Famous Affinities of History: The Romance of Devotion


Some time ago I entered a fairly large library—one of more than two hundred thousand volumes—to seek the little brochure on Karl Marx written by his old friend and genial comrade Wilhelm Liebknecht. It was in the card catalogue. As I made a note of its number, my friend the librarian came up to me, and I asked him whether it was not strange that a man like Marx should have so many books devoted to him, for I had roughly reckoned the number at several hundred.

"Not at all," said he; "and we have here only a feeble nucleus of the Marx literature—just enough, in fact, to give you a glimpse of what that literature really is. These are merely the books written by Marx himself, and the translations of them, with a few expository monographs. Anything like a real Marx collection would take up a special room in this library, and would have to have its own separate catalogue. You see that even these two or three hundred books contain large volumes of small pamphlets in many languages—German, English, French, Italian, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Swedish, Hungarian, Spanish; and here," he concluded, pointing to a recently numbered card, "is one in Japanese."

My curiosity was sufficiently excited to look into the matter somewhat further. I visited another library, which was appreciably larger, and whose managers were evidently less guided by their prejudices. Here were several thousand books on Marx, and I spent the best part of the day in looking them over.

What struck me as most singular was the fact that there was scarcely a volume about Marx himself. Practically all the books dealt with his theory of capital and his other socialistic views. The man himself, his personality, and the facts of his life were dismissed in the most meager fashion, while his economic theories were discussed with something that verged upon fury. Even such standard works as those of Mehring and Spargo, which profess to be partly biographical, sum up the personal side of Marx in a few pages. In fact, in the latter's preface he seems conscious of this defect, and says:

Whether socialism proves, in the long span of centuries, to be good or evil, a blessing to men or a curse, Karl Marx must always be an object of interest as one of the great world-figures of immortal memory. As the years go by, thoughtful men and women will find the same interest in studying the life and work of Marx that they do in studying the life and work of Cromwell, of Wesley, or of Darwin, to name three immortal world-figures of vastly divergent types.

Singularly little is known of Karl Marx, even by his most ardent followers. They know his work, having studied his Das Kapital with the devotion and earnestness with which an older generation of Christians studied the Bible, but they are very generally unacquainted with the man himself. Although more than twenty-six years have elapsed since the death of Marx, there is no adequate biography of him in any language.

Doubtless some better-equipped German writer, such as Franz Mehring or Eduard Bernstein, will some day give us the adequate and full biography for which the world now waits.

Here is an admission that there exists no adequate biography of Karl Marx, and here is also an intimation that simply as a man, and not merely as a great firebrand of socialism, Marx is well worth studying. And so it has occurred to me to give in these pages one episode of his career that seems to me quite curious, together with some significant touches concerning the man as apart from the socialist. Let the thousands of volumes already in existence suffice for the latter. The motto of this paper is not the Vergilian "Arms and the man I sing," but simply "The man I sing"—and the woman. Karl Marx was born nearly ninety-four years ago—May 5, 1818—in the city which the French call Treves and the Germans Trier, among the vine-clad hills of the Moselle. Today, the town is commonplace enough when you pass through it, but when you look into its history, and seek out that history's evidences, you will find that it was not always a rather sleepy little place. It was one of the chosen abodes of the Emperors of the West, after Rome began to be governed by Gauls and Spaniards, rather than by Romans and Italians. The traveler often pauses there to see the Porta Nigra, that immense gate once strongly fortified, and he will doubtless visit also what is left of the fine baths and amphitheater.

Treves, therefore, has a right to be termed imperial, and it was the birthplace of one whose sway over the minds of men has been both imperial and imperious.

Karl Marx was one of those whose intellectual achievements were so great as to dwarf his individuality and his private life. What he taught with almost terrific vigor made his very presence in the Continental monarchies a source of eminent danger. He was driven from country to country. Kings and emperors were leagued together against him. Soldiers were called forth, and blood was shed because of him. But, little by little, his teaching seems to have leavened the thought of the whole civilized world, so that to-day thousands who barely know his name are deeply affected by his ideas, and believe that the state should control and manage everything for the good of all.

Marx seems to have inherited little from either of his parents. His father, Heinrich Marx, was a provincial Jewish lawyer who had adopted Christianity, probably because it was expedient, and because it enabled him to hold local offices and gain some social consequence. He had changed his name from Mordecai to Marx.

