2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and
the Birth of a Revolution
Little, Brown and Company
Interview by Megan Gilbert
Megan Gilbert: Love and Capital illuminates the private family life of Karl Marx. How do you think the professional lives of great thinkers are influenced by their private lives?
Mary Gabriel: The majority of men and women live at least two lives, which they strive to keep separate in order to do justice to both. We are one person with our family and assume another face—sometimes another personality—in our professional life. But that separation is an illusion. The joys and sorrows and preoccupations of one life inevitably spill over into the other.
This intrusion through the barrier we have so carefully constructed results in a simple distraction for most of us; an inexplicable smile or a furrowed brow. What it means, however, is that for the space of that smile or frown we are giving less to the task at hand. Again, most of us can afford that lost moment. But for the great thinker, who above all else seeks clarity of mind in order to create, any distraction of whatever magnitude can cost something much bigger than a moment: It can cost an idea. At best, that idea is altered. At worst, it is lost. There are few things more fragile than thought.
I would venture to guess that less than a handful (if that many) of the men and women we would call great thinkers have lived such a cloistered existence that their private lives did not impinge upon their professional ones. It seems clear then that the ideas we have come to celebrate from men such as Marx are the result of long study and careful deliberation, but that such ideas are also inevitably affected by the personal tumult, the daily circumstances around them.
When, as in the case of Marx, a great thinker's personal life is one of poverty, ill-health, and family tragedy, his or her ideas must be profoundly influenced—but not necessarily negatively. I think Marx's difficult life actually enriched his work. If he had lived the life of the bourgeois academic he was raised to be, he would not have been able to write about the plight of the working man with such passionate understanding. His works would have been merely the scientific treatises he set out to write, instead of the enduring body of literature that resonates with such power that it has changed the world.
MG: You worked as a journalist for Reuters for nearly 20 years. In what ways did you call upon your training when researching and writing Love and Capital?
Gabriel: You may have noticed I relied heavily on Marx family letters in constructing the book and I think that reliance on quotes is a direct result of my training as a journalist. In the news trade the quote is the key to a good story. A colorful quote can breathe life into a report, and I believe that is even more true in biography where the primary job is to reveal a character. I find that when I read some biographies I'm frustrated by the writer's decision to paraphrase, rather than use the actual voice of the subject in a quote. I love to “hear” the characters through their own words, which are infinitely more illuminating than any I would put into their mouths by way of paraphrase.
I also write about historical events in a journalistic style in order to make them seem more immediate. For example, in Love and Capital, I tried to write as a reporter on the scene of the 1871 Commune, not as a biographer looking at those events from a comfortable distance of 140-some years. I wanted the reader to feel as if they were there in Paris, too, experiencing it all first hand along with me—and the Marxes. I believe that when you feel the drama of history unfolding around you, it is both more memorable and comprehensible.
Finally, I was undoubtedly driven in my research by the old newsroom command to “get the story.” When I was a reporter in the States, this meant endless phone calls, treks to courthouses and record halls, and long, long periods of waiting for a breakthrough. That experience helped me prepare for the amount of research and depth of digging required to unearth new material on a subject as well studied as Karl Marx. At the start of the project, I felt sure that family letters existed that had never been published in English, but I did not know where they were. I followed several dead end trails, and had a number of people familiar with the Marx family tell me no such letters existed. But I could not stop looking. At the end of my third year of research, a trip to Moscow produced the breakthrough I sought: More letters existed than I had ever hoped to find. I may have the terrifying editors I had as a young journalist to thank for training me to pursue a story no matter how difficult, no matter where it took me.
MG: What did you hope to uncover/discover while writing the book? What surprised you the most in writing it?
Gabriel: When I began the book I simply wanted to learn what part the Marx women played in Karl's life, how they contributed to his work, and how they survived the many hardships they encountered. Almost immediately, however, the book moved well beyond that. As soon as I opened the door to the Marx home and looked inside, I discovered a world populated not just by five women (if you include Helene Demuth) and Marx, but a history-in-miniature of the roiling 19th century. While their neighbors' homes might be filled with comfortable furniture and charming knick-knacks, the Marx home overflowed with revolutionary ideas, dramatic (often heart-wrenching) events, and larger-than-life characters. It was not so much a home as the eye of the storm sweeping through Europe at the dawn of modern capitalism. And at the center of the storm was Marx himself.
