In his TNR review of Jonathan Sperber’s widely reviewed Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life , Peter Gordon includes some illuminating contemporary portraits, and self-portraits, of Marx’s life and thought.

After first reading Hegel, he wrote this ecstatic account to his father: “A curtain had fallen . . . . [I] ran like mad in the garden on the filthy water of the Spree . . . ran to Berlin and wanted to embrace every day laborer standing on street corners.”

His father responded by describing his son’s hopeless devotion to useless theorizing: Karl had given himself to “disorderliness, dull floating around in all areas of knowledge, dull meditation in front of a darkling oil lamp; running wild in the scholars’ night-gown and with uncombed hair . . . . And here, in this workshop of senseless and purposeless learnedness, this is where the crop will ripen, that will nourish you and your beloved, the harvest will be gathered that will serve to fulfill your sacred obligations?”

A Prussian spy wrote in 1852 about the Marx’s living condition: “As father and husband, Marx, in spite of his wild and restless character, is the gentlest and mildest of men. Marx lives in one of the worst, therefore one of the cheapest, quarters of London. He occupies two rooms . . . . In the middle of the salon there is a large old-fashioned table covered with an oilcloth, and on it there lie manuscripts, books and newspapers, as well as the children’s toys, the rags and tatters of his wife’s sewing basket, several cups with broken rims, knives, forks, lamps, an inkpot, tumblers, Dutch clay pipes, tobacco ash—in a word, everything topsy-turvy, and all on the same table . . . . Here is a chair with only three legs, on another chair the children are playing at cooking—this chair happens to have four legs. This is the one which is offered to the visitor but the children’s cooking has not been wiped away; and if you sit down, you risk a pair of trousers.”

More on: History, Philosophy

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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