Only by the sheer lassitude of his nature did Karl Marx become a poor man. He really ought not have become so. His was a voluntary and—if we’re to inspect with a touch of sobriety his mythological life—a temporary state of want. It was a self-imposed form of penury (the type toward which those born without the endowments of his intellect would feel bitter) which he could’ve easily escaped. Instead, he chose to perpetuate it. But in the end, even this popularizer of socialism and this truant of hard and continuous died a relatively financially secure man.
From the outset, which we’ll place in the first quarter of the nineteenth century in which this inchoate communist was born, there were few signs that his life would turn out as it did. All signs augured well. Nothing ill was preordained, as has been the wretched case of the impecunious masses who’ve trodden this earth. No path had him veering (as later in life he did) into the inhospitable woods of indigence. It’s often an environment through which no opening can be seen. By every account, his childhood was of a stimulating and precocious kind. He was raised in the equally historic and progressive German town of Trier by a family of relatively high-repute. The son of a liberally-inclined, capitalistically-sympathetic apostate Jew and a somewhat unlearned Dutch-German mother, young Karl had everything for which the budding erudite could ask.
As precocity defined his earliest years, audacity would come to encompass those of his early adulthood. Not only was he bold, in the more optimistic understanding of the word as it captures a boy unfettered and undaunted by risk, but he was impudent as well. Insolence, Marx proved in his own day, as “Gen Z’ers” do in ours, is in many ways a synonym for adolescence. The two, through all of time, have been considered mutually dependent, yet the former always has a way of proving itself more capable of outliving the latter. Any parent of a certain age nods in quiet agreement, and Marx’s parents were no different. Provisioning their boy with nearly every material and intellectual advantage, Marx returned their liberal paternal bounty with nothing but contempt. He spurned the pursuit of the legal profession of which his father had availed himself and deliberately wrecked his relationship with his doting mother.
Instead of becoming bookish in the libraries at the University of Bonn, as his parents had hoped he might, he became bibulous and profligate in the rowdy college streets. Instead of studious, he became pugnacious. So irascible was his behavior, so capricious his primal instinct that his desperate father cut his losses and sent him off to a new school. Marx landed at the University of Berlin—an institution in whose halls the specter of Georg Hegel still floated. As Aristotle was in the Lyceum and Plato in the Academy, Hegel was palpable in the University of Berlin. The Hegelian philosophy, inscrutable to us moderns even today, was a pedagogical giant in the instruction of man and the direction of his coming path. For years it remained the abstruse shadow under which the flower of continental metaphysical philosophy grew. Understandably enamored of it—much the way we Americans are of Locke and Jefferson and liberal democracy—Marx became a devoted follower. Not surprisingly, he aligned himself with the Hegelian Left, a younger, brasher, more irreligious, and transgressive component of the great thinker’s thought.
Acquiring his doctorate in philosophy from the liberal University of Jena, Marx proceeded in adulthood to channel his inner-Aristotle. He did so not by becoming a sagacious and exemplary philosopher, but by becoming a restless peripatetic. Bouncing from France, to Belgium, to Germany, and finally to England, Marx unsettled the soils and burned the lengths of all his bridges that had tethered him to Western Europe.
A demonic dilettante, Marx tried his hand—rather unprofitably—in various fields. Journalism, linguistics, science, and revolution were a few pastimes without incomes. That said, even when his economic condition worsened, he never put his academic credentials to work. Certainly some university would have this thrice-over university man come to hold a position as a professor. What vertiginous lectures there might’ve been! But he spurned his professional degree and decided that indulging himself was more important than supporting his family.
Married to his childhood sweetheart Jenny von Westphalen (whose very name was redolent of old money and perhaps a license to laziness), Marx proceeded to sire and neglect seven children, of whom only one lived out the entirety of her life. All malnourished from the start, the exception rather than the expectation was for a Marx child to reach adulthood alive. Instead of working, he pawned almost everything of value in their cramped Soho house.
Intermittently, he was overcome by zealous bouts of enthusiastic research, which he conducted in the library of London. It’s an abiding fascination of mine to consider that—in their most mature and recognizable forms—every economic theory (of which we name Capitalism, Keynesianism, and Marxism) was born somewhere within United Kingdom.