The elder Marx was very shrewd and tactful, and achieved a fair position among the professional men and small officials in the city of Treves. He had seen the horrors of the French Revolution, and was philosopher enough to understand the meaning of that mighty upheaval, and of the Napoleonic era which followed.

Napoleon, indeed, had done much to relieve his race from petty oppression. France made the Jews in every respect the equals of the Gentiles. One of its ablest marshals—Massena—was a Jew, and therefore, when the imperial eagle was at the zenith of its flight, the Jews in every city and town of Europe were enthusiastic admirers of Napoleon, some even calling him the Messiah.

Karl Marx's mother, it is certain, endowed him with none of his gifts. She was a Netherlandish Jewess of the strictly domestic and conservative type, fond of her children and her home, and detesting any talk that looked to revolutionary ideas or to a change in the social order. She became a Christian with her husband, but the word meant little to her. It was sufficient that she believed in God; and for this she was teased by some of her skeptical friends. Replying to them, she uttered the only epigram that has ever been ascribed to her.

"Yes," she said, "I believe in God, not for God's sake, but for my own."

She was so little affected by change of scene that to the day of her death she never mastered German, but spoke almost wholly in her native Dutch. Had we time, we might dwell upon the unhappy paradox of her life. In her son Karl she found an especial joy, as did her husband. Had the father lived beyond Karl's early youth, he would doubtless have been greatly pained by the radicalism of his gifted son, as well as by his personal privations. But the mother lived until 1863, while Karl was everywhere stirring the fires of revolution, driven from land to land, both feared and persecuted, and often half famished. As Mr. Spargo says:

It was the irony of life that the son, who kindled a mighty hope in the hearts of unnumbered thousands of his fellow human beings, a hope that is today inspiring millions of those who speak his name with reverence and love, should be able to do that only by destroying his mother's hope and happiness in her son, and that every step he took should fill her heart with a great agony.

When young Marx grew out of boyhood into youth, he was attractive to all those who met him. Tall, lithe, and graceful, he was so extremely dark that his intimates called him "der neger"—"the negro." His loosely tossing hair gave to him a still more exotic appearance; but his eyes were true and frank, his nose denoted strength and character, and his mouth was full of kindliness in its expression. His lineaments were not those of the Jewish type.

Very late in life—he died in 1883—his hair and beard turned white, but to the last his great mustache was drawn like a bar across his face, remaining still as black as ink, and making his appearance very striking. He was full of fun and gaiety. As was only natural, there soon came into his life some one who learned to love him, and to whom, in his turn, he gave a deep and unbroken affection.

There had come to Treves—which passed from France to Prussia with the downfall of Napoleon—a Prussian nobleman, the Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, holding the official title of "national adviser." The baron was of Scottish extraction on his mother's side, being connected with the ducal family of Argyll. He was a man of genuine rank, and might have shown all the arrogance and superciliousness of the average Prussian official; but when he became associated with Heinrich Marx he evinced none of that condescending manner. The two men became firm friends, and the baron treated the provincial lawyer as an equal.

The two families were on friendly terms. Von Westphalen's infant daughter, who had the formidable name of Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen, but who was usually spoken of as Jenny, became, in time, an intimate of Sophie Marx. She was four years older than Karl, but the two grew up together—he a high-spirited, manly boy, and she a lovely and romantic girl.

The baron treated Karl as if the lad were a child of his own. He influenced him to love romantic literature and poetry by interpreting to him the great masterpieces, from Homer and Shakespeare to Goethe and Lessing. He made a special study of Dante, whose mysticism appealed to his somewhat dreamy nature, and to the religious instinct that always lived in him, in spite of his dislike for creeds and churches.

The lore that he imbibed in early childhood stood Karl in good stead when he began his school life, and his preparation for the university. He had an absolute genius for study, and was no less fond of the sports and games of his companions, so that he seemed to be marked out for success. At sixteen years of age he showed a precocious ability for planning and carrying out his work with thoroughness. His mind was evidently a creative mind, one that was able to think out difficult problems without fatigue. His taste was shown in his fondness for the classics, in studying which he noted subtle distinctions of meaning that usually escape even the mature scholar. Penetration, thoroughness, creativeness, and a capacity for labor were the boy's chief characteristics.

