Readings from Paul Johnson #7

Another selection from Paul Johnson’s book, Intellectuals.

Marx the Moocher

Marx’s money troubles began at university and lasted his entire life. They arose from an essentially childish attitude. Marx borrowed money heedlessly, spent it, then was invariably astounded and angry when the heavily discounted bills, plus interest, became due. He saw the charging of interest, essential as it is to any system based on capital, as a crime against humanity, and at the root of the exploitation of man by man which his entire system was designed to eliminate. That was in general terms. But in the particular context of his own case he responded to his difficulties by himself exploiting anyone within reach, and in the first place his own family.

Money dominates his family correspondence. The last letter from his father, written February 1838 when he was already dying, reiterates his complaint that Marx was indifferent to his family except for the purpose of getting their help and complains: ‘You are now in the fourth month of your law course and you have already spent 280 thalers. I have not earned so much throughout the entire winter.’ Three months later he was dead. Marx did not trouble himself to attend his funeral. Instead he started putting pressure on his mother.

He had already adopted a pattern of living off loans from his friends and gouging periodic sums from the family. He argued that the family was ‘quite rich’ and had a duty to support him in his important work. Apart from his intermittent journalism, the purpose of which was political rather than to earn money, Marx never seriously attempted to get a job, though he once in London applied for a post as a railway clerk, being turned down on the grounds that his handwriting was too poor. Marx’s unwillingness to pursue a career seems to have been the main reason why his family was unsympathetic to his pleas for handouts. … Jenny’s family, like Marx’s own, refused further help to a son-in-law they regarded as incorrigibly idle and improvident. In March 1851, writing to Engels to announce the birth of a daughter, Marx complained: ‘I have literally not a farthing in the house.’

By this time, of course, Engels was the new subject of exploitation. From the mid-1840s, when they first came together, until Marx’s death, Engels was the main source of income for the Marx family. He probably handed over more than half of what he received himself. But the total is impossible to compute because for a quarter of a century he provided it in irregular sums, believing Marx’s repeated assurances that, provided the next donation was forthcoming, he would soon put himself to rights. … The partnership almost broke down in 1863 when Engels felt Marx’s insensitive cadging had gone too far. Engels kept two houses in Manchester, one for business entertaining, one for his mistress, Mary Burns. When she died Engels was deeply distressed. He was furious to receive from Marx an unfeeling letter, which briefly acknowledged his loss and then instantly got down to the more important business of asking for money. [Intellectuals, 73, 74, 75]


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