Review of "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution"

Considering how much of my grad school reading was Marxist in orientation, I decided to pick up a copy of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution to provide a more thorough biographical background. While I think the intensive study sessions gave me a thorough insight of his work, as Goethe inveighs, one best understands the idea by comprehending the milieu in which it emerged.

One of the books flaws, or strengths depending on how you interpret it, is it’s sparsity of exegesis of the qualities of the scientific socialism which differentiated Marx from his utopian or opportunist contemporaries. One could argue that Gabriel’s purpose is solely to write a biographical love story, but as is evidenced by books such as Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy on the life of Trotsky, this doesn’t mean that one must give only scant attention to the analysis of the subject’s contributions to human thought.

It is especially a flaw considering that Karl and Jenny’s motivation for getting up everyday for some forty years was the push towards the emancipation of humankind through the understanding of the laws of historical development and it’s harnessing by the proletariat and that because of this they lived an at times extremely precarious, impoverished and dangerous life this would be elementary. However as these distinguishing characteristics are given such scant treatment, Marx can be read as just another radical amongst many at the time and deserving only of attention for his ability to politic and stay alive, he can almost seem like a sick and neurotic intellectual with delusions of grandeur fed by, literally and figuratively, a small number of enablers such as his wife and Engels as well as those merchants that made the mistake of giving him items on credit.

Instead of this sort of treatment, she substitutes topical observations while predominantly relying upon the family, the motley revolutionary characters immediately around Marx and the various government infiltrators trying to probe his intentions and actions. This is of course done as a means of humanizing Marx, something that Mohr would not have been against, yet there is a certain type of banality to it that I find at times reminiscent of reality television. In this regard, it is extremely successful as the people depicted are not mere characters, but a whole coterie of individuals who helped bring about a greater level of freedom in world history.

These reservations noted, it should be said that Gabriel does an excellent job most likely not despite of but because of these stylistic choices prioritizing the microscope over the telescope. In the Marx family dynamic we see a profound love that takes the shape of rage and struggle against oppression. Through Jenny and Karl’s first flowering of romance to their later battles against German autocracy, French monarchism, Belgian appeasement of it’s mightier neighbors and British imperialism, not to mention the iniquities of a burgeoning and yet terribly powerful international capitalism, Gabriel writes in a highly involved manner. She vividly exhibits the grand passions of Karl and Jenny as lovers of themselves and as those involved in the nascent socialist movement. While in the streets there may be a raging battle, or a storm in the press or a uproar at an organizational meeting – their love acts a place of safety for both of them. And while Marx’s willingness to sacrifice comforts and security to arm and assist workers or further research on Capital seems to be evidence of his taking his wife for granted, she understands, commiserates and assists in such a way the shows that the nobility into which she was born was not just one of title but of character.

Marx’s other major assistant, besides his daughters, is of course Engels. After reading this book, I’m much more interested in following this up with Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. He is in many ways a scene stealer due to his joviality, rakishness, revelry, insightful commentary on Marx’s personality and of course because of his seemingly paradoxical position as capitalist and revolutionary. When Marx was together with Engels they behave like college students – drinking heavily and getting in fights, though of the literary kind. When Gabriel writes of their writings against those they dislike, displays of wit, sarcasm, irony, perspicacity and invective that is admirable. No wonder he was nicknamed “the General”.

Gabriel stings together a number of interesting anecdotes leading the attentive reader to see connections that would do disservice to the type of “neutral” biography she is trying to write (though she does interject at several points in a moralizing fashion). One of them that I particularly like was how Karl, even though wracked with bodily ailments due to the stresses of poverty, would give what little pocket change he had to neighborhood boys. This example of love, this habit of his seems easily juxtaposed against the love which similarly motivated him to call for international solidarity amongst workers and the creation of the dictatorship of the proletariat (a phrase amply misused by those who’ve not taken the time to read when he meant by it). She is also explicit in several points about the rupture of continuity. Specifically in the fate for the Marx daughter’s, who each look for and marry men of socialist inclinations that they imagine to be strong-willed like their father but instead turn out to be poor approximations in character and intellect.

A number of prominent spies, socialists, assassins, anarchists, artists, aristocrats, counts, communards, and prominent 19th century intellectuals provide fascinating cameos amongst the betrayals, set-backs, triumphs and family drama. And while the devastating family drama here would likely not happen were it not for Karl and Jenny’s decision to pursue the life of career revolutionaries that they did, it is interesting aspect to note is despite all of the personal tragedies, neither gave in to despair and decided to abandon what they felt to be their calling. Though they may have desired changes in certain aspects, their incredible intellectual life and belief fortified them against poverty, illnesses and death.

The book closes with a then exiled V. I. Lenin addressing the spectators at the 1911 funeral of Marx’s last remaining daughter and her husband, Paul Lafaurge, Marx’s son in law and author of The Right to be Lazy. In just six short years Marx would see the successful application of his theories in the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy, followed by their revision and degeneration into something that was a horrific caricature that no longer resembled the first form of the subject. What he could and would have done had he witnessed it and was able to participate is the stuff of pure speculation, but what he did do, paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, is change the way we see the world.