In Love and Capital, published in 2011, Mary Gabriel makes a really good case that love was at the center of the life of the revolutionary named Karl Marx. She does so by situating what might be considered the biography of Marx’s public life in the biography of his personal life. Although she includes the details of numerous private matters, her concern is not to produce a “tell-all” account of sins, failures and shortcomings but, instead, in a manner that’s quite consistent with Marx’s observation that people make their own history but do not make it as they please. Marx made his own life and made his remarkable contributions to the possibility of human emancipation within the context of that life, a life that was profoundly shaped by the life of his family. His wife and their three daughters who survived to adulthood were deeply committed to the same political hopes that he had and, often enough, were genuine collaborators in the development of his political views and, in the case of his daughters, independent political actors.
Love and Capital is a very readable book. It begins in 1835 when Jenny and Karl fall in love and ends in 1911 when Laura (the last surviving daughter) and Paul Lafargue are buried after their double suicides. The author has provided some very helpful complementary materials—a political map of Europe in 1848, short biographical sketches of the numerous characters who appear in the book, a political timeline from 1837 to 1917, and chapter headings that situate the reader in year and place. The latter feature makes it especially easy to go back and re-read important chapters.
Even though it runs to almost 600 pages, I would recommend it as a place to start for those who are becoming interested in Marx and Marxism before turning to Marx’s writings—or perhaps as a companion to a reading of Marx’s works in more or less chronological order. Much that can appear hard to understand without the contexts of times, places and personalities becomes easier to comprehend when those contexts are provided. I’d also recommend it to those who have read and appreciated Marx because I believe they will appreciate him even more after they see him and his wife, Jenny, on the run, at work and trying to raise a family in and between Cologne, Paris, Brussels and London.
Gabriel, so far as I can tell from reading the book and hearing her talk once in person, is no Marxist but she is a sympathetic chronicler of Marx’s life and a serious student of his work. However, her book should not be read as a guide to resolving perennial debates within Marxism—wisely, she has all but nothing to say about such matters. Much that she writes about has been written about before but it reads quite differently as the result of her extensive and skillful use of thousands of pages of letters (in multiple languages) written by and to members of the immediate and extended families and friends to situate the great and not so great episodes of Marx’s life. Of special value are the letters to and from Jenny and their three daughters.
In spite of being readable, Love and Capital is not an easy book to read. There is no air-brushed Marx in its pages. It portrays Marx as a courageous revolutionary, a brilliant thinker, a sophisticated political strategist, a doting father and grandfather, a tender and mostly devoted husband, a charming conversationalist, a Victorian gentleman, an unreliable provider for his family, a careless spender of other people’s money, a man all too willing to rely on his most loyal friend (Engels) to cover up his shortcomings (at earning money, writing articles, meeting deadlines and fathering a child) and, at times, someone who simply did not seem to think very much about the consequences of what he was doing for himself and those he loved most dearly. I’d suggest that we consider his well-known inclination to drink excessively neither a plus nor a minus—although definitely a source of some rather hilarious adventures.
Among all the characterizations above, the one that might strike readers as the most unexpected would be “Victorian gentleman”—implying that he was a member of respectable society and therefore an individual obedient to the social customs of the upper classes, and not a member of disreputable society and therefore an individual obedient to few social customs and sensitive to the demands of working-class solidarity. But Marx seems to have fit the bill. Among other instances that Gabriel cites, Marx wrote to Paul Lafargue to express his disapproval about Lafargue’s forwardness in relation to Laura, his second oldest daughter:
If you wish to continue your relations with my daughter, you will have to give up your present manner of “courting.” You know full well that no engagement has been entered into, that as yet everything is undecided. And even if she were formally betrothed to you, you should not forget that this is a matter of long duration. The practice of excessive intimacy is especially inappropriate since the two lovers will be living at the same place for a necessarily prolonged period of severe testing and purgatory. I have observed with alarm how your conduct has altered from one day to the next within the geological period of one single week. To my mind, true love expresses itself in reticence, modesty and even the shyness of the lover towards the object of his veneration, and certainly not in giving free rein to one’s passion and in premature demonstrations of familiarity. If you should urge your Creole temperament in your defense, it is my duty to interpose my sound reason between your temperament and my daughter. If in her presence you are incapable of loving in a manner in keeping with the London latitude, you will have to resign yourself to loving her from a distance. I am sure you will take the hint.
