Five Interesting Facts About Karl Marx That You Probably Didn't Know
To many he was a demon. To others, a hero. Love him or hate him, Karl Marx was the philosopher behind a political system that existed for much of the Twentieth Century and affected millions -- a system noted for its remarkable failures but which nonetheless still has plenty of adherents.
We know about Karl Marx's adoption of Hegelian philosophy, about dialectical materialism, about workers of the world uniting and having nothing to lose but their chains. Here are some fun and interesting facts about Karl Marx that you probably didn't know.
1. He Didn't Invent Communism
Yes, yes, we've heard this one before. Karl Marx was the guy with the ideas, but Lenin was the one who perfected them -- and to some extent that's true. But the reality is that communism -- and socialism, too -- were actually around long before Karl Marx.
Europe, of course, had been ruled by monarchs for centuries, but gradually people had begun to question that form of governance. By the late 1700's -- the Age of Enlightenment -- this questioning was in full flower, particularly as it was expressed in the writings of the French philosophes. In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau published The Social Contract, which put forth the idea that collective rulership by the people was a superior form of government than entrusting one's fate to a monarch. This thinking was one of the causes of the French Revolution, and in the wake of that upheaval many French thinkers and some others wondered how the lessons learned could be applied to form a more equal society. Such people became known as utopian socialists (Marx's term) and those who took that ideal to such an extreme that they advocated the absolute dissolution of private property were known as communistes.
In 1842 Marx began studying the works of some of these socialist and communist writers, such as Etienne Cabet, Charles Fourier, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Marx liked what he was reading and by 1844, thanks in no small part to the influence of his friend, fellow German Friedrich Engels, Marx had become a convert to the cause. Together with Engels he helped mold communism, tried to shape it, made it more scientific, and became one of its standard bearers, through such documents as 1848's Communist Manifesto. In modern terms, what Marx essentially did was create a brand.
2. He Had a Ph.D.
Karl Marx wasn't simply a philosopher. He was actually a Doctor of Philosophy.
He began writing his dissertation in 1839 while studying at the University of Berlin, where he had completed his undergraduate work after having begun at the University of Bonn. The title of his dissertation was Differenz der demokritischen und epikureischen Naturphilosophie (The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature) and to prepare for it, he immersed himself in the works of dozens of Classical philosophers, poets, and dramatists -- everyone from Aristotle to Zeno. He presents quite a detailed discussion of the views of Democritus and Epicurus with regard to atoms, time, and meteors. Ultimately, however, he did not submit his dissertation to the University of Berlin but rather to Jena University, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1841.
3. He Was a Great Lover of the Arts
Just like the philosophers of the Classical period, Karl Marx had artistic sensibilites. As a young man he wrote plays, and at one time was even seriously thinking about becoming a drama critic until his father essentially talked him out of it. He also had a passion for art and for several years worked on writing a survey of art history.
But it was poetry where he excelled. Some of it was pure drivel, such as a little poem called Mediziner-Ethik ("Medical Ethics"), but much of his other poetry was quite respectable. He assembled three notebooks full of poems which were eventually published in 1929. There were fifty-six poems in total, over half of them dedicated to Jenny von Westphalen, the woman who became his wife. He and Engels also wrote poems to, or about, each other.
4. He Was a Good-Natured and Devoted Family Man
Karl had six children by his wife Jenny, and like many a father he came up with nicknames for them. Their eldest daughter, also named Jenny, he called Qui Qui. Daughter Laura was Kakadu and her sister Eleanor was Tussy. (Marx himself was known among family and friends as Mohr -- the Moor -- no doubt due to his swarthy complexion. In letters Marx sometimes signed himself as Old Nick, a name often applied to the devil.)
Marx was a playful individual. Eleanor, the youngest girl, born in 1856 and writing in her late 20's or early 30's, described her father as "the cheeriest, gayest soul that ever breathed," extremely good-natured and gentle, very kind and sympathetic. She remembered him as a devoted father, who often read to her from the Arabian Nights to Don Quixote and who quoted Shakespeare regularly. He also was a playful father who could easily transform himself into a horse for her or lift her up and carry her on his shoulder and stick flowers in her hair as he walked around the garden of their home.
5. He Was In Pain for Much of His Life
For all his good humor, Karl Marx was not a well man. He had liver problems. He had rheumatism. He had sciatica. He had frequent headaches, frequent toothaches, and bouts of insomnia. He developed hemorrhoids. Most vexing of all, he suffered from hidradenitis suppurativa, a disease that caused him to break out frequently in carbuncles, or boils.
Sometimes these carbuncles would be all over his body. Other times they would be localized to his leg or his genitals. They caused him a great deal of pain until they went away, often being so bad that it was difficult for him to sit or lie down. Writing or even reading under those conditions was impossible and there were many days when he was working on his magnum opus, Das Kapital, that he had to lay everything aside until he got better. Sometimes to allieviate the pain he took little doses of arsenic, which was a standard cure of the day. At other times he swallowed opium. Sometimes these cures seemed to work. Often they did not, and he simply had to wait out his illnesses until he got better before he could work again on the projects that ultimately would change the world.