Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reading "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution" by Mary Gabriel

Mary Gabriel's Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (Hatchette Book Group 2011) is a painless and very enjoyable entree into the world of 19th century revolutionary politics. In fact, the narrative, which is quite novelistic, is chatty and, at times, almost reads like a soap opera. And like a good novel or a PBS miniseries, the tale elicits emotions: Gabriel possesses both sympathy and empathy for Jenny Marx and her children. I found myself caring for the children during their youth spent in squalor and poverty in Victorian England and I became angry at the callous way in which the three husbands of the surviving daughters treated their intelligent wives. Even, when discussing some of Marx's less than admirable qualities, she is forgiving and gentle.

The strength of the work lies in its minute re-construction of 19th century London, home to Marx from 1849 until his death in 1883. Gabriel goes to great length to describe the city and the Marx family's somewhat Dickensian existence there. In the 19th century, London was crowded, squalid and dirty, and Gabriel describes the poverty and the filth with precision and clarity. Marx knew economics but he seemed unable to put his knowledge into practice; instead, he borrowed from friends, especially Friedrich Engels, who he collaborated with from 1843 on, to simply survive in the city. Engels was a man of action and also a man of means. Marx, on the other hand, was contemplative and scholarly. Gabriel brings this dichotomy out clearly and fully develops the relation between each member of the Marx family and Engels. It is clear that Gabriel is mostly interested in the domestic side of Marx and she spends a great deal of time talking about the financial straits that Marx found himself and the effect his poverty and devotion to his ideas have on his family.  

Gabriel also highlights the political conflicts going on throughout Europe during the 19th century. She is especially good on the discussion of the Commune in France in 1871 and the role that Marx either played or did not play in its outcome. She does not, however, discuss Marx's ideas as thoroughly as one may like. This is not an intellectual biography; it is not about a man and its ideas; it is more domestic in its approach and this is where it succeeds.

In most biographies of Marx, the family is in the background. Jenny, of course, always appears, because she was a partner in Marx's career, transcribing his papers and talking over his ideas. She is as much a revolutionary as he. Gabriel, however, brings Jenny to the foreground. We understand her motives and we come to trust her affection for Marx. So, too, do the children come alive in the narrative. The three grown daughters and their troubled marriages dominate the last third of the book and Eleanor Marx, in particular, stands out as a tragic figure. A brilliant writer and revolutionary, she falls in love with two men, unworthy of her.

Love and Capital is an entertaining read. It fully explores the domestic relations in Marx's life and it brilliantly situates him in 19th century Europe. It does not, however, explore his thoughts to any real extent. If you are looking for an intellectual biography, this is not it. However, if you want a readable, somewhat heart-felt rendition of the Marx family, firmly situated in their milieu, then this is the one for you. For me, this work is an essential part of my collection of works on Marx.

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