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The birth of a revolution?

An interview with Mary Gabriel on Love and Capital

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 47 | June 2012


On February 28, 2012, the radio program Radical Minds on WHPK-FM Chicago broadcast an interview with Mary Gabriel, the author of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011). The interview was conducted by Spencer A. Leonard of the Platypus Affiliated Society. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.


Spencer A. Leonard: Love and Capital is a biography not only of Marx but of his family and intimate circle, above all Friedrich Engels. Why write this biography today? And why write biographically about great revolutionary intellectuals about whom so much is written interpretively?

Mary Gabriel: Up until 1989, it was difficult to talk about Marx, to examine his life, and not have it be part of a political debate. (Things have since calmed down, though I must say I am shocked by some of the responses to this book, and how rabidly some people still oppose any discussion of Marx.) Before the fall of Soviet communism, many books about Marx were used as Cold War propaganda: Communists made him out to be a hero he might not have been; opponents made him out to be the demon responsible for mass repression and bloody wars from Asia to Africa to Latin America. Lost in all this hyperbole was the real Marx. I thought it was time, given the increasing relevance of his ideas, to calmly and dispassionately find him, and I decided the best place to do that would be among his family and closest friends. There I hoped to discover Karl Marx, the 19th century economist, social scientist, philosopher, revolutionary, and family man whose ideas changed the world.

Of all the libraries of books about Marx, I did not find any that covered his life among his family in detail, despite the fact that they lived and breathed social revolution alongside him. Thus, I began my hunt for Marx by examining stacks of previously neglected material, in particular the correspondence between the women in Marx’s life: his wife Jenny, the three daughters who survived to adulthood, their husbands or partners, and the intimate circle around him. I was pleased to find these letters also contained a rich and powerful picture of the “Marx party’s” common political and intellectual pursuits. There is a huge amount of material in the Russian State archives in Moscow and the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. With the help of some friends and scholars, I was able to discover or rediscover a genuinely wonderful correspondence within the Marx circle, which allowed me to look at events—even a single day—from many different perspectives. Those divergent viewpoints help us see Marx’s life clearly and honestly, devoid of political manipulation.

SL: As you say, Marx is a figure people still have a great deal of difficulty with. One way your reviewers have dealt with your book is to write as if Marx and his family were simply quintessential 19th century bohemian, cosmopolitan intellectuals. But it seems that, in some ways, Marx and his family really are not the most representative of that type. Also, while Marx is arguably the most important intellectual of his age, any attempt to specify that claim and thus Marx’s legacy today is highly fraught. So if the Marxes are an atypical case, if they are very bourgeois in their bohemianism and if Marx’s legacy is difficult to specify, how does your book negotiate these problems.

MG: I tried to delve as deeply as possible into the Marx family story, using their own voices in direct quotes as often as I could, in order to let the reader hear and see them as they were—unadorned, unedited, unscripted. With that information the reader could then decide for themselves whether the family was bohemian or bourgeois, whether their intentions were to rule the worker or to help him. I also tried to anchor the story firmly in the times in which the Marxes lived in order to help the reader understand the importance of Marx’s work compared with other activists of the era, and the impact he had on younger generations.

I found the focus of some reviews to be odd. To me this book is primarily the story of what a group of people, faced with the realization that the existing political and social system no longer worked, did to change it. It is a book about revolution—not just a revolutionary, or a family of revolutionaries, but revolution itself. It’s about the social revolution that began in 18th century France, spread in the 19th century as it was shepherded by the growing democratic, socialist, and labor movements, and finally took hold throughout the West in the second half of the 20th century until the counter-revolution led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began. It is the story of where we, today, come from. The liberal freedoms that we take for granted—mass education, the vote, freedom of speech and the press, labor and women’s rights—are rooted in the tale this book tells. Marx and his family waged a life-long battle for those rights, which regrettably are now at risk.

