The Story Of Karl Marx
Some time ago I entered a fairly large library--one of more than two
hundred thousand volumes--to seek the little brochure on Karl Marx
written by his old friend and genial comrade Wilhelm Liebknecht. It was
in the card catalogue. As I made a note of its number, my friend the
librarian came up to me, and I asked him whether it was not strange
that a man like Marx should have so many books devoted to him, for I had
roughly reckoned the number at several hundred.
"Not at all," said he; "and we have here only a feeble nucleus of the
Marx literature--just enough, in fact, to give you a glimpse of what
that literature really is. These are merely the books written by Marx
himself, and the translations of them, with a few expository monographs.
Anything like a real Marx collection would take up a special room in
this library, and would have to have its own separate catalogue. You
see that even these two or three hundred books contain large volumes
of small pamphlets in many languages--German, English, French, Italian,
Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Swedish, Hungarian, Spanish; and here," he
concluded, pointing to a recently numbered card, "is one in Japanese."
My curiosity was sufficiently excited to look into the matter somewhat
further. I visited another library, which was appreciably larger, and
whose managers were evidently less guided by their prejudices. Here were
several thousand books on Marx, and I spent the best part of the day in
looking them over.
What struck me as most singular was the fact that there was scarcely
a volume about Marx himself. Practically all the books dealt with his
theory of capital and his other socialistic views. The man himself, his
personality, and the facts of his life were dismissed in the most meager
fashion, while his economic theories were discussed with something
that verged upon fury. Even such standard works as those of Mehring and
Spargo, which profess to be partly biographical, sum up the personal
side of Marx in a few pages. In fact, in the latter's preface he seems
conscious of this defect, and says:
Whether socialism proves, in the long span of centuries, to be good or
evil, a blessing to men or a curse, Karl Marx must always be an object
of interest as one of the great world-figures of immortal memory. As
the years go by, thoughtful men and women will find the same interest in
studying the life and work of Marx that they do in studying the life
and work of Cromwell, of Wesley, or of Darwin, to name three immortal
world-figures of vastly divergent types.
Singularly little is known of Karl Marx, even by his most ardent
followers. They know his work, having studied his Das Kapital with the
devotion and earnestness with which an older generation of Christians
studied the Bible, but they are very generally unacquainted with the
man himself. Although more than twenty-six years have elapsed since the
death of Marx, there is no adequate biography of him in any language.
Doubtless some better-equipped German writer, such as Franz Mehring or
Eduard Bernstein, will some day give us the adequate and full biography
for which the world now waits.
Here is an admission that there exists no adequate biography of Karl
Marx, and here is also an intimation that simply as a man, and not
merely as a great firebrand of socialism, Marx is well worth studying.
And so it has occurred to me to give in these pages one episode of his
career that seems to me quite curious, together with some significant
touches concerning the man as apart from the socialist. Let the
thousands of volumes already in existence suffice for the latter. The
motto of this paper is not the Vergilian "Arms and the man I sing,"
but simply "The man I sing"--and the woman. Karl Marx was born nearly
ninety-four years ago--May 5, 1818--in the city which the French call
Treves and the Germans Trier, among the vine-clad hills of the Moselle.
Today, the town is commonplace enough when you pass through it, but when
you look into its history, and seek out that history's evidences, you
will find that it was not always a rather sleepy little place. It was
one of the chosen abodes of the Emperors of the West, after Rome
began to be governed by Gauls and Spaniards, rather than by Romans and
Italians. The traveler often pauses there to see the Porta Nigra, that
immense gate once strongly fortified, and he will doubtless visit also
what is left of the fine baths and amphitheater.
Treves, therefore, has a right to be termed imperial, and it was
the birthplace of one whose sway over the minds of men has been both
imperial and imperious.
Karl Marx was one of those whose intellectual achievements were so great
as to dwarf his individuality and his private life. What he taught
with almost terrific vigor made his very presence in the Continental
monarchies a source of eminent danger. He was driven from country to
country. Kings and emperors were leagued together against him. Soldiers
were called forth, and blood was shed because of him. But, little by
little, his teaching seems to have leavened the thought of the whole
civilized world, so that to-day thousands who barely know his name are
deeply affected by his ideas, and believe that the state should control
and manage everything for the good of all.
Marx seems to have inherited little from either of his parents. His
father, Heinrich Marx, was a provincial Jewish lawyer who had adopted
Christianity, probably because it was expedient, and because it enabled
him to hold local offices and gain some social consequence. He had
changed his name from Mordecai to Marx.
