Subversive Beginnings

Jenny and Karl Marx remembered the lessons of their fathers, but also broke from the limits of their liberal politics.

Ludwig von Westphalen and Heinrich Marx were not by any standard politically radical; they were archetypical liberals in a repressive German society. Although they promoted progressive ideas, they were limited by their ideology and class position. But the Prussian baron and the Jewish lawyer, united by French revolutionary ideals, pushed their children in a radical direction they never could have anticipated.

From such liberal political beginnings, Jenny von Westphalen and Karl Marx became pioneers in revolutionary socialism.

Jenny Marx — born Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen — came from a long line of Scottish and Prussian radicals, noblemen, and military men. Her father Ludwig was the youngest son of Philipp von Westphalen and Jeanie Wishart. Philipp was Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick’s secretary during the Seven Years’ War, and was ennobled as a baron for his exemplary service. Jeanie Wishart descended from the Scottish earls of Argyll and Angus. Two of her radical ancestors, Archibald Agryl and George Wishart, were beheaded and burned at the stake.

Ludwig had a more humanist side than his father. He loved Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and the French classics. Most importantly, the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity shaped his thinking. When Ludwig was eight years old, Napoleon had conquered Western Prussia and instituted the Napoleonic Code, which provided for equality before the law, civil liberties, religious tolerance, and progressive taxation.

Ludwig studied not only French Enlightenment ideas, but also French utopian socialism, engaging with the very socialists the Prussian state wished to suppress. In a thinker like Claude Henri Saint-Simon, Ludwig heard the familiar call of fraternity and equality applied to economic conditions. He saw socialism not simply as a theoretical idea, but as a practical policy that could resolve mass poverty.

After failing to live the life of a gentleman farmer, Ludwig continued his career in the Brunswick civil service. But with the 1807 Treaty of Tilset, Brunswick was incorporated into the Kingdom of Westphalia, led by Napoleon’s brother Jerome. Ludwig had a choice: either leave Brunswick or work for the French as their civil servant. He chose the latter.

Following his first wife Lisette’s sudden death, Ludwig was left to care for their four children. In 1810 he met Caroline Heubel. They were married for thirty years, with Caroline helping him raise her step-children and the three they had together, including Jenny.

In 1813, during political turmoil and confusion, Ludwig was convicted of treason and sentenced to two years in a Saxon fortress. After his release following Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig, he asked to continue as prefect in the Prussian administration. The request was initially granted, but was revoked in 1816: the authorities did not trust a man so influenced by French liberalism, so they transferred him to Trier.

There, Ludwig became First Councillor. As the leading government authority, he was the highest paid official in the town of twelve thousand. His superiors in Berlin never planned to promote him beyond this post but Ludwig didn’t mind. His position gave him more time to spend with his family and to pursue his literary interests.

However, he did send regular reports back to Berlin, warning of Trier’s growing poverty. Crime, begging, prostitution, and disease afflicted the city, and Ludwig thought it was the state’s responsibility to resolve these social problems. But when Berlin asked what caused such suffering, he did not provide an answer. Eventually, his daughter Jenny would: the ruling landowners’ and merchants’ exploitation of the poor caused social misery.

Soon after his arrival in Trier, Ludwig met Heinrich Marx, one of the town’s most well known lawyers.

Born Hirschel Halevi Marx, he hailed from a long line of politically active Jewish thinkers and rabbis. Heinrich’s father Meyer Halevi was known as Marx Levi, and embraced the surname Marx after he became Trier’s rabbi. Early in his life, Heinrich decided to study law instead of following in his ancestors’ footsteps.

But this proved difficult: the short-lived 1812 edict that granted Jews the right to practice law in Prussia was revoked in 1816, forcing Heinrich to choose between his faith and his profession. He reluctantly chose the latter. Thus, Hirschel Halevi Marx was baptized in the Lutheran faith as Heinrich Marx.

Heinrich’s wife Henrietta, the daughter of a Dutch rabbi, never felt at home in Germany and was ill at ease in social gatherings. As such, she never associated much with the Westphalens.

But while the friendship between Heinrich and Ludwig did not extend to their wives, it did extend to their children. Ludwig took Heinrich’s young son Karl under his wing, including him in political discussions with his own children Edgar and Jenny.

Under Ludwig’s tutelage, Karl developed an appreciation for Dante and Shakespeare and a strong interest in liberal and socialist thinkers. The sixty-two-year-old Ludwig and the young Karl would roam the hills above the Mosel river, discussing ideas. Ludwig treated Karl as a genuine intellectual partner in these conversations, and their talks continued for years. Karl was eager to learn, and preferred his education with Ludwig to his school lessons.

The topic of the French Revolution would often crop up in these conversations. Ludwig tried to explain that its main cause was the indifference and contempt shown by the French aristocracy for the suffering of the people. But Ludwig cautioned against radical political upheaval, since — as had been the case with the Jacobins and Napoleon — revolution gave rise to terror and dictatorship.

Ludwig thought there were better ways to alleviate misery that did not come from the people themselves. He told Karl and Jenny about Saint-Simon’s doctrines: Society was responsible for its poorest members. It must provide work and security for all and if necessary limit private property and inheritance rights. The world could be restructured according to a scientific plan, imposed by wise rulers.

According to Ludwig, the masses were not interested in politics, only in bread and circuses. In these conversations, Karl would counter that Plato said a wise ruler must be a philosopher. Were there any philosophers on German thrones? Ludwig agreed that there were not.

Despite their limitations, Ludwig and Heinrich were some of the most progressive members of Prussian society. As two of the Catholic city’s mere two hundred Protestants, they belonged to the same social and professional clubs, including the Casino Club — Trier’s most exclusive private association of professionals, military men, and businessmen.

