This month marks the anniversary of the first congress of the Communist League in London (1847), when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were commissioned to write the “Communist Manifesto.” Although much scholarly output has catalogued the many problems with Marxist political and economic ideology as outlined in that seminal work, often overlooked in repudiations of Marxism has been the actual person of Karl Marx.
Indeed, when considering historical figures responsible for great, influential movements, it’s worth considering if those persons’ personal lives substantiate or undermine their ideology. As Aristotle noted: “Men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected with their private lives.” In Marx’s case, as Grove City College professor Paul Kengor recounts in his recent book “The Devil and Karl Marx,” the record is not in his favor.
Marx was born into an intellectual and liberal bourgeois family in Trier, Germany. Although his family ancestry was Jewish on both sides, his father Heinrich converted to Lutheranism, it appears less for theological reasons than social ones. Heinrich was an avid reader of anti-Christian writers like Voltaire and Rousseau.
As a student, Marx was not exemplary. He also squandered his parents’ money, while remaining silent for months at a time, even when both his mother and father were ill. When Karl did write, it was typically to request more funds.
In one December 1837 letter to Karl, Heinrich reprimands his selfishness, writing, “You have caused your parents much vexation and little or no joy….” A few months later, Heinrich died at age 56. Karl did not attend the funeral. He had “other things to do,” one biographer explains.
Karl then turned to his mother for hand-outs. Even after getting married in 1843, he remained dependent on his mother to finance his intellectual career, draining his parents’ savings. Even so, he went nearly 20 years without visiting his mother, and when he finally did see her, it was for money.
His mother declared she wished “Karl would accumulate capital instead of just writing about it.” Marx wrote to his wife in complaint: “She does not want to hear a word about money but she destroyed the I.O.U.’s that I made out to her.”
When his mother died, Karl was able to secure about $6,000 in gold and francs as inheritance. That, notes Kengor, is a bit rich, given that point three of the “Communist Manifesto” calls for abolishing the right of inheritance.
The Marx family’s sentiments regarding their son’s profligate tendencies was shared by his wife, Jenny von Westphalen. She told him: “Karl, if you had only spent more time making capital instead of writing about it, we would have been better off.”
Indeed, only a year after “Communist Manifesto” was published, Marx’s landlord evicted him and his family. The landlord, Kengor tells us, was also frustrated with Karl’s grooming. “Washing, grooming, and changing his linens are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk,” notes one Prussian police report on him.
Even sadder, Marx earned so little money that in the winter of 1849-1850 they were forced to take refuge in a dilapidated boarding house. There, their infant child Heinrich Guido died. An eight-year-old son Edgar died in 1855.
Marx at one point admitted to Engles: “Every day my wife says she wishes she and the children were safely in their graves, and I really cannot blame her, for the humiliations, torments, and alarums that one has to go through in such a situation are indeed indescribable.” It did not seem to dawn upon Marx that he was most to blame for their poverty and misfortune.
At one point a servant girl, Helene Demuth, who had been a housemaid for his wife’s family was sent to help the Marx family while they were living in Brussels in 1845. Marx never paid Demuth a penny. He did, however, initiate a long-running extramarital affair with her.
In June 1851, Demuth gave birth to a baby boy, Freddy. Marx refused to acknowledge that the child was his. Instead, Engels took responsibility for the boy. On his deathbed, Engels admitted that Freddy was indeed sired by Marx.
Marx’s family life was a disaster. Four of his six children died before he did. The other two, both daughters, eventually committed suicide. His poor wife, who suffered through adultery and neglect, by the 1860s was expressing a desire to die. Marx once wrote to Engels: “Blessed is he who has no family.” Jenny died in 1881. Marx did not attend the funeral.
These are not flattering details for a man responsible for one of the most popular and influential political and economic philosophies of the twentieth century. Nor, one might add, is the fact that Marx, despite being of Jewish descent, was virulently antisemitic. One biographer notes that his correspondence is “filled with contemptuous remarks about Jews.”
Marx said the “worldly cult of the Jew” was haggling, and that the Jew’s “worldly god” was money. Marx also spoke in a racist, condescending manner of blacks, referring to one as a “gorilla.” Certainly few men are truly saints. Yet Marx, in Kengor’s estimate, was much closer to being a demon.
Why does this matter? For people to subscribe to certain political ideologies, especially those as sweeping in scope as Marxism, they should be aware of the motivations and lives of those they aim to follow. In the case of Marx, those motivations were arrestingly selfish. His life is a case study in how to mistreat everyone close to you.
This is supposed to be the person who proposed how to free the oppressive masses from their social and economic bondage? As Kengor notes, Marx knew practically no members of the proletariat, and those he did know, he viewed with disdain, or, in the case of his servant mistress, as people to be exploited.
When one contrasts the life of Marx to another man whose ideology has claimed billions of followers, the differences are dramatic. Jesus of Nazareth was a man devoted to his parents — indeed, as he was dying on the cross, he made sure his mother would be cared for! (John 19:25-27). Like Marx, he was impoverished, although He still gave so much of Himself that thousands of people followed wherever He went.
Jesus exhibited love and compassion for the poorest, most disenfranchised people of his generation. In a word, he was everything Marx was not.
If we are to consider whose life better matches his teaching, the answer is obvious. If the leaders of the world had listened more closely to Jesus, and less to Marx, as Kengor soberly reminds us, there may have been as many as 100 million fewer murders in the twentieth century. Given many today offer panegyrics to Marx and his teachings, we should pray we don’t have to learn that lesson afresh.