The difficulty with this characterization is that, separate and apart from his attitudes regarding the daughters he loved and an occasional preoccupation with appearances, he dedicated his life to tormenting those who were responsible for respectable society in the first place.
But this book is about more than Marx. In large ways, it is also about his wife, Jenny, and their three daughters (Jennychen, Laura and Eleanor and their rather sad-sack cast of husbands—Charles Longuet, Paul Lafargue and Edward Aveling). The first was domineering; the second was unscrupulous and even despicable (for his role in all but forcing Eleanor to kill herself), and the third was irresponsible. It’s also very much about Engels, who, whatever problems he caused in his editing of Volumes II and III of Capital, comes off very well (except in the six months after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions which he spends with women and wine in the French countryside). Helene Demuth and her son by Marx, Freddy, emerge from behind the screen as real persons. Freddy lived until 1929—the longest living of Marx’s children. In small ways, the book is also about a whole lot of other individuals who cross paths with the Marx family—Heinrich Heine, Proudhon, Bakunin, LaSalle, Bernstein, Wilhelm Liebknecht, various British socialists, George Bernard Shaw, and Olive Schreiner (later to distinguish herself as an early advocate for a non-racial South Africa).
Marx was, of course, well known to revolutionaries across Europe (especially during the period of his active engagement with the International Workingmen’s Association) and, to some extent, among émigrés in the United States, and known as well as to the police forces of the various countries he lived in. On a number of occasions, he rose to prominence as a journalist—including stints as the editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (NRZ) in Cologne and, during the 1850s and 1860s as the foremost European correspondent of the New York Tribune. In 1848, Marx had returned to Cologne from Paris to become involved in the communist revolt launched in March. Soon afterwards, he became editor of the NRZ. The newspaper became quite popular—with five thousand subscribers and many more readers. Gabriel suggests: “…what drew readers was the scope of the newspaper’s coverage and the audacity of its reportage in a country that had scant experience with a free press. Using a web of correspondents around Europe and clips from foreign papers traded in an informal exchange system, Marx published more news from abroad than any other newspaper in Germany.”
As the last embers of the revolt were being extinguished in May of 1849, Marx was ordered to leave Cologne. He rushed out a final issue. He wrote: “We have no compassion and we ask no compassion from you. When our turn comes, we shall make no excuses for the terror.” But perhaps more striking than the issue’s words was the dramatic effect achieved by its ink:
The entire issue was published first page to last in red ink and became an instant classic. It sold twenty thousand copies—more than triple the number of subscribers—and some copies went for ten times the original price. Engels recalled with pride, “We had to surrender our fortress, but we withdrew with…band playing and flag flying, the flag of the last, red issue.”
However, Gabriel makes clear that his theoretical writings usually attracted little attention while he was alive. A few examples:
- When Marx and Engels finished The German Ideology in 1846, they unsuccessfully tried to interest eight different publishers and the manuscript was “left to the mice.”
- The first edition of the Manifesto in 1848 only consisted of 800 copies and was barely noticed—in large part because the continent-wide upheavals of that year were already underway.
- The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (in German) was printed in a New York newspaper but there were no funds for distribution and so it sat in piles. Meanwhile, an English translation was “botched.” To add insult to injury, Marx learned that Proudhon had earned more than 100,000 francs for his book on Louis Napoleon.
For the most part then, during his lifetime, Karl Marx the revolutionary was known through his journalism and active participation in political debates, perhaps most notably within the International Workingmen’s Association, and not through his theoretical work. While his political instincts and determination deserve respect and admiration, those of us who read him today should instead focus on the way in which he deciphered capital. To the extent that he developed a distinctive style for doing so, we should be prepared to learn how to read it in ways that are adequate to that style.
