Isabelle Garo: “The statue of Marx as an elderly, bearded man concealed a dense and lively life”


Many biographies have abundantly presented the journey of the author of « Capital », but what we retain from the little book proposed by the philosopher Isabelle Garo is his singular journey « from anger to communism ». Karl Marx, young Rhinelander, in love with poetry and French literature, educated in loyalty to the Enlightenment and hostile to the Old Prussian Regime, secret lover of Jenny von Westphalen, comes, after studying law, to be passionate about philosophy and politics. Having become a journalist, the young left-wing Hegelian discovers the misery of the people, that of the proletariat of the cities and the countryside, and therefore the injustices linked to the nascent capitalism. From Trier to Paris via Berlin, his personal choices are inseparable from the history of Europe on the eve of the 1848 revolution and will lead him to upset theory as much as politics, in order to “become communist”.

Why dwell on the first two decades of the philosopher’s existence, whose main works were written later?

These first decades (the book goes up to his 26th birthday) are decisive, it is the time of his formation, of his first meetings, of his first reflections too, because Marx is incredibly precocious and creative, bubbling with energy and of projects. His anger at injustice is combined with his passion for theory and politics. He will never separate the will to understand and that of intervening in the reality of his time. Marx was for a long time statuetted as an elderly and bearded man, this imagery obscuring the dense and animated life that was his, his incessant questionings and doubts, his activity as a journalist and activist which accompanied his theoretical work all his life. Understanding ideas from life and not the other way round is, after all, one of the great theses of Marx himself and the collection “At Twenty Years” from Au Diable Vauvert editions corresponded perfectly to this approach.

You situate in detail the family and regional but also historical and political environment in which the child evolves. What do we discover there?

The book deals with this story, which is not well known in France: Marx was born in 1818 in Trier. The city was occupied from 1794 by the troops of the Convention repelling the counter-revolutionary forces based in Koblenz, a stone’s throw away. Trèves will only be annexed to Prussia in 1815, following the Congress of Vienna. In the book, I specify the painting of what is much more than a background. During Marx’s childhood and adolescence, the Rhineland was traversed by very specific social and cultural fractures which sought their political expression. In this rural region which is just beginning to industrialize, peasants and craftsmen are confronted with economic difficulties, sometimes with poverty, a first rural and worker proletariat is formed, as well as a bourgeoisie which aspires to moderate political reforms. , calling into question the feudal yoke while fearing the rise of socialist ideas. At the same time, the Prussian power remained absolutist, rejecting liberal and national aspirations, fiercely repressing all social protest, imposing reactionary measures and constant surveillance. This stifling climate exasperates a refractory youth to which Marx belongs and who debate another future: should we support constitutional reform, defend atheism, build German unity, take refuge in philosophy, fight for equality? , fight nascent capitalism? In an unstable world and in an entire Europe in turmoil, the revolution of 1848 gave very early on its first signs and Marx was one of its most attentive seismographs.

How are his family environment, in particular the figure of his father, Heinrich, and his influences very important in Karl Marx?

His father, Heinrich, son of the rabbi of Trier, is a lawyer, he is an educated man, a great admirer of Enlightenment thought, who campaigns for liberal reforms. Threatened with a professional ban by the anti-Semitic measures taken by the Prussian monarchy, he was forced to convert. His mother, from a Jewish family in Holland, had nine children, many of whom died very young. Karl was brought up in a Francophile atmosphere and in a love of knowledge and literature: Dante and Shakespeare would be his favorite authors until the end of his life. His father had as a friend his neighbor Ludwig von Westphalen, also a cultured man and critical – cautious – of Prussian absolutism. Karl loves to chat with him during long hikes and a deep friendship will bind them despite their age difference. Ludwig von Westphalen is also the father of Jenny, the future wife of Marx, whom the latter then meets almost daily, a young educated woman who actively participates in their political discussions. But only Marx was lucky enough to have access to the high school in Trier, forbidden to girls, where many teachers developed protest ideas and suffered Prussian repression. This family and social life, both fulfilling and constrained, will thus play a decisive role in the construction of his personality.