The elder Marx was very shrewd and tactful, and achieved a fair position
among the professional men and small officials in the city of Treves.
He had seen the horrors of the French Revolution, and was philosopher
enough to understand the meaning of that mighty upheaval, and of the
Napoleonic era which followed.
Napoleon, indeed, had done much to relieve his race from petty
oppression. France made the Jews in every respect the equals of the
Gentiles. One of its ablest marshals--Massena--was a Jew, and therefore,
when the imperial eagle was at the zenith of its flight, the Jews in
every city and town of Europe were enthusiastic admirers of Napoleon,
some even calling him the Messiah.
Karl Marx's mother, it is certain, endowed him with none of his gifts.
She was a Netherlandish Jewess of the strictly domestic and conservative
type, fond of her children and her home, and detesting any talk that
looked to revolutionary ideas or to a change in the social order. She
became a Christian with her husband, but the word meant little to her.
It was sufficient that she believed in God; and for this she was teased
by some of her skeptical friends. Replying to them, she uttered the only
epigram that has ever been ascribed to her.
"Yes," she said, "I believe in God, not for God's sake, but for my own."
She was so little affected by change of scene that to the day of her
death she never mastered German, but spoke almost wholly in her native
Dutch. Had we time, we might dwell upon the unhappy paradox of her life.
In her son Karl she found an especial joy, as did her husband. Had the
father lived beyond Karl's early youth, he would doubtless have been
greatly pained by the radicalism of his gifted son, as well as by his
personal privations. But the mother lived until 1863, while Karl was
everywhere stirring the fires of revolution, driven from land to land,
both feared and persecuted, and often half famished. As Mr. Spargo says:
It was the irony of life that the son, who kindled a mighty hope in the
hearts of unnumbered thousands of his fellow human beings, a hope that
is today inspiring millions of those who speak his name with reverence
and love, should be able to do that only by destroying his mother's hope
and happiness in her son, and that every step he took should fill her
heart with a great agony.
When young Marx grew out of boyhood into youth, he was attractive to all
those who met him. Tall, lithe, and graceful, he was so extremely dark
that his intimates called him "der neger"--"the negro." His loosely
tossing hair gave to him a still more exotic appearance; but his eyes
were true and frank, his nose denoted strength and character, and his
mouth was full of kindliness in its expression. His lineaments were not
those of the Jewish type.
Very late in life--he died in 1883--his hair and beard turned white,
but to the last his great mustache was drawn like a bar across his
face, remaining still as black as ink, and making his appearance very
striking. He was full of fun and gaiety. As was only natural, there soon
came into his life some one who learned to love him, and to whom, in his
turn, he gave a deep and unbroken affection.
There had come to Treves--which passed from France to Prussia with
the downfall of Napoleon--a Prussian nobleman, the Baron Ludwig von
Westphalen, holding the official title of "national adviser." The baron
was of Scottish extraction on his mother's side, being connected with
the ducal family of Argyll. He was a man of genuine rank, and might have
shown all the arrogance and superciliousness of the average Prussian
official; but when he became associated with Heinrich Marx he evinced
none of that condescending manner. The two men became firm friends, and
the baron treated the provincial lawyer as an equal.
The two families were on friendly terms. Von Westphalen's infant
daughter, who had the formidable name of Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von
Westphalen, but who was usually spoken of as Jenny, became, in time, an
intimate of Sophie Marx. She was four years older than Karl, but the two
grew up together--he a high-spirited, manly boy, and she a lovely and
The baron treated Karl as if the lad were a child of his own. He
influenced him to love romantic literature and poetry by interpreting
to him the great masterpieces, from Homer and Shakespeare to Goethe and
Lessing. He made a special study of Dante, whose mysticism appealed to
his somewhat dreamy nature, and to the religious instinct that always
lived in him, in spite of his dislike for creeds and churches.
The lore that he imbibed in early childhood stood Karl in good stead
when he began his school life, and his preparation for the university.
He had an absolute genius for study, and was no less fond of the sports
and games of his companions, so that he seemed to be marked out for
success. At sixteen years of age he showed a precocious ability for
planning and carrying out his work with thoroughness. His mind was
evidently a creative mind, one that was able to think out difficult
problems without fatigue. His taste was shown in his fondness for the
classics, in studying which he noted subtle distinctions of meaning
that usually escape even the mature scholar. Penetration, thoroughness,
creativeness, and a capacity for labor were the boy's chief
With such gifts, and such a nature, he left home for the university of
Bonn. Here he disappointed all his friends. His studies were neglected;
he was morose, restless, and dissatisfied. He fell into a number of
scrapes, and ran into debt through sundry small extravagances. All the
reports that reached his home were most unsatisfactory. What had come
over the boy who had worked so hard in the gymnasium at Treves?