Marx worked on Capital for the better part of twenty years before volume 1 was finished in 1867 and first published (in German) in 1868. During the years when he was working on it, the family experienced hard to believe difficulties and sorrows. They were, more often than not, miserably poor and frequently ill. The combination of poverty and ill health took its toll. In eight years from the late 1840s to the mid-1850s, four children died. The first-born boy, Edgar (also known as Musch) who was born in 1847, died before his eighth birthday and neither Heinrich Guido, born in 1849, nor Franzisca, born in 1851, lived for a year. When Franzisca died, her dead body was left in one room of the two-room apartment while they scraped up the money for a burial. And then in 1857, a boy died before he had even been given a name. But Marx was affected most of all by Musch’s death. Gabriel described the funeral and its aftermath:
Marx sat dumbly in his carriage, his head in his hands, as the glass-sided hearse took Musch’s body to the cemetery. Liebknecht stroked Marx’s head and tried to reassure him of the family and friends who loved him. But Marx shouted, “You cannot give me back my boy!” and groaned in pain. The rest of the short journey to the cemetery was made in heavy silence. Liebknecht said that when Musch’s small coffin was finally lowered into the ground, he so feared that Marx would try to follow that he jumped to his side to prevent it.
Marx later wrote to Engels, “I cannot tell you how we miss the child at every turn… I’ve already had my share of bad luck but only now do I know what real unhappiness is. I feel BROKEN DOWN. Since the funeral I have been fortunate enough to have such splitting headaches that I can neither think nor hear nor see.”
In 1859, Jenny came down with smallpox. The children were sent to the Liebknecht’s home and Marx devoted himself to caring for his wife. The illness was an awful one—causing Jenny to lose control her limbs and bodily functions and to suffer from fevers and constant pain. She later wrote:
All the time, I lay by an open window so that the cold November air must blow upon me. And all the while hell’s fire in the hearth and ice on my burning lips, between which a few drops of claret were poured now and then. I was barely able to swallow, my hearing grew ever fainter and, finally, my eyes closed up and I did not know whether I might remain shrouded in perpetual night!
On a number of occasions, Marx, Jenny and Engels commented on the toll that Marx’s work on Capital had taken. Engels wrote to Marx:
I always had the feeling that that damn book, which you have been carrying for so long, was at the bottom of all your misfortune, and you would and could never extricate yourself until you had got it off your back. Forever resisting completion, it was driving you physically, mentally and financially into the ground, and I can very well understand that having shaken off that nightmare, you now feel quite a new man… I am exceedingly gratified by this whole turn of events, firstly, for its own sake, secondly, for your sake in particular, and thirdly, because it really is time things looked up.
Marx wrote to a friend in New York that he had “sacrificed my health, happiness, and family” to complete the book. And after Ludwig Kugelmann had sent Marx a bust of Zeus in recognition of his accomplishment in volume 1, Jenny wrote: “Dear Mr. Kugelmann, you can believe me when I tell you there can be few books that have been written in more difficult circumstances, and I am sure I could write a secret history of it which would tell many, extremely many unspoken troubles and anxieties and torments.”
Gabriel suggests that Marx’s own lived experience profoundly shaped Capital: “The man who wrote Capital was an extraordinary philosopher, economist, classicist, social scientist, and writer, but he was also someone intimately acquainted with the slow death of the spirit suffered by those condemned to poverty while surrounded by a world of wealth.”
