site logo

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

ly 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

romantic girl.

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

was ended.

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

uncanny power.

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

of anger:

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

and want.

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

social well-being.

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.