One fateful day in January 1834, the club met to honor liberal members of the Rhineland Diet (provisional assembly). Heinrich gave the keynote speech, thanking the Prussian king for letting representative institutions organize and applauding him for recognizing the principle of popular sovereignty. All of this was news to the king. Even worse, a few weeks later the club gave speeches in honor of France’s July Revolution and ended its proceedings by singing the Marseillaise.

This shocked and appalled the Berlin court. Not only were these club members singing the Marseillaise, the song of the French Revolution, they even knew the lyrics by heart! The club was thereby put under investigation, and Heinrich Marx found himself regarded suspiciously. This was Karl’s first experience of the Prussian state’s repressive weight.

In 1836, Jenny secretly agreed to marry Karl. They confided only in Heinrich and hid their secret from the rest of the world, agreeing not to correspond directly until they could find a way to tell Jenny’s parents. A year later, Ludwig consented to the engagement and become the only family member with whom Jenny could talk freely about her planned marriage.

Karl and Jenny were separated when he left for Bonn University where Heinrich hoped his son would do the family proud by assimilating further into Prussian society. Shortly before Karl arrived, Heinrich wrote to his son: “I should like to see in you what perhaps I could have become if I had come into the world with equally favorable prospects. You can fulfill or destroy my best hopes.”

In Karl’s first year at Bonn, he was pulled in various directions. He was an avid drinker, dueler, and poet. He joined the bourgeois tavern society and engaged in sword fights against aristocrat clubs. His father could not understand how Karl’s penchant for dueling fit in with his studies: “Is dueling then so closely interwoven with philosophy?” Nor could he make heads or tails of Karl’s poetry: “In short, give me the key. I admit that this is beyond me.”

Heinrich also worried Karl was taking on too much academically — he enrolled in ten law classes at Bonn while still pursuing poetry — at the expense of his health. He warned his son, “There is no more lamentable being than a sickly scholar.”

According to Heinrich, Karl was spending money at an outrageous pace, renting the most expensive student apartment in Bonn. When Karl did write home, it was to plead for funds, as he sunk deeper and deeper into debt.

This was not the auspicious start Heinrich had imagined. Karl was the first in his family to attend university, and Heinrich hoped his son could build a life beyond the confines of his Jewish origins. In the spring of 1836, Karl was cut above the eye in a saber duel, which prompted his parents to demand that he leave Bonn and enroll at the University of Berlin.

At Berlin, Karl retreated into himself, breaking off all personal relationships and embarking on a new phase of intellectual experimentation, especially with poetry and philosophy. He became ill and suffered a physical and mental breakdown. But, as he told his father, the time was productive: “While I was ill, I got to know Hegel from beginning to end, together with all of his disciples.” After recovering, he joined a group of young Hegelians, the bohemian Doctor’s Club. There, Karl could drink and debate philosophy with ease.

But while Karl was enjoying himself in Berlin, he ignored his correspondence with Jenny. Heinrich believed she suffered depression as a result of Karl’s neglect. As the go-between for the couple, he was offended on Jenny’s behalf, and scolded his son.

As Heinrich saw Karl becoming increasingly dissolute morally and intellectually, he wondered if his son was capable of happiness with Jenny:

I cannot rid myself of ideas which rouse in me sad forebodings and fear…is your heart in accord with your head? Your talents? Has it room for the earthly but gentler sentiments, which in this veil of sorrow are so essentially consoling for a man of feeling? And since that heart is obviously animated and governed by a demon not granted to all men, is that demon heavenly or Faustian? Will you ever, ever be capable of truly human domestic happiness?

Heinrich would add later, “you squander your talents and spend your nights giving birth to monsters.”

Heinrich’s anger was magnified as he himself became ill. His days were limited, and he wanted the best for his son and for Jenny. Toward the end of his life, he wrote to Karl in a resigned mood:

Always believe and never doubt that you have the innermost place in my heart and that you are one of the most powerful levers in my life… I am exhausted, dear Karl, and must close. I regret that I have not been able to write as I wanted to. I would have liked to embrace you with all of my heart.

Karl came home before his father died of tuberculosis and inflammation of the liver on May 13, 1838. He would always carry a picture of Heinrich in his breast pocket, and at his own death forty-five years later, Friedrich Engels would place the same photo in his grave.

With changing political tides, Karl was forced to submit his doctoral thesis on Democritean and Epicurean atomism to the University of Jena in 1841. He dedicated the dissertation to Ludwig von Westphalen “as a token of filial love… you… were always visible proof to me that idealism is no figment of the imagination, but a truth.”

Shortly afterwards, Ludwig’s health began to fail and Karl returned to Trier to help care for him and to be near Jenny. During his final months with Ludwig, he systematically attacked the new Prussian censorship laws in his first piece of radical journalism.

In March 1842, Ludwig died. Jenny’s half brother Ferdinand became head of the family, and fought to break her engagement with Karl. Fortunately, her mother supported her, but with the death of Heinrich and Ludwig, the couple lacked their staunchest allies.

As they moved forward, Jenny and Karl remembered the lessons of their fathers, but also broke from their limitations, especially their fear of the masses’ political activity and abstract conformity to the law and order of class society.

Sharply critical, Ludwig and Heinrich were nevertheless unwilling to make a total break from Prussian society, thereby perpetuating its illusions. They left it to their radical children to move away from liberalism and toward revolutionary socialism. We continue the same struggle today.

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Harrison Fluss is a corresponding editor with Historical Materialism and a lecturer in philosophy at St. John's University and Manhattan College

Sam Miller is a recent graduate of Columbia University. She is currently a teacher in Manhattan.

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