Sunday, April 26, 2015

Marx’s Phrenology and Racial Views

Unlike a lot of the tiresome hagiographies of Marx, the biographies I am reading at the moment aren’t afraid to examine the ugly side of Marx’s personal opinions, such as his views on race (e.g., Sperber 2014: 409–414). Even though Marx treated Arthur de Gobineau’s racist ideas scornfully, and supposedly had no objection to his daughter marrying a man with some African descent (Sperber 2014: 410), there is other, less flattering evidence of Marx’s opinions.

I already noted how Marx was an advocate of the pseudo-science of phrenology as described by Wilhelm Liebknecht, who had to undergo a phrenological examination to become a member of Marx’s communist inner circle (Liebknecht 1901: 64–65).

Marx’s attachment to phrenology is confirmed in one of his letters to Engels, in which Marx complains about the German radical Ferdinand Lassalle (1825–1864) who visited Marx in London in 1862.

In a letter that can only be described as (to put it mildly!) rather harsh, Marx complained to Engels:
Dear Engels,

From the enclosed scrawls you will partly see how bothered I am. So far, the landlord has allowed himself to be placated; he has yet to receive £25. The piano chap, who is being paid in instalments for the piano, should already have had £6 at the end of June, and is a most ill-mannered brute. I have rate demands in the house amounting to £6. The wretched school fees — some £10 — I have fortunately been able to pay, for I do my utmost to spare the children direct humiliation. I have paid the butcher $6 on account (the sum total of my quarterly takings from the Presse!), but I’m again being dunned by that fellow, not to mention the baker, the teagrocer, the greengrocer, and such other sons of Belial as there may be.

The Jewish nigger Lassalle who, I’m glad to say, is leaving at the end of this week, has happily lost another 5,000 talers in an ill-judged speculation. The chap would sooner throw money down the drain than lend it to a ‘friend’, even though his interest and capital were guaranteed. In this he bases himself on the view that he ought to live the life of a Jewish baron, or Jew created a baron (no doubt by the countess). Just imagine! This fellow, knowing about the American affair, etc., and hence about the state of crisis I’m in, had the insolence to ask me whether I would be willing to hand over one of my daughters to la Hatzfeldt as a ‘companion’, and whether he himself should secure Gerstenberg’s (!) patronage for me! The fellow has wasted my time and, what is more, the dolt opined that, since I was not engaged upon any ‘business’ just now, but merely upon a ‘theoretical work’, I might just as well kill time with him! In order to keep up certain dehors vis-à-vis the fellow, my wife had to put in pawn everything that wasn’t actually nailed or bolted down! ….

It is now quite plain to me — as the shape of his head and the way his hair grows also testify — that he is descended from the negroes who accompanied Moses’ flight from Egypt (unless his mother or paternal grandmother interbred with a nigger). Now, this blend of Jewishness and Germanness, on the one hand, and basic negroid stock, on the other, must inevitably give rise to a peculiar product. The fellow’s importunity is also nigger-like.

If, by the by, Mr Rüstow was responsible for thinking up the march from Padua to Vienna, I should say that he also has a screw loose.


K. M.

Letter, Marx to Engels, London, 30 July, 1862.
Marx was hardly enlightened in his attitudes here. His dislike of Lassalle was clearly justified through the quackery of phrenology (which was admittedly very popular in his day) and a racial bigotry.

The latter is largely confirmed in a letter to Engels of 1866, in which Marx upheld the absurd theories of Pierre Trémaux (1818–1895) on racial degeneration:
Dear Fred,

You inferred correctly from my last letter that my state of health has improved, although it fluctuates from one day to the next. Meanwhile, the feeling of being fit to work again does much for a man. Unfortunately, I am constantly interrupted by social troubles and lose a lot of time. Thus, for example, the butcher has suspended meat supplies today, and by Saturday even my stock of paper will be used up. ….

A very important work which I shall send on to you (but on condition that you send it back, as it is not my property) as soon as I have made the necessary notes, is: ‘P. Trémaux, Origine et Transformations de l’Homme et des autres Êtres, Paris 1865. In spite of all the shortcomings that I have noted, it represents a very significant advance over Darwin. The two chief theses are: croisements [crossings] do not produce, as is commonly thought, variety, but, on the contrary, a unity typical of the espèces. The physical features of the earth, on the other hand, differentiate (they are the chief, though not the only basis). Progress, which Darwin regards as purely accidental, is essential here on the basis of the stages of the earth’s development, dégénérescence, which Darwin cannot explain, is straightforward here; ditto the rapid extinction of merely transitional forms, compared with the slow development of the type of the espece, so that the gaps in palaeontology, which Darwin finds disturbing, are necessary here. Ditto the fixity of the espece, once established, which is explained as a necessary law (apart from individual, etc., variations). Here hybridisation, which raises problems for Darwin, on the contrary supports the system, as it is shown that an espece is in fact first established as soon as croisement with others ceases to produce offspring or to be possible, etc.

In its historical and political applications far more significant and pregnant than Darwin. For certain questions, such as nationality, etc., only here has a basis in nature been found. E.g., he corrects the Pole Duchinski, whose version of the geological differences between Russia and the Western Slav lands he does incidentally confirm, by saying not that the Russians are Tartars rather than Slavs, etc., as the latter believes, but that on the surface-formation predominant in Russia the Slav has been tartarised and mongolised; likewise (he spent a long time in Africa) he shows that the common negro type is only a degeneration of a far higher one. ….

K. M.

Letter, Marx to Engels, London, 7 August 1866
While in his early life, Marx no doubt saw nationalities and ethnicities mainly in social or cultural terms, Marx was moving to endorse the racist theories of the late 19th century by 1866, including the notion that some “races” were inferior and that so-called racial degeneration had occurred.

Finally, lest I be accused of trying to use ad hominem argument, let me state that of course none of this disproves any of Marx’s ideas on economics at all, which stand and fall on their own merits. I am simply interested in Marx’s personal opinions and intellectual ideas.

Liebknecht, Wilhelm. 1901. Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs. C. H. Kerr & Co., Chicago.

Sperber, Jonathan. 2014. Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York.


  1. You keep referencing multitudinous "hagiographies," as though we lie adrift in a sea of them. Has someone recommended a hagiography to you, or have you previously read one, or what? Can you give some examples?

    You originally introduced the contention in the context of a reviewer who had made reference to the work of Wheen, Gabriel, and McLellan (in connection with Hunt and Hunley on Engels). How many of these scholars would you say specialize in hagiography?

    Inquiring minds do wish to know~

    1. The internet is filled with Marxist hagiography about St. Marx, the biggest thing since Jesus.

      As for actual biographies, F. Mehring's Karl Marx -- which I have read though many years ago -- is certainly hagiography.

    2. Thanks for the prompt reply.

      I think one would just about have to go as far back as Mehring to reliably find anything of the sort. Modern biographers are quite dedicated to the "warts and all" picture. I suspect one can scarcely find a single contemporary account -- whether scholarly or of popular interest -- that doesn't present him as abrasive and unpleasant in many of his dealings and problematic in some of his 19th-century views.