With such gifts, and such a nature, he left home for the university of Bonn. Here he disappointed all his friends. His studies were neglected; he was morose, restless, and dissatisfied. He fell into a number of scrapes, and ran into debt through sundry small extravagances. All the reports that reached his home were most unsatisfactory. What had come over the boy who had worked so hard in the gymnasium at Treves?

The simple fact was that he had became love-sick. His separation from Jenny von Westphalen had made him conscious of a feeling which he had long entertained without knowing it. They had been close companions. He had looked into her beautiful face and seen the luminous response of her lovely eyes, but its meaning had not flashed upon his mind. He was not old enough to have a great consuming passion, he was merely conscious of her charm. As he could see her every day, he did not realize how much he wanted her, and how much a separation from her would mean.

As "absence makes the heart grow fonder," so it may suddenly draw aside the veil behind which the truth is hidden. At Bonn young Marx felt as if a blaze of light had flashed before him; and from that moment his studies, his companions, and the ambitions that he had hitherto cherished all seemed flat and stale. At night and in the daytime there was just one thing which filled his mind and heart—the beautiful vision of Jenny von Westphalen.

Meanwhile his family, and especially his father, had become anxious at the reports which reached them. Karl was sent for, and his stay at Bonn was ended.

Now that he was once more in the presence of the girl who charmed him so, he recovered all his old-time spirits. He wooed her ardently, and though she was more coy, now that she saw his passion, she did not discourage him, but merely prolonged the ecstasy of this wonderful love-making. As he pressed her more and more, and no one guessed the story, there came a time when she was urged to let herself become engaged to him.

Here was seen the difference in their ages—a difference that had an effect upon their future. It means much that a girl should be four years older than the man who seeks her hand. She is four years wiser; and a girl of twenty is, in fact, a match for a youth of twenty-five. Brought up as she had been, in an aristocratic home, with the blood of two noble families in her veins, and being wont to hear the easy and somewhat cynical talk of worldly people, she knew better than poor Karl the un-wisdom of what she was about to do.

She was noble, the daughter of one high official and the sister of another. Those whom she knew were persons of rank and station. On the other hand, young Marx, though he had accepted Christianity, was the son of a provincial Jewish lawyer, with no fortune, and with a bad record at the university. When she thought of all these things, she may well have hesitated; but the earnest pleading and intense ardor of Karl Marx broke down all barriers between them, and they became engaged, without informing Jenny's father of their compact. Then they parted for a while, and Karl returned to his home, filled with romantic thoughts.

He was also full of ambition and of desire for achievement. He had won the loveliest girl in Treves, and now he must go forth into the world and conquer it for her sake. He begged his father to send him to Berlin, and showed how much more advantageous was that new and splendid university, where Hegel's fame was still in the ascendent.

In answer to his father's questions, the younger Marx replied:

"I have something to tell you that will explain all; but first you must give me your word that you will tell no one."

"I trust you wholly," said the father. "I will not reveal what you may say to me."

"Well," returned the son, "I am engaged to marry Jenny von Westphalen. She wishes it kept a secret from her father, but I am at liberty to tell you of it."

The elder Marx was at once shocked and seriously disturbed. Baron von Westphalen was his old and intimate friend. No thought of romance between their children had ever come into his mind. It seemed disloyal to keep the verlobung of Karl and Jenny a secret; for should it be revealed, what would the baron think of Marx? Their disparity of rank and fortune would make the whole affair stand out as something wrong and underhand.

The father endeavored to make his son see all this. He begged him to go and tell the baron, but young Marx was not to be persuaded.

"Send me to Berlin," he said, "and we shall again be separated; but I shall work and make a name for myself, so that when I return neither Jenny nor her father will have occasion to be disturbed by our engagement."

With these words he half satisfied his father, and before long he was sent to Berlin, where he fell manfully upon his studies. His father had insisted that he should study law; but his own tastes were for philosophy and history. He attended lectures in jurisprudence "as a necessary evil," but he read omnivorously in subjects that were nearer to his heart. The result was that his official record was not much better than it had been at Bonn.

The same sort of restlessness, too, took possession of him when he found that Jenny would not answer his letters. No matter how eagerly and tenderly he wrote to her, there came no reply. Even the most passionate pleadings left her silent and unresponsive. Karl could not complain, for she had warned him that she would not write to him. She felt that their engagement, being secret, was anomalous, and that until her family knew of it she was not free to act as she might wish.