Lest I draw too depressing a picture, there are also portraits of a warm, fascinating (albeit somewhat chaotic) family life. Ironically, the best description of Marx’s family life on Dean Street, their first home in London, came from a Prussian spy’s report [in 1853]:
He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing, grooming, and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk… He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up.” The report said the three Marx children were truly handsome, and, despite Marx’s wild and restless character, as a husband and father he was “the gentlest and mildest of men.” But the household was such to make a gentleman shudder:
Marx lives in one of the worst—therefore, one of the cheapest—quarters of London. He occupies two rooms. … In the whole apartment there is not one clean and solid piece of furniture. Everything is broken down, tattered and torn, with a half inch of dust over everything and the greatest disorder everywhere. In the middle of the living room there is a large old-fashioned table covered with an oilcloth, and on it there lie his manuscripts, books and newspapers, as well as the children’s toys, and rags and tatters of his wife’s sewing basket, several cups with broken rims, knives, forks, lamps, an inkpot, tumblers, Dutch clay pipes, tobacco ash—in a word, everything topsy-turvy; and all on the same table. … To sit down becomes a thoroughly dangerous business. Here is a chair with only three legs, on another chair the children are playing at cooking—this chair happens to have four legs. This is the one which is offered to the visitor, but the children’s cooking has not been wiped away and if you sit down, you risk a pair of trousers.
Eventually a spirited and agreeable conversation arises to make amends for the domestic deficiencies, thus making the discomfort tolerable. Finally you grow accustomed to the company, and find it interesting and original. This is a true picture of the family life of the communist chief.
In 1852, Marx was determined to produce an analysis of the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte in France. His kids had other ideas:
Marx worked at the family’s only table, surrounded by more than the usual household commotion. The children had created a new game that involved harnessing Marx to chairs they lined up behind him to form a stagecoach. The seated Marx was the horse, who had to pretend to pull his exuberant passengers or face a whipping. His daughter wrote years later that “several chapters of the Eighteenth Brumaire were actually written in this capacity as steeple chaser of his three small children.”
Many years later, Marx invited John Swinton, a liberal New York journalist, to visit him during a family holiday at the seaside. After a private conversation, Marx suggested a walk to the beach.
There on the sand the two came upon the Marx family: Jenny, Jennychen, Laura, and the children, and Marx’s two sons-in-law, one of whom Swinton described as a professor at King’s College and the other as a man of letters. … Swinton reported, “It was a delightful party—about ten in all—the father of the two young wives, who were happy with their children, and the grandmother of the children, rich in the joysomeness and serenity of her wifely nature.” Marx, Swinton, and the two younger men then left the women for a chat and a drink. Swinton said he had been waiting all afternoon to pose a question to Marx about what Swinton called the “final law of being.” Finally, he had the chance, and asked, “What is?” Marx looked at the roaring sea and the restless crowds on the beach and replied: “Struggle!”
So, after working away for all those years to produce his masterpiece, what was the reaction? Marx had a hunch that people were going to be surprised by the book. Gabriel writes about the moment when Marx delivered the first proofs to Engels:
Engels had not read any of the work as yet, and Marx was nervous about his reaction. He considered Engels his most important critic and also one of his most difficult, if for no other reason than Engels knew the subject as well as Marx himself. Marx had made a very revealing recommendation to Engels before leaving for Hamburg (to pick up the proofs), suggesting he read Balzac’s short novel The Unknown Masterpiece, which he described as “full of delightful irony.” The book was about a painter who, after years of labor and amid great anticipation, produced a masterpiece that only he could see or understand.
Balzac had hinted at the outcome in an epigraph:
“Do you see anything?” Poussin whispered to Porbus.
“No. Do you?”
“The old fraud’s pulling our leg.”
On June 16th of 1867, Engels’s first response to Marx’s work was mixed. He had received the book in parcels of sixteen pages and said by way of gentle criticism that the difficult second batch “in particular has the marks of your carbuncles rather firmly stamped upon it.” He did not like the abstract character of Marx’s development of the notion of the value form:
It was a serious mistake not to have made the development of these rather abstract arguments clearer by means of a larger number of short sections with their own headings. You ought to have treated this part in the manner of Hegel’s Encyclopedia, with short paragraphs, each dialectical transition emphasized by means of a special heading and, as far as possible, all the excurses or merely illustrative material printed in special type. The thing would have looked somewhat like a school text-book, but a very large class of readers would have found it considerably easier to understand. The populus, even the scholars, just are no longer accustomed to this way of thinking, and one has to make it as easy for them as one possibly can.