The simple fact was that he had became love-sick. His separation from
Jenny von Westphalen had made him conscious of a feeling which he had
long entertained without knowing it. They had been close companions. He
had looked into her beautiful face and seen the luminous response of her
lovely eyes, but its meaning had not flashed upon his mind. He was not
old enough to have a great consuming passion, he was merely conscious of
her charm. As he could see her every day, he did not realize how much he
wanted her, and how much a separation from her would mean.
As "absence makes the heart grow fonder," so it may suddenly draw aside
the veil behind which the truth is hidden. At Bonn young Marx felt as
if a blaze of light had flashed before him; and from that moment
his studies, his companions, and the ambitions that he had hitherto
cherished all seemed flat and stale. At night and in the daytime there
was just one thing which filled his mind and heart--the beautiful vision
of Jenny von Westphalen.
Meanwhile his family, and especially his father, had become anxious at
the reports which reached them. Karl was sent for, and his stay at Bonn
Now that he was once more in the presence of the girl who charmed him
so, he recovered all his old-time spirits. He wooed her ardently, and
though she was more coy, now that she saw his passion, she did not
discourage him, but merely prolonged the ecstasy of this wonderful
love-making. As he pressed her more and more, and no one guessed the
story, there came a time when she was urged to let herself become
engaged to him.
Here was seen the difference in their ages--a difference that had an
effect upon their future. It means much that a girl should be four years
older than the man who seeks her hand. She is four years wiser; and a
girl of twenty is, in fact, a match for a youth of twenty-five. Brought
up as she had been, in an aristocratic home, with the blood of two noble
families in her veins, and being wont to hear the easy and somewhat
cynical talk of worldly people, she knew better than poor Karl the
un-wisdom of what she was about to do.
She was noble, the daughter of one high official and the sister of
another. Those whom she knew were persons of rank and station. On the
other hand, young Marx, though he had accepted Christianity, was the son
of a provincial Jewish lawyer, with no fortune, and with a bad record at
the university. When she thought of all these things, she may well have
hesitated; but the earnest pleading and intense ardor of Karl Marx
broke down all barriers between them, and they became engaged, without
informing Jenny's father of their compact. Then they parted for a while,
and Karl returned to his home, filled with romantic thoughts.
He was also full of ambition and of desire for achievement. He had won
the loveliest girl in Treves, and now he must go forth into the world
and conquer it for her sake. He begged his father to send him to
Berlin, and showed how much more advantageous was that new and splendid
university, where Hegel's fame was still in the ascendent.
In answer to his father's questions, the younger Marx replied:
"I have something to tell you that will explain all; but first you must
give me your word that you will tell no one."
"I trust you wholly," said the father. "I will not reveal what you may
say to me."
"Well," returned the son, "I am engaged to marry Jenny von Westphalen.
She wishes it kept a secret from her father, but I am at liberty to tell
you of it."
The elder Marx was at once shocked and seriously disturbed. Baron
von Westphalen was his old and intimate friend. No thought of romance
between their children had ever come into his mind. It seemed disloyal
to keep the verlobung of Karl and Jenny a secret; for should it be
revealed, what would the baron think of Marx? Their disparity of rank
and fortune would make the whole affair stand out as something wrong and
The father endeavored to make his son see all this. He begged him to go
and tell the baron, but young Marx was not to be persuaded.
"Send me to Berlin," he said, "and we shall again be separated; but I
shall work and make a name for myself, so that when I return neither
Jenny nor her father will have occasion to be disturbed by our
With these words he half satisfied his father, and before long he was
sent to Berlin, where he fell manfully upon his studies. His father
had insisted that he should study law; but his own tastes were for
philosophy and history. He attended lectures in jurisprudence "as a
necessary evil," but he read omnivorously in subjects that were nearer
to his heart. The result was that his official record was not much
better than it had been at Bonn.
The same sort of restlessness, too, took possession of him when he
found that Jenny would not answer his letters. No matter how eagerly and
tenderly he wrote to her, there came no reply. Even the most passionate
pleadings left her silent and unresponsive. Karl could not complain, for
she had warned him that she would not write to him. She felt that their
engagement, being secret, was anomalous, and that until her family knew
of it she was not free to act as she might wish.
