September 2011

Spotlight on Mr. and Mrs. Marx

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Don’t be misled by the silly title: Love and Capital is a serious and tremendously well-researched biography of a remarkable family who worked together to change the world. Karl and Jenny Marx were unlikely sweethearts—he a scruffy, volatile Jewish scholar and she the lustrous daughter of one of Prussia’s oldest and noblest families—but from their marriage in 1843 until the end of their lives they sweated and starved and suffered together for the sake of the dispossessed.

Their marriage was passionate but not always happy. Apart from their persistent poverty, brought on by Karl’s chronic inability to meet a deadline and the utter indifference with which his books were received once finally published, the Marxes endured constant illnesses, the deaths of several children and even a few moments of shocking infidelity on Karl’s part. Indeed, Karl Marx comes across as a bit of a cad in this story, the sort of tortured artist around whom everybody else must orbit. Jenny, however, is the real revelation here: an intelligent, sophisticated woman who remained devoted both to her husband and to his cause, despite the considerable sacrifices demanded by both.

Mary Gabriel tells their story with great empathy and verve, using the copious letters that passed between Karl, Jenny, their children and close friends like Friedrich Engels (Karl’s frequent collaborator and sugar daddy to the entire Marx clan) to illuminate what Karl called his “microscopic world” of home and family. Gabriel also provides plenty of excursions into the “macroscopic world” of 19th-century revolutionary politics, as well as some lucid explanations of Karl’s earthshaking ideas. In the 20th century those ideas would be appropriated more often than they were understood, but this fascinating immersion into the Marxes and their era might inspire some readers to give Karl’s own books a closer look.

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