Much as he cared about the proletariat, Karl Marx – named Thinker of the Millennium – was beset by his own struggle supporting an ailing family in genteel poverty. In this extract from the biography of the year, Francis Wheen discovers Marx the man
Karl Marx was born a bourgeois Jew in a predominantly Catholic city within a country whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism. He died an atheist and a stateless person, having devoted his adult life to predicting the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the withering away of the nation state.
“He was a unique, an unrivalled storyteller,” his daughter Eleanor recorded. “I have heard my aunts say that as a little boy he was a terrible tyrant to his sisters, whom he would ‘drive’ down the Markusberg at Trier, full speed, as his horses, and, worse, would insist on their eating the ‘cakes’ he made with dirty dough and dirtier hands. But they stood the ‘driving’ and ate the ‘cakes’ without a murmur, for the sake of the stories Karl would tell them as a reward for their virtue.”
In later years his sisters were less indulgent. Luise Marx, who emigrated to South Africa, once dined at his house while visiting London. “She could not countenance her brother being the leader of the socialists,” said a fellow guest, “and insisted in my presence that they both belonged to the respected family of a lawyer who had the sympathy of everybody in Trier.”
Karl’s father, Hirschel, owned several Moselle vineyards and was a moderately prosperous member of the educated middle class. But he was also Jewish, subject to a Prussian edict of 1812 which effectively banned him from holding public office or practising in the professions. So Hirschel was reborn as Heinrich Marx, patriotic German and Lutheran Christian. The date of his baptism is unknown, but he had certainly converted by the time of Karl’s birth. Henriette Marx did not share her husband’s intellectual appetites: she was an uneducated, semi-literate woman whose interests began and ended with her family.
The one schoolfriend with whom Karl Marx maintained any connection in adult life was Edgar von Westphalen, an amiable chump and dilettante with revolutionary inclinations. This enduring friendship had nothing to do with Edgar’s qualities but everything to do with his sister, the lovely Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen, known to all as Jenny, who became the first and only Mrs Karl Marx. It may seem surprising that a 22-year-old princess of the Prussian ruling class – the daughter of Baron Ludwig von Westphalen – should have fallen for a bourgeois Jewish scallywag four years her junior, but Jenny was an intelligent, free- thinking girl who found Marx’s intellectual swagger irresistible. The baron, too, found time for Karl. Unlike his own son, Edgar, the Marx boy had a hunger for knowledge and a quick intelligence with which to digest it.
Marx studied in Bonn and Berlin, received his PhD from the University of Jena in 1841, and made his way to Cologne, the wealthiest and largest city in the Rhineland, a magnet for heretical thinkers and Bohemian malcontents. There he installed himself as the presiding genius of a newly founded, liberal-minded newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung.
Marx had a powerful effect on almost everyone he encountered at this time. Moses Hess – a rich young socialist and colleague of Marx’s on the Rheinische Zeitung – wrote of him: “He combines the deepest philosophical seriousness with the most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heme and Hegel fused into one person – I say fused not juxtaposed- and you have Dr Marx.” Marx was no great orator — he had a slight lisp, and the gruff Rhenish accent often led to misunderstandings – but the mere presence of this bristling boar was enough to inspire and intimidate. An allegorical cartoon published after the suppression of the Rheinische Zeitung showed Marx himself in Promethean guise, chained to a printing press while a Prussian eagle pecked at his liver.
The attitude of Jenny’s conventional relations to Karl can well be imagined. To marry a Jew was shocking enough, but to marry a jobless, penniless Jew who had already achieved national notoriety was quite intolerable. To escape the incessant gossip and brow-beating, Jenny and her mother fled from Trier to the fashionable spa resort of Kreuznach, 50 miles away. It was there, at 10am on June 19 1843, that the 25-year-old Herr Marx, Doctor of Philosophy, married Fraulein Johanna Bertha Julia Jenny von Westphalen, aged 29, “of no particular occupation”. The only guests were Edgar, his mother and a few local friends. None of Karl’s relatives attended.
Marx and Jenny settled in Paris soon afterwards. The revolutions of 1789 and 1830 had made the French capital a natural rallying point. It was a city of plotters, poets and pamphleteers, sects, salons and secret societies – “the nerve centre of European history, sending out electric shocks at intervals which galvanised the whole world”. Above all, there was Pierre Joseph Proudhon, libertarian anarchist, who had won fame in 1840 with his book What Is Property? – a question he answered on page one with the simple formulation “property is theft”. (Proudhon would eventually be tossed and gored by Marx. His magnum opus on “the philosophy of poverty” provoked Marx’s lacerating riposte, The Poverty of Philosophy.)