Here again was seen the wisdom of her maturer years; but Karl could not
be equally reasonable. He showered her with letters, which still she
would not answer. He wrote to his father in words of fire. At last,
driven to despair, he said that he was going to write to the Baron von
Westphalen, reveal the secret, and ask for the baron's fatherly consent.
It seemed a reckless thing to do, and yet it turned out to be the
wisest. The baron knew that such an engagement meant a social sacrifice,
and that, apart from the matter of rank, young Marx was without any
fortune to give the girl the luxuries to which she had been accustomed.
Other and more eligible suitors were always within view. But here Jenny
herself spoke out more strongly than she had ever done to Karl. She
was willing to accept him with what he was able to give her. She cared
nothing for any other man, and she begged her father to make both of
them completely happy.
Thus it seemed that all was well, yet for some reason or other
Jenny would not write to Karl, and once more he was almost driven to
distraction. He wrote bitter letters to his father, who tried to comfort
him. The baron himself sent messages of friendly advice, but what young
man in his teens was ever reasonable? So violent was Karl that at last
his father wrote to him:
I am disgusted with your letters. Their unreasonable tone is loathsome
to me. I should never had expected it of you. Haven't you been lucky
from your cradle up?
Finally Karl received one letter from his betrothed--a letter that
transfused him with ecstatic joy for about a day, and then sent him
back to his old unrest. This, however, may be taken as a part of Marx's
curious nature, which was never satisfied, but was always reaching after
something which could not be had.
He fell to writing poetry, of which he sent three volumes to
Jenny--which must have been rather trying to her, since the verse was
very poor. He studied the higher mathematics, English and Italian,
some Latin, and a miscellaneous collection of works on history and
literature. But poetry almost turned his mind. In later years he wrote:
Everything was centered on poetry, as if I were bewitched by some
Luckily, he was wise enough, after a time, to recognize how halting
were his poems when compared with those of the great masters; and so he
resumed his restless, desultory work. He still sent his father letters
that were like wild cries. They evoked, in reply, a very natural burst
Complete disorder, silly wandering through all branches of science,
silly brooding at the burning oil-lamp! In your wildness you see with
four eyes--a horrible setback and disregard for everything decent. And
in the pursuit of this senseless and purposeless learning you think
to raise the fruits which are to unite you with your beloved one! What
harvest do you expect to gather from them which will enable you to
fulfil your duty toward her?
Writing to him again, his father speaks of something that Karl had
written as "a mad composition, which denotes clearly how you waste your
ability and spend nights in order to create such monstrosities." The
young man was even forbidden to return home for the Easter holidays.
This meant giving up the sight of Jenny, whom he had not seen for a
whole year. But fortune arranged it otherwise; for not many weeks later
death removed the parent who had loved him and whom he had loved, though
neither of them could understand the other. The father represented the
old order of things; the son was born to discontent and to look forward
to a new heaven and a new earth.
Returning to Berlin, Karl resumed his studies; but as before, they
were very desultory in their character, and began to run upon social
questions, which were indeed setting Germany into a ferment. He took his
degree, and thought of becoming an instructor at the university of Jena;
but his radicalism prevented this, and he became the editor of a liberal
newspaper, which soon, however, became so very radical as to lead to his
It now seemed best that Marx should seek other fields of activity. To
remain in Germany was dangerous to himself and discreditable to Jenny's
relatives, with their status as Prussian officials. In the summer of
1843, he went forth into the world--at last an "international." Jenny,
who had grown to believe in him as against her own family, asked for
nothing better than to wander with him, if only they might be married.
And they were married in this same summer, and spent a short honeymoon
at Bingen on the Rhine--made famous by Mrs. Norton's poem. It was the
brief glimpse of sunshine that was to precede year after year of anxiety
Leaving Germany, Marx and Jenny went to Paris, where he became known to
some of the intellectual lights of the French capital, such as Bakunin,
the great Russian anarchist, Proudhon, Cabet, and Saint-Simon. Most
important of all was his intimacy with the poet Heine, that marvelous
creature whose fascination took on a thousand forms, and whom no one
could approach without feeling his strange allurement.
Since Goethe's death, down to the present time, there has been no figure
in German literature comparable to Heine. His prose was exquisite. His
poetry ran through the whole gamut of humanity and of the sensations
that come to us from the outer world. In his poems are sweet melodies
and passionate cries of revolt, stirring ballads of the sea and tender
love-songs--strange as these last seem when coming from this cynic.
