Erich Fromm 1961

8. Marx, the Man

The misunderstanding and the misinterpretation of Marx's writings are paralleled only by the misinterpretation of his personality. Just as in the case of his theories, the distortion of his personality also follows a cliché repeated by journalists, politicians, and even social scientists who should know better. He is described as a "lonely" man, isolated from his fellows, aggressive, arrogant, and authoritarian. Anyone who has even a slight knowledge of Marx's life would have great difficulty in accepting this because he would find it difficult to reconcile it with the picture of Marx the husband, the father, and the friend.

There are perhaps few marriages known to the world which were a human fulfillment in such an extraordinary way as was that of Karl and Jenny Marx. He, the son of a Jewish lawyer, fell in love as an adolescent with Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of a Prussian feudal family, and a descendant of one of the oldest Scottish families. They married when he was twenty-four years of age, and he survived her death by only a little over a year. This was a marriage in which, despite the differences in background, despite a continual life of material poverty and sickness, there was unwavering love and mutual happiness, possible only in the case of two people with an extraordinary capacity for love, and deeply in love with each other.

His youngest daughter, Eleanor, described the relationship between her parents in a letter referring to a day shortly before her mother's death, and over a year before the death of her father. "Moor" [ Marx's nickname], she writes, "got the better of his illness again. Never shall I forget the morning he felt himself strong enough to go into mother's room. When they were together they were young again -- she a young girl and he a loving youth, both on life's threshold, not an old, disease-ridden man and an old, dying woman parting from each other for life." [120]

Marx's relationship to his children was as free from any taint of domination, and as full of productive love, as that to his wife. One needs only to read the description given by his daughter Eleanor of his walks with his children, when he told them tales, tales measured by miles, not chapters. "Tell us another mile," was the cry of the girls. "He read the whole of Homer, the whole Nibelungenlied, Gudrun, Don Quixote, the Arabian Nights, etc. As to Shakespeare, he was the Bible of our house, and seldom out of our hands or mouths. By the time I was six, I knew scene upon scene of Shakespeare by heart." [121]

His friendship with Frederick Engels is perhaps even more unique than his marriage and his relationship to his children. Engels himself was a man of extraordinary human and intellectual qualities. He always recognized and admired Marx's superior talent. He devoted his life to Marx's work, and yet he was never reluctant to make his own contribution, and did not underestimate it. There was hardly ever any friction in the relationship between these two men, no competitiveness, but a sense of comradeship rooted in as deep a love for each other as one ever might find between two men.

Marx was the productive, nonalienated, independent man whom his writings visualized as the man of a new society. Productively related to the whole world, to people, and to ideas, he was what he thought. A man who read Aeschylus and Shakespeare every year in the original languages, and who during his saddest time, that of the illness of his wife, plunged into mathematics and studied calculus, Marx was a humanist through and through. Nothing was more wonderful to him than man, and he expressed that feeling in a frequently repeated quotation from Hegel: "even the criminal thought of a malefactor has more grandeur and nobility than the wonders of heaven." His answers to the questionnaire made up for him by his daughter Laura reveal a great deal of the man: his idea of misery was submission; the vice he detested most was servility, and his favorite maxims were "nothing human is alien to me" and "one must doubt of everything."

Why was this man supposed to be arrogant, lonely, authoritarian? Aside from the motive of slander, there were some reasons for this misunderstanding. First of all, Marx (like Engels) had a sarcastic style, especially in writing, and was a fighter with a good deal of aggressiveness. But, more importantly, he was a man with a complete inability to tolerate sham and deception, and with an utter seriousness about the problems of human existence. He was incapable of accepting dishonest rationalizations, or fictitious statements about important matters, politely and with a smile. He was incapable of any kind of insincerity, whether it referred to personal relations or to ideas. Since most people prefer to think in fictions rather than in realities, and to deceive themselves and others about the facts underlying individual and social life, they must indeed regard Marx as one who was arrogant or cold, but this judgment says more about them than it does about Marx.

If and when the world returns to the tradition of humanism and overcomes the deterioration of Western culture, both in its Soviet and in its capitalist form, it will see, indeed, that Marx was neither a fanatic nor an opportunist -- that he represented the flowering of Western humanity, that he was a man with an uncompromising sense of truth, penetrating to the very essence of reality, and never taken in by the deceptive surface; that he was of an unquenchable courage and integrity; of a deep concern for man and his future; unselfish, and with little vanity or lust for power; always alive, always stimulating, and bringing to life whatever he touched. He represented the Western tradition in its best features: its faith in reason and in the progress of man. He represented, in fact, the very concept of man which was at the center of his thinking. The man who is much, and has little; the man who is rich because he has need of his fellow man.