Jenny Marx’s life of struggle and sacrifice in the cause of the working class

A tribute to the woman who made a vital yet routinely overlooked contribution to the founding of scientific socialism.

Jenny Marx was as committed to the cause of proletarian revolution as her husband, but since her contribution was to facilitate his great work, it is too often ignored. Yet according to Engels, ‘she not only followed the fortunes, the labours, the struggles of her husband; she took an active part in them with the highest intelligence and the deepest passion’.

To mark International Working Women’s Day, we are publishing this tribute to Jenny Marx, a woman whose immense value has gone almost unrecognised because she was outshone by her husband.

Early years

Both Jenny Von Westphalen, and Karl Marx grew up among the liberal intelligentsia of Trier, a small but vibrant town in Prussia. Her father was a government official and his was a successful lawyer.

They were much of the same age, both members of the local elite club, both highly steeped in high French culture, interested in literature, philosophy and issues of good governance, both working for a living but both well-to-do. Jenny, who was four years older than Marx, had been best friends with Marx’s older sister.

Jenny and Karl, then, both grew up in this atmosphere of learning, developing deep intellectual curiosity that led them almost inevitably to turn seriously to the social problems of the day, in particular poverty and what to do about it. It was on these issues that their minds met and they became indispensable to each other.

When Jenny was 24 and Karl was 20, the couple got engaged. Marriage was delayed in the expectation that Karl would complete his doctorate at the University of Berlin (which he did aged 23) and get a job that would enable him to keep her in the style to which she had been accustomed – already something difficult as he had marked himself out as a troublemaker opposed to the authoritarian Prussian monarchy of the time.

However, when in May 1842 he was offered a post with a good salary as chief correspondent for a new political magazine, the Rheinische Zeitung, set up by wealthy businessmen, it appeared that his future was secured and the couple married a year later in June 1843, five years after they had become engaged.

The Rheinische Zeitung

The magazine was produced in Cologne, which at the time was the most progressive city in Prussia.

According to Mary Gabriel’s comprehensive biography of the Marx family: “In his investigation [for the magazine] of ‘practical questions’ Marx was apparently unconcerned that his articles criticised the very system many in his audience championed and that his writing might cost him the support of shareholders. In fact, as Marx quickly matured as a journalist, the newspaper became more radical.

“The Rheinische Zeitung was relentless in its coverage of the Rhineland diet and the government in Berlin, meticulous in its presentation of the facts (as its editors saw them), probing in its analysis, and mocking in tone. It spoke to the educated classes in Prussia in a bold new voice, and subscriptions grew from four hundred to thirty-five hundred in the first year.” (Love and Capital, 2011, p52)

Unsurprisingly, it was not long before the magazine fell foul of the censor and was closed down. This left the Marxes in financial difficulty, as they had no family money to speak of. By the time they married, both their respective fathers had died, and with them went the main source of the family incomes. Their mothers were not in a position to assist to any great extent, though some very modest help probably did come occasionally from one of Jenny’s uncles.

Nothing daunted, they were still full of confidence that Marx’s intellectual brilliance would see them through. And, in fact, he was very soon offered a job on another projected magazine, the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher, to be based in Paris away from censorial meddling, at an equivalent salary. Unfortunately, the first issue, which came out in 1844, did not sell well and the paper folded without producing a second one.

Jenny gave birth to her first child, Jennychen, in France on 1 May 1844, but it was soon decided that she would need to return to Trier to get her mother’s help in looking after the baby. She was to be separated from Marx for several months.


In the meantime, Marx was briefly unemployed again. However, he used his time both in studying economics and in mixing in revolutionary circles, becoming convinced for the first time that communism was needed in order to solve the problem of poverty.

By the time his next job came up, as a contributor to the progressive journal Vorwärts that had been set up by German refugees, he had matured politically and become truly revolutionary. He wrote extensively for the journal and also had one of Jenny’s letters published anonymously in its pages.

Written in August 1844, the letter spoke of an attempted assassination of the Prussian king by a desperate poverty-stricken man, concluding: “For three days the man had been begging in vain in Berlin in constant danger of death from starvation – hence it was a social attempt at assassination! If something does break out, it will start from this direction … the seeds of a social revolution are present.”

