Casting Adam Smith, Karl Marx as Tabloid Fodder

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 8/09/2008 07:52:00 PM
It's a sorry reflection of modern society how the chattering classes just lap up tabloidal fare with gusto. Perhaps it's just human nature; people enjoy bringing others down via the "tall poppy syndrome"--especially those who claim the high moral ground or at least allude to being virtuous. Standard fare includes those old standbys, marital infidelity and patronizing prostitutes. Contemporary examples of the former include Bill Clinton and John Edwards. Examples of the latter include F1 pooh-bah Max Mosley and Elliot Spitzer. Indeed, Mosley and Spitzer goes for the daily double by both engaging in infidelity and prostitution. Although folks like to tie perceived private character defects to a lack of virtue in conducting public affairs, I don't necessarily see things that way. Think Dubya versus Clinton; it's not always clear cut.

Today's post concerns two of the greatest thinkers of political economy being subject to similar scrutiny: what a leveller it would indeed be if the fellow who wrote the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the founder of Marxism himself could be brought down to the gutter of modern-day tabloid fare. Tall poppy syndrome, indeed. The thing is, we no longer have these gents around to do Edwards-style "ah huv sinned" confessions or investigators to dig up the dirt. Really, what we can go by is not enough to have the characters of Smith and Marx impugned.

Let us begin with Adam Smith. It may surprise many that this great champion of commercial activity was an active contributor to charity throughout his life, and that he left most of his estate to charity in the absence of an heir. Nevertheless, there has always been a passage which has raised the eyebrows of the chattering classes in the Wealth of Nations. While discussing the nutritional properties of potatoes, of all things, Smith offers anecdotal evidence that the Irish--including Irish prostitutes--look plenty hale and hearty to him. While Smith says that the Scots who mostly consume oatmeal bread do not appear as healthy to him as the wheat bread eating English, the Irish appear to be similarly nourished as the English:
The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions [!?], are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root [the potato]. No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.
This rather odd allusion to Irish prostitutes being "the most beautiful women in the British dominions" suggests to some that, yup, Adam Smith was a john. In a book review of a biography on Smith, Bloomberg columnist Matthew Lynn writes:
The Scotsman never married, nor has Buchan dug up any serious liaisons. Smith did once assert that the Irish prostitutes of London were the world's most beautiful women, which suggests to Buchan that the price mechanism might have governed that aspect of his life [!--and double--!!]
Hearsay and innuendo, eh? Would we have a lower opinion of Smith if he indeed used the price mechanism to get some of what Marvin Gaye sang about? I haven't come across the Buchan book yet, although it certainly pushes the limits of speculation. 'Tis tabloid fodder.

Let us now move to the famously hirsute Karl Marx. I first encountered the suggestion that the housekeeper of the Marx family, Helene Demuth, bore Karl an illegitimate son, Freddie Demuth, in Francis Wheen's Karl Marx: A Life. In that book, it is treated as sordid fact that Karl Marx got his housekeeper with child yet kept her in his residence together with the rest of the Marx clan until his death. This bit of historical curiosity about the life and times of Karl Marx has never been firmly established, however, unlike how Wheen makes it seem. Given that the father of Freddy Demuth was never identified, the circumstances which led to Helene Demuth's son being born have always attracted attention:

Freddy would be an altogether minor character in any consideration of Engels’s life or Marx’s, were it not for a document, first published in extracts in 1962. According to the story recounted there, Freddy is suddenly a relation of Marx and his family and – in an ambiguous way – of Engels himself. Ostensibly the tale concerns Marx and his alleged affair with the housemaid, but it is Engels who plays the central role in the supposed narrative.

