So, who is Jenny Marx? And why am I inspired by Her Story?
You’ve probably heard of Karl Marx, but have you heard of his wife Jenny? Not a mere cipher for her husband’s views, Jenny was a fierce advocate for the struggling working-class, believing that socialism provided a route to a better world. Throughout her life Jenny worked tirelessly for the cause. Giving up her privileged position and life as a Baroness to run communist meetings, provide relief for refugees and making huge sacrifices for her beliefs.
Born in 1814 into the Prussian upper-classes Jenny von Westphalen was expected by her family to play by the rules of the day – marry well an equally well-to-do man, perhaps a Prussian Officer, and then run the household, and bring up their children. Jenny, however, was fiercely intelligent and had a mind of independence. So, encouraged by her father, she pursued her interest in French Socialisim and German Romanticism.
Her studies taught her to value ideals for their own sake. Commitment to a progressive cause and the dedication to fight for it, regardless of the failures endured, was the highest undertaking. From a young age, she latched onto early feminist views on women’s equality.
When she was 23 Jenny met Karl. Despite him being only 19, she saw in him traits that she admired. Having been born in a different class to Jenny, he too was starting to be attracted to similar ideologies. In spite being from completely different classes they married six years later.
After their wedding they moved to Paris began to engage with radical debate and risky projects within French Socialist circles. Karl faced exile and incarceration for his political views and eventually was exiled from France leaving them homeless and in debt with a 2 year old baby, Jennychen. They were offered asylum in Belgium.
At this time Jenny was focused on the plight of women in society, and how even in socialist circles the rights of men were emphasized while the rights and needs of women were treated as secondary at best. She wrote to Karl, who was in London at the time, outlining her opinions on the matter and highlighting the inherent inequality.
The Marx’s financial situation was dire – Karl was supposed to be writing ‘The German Ideology’ in which Jenny’s views featured heavily, but even knowing how awful their situation was, he was unable to finish the piece. A fact he withheld from Jenny who was busy looking after their second child.
Whilst in Belgium Karl and his comrade Engels set up the Communist Correspondence Committee and the League of the Just (Communist League) both of which Jenny was a member and an active participant.
Eventually they found their way to London where Jenny bore the brunt of their poverty whilst Karl theorized. Her children were constantly sick and her newest baby suffered from convulsions and hardly slept. The rent was permanently overdue and whilst Karl was away their landlady stripped their home of all its possessions even leaving the baby without a cradle in lieu of payment. As she told him during these hard times, “Meanwhile I sit and go to pieces. Karl, it is now at its worst pitch…I sit here and almost weep my eyes out and can find no help. My head is disintegrating. For a week I have kept my strength up and now I can no more.” Karl’s replies were curt, subordinating any sympathy to business.
Whilst away on a trip Karl impregnated their housekeeper Lenchen. Jenny was also pregnant at the time. Karl knew that if she found out about the baby then Jenny would leave him taking the children, so he asked his comrade Engels to take responsibility for the child.
All this time Jenny continued to copy and re-copy Karl’s handwriting. In 1867, Capital, a book that Karl had been working on for 15 years and to which all their financial hopes were pinned, was published. It was a flop. Jenny wrote:
“You can believe me when I tell you that can be few books that have been written in more difficult circumstances, and I could write a secret history of it which would tell many, extreme many, unspoken troubles and anxieties and torments. If the workers had an inkling of the sacrifices that were necessary for this work, which was written only for them and for their sakes to be completed they would perhaps show a little more interest.”
She began to lose faith in her husband. She was miserable, craving space and independence from Karl. Jenny had lost four children as a result of poverty and illness.
She was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1881 and died on the December 2, at the age of sixty-seven. She was buried at Highgate Cemetery. Their close friend and comrade Engels stood in for Marx, who was too sick to attend the funeral, and read the eulogy:
“The contribution made by this woman, with such a sharp critical intelligence, with such political tact, a character of such energy and passion, with such dedication to her comrades in the struggle — her contribution to the movement over almost forty years has not become public knowledge; it is not inscribed in the annals of the contemporary press. It is something one must have experienced at first hand.”
But of one thing I am sure: just as the wives of the Commune refugees will often remember her — so to, with the rest of us have occasion enough to miss her bold and wise advice, bold without ostentation, wise without ever compromising her honour to even the smallest degree. I need not speak of her personal qualities; her friends know them and will not forget them. If there ever was a woman whose greatest happiness was to make others happy it was this woman.
None of Karl Marx’s major political works would have been possible without Jenny. She believed in her husband and sacrificed a life of ease for him and her belief in revolutionary socialism. Jenny Marx may didn’t live to see the influence she had on the world, but her contributions live on in today’s struggles for a world without exploitation.