Monday, June 5, 2023

Review: Love & Capital by Mary Gabriel

By her own accounts, Mary Gabriel set out to tell the story of Marx and Engels, not with the goal of examining their philosophical developments – which had already been dissected from all political angles – but with a focus on understanding their family. Gabriel discovers – chiefly through combing through decades of correspondence between the Marx and Engels households and their friends – a tightly knit, loving family of “brilliant, combative, exasperating, funny, passionate, and ultimately tragic figures.” But there are many brilliant, exasperating, passionate people in the world, and not all of them have biographies that could be pitched as “a story of one of the most influential thinkers in history, but this time, with a feminist angle.” What does Gabriel’s angle tell us about Marx?

Gabriel reflects, “as rich as the Marx family story is, I found it also shed light on the development of Marx’s ideas.” I don’t fully disagree: the grueling poverty Marx and his family lived through, the tumultuousness of the politics of the mid-19th century, these are all things I was broadly aware of but reading it in minute detail through their letters, all laid out carefully in chronological order, certainly helped me better understand the emotion and hope behind Marx and Engels’ writing. But it feels, nevertheless, like a partial portrait. The story of their intellectual development is told briefly, perfunctorily, and I was left with many questions. Who were they reading? How did it shape them? Did they exchange silly quotes from Adam Smith and Malthus or were Marx’s searing critiques of these philosophers put on paper only in Capital? Hegel is barely mentioned. I would have gladly read several pages on their reaction to Darwin. Instead, we get pages of salaciously delivered, poorly sourced gossip about mistresses and other soap opera dramas. Perhaps it is unfair of me to judge this biography on this account: Gabriel explicitly set out not to examine philosophical developments and wound up only including more of Marx’s theory because it seemed timely in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In that case, I cast judgment based on its goal: these are figures we know because of their philosophy, to attempt to tell their stories without really engaging with their contributions feels empty.

But to be charitable, what if I look at this biography of Marx based on the goal Gabriel sets for herself: an emphasis on the women in Marx’s life? These women played a more important role than I previously appreciated: his wife and daughters handled some of his correspondence, translated his works, and acted as his research assistants. This isn’t unusual for writers of the time: Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Tolstoy, played similar roles for their husbands (although Gabriel does not provide this context). Marx’s daughter, Eleanor (unnecessarily called “Tussy” throughout Gabriel’s oeuvre while family nicknames are inconsistently applied to the other figures) played an active role in the labour movement in the 1870s-1890s, and to a lesser extent, her sisters did too.

Despite the extra screen time these women received compared to a more ‘traditional’ biography of Marx, I felt like there was a complete absence of effort to understand who these women were. This tendency was most egregious for Marx’s wife Jenny von Westphalen, who is presented as gentle woman who loves simple luxuries, and who is deprived of her birthright to a comfortable living because of a lousy husband who won’t get a real job but thoughtlessly involves himself in political movements that go nowhere. This portrait is painted without specific evidence penned by Jenny herself, and Gabriel does not seriously engage with the counterfactual: that Jenny loved Marx, believed in the socialist cause, and that her trust in Marx’s contributions to socialism arose from her capacity for rational thought bestowed unto her by her aristocratic and bookish upbringing. All this despite Gabriel highlighting over and over again the tireless work Jenny did to support Marx, such as sending messages to their acquaintances requesting financial support and running a household that overflowed with visiting socialist organizers. Instead of respecting Jenny’s choices and intellect, Gabriel accuses Jenny of “parroting Marx’s ideas.” It reads profoundly unfeminist despite its emphasis on the women of the story.

I found myself instead wondering about the emotional pain the author brought from herself to the story. Who is this woman who had so many tears to shed about an 18th century woman pawning her jewelry and clothes, but so few tears for the poor living in London slums (who Gabriel likened to rats)? My google searches turned up sparse details about her life, but her outsized indignation at Marx's life choices had me trying to fill in the blanks. When she suggests Marx's economic work and organizing efforts were selfish choices with "so devastating an impact" on his children, is she thinking about an absent parent, too busy with committee meetings and conferences to provide her with the attention she deserved? Does she see in her own career a certain virtuousness in having done her dues for two decades as an editor at Reuters before taking time off to write books — if only Marx had put off writing Capital a little longer, Jenny might have been able to keep her von Westphalen family silverware! When she fails to consider the relationship between Jenny and Marx as one of partnership of two well-studied individuals both intent on bringing about socialism, is it because of a shallowness in her own romantic relationships? Has she never loved someone and the cause they believed in?

Still, the work Gabriel clearly did in reading the correspondence assembled in the Marx and Engels Collected Works and other archives shines through the gossipy muck. The book is peppered with fun anecdotes that make the characters and the period feel very alive. Combined with the historical and political context woven throughout the narrative, this book is an informative if infuriating read.

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