Combining beneficiary with philosophy, Marx relied on Friedrich Engels for financial and intellectual support. More than anyone else, it was Engels who was responsible for introducing to Marx the intoxicating vision that was Communism. Hitherto, Marx had encountered the idea in the more radical circles in which he moved around Proudhon’s France, but he hadn’t received it in full. Engels was the man to serve it to him and set in motion his irascible, epistolary juice.
Equal parts industrious and polyamorous, Engels was the heir to his father’s lucrative textile firm. Along with being a notorious womanizer, Engels was an accomplished polyglot (having mastered a dozen or so languages) and a perhaps more committed autodidact than even Marx. If not consanguineous by parentage, Engels and Marx undoubtedly shared in their blood a deep and unusual ideological bond. This allowed for one of the most fruitful of intellectual unions known to the history of philosophy—a too often a solitary sport. Indeed, the two seem to have enjoyed a nearly fraternal bond—backed, of course, by Engel’s implicit financial guarantee. It was the largesse of the Engels company (located in Germany and in England) upon which Marx was reliant for the majority of his life.
I say majority because, at the end, Marx’s fortunes made a slight turn for the better. Though he didn’t die an exceedingly wealthy man (nor popular; those in attendance at his funeral numbered fewer than a dozen), he wasn’t nearly in so wretched a state as his hagiographers have led us to believe. If not for the exigencies of his young family’s health, Marx eventually turned to invest his money in the stock market to provide him the material comfort he might’ve earlier enjoyed. Indeed, his intimate correspondence leads a modern auditor to think that Marx actually relished the pursuit. A hero to some, a hypocrite to discerning others, Marx embraced the life against which he railed for so long. Accompanying the generous subsidies paid him by Engels for his bursts of genius and lengthy dry spells (Marx was supposed to finish two subsequent volumes of his seminal work Das Kapital. Failing to make a positive case for the implementation of Communism in the first book, the task was left to Engels to take up), he now had sizable gains from the stock-market, from capitalism—the institution he so reviled.
It’s not merely that I’m enamored of and frankly frightened by Marx as an historical figure that I point this out. Though his appeal, in this regard, is perpetual, I turned to thinking about his most unusual and hypocritical life as I thought about that of Bernie Sanders.
A perhaps mollified, innocently senescent, and beardless version of Marx, Sanders, like Karl, has spent the majority of his life outside of a productive industry. Not to diminish the value of a public servant working as a representative of a state (as has been his occupation for the last thirty-odd years), Sanders hasn’t exactly contributed an appreciable amount to the economy. As a matter of fact that cozies up to legend, on account of his disinclination toward work, Sanders was sent away from a work commune in his earlier years. From that day until this, he’s been on the public payroll, funded by you and me.
Yet this staunchest of socialists has quite an exorbitant amount of money to his name. As made evident by the release of his tax returns, in recent consecutive years, Sanders brought in over $1 million—a boon for which he’s completely unapologetic. In addition to his income as a senator, he’s earned prodigious profits from the sales of his book. Surely he has other investments and speaking arrangements that add to the number in his bank. That said, he suffered no scruple to keep all the money he made. In fact, with a slight air of de haut en bas and indignation, he defended himself for having made as much as he did. If you write a best-selling book, he preached to a group of bewildered journalists, you can be a millionaire too. A true socialist, if the term’s rightly to be understood, might feel a bit uncomfortable when reflecting upon his inordinate and admirable success. But Bernie, like Marx before him, seems completely at ease.
If this seems dissonant with the socialist’s main philosophical thrust, that’s because it is. Just as it was with Marx, who died a relatively financially comfortable man, so too is it with Sanders. An incredibly wealthy man, upon whom many of his fellow social security-receiving, coupon-counting octogenarians look in a mixture of envy and awe, instead of death this sprightly Sanders enjoys renewed political life. Just don’t mind the socialist’s rank hypocrisy that carries him along the way. It’s a well-trod path, from Marx, to Engels, to Sanders, and every other Socialist autocrat in between.