He thought that the dialectic had been “greatly sharpened” since Marx’s earlier Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, but there were some things Engels liked better in that work than in Capital. Otherwise, he liked what he had read.
It’s not quite clear how Marx took the criticism. But, on June 22nd, he wrote back:
With regard to the development of the form of value, I have both followed and not followed your advice, thus striking a dialectical attitude in this matter, too. That is to say, 1. I have written an appendix in which I set out the same subject again as simply and as much in the manner of a school text-book as possible, and 2. I have divided each successive proposition into paras. etc., each with its own heading, as you advised. In the Preface, I then tell the non-dialectical reader to skip pages x-y and instead read the appendix. It is not only the philistines that I have in mind here, but young people, etc., who are thirsting for knowledge. Anyway, the issue is crucial for the whole book.
What exactly was Marx saying? Was dialectics a matter simply of a parlor game of “Now you see it, now you don’t?” And just who would be left to read the actual text if the non-dialectical readers, the philistines (whom he hated) and the young people (“thirsting for knowledge”) all followed his advice and turned to the Appendix? And, if the issue is crucial for the whole book, why didn’t he include a version of the Appendix in the original text? This is, I believe, Marx being “topsy-turvy” himself.
On the 27th, he wrote again and provided an outline for the Appendix. Marx takes Engels’s comment about a school text-book and provides him with a text-book outline to out-do all textbooks. The Appendix was included in the first edition but not in the second. Those who posted the Appendix to the Marx-Engels Archive wrote: “This appendix contains an extraordinarily clear and succinct exposition of Marx’s concept of value. Indeed there is no better introduction to the much more involved exposition in the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital as we now have it.” I don’t think so; I think it’s a bit of a joke at Engels’s expense. For the most part, it consists of a series of claims that x = y and y = x. But check it out for yourself.
Other friends and sympathizers expressed difficulty and puzzlement with the volume. Peter Fox, a delegate to the International Working Men’s Association, said he “felt like a man who had been given an elephant and didn’t know what to do with it.” I don’t know if Fox was familiar with the various versions of the folktale of the blind men and the elephant but he may very well have been suggesting that he simply didn’t know what part of the elephant he was holding and felt blinded by the complexity.
After the copies began to be distributed, Marx waited anxiously for public comment. Its absence made him ill and anxious. He suffered from a new attack of carbuncles and could only lie on his side. In her letter to Kugelmann mentioned above, Jenny had sarcastically commented on the absence of responses: “It would seem that the Germans’ preferred form of applause is utter and complete silence. … If the workers had an inkling of the sacrifices that were necessary for this work, which was written only for them and for their sakes to be completed they would perhaps show a little more interest.”
This was in spite of Engels’s strenuous efforts to publicize the book. He wrote seven different anonymous reviews for various publications, some favorable and others not, in an effort to attract attention to the book. He argued that the best thing to do was to get the book denounced: “The main thing is that the book should be discussed over and over again. … And as Marx is not a free agent in the matter, and is furthermore as bashful as a young girl, it is up to the rest of us to see to it. In the words of our old friend Jesus Christ, we must be innocent as doves and wise as serpents.”
British socialist Henry Hyndman described the original reaction: “Accustomed as we are nowadays, especially in England, to fence always with big soft buttons on the point of our rapiers, Marx’s terrible onslaught with naked steel upon his adversaries appeared so improper that it was impossible for our gentlemanly sham-fighters and mental gymnasium men to believe that this unsparing controversialist and furious assailant of capital and capitalism was really the deepest thinker of our times.”