SL: Taking the old slogan “the personal is political” literally, is the biographical aspect of your book about the politics of private lives? For instance, at a couple of points you describe revolutionary activity as the Marx "family business." As you point out, the fact that the children were Karl Marx’s daughters shaped them fundamentally. But, was the manner in which Marx, Engels, and Jenny and their daughters sought to realize themselves—as husband, friend, wife, and children—political? Is something lost in thus conflating ethics with politics? Hegel somewhere says, and I paraphrase, that world history is no place for happiness. Would not Marx think of himself as an individual—a friend, a husband, and a father—in a way that had little to do with himself as a historical actor?

MG: I did not look at the Marx family with the 1960s–70s notion of “the personal is political” in mind. That said, Love and Capital does describe the role of women through the experiences of Marx’s wife and daughters, as well as the expectations and traditions of 19th century European society. I did, however, stress throughout the book the inseparability of the personal and the political in the Marx household. Politics shaped their lives on every level.

The Marxes were a family like any other, fully engaged in the concerns of daily life, but even their most banal events were overshadowed by politics. That is because Marx, as a 19th century husband and father, dominated the house. His decision to live outside society, to commit himself to social reform, to oppose the class he was born into, indeed to work toward its demise, meant that his family experienced the consequences of that difficult path. The result for Marx’s wife and daughters was, on the one hand, poverty, ill health, depression, and, for most of their lives, a lack of all but the most basic material comforts. On the other hand, they enjoyed rich intellectual lives, self-respect, and the belief that their sacrifices on behalf of Marx’s work would benefit all mankind. They had the satisfaction of knowing theirs was not the frivolous existence of their Victorian peers. The fact that the family home was political through and through did not mean it was joyless, or that Marx was always “in character.” He did think of himself as a husband, father, and friend. He famously said the “microscopic” world of the family was more interesting than the “macroscopic” world of politics. For me, part of the joy of this project was to get to know Marx as his family knew him, to witness him at his most vulnerable and at his most triumphant, to watch him experience the small joys and sorrows we all do: In short to see him, as one young associate feared he would be revealed to be, a man, a mere man.

SL: What was the significance of Marx’s relationship to his father, his future father-in-law (the Baron von Westphalen), and of his early university training? How was his wife-to-be, Jenny von Westphalen, central to his early formation as a revolutionary intellectual?

MG: Marx and his wife were both from Trier, a town in Prussia’s westernmost province, the Rhineland. After the French Revolution, and from about 1806–1813, that region was dominated by France under Napoleon. So people there had been introduced to Enlightenment philosophy and French Revolutionary ideas of freedom of assembly, speech, religion, fair taxation, etc. That was the milieu that Jenny’s and Marx’s parents were raised in. After 1813, the French were driven out and all the old repressive measures reinstated. But Karl and Jenny’s fathers had both been exposed to the vast potential a man had if he exercised the rights that the French Revolution enshrined. Jenny’s father, Ludwig von Westphalen, openly served the Prussian crown as the highest-ranking government official in Trier, but intellectually he was not only reading French Enlightenment thinkers, but French socialists such as Fourier and Saint-Simon. Theirs was a new philosophy that responded to still-nascent industrial conditions. Baron von Westphalen began teaching teenaged Jenny and Marx about the socialists who believed that men had a responsibility toward one another, especially for those less fortunate.

In 1830, there had been another revolt in France, in which the monarch was overthrown and replaced by Louis-Philippe, the so-called “citizen king.” The events shook Prussia’s king and his aristocratic supporters because it was a revolt by a new class of people who did not inherit their money as they had, but earned it. This new breed pressed government to institute freedoms and abolish tariffs between territories, which they said inhibited trade. They also thought that, in order to compete in the new industrial world, they needed a voice in government. Louis-Philippe, who actually enjoyed business and who saw the scale of the wealth it could generate, came increasingly to favor the moneyed class, the grand bourgeoisie.

The Prussian aristocracy was unprepared for the kind of change taking place in France and the king instituted quite repressive measures. Around the time that Marx was to graduate from high school, his father was accused of giving a subversive speech to his club in Trier. Around the same time, a teacher in Marx’s school was sidelined for being too radical and a student was arrested for writing “political poetry.” So Marx felt in Trier the restrictive power emanating from Berlin. He understood that the freedoms he had been taught by Jenny’s father were meaningless as long as someone as powerful as a king who claimed to be God’s emissary on earth was in place. It was the beginning of Marx’s political education.

