Thanet Writers Spotlight Karl Marx

Melissa Todd highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and author Karl Marx, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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“What I have thanks to money…is what I, the possessor of money, am myself….I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful women. Consequently I am not ugly. (Money) changes fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice.”

Thus spoke Karl Marx, on the distorting, alienating power of wealth, when it becomes omnipotent in human relationships. It’s an illuminating quote, which reflects and represents much of Marx’s thinking around capitalist economic systems, and the profound and negative impact they have on society.

Marx is a difficult thinker to read and understand, in part because of the extraordinary breadth of topics he covered, much of it taking the guise of commentary on contemporary historical events and philosophers with whom the modern day reader is unlikely to be well acquainted. Moreover, he was a prolific author, and his output and outlook varied hugely over the fifty or so years he engaged in journalism and philosophical musings. The earlier Marx is sometimes described as more humanist, preoccupied with morality, human nature and alienation, less distant from liberal individualism than his later work, which was more entirely preoccupied with economics. I so wish I could sum up Marxist thinking into one nifty paragraph, but it’s simply impossible. At its heart lurked the belief that capitalism was contradictory, riddled with class conflict, and contained the seeds of its own inevitable destruction.

In his earliest writing Marx makes the point that man differs from other animals who work only to satisfy their immediate physical needs: humans work also to satisfy their creative urge, to express themselves. In ideal circumstances, a creative man will appropriate the external world by his labour, turning raw materials into artefacts that are then his own. Instead, under capitalism, the product he makes are instead appropriated by the capitalist.

From his belief in the centrality of economic activity to all humankind, Marx proceeds to theorise that the way in which this activity is organised determines all aspects of social life. The capitalist economic system, with which he was chiefly concerned, rests on a fundamental dichotomy between capital and labour, the two sides of the innate contradiction within capitalism.

If a labourer works ten hours, Marx argues, in six hours he will produce goods whose exchange value is equal to the wages he earns in a day. But he will not be paid for the remaining four hours; instead, their value is appropriated by the capitalist, to become profit. This leads to the inherent contradiction and alienation experienced by labourers creating luxury goods they could never possibly afford.Capitalism can only continue to thrive through the creation of extremes of wealth and poverty, and capitalist and workers, antagonistic through their respective states and aims might be, cannot survive without one another. Since social relations reflect prevailing conditions in the economic sphere, other things begin to be regarded as commodities too – the capitalist’s wife, family, and in particular, his labourers. And the entire political, legal and social system is created to reflect and maintain this status quo – the state develops as an apparatus for the oppression of the proletariat, with the army, police and judicial system only in existence to uphold property rights. The bourgeoisie dominates at the level of thought too – the education system, with its emphasis on self-restraint, hard work, delayed gratification, also served to vindicate capitalism; while Christianity, with its doctrines of humility, earthly poverty and the inevitability of the social hierarchy (remember “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate….?”) also served to bolster the capitalist system.

Born in Germany in 1818, Marx was made stateless and sought exile in London from 1849 as a result of his political theorising. Here he lived until his death in 1883. During these years he visited the Kent coast many times, in part for the sake of his health. In March of 1866 he complained that his doctor had “banished” him to Margate, and reflecting on how quiet it was by the sea before the rest of fashionable London arrived for bathing season. Nonetheless, he found the sea air “wonderfully pure and invigorating.” He visited the sea -bathing hospital in Margate to treat his boils, which were thought to be the result of a liver complaint. The condition was serious and crippling, something he’d attempted to treat himself with arsenic, creosote and the application of a razor blade, but sea-bathing proved a speedy cure, although the affliction speedily returned and even merited a mention in the opening lines of Capital in 1867. One can assume he spent much of his time in the bracing Margate air putting the finishing touches to his most famous work of economic theory. He yearned to return to London, stressing in a letter to Engels how much better he felt, but Engels counselled that he stay a while longer in Margate’s restorative air, for:

“Who knows how soon you will have need of all your strength?…Do be reasonable, then, oblige me and your family to this extent at least, that you will have methodical treatment. What would happen to the whole movement if anything went wrong with you? … I can get no rest by day or by night until you have got over this trouble. Barely possible to retain the storms within the limits of pure reason, and being much more inclined to burst forth with undue violence.”

Engels too visited Thanet for his health, and both he and Marx complained about the lower middle class visitors with whom they were forced to spend time, who “belong to quite the most disagreeable stratum of London society.” In a letter to Marx in September 1874, Engels noted that the “respectability standards of travellers to Ramsgate seems to diminish each year.” Seemingly the left’s contempt for the working class is not a new phenomenon.

Nine times Marx visited Thanet. A blue plaque commemorates his stay at 62 Plains of Waterloo, in September 1879, where he noted that “the weather here is partly good and partly bad, with the latter tending to predominate”. He was in Ramsgate to visit his daughter, Jenny, and his new grandson, Edgar: she boasts a blue plaque at 6 Artillery Road, a few steps from Plains of Waterloo. When Marx’s wife was terminally ill, she passed the last summer of her life in Ramsgate, in 1880. He gave an interview to a journalist from the radical New York paper, The Sun, on Ramsgate beach. “During an interspace of silence I interrupted the revolutionist and philosopher in these fateful words: ‘What is?’ After a moment looking out at the roaring sea and the multitude on the beach, the great man replied, in a deep and solemn tone, with the single word: ‘Struggle.'”

When Ramsgate failed to save his wife, Engels claimed that “Marx is also dead’. In Wilhelm Liebknecht’s Reminiscences of Marx, he tells us, “With her life went that of Marx also. He struggled hard in order to keep going, for he was a fighter to the last – but he was a broken man.”

Liebknecht also describes how Marx’s writing was often portrayed as having no style at all, or a very bad style. He argues, “that is said by those who do not know what style is – smooth-tongued speakers and phrase-mongers who have not understood Marx and were not capable of understanding him.” Marx’s writing makes much use of rhetoric, sarcasm and gratuitous insult, describing Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, as a “grotesque mediocrity” and a “ludicrous, vulgar and hateful person”. He makes great use of bombastic metaphor, too, describing the bourgeoisie as “a vampire that sucks the blood from (the proletariats’) hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital.” For all his philosophy purports to be non-moral, non-judgemental, scientific, he couldn’t keep his fury from his writing, and it’s vastly richer for it.

Karl Marx died in 1883, still a stateless person, and is buried in Highgate cemetery, in a section devoted to agnostics and atheists: George Eliot’s grave is nearby. Engels spoke at his funeral, opening with: “On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think.” His huge, famous tomb is inscribed with the words, “Workers of all lands unite” – the last line of his Communist manifesto.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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