So what exactly had Marx thought he was writing and what kind of a text is Capital? Marx had told a Geneva friend that Capital “is without question the most terrible MISSILE that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie.” But, as has often been noted and as Jenny claimed, Marx had also written Capital for workers. Gabriel observes:
“[Marx] was not a patient man, and he was notoriously wrong when it came to predicting people’s readiness for change—whether that be their ability to accept new ideas or to rise up in revolt. He repeatedly stated that it would take years, if not decades, to educate and prepare the workingman to assume the reins of power, and yet he expected that same workingman not only to absorb and understand Capital, but to do so quickly. Yet the sheer physical weight of the book, not to mention its mathematical formulas, multiple languages, erudite literary and philosophical references, and abstract theorizing, made it nearly unapproachable.
Gabriel offers a couple of suggestions regarding the complexity of the text:
The concepts Marx presented appeared clear as day to him and Engels because they had discussed them since 1844. The two friends seemed to have forgotten that Marx’s ideas (though not all new or original) combined to create a theoretical earthquake—a revolution in thought that shook the foundations of the young capitalist society, which in 1867 had reached its highest point to date. In his book Marx held up a mirror to that society, daring exploiters and exploited alike to gaze upon the awful truths of their relations as he saw them.
There was also a sense that Capital was actually two books. Marx’s extensive use of footnotes—some taking up nearly an entire page—made the reader feel he was being asked to absorb a text and running commentary in tandem. One has a sense of a pianist playing two sets of keys simultaneously, which made it difficult for a listener to give full attention to either. In a way the style was a return to the Marx family’s deep rabbinical roots; it was not unlike the Jewish homiletic tradition Aggadah, which explained truths from classic Jewish texts using a two-tiered approach, overt and covert, shouts and whispers.
But what are we to make of the claim that Capital was intended to be read by workers? Marx’s living circumstances in London were frequently all but identical to those of the workers in the same neighborhoods so he knew well the state of their degradation. And, clearly, Marx knew radical workers on the Continent and in Great Britain and engaged in political work with them—including within the First International but it’s not likely that those individuals were typical of the larger working class. In any case, I don’t doubt Marx’s intention that he wanted workers to read Capital but I think his judgment about the capacity of most of them to read the totality of such a complex text was simply mistaken.
What do we know about the workers who eventually did read Marx? Jonathan Rose reported that a study of the use of libraries maintained by the German Social Democratic Party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries revealed that workers “found Marx difficult to digest.” “Freidrich Stampfer [a worker using one of the libraries] borrowed Karl Kautsky’s popularization of Das Kapital and found only the first twenty pages heavily thumbed: the rest was ’virgin purity.‘” Rose also wrote about Wil John Edwards, a student at Ruskin College:
It was in the pits—“the centre of culture among the miners”—that Edwards was introduced to Karl Marx. None of the miners could really understand him or satisfactorily explain the labor theory of value, but that did not limit their enthusiasm: “Marx was a prophet of revolution; what he said went, and it could hardly matter where.” Edwards wrote that his own Marxism was: “…a crusade demanding all the devotion of a religion. It was less a political philosophy than a deeply spiritual cult. … I am bound to admit that in those days I was swayed more by emotion than understanding. … I was a socialist, but if anyone had asked why I was a socialist, I could not have given a clear explanation. I was looking for a precisely drawn creed, perhaps for a gospel, something I could grip mentally.”
Perhaps it would be helpful to emphasize that reading is not completely about what an individual reader independently does with a text in front of him or her. The interaction between a reader and a text is profoundly social in character. It is shaped and informed by a reader’s previous literacy-related activities and practices, by the various social circles that he or she is involved with and the literacy practices of those circles and by the extent of familiarity with what might be considered the “genre” of the text—meaning the conventions and meanings that the author of the text more or less took for granted among his or her readers. (By way of example, what do academics mean when they say they are writing a “critique”? Are they all French?) But familiarity with literacy conventions is ultimately not narrowly a matter of literacy. It is, almost certainly, a matter of social traditions and cohesions that situate the reading of certain kinds of texts within larger understandings of things like “which side are you on?” 
