Who was Marx personally: A brief history of a mean-spirited private life (Part 2)

In the previous post, I’ve narrated about two aspects (out of the five), namely the struggle for power and the dream of a better world, which I thought to be necessary in understanding who Marx personally was, that is, far beyond his celebrated writings and pronouncements. This kind of inquiry, I believe, is important because Marx was an indispensable and a monumental figure of modernity who highly influenced the shaping of the centuries after his death.

In this post, we are going to tackle the remaining three, which are vitally important along with the first two.

Physical Irresponsibility

Marx’s self-centered or egotistic dealings had physical and psychological roots, argued the historian Paul Johnson as he summarized it very well:

He led a peculiarly unhealthy life, took very little exercise, ate highly spiced food, often in large quantities, smoked heavily, drank a lot, especially strong ale, and as a result had constant trouble with his liver. He rarely took baths or washed much at all. This, plus his unsuitable diet, may explain the veritable plague of boils from which he suffered for a quarter of a century.[1]         

In their personal interactions, Marx’s fellow revolutionary named Karl Heinzen described him as “intolerably dirty.”[2] Moreover, Heinzen goes on to say that it is impossible to distinguish whether “his clothes and skin were naturally mud-colored or just filthy.”[3]

In fact, his debilitating skin disease arguably grew worse while he was still writing his magnum opus Capital, resulting to an increase of irritability. This is evident in his letter to Engels. “Whatever happens,” Marx wrote to his friend, “I hope the bourgeoisie as long as they exist will have cause to remember my carbuncles.”[4]

“The boils varied in numbers, size and intensity but at one time or another they appeared on all parts of his body, including his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, his bottom, which meant he could not write, and his [private organ]. In 1873 they brought on a nervous collapse marked by tremblin agnd huge bursts of rage.”[5]

Monetary Incompetence

There is unfortunately an incongruence in how Marx is perceived in the world of economics to who he really was a steward. Or as Johnson puts it, there was “his grotesque incompetence in handling money,” that even as a young revolutionary “it drove him into the hands of moneylenders at high rates of interests.”[6] That kind of deal clearly provoked his hatred towards the middle class (or the bourgeoisie), for putting a lot of interest to feed their monetary indulgence.

Marx borrowed money heedlessly, spent it, then was invariably astounded and angry when the heavily discounted bills, plus interest, became due. He saw the charging of interest, essential as it is to any system based on capital, as a crime against humanity, and at the root of the exploitation of man by man which his entire system was designed to eliminate.[7]

Although Marx complained about the idea of exploitation by the middle class, a kind of exploitative attitude was ironically normal in Marx’s personality. He exploited anyone within his reach, so much that even his own family became one of his victims. His correspondence towards his family was motivated solely by his need of money. A letter (in February 1938) from his dying father is an example of this, complaining the indifference of their son, except for the purpose of getting a support:

You are now in the fourth month of your law course and you have already spent 280 thalers. I have not earned so much throughout the entire winter.[8]

Marx’s father died three months after the letter was written. However, Marx was nowhere found in the funeral. “Instead, he started putting pressure on his mother.” He continually borrowed from his friends and demanding sums of money from his family for compensation. “He argued that the family was ‘quite rich’ and had a duty to support him in his important work.” But his mother knew better and refused to pay his debts. In result, their relationship ended abruptly. She was left embittered and wished that “Karl would accumulate capital instead of just writing about it.”[9]

Marx and his wife Jenny incurred huge debts. By March 1851, he wrote a letter to Engels to announce the birth of a daughter, confessing: “I have literally not a farthing in the house.”[10] As Johnson observes it:

Legacies and loans alike went in dribs and drabs and they were never a penny better off permanently. Indeed they were always in debt, often seriously, and the silver dinner service regularly went to the pawnbrokers along with much else, including the family’s clothing. At one point Marx alone was in a position to leave the house, retaining one pair of trousers. Jenny’s family, like Marx’s own, refused further help to a son-in-law they regarded as incorrigibly idle and improvident.[11]

