Commentary Magazine


Marx

To the Editor:

In her discussion of my book, The Meaning of Karl Marx, Gertrude Himmelfarb claims that I misstate the date of one of Marx’s letters [“The ‘Real’ Marx,” April]. As she puts it, “that letter was written not, as Mazlish says, upon the death of [the Marxes'] oldest child (in November 1850), but in July 1851, a few weeks after the birth of Helene’s child.” What my book says—the context is a discussion of Marx’s relations to his wife—is: “Jenny could be, and was, nervous and ‘mercurial.’ In the terrible period around 1850, marked by the death of their first child, Marx wrote to Engels about his wife’s ‘floods of tears the whole night long’ which ‘tire my patience and make me angry. . . . I feel pity for my wife.’ ” My footnote specifically identifies the letter as Marx to Engels, July 31, 1851.

This is simply one example of Miss Himmelfarb’s persistent misreading and misunderstanding of details and context displayed in her comments on my book, but it would take an article the length of hers to deal with all of them. Let me, however, pursue merely this one point. Miss Himmelfarb assumes what most scholars do not, that Marx’s straying was known to his wife (though in a footnote Miss Himmelfarb admits “the evidence is inconclusive”). On this assumption, she then strongly implies that Jenny Marx’s tears were caused by the birth of Helene’s child, fathered by Marx. In fact, Jenny Marx was prone to “nerves” from young womanhood on; the dire conditions in which the Marxes lived in London exacerbated her condition. As David McLellan points out in his biography, Karl Marx: “At the death of her first child in November 1850 Jenny was quite ‘beside herself’ and ‘dangerously overwrought.’ ” Marx’s infidelity may have been known to his wife, and added to her tears, but the tears were obviously there before. This is clearly the point I make in my text.

As for Miss Himmelfarb’s general position, I am glad to see that she has stopped being a “closet psychohistorian,” and now is publicly prepared to offer us a psychoanalysis of Marx (even though under the guise of attacking psychohistory). Can the reader imagine, however, what she would have said if I had said any of the things she says? Or am I reading as serious scholarship what is merely satire?

Bruce Mazlish
Mit
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s dismantling of Bruce Mazlish’s The Meaning of Karl Marx is astute and definitive. I would like to correct its emphasis in only one peripheral respect. Miss Himmelfarb maintains that if Mazlish had strictly applied his psychohistorical method to Marx as he formerly did to such scorned targets as J. S. Mill, Nixon, and Kissinger, he would surely have been obliged to reduce Marx’s vision to oedipal and excremental origins. The point of course is that such withholding of Mazlish’s usual tendentious allegorizing serves his own sentimental-Marxist loyalties. The lay reader, however, needs to be more directly told that there is no rigorous psychohistorical method from which Mazlish has chosen to abstain for Marx’s sake. With few exceptions, Freudian psychohistory has always been a “scientific” instrument for ad-hoc denigration of personalities and developments to which the interpreter bears a prior dislike.

Moreover, psychoanalysis itself is scarcely better than its academic stepchild in this regard. When does the Freudian analyst decide to invoke reductive infantile determinism, and when, in contrast, does he take the patient’s manifest assertions at face value? The answer is: whenever he pleases! Miss Himmelfarb’s excellent article is not only a contribution toward an unromantic view of Marx but also further evidence of the central problem besetting psychoanalysis: the total fancifulness and open-endedness of its causal claims.

Frederick Crews
Berkeley, California

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To the Editor:

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s “The ‘Real’ Marx” is a plaidoyer in defense of capitalism, masquerading as an exposé of Marx. The world has long known of Miss Himmelfarb’s list of Marx’s slurs re Jews, blacks, and others. She tries to convict him of anti-Semitism, and the evidence she rehashes is real. Nevertheless, the charge is false to historical reality.

To be sure, Marx and Engels developed a materialist methodology. However, as pioneers, they could no more completely emancipate themselves from their culture’s dominant ideas than Freud could cure himself of all his neuroses. They became upper-class Victorians, albeit with revolutionary politics. To us they are male chauvinists, but so what? So was almost every male of the day. By our standards, they were racists, but so was Lincoln. Marx’s slurs are anti-Semitic by modern criteria. This too is from a contemporary perspective. Miss Himmelfarb quotes Marx’s “On the Jewish Question,” but “forgets” to tell us that though he was hostile to Judaism, he was strongly for Jewish emancipation. Similarly, she “forgets” to inform her readers that the Marx who called Ferdinand Lassalle a “Jewish Nigger” was tireless in mobilizing the British public against official efforts to aid the Confederacy.

Today no civilized person uses Marx’s language. Or that of Theodor Herzl, who, when he attended a synagogue in 1894, wrote of his fellow Jews, with their “bold, misshapen noses, furtive and cunning eyes.” And there is Herzl’s denunciation of a Rothschild as “Mauschel,” the German corruption of Moses. According to Herzl, it was “as though, at some dark moment in our history some inferior human material got into our unfortunate people and blended with it.”

It is jarring to think of two of history’s most famous Jews crapping on Jews. However, it is improper to judge them as if they lived in our post-Holocaust, post Brown v. Board of Education world. In the end, they are to be judged by the relevance of their political programs to their times and ours.