According to Gabriel, Isaiah Berlin (no radical) suggested that, if the workers who read Capital understood nothing else, they would have understood Marx’s message that “there is only one social class, their own, which produces more wealth than it consumes, and that this residue is appropriated by other men simply by virtue of their strategic position as the sole possessors of the means of production, that is, natural resources, machinery, means of transport, financial credit, and so forth, without which the workers cannot create, while control over them gives those who have it the power of starving the rest of mankind into capitulation on its own terms.”
Let’s keep something quite important in mind—Marx was enraged by what he saw and knew: “I laugh at the so-called ‘practical’ men and their wisdom. If one wanted to be an ox, one could, of course, turn one’s back on the sufferings of humanity and look after one’s own hide.” Instead, he turned his learning and his passion to the writing of memorable sentences such as:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. … Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.
Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.
In its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus labor, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working day.
I work on the assumption that Marx’s arguments in Capital cannot be simplified and that, perhaps, they cannot ever be read in one definitive fashion. What might make his complexity more accessible to more people, including workers, is the extent to which capitalist society follows the trajectory he outlined. In other words, a changed world changes the possibilities. So, we might find out that Marx’s hope for his readers was fulfilled—about a century and a half later than he thought.
In any case, I don’t think that Marx was especially concerned about the issue of readability. My guess is that he assumed that his readers would invest the time and effort needed to understand what he had written. I know of one bit of evidence that perhaps Marx’s readers knew more than what we might think. In Capital, he refers to “labor in general” or abstract labor as “gallerte.” The word is usually translated as “congealed”—suggesting something like freezing. But “gallerte” is not a verb; it’s a noun—a kind of food glue that has been boiled down from animal parts. Apparently, Marx’s use of the word as a description of abstract labor—meaning, more or less, that the workers’ bodies had been boiled down into an “undifferentiated” mass—was all but guaranteed to provoke feelings of disgust among those who understood the reference. It may be that many of the references that Marx makes would have been more familiar to his contemporaries than they are to us and, therefore, more would have been able to get what he was up to.
Keston Sutherland has forcefully argued that that much of the difficulty involved in reading Capital springs from a conviction that it should be read as a work of pure theory and that the essential task is to get the theory right. He believes that such an approach fails to appreciate the distinctive literary purposes informing Marx’s writing. He cites Marx’s comment in the preface to the second German edition that, “No one can feel the literary shortcomings in Capital more strongly than I myself.” He insists that Marx’s concern with style was inseparable from his larger political goals—including a determination to not let the bourgeoisie or its apologizers off the hook. In his view, theory can always be made into something rather innocuous but vicious satire cannot. Sutherland makes an interesting argument about what might be considered a central moment of volume 1—the theory of commodity fetishism. He argues that it’s not especially a theory at all (although it certainly has theoretical merits). He begins by pointing out another translation error—the phrase should better be translated as the “fetishistic character of commodities” rather than the “fetishism of commodities.” The distinction is reinforced by Sutherland’s extended commentary on Marx’s use and abuse of the concept of fetishism. The first person to use the word was Charles deBrosses, an eighteenth-century aristocratic ethnographer who used it to celebrate European civilization in comparison to the benighted world of superstitious primitives all over the world. Marx, of course, wanted nothing to do with celebrating bourgeois civilization and took special delight in exposing the superstitious dimensions of political economy. For Sutherland, the theorists who miss the satire miss Marx: “Each time this theory is extracted, the impurities of style and satire are washed away with the ‘caustic’ of pure theoretical paraphrase.” In this sense, then, interpreting Marx is not reading Marx.
What might we do if we were asked to articulate Marx’s theory of vampirism or were-wolfism? We would, I assume, say that theory is beside the point. What would we do if we were asked to ignore the vampires and the were-wolves? I hope we would answer, “Not on your life.” Many of the most memorable passages and concepts in Capital defy simple theorization. They are, instead, efforts to propose a “critical anthropology” of capitalism, wherein moving descriptions of horrifying realities, rigorous theoretical explications of complex phenomena, and heretical histories (along with an ironic/satiric style) all contribute to a work intended to shock the world into sense.
