The father of Communism has quite the reputation as a philanderer with vulnerable women. He had seven children with his aristocratic German-Scottish wife Jenny von Westphalen. He also had an illegitimate child that he never acknowledged and tried to pawn off as being Engels’ with Jenny’s long-suffering maid Helene Demuth, while his wife was pregnant. (1)
Superficially you’d think there was no suspicion that Marx had any sexual inclinations towards his own gender, but there is some evidence from his early years that he certainly flirted with homosexuality during his time at the University of Bonn from 1835-36 as well as after in his largely ignored 1839 poem ‘Oulanem’ which is modeled on his life as a student at both the Universities of Bonn and Berlin.
One of the very few biographers who has dealt with Marx’s pre-revolutionary life at length is Robert Payne who alludes to Marx having had a homosexual relationship with an older man – and likely a Professor - ‘in the Greek style’ while he was attending the University of Bonn between 1835 and 1836.
Using the correspondence on 8th November 1835 between Marx and his father (Marx’s original letter was likely weeded out by Soviet archivists as they were widely known to have done with evidence about the dark side of Marx) as his basis he writes that:
‘Marx finally wrote home, inclosing a poem, which his father found completely incomprehensible, and there appears to have been a long account of his relationship with an older man, perhaps a professor, for Heinrich Marx permitted himself a long paragraph on the beauty and nobility of such friendships “understood in the classical sense.” He rejoiced that his son had a deep friendship with an older man, and at the same time he felt it necessary to warn him against certain unspecified dangers in such a relationship. “I have not the least doubt that you will remain morally pure,” Heinrich Marx wrote, and he earnestly reminded his son that the great safeguard for leading a moral life was a belief in God.’ (2)
Unsurprisingly most biographers of Marx simply rush through his period at the University of Bonn even those who are studying his life and ideas before he conceived of the ideas on the subjects of philosophy and economics that became Marxism. David McLellan in his ‘Marx before Marxism’ , for example, rushes through Marx’s period at the University of Bonn in three pages and quickly moves on to his time at the University of Berlin. (3)
The fact that Marx was writing at length to his father about an older man with whom he shared a deeply personal relationship and that his father took this to quite clearly to mean that this relationship was homosexual in nature (hence the references to ‘in the Greek style’ and the warning about dangers and ‘staying morally pure’ ).
Heinrich Marx appears to have wanted to believe that no ‘impurity’ had occurred and since he had quite the blind spot as to his son’s conduct. (4) Then it would seem that it is rather up to the interpreter to say whether or not it is likely that Marx engaged in homosexual activity, except that we have additional evidence that such a relationship was likely sexual.
This is provided by Marx’s 1839 autobiographical poem ‘Oulanem’ , which Payne – as one of the few biographers who have spent time studying Marx’s early non-philosophical work – has commented on as follows:
‘What is especially remarkable is the presence of a homosexual theme which is not implied but stated directly without any subterfuges.’ (5)
As well as:
‘We gain nothing by peering at the unwritten acts of the drama; it is enough that we have the struggle convoluted torso with its thundering curses, homosexual fantasies and tender love scenes, the shadow of corruption falling over every action and every speech.’ (6)
Put another way: Marx tells his father about a very strong and personal relationship with romantic overtones with an older man while he was at the University of Bonn. His father then interprets this as a homosexual relationship that hadn’t turned sexual yet and then gets Marx to move to the more serious and prestigious University of Berlin a few months later citing Marx’s spendthrift habits and general debauchery, but which may have had another motive altogether.
Then three years after Marx has left the University of Bonn for the University of Berlin; he pens a long autobiographical poem which has an explicitly homosexual relationship and sexual fantasies as its central theme.
That doesn’t sound like a coincidence: does it?
We cannot say for certain, but the evidence does rather tend towards the conclusion that Marx was a practising homosexual in his student days, which then ceased as far as the evidence suggests when he married Jenny von Westphalen.
However that relationship and subsequent marriage doesn’t alter that the evidence points to at a period of homosexual activity in Marx’s life. It merely means that Marx either repressed his homosexuality or that he was bisexual.
It is that simple.
- Francis Wheen, 1999, ‘Karl Marx’ , 1st Edition, Fourth Estate: London, pp. 171-175; Tristram Hunt, 2009, ‘Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels’ , 1st Edition, Henry Holt: New York, pp. 199-200
- Robert Payne, 1968, ‘Marx: A Biography’ , 1st Edition, W.H. Allen: London, pp. 43-44
- David McLellan, 1972, ‘Marx before Marxism’ , 2nd Edition, Pelican: London, pp. 60-62; similarly David McLellan, 1976, ‘Karl Marx: His Life and Thought’ , 1st Edition, Granada: London, pp. 16-18
- Payne, Op. Cit., pp. 42-55;
- Ibid, p. 68
- Ibid, p. 73