September 3, 1995
The specter of communism no longer haunts Europe-- for the present, anyway. The Soviet Empire has collapsed; and in China, Maoism is virtually defunct. True, these two phenomena were not at all what Marx had in mind when wrote that famous first sentence of the Communist Manifesto Nevertheless, they were what most Westerners have always considered Marx’s chief legacy. So it seems an appropriate moment to ask: who was this man whose ideas turned so much of the world upside down for so much of this century?
The eminent historian Frank Manuel, author of The Broken Staff: Judaism Through Christian Eyes and the classic Utopian Thought in the Western World has composed a sensitive, judicious meditation on Marx’s life and thought. On the life, especially, he is very fine. The young Marx’s Jewish background, his relationship with his admiring (and admirable) father, his long and fruitful friend ship with Friedrich Engels, his stormy relations with his fellow revolutionaries, and above all, his remarkable courtship and marriage, are brought to life with wit and measured (actually, a bit too grudgingly measured to suit me) sympathy.
Karl Marx was born in 1818. His grandfather and uncle were each, in turn, the chief rabbi of Trier, an old Prussian city. Karl’s father Heinrich was a secular liberal, read the philosophes and converted to Lutheranism to safeguard his position in the civil service. Karl was the oldest -- eventually the only -- surviving son, with six sisters. Later, his own male children died young, leaving three daughters; so, in effect, Marx spent his entire home life surrounded by deferential women. His father and his wife believed firmly in his genius. It is no wonder -- it was practically unavoidable -- that Marx should have felt entitled to lay down the law to the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the intelligentsia, and everyone else he had anything to do with.
Through his sister he met the beautiful and intelligent Jenny von Westphalen, daughter of a minor Prussian aristocrat, and four years his senior. They became engaged when Karl was eighteen and were married seven years later, when he was a penniless radical about to go into exile. It seems rather a striking testimony to the young Marx’s sex appeal. They were expelled from one country after another as Marx grew more prominent, and finally settled in London, where they lived on a shoestring, occasionally harassed by the police. Three of their six children died; Jenny was frequently ill (Karl even more so); and they often could not afford food, fuel, or doctors. On top of everything, Karl had an illegitimate child with the housemaid. Manuel is, quite properly, full of compassion for Jenny, chained to this impecunious and monomaniacal hairy beast. Yet by his own evidence (Manuel quotes liberally from Jenny’s letters), Karl and Jenny adored each other until their last breath, and their daughters adored them both. What’s more, all this adoration seems to have been deserved. Their mutual tenderness, fortitude, and loyalty were heroic, it appears to have been one of the most extraordinary marriages in modern times.
His family, his friend Engels, and the oppressed working class evidently engrossed all Marx’s affection. He had little or none to spare for other people, especially ideological opponents. (Though, to be fair, the latter were often very provoking fools and scoundrels.) In particular, he was rather free -- in private -- with anti-Semitic remarks. Manuel quotes several unpleasant specimens, which will embarrass Marx’s admirers and delight his detractors. Manuel’s conclusion on this score is scrupulously qualified but is still, I believe, overstated: “There are plausible elements in the conjecture that the self-hate of Marx, who lived in constant denial of being a Jew, when turned outward was transformed into a universal rage against the existing order of society, and bred a utopian fantasy of redemption.” The reasons Marx offered in Capital the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere seem to me quite sufficient to account for any amount of rage against the existing order of society.
Manuel is less rewarding on Marx’s thought than on his life. Disappointingly, he seems inclined to accept -- or at any rate, disinclined to dispute -- the conventional wisdom, according to which Marxism has long since been falsified in theory and, in practice, produced the Gulag. For the conventional wisdom is wrong on both counts.
Certainly Marx expected that a proletarian revolution would put an end to capitalism well before 1995. That expectation was mistaken, but this hardly does away with his theory. The point of that theory was to describe the historical trajectory, the “laws of motion,” of capitalism; it was an immense extrapolation. Among the tendencies he identified: 1) The concentration of capital within and then across industries. 2) The dwindling importance of the entrepreneur, the artisan, the small farmer, the shopkeeper, and all other instances of economic self-sufficiency. 3) The encroachment of market relations and market logic on family life, social life, culture, and the professions. 4) The erosion of local identities, traditions, and allegiances through the irresistible penetration of the world economy. 5) Periodic spasms of economic devastation, sometimes global in scope. Though gradual or intermittent, all these tendencies are inexorable and fundamental. Others have observed them, but only Marx has explained them.
As for the purported relation between Marx and totalitarianism, Manuel acknowledges: “One could take the position that there never was an inherent connection between the philosophy Marx developed in Berlin, Paris, Cologne, and London and the economic-political apparatus imposed upon Russia and China by revolutionary leaders primarily motivated by a resolve to seize and entrench themselves in power.” Manuel himself does not take this position, but his reasons are unconvincing. Stalinism and Maoism are certainly a great and terrible lesson. But they shouldn’t warn us off Marxism.
In a brief and moving “Envoi,” or coda, Manuel calls himself a “skeptical utopian” and recommends “for the sufferings of Karl Marx the exile, ... compassion; for his elaborate theoretical system, benign doubt and perhaps selective approval; for the abominable practices instituted in his name, loathing.” It is an elegant and humane formulation, an engagingly conciliatory gesture by the author toward his famously irascible and uncompromising subject.