Marx died in 1883—not long after his daughter, Jennychen, and his wife. He never recovered from those deaths and, perhaps, gave up some of his all but indefatigable determination. Eleven people attended his burial at Highgate Cemetery. His death attracted little notice:
Reuters carried the first news of Marx’s death, but the initial report—like so many press reports about Marx—was incorrect, claiming that he had died at Argenteuil. Even when it was determined that Marx had died in London, the British press picked up the information only after a Times correspondent read the news in a socialist paper in Paris. Twelve years earlier Marx had been front-page news in the flurry of stories following the Commune, but in 1883 his passing barely warranted a mention.
A year later, about six thousand marched to the cemetery.
Karl Marx was one of us and much more. In 1976, my wife and I visited Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery in London. Consistent with the customs of the time, there were bouquets of flowers in plastic containers placed on the grave with written messages enclosed. One of those messages said, “Thanks for the help, mate. We’re still at it!”
Let’s imagine what Marx wanted us to be still “at.” In 1842, he had written the following:
You admire the delightful variety, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not demand that the rose should smell like the violet, but must the greatest riches of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am humorous, but the law bids me write seriously. I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom. Every drop of dew on which the sun shines glistens with an inexhaustible play of colours, but the spiritual sun, however many the persons and whatever the objects in which it is refracted, must produce only the official colour! The most essential form of the spirit is cheerfulness, light, but you make shadow the sole manifestation of the spirit; it must be clothed only in black, yet among flowers there are no black ones. The essence of the spirit is always truth itself but what do you make its essence? Modesty. Only the mean wretch is modest, says Goethe, and you want to turn the spirit into such a mean wretch? Or if modesty is to be the modesty of genius of which Schiller speaks, then first of all turn all your citizens and above all your censors into geniuses. But then the modesty of genius does not consist in what educated speech consists in, the absence of accent and dialect, but rather in speaking with the accent of the matter and in the dialect of its essence. It consists in forgetting modesty and immodesty and getting to the heart of the matter. The universal modesty of the mind is reason, that universal liberality of thought which reacts to each thing according to the latter’s essential nature.
Further, if seriousness is not to come under Tristram Shandy’s definition according to which it is a hypocritical behaviour of the body in order to conceal defects of the soul, but signifies seriousness in substance, then the entire prescription falls to the ground. For I treat the ludicrous seriously when I treat it ludicrously, and the most serious immodesty of the mind is to be modest in the face of immodesty.
Serious and modest! What fluctuating, relative concepts! Where does seriousness cease and jocularity begin? Where does modesty cease and immodesty begin? We are dependent on the temperament of the censor. It would be as wrong to prescribe temperament for the censor as to prescribe style for the writer. If you want to be consistent in your aesthetic criticism, then forbid also a too serious and too modest investigation of the truth, for too great seriousness is the most ludicrous thing of all, and too great modesty is the bitterest irony.
Finally, the starting point is a completely perverted and abstract view of truth itself. All objects of the writer’s activity are comprehended in the one general concept “truth.” Even if we leave the subjective side out of account, viz., that one and the same object is refracted differently as seen by different persons and its different aspects converted into as many different spiritual characters, ought the character of the object to have no influence, not even the slightest, on the investigation? Truth includes not only the result but also the path to it. The investigation of truth must itself be true; true investigation is developed truth, the dispersed elements of which are brought together in the result. And should not the manner of investigation alter according to the object? If the object is a matter for laughter, the manner has to seem serious, if the object is disagreeable, it has to be modest. Thus you violate the right of the object as you do that of the subject. You conceive truth abstractly and turn the spirit into an examining magistrate, who draws up a dry protocol of it.
Years later, when he was dissecting the human corpse that is capital, he wanted nothing to do with being an “examining magistrate.”
Without theoretical sophistication, Mary Gabriel understands that. It may very well turn out to be the case that she attracts more people to an appreciation of Marx than the efforts of all the various Marxist groups. For the most part, that will be a good thing since so much of what parades as Marxism has very little to do with Karl Marx. Mary Gabriel knows Marx and we know him better after we read her book.