Karl Marx is celebrated as the world’s most notorious revolutionary and the founder of communism. He is credited as the first theorist of global capitalism and the creator of the science of history — historical materialism. Communist revolutions the world over were all carried out in the name of “Marxism”. For better or worse, the image of Karl Marx is impressed in time. For some, Marx was a far-sighted prophet, and for others, the “red terror doctor” was a prophet of violence. What do we actually know about the man and his private life?
1. Karl Marx Was a Journalist
Karl Marx was the first theorist of global capitalism. Part economist, sociologist, and philosopher, he produced an extraordinary amount of work. Yet, he only published one substantial book in his lifetime: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. He earned his money through journalism, a profession that he maintained for the vast majority of his adult life.
Marx is remembered for many things. Yet curiously, his journalism does not tend to be one of them. He began life as a journalist in Germany in 1842. Writing for the Rheinische Zeitung, he wrote on a range of subjects, from the housing conditions of the Berlin poor to freedom of the press to the theft by peasants of wood from Rhineland forests. He founded his own paper in 1848. Nonetheless, it was through his work published in the New York Daily Tribune in America that he made his mark.
Today, the style of Marx’s journalism would seem odd. His “dispatches” were more like critical essays or opinion pieces. He did no “reporting” and used little in the shape of first-hand interviews and official sources. Instead, he would select a topic currently in the news and draw out the more fundamental questions of politics and economics that underpin it. From this angle, Marx would look to make his judgment.
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In this sense, James Ledbetter argues that Marx is the father of a certain kind of political journalism that remains prevalent. Modern opinion pieces frequently aim to dig into the background of politics and economics to understand a particular event. Or uncover the motives that lie behind what politicians and governments say. Today Marx’s approach seems unoriginal because it has been almost universally adopted by political journalists living in the present.
2. Marx the Drinker
Karl Marx spent his early university years sozzled on booze. At 17 years old, he departed his hometown of Trier in West Germany to study law at the University of Bonn. Marx was the sociable type. He joined the Poet’s Club and became the co-President of the Trier Tavern Club, a particularly rowdy drinking club based in the local Alehouse.
Alongside drinking came fighting. In particular, the Trier gang was involved in a series of bar fights with the Borussia Korps of the Prussian Army. Marx was challenged to a duel on one such occasion — and accepted. The young student was lucky to escape with only a small gash above his left eye. Marx’s father Henrich had seen enough.
So after a year of high jinks at Bonn, the young Marx departed for the University of Berlin. The “Certificate of Release” issued by the University of Bonn noted Marx’s stellar academic credentials, as well as his aptitude for “disturbing the peace by rowdiness and drunkenness at night.”
However, Marx’s love of pub crawls, booze, and cigars did not come to an end in Bonn. One infamous “beer trip” along London’s Tottenham Court Road ended with the drunken smashing of several gas street lamps. The noise attracted the attention of the police, who duly gave chase. Marx and his comrades raced off into the night, dashing through side streets and alleys until the police officers lost the trail.
The boisterous young radical nonetheless matured into a lovable old rogue. As Marcello Musto (2020) has noted, the Marx household was frequently bustling with visitors. His old friend, William Liebknecht, wrote fondly about the merry jokes, “massive mahogany table, shining pewter pots, and the foaming stout” that would greet visiting comrades. A man of fierce intellect with a particular fondness for Vienna Lager, Karl Marx was a drinker of legendary proportions.
3. Marx Relied on Engels for Money
Though Marx devised an elegant theory of money, he spent most of his adult life financially destitute. “Such a lousy life is not worth living,” a 44-year-old Marx wrote to Engels in 1863. His complaints to Engels of his wretched existence and financial woes would continue for 20 years until his death in 1883.
As a young man, Marx received financial support from his father, a prosperous lawyer. However, following his father’s death in 1838, the cash dried up. For the rest of his time as a student in Berlin, Marx was often in debt, and by the time he was booted out of Germany in 1843, he was almost certainly poor.