For cynic he was, deep down in his heart, though his face, when in
repose, was like the conventional pictures of Christ. His fascinations
destroyed the peace of many a woman; and it was only after many years of
self-indulgence that he married the faithful Mathilde Mirat in what
he termed a "conscience marriage." Soon after he went to his
"mattress-grave," as he called it, a hopeless paralytic.
To Heine came Marx and his beautiful bride. One may speculate as to
Jenny's estimate of her husband. Since his boyhood, she had not seen him
very much. At that time he was a merry, light-hearted youth, a jovial
comrade, and one of whom any girl would be proud. But since his long
stay in Berlin, and his absorption in the theories of men like Engels
and Bauer, he had become a very different sort of man, at least to her.
Groping, lost in brown studies, dreamy, at times morose, he was by no
means a sympathetic and congenial husband for a high-bred, spirited
girl, such as Jenny von Westphalen. His natural drift was toward a
beer-garden, a group of frowsy followers, the reek of vile tobacco, and
the smell of sour beer. One cannot but think that his beautiful wife
must have been repelled by this, though with her constant nature she
still loved him.
In Heinrich Heine she found a spirit that seemed akin to hers. Mr.
Spargo says--and in what he says one must read a great deal between the
The admiration of Jenny Marx for the poet was even more ardent than
that of her husband. He fascinated her because, as she said, he was "so
modern," while Heine was drawn to her because she was "so sympathetic."
It must be that Heine held the heart of this beautiful woman in his
hand. He knew so well the art of fascination; he knew just how to supply
the void which Marx had left. The two were indeed affinities in heart
and soul; yet for once the cynical poet stayed his hand, and said no
word that would have been disloyal to his friend. Jenny loved him with a
love that might have blazed into a lasting flame; but fortunately there
appeared a special providence to save her from herself. The French
government, at the request of the King of Prussia, banished Marx from
its dominions; and from that day until he had become an old man he was
a wanderer and an exile, with few friends and little money, sustained by
nothing but Jenny's fidelity and by his infinite faith in a cause that
crushed him to the earth.
There is a curious parallel between the life of Marx and that of Richard
Wagner down to the time when the latter discovered a royal patron.
Both of them were hounded from country to country; both of them
worked laboriously for so scanty a living as to verge, at times, upon
starvation. Both of them were victims to a cause in which they earnestly
believed--an economic cause in the one case, an artistic cause in
the other. Wagner's triumph came before his death, and the world has
accepted his theory of the music-drama. The cause of Marx is far greater
and more tremendous, because it strikes at the base of human life and
The clash between Wagner and his critics was a matter of poetry and
dramatic music. It was not vital to the human race. The cause of Marx
is one that is only now beginning to be understood and recognized by
millions of men and women in all the countries of the earth. In
his lifetime he issued a manifesto that has become a classic among
economists. He organized the great International Association of Workmen,
which set all Europe in a blaze and extended even to America. His great
book, "Capital"--Das Kapital--which was not completed until the last
years of his life, is read to-day by thousands as an almost sacred work.
Like Wagner and his Minna, the wife of Marx's youth clung to him through
his utmost vicissitudes, denying herself the necessities of life so that
he might not starve. In London, where he spent his latest days, he was
secure from danger, yet still a sort of persecution seemed to follow
him. For some time, nothing that he wrote could find a printer. Wherever
he went, people looked at him askance. He and his six children lived
upon the sum of five dollars a week, which was paid him by the New York
Tribune, through the influence of the late Charles A. Dana. When his
last child was born, and the mother's life was in serious danger, Marx
complained that there was no cradle for the baby, and a little later
that there was no coffin for its burial.
Marx had ceased to believe in marriage, despised the church, and cared
nothing for government. Yet, unlike Wagner, he was true to the woman who
had given up so much for him. He never sank to an artistic degeneracy.
Though he rejected creeds, he was nevertheless a man of genuine
religious feeling. Though he believed all present government to be an
evil, he hoped to make it better, or rather he hoped to substitute for
it a system by which all men might get an equal share of what it is
right and just for them to have.
Such was Marx, and thus he lived and died. His wife, who had long been
cut off from her relatives, died about a year before him. When she was
buried, he stumbled and fell into her grave, and from that time until
his own death he had no further interest in life.
He had been faithful to a woman and to a cause. That cause was so
tremendous as to overwhelm him. In sixty years only the first great
stirrings of it could be felt. Its teachings may end in nothing, but
only a century or more of effort and of earnest striving can make it
plain whether Karl Marx was a world-mover or a martyr to a cause that
was destined to be lost.
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