He eventually went to Bonn and then on to the University of Berlin. It was while he was studying in Berlin that he and Jenny became engaged. They were young lovers, but there is no doubt Jenny also found her political goals fulfilled in her union with Marx. He could be what she, as a 19th century woman, could not: a political player who might help change society for the better. All she could do was provide emotional and material support for him. And that was the path she chose. Through the years, her role developed into one of real intellectual partnership.

SL: Historians sometimes speak of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution as though they were finished by the 1830s and 1840s. But, the genie was out of the bottle in a way that no restoration could reverse. In that sense, the Revolution and the Enlightenment could be said to have done their work. On the other hand, the French Revolution was defeated, both from within and without, and Britain emerged as the dominant partner in a conservative alliance then dominating Europe. In this sense, both the Enlightenment and the Revolution remained burning questions.

MG: That’s right. Marx began with the ideas of the French Revolution. One man’s new idea is based on another man’s old idea, and it is no different in Marx’s case. Somewhere at the bottom of his thought were the ideas of the French Revolution that he had imbibed in his youth. As for Britain, he saw in its industrial society a laboratory in which to study modern society as a whole—its needs, how it might be reshaped to benefit those who were doing the work, and the political significance of a mass industrial army that had scarce anything in the way of wealth or rights.

SL: What about Engels? One of the strengths of the book is the way in which it treats “Marx” as the project of an entire family, or even a body of associates. In this sense, to fully understand Marx one must recognize how distinct he is from other thinkers in this crucial respect. Above all, the intellectual collaboration with Engels stands out as historically unique. How did Engels and Marx first meet, and what were the key phases through which their friendship passed?

MG: It is hard to imagine either of those two men having the historical impact that they had without the other. At various points, people would accuse Marx of having ruined Engels, or Engels having ruined Marx. Marx’s family would try to wrest Marx from Engels’s malign influence, and vice versa with Engels’s family. But in fact they were truly of one mind.

Engels’s father owned a factory in Prussia and was a partner in a Manchester textile firm with a pair of English brothers named Ermen. Engels’s father sent Friedrich there to learn the business. Engels, who already had a reputation as a radical writer (under a pseudonym) describing the industrial ills in the Rhineland, was eager to see Manchester, the industrial heart of Europe. He spent nearly two years there, beginning in 1842. On his way back to Prussia, in August 1844, he stopped off in Paris where Marx was working as a newspaper editor. He and Marx met at a bar on the Right Bank of the Seine and that is when they hit it off. The story is they talked for ten days and ten nights straight.

What they found was that each in his different way had come to the same conclusions concerning society, industrialization, the working class, and the needs of humanity. Marx had learned about it through books and his contact with clandestine socialist organizations in Paris. Engels had learned about it on the factory floor. Their partnership would become so close that Marx would call Engels his alter ego.

In 1845, at the age of 24, Engels became Marx and Jenny’s devoted friend. He demonstrated the extent of his loyalty and willingness to sacrifice on Marx’s behalf about five years later, in 1850. They were all in London, all the refugees who had escaped the 1848 revolt and the counter-revolution in 1849. The British ruling elite felt their system so sound that it would not be threatened by a shabby bunch of foreign revolutionaries waiting anxiously for the next big revolt. Perhaps not surprisingly, few of these refugees could find work in London—including Marx and Engels. So Engels fell on his sword, so to speak. He quit the capital, leaving the business of revolution and theory to Marx, and went back to Manchester to work at his father’s factory, where he stayed for the next 20 years, supplying the Marx family with the money and support they needed to survive. Undoubtedly, Engels would have written much more had he stayed on in London, but he became a factory owner, and from that time until the end of his life in 1895—even beyond—he supported the Marxes. He was the family’s primary breadwinner and gave Marx the means to write his masterwork, Capital.


