Marx, Jenny von Westphalen (1814–1881)

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Marx, Jenny von Westphalen (1814–1881)

Prussian of aristocratic lineage who married her childhood playmate, Karl Marx, and became his lifelong companion in the struggle for socialism . Name variations: Jenny von Westphalen. Born Johanna Bertha Julie Jenny von Westphalen on February 12, 1814, in the small north German town of Salzwedel; died in London on December 2, 1881; daughter of Johann Ludwig von Westphalen (a Prussian civil servant) and Caroline Heubel von Westphalen; education uncertain, but perhaps attended a private Catholic school in Trier; married Karl Marx (1818–1883, philosopher, economist and sociologist who wrote The Communist Manifesto), on June 19, 1843; children: Jenny Marx (1844–1883); Laura Marx (1845–1911); Edgar Marx (1846–1855); Heinrich Marx (1849–1850); Franziska Marx (1851–1852); Eleanor Marx-Aveling (1855–1898), and an unnamed last child who died shortly after birth on July 6, 1857.

Family moved to Trier (1816); confirmed as a Protestant (1828); broke off engagement to Lt. von Pannewitz (1831); secretly engaged to Karl Marx (1836); married to Karl and moved to Paris (1843); "Letter from a German Lady" published (1844); expelled from Paris, moved to Brussels (1845); became Brussels secretary of Communist correspondence committees (1848); arrested by Belgian police, returned to Paris (March 1848); moved to Cologne andbecame secretary of German Workers Party (summer 1848); took up residence in London (1849); finished copying Capital (1867).

Socialism did not come automatically to Jenny von Westphalen Marx, who left behind an aristocratic heritage when she joined her husband Karl Marx in a lifelong commitment to the emancipation of the working class and the abolition of capitalism. But she threw her whole being into that struggle, giving to the socialist cause her unremunerated services as financial manager, organizational secretary, scribe and critic.

One of her daughters, Eleanor Marx-Aveling , wrote in her reminiscences that without the aid of Jenny Marx her father, the founder of modern communism, would never have accomplished what he did. In addition to raising their six surviving children, Jenny Marx was his constant companion, advisor and assistant. She was, in short, the unsung orchestrator at the center of one of the key command posts of the 19th-century European revolutionary movement: the Marx home, which served as a meeting place and headquarters, not simply a household.

The world belongs to the fearless.

—Jenny Marx

Jenny von Westphalen was born in 1814 in a small town in northern Germany to Johann Ludwig von Westphalen, a 44-year-old civil servant whose grandfather had been ennobled in 1763 in recognition of his services in the Seven Years' War. Baron von Westphalen was father to four children by his first marriage to the daughter of a large landowning aristocrat, but she died suddenly in 1807. Several years later, he married a middle-class woman, Caroline Heubel , who became mother to those four children and gave birth to three others, including Jenny.

In 1816, the Prussian government transferred Baron von Westphalen, who was fluent in French, to Trier, a city in the Rhineland close to the French border. The baron was more influenced by the times than by his lineage. As first councillor in the government of Trier, he was reluctant to enforce reactionary measures passed down from Berlin, because he had been inspired by the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution. "We live in fateful times," he wrote to a friend, "a time in which two contradictory principles are at war: that of the divine right of kings and the new one which proclaims that all power belongs to the people."

Because Jenny was born more than a decade after the last of her father's children by his first marriage, and because her little sister Laura (b.1817) died at age five, Jenny's only contemporary sibling was her younger brother Edgar (b.1819). Jenny was highly literate, but not much is known of her formal education. She was confirmed in the Protestant faith in 1828, but may nevertheless have attended a Catholic school, since the only private schools in Trier were Catholic. The family home was a center of spirited social life, with poetry readings and dinner parties for visiting dignitaries.

Sometime around 1817, First Councillor von Westphalen met Heinrich Marx, a 35-year-old lawyer descended from a rabbinical family, who had just undergone a Christian baptism. The conversion had been forced upon Heinrich by a Prussian decree excluding Jews from public office, including law practice. Rather than convert to Catholicism, the predominant faith in Trier, Heinrich Marx chose Protestantism, which he identified with intellectual freedom. Heinrich and Ludwig found they had much in common as middle-aged Protestants deeply involved in Trier's civic and legal deliberations.

