The only exception I can take to “Love and Capital,” Mary Gabriel’s absorbing, affectionate and altogether exemplary biography of Karl and Jenny Marx and their children, is the title. Love the Marxes had, in abundance. Capital, no.
The book to which Marx gave that name changed the world without bringing the family a penny in royalties for 16 years, and by then he was dead. Poverty made their lives a tragedy with the creditor-dodging contours of a farce.
Marx set out to harness the massive rage that was percolating among the almost unbelievably downtrodden working class of the 19th century. He was an organizer, a journalist and a theoretician -- all jobs that paid miserably -- and he put his family through horrors for his ideals.
When Gabriel describes, with painful vividness, the death of the Marxes’ eight-year-old son, in 1855, from intestinal tuberculosis “exacerbated by ... unhealthy living conditions,” she adds bluntly that his parents’ bleak soul-searching “could have led them to only one conclusion -- the revolutionary path they had chosen had killed him.”
Seven years later, Marx cursed his poverty in a typical lament to Friedrich Engels: “Every day my wife says she wishes she and the children were safely in their graves, and I really cannot blame her, for the humiliations, torments and alarums that one has to go through in such a situation are indeed indescribable.”
Engels was the family’s financial angel. In 1850, at the age of 30, he made the altruistic choice to go to work at the family textile mill, Ermen & Engels, in Manchester, setting aside his own aspirations as a writer to fund Marx and his growing family.
He was sure that all Marx needed was time (in other words, money) to “produce a groundbreaking book on political economy that would go far toward educating the proletariat and preparing them for revolt.”
He didn’t know it would take Marx 17 years, but no one can say he wasn’t right.
Gabriel breezily handles material of forbidding breadth, filling the reader in on the historical, political and industrial conditions in Europe that shaped Marx’s thought without ever losing her focus on his family. With its suicides, illicit affairs and even a deathbed revelation by Engels, her book reads like a Victorian novel.
And -- very satisfyingly -- she continues for a hundred pages after her hero’s death, allowing the reader to watch the work of a rather obscure political economist explode into the world-historical force known as Marxism.
(In an irony Marx’s eldest daughter didn’t live long enough to perceive, she won over a pious older couple, scandalized by a profession of atheism from their son, with the observation “that she thought it absurd to make a cult of any ism.”)
Marx’s three surviving daughters all led tragic later lives, and all for the same reason: They had ruinous taste in men. In this, it could be argued, they followed their mother’s example. Jenny Marx, nee von Westphalen, was a beautiful Prussian aristocrat who could have had her pick of husbands; the one she settled on brought her a life of misery.
He even, according to Gabriel (though there has been controversy on the point), fathered a son with one of their dearest friends. That was the subject of Engels’s deathbed revelation.
Which is not to say that Karl and Jenny Marx didn’t have a good marriage -- according to Gabriel, they had a great marriage. It trembled under the worst strains of poverty and loss, but it survived. The capital was missing, but never the love.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at firstname.lastname@example.org.