 Jenny von Westphalen (1814–1881) in 1840.

Incidentally, Engels had one more function in Marx’s life: ghostwriter. When Marx first moved to England, he got a job working as a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, but he couldn’t write in English, so Engels—a master of languages—penned his articles. There are many instances of Engels writing in Marx’s name, so much so that after Marx’s death, there was a lot of confusion as to who was the author of what.

SL: Oftentimes, Engels and Marx worked together in such a way that it is truly impossible to trace the provenance of ideas to one or the other. The Communist Manifesto is the ultimate example of that.

MG: Engels wrote several first drafts of that in a catechism form. Eventually, Marx wrote the final draft in Brussels after Engels had suggested a changed format and left Marx to complete it. (Engels returned to Paris from Brussels to try to organize French socialists.) When the Manifesto was published, though originally it bore neither of their names, they claimed authorship jointly. Engels would say that it was actually Marx’s work, but that was a bit of modesty on his part.

That was their first important joint work, but I think the more important work done by both men was their virtual collaboration on Capital. In 1870 Engels moved back to London. By that time Marx had published Capital Volume I in Germany, but to little or no acclaim. Soon it was translated in Russia, where it did better. Marx was beginning to slow down by this time, partly because of political demands that took him away from his writing.

The Paris Commune had erupted and Marx was the head of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which was accused (and Marx also, directly) of orchestrating the Commune. So there was not only a lot of correspondence with newspapers needed to shoot down rumors and accusations, but also work with refugees escaping the Commune, and mounds of correspondence. Engels had arrived in London just in time. The two men could now split the work evenly: they were both politicians, both theoreticians. Above all, they were both revolutionaries. This was also the period in which Marx’s daughters began to take a very active role in the family business.

Marx died in 1883. Before his death he had promised to have three volumes of Capital ready for his publisher. There was also a notion of a fourth volume. No one knew how far along Marx was on these volumes until Engels found, in sifting through Marx’s papers, several versions of volumes two and three, in various stages of completion. He also found a hopelessly rough volume four. Once again, Engels put aside his own work in order to make sure that Marx’s last two volumes of Capital were published. He also set about translating and editing dozens of earlier pieces, because after Marx’s death socialism had become more a part of the political mainstream in Western Europe, and there was a growing demand for Marx’s writing. Engels ensured that volumes two and three of Marx’s masterwork were edited with the care and attention they demanded—a project he began in 1883 and did not complete until 1894. Those volumes are very much a Marx-Engels work.

SL: Marx and Engels took little part in the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, but they did engage the Parisian left prior to the revolution. Give us some more of a sense of this time in Marx’s life in Paris, with his young bride, and his budding relationship with Engels and also with the poet Heinrich Heine. What sort of initiation into socialist politics did Marx receive in these years? How did Marx and Engels experience 1848 and what did it mean to them later on?

MG: Marx was not involved in the Paris revolt of February 1848 because he had been tossed out of France three years earlier for subversive writing. He had, however, never lost touch with the Parisian radicals, particularly the socialists and communists, whom he counted as his closest friends while living in Paris from 1843 to 1845. It was through these men (at this point they were all men) that Marx initially learned about communism, and it was the combination of their influence and the books he studied during his time in Paris that really provided the foundation for Marx’s life work.

Marx and his new bride, Jenny, had arrived in Paris in 1843. He had been the editor of a “democratic” newspaper in Cologne. This meant that the paper was funded by businessmen, and had been giving voice to the notion that in order for business to grow, people had to have greater freedom, and that monarchs had to allow for constitutions and parliaments with actual power. But, of course, Marx’s ideas evolved and came to exceed this narrow compass. A fellow intellectual who was then editing a paper in Dresden, Arnold Ruge, had the idea of opening an opposition newspaper in Paris featuring German and French radicals. This short-lived publication was called the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher.