Miss Himmelfarb makes an elementary error in logic, which reveals her game: “If Marx was so incredibly wrong about Judaism, may it not be that he was also wrong about its ‘synonym,’ capitalism?” No. Darwin was a racist by our conceptions, but we must read his The Descent of Man, and listen to the anti-Semitic Wagner.

Let’s reverse her question. Lenin purged Marxism of its chauvinist dross, even opposing harmless dialect humor as prejudicial. Tell us, Miss Himmelfarb, if you will: did Lenin’s merciless struggle against the pogromists substantiate his implacable hatred of their capitalist patrons?

Lenni Brenner
Berkeley, California

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Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

The only example Bruce Mazlish gives, as typifying my “persistent misreading and misunderstanding” of his book, in fact entirely confirms my reading and understanding of it. The sentence from his book that he himself quotes explicitly ascribes the letter by Marx to Engels, complaining of his wife’s “floods of tears,” to “the terrible period around 1850, marked by the death of their first child.” But that letter was written, not in that terrible period “around 1850,” but in another terrible period, in July 1851, after the birth of Marx’s illegitimate child. The letter is correctly dated in the footnote at the end of the book, but incorrectly dated in the text of the book—a misdating of some consequence, since it has the effect of distracting attention from that illegitimate birth.

Mr. Mazlish quotes McLellan in support of his contention that the “floods of tears” referred to in the letter of July 31, 1851, had been induced by the death of their child the preceding November. But he is telescoping several sentences in McLellan’s book. When McLellan describes Jenny Marx as “beside herself” and “dangerously overwrought,” he is speaking specifically of November 1850 when the child died. In the following sentences, however, he makes it clear that the “floods of tears” letter was written well into the next year. He also goes on to say that “the necessity of preserving appearances and the fear of the inevitable rumors only served to increase the strain on Jenny’s nerves”—this after the birth, in Marx’s house, of the illegitimate child on June 23. He also quotes (as I did) another letter by Marx on August 2, 1851 (two days after the “floods of tears” letter and one day after the official registration of the child’s birth), complaining of the “idiotic talebearers” who were aggravating his wife’s nervous condition.

Since much of Marx’s correspondence was destroyed, first by Engels and then by Marx’s daughters, we cannot know for a certainty whether Jenny Marx knew of the affair that had resulted in the birth of this child. All I claimed in my essay was that such evidence as we have (including a cryptic reference in her memoir to a very troublesome event “in the early summer of 1851”) suggests that she probably did.

The more important issue, however, is whether, as Mr. Mazlish says, I have ceased being a “closet psychohistorian” and am proposing to psychoanalyze Marx under the guise of attacking psychohistory. I want to assure him that I have no such secret strategy and no intention of intruding on his turf. I thought I had made it clear early in my essay that I reject the basic assumption of psychohistory: that the only way to understand, as Mr. Mazlish puts it, “the real power and meaning” of Marx’s work is in the light of “the real, living human being, Karl Marx.” It is my belief that the best way to understand the power and meaning of Marx’s work (or anyone else’s) is, as I said, “through the work itself, that to try to understand it in terms of the personal life of its ‘originator’ is necessarily reductive and simplistic.” So far from agreeing with Mr. Mazlish that Marxism is “Marx writ large,” I suggested that “ ‘Marx writ large’ is Marxism writ small.”

If I then went on to criticize the psychoanalytic evidence as Mr. Mazlish presents it, and to point out all the obvious psychoanalytic evidence that he ignores or belittles, it was not to offer an alternative psychoanalytic interpretation of Marx or Marxism, but rather, as a responsible reviewer, to take his book seriously on its own terms. I agree with Frederick Crews that there is no rigorous psychohistorical method, that all too often psychohistory has been used to denigrate persons and ideas that the psychohistorian happens to dislike. Indeed, this was the point of my comparison of this book with Mr. Mazlish’s previous books. It is because Mr. Mazlish is so intent on preserving his image of Marx as a “humanist” that he now withholds from him the kind of psychoanalysis he used so freely, and invidiously, in his books on Mill, Nixon, Kissinger, et al.

Lenni Brenner’s argument, that my evidence of Marx’s anti-Semitism is “real” but that the charge is “false to historical reality,” is the familiar apologia for all forms of anti-Semitism. My evidence is derived not from occasional remarks made in private but from the sustained argument of a published essay. “On the Jewish Question” was reprinted, widely quoted, and praised, and became the exemplar of a classic genre of socialist anti-Semitism. This is surely a “historical reality” of some importance. To compare Marx in this respect with Herzl is as grotesque as to describe Darwin as a “racist.” When I suggested that if Marx was as wrong about Judaism as Mr. Mazlish says he was, perhaps he was also wrong about capitalism, I was not arbitrarily linking together disparate subjects (like Wagner’s music and his anti-Semitism); it is Mr. Mazlish himself who says that in that essay Marx used Judaism as a “synonym” for capitalism. And, I would add, not only in that essay but in the work of his maturity, the classic of Marxism, Capital, where capitalists are described as “inwardly circumcised Jews.”

Since Mr. Brenner identifies my essay as a “plaidoyer in defense of capitalism,” it may be relevant to identify him as the author of Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, which maintains that Zionists were in collusion with fascists and Nazis, and that, indeed, “Zionism is racism.”

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