Soon the two jurists' children, too, grew close. Sophie Marx , two years younger than Jenny von Westphalen, became her best friend. Jenny first met Karl, who was born in 1818, when she was five years old and he was a one-year-old baby. Karl quickly showed exceptional creativity and became dominant in the circle of children. When Karl was eight and Jenny was twelve, wrote Marx-Aveling, "He was a terrible tyrant; he forced them all—Jenny, her brother Edgar and Sophie—to push him in a cart fast down the Markusberg, and what was even worse, he insisted that they eat the pie he had baked with his dirty hands from even dirtier dough. They submitted to it because, as their reward, Karl told them marvelous stories."

The road to marriage was not without ruts. When Jenny was 17, she was beautiful, elegant and caught up in the midst of Trier's social whirl. A young Prussian lieutenant, Karl von Pannewitz, asked Jenny's hand in marriage, and she accepted. But Jenny soon found herself at odds with her fiancé over his belief in the duty of the soldier to blind obedience regardless of his own sentiments—even when ordered to shoot into a protest of the poor. After several months, Jenny broke off her engagement, and the lieutenant's regiment left Trier soon afterward.

Karl Marx was still only 13, but already he gave evidence of a keen mind. Baron von Westphalen became the mentor of the adolescent boy, taking him on long walks, reciting and analyzing passages from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe. Along with Jenny and her brother Edgar von Westphalen (who was a year older than Karl, a friend of his at Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium, and later a dedicated Communist), the baron and the young Karl discussed the fate of European politics. It was, indeed, through Ludwig von Westphalen that Karl was first exposed to socialism, when, without much luck, the baron tried to induce him to read the French utopian socialist Saint-Simon. Years later, Karl would acknowledge his intellectual debt by dedicating his Ph.D. dissertation to the baron.

In October 1835, Karl left for Bonn to study law. While he was home on vacation in August 1836, intent on transferring to the University of Berlin the following term, he proposed to the 22-year-old Jenny, and she accepted. Karl had begun to read deeply in critical philosophy. He had also returned with a bushy beard which, combined with his dark skin, led her to nickname him her "darling wild boar." When he left for Berlin, only his sister and father knew of the young couple's feelings for each other. "I have talked with Jenny and wish I could calm her," his father wrote to him. "She does not know how her parents will accept the news. And what her relatives and the rest of the world will say. … The sacrifice she is making to you is inestimable. Woe to you if you should ever forget it. You must now show that you are a man who deserves the respect of the world."

From Berlin, Karl sent Jenny flowery letters and, for Christmas in 1836, three books of romantic poetry he had written and dedicated to her. "Love is Jenny," ended one poem, "Jenny is love's name." Ferdinand von Westphalen, Jenny's older half-brother who had climbed past his father in the Prussian civil service and would one day serve as minister of the interior, learned from the Berlin police that Karl was keeping the company of radicals and atheists. He urged his father to force Jenny to break off the engagement. But Baron von Westphalen was fond of Karl. He believed Jenny could make up her own mind, and he held out hope that Karl might yet settle down.

Karl Marx, however, was on a decidedly unconventional path. In April 1841, he at last finished his dissertation on Greek philosophy and took his doctorate from the University of Jena, an institution he had never attended. The times were not propitious for scholars with Karl's dissident politics, so he accepted the offer of an acquaintance, Moses Hess, to join the staff of the liberal newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. Jenny,

28, still in Trier and as yet unmarried, was not thrilled. "Oh, my dear, dear darling," she wrote to him, "now you even start meddling in politics. That is the most daredevil undertaking. Remember, Karlchen, that you have a sweetheart at home who hopes and cries and is entirely dependent on your fate. Tell me, Karlchen, that I shall soon be yours completely."

In March 1842, Baron von Westphalen died, leaving his son Ferdinand as titular head of the family. Jenny's mother forbade Ferdinand from preventing her marriage to Karl, but as a journalist Karl was still receiving an income insufficient to support a wife. His career, moreover, was quickly engulfed in controversy. His first published article, on May 5, 1842, argued for free speech and press. Soon he was decrying restrictions on peasants' rights to gather wood. But in October 1842, he was made editor-in-chief of the Rheinische Zeitung, which improved his income, and that Christmas he and Jenny decided that they would marry the following June. Early in 1843, however, the Prussian ministers in charge of censorship decided to move against the Rheinische Zeitung. On March 17, Karl resigned his post. He hoped that his dissociation would save the paper, but the gesture did not satisfy the censor and the Rheinische Zeitung was suppressed shortly afterward.

