Authors: Francis Wheen
There were only eleven mourners at Karl Marx’s funeral on 17 March 1883. ‘His name and work will endure through the ages,’ Friedrich Engels predicted in a graveside oration at Highgate cemetery. It seemed an unlikely boast, but he was right.
The history of the twentieth century is Marx’s legacy. Stalin, Mao, Che, Castro – the icons and monsters of the modern age have all presented themselves as his heirs. Whether he would recognise them as such is quite another matter. Even in his lifetime, the antics of self-styled disciples often drove him to despair. On hearing that a new French party claimed to be Marxist, he replied that in that case ‘I, at least, am not a Marxist’. Nevertheless, within one hundred years of his death half the world’s population was ruled by governments that professed Marxism to be their guiding faith. His ideas have transformed the study of economics, history, geography, sociology and literature. Not since Jesus Christ has an obscure pauper inspired such global devotion – or been so calamitously misinterpreted.
It is time to strip away the mythology and try to rediscover Karl Marx the man. There have been thousands of books about Marxism, but almost all have been written by academics and zealots for whom it is a near-blasphemy to treat him as a figure of flesh and blood – a Prussian émigré who became a middle-class English gentleman; an angry agitator who spent much of his adult life in the scholarly silence of the British Museum Reading Room; a gregarious and convivial host who fell out with almost all
his friends; a devoted family man who impregnated his housemaid; and a deeply earnest philosopher who loved drink, cigars and jokes.
For the West, during the Cold War, he was the demonic begetter of all evil, the founder of an awesomely sinister cult, the man whose baleful influence must be suppressed. In the Soviet Union of the 1950s he assumed the status of a secular God, with Lenin as John the Baptist and, of course, Comrade Stalin himself as the redeeming Messiah. This alone has been quite enough to convict Marx as an accomplice in the massacres and purges: had he lived a few years longer, by now some enterprising journalist would probably have fingered him as a prime suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders too. But why? Marx himself certainly never asked to be included in the Holy Trinity, and would have been appalled by the crimes committed in his name. The bastard creeds espoused by Stalin, Mao or Kim Il Sung treated his work rather as modern Christians use the Old Testament: much of it simply ignored or discarded, while a few resonant slogans (‘opium of the people’, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’) are wrenched out of context, turned upside down and then cited as apparently divine justification for the most brutal inhumanities. Kipling, as so often, had the right phrase:
He that has a Gospel
To loose upon Mankind,
Though he serve it utterly –
Body, soul and mind –
Though he go to Calvary
Daily for its gain –
It is his Disciple
Shall make his labour vain.
Only a fool could hold Marx responsible for the Gulag; but there is, alas, a ready supply of fools. ‘In one way or another, the most important facts of our time lead back to one man – Karl Marx,’
Leopold Schwarzschild wrote in 1947, in the preface to his splenetic biography
The Red Prussian
. ‘It will hardly be disputed that it is he who is manifested in the very existence of Soviet Russia, and particularly in the Soviet methods.’ The resemblance between Marx’s methods and those of Uncle Joe Stalin was apparently so indisputable that Schwarzschild did not bother to adduce any evidence for his preposterous assertion, contenting himself with the observation that ‘the tree is known by its fruit’ – which, like so many proverbs, is rather less axiomatic than it sounds. Should philosophers be blamed for any and every subsequent mutilation of their ideas? If Herr Schwarzschild found wasp-eaten windfalls in his orchard – or, perhaps, was served an overcooked apple pie for lunch – did he reach for an axe and administer summary justice to the guilty tree?