I had meant to make Marx a presence in the book, but I had not intended to write a biography of him. That, I quickly found, was impossible. First, the Marx women dedicated—if not sacrificed—their lives to Marx. He could not remain a secondary character under those circumstances. Secondly, as soon as I decided to expand the book to include the history of 19th century European revolutions, the growth of the working class and labor movement, and the rise of capitalism, I could not sideline Marx. So, the book evolved into something much bigger than I had intended, but hopefully much richer. The task I set out for myself also changed. It became to discover and describe Karl Marx (the man versus the myth) and his works, the women who nurtured and inspired him, and the role Friedrich Engels played in his life. I wanted to set these characters firmly in the times in which they lived, which are so germane to our own, and chronicle the early struggle between capital and labor.
What I found most surprising through the course of the book was Marx himself. I had not expected to enjoy him as much as I did. The Marx I had expected to find was cold, distant, completely cerebral, and utterly unapproachable. To my mind he embodied the stern, gray reality of Soviet communism. I was delighted to discover that Marx was exactly the opposite. He was wonderfully warm, passionate, amusing, and gregarious. He was also outrageously irresponsible, as egotistical as a child, and seemingly blind to the feelings of those around him while dedicating his life—and theirs—to relieving the plight of the vast proletariat he did not know.
After having discovered the real Marx, which is to say the private Marx as opposed to the socialist god created by his followers, I can never look at his works again in the same way. I have come to appreciate them more, not just because I understand him better but because I know the impossibly difficult situations in which they were written. The fact that Marx was able to create anything at all while enduring decades of utter poverty (admittedly of his own creation) I found remarkable. But more remarkable still was the quality of that work, which produced one of the two major political-economic philosophies of the 20th century (though Marx may have disavowed authorship of modern communism as it materialized).
MG: You delve into the concept of “struggle” in the book, both in Marx's family's story and in his professional life. What did you struggle with when you wrote the book?
Gabriel: Karl Marx is one of the most controversial figures in history. Even though the governments most associated with his philosophy have failed, Marx and his ideas remain threatening to many, especially in the United States. I believe part of the reason is that Marx himself, and the words he wrote (rather than the interpretations of his writing), are so little known. The Marx who lived and worked in the 19th century has been lost in the slaughters of the 20th century, which were supposedly perpetrated in his name. He has also been buried under a mountain of Cold War-era literature that distorted his words from every political perspective. Even his life story has been so politicized that in some cases it borders on fiction. It is either the tale of a communist demon, who cynically lived as a bourgeois gentleman off the hard earnings of the workers, or it is the story of a socialist saint devoid of normal human failings. In this scenario Marx is all brain and no body. My subject was, in other words, a political battlefield, which meant I had to approach it with extreme caution. I did not want to be perceived as taking sides.
My main struggle then was to present a balanced portrait of the man and his family in the midst of the social, political, and economic revolutions that were changing the face of Europe. This task was all the more difficult because I chose to write the book from the point of view of Marx, his family, and his closest associates. I was, after all, writing an intimate portrait and could not do so from any other perspective. This meant that I had to be continually alert to the main characters' interpretation—or misinterpretation—of events. Marx, especially, had a tendency to twist the facts to suit his purposes, and I had to be on guard against that. This point of view was also difficult for me coming, as discussed earlier, out of a journalistic tradition. I had always been obliged to present both sides of a story in the name of balance. In the case of Love and Capital, however, I was looking at the world from the Marxes' point of view and at their lives as they saw each other. This felt uncomfortable to me at first, but I hope I managed to remain balanced despite the limitations I set for myself.
MG: What made you decide to structure the book according to place and time?
Gabriel: There are two reasons. The first is that I am very old fashioned when it comes to telling a life story. I like to do so consecutively, chronologically, the way a life is lived. I know that's not as challenging as shifting the character around in time but, for me, it is exciting because within that clean structure I can have fun with the writing and take liberties with the story. For example, I was able to travel away from the main subject in order to explicate the broader world—to look at a period of time horizontally—which I could not have done clearly if I had manipulated Marx's life for artistic purposes. Soon his life would have been a jumble and I would have tried the reader's patience. So, by beginning a chapter with a “handle” of time and place I tried to provide something to grab onto as the reader and I journeyed through the primary story into more distant—but hopefully illuminating—areas.
The second reason is particular to Love and Capital. This book was so big and complicated, with so many primary characters, historical events, and developing ideas, I believe it would have been impossible for me to control it without a strict structure. I wanted to iron out Marx's kaleidoscopic story and with it, that of his family, in order to truly understand him. I wanted to watch—step by step—his intellectual development in the midst of the cacophony around him, personal and political. And I wanted to try to understand how and when his ideas began to impact the world. I needed the timeline format to make sense of it all.