Here again was seen the wisdom of her maturer years; but Karl could not be equally reasonable. He showered her with letters, which still she would not answer. He wrote to his father in words of fire. At last, driven to despair, he said that he was going to write to the Baron von Westphalen, reveal the secret, and ask for the baron's fatherly consent.

It seemed a reckless thing to do, and yet it turned out to be the wisest. The baron knew that such an engagement meant a social sacrifice, and that, apart from the matter of rank, young Marx was without any fortune to give the girl the luxuries to which she had been accustomed. Other and more eligible suitors were always within view. But here Jenny herself spoke out more strongly than she had ever done to Karl. She was willing to accept him with what he was able to give her. She cared nothing for any other man, and she begged her father to make both of them completely happy.

Thus it seemed that all was well, yet for some reason or other Jenny would not write to Karl, and once more he was almost driven to distraction. He wrote bitter letters to his father, who tried to comfort him. The baron himself sent messages of friendly advice, but what young man in his teens was ever reasonable? So violent was Karl that at last his father wrote to him:

I am disgusted with your letters. Their unreasonable tone is loathsome to me. I should never had expected it of you. Haven't you been lucky from your cradle up?

Finally Karl received one letter from his betrothed—a letter that transfused him with ecstatic joy for about a day, and then sent him back to his old unrest. This, however, may be taken as a part of Marx's curious nature, which was never satisfied, but was always reaching after something which could not be had.

He fell to writing poetry, of which he sent three volumes to Jenny—which must have been rather trying to her, since the verse was very poor. He studied the higher mathematics, English and Italian, some Latin, and a miscellaneous collection of works on history and literature. But poetry almost turned his mind. In later years he wrote:

Everything was centered on poetry, as if I were bewitched by some uncanny power.

Luckily, he was wise enough, after a time, to recognize how halting were his poems when compared with those of the great masters; and so he resumed his restless, desultory work. He still sent his father letters that were like wild cries. They evoked, in reply, a very natural burst of anger:

Complete disorder, silly wandering through all branches of science, silly brooding at the burning oil-lamp! In your wildness you see with four eyes—a horrible setback and disregard for everything decent. And in the pursuit of this senseless and purposeless learning you think to raise the fruits which are to unite you with your beloved one! What harvest do you expect to gather from them which will enable you to fulfil your duty toward her?

Writing to him again, his father speaks of something that Karl had written as "a mad composition, which denotes clearly how you waste your ability and spend nights in order to create such monstrosities." The young man was even forbidden to return home for the Easter holidays. This meant giving up the sight of Jenny, whom he had not seen for a whole year. But fortune arranged it otherwise; for not many weeks later death removed the parent who had loved him and whom he had loved, though neither of them could understand the other. The father represented the old order of things; the son was born to discontent and to look forward to a new heaven and a new earth.

Returning to Berlin, Karl resumed his studies; but as before, they were very desultory in their character, and began to run upon social questions, which were indeed setting Germany into a ferment. He took his degree, and thought of becoming an instructor at the university of Jena; but his radicalism prevented this, and he became the editor of a liberal newspaper, which soon, however, became so very radical as to lead to his withdrawal.

It now seemed best that Marx should seek other fields of activity. To remain in Germany was dangerous to himself and discreditable to Jenny's relatives, with their status as Prussian officials. In the summer of 1843, he went forth into the world—at last an "international." Jenny, who had grown to believe in him as against her own family, asked for nothing better than to wander with him, if only they might be married. And they were married in this same summer, and spent a short honeymoon at Bingen on the Rhine—made famous by Mrs. Norton's poem. It was the brief glimpse of sunshine that was to precede year after year of anxiety and want.

Leaving Germany, Marx and Jenny went to Paris, where he became known to some of the intellectual lights of the French capital, such as Bakunin, the great Russian anarchist, Proudhon, Cabet, and Saint-Simon. Most important of all was his intimacy with the poet Heine, that marvelous creature whose fascination took on a thousand forms, and whom no one could approach without feeling his strange allurement.

Since Goethe's death, down to the present time, there has been no figure in German literature comparable to Heine. His prose was exquisite. His poetry ran through the whole gamut of humanity and of the sensations that come to us from the outer world. In his poems are sweet melodies and passionate cries of revolt, stirring ballads of the sea and tender love-songs—strange as these last seem when coming from this cynic.