Shortly afterwards, Jenny returned from Trier with the child and with Helene Demuth, a young wet nurse and domestic help organised by her mother. While working for Vorwärts, Marx had met a young contributor from Manchester, Friedrich Engels, who was to become his lifelong collaborator, starting with their joint authorship of The Holy Family in 1845.


But the Prussian government put pressure on the authorities in Paris to close down Vorwärts, and in January 1845 Marx and other German members of the magazine’s staff were ordered to leave the country. Marx and Jenny settled in Brussels, which is where Marx and Engels worked on the Communist Manifesto, published three years later in London by the Communist League (February 1848).

Without Jenny’s support, however, it is unlikely that Marx’s genius would have seen the light of day: she deciphered his famously impossible handwriting and prepared his materials for publication, in particular the The German Ideology, which was also published in 1845.

In 1846, Marx and Engels set up a ‘Communist Correspondence Committee’. Jenny played a major role in the work of the committee and participated eagerly in its debates. She became the first member of the League of the Just (Communist League), and also took an active part in the German Workers’ Union that was organised by Marx and Engels.

The 1948 revolution

During 1848, Europe was in turmoil, with starving peasants abandoning their fields and congregating in the cities in the hope, mostly vain, of finding work. Insurrections broke out in several European countries, starting with France and spreading to Belgium, Austria and several German states – and in every country the police and government spies were hard at work trying to douse the flames.

Marx had been given asylum in Belgium on the strict condition that he refrain from political activity. However, not only had he co-authored the incendiary Communist Manifesto in February of that same year, he was also engaging himself in practical revolutionary activity, including spending the little money he had left on purchasing arms for the rebels. The condition for his stay was manifestly being broken, and in 1848 the Marxes were expelled from Belgium, having first been arrested and kept for some hours in jail.

Although initially welcomed back to France, they very shortly had to decamp to Germany, where insurrections were taking place in several cities and had in some cases brought about democratic concessions from various states governments.

In Cologne, Marx and Engels set up the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the first issue of which appeared on 31 May 1848. This was a daily paper that took up all Marx’s time, and was, of course, fiercely supportive of the insurrections. It ran to 301 issues, but after the rebellion was quelled in the Rhineland, and Prussian King Frederick William IV revoked all democratic changes that had been wrested from him, Marx was issued with an order of expulsion – which he printed in the all-red-ink final issue.

Jenny went to her mother in Trier, while, after a brief period wandering around Germany, Marx headed to Paris – from where he was pretty soon expelled again.

Arrival in England

Hounded out wherever they went, the Marxes finally set sail for England in August 1849.

Here they had to endure the most abject poverty for the first three years of their stay. This was a poverty of pawnshops, debt collectors and bailiffs; and begging friends for help when necessary to get over the worst of their destitution – a coffin to bury a deceased baby who had never had a crib because there was no money to buy one, for example.

Throughout this period of utter penury, both Jenny and Marx suffered terribly, with four of their seven children dying in infancy. These babies might well have survived in more salubrious circumstances, but never once did Jenny blame Marx for their troubles. She fully understood that “All the pressures we now feel are only the sign of an imminent and even more complete victory of our views.”

She did not realise just how long it would take for that victory to emerge. Despite the difficulties she was enduring, she was to describe her time copying out Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (published in 1852) as among the happiest of her life.

Whenever they did come into a little money, mainly from small inheritances from family members, the Marxes spent freely. Their home was at all times open to help fellow refugees, even when they were confined to the two rooms of a small flat in Dean Street, Soho, and food was scarce. The flat was extremely untidy and dusty, but by all accounts the conversation was brilliant, with Jenny shining as much as her husband.

Improving finances

Engels went back to working at his father’s factory in Manchester and was able to offer the Marxes a little financial help. Finally, however, in 1852 Marx was offered work writing for the New York Daily Tribune (circulation 200,000), initially at £1 an article, rising in due course to £2.

This was a real life-saver. At first, Engels wrote the articles, then later translated the articles Marx wrote in German; but finally Marx was happy enough with his command of English to write the articles himself. Jenny worked preparing the handwritten scripts for publication. At all times, the fees went to Marx and enabled the family to survive.