This typewritten document appears to be a letter dated 2-4 September 1898, written by Louise Freyberger née Strasser (1860-1950), three years after the Engels household broke up. As Louise Kautsky, the recently divorced wife of the prominent German socialist Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), she had been asked by Engels, within a month of Lenchen’s death, to keep house for him, and she arrived post haste from Vienna. In 1894 she married Dr. Ludwig Freyberger, another émigré, and he came to live in Engels’s house, too – much to Eleanor’s displeasure, as she disliked Louise and her influence over Engels, then in his seventies (2 K 444; 2 H 725-6).

The document spins a lurid tale of deathbed revelations by Engels to Eleanor Marx, principally the claim that Marx himself was Freddy’s father. Fearing gossip imputing paternity, Engels is said to have declared ‘the truth’, in case he should be accused, after his death, of treating Freddy shabbily. The date on the document is some six months after Eleanor’s suicide, so if there was a letter, Eleanor was conveniently out of the way, though others mentioned as in on the story to some degree – such as Sam Moore (c. 1830-1911), Marx’s English translator, and Eleanor’s sister Laura – clearly were not. The addressee of the supposed letter, the prominent German socialist and trade unionist August Bebel (1840-1913), or anyone else who had been the recipient of such tales from Louise, could have checked with them.

Professor Terrell Carver at Bristol, a well-regarded scholar on Marx who I've had the pleasure of meeting before, avers that the balance of the evidence weighs against Karl being the father of Freddy Demuth:

Reasons for believing that Marx was Freddy’s father:

  • a circumstantial and reinterpretive ‘fit’ between Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim and various letters that survive;
  • testimony in their own letters that Bebel and Zetkin believed Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim based on their respective close relationships with Louise and Engels (Bebel) and with Eleanor Marx (Zetkin).

Reasons for not believing that Marx was Freddy’s father:

  • no direct evidence that bears unambiguously on this matter;
  • direct evidence from correspondence that those in contact with Freddy were not concerned with his paternity;
  • direct evidence from correspondence that those concerned with the original ‘scandal’ were not at odds with each other from 1850 onwards;
  • direct evidence that the 1895 Engels ‘deathbed’ revelations made no difference to those involved;
  • no source for any concern about this issue other than Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim (in the 1890s and after the 1960s), other than the suggestion from Bebel that Louise had told him something about Engels/Marx/Freddy in the early 1890s; the recollection from Zetkin that Eleanor had told her that Marx was Freddy’s father; and Frederick’s self-interested and otherwise unsupported claim to be ‘the son of the great Marx’;
  • lack of recorded comment on the subject from numerous people who are all said (by Louise or Zetkin) ‘to know’, e.g. Frau Marx, Moore, Eleanor Marx, the Lafargues, Jenny (Marx) Longuet, Engels, Ludwig Freyberger, Lessner, Pfänder, Parvus [pseud. Alexander Lazarevich Gel’fand or Helphand], Tanya Helfand [Parvus’s wife], ‘a friend of Bernstein’s’ etc. ... other than the self-declared sceptics Bernstein and Kautsky (in so far as we have their directly recorded comments, which neither Louise nor Zetkin take up directly);
  • Bernstein (in 1898) and Kautsky (in 1929) say directly that they don’t believe Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim, or that they are not convinced by what they’ve heard of it, giving their reasons (e.g. that it was out of character for Marx, and that Louise’s character lent itself to fantasy);
  • confusion about the one (supposed) letter that would confirm the ‘Engels accepted paternity to get Marx off the marital hook’ thesis (of course, Freddy’s father might really be someone else anyway, even if Marx had had an affair and thought he was the father, and so wanted to ‘transfer’ this to Engels);
  • Louise had 52 more years in which to tell the tale, and no obvious reason why not (i.e. unlike Zetkin, she was not a political figure, nor even a party stalwart).
Unless they can exhume the bodies of Karl Marx and Freddy Demuth, gather samples, perform modern DNA testing, and establish the much-ballyhooed father-son relationship between the two, I'll side with Professor Carver. The bulk of the evidence suggests such is not the case. Nonetheless, I highly suspect that these great thinkers of political economy will have a hard time escaping these taints on their character given their prominence in the intellectual firmament.