Who was Marx personally: A brief history of a mean-spirited private life.

Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/Karl_Marx_001.jpg
Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/Karl_Marx_001.jpg

Concerning ourselves with the thinkers of the modern times, Karl Marx (1818-1883), arguably, had the most impact on actual or concrete revolutions towards politics and, to how we might  live (at least globally). Moreover, his ideas impacted “as well [the] minds of men and women, than any other intellectual in modern times,” says the renowned historian and the Templeton Prize Winner Paul Johnson in his book Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky (1988)[1]. The book narrates the personal lives of several intellectuals starting from the Enlightenment up to the Contemporary Era. More specifically, it exposes the wicked things the thinkers did or lived by, although not neglecting the impact of their writings.

The famous historian George Santayana once remarked: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,”[2] I believe he is right – we must get to know what took place in the past that shaped our present culture, even to the point of digging into the personal lives of the previous thinkers, lest we are going to repeat their mistakes.

Marx was the most important person, at least in the modern times, who envisioned Communism and the promise it has to bring to humanity as a whole. His most influential followers – Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, who brought incalculable deaths to humankind in large amounts cherished his philosophy.[3] And of course, this was also true for the ideological brothers – Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Although Marx philosophy was highly influential, nonetheless, his personal life was far from celebratory, not to mention a lamentable one. This, unfortunately, is evident from his contemptible character.

Five aspects will be tackled. But for the lack of space, we are only going to deal with the first two at the moment. I named it: the struggle for power, and the dream of a better world. The other three, namely, physical irresponsibilitymonetary incompetence, and marriage: Marx as a husband and a father, will be dealt on a following post, along with the conclusion of this two-part sequel.

The Struggle for Power

“Marx lived his life in an atmosphere of extreme verbal violence, periodically exploding into violent rows and sometimes physical assault.” For instance, while being at the Bonn University, he was arrested and “nearly sent down” by the police officers for possessing a pistol. The same university had the archives showing how “he engaged in student warfare, fought a duel and got a gnash on his left eye.” Although he was never identified to be an alcoholic, it does not mean that he did not drink regularly and often times heavily, much worse, sometimes caught “engaged in serious drinking bouts.”[4]

Marx’s quarrelsome personality towards “everyone with whom he associated” (until he succeeds in “dominating them completely”)[5] gave him several descriptions, and most of them are quite hostile. To give some examples, a poem written by Bruno Bauer’s brother described Marx to be: “Dark fellow from Trier in fury raging, / His evil fist is clenched, he roars interminably, / As though ten thousand devils had him by the hair.” Manners were the last things Marx was going to have; he was “proud and faintly contemptuous.” He had a “sharp and metallic voice,” which is “well suited to the radical judgments he was continually delivering on men and things.” That is, everything he said had a “jarring tone.”[6] Moreover, he didn’t have that much of a noble reputation on the public arena. For instance, “at the meeting of the International at the Hangue in 1872,” they came with the conclusion that “there is nothing in the Stalinist epoch which is not distantly prefigured in Marx’s behavior.”[7]

Even Marx, personally, “did not reject violence or even terrorism when it suited his tactics.” For example, in addressing the Prussian (now called Germany) government, he did not fail to threat his recipients by saying: “We are ruthless and ask no quarter from you. When our turn comes we shall not disguise our terrorism.”[8]

Marx also supported assassinations, “provided it was effective.”[9] In a failed attempt of murdering the Emperor Wilhelm I in 1878, his fellow revolutionary, Maxim Kovalevsky recorded his rage – “heaping curses on this terrorist who had failed to carry out his act of terror.”[10] Or as Johnson rightly observes it:

That Marx, once established in power, would have been capable of great violence and cruelty seems certain. But of course he was never in a position to carry out large-scale revolution, violent or otherwise, and his pent-up rage therefore passed into his books, which always have a tone of intransigence and extremism. Many passages give the impression that they have actually been written in a state of fury. In due course Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung practiced, on an enormous scale, the violence which Marx felt in his heart and which his works exude.[11]

The Dream of a Better World

Marx was fully absorbed in his “burning desire to create a better world.”[12] A world where communism is assumed; where exploitation ceases to be; where we are going to have a lot time for leisure. A world with a classless society, because the “exploitative” nature of capitalism with its private property is already abrogated. This was his obsession. That even the anarchist Michael Bakunin noted: Marx had “an earnest devotion to the cause of the proletariat though it always had in it an admixture of personal vanity.”[13]

Not only that, he also envisioned a world with different sets of morality. “Like many self-centred individuals, he tended to think that moral laws did not apply to himself, or rather to identify his interests with morality as such.” Even “the feelings and views of others were never of much interest or concern to him.”[14] He was a sort of dictator personally. A witness of this is his utopian partner, Engels, who observed in his editorship of the Neue Reinische Zeitung: “The organization of the editorial staff was a simple dictatorship by Marx.”[15]

In his political dreams and personal dealings, Marx’s name has been inseparable with the word “dictator.” Pavel Annekov called him “the personification of a democratic dictator”[16] Another one is when the Prussian police who reported about him:

The dominating trait of his character is an unlimited ambition and love of power…he is the absolute ruler of his party…he does everything on his own and he gives orders on his own responsibility and will endure no contradiction.[17]

Gustav Techow, an officer in the Prussian Army, who once managed to get Marx drunk, made an observation: “he is lacking in nobility of soul. I am convinced that a most dangerous personal ambition has eaten away all the good in him…the acquisition of personal power [is] the aim of all his endeavours.”[18] And for Bakunin’s judgment of the same sort: “Marx does not believe in God but he believes much in himself and makes everyone serve himself. His heart is not full of love but of bitterness and he has very little sympathy for the human race.”[19]

(A continuation of this piece will be posted consequently, along with its conclusion. Thank you for reading.)

[1] Paul Johnson, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky (HarperCollins, 1988).

[2] George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.

[3] Although Adolf Hitler also envisioned National Socialism (a pre-requisite for Communism, as Marx argued), he nonetheless was primarily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche.

[4] Johnson, Intellectuals, 70.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert Payne, Marx (London, 1968), 134.

[7] Johnson, Intellectuals, 71.

[8] Engels to Marx, 19 November 1844, Marx-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe (Moscow, 1927-35), vol. vi, pp. 503-5.

[9] Johnson, Ibid.

[10] Payne, Marx, 457 note.

[11] Johnson, Intellectuals, 71-72.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Quoted in David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (London, 1973), 455.

[14] Johnson, Ibid.

[15] Karl Marx-Engels Collected Works (London, 1975 ff), vol. ii, pp. 330-31.

[16] Pavel Annekov, quoted in Johnson, Intellectuals, 72.

[17] Quoted in Johnson, Ibid.

[18] Gustav Techow, quoted in Johnson, Ibid.

[19] Payne, 251 ff; Michael Bakunin, Oeuvres (Paris, 1908).