Karl Marx

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In an age when, as Newsweek recently admonished us, we are “more interested in personalities than issues,” one approaches an “intimate biography” of Karl Marx with trepidation. The fears are, fortunately, unjustified, because Saul K. Padover is not an ordinary journalistic gossip monger. He is a knowledgeable, sophisticated scholar well prepared to do justice to the issues that are so important to understanding the issue-oriented man he is examining.

Padover devoted twelve years to the study of Marx, but the current biography is not the only fruit of that labor. Padover’s name also appears on the seven volumes entitled The Karl Marx Library which appeared with impressive regularity from 1971 to 1977. These volumes contained, for the most part, Padover’s original translations, often of material never before translated into English.

Padover neither hates nor worships Marx; his biography is therefore free of that particular type of distortion. However, Padover’s freedom from the intense emotions that have led many a commentator to deviate from objectivity does not mean he is without a point of view. While Padover is neither a Marxologist nor an anti-Marxologist, he is a Jeffersonian democrat. Padover has written a biography of Jefferson and edited collections of Jefferson’s work, and he is more at home with Jefferson’s eclectic pragmatism than he is with Marx’s systematic theory-building. As a result, this fine biography whets the appetite, but does not fully satisfy it. The reader unfamiliar with Marx will inevitably feel compelled to look elsewhere for a deeper understanding of Marx’s thought.

Yet the standard exegeses of Marx’s thought are further illuminated by this intriguing examination of the interaction between his thought and his experience. McGraw-Hill has done Padover a disservice by its marketing strategy, which leaves the impression that the book focuses exclusively on Marx’s personal life: Although the early chapters reinforce that misleading impression, Marx’s intellectual development, political activities, and published writings are all dealt with in this large and thorough volume. Padover’s own characterization of the work in the Introduction is more accurate than that of his publisher: he writes that he has attempted “a comprehensive biography, with special emphasis on Marx as human being.”

One of the advantages of Padover’s work is that he has had access to scattered and often unknown materials that have been unearthed and collected by a number of researchers over the last few decades; as a result he is able to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of Marx’s early years. He also provides a detailed genealogy of Marx’s ancestors.

Marx turns out to have been the descendant of a remarkable collection of rabbis on both his father’s and his mother’s side of the family. His father, however, was a secularist, who had to overcome both his family’s displeasure and the anti-Semitic prejudices of the broader community in order to become the leading lawyer in Trier, the town where Marx was born. His father’s classical education was supplemented by a knowledge of the great writers and thinkers of the modern age, such as John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz, and Isaac Newton. We know from the remarkable letters they exchanged while young Karl was a University student that theirs was a relationship of mutual devotion and respect. Karl’s remarkable and impressive erudition, commented upon in extreme terms even by chance acquaintances, had its roots in a childhood admiration for his learned father.

However, it was a neighbor, Baron von Westphalen, who introduced Karl to great literature. They would go for long hikes together during which the Baron would talk of such figures as Goethe, Saint-Simon, and Cervantes. The Baron truly became a second father to Marx when Karl married his daughter Jenny, even though she was four years his senior. Their marriage was an extraordinary one, and although they went through extreme hardships together, their relationship remained intense and loving until her death finally separated them after thirty-eight years. Many others have detailed the bitter, vituperative quarrels that Marx engaged in with enemies, rivals, and even former friends, but Padover shows us as well the caring, loving man whose philosophical sympathy for the downtrodden can be recognized as more than an abstract belief; it was heartfelt emotion as well. Marx was as tender and caring with his children as he was with his wife. For the children, he was a companion, a friend, a playmate, and a delightful storyteller.

The more one knows about Marx, the harder it becomes to attribute his political activism to his childhood personality or his social circumstances or even the circumstances of his mature family life. Despite our modern tendency to find the sources of ideas or the explanation for their development in these nonintellectual realms, the wealth of biographical detail about Marx drives us back to admitting that in his case his actions and beliefs were intimately related to a process of intellectual development. It is impossible not to know that Marx was influenced by the Young...

(The entire section is 2143 words.)