I picked up a copy of The Portable Karl Marx, published by Viking in 1983, at The Word in Montreal for a dollar. Reading around in it earlier today, I came across “A Prussian Police Agent’s Report, 1853,” a cop’s intel report on Marx when he and his wife Jenny were living in London. Given all the talk about the “dirtbag left” these days, I thought this description of the old man’s lifestyle might ring familiar to some.
Marx is of middling height, 34 years old; despite his being in the prime of life, he is already turning grey. He is powerfully built, and his features distinctly remind one of Szemere [the Prime Minister of the short-lived Hungarian revolutionary government in 1848, who was a friend of Marx], but his complexion is darker and his hair and beard are quite black. The latter he does not shave; his large piercing fiery eyes have something demoniacally sinister about them. However, one can tell at the first glance that this is a man of genius and energy.
His intellectual superiority exercises an irresistible force on his surroundings. In his private life he is a highly disorderly, cynical human being and a bad manager. He lives the life of a gypsy, of an intellectual Bohemian, washing, combing, and changing his linen are things he does rarely. He likes to get drunk. He is often idle for days on end, but when he has work to do, he will work day and night with tireless endurance.
For him there is no such thing as a fixed time for sleeping and waking. He will often stay up the whole night and then lie down on the sofa, fully dressed, around middy and then sleep till evening, untroubled by the fact that the whole world comes and goes through his room.
His wife is the sister of the Prussian Minister, von Westphalen, a cultured and pleasant woman who has accustomed herself to this Bohemian existence out of love for her husband and now feels perfectly at home in such misery. She has two girls and one son; all three children are truly handsome and have the intelligent eyes of their father.
As a husband and a father, Marx is the gentlest and mildest of men in spite of his wild and restless character. Marx lives in one of the worst, and therefore one of the cheapest, quarters of London. He occupies two rooms. One of them looks out on the street — that is the salon. The bedroom is at the back.
There is not one clean and solid piece of furniture to be found in the whole apartment: everything is broken, tattered and torn; there is a thick coat of dust everywhere; everywhere, too, the greatest disorder.
In the middle of the salon stands a large old-fashioned table covered with oil cloth. On it lie his manuscripts, books and newspapers, then the children’s toys, his wife’s mending and patching, together with several cups with chipped rims, dirty spoons, knives, forks, lamps, an ink-pot, glasses, dutch clay pipes, tobacco ash — in a word everything is topsy turvy, and all on the same table. A rag-and-bone man would step back ashamed from such a remarkable collection.
When you enter Marx’s room, smoke and tobacco fumes make your eyes water so badly, that you think for a moment that you are groping about in a cave. Gradually your eyes become accustomed to the fog and you can make out a few objects. Everything is dirty and covered with dust. It is positively dangerous to sit down.
One chair has only three legs. On another chair, which happens to be whole, the children are playing at cooking. This one is offered to the visitor but the children’s cooking has not been wiped away: if you sit down, you risk a pair of trousers.
None of this embarrasses Marx or his wife. You are received in the friendliest of fashions; pipes and tobacco and whatever else there might happen to be are offered to you most cordially. Intellectually spirited and agreeable conversation makes amends for the domestic deficiencies, at least in part. One even grows accustomed to the company, and finds this circle interesting, even original. This is the true picture of the family life of the communist chief, Marx.