The Parisian Roots of Marx’s Economic Theories: Mary Gabriel

Throughout history there have been moments when Paris was the center of the creative universe --and 1843 was one of them.

Everyone, whether of real or imagined import, was there, and everyone was politicized. French, German, Russian, Polish, Hungarian and Italian reformers mingled with painters, poets, novelists, composers and philosophers who had begun to celebrate the real rather than the ideal in their works.

Dr. Karl Marx and his wife, Jenny, mingled easily with Parisian radical and democratic circles where, for the first time, they were introduced to society as a married couple. Marx was proud of Jenny -- not only of her beauty, which even amid the celebrated women of Paris was remarked upon, but also of her intelligence.

From the earliest days of their marriage, he regarded Jenny as an intellectual equal, and that was no mere token sentiment: Marx was ruthless when it came to things of the mind, and he would not have relied on Jenny’s judgment if he did not think she was in fact brilliant. Indeed, throughout his life Marx held only one other person in a position of such high esteem and trust, and that was his alter ego and collaborator, Friedrich Engels. But where Engels understood and supported Marx intellectually, Jenny also humanized him.

Public Brawling

In private Marx was warm, loving, kind and generally described as excellent company when he was not plagued by sleepless nights or stricken by disease, both due to anxiety over his work. In public, however, he was most often fiercely argumentative, intellectually arrogant and notoriously impatient with anyone who disagreed with him. His frequent drinking episodes with colleagues throughout the years in Bonn, Berlin and Cologne often devolved into verbal if not physical fights. And while the arguments may have invigorated him, they also distracted him. He was happiest buried in his books (which he called his “slaves”).

Jenny was 29 and Marx 25 when they arrived in Paris. Marx had been hired to work for an emigre newspaper, the Deutsche-Franzosische Jahrbucher, or German-French Yearbook. The monthly publication was funded by Arnold Ruge, a Prussian political writer who had spent six years in jail because of his liberal ideas, and Julius Froebel, a Zurich-based professor who ran an important publishing company.

Arrest Order

The paper, however, did not find a readership in Paris and was so radical that it was blocked at the German border. Ruge and Froebel cut the funding, and Jenny’s fears that her husband would not be allowed to return home were realized: Prussian governors were instructed to arrest Marx and Ruge -- as well as two contributors to the Deutsche-Franzosische Jahrbucher, the poet Heinrich Heine and a former newspaper editor expelled from Bavaria named F.C. Bernays -- as soon as they stepped onto Prussian soil, the charge against them high treason.

Among the articles the Prussians found offensive were two that Marx had begun during his honeymoon. One was a critique of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the other was titled “On the Jewish Question.” Both incorporated lessons learned during his years as a student in Berlin and as a journalist in Cologne but also displayed a new French influence, especially his discussion of the as-yet barely recognized proletariat.

Derived from the Latin word proletarius, which meant the lowest class or those without property, the term as applied by Marx referred to victims of social change. These were not people who were historically poor; the proletariat of the 19th century had once been able to support themselves but had become casualties of so-called economic and industrial advances that, among other things, replaced men with machines and the cheaper labor of women and children, or cut their wages by either reducing the time they worked or increasing their hours without raising their pay.

Emancipated Proletariat

In his critique of Hegel, Marx posited that theory alone could not create a revolution, but the proletariat, powered by the brute strength born of injustice and armed with philosophy, could. “The head of this emancipation is philosophy,” he said, “its heart is the proletariat.”

In tackling the “Jewish Question,” Marx looked at religion not as a theological issue but as a social and political one. The Jew in early 19th-century Germany functioned largely within the mercantile and financial trades, the unspoken but sanctioned areas allotted to him by the state that had helped shape how Jews were viewed by society and each other. Since 1816, when Marx’s own father chose to enter society as a Christian, Jews in Prussia had not had equal rights. In the early 1840s, however, the rights and role of Jews in society were being examined anew.

‘Jewish Question’

In his treatise Marx considered how religion was used in day-to-day affairs in Germany, whether that be Christianity in the political arena or the Jewish dominance of the marketplace, and what freedom from religion would mean in nontheological terms. He argued that in the case of Jews, their main activity, finance, had become integral to the state’s very existence and concluded that liberating Jews from the confines of that commercial activity (which had, he felt, become the essence of Judaism), and thereby depriving the state of its benefit, would precipitate the German social revolution he sought. The state could not stand if one of its pillars -- in this case finance -- crumbled; the government Marx and his fellows despised would collapse.

Pushing Boundaries

Marx’s two Jahrbucher articles addressed entirely different subjects, but both concerned the future of the German Confederation and both ended with its dissolution. With them, Marx had gone well beyond anything he had written while gently jousting with censors during a brief tenure as a writer in Cologne a year earlier. In Paris the restrictions on his writing had been lifted, and through this French prism the tendency of his writing bent toward revolution.

By the time the Jahrbucher folded, Jenny was seven months pregnant and the couple’s financial situation was precarious. The first Marx child was born on May 1, 1844. Little Jenny, or Jennychen, was named after her mother but had the black eyes and hair of her father. Neither Jenny nor Karl had any real experience with infants. Jenny, the daughter of an aristocrat, had been raised in a house full of servants, where children were handed over to nurses as soon as they were born. And Karl was so disengaged from his family that he had long behaved as though he were an only child, despite having seven siblings. Their bohemian friends in Paris, who rose at 5 p.m. and stayed awake until 5 a.m. at cafes, salons and restaurants, were no help either, so Jenny and Karl struggled along with Jennychen as best they could until, at one point, the infant appeared gravely ill.

Help From Heine

Help arrived from an unlikely source: Heine. The 46-year-old poet, still coping with partial paralysis, who had never had a child himself, climbed the stairs to the Marx apartment to find the young parents frantic because their daughter was having convulsions. Heine took charge, ordered hot water and gave the baby a bath. Jennychen recovered, but her traumatized parents did not: They decided Jenny should take the child back to her parents’ home in Trier, where her mother could help guide Jennychen through her dangerous first months.

Jenny reluctantly boarded a coach for the Rhineland in early June, leaving Karl alone in Paris. As mother and child headed east, Jenny worried. They had not been married a year, and she feared Karl would fall victim to “the real menace of unfaithfulness, the seductions and attractions of a capital city.”

She needn’t have worried. Marx was indeed preoccupied during her absence, but it was not with other women. While she was away he descended into the subterranean world of secret societies, and began his first real exploration of economics.

(Mary Gabriel is the author of the biographies “Notorious Victoria” and “The Art of Acquiring.” This is the first in a five-part series excerpted from her new book, “Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,” published in September by Little, Brown & Co. Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.)

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