Midwife of the Revolution: Jenny von Westphalen Marx

February 21 was the 170th anniversary of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ magnum opus, Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, commonly known as The Communist Manifesto. This controversial work was built on a controversial philosophy: end distinctions between social classes; abandon capitalism and the free market system; and divorce society from religion and religious practices. Religion, class, and economics were critical drivers of thousands of years of European history. Borrowing a phrase from the Disney movie Pocahontas, if an endeavor did not increase one’s glory, God, or gold (and preferably some combination of the three), it was quickly abandoned.

Amid the censure of his community and frequent run-ins with local law officials, Marx never stopped working for revolution. This is the story we know. What history rarely mentions is the woman who made it possible: his wife, Jenny von Westphalen.

Joanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen was born into Prussian aristocracy and all of the privileges that entailed. Her father, Ludwig von Westphalen, seemed to enjoy Karl Marx as a conversationalist, but the idea of him becoming part of the family was out of the question. Jenny loved him, however, and turned her back on her family to marry Marx.

It was not an easy life for the former aristocrat—she went from bourgeoisie to proletariat in one fell swoop, trading salons and dinner parties one day for pawn shops and bread lines the next. She firmly believed in her husband’s ideas and teachings, possibly even more so because she had to live them. Her liberal views extended to her stance on women’s place in society, which skewed towards proto-feminism:

“In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks.”[1]

Jenny did more than sit at home and darn socks. In addition to giving birth to seven children and enduring the pain of losing several, she kept the household together as the family fled from country to country. In an interesting twist of irony, the economic historian and philosopher could not keep his own accounts straight. If the family owed money, and it always seemed to owe something to someone, Jenny went to the local pawn shop and sold whatever she could to make ends meet. Her ability to keep the family fed and clothed allowed Karl the time to write, think, and occasionally philander (one by-blow resulted in a son that Friedrich Engels adopted as his own to protect Karl’s reputation).

Jenny is also directly responsible for the publication of Marx’s writings. Karl Marx’s handwriting was so messy that his first drafts were illegible. Jenny recopied the pages in her own hand, producing manuscripts that could be sent to publishers for printing. She also acted as Karl’s personal correspondence secretary, answering letters for him when he was too ill to take on the task.[2]

Jenny von Westphalen Marx fought for her husband, for her family, and for the class revolution she believed to be inevitable. The only fight she could not win was against cancer. She died on December 2, 1881 after battling the illness for years. Karl was not well enough to attend the funeral, but family friend Friedrich Engels spoke at the graveside on his behalf. Buried “at the cemetery of Highgate in the section of the damned,” historians also buried Jenny in the historical record.[3] Without Jenny’s work as copywriter and editor, the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital may never have seen the light of day. Marx and Engels may have given birth to Communist revolution, but Jenny was the revolution’s midwife.

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Author’s Note: For more information on Jenny von Westphalen and her relationship with her husband, please see the following sources:

  • Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel
  • Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx by H.F. Peters

[1] Jenny von Westphalen Marx quoted in “The Life of Jenny Marx,” Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller, Jacobin Magazine, February 14, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/02/jenny-karl-marx-mary-gabriel-love-and-capital.

[2] Peters, H.F. Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 150.

[3] Ibid., 164.

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