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Books: Marxist Mystery

3 minute read
David Aikman


by Saul K. Padover

McGraw-Hill; 667 pages; $18.95

Since his death in 1883, Karl Marx has proved as great a scourge of biographers as he was of political opponents. The difficulties seem insoluble: the man has to be separated from the history that made him and the history that he made. Marx also has to be removed from the True Believers, who find him blameless, and the Great Haters, who see him with horns and a tail.

Saul K. Padover, distinguished American political scientist (Jefferson: A Biography, Thomas Jefferson and the Foundations of American Freedom), wrestles with these problems for 667 pages; the result is a fascinating draw. A self-described “Jeffersonian democrat,” Padover exhibits an intimate and often lurid portrait. As an adolescent, Marx embraced Christ, then, in a long hysterical poem, identified himself with Lucifer. During the exhausting research and writing of Das Kapital, he was plagued by illnesses ranging from carbuncles to chronic liver inflammation. Padover shows the father of socialism distracting himself from the pain and humiliation of a carbuncle on the scrotum by quoting pornographic French verse in a letter to his German collaborator, Frederick Engels. More appealingly, there is a vignette of the whitebearded Marx trotting obediently on all fours round his London home, ridden by a five-year-old grandson. Marx’s strengths and weaknesses are carefully chronicled: the affectionate relationship with his daughters, the Promethean capacity for work, the hopeless improvidence with money, the raging, pitiless hatreds for fellow Socialists who failed to follow his dictates. The least familiar persona is Marx the philanderer. Here he is, at 43, unrestrainedly wooing his 24-year-old cousin during a fund-raising expedition to The Netherlands. Six years later, in 1867, he is passionately reciting poetry to an attractive gentlewoman during a similar expedition to Hanover.

Such details help make Marx a less forbidding character for most Americans, though not necessarily more sympathetic. While the philosopher wandered, his devoted and intelligent wife Jenny, an aristocrat from Marx’s own birthplace of Trier, struggled to maintain a poverty-stricken household in London lodgings. In 1851, during the family’s worst privations, not long after they had arrived in England, Marx sired an illegitimate son by the family maid. Family catastrophe was averted only when Engels gave collaboration a new definition by accepting paternity of the child. Padover is curiously reticent about this episode. He is even more elusive about the reasons why two of adoring Papa Karl’s three daughters committed suicide. Was there a hidden heritage of insanity? Was there something satanic in the Marxist zeal? Was he the kind whose creative gift is exceeded only by a capacity for destruction? The answer remains unclear. All that his newest and most personal biographer can show is that Karl Marx remained a divided figure throughout his life. His internal conflicts drove him to write, came to white heat in the family crucible and went on to in flame the world. The flames have grown in intensity, and a Jeffersonian appraisal seems a bit too cool and removed in the epoch of psychohistory. Padover’s examination shows all of the bourgeois and much of the incendiary. But the demons that drove the man remain offstage, and until they are examined and understood, Karl Marx will remain a mystery to followers and critics alike.

—David Aikman

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