Attracted by writing, he enrolled in law school and abandoned a possible career as a writer. Why ?

Marx had an early passion for poetry; from the age of 15, he sometimes devotes his nights to writing. But the project of becoming a poet quickly comes up against the evidence: his texts are not very good. His literary projects are as numerous as they are unfinished, while philosophy and politics interest him more and more. But above all, he needs to work as quickly as possible in a remunerative profession in order to be able to get married, while he is secretly engaged to Jenny. A legal career seems the most direct route. Law studies are not quite a choice, but Marx has a very real interest in legal questions, even if he considers them fairly quickly with a critical eye. He then plans to teach philosophy, in vain, then opts for journalism, with great success, before censorship leads him into exile. His studies in Bonn and then in Berlin, his rapprochement with the critical movement of the « young Hegelians » will allow him to quickly acquire a very wide culture, responsibilities too, as well as a reputation as a promising and combative young intellectual.

How does the thesis he defended in 1841 already seem to contain what would be the guiding thread of his work?

In Berlin, Marx discovers a political and intellectual capital under close surveillance, very different from his city of birth. At Humboldt University, he took many courses, law, literature, philosophy. A tireless worker, he was passionate about Hegelian philosophy, a major thought of the time. He also discovers the circles of young critical intellectuals who use philosophy as a means of contesting the reactionary Prussian monarchy and its state Catholicism. Karl Marx then approaches in particular Bruno Bauer, who is already a teacher and who urges him to write his thesis in turn. Marx chooses to deal with the philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus, materialist thinkers of antiquity. Under its academic appearances, its subject nevertheless presents contemporary issues, starting with the question of the relationship between ideas and historical reality.

His criticism of the Hegelian political philosophy on the state is already specified in 1842. He is only 24 years old. Why is it so current today?

Hegel, who died ten years earlier, is the great German thinker whose legacy is disputed between very conservative heirs and young atheist and critical disciples. The originality of Marx’s criticism is that it will continue throughout his work and that it stems from an endless dialogue. In 1842, his criticism of the Hegelian conception of the state turned towards the demand for a democracy extended to all social life, a « true democracy », says Marx, who would always denounce politics in the purely institutional and state of the term. This redefinition of a policy returned to the working classes will not disappear from his work. This is why this first critique of Hegel is an important milestone in his evolution towards communist and revolutionary convictions.

Exiled to Paris in 1843, he began to write his « Introduction », in which he defined a « human revolution » as an alternative. What are the first elements?

This “Introduction” was supposed to precede his analysis of the Hegelian philosophy of law, which will remain unfinished. It is, in all respects, a text of transition: transition between the Rhineland and Paris, between a world that has remained feudal and a capitalism in the making where the labor movement is being built, between democratic options and a now revolutionary bias, between the philosophy and something else, which Marx will call the “critique of political economy”, inseparable from a militant commitment. This short, fiery text corresponds to his discovery of the proletariat and its historical role. First theoretical discovery then concrete meeting, in Paris, with the first organizations.

Was it therefore a decisive moment for Marx, analysis of political philosophy but also exile in popular Paris, which led him to “become a communist”?

In Paris, Marx consolidates his orientations: he meets militants, he reads the French socialists and communists but also the English economists, he continues his previous reflections and his work as a journalist. From this point of view, if his transition to communism indeed dates from this period, two reservations must be added. On the one hand, it is not a sudden conversion but a revolutionary choice asserting itself as circumstances seem to him to bar any other way to a radically emancipatory perspective. On the other hand, communism as it then existed was not really his: the word had a rather vague, literary meaning, centered on the abolition of private property. Marx will clarify this while reflecting on the specific role of communists within a broader and more diverse labor movement.


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