MG: Love and Capital is as much Jenny Marx's story as it is Karl's What intrigues you most about her personality and her function in her husband's life?
Gabriel: Jenny Marx was a remarkable woman who has been mistakenly relegated to the category of “long-suffering wife” by too many Marx biographers. In 1835, when Marx was 17, he made a youthful commitment to work toward the betterment of mankind, and then set off for university to prepare for that mission. But Jenny made no less of a commitment when she agreed to marry Marx the following year. She, too, had absorbed the lessons of the Enlightenment thinkers, the German Romantics, and the new French Utopian socialists, and made their ideas her own. She, too, had recognized that the increasingly educated society around her had little use for the absolute monarchies that had prevailed for centuries as God's emissaries on earth. She, too, saw in the streets of their native Trier the increased poverty, disease, and crime resulting from a nascent industrial system that seemed to have little regard for society's welfare in its quest for profit. The difference, however, between Marx's and Jenny's commitment was that his could be public while societal restraints necessitated that hers remained in the shadows.
We must remember that in early 19th century Prussia women had no rights—not even the ownership of their own person. They were the property of their father or their husband. For an aristocrat such as Jenny, the constraints were greater still. Under normal circumstances her world would have been confined to the company of fellow aristocrats she encountered through her family. She would have had almost no public life at all. But Jenny's father, Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, was a liberal man who did not bind his daughter to such a terrible tradition. He allowed her to marry not only outside of her class but outside of her religion. Marx was not an aristocrat and, though his father had become a Lutheran, Marx was born a Jew.
Jenny abandoned the extremely comfortable (if cloistered) life she was born into without a trace of regret, and entered into their crusading life together with the same zeal as Marx. Even as they were expelled from country after country, and as their financial situation became more precarious, she did not waver in her belief that their fight for social justice was the correct path. Only during their darkest days in London when three of their children died of diseases associated with poverty did she begin to question whether her personal losses were a price worth paying to ensure a better future for the masses.
She never answered that question outright, but her life is a testimony to what her response might have been if she had. Up until her death in 1881 Jenny was political to the core. Marx's fight was her fight, his vision was her vision. Her role in their battle was to guide and protect him, and provide the secure foundation Marx needed in order to create a counterpart to the still barely recognized capitalist behemoth that he believed would destroy the world.
Many times Marx grumbled that a man such as he should not marry or have a family. But there is a telling episode in 1856, when Jenny and the children left Marx alone in London. Instead of finding solace in the quiet after their departure, Marx positively fell apart. He burrowed into Shakespeare to a degree that even he admitted was a sign of deep depression, and he developed liver trouble. Finally he fled to Manchester to find comfort in Engels' company. But even that did not work. Marx needed Jenny to survive. He could not work, which is to say he could not live, without her.
I found Jenny to be an inspiration. Far from being long-suffering, she was in fact much stronger than Marx. Their 38-year marriage was full of the most grievous trials, many of Marx's making, and yet Jenny bore them with two qualities essential to survival—resolve and dignity.
MG: The sensational details of Marx's personal life read like a modern-day political scandal. Can you speak a little bit about the brilliant (powerful, high-profile) man/long-suffering wife/mistress dynamic and how it echoes through time?
Gabriel: I don't think Marx's involvement with the family's life-long domestic helper, Helene Demuth, was typical of the situation you describe. It was not a case of a “high-profile” man looking for a reflection of his exalted self-regard in a woman other than his wife. It was not a case of a “powerful” man of out-sized sexual appetite needing the attentions of many women. And it was surely not a case of a “brilliant” man looking for an intellectual soul mate because his wife didn't fit the bill. Though Marx's story could be stretched to sound like a modern scandal, or a mirror of such scandals throughout history, it was really much more wretched than that. Marx was poor, drunk, and desperate, and he turned for solace to a friend, who happened conveniently to share his taste for the bottle and slept in the same room.
The extent of Marx's sexual relationship with Helene, or Lenchen as she was known by the family, is a mystery. The only certainty is that in 1850 he had intercourse with her and she became pregnant. It is unclear when their relationship began, or if it continued, but in honesty one cannot call Lenchen Marx's mistress. I believe their sex was more an act of charity on her part. Around the time she would have become pregnant, Jenny was away begging money from Marx's uncle and Engels was leaving Marx alone in London to do battle with their enemies (who were more vociferous than usual at that moment). The family was also penniless, and Jenny had learned she was expecting another child. Marx had discovered the British Museum Reading Room that year and could retreat to the quiet of that woody sanctuary, but his return home every day meant a return to absolute despair. I think it makes most sense, based on Marx's and Lenchen's personalities, that Lenchen commiserated with Marx at a particularly low moment in the most intimate way possible.
