August 19, 2012
The genre of the personal biography, when applied to famous historical figures, more often than not falls in the traps of sensationalism, moralism, or hagiography. This is not least the case when it comes to persons of considerable political controversy, such as Karl Marx and his friends and family. However, Mary Gabriel’s personal biography of the Marx-Engels clan studiously and brilliantly avoids all cliches and all sensationalism, portraying the characters ‘warts and all’, sympathetically but without making saints of them. Its almost 600 pages are unflaggingly interesting, intelligent, and informative even to those who are very well acquainted with Marxism’s theory and the chronology of its origins. But what’s more important is that it is virtually unique in its emphasis on the personal life of Karl and Jenny Marx, their children, their friends (not least of course Engels), and their many associates.
Although Gabriel makes sure to make clear the significance and substance of the various works Marx, Engels, and the family wrote or worked on during their life, this is not yet another political-romantic biography of the theoretical heroes of socialism. On the contrary, this book is a chronicle of their private hopes and pleasures, their struggles, and their difficulties. Also uncharacteristic for the many biographers of the Marx-Engels extended family is Gabriel’s courageous and timely decision to emphasize the significance of the lives and work of the women of the group: Jenny Marx, Karl’s wife; their three daughters, their only children to survive infancy; Freddy Demuth, the illegitimate son of Karl Marx; and the daughters’ partners, children, and friends. In the usual biographies of Marx and/or Engels, his wife appears merely in the background and his daughters are a footnote, but in Gabriel’s biography, they come into their own as serious and dedicated revolutionary thinkers and doers in their own right. In the process Mary Gabriel finally also clears up a number of small errors and confusions that have been copied from one biography to another, and she is to be commended for the great thoroughness with which she has conducted and presented her research on a topic many would think has been too fully mined to lead to any new gold.
In an era when both Marxism and the cause of women’s equality seem more under attack than ever before, and yet are more needed than ever, it is fitting and just that a great new biography should revive the founders of Marxism as human beings in all their glories and failings, and that for the first time the women in the family should play an equal role in the narrative. While the political and theoretical histories of Marx and Engels’ lives tend to be a story of triumph against adversity, Gabriel’s book makes it clear that this cannot by any means be said of the private lives of the family. More than anything else, it stands out clearly for the first time what a sad, difficult, and often despairing life they led, the women of the family especially. It has often been remarked on, but it only becomes clear from this work why the Marx women all died early, several to suicide; and it is clear that their lives were not as happy or as fulfilling of their own great talents, no less than those of the men, as they should have been.
Two great forces of their age made their lives more confined and more frustrated in its potential than anyone ought to accept of any society: on the one hand, Victorian moralism and the enduring power of patriarchal values; on the other hand, the more physical but no less destructive power of disease. The former held the women in restricted positions, endlessly sacrificing their wishes, their talents, and their very happiness to the cause of the men; the latter robbed them – the men no less than the women – of their strengths, energy, and future. In Gabriel’s book, there is rarely a moment that some member of the great Marxist family is not gravely ill. Many of Marx’s children as well as of his grandchildren died in childhood of vague diseases, caused by the poverty and inequality of their times, and incurable by the low level of medical expertise and the difficulty of affording it. In a time when both these great hostile forces, patriarchy and disease, are the prime enemies of the emancipation of humanity in most of the world, it is a sad but useful reminder of their impact to read how they destroyed the Marx family. Marx himself may well have lived longer and been much more productive, to the lasting benefit of our knowledge of socialism, had he not been perpetually ill and taken such medication as mercury and arsenic, never mind much alcohol, to alleviate it.
Love and Capital is therefore not necessarily a happy read. But it is a fascinating read, full of lively detail, engaging writing, and sound judgements. It does without the hypocrisy or moralism of many hostile biographers but also free of the pretense that the Marx family was flawless in their personal life. The author also does not shy away from the real revolutionary commitment of all the participants, not just Marx and Engels but their wives, Marx’s children and husbands also, and does not try to reinvent them as ‘democratic’ egghead theorists or irrelevant Victorian ranters. If one has to have an objection, it is some very minor errors and that the copious endnote apparatus often contains no further explanation of the many interesting and illuminating details first mentioned in the text. But those are just quibbles. On the whole, this book by a respected Reuters editor (of all people) is of enormous benefit to our understanding of the historical reality of the founding family of Marxism, and in particular of the real contribution of Marx’s wife and daughters to setting this great movement of history in motion. It deserves to be widely read and will surely become a classic in the history of Marxism.