In August 1844, the 23-year-old Friedrich Engels passed through the city. Although he and Marx had met once before, it had been a cool and unmemorable encounter. What stirred Marx’s interest was a brace of essays written by Engels – a review of Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, and a lengthy critique of Political Economy, which Marx described as a work of genius. One can see why: though he had already decided that abstract idealism was so much hot air, and that the engine of history was driven by economic and social forces, Marx’s practical knowledge of capitalism was nil. He had been so engaged by his dialectical tussle with German philosophers that the condition of England – the first industrialised country, the birthplace of the proletariat – had escaped his notice. Engels, from his vantage point in the cotton mills of Lancashire, was well placed to enlighten him.
By the time they renewed their acquaintance, Marx’s attitude had thus changed from mistrust to respectful curiosity, and after a few aperitifs at the Caf de la Rgence, Engels was invited back to the Marxes’ apartment to continue the conversation. It lasted for 10 intense days, fuelled by copious quantities of midnight oil and red wine, at the end of which they pledged undying friendship.
Marx and Engels complemented each other perfectly. While Engels couldn’t begin to match Marx’s erudition, having missed out on university, he had invaluable first-hand knowledge of the machinery of capitalism. Marx was squat and swarthy, a Jew tormented by self-loathing; Engels was tall and fair, with more than a hint of Aryan swagger. Marx lived in chaos and penury; Engels was a briskly efficient worker who held down a full-time job at the family firm while maintaining a formidable output of books, letters and journalism – and often ghost- writing articles for Marx. Yet he always found the time to enjoy the comforts of high bourgeois life: horses in his stables, plenty of wine in his cellar and mistresses in the bedroom.
Engels deferred to Marx from the outset, accepting it was his historic duty to support and subsidise the indigent sage without complaint or jealousy – even, come to that, without much gratitude. They had no secrets from each other: if Marx found a boil on his penis, he didn’t hesitate to supply a full description. Their voluminous correspondence is a gamey stew of history and gossip, political economy and schoolboy smut, high ideals and low intimacies. Engels served Marx as a kind of substitute mother – sending him pocket money, fussing over his health and continually reminding him not to neglect his studies.
The Manifesto of the Communist Party may be the most widely read political pamphlet in human history, but it is also the most misleadingly titled: no such party existed. Nor was it conceived as a manifesto. What the Communist League wanted in 1847 was a “profession of faith”, and an early draft written by Engels in June 1847 shows they were still wedded to the initiation rituals favoured by the French underground sects:
l Question 1: Are you a Communist? Answer: Yes.
l Question 2: What is the aim of the Communists? Answer: To organise society so that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society.
l Question 3: How do you wish to achieve this aim? Answer: By the elimination of private property and its replacement by community of property.
And so on for another seven pages, culminating in Question 22 (“Do Communists reject the existing religions?”), to which the correct answer is that communism “makes all existing religions superfluous and supersedes them”. This was the furtive, conspiratorial tradition from which Marx wanted to rescue the new league. Why, he demanded, should revolutionaries hide their views and intentions?
The venue for the second congress of the Communist League was a room above the Red Lion pub in Great Windmill Street, Soho; and the intensity of the debate can be gauged by the fact that it continued for 10 days. By the end of the marathon, Marx and Engels had carried all before them. The rules adopted were combative and robust: “The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society which rests on the antagonism of classes, and the foundation of a new society without classes and without private property.” Marx and Engels were commissioned to draw up a manifesto summarising the new doctrine. Though every modern edition of the Manifesto carries the names of Marx and Engels – and Engels’s ideas undoubtedly had an influence – the text that finally reached London at the beginning of February was written by Marx alone, scribbling furiously through the night amid a thick fug of cigar smoke.
One critic has described the manifesto as “a lyrical celebration of bourgeois works”. And so it is, after a fashion: Marx was celebrating capitalism as a temporary phenomenon, the harbinger of a true revolution. But what he took to be its death throes were in fact nothing more than birth pangs. The truly remarkable thing about the manifesto is that it has any contemporary resonance. In a London bookshop recently I counted no fewer than nine English editions on sale. Even Marx, who never suffered from false modesty, could scarcely have expected that his little tract would still be a best-seller at the end of the millennium.