For cynic he was, deep down in his heart, though his face, when in repose, was like the conventional pictures of Christ. His fascinations destroyed the peace of many a woman; and it was only after many years of self-indulgence that he married the faithful Mathilde Mirat in what he termed a "conscience marriage." Soon after he went to his "mattress-grave," as he called it, a hopeless paralytic.

To Heine came Marx and his beautiful bride. One may speculate as to Jenny's estimate of her husband. Since his boyhood, she had not seen him very much. At that time he was a merry, light-hearted youth, a jovial comrade, and one of whom any girl would be proud. But since his long stay in Berlin, and his absorption in the theories of men like Engels and Bauer, he had become a very different sort of man, at least to her.

Groping, lost in brown studies, dreamy, at times morose, he was by no means a sympathetic and congenial husband for a high-bred, spirited girl, such as Jenny von Westphalen. His natural drift was toward a beer-garden, a group of frowsy followers, the reek of vile tobacco, and the smell of sour beer. One cannot but think that his beautiful wife must have been repelled by this, though with her constant nature she still loved him.

In Heinrich Heine she found a spirit that seemed akin to hers. Mr. Spargo says—and in what he says one must read a great deal between the lines:

The admiration of Jenny Marx for the poet was even more ardent than that of her husband. He fascinated her because, as she said, he was "so modern," while Heine was drawn to her because she was "so sympathetic."

It must be that Heine held the heart of this beautiful woman in his hand. He knew so well the art of fascination; he knew just how to supply the void which Marx had left. The two were indeed affinities in heart and soul; yet for once the cynical poet stayed his hand, and said no word that would have been disloyal to his friend. Jenny loved him with a love that might have blazed into a lasting flame; but fortunately there appeared a special providence to save her from herself. The French government, at the request of the King of Prussia, banished Marx from its dominions; and from that day until he had become an old man he was a wanderer and an exile, with few friends and little money, sustained by nothing but Jenny's fidelity and by his infinite faith in a cause that crushed him to the earth.

There is a curious parallel between the life of Marx and that of Richard Wagner down to the time when the latter discovered a royal patron. Both of them were hounded from country to country; both of them worked laboriously for so scanty a living as to verge, at times, upon starvation. Both of them were victims to a cause in which they earnestly believed—an economic cause in the one case, an artistic cause in the other. Wagner's triumph came before his death, and the world has accepted his theory of the music-drama. The cause of Marx is far greater and more tremendous, because it strikes at the base of human life and social well-being.

The clash between Wagner and his critics was a matter of poetry and dramatic music. It was not vital to the human race. The cause of Marx is one that is only now beginning to be understood and recognized by millions of men and women in all the countries of the earth. In his lifetime he issued a manifesto that has become a classic among economists. He organized the great International Association of Workmen, which set all Europe in a blaze and extended even to America. His great book, "Capital"—Das Kapital—which was not completed until the last years of his life, is read to-day by thousands as an almost sacred work.

Like Wagner and his Minna, the wife of Marx's youth clung to him through his utmost vicissitudes, denying herself the necessities of life so that he might not starve. In London, where he spent his latest days, he was secure from danger, yet still a sort of persecution seemed to follow him. For some time, nothing that he wrote could find a printer. Wherever he went, people looked at him askance. He and his six children lived upon the sum of five dollars a week, which was paid him by the New York Tribune, through the influence of the late Charles A. Dana. When his last child was born, and the mother's life was in serious danger, Marx complained that there was no cradle for the baby, and a little later that there was no coffin for its burial.

Marx had ceased to believe in marriage, despised the church, and cared nothing for government. Yet, unlike Wagner, he was true to the woman who had given up so much for him. He never sank to an artistic degeneracy. Though he rejected creeds, he was nevertheless a man of genuine religious feeling. Though he believed all present government to be an evil, he hoped to make it better, or rather he hoped to substitute for it a system by which all men might get an equal share of what it is right and just for them to have.

Such was Marx, and thus he lived and died. His wife, who had long been cut off from her relatives, died about a year before him. When she was buried, he stumbled and fell into her grave, and from that time until his own death he had no further interest in life.

He had been faithful to a woman and to a cause. That cause was so tremendous as to overwhelm him. In sixty years only the first great stirrings of it could be felt. Its teachings may end in nothing, but only a century or more of effort and of earnest striving can make it plain whether Karl Marx was a world-mover or a martyr to a cause that was destined to be lost.

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