Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution

  • Mary Gabriel
  • Little, Brown and Compan
  • 768 pp.

A biography of Karl and Jenny Marx –– in many respects an ordinary married couple struggling through emotional and financial hardships yet sustaining a commitment to their ideals and each other.

Reviewed by Linda Lear

As political revolutions continue to topple repressive regimes in the 21st century, it is useful to remember that Karl Marx was a relatively unknown figure during his lifetime. It was not until after his death in March 1883 that his influence on socialist movements of Europe began to be felt. Although The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 and Das Kapital began to appear in 1867, in his lifetime Marx was known best for writing and editing short-lived radical newspapers, campaigning for socialism, and as a leading figure in the Communist League and the International Workingmen’s Association. These activities forced him to spend a great deal of his life fleeing across Europe in search of work and sanctuary. Itinerant and indigent, yet determined to complete his critique of modern capitalism, Marx was upheld in his efforts by his wife Jenny von Westphalen whom he married in 1843.

As the journalist Mary Gabriel argues in her superbly researched but densely written biography of the Marxes, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, the man whose work would redefine the world was not only a theoretician of complex economic systems, he was also a complicated husband and father. Gabriel’s great achievement is to tell the story of a family forever one step ahead of disaster against the sweep of the great political and social upheavals of Europe.

Gabriel presents Marx as a quixotic family man –– one moment devoted, responsible and protective –– the next neglectful, dissolute and self-centered. The only constants in the tumultuous partnership of Karl and Jenny Marx were their unswerving commitment to social justice, their utter lack of financial stability, and their devotion to each other. Relying on archival letters that the Marx family members and associates wrote to each other over sixty years, some never before published in English, Gabriel’s portrait is of an entire family who sacrificed everything for the ideas in Karl Marx’s head.

Jenny von Westphalen Marx is the heroine of this epic. A woman of beauty, brains, and courage, she renounced the comforts of life as a Prussian aristocrat to devote herself to Marx’s vision of a classless society. Jenny’s motives frequently defy Gabriel’s ability to explain. This failure reflects the limits of her sources, but also a reluctance to question Jenny’s responses to events deeply enough. She is too brief in analysis of their emotional lives; of the impact of months apart in dangerous circumstances, and never explains why Marx’s liberation philosophy is never applied to his wife, who is eternally pregnant. Although Gabriel alludes to the emotional damage caused by Marx’s illicit affair with longtime member of their household Helene Demuth, and the illegitimate son she bore, this breach in fidelity is too swiftly dismissed. If Jenny’s motives remain shadowy, her devotion does not. Always she is the life force of the family –– bearing seven children, only three of whom survive to adulthood, and always finding a measure of hope. The misery, poverty and heartbreak that the Marxes endured, both as they roamed Europe and later as they lived destitute in London, nearly defies imagination. Yet Jenny wrote, “The years I spent in his little study copying his scrawled articles are among the happiest of my life.”

Although Gabriel gives us both a “character list” and a “political timeline” she attempts too much. This is a massive book and a difficult read. The material she culls from the Marx family letters, including those of co-author, friend and financial benefactor Frederick Engels, is an important addition to Marxist scholarship. But Gabriel feels compelled to include an analysis of the development of modern capitalism and a history of the working class and the labor movements. The story of Karl and Jenny and their family is too often submerged in the turmoil of social upheaval.

Where Gabriel succeeds brilliantly is in the first and last parts of the book. She writes compellingly of Jenny von Westphalen’s life in Trier, of the comfortable materialism of her family, and of her willingness to leave it all for a man of ideas and dreams. Similarly the saga of their London years together is told with deftness and a sense of possibility that Marx’s voice would be heard. The irony of their personal tragedy is not lost on Gabriel as she describes the Marx family’s descent into illness, malnutrition, grinding poverty, and psychic brutality. She correctly argues that the key to understanding what drove Marx is not just in understanding the great movements of his time, but in his chaotic personal life, and the people that he loved.

Marx’s last years were filled with suffering and loss. His beloved Jenny died of liver cancer in London at the age of 67 in 1881. Their brilliant daughter Jenny Carolina, Karl’s disciple and favorite, died of colon cancer just months before his own death. Their two surviving daughters, Jenny Laura and Jenny Julia, both committed suicide.

Love and Capital is a truly human portrait of the Marxes and of their devotion to their ideals and to each other. It is part of their common tragedy that neither Jenny nor her husband lived to see his theories embraced around the world.

  Linda Lear is the biographer of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (2009) and of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2008).  She writes “Telling Lives” at  

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