Marx realised, by 1849, that there was nothing more he could do in Germany. France and Belgium would have none of him; the Swiss refused him – not that he wanted to live in their “mousetrap” anyway. And so he turned to the last refuge of the rootless revolutionary – the largest and wealthiest metropolis in the world: London.
“I am now in a really difficult situation,” Marx wrote to Ferdinand Freiligrath on September 5 1849 after arriving in England. “My wife is in an advanced state of pregnancy, she is obliged to leave Paris on the 15th and I don’t know how I am to raise the money for her journey and for settling her in here. On the other hand, there are excellent prospects of my being able to start a monthly review here …”
Jenny reached London on September 17, sick and exhausted, with “my three poor persecuted small children”. Jennychen had been born in France, Laura and Edgar in Belgium, and this record of peripatetic parturition was maintained by their second son, who entered the world on November 5 1849, as Londoners celebrated the failure of Guido (Guy) Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. In homage to the great conspirator, the boy was christened Heinrich Guido and instantly nicknamed “Fawkesy”.
“You know that my wife has made the world richer by one citizen?” Marx wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer soon after Fawkesy’s debut. The chirpy tone concealed a fearful apprehension: how on earth was he to provide for four young children and an ailing wife? Like Mr Micawber, he persuaded himself that something was bound to turn up. In October he had moved into a house in Anderson Street, Chelsea (then, as now, one of the more fashionable districts) at a rent of 6 a month, far more than he could afford.
At the beginning of 1850, the following announcement appeared in the German press: “The Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch- konomische Revue edited by Karl Marx will appear in January 1850 … The review will be published in monthly issues of at least five printers’ sheets at a subscription price of 24 silver groschen per quarter.”
Marx’s ambitions for the review were heroically grand: “I have little doubt that by the time three, or maybe two, monthly issues have appeared, a world conflagration will intervene.”
The journal limped through five issues before expiring. As EH Carr pointed out, “the whole was tactfully seasoned with pungent attacks on the other German refugees in London, who were almost the only potential readers of the journal”. The circulation was tiny, and revenue negligible. Marx was stoical about the failure of a project in which he had invested so much hope and energy.
“Pray do not be offended by my wife’s agitated letters,” he reassured Weydemeyer. “She is nursing her child, and our situation here is so extraordinarily wretched that an outburst of impatience is excusable.” This summary barely hinted at the horror of their struggle. In a heart- rending letter written in May 1850, Jenny Marx described a scene that might have come from a Dickens novel:
“Let me describe for you, as it really was, just one day in our lives, and you will realise that few refugees are likely to have gone through a similar experience. Since wet-nurses here are exorbitantly expensive, I was determined to feed my child myself, however frightful the pain in my breast and back. But the poor little angel absorbed with my milk so many anxieties and unspoken sorrows that he was always ailing and in severe pain by day and by night. Latterly, too, there have been violent convulsions, so that the child has been hovering constantly between death and a miserable life. In his pain he sucked so hard that I got a sore on my breast, an open sore; often blood would spurt into his little, trembling mouth. I was sitting thus one day when suddenly in came our landlady, to whom we had paid over 250 Reichstablers in the course of the winter, and with whom we had contractually agreed that we should subsequently pay, not her, but her landlord by whom she had formerly been placed under distraint; she now denied the existence of this contract, demanded the 5 we still owed her and, since this was not ready to hand … two bailiffs entered the house and placed under distraint what little I possessed – beds, linen, clothes, everything, even my poor infant’s cradle, and the best of the toys belonging to the girls, who burst into tears. The following day we had to leave the house, it was cold, wet and overcast …”
A few days later, the Marxes found temporary shelter in the house of a Jewish lace dealer at 64 Dean Street, Soho, where they spent a miserable summer teetering on the edge of destitution. Jenny was pregnant again, and constantly ill. By August things were so bad that she had to go to Holland and throw herself on the mercy of Karl’s maternal uncle, Lion Philips, a wealthy Dutch businessman (whose eponymous electronics company flourishes to this day). She needn’t have bothered: Philips, who was “very ill-disposed by the unfavourable effect the revolution had had on his business”, offered only an avuncular embrace and a small present for little Fawkesy.
As usual, Engels saved the day, sacrificing his journalistic ambitions to take a job at the Manchester office of his father’s textile firm, Ermen & Engels. He remained there for almost 20 years. “My husband and all the rest of us have missed you sorely and have often longed to see you,” Jenny wrote soon after his departure, in December 1850. “However, I am very glad that you have left, and are well on the way to becoming a great cotton lord.”