In Paris at the time, there was relative free speech, as long as one didn’t directly threaten the government of Louis Philippe. The city was wild and vibrant with ideas: nationalism, socialism, democracy. Paris at that time was the city of the revolution. It was the seat of political philosophy and revolutionary politics and, unlike Prussia, one could say virtually anything and do whatever one liked. The city was filled with radical workers exiled from Germany and other places throughout Europe. There were a lot of underground organizations building on French Revolutionary ideas, as well as elaborating new ideas about communism, which was basically seen as socialism paired with the demand for the elimination of private property. Marx attended the radical workers’ meetings and he also attended salons with writers such as Victor Hugo and George Sand, and the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Marx began by working for the Jahrbücher, but it went under after only one issue. The opinions it advanced were so radical that in Prussia charges of treason were brought against Marx and several others. Marx used his jobless status to immerse himself in opposition politics, meeting and working with many of the figures we still recognize as critical to the nineteenth century social revolution—most significantly Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, who had made the leap to anarchism. Marx also formed a critical personal relationship with the poet Heinrich Heine. At the same time, Marx initiated his study of the great economists. 1844 is the year that Marx’s economic ideas were first formed. They were honed over the years, but that was the year that marked their basic crystallization.

A year later Marx was thrown out of Paris for supposedly advocating the regicide of the King of Prussia in another publication Marx had joined. So he and Jenny went to Brussels where a circle began to form around Marx that became known as the “Marx party.” This was the nucleus of his international organization, a combination of intellectuals and proletarians, mostly artisans of German background.

He was still in Brussels when Europe exploded in 1848. These revolts were (and still are) the only Europe-wide revolts by the people against their governments. They were not unlike the Arab Spring. People hitherto thought powerless rose up against kings who not only denied them political freedom, but also denied them a political future. The monarchs and aristocrats of Europe could not, of course, see that the world was changing around them. Europe was suffering famine at the very time industrialization was revving up and political corruption spreading. The people who were getting jobs were the women and children who could work for very little. Displaced peasants did not necessarily find jobs in industry. A social safety net that existed in village life was gone. People who moved to the city were desperate. They had no food, no hope, no future.

In 1848, intellectuals like Marx, skilled artisans, students, and even businessmen who thought that the old monarchical system was not meeting the needs of society, joined forces with millions of disgruntled workers to confront the relics of the ancien régime. Throughout Europe, there was a seemingly spontaneous eruption, but its epicenter was Paris where the European political opposition was strongest and most organized.

After the Parisian “street” had risen up and forced the French king to abdicate, a republic was declared in France. Within days, Marx was given 24 hours to leave Belgium, where the king feared he would stir a Parisian-style revolt. He and his family quickly went to Paris, and then on to Prussia where Marx hoped the revolution might deepen. Once in Cologne, he resumed his work as a newspaper editor. At this time he was more of a propagandist than a revolutionary, because he felt it was the quickest and easiest way to reach the greatest number of people. Sometimes I wonder what Marx would do in our day with the Internet. The written word was always his most powerful weapon, and also a great source of frustration because he could not distribute his writing quickly or widely enough. He would have been thrilled to have had today’s technology at his fingertips.

Though the old order had been initially thrown off guard by the revolts, it quickly recovered and the counter-revolutionary backlash that ensued was swift and brutal. Kings were able to enlist the support of the industrialists and capitalists who were terrified that the lower class was demanding its rights. Marx watched this revolution unfold, and it was during this year, 1848–1849, that his political ideas took definite shape. He recognized then that working men could only achieve their goals when they did it themselves. They could not rely on liberals or beneficent industrialists, but had to organize as a class.

SL: Comment on Marx’s inner life of the period from 1871 to 1875 and, in particular, on the Paris Commune and the struggles within the IWA. How had socialist revolutionary politics changed in the decades after 1848 and what is the significance of Marx’s leadership in this later period?

MG: It was not until 1871 that the name Karl Marx became widely associated with revolution. Prior to that year, Marx had been watched with suspicion by the German government, against which he had been writing and agitating for 25 years. He was also recognized by opposition and labor circles from Russia to America. And while that territory was vast, the number of people engaged in opposition activity, and thus aware of Marx, was not. The Paris Commune of 1871, however, changed all that. Through the Parisian revolt against the French bourgeoisie, Marx (much to his delight) became internationally infamous.