Jenny’s mother died in 1856 and Jenny received from her mother’s estate a sufficient inheritance to enable the family to move out of the seamy streets of London’s Soho to the healthier air of Haverstock Hill where they rented a small house.

Engels was able to give more financial help after his father died in 1860, but they went through another period of hardship after 1861, when the New York Daily Tribune closed down with the advent of the American civil war. This simultaneously starved the Engels family business in Manchester of cotton, its essential raw material, thus reducing the ability of Engels to come to the rescue of the Marxes.

It was at this time that Marx endeavoured to secure employment as a railway clerk, but was rejected because of his terrible handwriting. Unemployed, Marx was able to labour away day and night on his work on Capital.

In 1963, Marx’s mother died, and with the money from her estate plus a generous legacy from an old comrade the Marxes were able to acquire a larger home in the Haverstock Hill area and live in some style – until the money, inevitably, ran out.

Publication of Das Kapital

In 1869, Engels sold his share of the family business for a very good price and was able to provide the Marxes with a modest pension, as well as paying all their medical expenses, while he himself was able finally to devote all his time to his writing and political work.

When the first volume of Capital had appeared in 1867, there were high hopes all round that it would sell well, bring the Marxes a good income and enable them to pay off their many debts. It was, however, simply ignored. Jenny was outraged on her husband’s behalf:

“You can believe me when I tell you that there can be few books that have been written in more difficult circumstances, and I could write a secret history of it which would tell many, extremely many, unspoken troubles and anxieties and torments. If the workers had an inkling of the sacrifices that were necessary for this work, which was written only for them and for their sakes to be completed they would perhaps show a little more interest,” she wrote in a letter to Louis (Ludwig) Kugelmann. (24 December 1867)

The Paris Commune

1871 was the year of the Paris Commune and its defeat. Refugees poured into Britain from France, and the Marxes opened their home to many desperate people. Jenny’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, husband of Laura, noted that for Jenny, “social distinctions did not exist; she entertained working people in her home and at her table as if they were earls or princes”.

She herself noted: “In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks. This does not banish the worries and the daily small miseries gnaw slowly but steadily on one’s courage to face life. I speak out of thirty years experience.”

Meanwhile, Marx dedicated himself to writing an analysis of the Commune, his famous pamphlet The Civil War in France.

“The Civil War in France sold thousands of copies, went through three editions in two months, and was translated into every European language. It was Marx’s most successful writing to date, topping his address on the Franco-Prussian war.

“An early Marx biographer observed that, prior to the Commune, not even one in one hundred members of the International in France, let alone the general public, knew Marx’s name. In London, he was nearly a complete unknown. But after the Commune, his years of obscurity were over. Karl Marx was known to the world: he was the evil architect of the Commune, the father of revolution.” (Love and Capital, p272)

End of life

Jenny died of liver cancer on 2 December 1881. But as she lay in her bed a couple of days earlier, she was able to rejoice that at last her husband’s most magisterial work, Capital, was being noticed.

The book had been reviewed in a new monthly magazine called Leaders of Modern Thought, in which a young man named Belfort Bax had written that the work “embodies the working out of a doctrine in economy comparable in its revolutionary character and wide reaching importance to the Copernican system in astronomy, or the law of gravitation and mechanics”.

Jenny could feel that her whole life was finally vindicated. Marx, however, was devastated by his loss. Engels commented that when Jenny died, “the Moor [his nickname for Karl] is dead too”.

Because Marx was also very ill, he could not attend Jenny’s funeral at Highgate cemetery. His place was taken by Engels, who delivered a very moving funeral oration. Having briefly outlined her life’s trajectory, Engels concluded:

“What such a woman, with such clear and critical intellect, with such political tact, with such passionate energy 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 honour.

“Of her personal qualities I need not speak. Her friends know them and will never forget them. lf ever woman found her highest happiness in rendering others happy, that woman was she. The place where we stand is the best proof that she lived and died in the full conviction of atheist materialism.

“Death had no terrors for her. She knew that one day she would have to return, body and mind, to the bosom of that nature from which she had sprung. And we, who now have laid her in her last resting-place, let us cherish her memory and try to be like her.” (3 December 1881)