The Last Journey of Karl Marx

By Jürgen NeffeMarch 16, 2018

The Last Journey of Karl Marx

THE FOLLOWING IS an abridged excerpt from Jürgen Neffe’s Marx. Der Unvollendete (C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 2017), translated by Shelley Frisch. 


Algiers, late April 1882. After an unusual period of cold weather with rain streaming down from black skies, a hot desert wind was driving temperatures up to more than 30 degrees Celsius. In his salon somewhere in the play of shadows on the cool back streets, a barber was sharpening his knives. Today they needed to be particularly sharp. An elderly gentleman with a bushy beard and white mane atop a strikingly high forehead had taken a seat in the barber’s chair, and this sedentary giant now looked far larger than when he entered the shop.

The man wished to shed his crowning glory, from his face and his head, probably on the advice of a doctor. He looked sickly, a little bloated, and drained by life. His eyes had lost their sparkle, but they flashed up briefly when he spoke and told jokes, thus providing the only indication of his true age. In a few days he would turn 64.

His overcoat, his demeanor, and his highly precise French identified him as a man from the north, yet with his bronzed complexion and dark brown eyes, he could have been from these parts. He also owed his nickname to the Moorish aspect of his features: his family and his German friend back home, now living in exile in London, called him “Moor.” That was how he signed his letters to his comrade there, and the name his three daughters had known him by since they were children. “Moor,” they said, “Moor is furious, Moor can go.” Not: “The Moor.” At the close of every letter he wrote them, he sent the young women his (always fond) regards, and signed his letters “Old Nick,” which, in English, stood for the devil.

Now the devil was playing his part. The knives were sharpened, white locks of hair were falling to the floor. In the mirror of an Arab beard shearer, Karl Marx saw himself taking leave of his familiar look. Like an actor who has finished performing and is sitting with his mask on, about to remove his makeup, he was bidding farewell to the character who had dictated his image throughout his life. He was destroying his image, his own graven image, molded after Zeus, a mighty bust of whom adorned his study at home. One last solitary act; World Theater without an audience.

One man was always on hand, even if he was not with him at that very moment: Friedrich Engels, his companion in England. As soon as they were separated they wrote letters to each other, and had been doing so for four decades by this point. Correspondence functioned as a substitute for keeping a diary. “A propos,” Marx, a.k.a. “Old Moor,” confessed his outrageous hair-cutting act to “dear Fred” from afar: “because of the sun, I have done away with my prophet’s beard and my crowning glory, but (because my daughters would rather have it this way) I had myself photographed before offering up my hair at the altar of an Algerian barber.”

His clumsy language reveals the decline that was putting a damper on the final year of his life. A few months earlier, when Marx lost his life’s companion, his wife Jenny, who had succumbed to cancer, Engels said, “The Moor has died as well.”

“Offering up my hair”: was this haircut a radical step that anticipated his own death, where the customer doesn’t get away unscathed? Or was it a symbol of liberation and a new beginning, as his relatively young age would still permit?

For the first time he had left the confinement of Europe. His letters and activities reveal his unwavering zeal and curiosity about the world, in accordance with the diverse interests of a man who had been passionate about politics and was now retired. During the final decade of his life he was no longer publishing anything of crucial importance, but he did produce countless memos and letters.

He had his last known photograph taken in Duterte’s photo studio, shortly after his arrival in late February. This picture was intended for his children and for posterity. Gazing into the camera, and beyond it into the darkness of the time that lay ahead, was a marked man who somehow knew that the worst was behind him. He looked a bit lost in reverie, smiling through his suffering. He confessed to his friend, “I’ve still been putting a brave face on an evil game.”

That was how he wished to be remembered and how he will live on in people’s minds: as a wise old man, and the image of an era that would not dawn until a long time after his death. Such was the gradual evolution of his historic role as an immortal who became the resonant container of human hopes for a better world.

In China, which reveres the elderly and hallows its ancestors and still calls itself communist with a keen sense of irony, this portrait remains his most popular likeness.

The beard — which had been one of the best known beards of all time — was now off. Without his aureole, his mighty head seemed small, almost frail, by comparison. By dropping his mask, which also kept his facial expressions so well concealed, Marx was exposing himself and, in a touching way, making himself invisible as well: no one would recognize him, although his likeness would soon appear on millions of posters. Now he could stroll down our streets, clean shaven and short-haired, as his own revenant. Marx without a full beard was like a clown without make-up or the Great Dictator without a mustache: he was a different person.

Someone posted a portrait of the shorn Marx on the internet. It amounted to little more than an amateurish retouching effort. On this portrait, however, the digitally shaved man bears a disconcerting resemblance to the last powerful ruler allied to his teachings, the man responsible for laying to rest the phantom protection of Marx in the Eastern bloc: General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s famous saying — inverted, the way Marx liked it — could easily serve as a motto for the story of his life: life punishes those who come too early.

