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HISTORY: PART I OF KARL MARX'S PERSONAL LETTERS

In this segment of The Historian, I will discuss Marx’s attitudes by using personal letters and legal documents published in Kamenka’s book The Portable Karl Marx. In chapter I: “Marx the Man: Documents, Letters, and Reminiscences” shows the personal life of Marx through various legal documents, such as birth certificates, diplomas, degrees, and letters from people that he knew best (family and friends). These personal records allow scholars and historians to venture outside Marx’s written works and to explore his personal life. He had negative experiences with financial issues, poverty, maintaining and keeping professional positions, such as writer, editor, or lecturer.

But he also had issues with those that were against his beliefs or teachings, and he was always in debt to the point that he even owed his closest friends’ money. His family was evicted from many homes, had their property confiscated, including beds, linens, clothes, dishes, and anything that had value, no matter the worth. They also lived in unsanitary and undesirable conditions. Yet, he never went beyond his writing.

He never tried to make another career, work in factories, or build a business of his own. He continued to travel on borrowed money, continued to meet at social meetings with friends, drink, and write. Moreover, he continued to criticize those that did not support his opinions, no matter if they were friend or foe. With this negative attitude, he could not form a proper network of publishers, writers, or higher professionals. Thus, he did not have the connections to become popular or to make money off his publications. In essence, he was a failure: as a husband, father, friend, and professional.

Although he had many struggles in life, people that knew him best wrote about their personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences with Marx, some negative, some positive. In Part I of this blog, I will discuss Marx’s school letters from The High School of Trier; The University of Boon; and his father, Mr. Heinrich Marx, to show how chaotic and unbalanced Marx’s life became. These first set of letters begins from 1835-1837 with schools, Mr. Marx, and Marx.

In 1835, Karl Marx’s high school teacher, Kupper Schneemann, at Trier wrote:

His composition, in terms of context, shows richness of thought and an attempt to go seriously into the subject-matter, but is often overloaded with the irrelevant; so far as language expression is concerned, he evinces considerable practice and a striving toward genuine Latinity, although he does make grammatical mistakes.”1

Marx struggled to go deep in philosophical matters and went on tangents that simply did not make sense nor did it matter to the subject at hand. However, to be fair, he was in high school at the time this was written. He simply did not have the experience of an undergraduate or graduate university student. But the following year, Marx was accepted at The University of Bonn. There he studied the Arts and Sciences, The Humanities, economics, and law. Yet, it is evident that he had a problem with alcohol.2

On August 22, 1836, The Dean of the Faculty of Law, [sic] and The Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy [sic] stated in a letter to The University Judge [sic]:

His [Karl Marx] conduct is concerned, it should be noted that he was sentenced to one day’s imprisonment for drunkenness and causing a disturbance at night; in moral and economic connections nothing else discreditable to him is known. Subsequently a complaint was lodged against him, claiming that he carried forbidden weapons in Cologne. The investigation is still underway. He is suspected of taking part in illegal organizations amongst students.3

The problems with alcohol carried on into Marx’s adult life, leaving his family poor, destitute, and at the mercy of friends.4 His father, Heinrich Marx, wrote to Karl on March 2, 1837, concerning Marx’s happiness:

Your [Karl Marx] soul is obviously animated and ruled by a demon not given to all men; is this demon a heavenly or a Faustian one? Will you ever – and this is the doubt that causes me the most pain – be receptive to true human happiness - domestic happiness? Will you ever…be able to spread happiness to your immediate surroundings?5

Karl Marx replied, “Concerning the question of a fiscal career, dear father, I have recently made the acquaintance of an assistant judge, Schmidthanner, who advises me to enter upon the first stage of a judicial career after passing the third of my law examinations.”6 It is obvious that father and son clashed at Marx’s ideals. What did Marx think about his father calling Marx’s writing career domestic. Back in the nineteenth century, this was a deep insult. What kind of “proper job” did Mr. Marx want for his son? The problems between father and son only increased. In the next letter December 9, 1837, Heinrich writes:

My son, as though we were made of gold, spends in one year almost 700 taler, contrary to all dissuasion, contrary to all custom, while the richest do not even spend 500. And why? I admit, in justice, that my son is no high liver, no spendthrift. But how can a man who finds it necessary to invent a new system every eight or fourteen days and who has to tear up all the work he has achieved with great labor, how can such a son, I ask, bother himself with trivialities?7

This was the last letter that was written by Mr. Marx in The Portable Karl Marx. But these first sets of letters in Part I shows that Marx’s behavior was erratic and emotional, preventing him from completing simple to larger tasks like creating a budget or writing books. This behavior followed him through his whole adult life. Furthermore, he had issues with money, and he could not write or maintain a budget. When borrowed money came in, he would blow it on frivolous things like alcohol.

By combining all these issues, it is clear that Marx struggled at life. He failed because he, like his father stated, had a demon that took his mind away from personal goals. He failed at his writing career because he could not meet deadlines and could not maintain healthy and strong professional relationships. Without organization, determination, and time management skills, Marx could not become successful. Thus, in Marx’s case, his negative behavior and attitude hindered his career and the ability to make money. He had nobody to blame but himself, yet he despised the wealthy and their achievements.

Moving forward to the present, do you see similarities between Karl Marx, Black Lives Matter, and Antifa? Why or why not?

1. Eugene Kamenka, The Portable Karl Marx (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1983), 6.

2. Kamenka, The Portable Karl, 8-9.

3. Kamenka, The Portable Karl, 9.

4. Kamenka, The Portable Karl, 41.

5. Kamenka, The Portable Karl, 11.

6. Eugene Kamenka, The Portable Karl, 17.

7. Kamenka, The Portable Karl, 17-18.

Bibliography

Kamenka, Eugene. The Portable Karl Marx. New York: Viking Penguin, 1983.