The OF Blog: 2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital

Marx was proud of Jenny – proud of her beauty, which even amid the celebrated women of Paris was remarked upon, but also of her intelligence.  From the earliest days of their marriage, he regarded Jenny as an intellectual equal, and that was no mere token sentiment:  Marx was ruthless when it came to things of the ind, and he would not have relied on Jenny's judgment if he did not think she was in fact brilliant.  Indeed, throughout his life Marx held only one other person in a position of such high esteem and trust, and that was his alter ego and collaborator, Friedrich Engels.  But where Engels understood and supported Marx intellectually, Jenny also humanized him.

In private Marx was warm, loving, kind, and generally described as excellent company when he was not plagued by sleepless nights or stricken by disease, both due to anxiety over his work.  In public, however, he was most often fiercely argumentative, intellectually arrogant, and notoriously impatient with anyone who disagreed with him.  His frequent drinking episodes with colleagues throughout the years in Bonn, Berlin, and Cologne often devolved into verbal if not physical fights.  He had little time for social niceties; for someone so conceptually fascinated by the alienation of man, Marx routinely alienated those who encountered him.   (Ch. 5, e-book edition)

Karl Marx the man is difficult to separate from the revolutionary philosopher who still sparks arguments almost two centuries after his birth about just what constitutes Marxism and whether or not Marxism (however it might be understood by the persons arguing) is a viable socio-economic theory in the early 21st century.  There certainly are grounds for exploring Marx the man and Marxism the theory in today's troubled times, when some of the old criticisms of capitalism are reemerging as a possible explanation for the recessed and depressed masses of the so-called "99% percenters" who are searching for an answer to the difficult problems confronting their societies.

Mary Gabriel, a former Reuters editor, does not try to tackle the Gordian's Knot of defining Marxism.  Instead, she is much more interested in Karl Marx the husband, father, and friend.  Naturally, Marx's ideology is going to take up much space in Gabriel's massive book, Love and Capital, but Gabriel concentrates much more on the private Marx and how his complex personality is tied into his philosophical writings.  However, with as complex of a personality as Marx's, it is very difficult to separate the wheat of his private life from the chaff of his volatile public activities and writings and there are several places in Gabriel's biography where Marx the revolutionary takes over and the Karl Marx of modest means retreats with his wife and children to the background.

Unlike most biographers who are interested in Marx from the 1840-1883 period, Gabriel surveys not just his life growing up in the German Confederation but also continues the narrative nearly three decades after his death, when his last legitimate child, Laura, dies in a suicide pact with her husband.  At times, this longer view provides more perspective on Marx and how his ideas were transformed by his self-proclaimed followers into various Marxist ideologies (such as the mutated forms that Lenin/Trotsky/Stalin and Mao utilized to gain control of Russia and China respectively), but at the same time, these chapters are largely devoid of the energy found in the earlier chapters devoted to Marx's first years with Jenny just prior to the 1848 Revolutions.

Gabriel's greatest strength is her ability to humanize Marx, to suss out his shy, awkward habits and to center his public outbursts around the pressures he put upon himself due to his discomfort being in the spotlight.   She also for a time helps bring Jenny into the spotlight, illustrating in several passages, such as the one quoted above, how she was more than just the wife and mother to Marx's legitimate children.  It is during those moments when Love and Capital is at its best, as it provides new insights into Marx's life and how his private life may have influenced his political writings.

Conversely, Gabriel is weakest whenever she tries to explain Marx's political philosophy and how it was applied by his followers (and some of his critics) over the years.  While the time is ripe for a new study of Marx's writings, Love and Capital fails to provide any in-depth understanding of Marx's positions.  This is especially lamentable when it comes to covering Marx's thoughts on gender roles.  Not much has been said about this outside of the recent second and third-wave feminist critiques of Marxism and their adaptation of Marx's epistemological approach to outlining the development and external/internal conflicts inherent within the establishment of gender roles and functions.

Ultimately, Love and Capital is a promising work that falls short in a few key areas.  As a love story, Gabriel covers adequately the Marx family dynamics, yet there is a sense of sketchiness in several areas, particularly during Marx's latter years.  This likely is due to a paucity of non-Marx family primary sources, but it is worth reminding that for a person as controversial as Marx has been over the past 170 years, the source material is often too unreliable for clear, unassailable opinions on the man and his work.  Unfortunately, this seeming lack of verifiable primary sources outside the Marx letters and Engels' preserved correspondence makes it difficult to evaluate the veracity of opinions on Marx.  There is still much wiggle room for another biographer or historian to write a new history of Marx and Marxism that could incorporate the strengths of Gabriel's biography while shoring up the deficiencies of her text.  Love and Capital is certainly a positive contribution to Marxist studies, yet its incompleteness can leave readers wishing there was more to the story than what we were told.

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