Aside from a brief and disastrous stint as a newspaper editor in Paris (the paper printed one issue, and Marx was refused his final salary), his fortunes remained dire. In Paris, Marx also made a best friend for life.
Air to an industrial fortune built on cotton, Fredrich Engels was a wealthy man. Luckily for Marx, Engels saw it as his duty to support and subsidize his friend’s “genius”. By the time he was in London, Marx was heavily in debt and teetering dangerously close to destitution. Engles came to the rescue.
However, while the bills from his numerous creditors continued to pile up, the money he received from Engels — and his journalistic earnings — added up to a relatively lavish amount. Francis Wheen (1999) has revealed that the fact of the matter is, Marx was desperate to keep up appearances and, ironically, was unwilling to abandon his bourgeois habits.
Marx kept a private secretary; his daughters received private tuition in languages, drawing, and music, and his family were treated to regular seaside holidays. A true dissident, Marx afforded luxuries while he considered paying his debts an optional extra.
4. Marx the Mathematician
By the 1870s, Karl Marx filled dozens of notebooks with studies of mathematics that would later become known as the Mathematical Manuscripts. Although his studies of mathematics had a functional purpose concerning his work; in the final years of his life, the study of mathematics became a subject of interest to him in its own right.
Marx’s magnum opus, Capital, is full of mathematical observations. The chapters that deal with money, credit, and the circulation of commodities, all engage in complex mathematics. The aim of Marx’s engagement was to solve the theoretical problems associated with understanding the capitalist mode of production.
Yet, for Marx, mathematics was not just about his work. Writing to Engels in 1860, he noted that mathematics above all else enabled him to achieve a “quietness of mind”. According to a letter written by Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafrague, his approach to mathematics was first and foremost a means of “intellectual relaxation”.
Marx’s primary mathematical interest was the history and theory of differential calculus (the study of the rate at which quantities change). He enthusiastically studied the work of Issac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz on calculus, as well as other great mathematicians of his time. Such was his interest in calculus that he actively discussed the matter with Engels and his friend Samuel Moore for well over a year.
It is tempting to assume that Marx was gearing up to publish a significant mathematical text of his own. However, it is more likely that, for Marx, mathematics played a more important role in his life. The study of mathematics functioned “as a space where he could take refuge in times of great personal difficulty” (Musto, 2020).
In particular, during his wife Jenny’s final illness, Marx’s distress was so great — and as her nurse his time was limited — that he couldn’t carry on with his work. He shook off the descent into despair by immersing himself in mathematics.
5. Karl Marx Was Plagued by Ill Health
Karl Marx spent much of his adult life plagued by illness. At 17, he was spared military service due to his “weak chest”. As a young student, his mother cautioned that her son should refrain from drinking too much coffee, getting overheated, and staying up late on account of his weak condition. His father more sensibly suggested that he abandon cheap ale, foul cigars, and studying more than his health could tolerate.
From at least 1860, Marx regularly complained about excruciating boils and carbuncles. He suffered recurring joint pain, skin lesions, and “inflammation of the liver”. However, according to the British dermatologist Sam Shuster, his skin condition was most likely Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS).
Karl Marx’s skin disease may have resembled boils, but Shuster suggests that they were too “persistent, recurrent, and destructive” for that diagnosis. HS causes chronic inflammation, and discharge, and often leads to tissue destruction. Marx complained of all three.
Chronic skin conditions have well-known psychological side effects. Mood swings and loathing, disgust, and low self-esteem are all common. Marx was well aware that his condition affected the quality and style of his work. With a mixture of lament and glee, he wrote to Engels in 1867 that “the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day.”
By the time Marx was in his late 50s, increasingly frequent attacks of rheumatism, bronchitis, and pleurisy took their toll. By his early 60s, his situation became increasingly grave. Following the death of his wife and then shortly after of his eldest daughter, the physical and mental pain became too much. After 15 months of ill health, Karl Marx died of acute bronchitis on 14 March 1883, aged 64.