I don't believe the sexual aspect of their relationship continued, partly because its discovery was so traumatic and potentially devastating to Marx professionally. But also because Marx, Lenchen, and Jenny loved each other and needed each other to play their assigned roles. Their lives were so fragile, given their social ostracism and poverty, that they could not bear the strain of ongoing deceit.
As to Marx's so-called womanizing, there were many instances in Marx's life where his appreciation of usually much younger women caused his family, particularly Jenny, pain. But over the course of a lifetime those incidents were few, really no more than any man or woman (great or not-so-great) might encounter.
MG: Karl Marx's wife and mistress suffered for their association with him, and his daughters suffered terrible fates. Why do you think that the women in his family paid such a high price for their loyalty to him?
Gabriel: This is a very difficult question because I agree they did suffer by association with Marx: If he had been a professor of philosophy their lives would have been much different. But I am torn between focusing on their suffering and focusing on the singular lives they led as companions of one of the greatest thinkers in history. I don't think it's fair to discuss only the cost of their loyalty. I think we must also look at the vitality of their lives, living as they did in a constant state of high intellectual activity, personal and political drama, and all the while thinking that they were serving a huge and noble cause—that they were helping to secure a better future for those who did not have the means, the understanding, or the strength to secure their own.
Let's take one of Marx's daughters, Eleanor. How would she weigh her personal suffering against the joy of watching her father's ideas take hold to such an extent in England that working men (who just a short while before did not even have the right to vote) could become elected members of the British Parliament? What value would she attach to her sacrifice as she watched trade unions win shorter work days and living wages for workers who had never before had someone rise to their defense? I think she would have acknowledged her sacrifices, not with bitterness but with pride and the satisfaction that they had not been in vain.
There is no denying, however, that the Marx women and Lenchen (who had sex with Marx but, again, cannot be called his mistress) did pay a high and terrible price for their loyalty to him. Lenchen gave up her only son to spare Marx and Jenny the embarrassment of his infidelity, and she suffered alongside the family through decades of poverty. Jenny lost four of her seven children and had her trust in her husband shattered by his relations with Lenchen (which she never formally acknowledged but must have understood). She also lived a life of social ostracism because of her family's poverty and the political commitments she and her husband made. But Lenchen and Jenny chose to stand by Marx no matter the cost. It was a conscious decision made by adults. Not so the Marx daughters. Theirs would be the real tragedies.
Jenny was aware of the problem her daughters would face from the time they were girls. In a letter to a friend she described her guilt over raising her daughters outside normal society—with views on religion, politics, and social relations that were at odds with their peers’. She said if Marx had been rich it might not have mattered as much, implying that in the market place of marriage the daughter of a wealthy man might be forgiven such eccentricities. But raising her daughters in poverty and in opposition to everything bourgeois society held dear almost certainly condemned them to a difficult life, at best as the wife of a radical political figure or at worst married to a revolutionary like their father. She shuddered at the very prospect.
But by the time Jennychen, Laura, and Eleanor (Tussy) were adults there was really only one path they could follow. They were acolytes of their father. Thoroughly imbued with his socialist theory, they saw the world through their father's eyes, and they happily embraced all he had to teach them. If they had been men raised in Victorian England, they may have been able to have a career in which they could earn money and continue to practice such radical politics. But because they were women they had to accept the same terms their mother had so many years before: They were expected to marry and provide support to their husbands, whatever their endeavors.
It may seem odd but their unhappiness as women was due in part to the high expectations they had inherited from Marx. As much as he might have argued otherwise, Marx was an optimist. He actually expected to experience a more just world in his lifetime and he made his daughters believe that dream as well. And, as terrible a husband as he was at times, he and Jenny had been for their daughters an example of a deep and abiding love, one so strong that it could survive the family's many, many disappointments and disasters. The Marx daughters looked to recreate that relationship in their own lives with men who would, like their father, be bold warriors on behalf of the downtrodden. They found neither love nor men whose work they could truly respect. But then, how could they, when the intellectual standard by which these men were measured was Karl Marx, and the love affair they had hoped to imitate was one of the grandest unions in history.
Megan Gilbert's writing has appeared in the New York Press, Paste online, Laughspin.com, and Underwater New York. She is a senior copywriter for Gawker Media. Read her work at ithardlymatters.com and follow her on Twitter @ithardlymatt3rs.