Engels, quite unfortunate, also became a subject to Marx’s exploitation. He became “the main source of income for the Marx family.” Their relationship, however, was never equal because of Marx’s domineering attitude. In 1863, their friendship almost ended due Marx’s excessive demand for money. This was the time when Engel’s mistress, Mary, had died leaving him distressed. But far from showing a deeper sense of empathy, Marx, being a cold-blooded person, although acknowledging the loss, “instantly got down to the more important business of asking money.”[12]

Marriage: Marx as a Husband and Father

The young Marx, although always dirty, was nonetheless funny. This, according to Johnson, made a huge appeal to his wife Jenny.

Marx’s humour was often biting and savage. Nonetheless his excellent jokes made people laugh. Had he been humourless, his many unpleasant characteristics would have denied him a following at all, and his womenfolk would have turned their backs on him….Marx and Jenny were often heard laughing together, and later it was Marx’s jokes, more than anything else, which bound his daughters to him.[13]

However, it was in the beginning of 1848 were her life started to become a “nightmare,” at least for the next ten years. At one occasion, Marx was taken into prison under a “Belgian expulsion order,” and she had to spend “the night in a cell too, with a crowd of prostitutes.” Fast forward, he was repeatedly on trial, and she was left destitute. By July of 1849, Marx pitifully confessed their poverty to a friend: “already the last piece of jewellery belonging to my wife has found its way to the pawnshop.”[14]

On the following year, they were forced to move out from their rented room in Chelsea because of their failure to pay the rent. “Their beds were sold to pay the butcher, milkman, chemist and baker.” Moreover, although they found a boardinghouse in Leicester Square, their baby Guido died during the winter. In result, “Jenny left a despairing account of these days, from which her spirits, and her affection for Marx, never really recovered.”[15]

By 1852, their one-year-old daughter Franziska died. Three years following that tragic event, Marx’s favorite son (whom he called Mush) also died by gastroenteritis. Although Jenny gave birth to another girl named Eleanor (three months before the death of their son), yet for Marx it meant nothing, because “he wanted sons and now he had none; girls were unimportant to him, except as clerical assistants.” These tragedies brought them into a much more difficult situation, especially for Jenny. “Every day,” wrote Marx, “my wife tells me she wishes she were lying in her grave…”[16]

Jenny, unaware of Marx’s activities, made their housekeeper Helen Demuth (known by their family as “Lenchen”) his mistress. This happened in 1949-50. Lenchen gave birth to a son named Henry Frederick Demuth. Unfortunately, Marx denied the boy to be his son and refused to acknowledge his responsibility as a father. Jenny eventually found it out and called it “an event which I shall not dwell upon further, though it brought about a great increase in our private and public sorrows.”[17] Jenny lost her looks in 1860 by smallpox and died in 1881 as “a tired, disillusioned woman.”[18]


This two-part sequel doesn’t aim to evaluate Marxism. To do that, I believe, would require a lot study, which I don’t wish to pursue at the moment. Yet it’s unfortunate to know that a lot of liberal professors and students treat Marx’s utopian philosophy to be promising, while turning a blind on his devastated private life. And I think Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, made a huge point long time ago: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

[1] Johnson, Intellectuals, 73.

[2] Quoted in Payne, 155.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Marx-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe, vol. xxxi, p. 305.

[5] Johnson, Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 73.

[7] Ibid., 74.

[8]Quoted in Payne, p. 54.

[9] Johnson, Ibid., 74.

[10] Marx-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe, vol. xxvii, p. 227.

[11] Johnson, Ibid., 75. Italics mine.

[12] See Marx-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe, vol. xxx, p. 310; Engels’s reply is in vol. xxx, p.312.

[13] Johnson, Ibid., 76.

[14] Marx-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe, vol. xxvii, p. 500.

[15] Johnson, Ibid., 77. See also Marx-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe, vol. xxvii, p. 609.

[16] Johnson, Ibid., 77-78.

[17] Ibid., 79-80.

[18] Ibid., 78