He had no desire to become anything of the kind, regarding “vile commerce” as a penance that had to be endured. Though Engels soon assumed the outward appearance of a Lancashire businessman, he never forgot that the main purpose was to support his brilliant but impecunious friend. He acted as a kind of agent behind enemy lines, sending Marx confidential details of the cotton trade, expert observations on the state of international markets and a regular consignment of small-denomination banknotes, pilfered from the petty-cash box or prised out of the company’s bank account.
By 1853 he was able to boast that “last year, thank God, I gobbled up half of my old man’s profits from the business here”. He could even afford to maintain two residences: at one he entertained the local nobs and nabobs, while in the other he established a mnage trois with his lover Mary Burns and her sister Lizzie.
Marx, weary of societies and leagues, retreated into the British Museum reading room, and applied himself to the task of producing a comprehensive, systematic explanation of political economy – the monumental project that was to become Capital.
At the end of 1850 – after six wretched months at 64 Dean Street – Karl and Jenny Marx found a more permanent home a hundred yards up the road, in two rooms on the top floor of number 28. Today, the building is an expensive restaurant presided over by the modish chef Marco-Pierre White; a small blue plaque on the front, affixed by the defunct Greater London Council, records that “Karl Marx 1818-1883 lived here 1851- 56”. This is the only official monument to his 34 years in England, a country which has never known whether to feel pride or shame at its connection with the father of proletarian revolution. Appropriately, the dates on the sign are inaccurate.
Marx needed to keep himself in a state of seething fury – whether at the endless domestic disasters that beset him, at his wretched ill health or at the halfwits who dared to challenge his superior wisdom. While writing Capital, he vowed that the bourgeois would have good reason to remember the frequent carbuncles which caused him such pain and kept his temper foul. His living conditions might have been expressly designed to keep him from lapsing into contentment. One of the few Prussian police spies who gained admission to this smoke-filled cavern was shocked by Marx’s chaotic habits:
“He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work … with tireless endurance when he has a great deal to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the world.”
Marx’s reluctance to go to bed seems eminently reasonable, since his whole mnage – including the housekeeper, Helene “Lenchen” Demuth – had to sleep in one small room at the back of the building. How Karl and Jenny found the privacy for procreation remains a mystery.
With Jenny ill and Karl preoccupied, the task of preserving any semblance of domestic order fell entirely on their servant. “Oh, if you knew how much I am longing for you and the little ones,” Jenny wrote during her fruitless expedition to Holland in 1850. “I know that you and Lenchen will take care of them. Without Lenchen I would not have peace of mind here.”
Lenchen was indeed attending to Jenny’s usual duties – including those of the conjugal bed. On June 23 1851 she gave birth to a baby boy. On the birth certificate for Henry Frederick Demuth, later known as Freddy, the space for the father’s name and occupation were left blank. The child was given to foster parents soon afterwards, probably a working-class couple called Lewis in east London. (The evidence here is only circumstantial: Lenchen’s son changed his name to Frederick Lewis Demuth and spent his entire adult life in Hackney. He became a lathe operator in several East End factories, a stalwart of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and a founder member of the Hackney Labour Party. Remembered by colleagues as a quiet man who never talked about his family, he died on January 28 1929.)
Since Freddy was born in the small back room at 28 Dean Street this apparently miraculous conception could not be hidden from Jenny. Though deeply upset and angry, she agreed that the news would provide lethal ammunition to Marx’s enemies should it ever get out. So began one of the first and most successful cover-ups ever organised for the greater good of the communist cause. There were plenty of rumours, but the first public reference to Freddy’s true paternity did not appear until 1962, when the German historian Werner Blumenberg published a document found in the vast Marxist archive at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam. It is a letter written on September 2 1898, by Louise Freyberger, a friend of Helene Demuth and housekeeper to Engels, describing her employer’s deathbed confession that Marx had fathered Freddy.
Since the letter was made public in 1962, most Marxist scholars have accepted this document as conclusive proof of Karl’s infidelity, although there are one or two sceptics. We know from Jenny’s memoir that she was depressed in 1851, while pregnant with her daughter Franziska, and a letter from Marx to Engels at the end of March reveals that “though the confinement was an easy one, she is now very ill in bed, the causes being domestic rather than physical”.