Just as halfwitted or power-hungry followers deified Marx, so his critics have often succumbed to the equal and opposite error of imagining him as an agent of Satan. ‘There were times when Marx seemed to be possessed by demons,’ writes a modern biographer, Robert Payne. ‘He had the devil’s view of the world, and the devil’s malignity. Sometimes he seemed to know that he was accomplishing works of evil.’ This school of thought – more of a borstal, really – reaches its absurd conclusion in
Was Karl Marx a Satanist
?, a bizarre book published in 1976 by a famous American hot-gospeller, the Reverend Richard Wurmbrand, author of such imperishable masterpieces as
Tortured for Christ
(‘over two million copies sold’) and
The Answer to Moscow’s Bible
According to Wurmbrand, the young Karl Marx was initiated into a ‘highly secret Satanist church’ which he then served faithfully and wickedly for the rest of his life. No proof can be found, of course, but this merely strengthens the dog-collared detective’s hunch: ‘Since the Satanist sect is highly secret, we have only leads about the possibilities of his connections with it.’ What are these ‘leads’? Well, when he was a student Marx wrote a verse-play whose title,
, is more or less an anagram of Emanuel, the biblical name for Jesus – and thus ‘reminds us of
the inversions of the Satanist black mass’. Most incriminating; but there’s more to come. ‘Have you ever wondered,’ Wurmbrand asks, ‘about Marx’s hairstyle? Men usually wore beards in his time, but not beards like this … Marx’s manner of bearing himself was characteristic of the disciples of Joanna Southcott, a Satanic priestess who considered herself in contact with the demon Shiloh.’ In fact, the England inhabited by Marx had plenty of bushy-bearded gents, from the cricketer W. G. Grace to the politician Lord Salisbury. Were they, too, on speaking terms with the demon Shiloh?
After the end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of God over Satan, countless wiseacres declared that we had reached what Francis Fukuyama smugly called the End of History. Communism was as dead as Marx himself, and the blood-curdling threat with which he concluded the
, the most influential political pamphlet of all time, now seemed no more than a quaint historical relic: ‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Working men of all countries, unite
!’ The only fetters binding the working class today are mock-Rolex watches, but these latter-day proletarians have much else which they’d hate to lose – microwave ovens, holiday timeshares and satellite dishes. They have bought their council houses and their shares in privatised utilities; they made a nice little windfall when their building society turned into a bank. In short, we are all bourgeois now. Even the British Labour Party has gone Thatcherite.
When I started researching this biography, many friends looked at me with pity and incredulity. Why, they wondered, would anyone wish to write about – still less read about – such a discredited, outmoded, irrelevant figure? I carried on regardless; and the more I studied Marx, the more astoundingly topical he seemed to be. Today’s pundits and politicians who fancy themselves as modern thinkers like to mention the buzz-word ‘globalisation’ at every opportunity – without realising that Marx
was already on the case in 1848. The globe-straddling dominance of McDonald’s and MTV would not have surprised him in the least. The shift in financial power from the Atlantic to the Pacific – thanks to the Asian Tiger economies and the silicon boom towns of west-coast America – was predicted by Marx more than a century before Bill Gates was born.
There is, however, one development which neither Marx nor I had foreseen: that in the late 1990s, long after he had been written off even by fashionable liberals and post-modernist lefties, he would suddenly be hailed as a genius by the wicked old bourgeois capitalists themselves. The first sign of this bizarre reassessment appeared in October 1997, when a special issue of the
billed Karl Marx as ‘the next big thinker’, a man with much to teach us about political corruption, monopolisation, alienation, inequality and global markets. ‘The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more convinced I am that Marx was right,’ a wealthy investment banker told the magazine. ‘I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.’ Since then, right-wing economists and journalists have been queuing up to pay similar homage. Ignore all that communist nonsense, they say: Marx was really ‘a student of capitalism’.
Even this intended compliment serves only to diminish him. Karl Marx was a philosopher, a historian, an economist, a linguist, a literary critic and a revolutionist. Although he may not have had a ‘job’ as such, he was a prodigious worker: his collected writings, few of which were published in his lifetime, fill fifty volumes. What neither his enemies nor his disciples are willing to acknowledge is the most obvious yet startling of all his qualities: that this mythical ogre and saint was a human being. The McCarthyite witch-hunt of the 1950s, the wars in Vietnam and Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square – all these bloody blemishes on the history of the twentieth century were justified in the name of Marxism or anti-Marxism. No mean feat for a man who spent much of his adult life in poverty, plagued
by carbuncles and liver pains, and was once pursued through the streets of London by the Metropolitan Police after a rather over-exuberant pub crawl.
