An Unusual Glimpse Into The Past

by Kenneth Rayman on December 11, 2017
I normally bypass the bargain bins anywhere I go but something caught my eye about this book. The title made me think of socialism, then I saw the subtitle, “Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution.” It was enough to make me open the book and read the inlet. I read that Karl’s wife was a member of the German elite and that intrigued me seeing it as a paradox between that and what I knew of the man. I knew he didn’t profit off of his manifesto and lived destitute but the story was too good to pass up. I love to learn backstories, even for fiction stories. Their creativeness in reveal little known facets or explain a character’s history shines a new light on them and I find it enlightening, so I splurged on the 5 dollars.

The book was surprisingly not about his ideology but about the history of where he lived and how he lived. It was shocking to find out that he was a professor and widely known in his German homeland but for his outlandish views on society. His wife was a member of a elite family charged with governance of the province in which they lived and the family was deeply opposed to the marriage. His idea of writing his manifesto through his book “Das Capital” took years to write because he was constantly distracted by new ideas, new developments in world governance, and anything that crossed his path that upset him or got him thinking. He and his wife lived on credit, promises, and writing advances that sometimes never bore fruit (either from the payor declining to remit the funds or Marx delaying or providing incomplete work). When he was forced to flee Germany because of his work as a agitator, they moved to Paris but was so forced to move again by governmental pressure and settled finally in London.

His eventual benefactor, Frederik Engels was at first an opponent of his until they met in a cafe one day to discuss their differences. Frederik was the son of a successful businessman who stood to inherit a massive fortune, though was already wealthy but had no interest in his father’s business. Frederik’s only interest was to bring attention to the economic and social disparities of the lower class due to theocratic government.

At first both Frederik and Karl were hands on agitators fighting in the streets along with protesters and fleeing arrest from various countries but as they aged they changed their ideas to more education based revolution. They said that education was the key to bringing about radical change and constantly derided street agitators for acting without thinking. The story gave vivid descriptions of the living conditions of the day that might be unthinkable today. The descriptions also shined light on Karl’s argument’s justification and why he wanted to advocate for change and get the populous involved.

Family life presented him as a loving yet distant father figure who let his thoughts distract him and left his wife to tend to the children. Tragically, some of his children didn’t survive long, some in infancy, some in early childhood, though he had two daughters survive into adulthood (though tragically both would die young). The stress of daily life and constant health issues of the children wore on his wife. She was able to have a former housemaid of her family’s come live with them to help out but Karl would eventually have an affair and had a child out of wedlock, further destroying Jenny mentally.

When the popular movement to upset the established order took hold, I learned for the first time about the Paris Commune, a de facto new city and government, in 1871. The Paris Commune was a experiment in social democracy along socialist lines after the ruling government was forced from the city when the citizens took up arms against them. The Commune did not survive long, about two months, but it was the first ever experiment of the ideals of socialism. It was hard to read about the reprisals against the citizenry committed in retribution because of prior knowledge of the brutality of recent anti communist governments like that of Syngman Rhee in South Korea. Though Karl was not in the city nor involved with the Commune itself, being known as the lead thinker on the philosophy he was used by the French Government to illustrate the dangers of social dissent that could lead to anarchism, thus forever linking Karl and his philosophy with violence and labeled as dangerous to society.

On Instagram, I said that the story would enlighten the reader on the enigmatic man as well as empathize with him, yet be angry with him over his treatment of his wife and some of his other decisions. The story brings the reader a view of the man beyond that of ideology yet does not ignore the ideology itself. As a historian, this exercised my critical thinking to make an informed opinion. Karl Marx was an interesting man, though conflicted. I learned more about the quality of life that was part of daily life and struggle for many people of that time that is now portrayed in minor detail by movies and the like, today. We often reminisce about the “good ol’ days” when things were so much simpler but do we stop to think about how “good” those days actually were or do we selectively pick something out and ignore the rest of the picture?