By the beginning of August other migrs were beginning to gossip about old father Marx. “I, of course, would make a joke of the whole dirty business,” Marx wrote. “Not for one moment do I allow it to interfere with my work but, as you will understand, my wife, who is poorly and caught up from morning till night in the most disagreeable of domestic quandaries, and whose nervous system is impaired, is not revived by the exhalations from the pestiferous democratic cloaca daily administered to her by stupid tell-tales. The tactlessness of some individuals in this respect can be colossal.” What was all that about, if not the mysterious conception of little Freddy Demuth? It is noteworthy that Marx doesn’t actually deny the “unspeakable” rumours.
Things could hardly get worse, but they did. At Easter 1852, shortly after her first birthday, Franziska had a severe attack of bronchitis.
>From PAGE 21
On April 14, Marx scribbled a brief letter to Engels: “Dear Frederic, only a couple of lines to let you know that our little child died this morning at a quarter past one.” This unemotional announcement does not begin to describe the agony and despair that now enveloped the Marx household.
His letters to Engels are a ceaseless litany of wretchedness and woe. “A week ago I reached the pleasant point where I am unable to go out for want of the coats I have in pawn, and can no longer eat meat for want of credit.” (February 27 1852.) “I’ve just received a third and final warning from the rotten rate collector to the effect that, if I haven’t paid by Monday, they’ll put a broker in the house … If possible, therefore, send me a few pounds …” (December 18 1857.)
These “few pounds” added up to a fairly lavish subsidy. Even in 1851, one of Marx’s most poverty-stricken years, he received at least 150 from Engels and other supporters – a sum on which a lower-middle-class family could live in comfort. That autumn he was appointed European correspondent of the New York Daily Tribune, the world’s best-selling newspaper, for which he regularly submitted two articles a week at 2 apiece. From 1852 he had an income of at least 200. The annual rent for Dean Street was only 22. Why, then, was he always so catastrophically broke?
If Marx had been the careless bohemian depicted in so many police reports, he might have managed. But he belonged to the class of distressed gentlefolk, desperate to keep up appearances and unwilling to forgo bourgeois habits. However empty his pockets, he refused to accept a “sub- proletarian” way of life, as he put it.
Marx was ridiculously proud of having married a bit of posh. “The sea is doing my wife a lot of good,” he noted after one of Jenny’s holidays. “In Ramsgate she has made the acquaintance of refined and, horribile dictu, clever Englishwomen. After years during which she has enjoyed only inferior company … intercourse with people of her own kind seems to agree with her.” Marx was haunted by guilt at the squalid fate he had inflicted on the former princess of Trier society. There was a most humiliating reminder of how far they had sunk when he was arrested while trying to pawn Jenny’s family silver – the police suspecting, reasonably enough, that a scruffy German refugee couldn’t have acquired these ducal heirlooms legitimately. Marx spent a night in the cells before Jenny managed to convince them of her aristocratic bona fides.
Unable to keep his wife in the fashion appropriate to “people of her own kind” Marx could at least strive to do better by his children. The girls must marry well, and to attract the right kind of suitor they would need ball gowns, dancing classes and all the other social advantages money could buy, even if the money had to be cadged from someone else. Engels, long accustomed to being that someone else, never questioned his friend’s assumption that it was worth living beyond one’s means to avoid losing caste, and that an expensive show of finery would pay dividends in the long run. “It is true my house is beyond my means,” he admitted to Engels in 1865, “but it is the only way for the children to establish themselves socially with a view to securing their future … I believe you yourself will be of the opinion that, even from a purely commercial point of view, to run a purely proletarian household would not be appropriate in the circumstances, although that would be quite all right if my wife and I were by ourselves or if the girls were boys.”
Ten years later, his debts even ghastlier than usual, Marx applied for a job as a railway clerk, but was rejected because of his unreadable handwriting. Without his benefactor, Marx wrote, “I would long ago have been obliged to start a ‘trade’.” The disgust in those inverted commas is almost audible. As it was, thanks to Engels’s generosity, he could spend most of his days in the reading room of the British Museum, resuming his study of economics. After the dissolution of the Communist League in 1852, he had no political chores to distract him, and he dealt with the demands of the New York Daily Tribune by subcontracting much of the work to Engels.
Even so, Marx can probably take the credit for half of the 500-odd articles he submitted to the Tribune. In his wearier moments he sometimes neglected the old journalistic injunction to grab the reader’s attention from the outset (“The Parliamentary debates of the week offer but little of interest” is the unimprovable opening sentence of a dispatch from 1853), but most of these commentaries, particularly on British politics, have his inky fingerprints all over them.
Marx’s final verdict on his adopted country can be found in a letter written shortly before his death in 1883. After mocking the “poor British bourgeois, who groan as they assume more and more ‘responsabilities’ [sic] in the service of their historic mission, while vainly protesting against it”, he concluded with a cry of exasperation: “Drat the British!”