Outraged, Karl decided to leave Germany and publish a paper in Paris with his friend Arnold Ruge. But before leaving he intended to marry Jenny, to whom he had been engaged for more than seven years. He wrote to Ruge that he was in love "with heart and soul" and that Jenny had "fought the hardest fights for me, fights that have undermined her health, partly against her pietistic-aristocratic relatives to whom the Lord in Heaven and Lord in Washington are equal objects of veneration, partly against my own family where some priests and other enemies of mine have installed themselves." On June 19, 1843, the marriage took place at last. By October, the newlyweds were on their way to join Ruge in Paris.

Paris, a large metropolis that was home to a substantial German exile community, awed Jenny. She quickly became friends with Emma Herwegh (1817–1904), who oversaw a literary salon and was married to the poet George Herwegh. She also participated in the animated conversations that took place among political exiles such as Heinrich Heine and Michael Bakunin in the Marxes' rented house. The first issue of the Deutsch-Franzöische Jahrbücher, as the Marx-Ruge paper was called, appeared in February 1844. It turned out to be the only issue. The paper was banned in Prussia and confiscated at the border. Furthermore, Ruge became horrified by Karl Marx's nascent alliance with the proletariat against private property and reneged on Karl's pay, leading Jenny to call Ruge an "ass."

In May 1844, Jenny gave birth to her first child, Jenny Marx —nicknamed "Jennychen" so as to distinguish mother from daughter. The baby suffered severe stomach pains, and in June, Jenny returned to Trier with her "mortally sick child" to visit her mother. In August 1844, she wrote a letter to her husband, who had stayed in Paris, with news about an assassination attempt on King Frederick William IV. The plot was not carried out by a radical, she wrote, but by a disgruntled ex-mayor who had been snubbed for a civil-service job. Karl saw that her analysis was published in Vorwärts, a German paper in Paris, under the title "Letter of a German Lady."

When Jenny returned to Paris in the autumn, she discovered that Karl had begun what would prove to be a lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels, the radical son of a German manufacturer who owned cotton mills in Barmen and Manchester. But in February 1845, Karl was expelled from France at the request of Prussia's King Frederick William IV. Jenny, pregnant with her second child, was left to retire their debts to the landlord and sell the furniture. Sick and bitterly cold, she followed after her husband to Belgium, where the family found a small house in one of Brussels' working-class neighborhoods.

In Brussels, Engels and the Marxes spent many evenings discussing issues of the day in cafés with exiled Poles, Russians and Germans. In July 1845, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels left on a trip to Manchester and London to meet with Chartists (members of a British movement for social and electoral reform) and carry out research, Jenny again spent six weeks in Trier with her mother. She wrote Karl that Germany seemed nice in comparison to the "pettiest and meanest conditions" that she had experienced in "magnificent France and Belgium." But life in Brussels was not entirely bleak, for within two years it became the birthplace of their second daughter, Laura Marx , and first son, Edgar.

In Belgium, the Marxes were joined by Helena Demuth , known within the family by the nickname "Lenchen." Demuth had been a von Westphalen family servant ever since her childhood and was sent to Jenny by her mother when she learned of the difficult conditions they faced in Brussels. Six years younger than Jenny, Demuth took care of the cleaning, cooking, baking and washing in the Marx household for nearly 40 years. Since Demuth took on most of the housework, Jenny was able to spend hours copying letters and manuscripts from Karl's illegible handwriting for publication.

In Belgium, Jenny took part in the discussions between her husband and Engels which led to the German Ideology, and she acted as the Brussels secretary for the Communist correspondence committees which they set up after their return from England. Jenny and Karl were very poor and often sick, but they welcomed in the new year of 1848 at a New Year's Eve celebration of the German Workers' Union. A report in the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung noted, "The banquet was followed by music and then by a dramatic performance, where Madame Dr. Marx showed a brilliant talent for recitation. It is very impressive to watch exceptionally gifted ladies trying to improve the intellectual faculties of the proletariat."

