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The Young Marx's Poetic and Literary Project – Michael Heinrich Interview with TV Boitempo

Updated: May 26, 2021

Karl Marx started to write poems already in school time. He was probably forced to by school because in these years in Germany, it was very usual that the pupils not only should read poems and understand what a poem is, but that they should also write poems by themselves. Also, for the educated citizen it was seen as a quite normal qualification to be able to write a small poem, just (let us say…) for a birthday of a relative or something. But Marx, the young Marx, wanted more. He was very engaged with art and he not only wrote poems, but he also tried to improve the poems. We know that he worked on the poems – he changed certain lines to have a better poem. When he already started his main subject of study was law. His father was a lawyer and probably recommended for him to study law, either to become lawyer or get a position in the state administration. Marx did this (studied law), but I think his real desire was to become a poet – a poet in a certain, rather romantic, combination with politics.

The early romanticism was progressive (in contrast to the late romanticism) and these early romanticists wanted to change the world by poeticizing the world. I think the very young Marx was a little bit in this tradition. He wrote poetry, he also started writing a kind of humoristic novel in the tradition of Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy and he also wrote fragments of a tragedy influenced by Goethe's Faust. This (writing) lasted for several years and even the very first publications of Marx were two poems in January of 1841! But Marx gave up his desire to become a poet.

Very often, it is said that Marx saw that he was not really talented, so he gave up his attempts at poetic writing. But I think this is not really true. He criticized his own writings, but you can find nowhere a remark where he said something like, “Oh, I’m not talented enough.” He criticized his poems on the basis that they were idealistic, and he used this word in the sense that the poems confronted the desirable ideal of the world with the bad situation (reality) of the world. Just by putting this together, the ideal and the bad world, the romantic idea was that the world would become better. This idea was criticized very fiercely by the philosopher Hegel who Marx started to study when he came to Berlin. My idea, which I present in the 1st volume of the biography, is that the very young Marx in Berlin read volume 1 of Hegel’s Aesthetics and he read a certain chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit by Hegel where Hegel criticizes precisely this kind of understanding of art. Marx was hit deeply by this critique. I think already, at this time, he was very aware of what he was doing and also of the weaknesses of what he was doing. And so, he had to admit, “This critique means me!” It’s like Hegel knows the young Marx and the young Marx has to admit, “Yes, he hits me, and I have problems finding counterarguments.”

From this first long letter that Marx wrote to his father we know he tried to resist. He wrote a dialogue called “Cleanthes” in which he tried to form and articulate some principles of philosophy and art and with the help of the philosopher Schelling (originally a friend of Hegel, later they split) he tried to put something against Hegel. In the letter to his father, he wrote that, “OK, the last statements of this dialogue led me to the first sentence of Hegel.” So, he was immanently beaten by Hegel and I think this was the reason that he had to give up his poetry.

In most biographies, it is told that he gave up the poetry because he didn’t believe that he had the talent for it. I think giving up the poetry meant, for Marx, giving up his first idea of what a useful life is – a poet who is working for mankind through his poetry. These were the ideas of the very young Marx and now he had to give them up. And this provoked a crisis. So, giving up the poetry (I think) is a much more serious event in Marx’s life than foreseen (until now) in the biographical literature.

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