A train grinds slowly through the Moselle valley – tall pines, terraced vineyards, prim villages, calm smoke in the winter sky. Gasping for breath in an overcrowded cattle truck, a young Spaniard captured while fighting with the French Resistance counts off the days and nights as he and his fellow prisoners are borne inexorably from Compiègne to the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald. When the train pulls up at a station he glances at the sign: TRIER. Suddenly a German boy on the platform hurls a rock at the grille behind which the doomed passengers cower.
Thus begins Jorge Semprun’s great Holocaust novel,
The Long Voyage
, and nothing on that journey to extinction – not even the anticipation of horrors to come at Buchenwald – pierces the narrator’s heart more agonisingly than the stone-throwing child. ‘It’s a goddamn dirty trick that this had to happen at Trier, of all places,’ he laments.
‘Why?’ a puzzled Frenchman asks. ‘You used to know it?’
‘No, I mean I’ve never been here.’
‘Then you know someone from here?’
‘That’s it, yes, that’s it.’ A childhood friend, he explains. But in fact he’s thinking of an earlier son of Trier, a Jewish boy, born in the early hours of 5 May 1818.
Blessed is he that hath no family
,’ Karl Marx sighed wearily in a letter to Friedrich Engels in June 1854. He was aged thirty-six at the time and had long since severed his own umbilical ties. His
father was dead, as were three brothers and one of his five sisters; another sister died two years later, and even the survivors had little to do with him. Relations with his mother were icy and distant, not least because she had been inconsiderate enough to stay alive and thus keep the rebellious heir from his inheritance.
Marx was a bourgeois Jew from a predominantly Catholic city within a country whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism. He died an atheist and a stateless person, having devoted his adult life to predicting the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the withering away of the nation-state. In his estrangement from religion, class and citizenship, he personified the alienation which he identified as the curse inflicted by capitalism upon humanity.
He may seem an odd representative of the oppressed masses, this respectable middle-class German, but his emblematic status would not have surprised Marx himself, who believed that individuals reflect the world they inhabit. His upbringing taught him all he needed to know about religion’s seductive tyranny, arming him with the didactic eloquence and self-confidence to exhort humanity to throw off its shackles.
He was a unique, an unrivalled storyteller
,’ his daughter Eleanor recorded, in one of the few surviving anecdotes from her father’s childhood. ‘I have heard my aunts say that as a little boy he was a terrible tyrant to his sisters, whom he would “drive” down the Markusberg at Trier full speed, as his horses, and, worse, would insist on their eating the “cakes” he made with dirty dough and dirtier hands. But they stood the “driving” and ate the “cakes” without a murmur, for the sake of the stories Karl would tell them as a reward for their virtue.’ In later years – when the playful girls had become respectable married women – they were rather less indulgent towards their wayward sibling. Luise Marx, who emigrated to South Africa, once dined at his house while visiting London. ‘
She could not countenance her brother
being the leader of the socialists,’ a fellow guest reported, ‘and insisted in my presence that they both belonged to the respected family of a lawyer who had the sympathy of everybody in Trier.’
Marx’s determined efforts to cut loose from the influence of his family, religion, class and nationality were never wholly successful. As a venerable greybeard he remained forever the prodigal son, firing off begging letters to rich uncles or ingratiating himself with distant cousins who might soon be drawing up their wills. When he died, a daguerreotype photograph of his father was found in his breast pocket. It was placed in his coffin and interred in Highgate cemetery.
He was tethered – however unwillingly – by the force of his own logic. In a precocious schoolboy essay, ‘Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of Profession’, the seventeen-year-old Karl Marx observed that ‘
we cannot always attain
the position to which we believe we are called; our relations in society have to some extent already begun to be established before we are in a position to determine them’. His first biographer, Franz Mehring, may have exaggerated when he detected the germ of Marxism in this one sentence, but he had a point. Even in ripe maturity Marx insisted that human beings cannot be isolated or abstracted from their social and economic circumstances – or from the chilly shades of their forebears. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations’, he wrote in
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
, ‘weighs like a mountain on the mind of the living.’