What drew the world’s attention to Marx was a pamphlet he wrote called The Civil War in France. In it Marx heartily praised the bravery of the communards and linked their struggle to the capitalist West’s growing labor movement—that army of workers who had finally recognized the extent of their exploitation and were demanding (sometimes violently) their rights. Translations of Marx’s pamphlet flew off printing presses around the world. Documenting the Paris slaughter that killed at least 25,000 people and the fighting that left the city in ruins, The Civil War in France became Marx’s most widely read work to date. The pamphlet appeared at the very moment when the French, indeed when western leaders and their financial backers, were trying to find someone to blame for the Commune uprising. They did not want desperate workers and citizens in their countries to be inspired by the French workers’ attempts to win basic freedoms. They needed to change the narrative, and demonizing Marx gave them just such an opening. Marx was portrayed not as a chronicler and champion of the revolt, but as its nefarious Prussian mastermind. In this scenario the French working-class was said to have been manipulated and deceived by a German outsider living in London whose goal was to extend control over workers and gain support for his IWA. Alarming stories in London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York described the future carnage being plotted by Marx and the IWA: No city was safe, they said. Everyone among the lower ranks of society was susceptible to his malign influence.

The propaganda succeeded in heightening social tensions, which always swells the ranks of reactionaries who fear nothing so much as instability. But it did not dissuade workers from joining the IWA. Quite the contrary: After the Commune, the organization sprouted branches wherever industrialization had created disgruntled workers. The anti-Marx, anti-IWA propaganda showed how much labor solidarity terrified governments and capitalists. So workers recognized it for what it was, a powerful tool, and they flocked to join.

Ironically, just when the group was seen as a real force by the outside world, internally it was dangerously divided. Since its inception in London in 1864, Marx had held IWA together by sheer force of his personality. He had tricked, cajoled, threatened, and seduced its multi-national leadership into cooperation. But, by 1872 he was exhausted, and the Commune had produced further disputes within the organization. Some moderates vehemently disagreed with Marx over his embrace of the communards. Others, mostly anarchists aligned with Mikhail Bakunin, wanted to turn the IWA, which had so far only supported workers’ struggles and negotiated on their behalf, into a workers’ army. Marx recognized that the path to reform was different in each country. In some cases, change could be achieved through the ballot box, protests, or strikes. But in other cases, only violent revolution would win the greatest number of people their rights. Everywhere he thought the struggle essentially political, not military. He formally left the IWA in 1872 to return to writing and theory, fully convinced that the immediate fight would continue on its own course without his leadership. He thought it much more important that he get his ideas into print for future generations.

SL: At Marx’s funeral in 1883 where Engels delivered his famous eulogy of his lifelong friend there were only 11 people in attendance. Most of Marx’s books were out of print and obscure. Yet, on the anniversary of his death the following year some 6,000 workers marched to his grave to honor his memory. For, by the early 1880s the workers’ movement had begun to assume a decidedly new character, as evidenced by the emergence in this period of the New Unionism in Britain, the Socialist Labor Party in the United States, the French Workers Party, and, of course, the Social Democratic Party in Germany. In Russia the Emancipation of Labor Group formed just months after Marx’s death. Working class demonstrations and strike actions also grew to an unprecedented extent in this period. Thus, while Marxism obviously and with reason bears Marx’s name, it was Engels who really lived to see and direct the international socialism that came together on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution to form the Second Socialist International in Paris in 1889. Describe Engels’s role in this process and, more generally, the activities that characterized the last decades of his life. What were key services Engels performed to perpetuate Marx’s legacy in this critical seedtime of modern, party political socialism?

MG: Immediately after Marx’s death, Engels, Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor, and the family helper Helene Demuth began the arduous task of sorting through Marx’s papers. As discussed earlier, it fell to Engels to organize Marx’s unfinished works and get them into shape for publication, and translate his many published pieces for audiences throughout Europe. That job would have been enough to keep a small library of scholars busy. Engels, Helene, Eleanor Marx and their wider circle made certain that Marx’s Capital manuscripts were edited and his published works reprinted. That was crucial.