How might Marx see the world today? How might he see himself and his work, and his work’s place in it? What would his analysis of the ongoing crisis look like, with the world now plunged into unfettered capitalism? Would he feel as though he’d been vindicated, understood — or more likely betrayed and sold down the river?

The man laid to rest at Highgate Cemetery in London barely a year after the final cut at the barbershop in Algiers bore only a faint resemblance to the Olympian father of the gods that posterity would remember. After his appointment at the photographer’s, no more pictures of him would appear. There is no surviving photograph, not even sketches or even any mention of the old man with the bare face.

It is possible that such documentation once existed. If it had, it was probably destroyed by his daughters after his death, like all personally compromising letters, especially those between Marx and his friend, and between Marx and his wife. In light of this situation, how is posterity supposed to get a realistic picture of Marx’s personal life and personality? Generations of biographers have grappled with the question. Most have wound up skirting the issue and presenting whatever was available as the full picture.

If Marx’s trip to the barber, where he got to peer behind his mask, is mentioned in the Marx literature at all, it receives only anecdotal treatment as a whimsical act brought on by some sort of medical issue, most likely a skin problem. Not a thought about what this new look meant for him; whether the loss of self he orchestrated may have shocked or amused him. There is no attempt to explore the inner life of Marx as an individual, which would surely be of great interest. Indeed, Marx would point the finger unerringly at the hypochondriatic aspect of his constant suffering: “My illness always comes from my head.”

In works about Marx, readers generally search in vain for a discussion of the self-perception of this rebel, who could philosophize so inimitably about man’s self-awareness as a “species being.” These works read as though someone was merely playing Marx’s role, as a man cast into the world by history in order to complete his assigned tasks, rather than as a flesh and blood human being with eyes that couldn’t escape his own reflection as a profoundly solitary man. The question arises of whether he was able to feel sorrow in the situations he found himself in, or merely rage.

Marx scholarship doesn’t go far enough in order to answer the question of how he viewed himself, what drove him, and how he became the person he was, particularly as someone who had conjured up a “social revolution,” yet could act so antisocially that his behavior assumed self-destructive proportions. What was the nature of the inferiority complex that must have weighed him down? What sort of self-hatred must have raged within him that it had to find such crass expression in arrogance and affectations of superiority? How much envy must have been involved, how much frustration when witnessing the success of labor leaders and freedom fighters such as Lassalle and Garibaldi winning over people’s hearts? They were hailed, whereas he was only feared.

The last journey Karl Marx undertook was like an odyssey in search of his lost self. His itinerary included Marseille, Algiers, Monte Carlo, Nice, Argenteuil, Paris, Lausanne, and Vevey, before heading back to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. Finally, in January, after relinquishing his final year, he arrived back home in London feeling mortally ill. He then had only three more months to live — or, more accurately: to die.

Back in the summer, he had sent a bitter lament to Engels from Monaco: “A pointless, arid, and also expensive existence!” From a purely medical point of view, that was entirely correct. The actual incentive for taking this grueling trip, which his doctors had persuaded him to endure, was to improve his health, but it didn’t help: neither his skin nor his liver nor his bronchial tubes were in better shape after convalescing in a supposedly more agreeable climate. Although he knew that the end was near, he bravely and confidently reassured his friend in his final lines to him: “Even so, I believe that with patience and pedantic self-control, I’ll soon be back on track. Moor.

Psychologically, as his letters from afar reveal, his odyssey marked a real leap forward. Someone for whom words meant everything, someone who used words masterfully, and who was ruled by them in turn, slipped off his old skin the better to discover the charms and settings and beautiful absurdities of the world and its people. Shortly after arriving in Algiers, he wrote to Engels: “The wind gave us a concert last night. […] Yesterday in the evening, wonderful moonlight on the bay. I can never stop feasting my eyes on the sea in front of my balcony.”

After his visit to the barber, he wrote to his friend: “Sirocco storms dancing about […] Time to flee Algiers.” Fleeing: The story of his life, whose end ought not to be “fulfilled.” If he had chosen to take stock of his life as he regarded himself in the mirror the result would have been a mixed portrait at best, unlike the prophet who feels reassured in being able to account for the future. How must it have felt to leave behind a buried treasure of earth-shattering writings while perhaps anticipating that the great times still lay ahead, so to speak, in the here and now of the beyond?