One of Marx’s paternal ancestors, Joshue Heschel Lwow, had become the rabbi of Trier as long ago as 1723, and the post had been something of a family sinecure ever since. His grandfather, Meier Halevi Marx, was succeeded as the town rabbi by Karl’s uncle Samuel. Yet more dead generations were added to the load by Karl’s mother, Henriette, a Dutch Jew in whose family ‘
the sons had been rabbis for centuries
’ – including her own father. As the oldest son of such a family, Karl might not have escaped his own rabbinical destiny but for those ‘social and economic circumstances’.
Added to the weight of dead generations was the smothering spiritual tradition of Trier, oldest city in the Rhineland. As Goethe noted gloomily after a visit in 1793, ‘
Within its walls it is burdened
nay oppressed, with churches and chapels and cloisters and colleges and buildings dedicated to chivalrous and religious orders, to say nothing of the abbacies, Carthusian convents and institutions which invest, nay, blockade it.’ During its annexation by France in the Napoleonic Wars, however, the inhabitants had been exposed to such unGermanic notions as freedom of the press, constitutional liberty and – more significantly for the Marx family – religious toleration. Though the Rhineland was reincorporated into imperial Prussia by the Congress of Vienna three years before Marx’s birth, the alluring scent of French Enlightenment still lingered.
Karl’s father, Hirschel, owned several Moselle vineyards and was a moderately prosperous member of the educated middle class. But he was also Jewish. Though never fully emancipated under French rule, Rhenish Jews had tasted just enough freedom to hunger for more. When Prussia wrested back the Rhineland from Napoleon, Hirschel petitioned the new government for an end to legal discrimination against himself and his ‘fellow believers’. To no avail: the Jews of Trier were now subject to a Prussian edict of 1812 which effectively banned them from holding public office or practising in the professions. Unwilling to accept the social and financial penalties of second-class citizenship, Hirschel was reborn as Heinrich Marx, patriotic German and Lutheran Christian. His Judaism had long been an accident of ancestry rather than a deep or abiding faith. (‘I received nothing from my family,’ he said, ‘except, I must confess, my mother’s love.’) The date of his baptism is unknown, but he had certainly converted by the time of Karl’s birth: official records show that Hirschel began to work as an attorney in 1815, and in 1819 he celebrated the family’s new respectability by moving from their five-room rented apartment into a ten-roomed property near the old Roman gateway to the city, Porta Nigra.
Catholicism might appear to have been the more obvious choice for what was, essentially, no more than a spiritual marriage of
convenience: the Church to which he now belonged had barely 300 members in a city with a population of 11,400. But these adherents happened to include some of the most powerful men in Trier. As one historian has observed, ‘
To the Prussian state, the members of its established religion
represented the solid, reliable and loyal core in a predominantly Roman Catholic, and somewhat dangerously gallicised, Rhineland.’
Not that Hirschel was immune to Gallic charm: during the years of Napoleonic dominance he had been steeped in free French ideas of politics, religion, life and art, becoming ‘a real eighteenth-century “Frenchman” who knew his Voltaire and Rousseau by heart’. He was also an active member of Trier’s Casino Club, where the more enlightened citizens gathered for political and literary debates. In January 1834, when Karl was fifteen, Heinrich organised a banquet at the club to pay tribute to the newly elected ‘liberal’ deputies to the Rhineland Assembly, winning raucous applause for his toast to the King of Prussia – ‘to whose magnanimity we are indebted for the first institutions of popular representation. In the fullness of his omnipotence he has of his own free will directed that the Diets should assemble so that the truth might reach the steps of the throne.’