Engels also inherited Marx’s role as elder statesman of the European socialist movement. Young radicals from throughout Europe made pilgrimages to his London home seeking advice, shelter, and direction. When French socialists decided to inaugurate a Second International to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Engels was charged with settling disputes among the various national parties so that all would be in agreement when they arrived in Paris. Against all odds, they were. This was partly because of Engels’s leadership, but also because the working class and socialists of the late 19th century were much more mature politically than those involved in the First International. They had seen the strengths and weaknesses of that earlier organization and, significantly, during the intervening years many of the socialists and labor groups had become political organizations in their own right. They had produced strong leaders from within their ranks. It was these young leaders—men and women—whom Engels was able to guide and advise from his unique position of having lived the struggle from its inception. Critics often blame Engels for much 20th century misinterpretation of Marx’s work, or misdirection of the movement, but I believe this is both inaccurate and unfair. Without Engels, Marx’s literary legacy would have been a single volume of Capital, and a handful of earlier publications largely written in German. Engels had protected Marx in life and preserved his work for future generations in death. There would have been a Friedrich Engels without Karl Marx but I often wonder if there would have been a Karl Marx without Engels.


Jenny, Laura, Eleanor, and Karl Marx, with Friedrich Engels, in 1864.

SL: In many ways, Marx’s relationship to Eleanor, as to his two elder daughters, was similar to his relationship to his wife and to his close friend Engels in that, in addition to being deeply loving, it was deeply intellectual. All three daughters assisted him with his work and all become hopelessly radicalized themselves at a very young age. Could you describe their trajectories, particularly that of Eleanor?

MG: You’re right about the intellectual dimension of the family’s life. Of course, the daughters received the education of any other middle class British girl. They learned languages, music, painting, etc. But they also had an incredible education at home from one of the greatest minds of the 19th century. Marx raised them as he would have raised sons—as revolutionaries. He discussed everything with them. All three were committed to Marx’s work and were employed by him at various points as his “secretaries,” transcribing and translating his words, corresponding with labor and social agitators around the world on his behalf. But each of the three also had their own role in his revolution.

Marx was proud of their collaboration, but also worried. He wanted them to have a married life outside of revolution, because he felt his wife’s life had been wrecked by his chosen path. He had watched her suffer as they buried four of their seven children. He didn’t want to see his daughters suffer that same fate, and yet there could have been no other possibility, because that was the world they inherited. They wouldn’t have been satisfied with a bourgeois existence.

Often in describing Marx’s relationship with his daughters, critics focus on the material sacrifices the women made because Marx had decided to dedicate himself to a greater good at the expense of his family. It is true they lived extremely difficult lives by normal middle class standards. But I was struck throughout the project not by their poverty, but by their wealth. From the time of their birth the Marx daughters lived lives of high drama in a world of ideas, among some of the most important thinkers of their time. They experienced the thrill of being at the epicenter of a brewing social, political, and economic revolution. And they did so with relish.

Marx’s eldest daughter, Jenny, was a journalist. She worked with three Irish prisoners who were being held for political crimes in British jail. Her articles resulted in a parliamentary inquiry, and the prisoners’ eventual release. Her work ended when she married a French socialist journalist and former communard, who abandoned her and their brood of boys to agitate in Paris.

Laura was the most traditional. She married a Cuban-born doctor and future Marxist who was of French descent. He was a wonderful character because he was very high-spirited and very melodramatic, but he never did anything well. So she suffered the fate that her mother did, only worse, because while Marx was at least brilliant and shared his life with his wife, Paul Lafargue was not a brilliant man and a chauvinist. So this woman, who had been trained as a radical, who knew the ins and outs of every economic theory, who could talk about any political situation in Europe, was left at the sidelines to raise children who then died within two years while she and her husband were on the run after the Commune. She spent much of her later life translating her father’s and Engels’s works.

