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
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
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
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
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
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 characteristics.
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
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
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 underhand.
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
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 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
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 withdrawal.
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
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
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 lines:
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
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.