The Marxes: labours of love

Submitted by Matthew on 23 January, 2013 - 7:48 Author: Janet Burstall

“Most people would come away shocked at what a moderate [Marx] was … if they read what Marx actually wrote.”

So says Mary Gabriel, of people who would see Marx as (unjustifiably) responsible for the atrocities of the 20th century, committed in the name of communism.

Mary Gabriel places Marx during the events about and for which he wrote, including the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, and tells of his irreplaceable contribution to the International Working Men’s Association, afterwards known as the First International. But Marx was constantly torn between his devotion to his primary mission — the writing of a great work on political economy (that would become Capital), and the need to organise and respond to events of the moment.

Marx was also personally devoted to his wife Jenny, and their children, and this web of love and loyalty, with its tensions, was a critical part of Marx’s labour in writing Capital. Mary Gabriel had planned to write a biography of the three Marx daughters, but found that their lives were so related to the work of their father, that her book grew to encompass Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, their mother Jenny, and family friend and housekeeper Lenchen. The book depicts the oppression that women suffered, alongside the relatively enlightened attitudes of the Marxes about women in 19th-century Europe, and writes women into the history of the writing of Capital.

Marx studied, argued and debated at university. He researched and wrote assiduously, and repeatedly claimed to be only weeks away from completing his book. But it was 16 years after he started writing before the publication of Capital Volume 1 in 1867, which covered industry “microscopically”. Yet there was a sense of anti-climax for all the Marxes, who had to wait several more years before Capital received much attention. To their surprise it was in Russia where it first found a wide readership.

When a publisher’s deadline approached Marx’s painful carbuncles would break out. When he was meant to be writing Capital, he would study another topic, learn to read another language. When his family was around him, he suggested that they distracted him, but when they were away he couldn’t concentrate. Marx relished his children. He wrote several chapters of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in 1852 whilst playing at being “steeple chaser of his three small children” who had harnessed him to chairs as a pretend stage coach.

Marx was absolutely in love with Jenny, and remained so all his life, according to his daughters. His radical education began at the age of 14, learning from Jenny’s father of utopian socialism and to appreciate Shakespeare. But he kept Jenny waiting during a seven-year engagement while he studied. Years later in 1851, during Jenny’s absence, he fathered a child, Freddie Demuth, with Lenchen, the family housekeeper and close friend, then concealed this with Engels claiming paternity. Mary Gabriel presents a persuasive case that Marx, not Engels is Freddie’s father, disagreeing with previous biographers.

The Marx household was anything but conventional in the Victorian era, however much effort was expended to maintain as best as possible the appearances of bourgeois respectability.

The constant debts and the reliance of the family on Engels are well covered in other biographies. Mary Gabriel puts this in the context of bringing up the Marx daughters. Karl and Jenny wanted to establish their social and marriage prospects, and save them from repeating the tribulations of their parents. The daughters were sent to good schools, where they excelled, and where there were fees to be paid.

Whenever there was a windfall, the money would be spent quickly, for example on moving to a better house, on new clothes, or trips. On one occasion they were able to afford to host an elegant party for the young women’s friends. But the girls accepted that they could not afford the clothing and social outings of their school friends. They were all aware of the cost of a life spent against the current dedicated to revolutionary ideas and actions.

The daughters were intellectually advanced, in languages and literature, as well as politics. There was a constant stream of political visitors and conversation in the house. Major and often eccentric figures of 19th-century revolutionary thought and of the German Social Democratic Party passed through the Marx household, and were wittily and perceptively observed by the Marx women.

In 1857, at the ages of 11 and 13, respectively, Jennychen and Laura “began their long careers as Marx’s assistants”. Later Laura and Tussy (Eleanor) accompanied Marx to the British Museum Library to work with him. Eleanor at age 16 handled much of Marx’s correspondence in French, German and English, with people such as Wilhelm Liebknecht, and the Russian translator of Capital.

Jennychen and Laura both took up the cause of Irish independence, with Laura’s understanding heightened through Engels’ Manchester connection. Jennychen’s series of eloquent letters to the press (under a pseudonym) in 1869 prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the detention of Irish political prisoners, and in 1870 she learned that “her words had freed men”. Eleanor did not have children, so had more scope for politics than her sisters. She was a leading agitator for Marx’s ideas in the last three decades of the 19th century, including in the trade union struggles of 1889. Mary Gabriel’s three-page account of the London dock workers’ victory is worth reading on its own.

Despite their capabilities, commitment and radicalism, every one of the women of the Marx household suffered from the intense subordination of women at the time. All but Tussy bore children in difficult circumstances when they may have not have if they had had the choice. Four of Karl’s and Jenny’s children died young. Mary Gabriel says that these losses set Marx back, and she explores his guilt for not having provided better living conditions for his family, which may have saved his children.

The two oldest daughters, Jennychen and Laura, married French revolutionaries Paul Longuet and Paul Lafargue, and did relive their parents’ struggles. Both men neglected their wives at critical times in the lives of their infants, sometimes while on political business in support of Marx. Laura lost all three of her babies and never recovered emotionally. All three daughters’ lives ended tragically.

Eleanor spoke up specifically for the emancipation of women. Yet she remained committed for decades to a man who treated her very badly indeed. Engels tried to support Eleanor by defending her de facto husband, possibly partly as a defence of her right to buck convention, as he had done himself by living with working class women, first Mary Burns, then her sister Lizzie, and without marrying.

It was not only Marx’s wife and daughters who directly assisted his intellectual endeavours. Engels’ mighty effort to complete volumes 2 and 3 of Capital after Marx’s death are written about in other biographies, but Mary Gabriel adds to the account how Engels worked with tensions between Laura and Eleanor over Marx’s literary estate.

Mary Gabriel has written a larger than life story of a larger-than-life, decades-long labour of love by Marx and his extended family to produce Capital as a critique of the boom and bust, productivity and misery that is the capitalist system. Marx edited newspapers whose funding was withdrawn, was exiled several times, hounded by creditors, attacked by political opponents and distraught by the loss and suffering of Jenny, his children and grandchildren.

By turning to the women’s perspective Mary Gabriel has produced a biography of Marx that would make a more compelling TV series than “Homeland” or “The Killing”.

Love and Capital may motivate women and men who have not read any of Marx’s work to understand the context of his work afresh, and so to learn more about its continuing relevance by reading it in the original.

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