The year 1848 proved momentous. The year before, Karl had agreed to join the League of the Just, a German exile group centered in London, so long as it would agree to change its name to the Communist League. He and Engels began to work on the group's declaration, the now-renowned Communist Manifesto, which Jenny copied—putting the finishing touches on it in late January 1848.

The year was also a time when the aspirations of exiled revolutionaries became material. In late February, news reached Brussels of revolution in France. Karl began to make preparations to return to live under the new government, but he was caught up in the wave of reaction which swept France's neighbors. On March 4, he was arrested by the police on charges that he gave money to exiled German workers for the purchase of weapons. In autobiographical notes which she wrote in 1865 but never published, Jenny recalled that after the police took Karl away:

I hurried after him in terrible anxiety and went to influential men to find out what the matter was. I rushed from house to house in the dark. Suddenly I was seized by a guard, arrested and thrown into a dark prison. It was where beggars without a home, vagabonds and wretched fallen women were detained. I was thrust into a dark cell. As I entered, sobbing, an unhappy companion in misery offered to share her place with me: it was a hard plank bed. I lay down on it. When morning broke … I was taken to the interrogating magistrate. After a two hours' questioning, during which they got little out of me, I was led to a carriage by gendarmes and towards evening I got back to my three poor little children.

Arrest and imprisonment were not the only indignity that Jenny Marx was forced to endure. Once again her husband was expelled from a European nation, this time at the instigation of Leopold I, king of the Belgians. As a result of the political shift in France, however, Paris was willing to accept Karl Marx again. Jenny and the children returned to the city they had left three years earlier.

In Paris, where barricades still remained in the streets, the family stayed in a hotel. Karl Marx and Engels quickly formed the German Workers Party, which advocated a "red Republic" as well as political freedom in Germany. Jenny Marx served as the party's secretary. The revolutionary feeling which captivated Europe in 1848 seemed to revive radical prospects in Germany, and Karl traveled to Cologne to see about launching a new paper. When the Neue Rheinische Zeitung was launched three months later in June 1848, Jenny and the children joined him in Cologne.

For nearly a year, the paper and the party kept both Marxes extremely busy, but as the fervor of 1848 began to wane, reaction again took hold. In May 1849, Karl Marx was expelled from Germany. Having been hounded out of three countries on the Continent, the Marxes decided to travel across the Channel to London, then a magnet for revolutionary exiles from across Europe, where they would stay for the rest of their lives.

The Marxes spent their first seven years in England in severe deprivation, with death around every corner. They rented a two-room attic on Dean Street that sometimes had to house eight people—Jenny, Karl, Helena, a nurse and four children. But the mood was more of loss than overcrowdedness.

In November 1849, Jenny gave birth to her fourth child, Heinrich ("Foxchen"), who suffered cramps and died in infancy. In March 1851, Jenny gave birth to Franziska, a girl, who died a year later of bronchitis. The family was so poor that it had to borrow money to pay for Franziska's burial. On January 16, 1855, Jenny gave birth to a sixth child, Eleanor ("Tussy"), who would outlive her parents. But a few months later, the Marxes' young son Edgar, who had struggled for a year with abdominal ailments, died at age seven. The loss of their son was particularly devastating to the Marxes. Jenny wrote that death had snatched from her "the best loved being I had in the world, my dear, only Edgar. It is a pain that never heals, never becomes a scar—because neither wound nor scar will heal." In 1856, Jenny's mother, then 80 and partially paralyzed, died when Jenny returned to Trier on a visit. Yet that was not her last lament of the decade. She also lost her seventh and last child, a girl born on July 6, 1857, who died before she could be given a name. Jenny, overtaken by melancholy, never recovered completely.

Marx, Laura (1845–1911)

Daughter of Karl and Jenny Marx . Name variations: Laura Lafargue. Born Jenny Laura Marx (all of the Marx daughters carried the name "Jenny") in 1845; committed suicide in 1911 (her husband died by his own hand that same year); daughter of Jenny von Westphalen Marx (1814–1881) and Karl Marx (1818–1883, philosopher, economist and sociologist who wrote The Communist Manifesto); sister of Jenny Marx (1844–1883) and Eleanor Marx-Aveling (1855–1898); married Paul Lafargue (1842–1911); children: three, all died as infants.