Perhaps the journey helped Marx find his way back to the dreams of his youth when he tried his hand — unsuccessfully — at poetry, novels, and plays. He wrote to his youngest daughter, Eleanor, the “dearest little Tussy,” as she was known in the family, from Monte Carlo: “Nature here is splendid, further improved by art — I mean the gardens that appear as if by magic on barren rocks that often slope from steep heights all the way down to the enchantingly blue sea, like the hanging terraces of Babylonian gardens.”

In the first half of the 19th century, whose texts we know, never did he commit such words to paper. It was as if he had had to conceal the true face of a poetic Marx during all that time. Now the floodgates had opened, and he was pouring forth the depictions of landscapes and cities, of nature and its magic, that he had refrained from expressing in the past.

It was as though someone had discovered the sensuality that had been lying dormant within him for so long, like a prisoner of reason. By letting go of himself now — and letting himself go — he was able to give free rein to it, and allow himself to display a level of vulnerability in the thoughts he scribbled down that would have been inconceivable earlier on. What degree of playful curiosity — which had brought him so far as an explorer — might have been at work here?

His journey came to a seemingly conciliatory end. In Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris, the uprooted Marx visited the Longuet family and was reunited with his grandchildren once more. He was especially fond of little Johnny, whom he regarded as his own child — a belated consolation for the loss of his beloved son Edgar. He had never gotten over Edgar’s death at the age of eight. “I have gone through all kinds of bad luck,” he wrote to his friend in Manchester after the burial of little Musch, “but only now do I know the meaning of true unhappiness. I feel broken down.”

His wife had been worn out by a total of seven pregnancies, a reality he appears to have shrugged off. But his male descendant meant more to him — all Pasha and Patriarch — than the three surviving daughters. Death, which was now knocking at his door, had been a constant companion in the lives of the Marx family. Shortly after the return of the forlorn head of the household to the deserted house in London, death dealt him its penultimate blow, before finally coming for him a few weeks later. At the age of 38, “little Jenny” had succumbed to bladder cancer. During his visit she had bravely concealed her suffering from him.

A life as tragedy, but also a complete character study, a life that brought him the final role of a living dead man. He had always been a fighter, fearless and indomitable. But he would not be rising up again from this final defeat. The Moor had breathed his last sigh.

Would the immortal man be able to repeat the performance that his mortal counterpart had pulled off just a few months before, in the salon of an Algerian barber? By turning the barber’s chair into a director’s chair, and from there surmounting his own self — putting the finishing touches on the work of art of his own tormented life — he proved to himself his willpower, and showed providence his true face. From that day forth he handed the stage to the other person he had been, and whose destiny he could no longer shape, or at least to no greater degree than a creator who shapes the world that he has brought into being, along with its laws, and then leaves it to its own devices.

On life’s balance sheet, success and failure are often lined up like credit and debt. Everything that has been attained is assembled to form the set of life’s achievements, regardless of the extent to which good or bad luck played the decisive role, or in spite of the providential circumstances responsible for facilitating an individual’s path. A better measure of the “gross domestic product” of a life story would be the authenticity of the person: being true to oneself and one’s own convictions, and openness to what is new. People who acknowledge their mistakes and are capable of changing themselves and their behavior achieve more than those who dig in their heels in spite of what they know to be true. With this sort of calculation, the result itself is of secondary importance: those who are true to themselves may fail magnificently; those who betray themselves may prevail wretchedly.

Two weeks before he went to the barber, Marx wrote a long letter from Algiers to his daughter Laura Lafargue, his “dearest Cacadou.” It closed with a little parable from the Orient, which he must have picked up somewhere along the way. Its message still applies to our current era:

Our nomadic Arabs […] have memories of having once produced great philosophers, scholars, etc., which, they think, is why Europeans now mock them for their current ignorance. Hence the following little fable, typical of Arab folklore.

A ferryman is ready and waiting, with his small boat, on the tempestuous waters of a river. A philosopher, wishing to get to the other side, climbs aboard. The following dialogue ensues:
Philosopher: Do you know anything of history, ferryman?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted half your life!
And again
The Philosopher: Have you studied mathematics?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted more than half your life.
No sooner were these words out of the philosopher’s mouth than the wind capsized the boat, and tossed both the ferryman and the philosopher into the water. Whereupon:
Ferryman shouts: Can you swim?
Philosopher: No!
Ferryman: Then you’ve wasted your whole life.

That will whet your appetite for things Arabic.
With many kisses and love,
Old Nick.


Jürgen Neffe is a German journalist and writer and the author of best-selling biographies of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Karl Marx. In 2007, his Einstein: A Biography was named as the Washington Post’s Book of the Year. He holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Germany.

LARB Contributor

Jürgen Neffe is a German journalist and writer and the author of best-selling biographies of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Karl Marx. In 2007, his Einstein: A Biography was named as the Washington Post’s Book of the Year. He holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule in Aachen, Germany.


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