermost place in my heart and that you are one of the most powerful levers in my life…. I am exhausted, dear Karl, and must close. I regret that I have not been able to write as I wanted to. I would have liked to embrace you with all my heart.”
Marx had not planned to visit Trier for Easter. He had already spent more money in Berlin than his father earned that year, and his parents agreed the five-day journey by mail coach would be too costly. But his father’s deteriorating health, reported in letters over the winter by his mother and sister, convinced Karl he had to return home. He did so in late April and stayed in Trier until May 7, shortly after his twentieth birthday. Heinrich died of tuberculosis and inflammation of the liver three days later and was buried on May 13.
Some biographers have accused Marx of inexcusable callousness toward his father, claiming he did not attend his funeral because he said he had better things to do. That is a misrepresentation of events. Having just left Trier, Karl did not return for the funeral because it would have been impossible to make it there on time, and in any case, he had said his good-byes. And while there are no letters from this period in which Marx described his loss, there is no doubt it was profound. Throughout his life Marx carried a daguerreotype image of his father in his breast pocket, and at Marx’s own death forty-five years later, Engels would place the worn photo in Marx’s grave.
With Heinrich gone, there were no more appeals from the Marx family for its gifted but wayward eldest son to stop dabbling in dangerous philosophy and become a man worthy of society’s respect. But a new, more critical voice emerged, this time from the Westphalen household, and it did not appeal, it threatened.
Excerpted from Love and Capital by Gabriel, Mary Copyright © 2011 by Gabriel, Mary. Excerpted by permission.
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