Despite the omnipresence of death, along with cold, illness and malnourishment (sometimes they had to live for a week or more on potatoes alone), the Marx family in the 1850s did manage to find some pleasures. They took picnics on their Sunday excursions to the open, half-wild grounds of Hampstead Heath. Karl also loved children, and he would let his daughters Jenny, Laura and Eleanor romp on his back, even as he worked at his desk. When he began to serve as a European correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, moreover, the regular source of income led to some improvement in the family's conditions.

Jenny copied every Herald Tribune article and all of Karl Marx's pamphlets, but, for her, such labor was far from drudgery. "The memory of the days I spent in his study copying his scrawly articles," she recalled in 1865, "is among the happiest of my life." Karl's intellectual virtuosity, as manifested in such epochal works as the Communist Manifesto and Capital, was unexcelled by any radical of his day, including his famous friend and collaborator, Engels.

In the middle of the 1860s, a small family inheritance enabled the Marx family to move out of the desolate apartment where they had spent seven depressing years and to occupy a modest house. Even though Engels assisted the family with regular gifts, the Marxes barely made a living, however.

The damage to Jenny's spirit from the loss of her children and repeated political setbacks, including the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, led the pace of her participation in the socialist movement to slacken. She did, however, continue to assist in such projects as the defense of Communists put on trial in Cologne in 1852 and in the coordination of the International Working Men's Association.

Some of her responsibilities were shouldered by her young daughters. "Today little Jenny is copying the article in my place," she wrote mirthfully to Engels on December 24,1859. "I believe my daughters will soon put me out of business, and I shall then come on the register of those 'entitled to assistance.' A pity that there's no prospect of getting a pension after my long years of secretarial duties." Yet it was Jenny Marx who copied the entirety of Karl Marx's magnum opus, Capital, finishing the manuscript in 1867.

Jenny Marx had a reputation for elegance and wit that seems to have been unaffected by her own trials. Paul Lafargue recalled that she "entertained working people in their working clothes in her house and at her table with the same politeness and consideration as if they had been dukes or princes." But she dispensed with elaborate custom, especially when it came to herself. In an 1867 letter to her comrade Ludwig Kugelmann, she asked, "Why do you address me so formally, even using the term 'gracious,' for me, who am such an old campaigner, such a hoary head in the movement, such an honest fellow-traveler and fellow-tramp?"

Eleanor Marx-Aveling later said that her parents' love derived from their humor as much as from their dedication to the workers' cause. She recalled many occasions when she saw them "laugh till tears ran down their checks, and even those inclined to be shocked at such awful levity could not choose but laugh with them."

Jenny Marx lived to see each of her eldest daughters marry a French socialist, soon thereafter making her a grandmother. In April 1868, Laura married Paul Lafargue (1842–1911), with whom she had three children who died as infants. But in October 1872, Jennychen married Charles Longuet (1839–1903), with whom she had six children, four of whom lived long into the 20th century. Most of Jenny Marx's final years, however, were spent in bed with liver cancer, nursed by her youngest daughter Eleanor and her faithful housekeeper Helena Demuth. When she died at the age of 67 on December 2, 1881, her last words were, "Karl, my strength is gone." With her passing, his strength also left. The untimely death of their daughter Jennychen in 1883 was the final blow. Within a month, Karl Marx succumbed to the many maladies that had long afflicted him.

Jenny and Karl Marx were buried together, along with their servant Helena Demuth and one of their grandsons, in London's Highgate Cemetery. At her graveside, Friedrich Engels delivered the eulogy for Jenny Marx:

What such a woman with such clear and critical intellect, with such political tact, with such passionate surges of character, with such capacity for self-sacrifice, has done in the revolutionary movement, that has not been pushed forward into publicity, that is not registered in the columns of the periodical press. That is only known to those who lived near her. But that I know, we shall often miss her bold and prudent counsels, bold without brag, prudent without sacrifice of honor.


Marx, Jenny. "Short Sketch of an Eventful Life," in Marx and Engels Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Collected Works. 50 vols. NY: International, 1975. Appendices to the volumes of correspondence include many letters by Jenny Marx.

Peters, H.F. Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx. London: Allen and Unwin, 1986.

suggested reading:

Blumenberg, Werner. Karl Marx. London: New Left Books, 1972.

McClellan, David. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. NY: Harper and Row, 1973.

Christopher Phelps , Editorial Director at Monthly Review Press in New York City