Wilhelm “Lupus” Wolff, one of the few old campaigners from the 1840s who never wavered in his allegiance to Marx and Engels, died of meningitis on May 9 1864, bequeathing his estate to Marx. Marx and Engels were amazed to discover that modest old Lupus had accumulated a small fortune through hard work and thrift: 820 for the main legatee. This was far more than Marx had ever earned from his writing, and explains why the first volume of Capital (published three years later) carries a dedication to “my unforgettable friend Wilhelm Wolff, intrepid, faithful, noble protagonist of the proletariat”, rather than the more obvious and worthy candidate, Engels. The Marxes wasted no time in spending their windfall. Jenny had the new house in Hampstead furnished and redecorated, and pets were bought for the children (three dogs, two cats, two birds). Writing to Philips in the summer of 1864, Marx revealed an even more remarkable detail of his prosperous new way of life:
“I have, which will surprise you not a little, been speculating … especially in English stocks, which are springing up like mushrooms this year … [and] forced up to a quite unreasonable level and then, for the most part, collapse. In this way, I have made over 400 and now that the complexity of the political situation affords greater scope, I shall begin all over again. It’s a type of operation that makes small demands on one’s time, and it’s worth while running some risk in order to relieve the enemy of his money.”
Jenny Marx died on December 2 1881. For the last three weeks she and her husband couldn’t even see each other: his bronchitis had been complicated by pleurisy and he was confined to a neighbouring bedroom, unable to move. Marx was forbidden by his doctor to attend the funeral, held three days later in an unconsecrated corner of Highgate cemetery.
During Jenny’s last days, exhausted by sleeplessness and lack of exercise, he contracted the illness that eventually snatched him away. A change of climate was urgently necessary: there could be no remission from his catarrh – “this accursed English disease” – without fleeing the accursed English winter that had exacerbated it. He decided to leave Europe for the first time in his life, sailing to Algeria on February 18 1882.
Thus began a year of ceaseless wandering: three months in Algiers, a month in Monte Carlo, three months with his daughter Jennychen and her husband at Argenteuil, a month in the Swiss resort of Vevey. With comical consistency, his arrival in each of these places precipitated torrential rain and thunderstorms, even if the sun had been blazing for weeks beforehand. He returned to London in January 1883. In Algiers he seldom bothered to read the newspapers, preferring to visit the botanical gardens, chat to fellow hotel guests or simply to gaze out to sea. What use were his materialism and dialectics now?
In outward appearance he was still a formidable figure: an Englishwoman who met Marx at about this time remembered him as “a big man in every way, with a very large head and hair rather like ‘shock-headed Peter’s'”. But during the last years of his life, finally accepting that his power had vanished, he offered up his precious fleece to an Algerian barber. “I have done away with my prophet’s, beard and my crowning glory,” he wrote to Engels on April 28 1882.
Eyeless in Gaza; hairless in Algiers. A bald, clean-shaven Karl Marx is almost impossible to imagine – and he made sure that posterity would never see him thus. Before the symbolic shearing he had himself photographed, hirsute and twinkle-eyed, to remind his daughters of the man they knew. It is the last picture we have: a genial Jupiter; an intellectual Father Christmas. As he joked, “I am still putting a good face on things.”
But as Eleanor knew, her father had come home to die. When Engels went to the house on Wednesday March 14 at about 2.30pm, his usual time for visiting, Lenchen came downstairs to tell him that Marx was “half- asleep” in his favourite armchair next to the fire. A minute or two later he was dead. “Mankind is shorter by a head,” Engels wrote to a comrade in America, “and by the most remarkable head of our time.”
Karl Marx was buried on March 17 1883 in the Highgate cemetery plot where his wife had been laid 15 months earlier. He was 64. Only 11 mourners attended the funeral. In a graveside oration, Engels described him as a revolutionary genius who had become the most bated and calumniated man of his time, predicting that “his name and work will endure through the ages”. Socialist newspapers in France, Russia and America printed eulogies, but in England his passing went almost unnoticed.
Four of Marx’s children predeceased him; and the two survivors both killed themselves. The only member of the family to escape the curse was Freddy Demuth. To the end, neither he nor anyone else suspected that Freddy might be a son of the man whose face and name were, by then, known throughout the world .
This is an edited extract from Karl Marx, by Francis Wheen. The book is published by Fourth Estate and will be available in bookstores in late November