The third daughter, Eleanor, is as you say the most important historically. From the time she was eight years old, she was writing to people about French Revolutionaries and the Polish rebellion. I came across a notebook she kept as a girl, where she had written the phrase “tutti-frutti” on the cover, and inside long articles about sewage systems and industrialization in France. Even as a child she was immersed in the world of the workers’ movement, and became infinitely more so as a woman.


Eleanor Marx (1855–1898) in 1870.

In the larger social and political evolution of the nineteenth century, a change had occurred after about 1860. Working men no longer needed intellectuals to lead their movement. They were organized enough to defend themselves. So the battle Eleanor became involved in was a trade union fight. She was a committed and passionate advocate. She even traveled to the United States to introduce Marx’s ideas to an American audience. Unfortunately for her, she became involved with a very disreputable man who was a socialist and an aspiring playwright, but also an absolute scoundrel, Edward Aveling.

Indeed, the three younger Marx women’s endeavors were all disrupted, if not destroyed, by unions with men they believed would be like their father but who all proved to be lesser in every way. Their personal lives were bitter disappointments. Eleanor committed suicide. Laura and Lafargue died in a suicide pact. (Lenin gave a eulogy at their funeral.) Jenny died of cancer, but it was nothing short of suicide. She had known she was ill but did not seek treatment until it was too late. None of them lived to see the recognition Marx would receive or his theories become political reality.

SL: Allow me to return to the question of biography. The political context in which these actors lived, and their ability to participate in the ongoing modern revolution, seem to us quite distant now. There is no international political project of any significance that directly builds on the gargantuan sacrifices and formidable efforts of Marx and Engels. Given these circumstances, how have you sought to deploy the genre of biography?

MG: One of the reasons I wrote the book chronologically, which is an old-fashioned method, was because I wanted to give the reader a sense of living the lives of Marx, Engels, and Jenny. I actually came away from this book very deeply respecting Marx and Engels and Jenny and the sacrifices they made for people they didn’t even know. They could have had a very comfortable existence. Marx was born into the middle class in Western Prussia; his father was a lawyer. Jenny’s father was a baron and a Prussian official. But early on, both Marx and Jenny gave up the trappings of the bourgeoisie—or, in her case, the aristocracy—and committed themselves to the most difficult path, working against a system that had been entrenched for centuries. It wasn’t just that they were trying to get someone out of political office. They were working against absolute monarchs claiming to be God’s ambassadors on earth. After looking at their daily lives over the course of 80 years, I could only come away with a great deal of respect for them.

The American journalist I. F. Stone used to actually go to congressional hearings to hear what was being said instead of reading the summaries or press releases produced by congressional aides afterwards. He said the difference between actually experiencing something—or reading an original letter—and hearing an interpretation, is enormous. And that is the case with Marx, too. If anyone has any questions about Marx, they should go to the source and read his writings. I offer this book as a biography of Marx so that when you read Capital or the Communist Manifesto, you can understand what he was experiencing at the time, who he was, and the milieu in which he lived. That’s the difference. That’s the approach to biography that I took. Marx’s revolutionary context is obscure to us now. That’s the reason why I thought it was important to write a biography of Marx.

If it is claimed that theirs were particular times, that Jenny and Marx were involved in a revolution we could never fight, I think, on the contrary, that we’re at that same moment again, the same crucial juncture. We are entering the third industrial revolution, where everything is changing, and must change, but the entrenched interests in government and business, like the absolute monarchs and the aristocrats of Marx’s day, don’t yet see it. And if they do see it, they are too frightened at the prospect of their own loss of power and wealth to allow for the change that is not only necessary but inevitable. There are people like Marx and Jenny out there today who are working to chart this change, and provide alternatives to the systems that no longer serve the needs of society. But these things take a long time, and that’s something that Marx understood. Revolution is not something that happens in a day or a week. It takes decades. And when you’re in the middle of those decades, sometimes it is difficult to recognize. It requires something Marx cherished but did not himself possess: patience. |P

Transcribed by Pac Pobric

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