This extravagant flattery for a feeble and anti-Semitic king might sound sarcastic, and was probably taken thus by the more boisterous revellers. (‘The fullness of his omnipotence’, forsooth.) But Heinrich was perfectly sincere; no revolutionary he. Nevertheless, the very mention of ‘popular representation’, however carefully muffled in sycophancy and moderation, was enough to alarm the authorities in Berlin: irony is often the dissident’s only weapon in a land of censors and police spies, and the agents of the Prussian state – ever alert for mischief – were adept at detecting satire where none was intended. The local press was forbidden to print the speech. After a Casino Club gathering eight days later, at which members sang the Marseillaise and other revolutionary choruses, the government placed the building under police surveillance, reprimanded the provincial governor
for permitting such treasonous assemblies and marked Heinrich Marx down as a dangerous troublemaker.
What did his wife make of all this? It is quite possible that he kept the news from her. Henriette Marx did not share her husband’s intellectual appetites: she was an uneducated – indeed only semi-literate – woman whose interests began and ended with her family, over whom she fussed and fretted ceaselessly. She admitted to suffering from ‘excessive mother love’, and one of her few surviving letters to her son – written while he was at university – amply justifies the diagnosis: ‘
Allow me to note
, dear Carl, that you must never regard cleanliness and order as something secondary, for health and cheerfulness depend on them. Insist strictly that your rooms are scrubbed frequently and fix a definite time for it – and you, my dear Carl, have a weekly scrub with sponge and soap. How do you get on about coffee, do you make it, or how is it? Please let me know everything about your household.’ The picture of Mrs Marx as a congenital worrier was confirmed by Heinrich: ‘You know your mother and how anxious she is …’
Once he had flown the nest, Karl had little more to do with his mother – except when he was trying, seldom with much success, to wheedle money out of the old girl. Many years later, after the death of Engels’s lover Mary Burns, Marx sent his friend a brutal letter of condolence: ‘
I am being dunned
for the school fees, the rent … Instead of Mary, ought it not to have been my mother, who is in any case a prey to physical ailments and has had her fair share of life?’
Karl Marx was born in the upstairs room of a house at 664 Brückergasse, a busy thoroughfare that winds down to the bridge over the Moselle river. His father had taken a lease on the building only one month earlier and moved out when Karl was fifteen months old. Yet this birthplace, of which he had no memories, was bought by the German Social Democratic Party in April 1928 and has ever since been a museum devoted to his life and times –
apart from a ghastly interlude between 1933 and 1945, when it was occupied by the Nazis and used as the HQ for one of their party newspapers. After the War, letters were sent out appealing for money to repair the damage done by Hitler’s loutish squatters. One of the replies, dated 19 March 1947, came from the international secretary of the British Labour Party: ‘Dear Comrade, I regret that the British Labour Party is not prepared as an organisation to support your international committee for the reconstruction of the Karl Marx house at Treves [the English name for Trier], since its resources are devoted to the upkeep of similar monuments of Karl Marx in England. Yours fraternally, Denis Healey.’ A likely story: Londoners will search in vain for these monuments to which Healey allegedly ‘devoted’ his party’s resources. Still, at least the house survives. A hundred yards away is the site of the old Trier synagogue at which so many of Marx’s ancestors presided. The only token of its presence today is a sign attached to the lamppost at the street corner, which needs no translation: ‘
Hier stand die frühere Trierer Synagoge, die in der Pogromnacht im November 1938 durch die Nationalsozialisten zerstört wurde
Little is known about Karl Marx’s early boyhood, apart from his habit of forcing his sisters to eat mud pies. He appears to have been educated privately until 1830, when he entered the Trier High School – whose headmaster, Hugo Wyttenbach, was a friend of Heinrich Marx and a founder of the Casino Club. Although Karl later dismissed his schoolfellows as ‘country bumpkins’, the teachers were mostly liberal humanists who did their best to civilise the yokels. In 1832, after a rally at Hambach in support of free speech, police officers raided the school and found seditious literature – including speeches from the Hambach protest – circulating among the pupils. One boy was arrested, and Wyttenbach was placed under close surveillance. Two years later, the maths and Hebrew teachers were charged with the despicable crimes of ‘atheism’ and ‘materialism’ following the notorious Casino dinner of January 1834. To dilute Wyttenbach’s influence, the authorities appointed a grim-faced reactionary named Loers as co-headmaster.