Sunday, 1 July 2012

LOVE AND CAPITAL: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by MARY GABRIEL

LOVE AND CAPITAL: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution
Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 709 pages, $39.99 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

It was a ‘petty affair’, said Joseph Stalin, ordering it to be ‘buried deep in the archives’ lest Karl Marx’s fathering of an illegitimate child to his housemaid (with Friedrich Engels agreeing to keep it secret by assuming paternity) tarnish the image of the founder of modern socialism.  Mary Gabriel, in Love and Capital, describes how this greatest challenge to the “committed Communist couple”, Karl and Jenny Marx, was unable to wreck the Marx family which survived all manner of tests and whose members “sacrificed everything for an idea – socialist revolution”.

This latest Marx biography foregrounds Karl, Jenny and their three daughters for whom love, and Marx’s masterwork, Capital, reigned supreme despite the deaths of three children and four grandchildren, chronic poverty, angry creditors, irate landlords, spies and informers, ceaseless illnesses and dulling periods of political isolation.  It is the “story of a group of brilliant, combative, exasperating, funny, passionate and ultimately tragic figures caught up in the revolutions sweeping nineteenth century Europe”.

Jenny von Westphalen was a “Prussian baron’s daughter” of “rare beauty, vibrant wit and intelligence” who fell in love with Marx, the young, middle class, political rebel, renowned student debater and drinker, fiery journalist and all-round intellectual tempest.  Married in 1843, Marx took on their honeymoon forty five volumes of “Hegel, Rousseau, Machiavelli” and other philosophers, his “inquisitive mind” permanently in top gear.

With Marx almost perpetually “without work or income”, it was Jenny’s self-imposed task, and the socially-ordained role for women at the time, to “provide emotional and domestic support” to her husband.  Karl, unlike other patriarchs, however, regarded Jenny as “an intellectual equal”.  Their three surviving children (Jenny and Laura, and the youngest and more politically autonomous Eleanor) also willingly laboured in Karl’s shadow as secretaries, translators, researchers, intellectual sounding-boards, decipherers of Karl’s appalling handwriting and devoted daughters whose “courage, strength and brilliance” Gabriel rescues from the dark.

The Marx women (and Engels) were truly Marx’s saviours – emotionally and politically – during non-revolutionary times in exile in England when socialist retreat and factional squabbles, and the slow (sixteen years) work of writing Capital, weighed on Marx like a dead weight.  By contrast, at times of revolutionary ferment, Marx, energised by his eager family, was (like Gabriel’s book) at his best – his writing succinct, focused and eloquent, his intellectual and political leadership confident and decisive (which some mistook for arrogance).

Gabriel avoids the dual caricatures of Marx as “Communist saint or deluded sinner”, logging his flaws whilst concluding, like Jenny and their children, that a man could be great, flawed and still loved.  Gabriel’s non-Marxist pedigree gives force to her recognition of the historical stature of Marx who “did what he set out to do: he changed the world”, primarily through Capital.  Whilst “published to no acclaim” in 1867 (‘Capital will not even pay for the cigars I smoked writing it’, lamented Marx), it steadily built up into a “theoretical earthquake”, inspiring new generations of socialists to put Marxist ideas into spectacular practice.

Gabriel’s main interest, however, is less in political analysis than human narrative but what prevents what could have been a Marxist soapie (Days of Our Marxist Lives, perhaps) is the grand drama of a story based on real life actors whose family passion was matched only by the flame of their political desire – for a world free from exploitation and oppression.

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