He began writing poetry as a boy, around two main themes: his love for the girl next door, Jenny von Westphalen, of Prussian-Scotch descent, whom he married in 1841; and world destruction. He wrote a great deal of poetry, three manuscript volumes of which were sent to Jenny, were inherited by their daughter Laura and vanished after her death in 1911. But copies of forty poems have survived, including a verse tragedy, Oulanen, which Marx hoped would be the Faust of his time.
Two poems were published in the Berlin Athenaeum, 23 January 1841. They were entitled ‘Savage Songs’, and savagery is a characteristic note of his verse, together with intense pessimism about the human condition, hatred, a fascination with corruption and violence, suicide pacts and pacts with the devil. ‘We are chained, shattered, empty, frightened/Eternally chained to this marble block of being,’ wrote the young Marx, ‘…We are the apes of a cold God.’ He has himself, in the person of God, say: ‘I shall howl gigantic curses at mankind,’ and below the surface of much of his poetry is the notion of a general world-crisis building up. He was fond of quoting Mephistopheles’ line from Goethe’s Faust, ‘Everything that exists deserves to perish’; he used it, for instance, in his tract against Napoleon III, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire’, and this apocalyptic vision of an immense, impending catastrophe on the existing system remained with him throughout his life: it is there in the poetry, it is the background to the Communist Manifesto of 1848, and it is the climax of Capital itself.
Marx, in short, is an eschatological writer from start to finish. It is notable, for instance, that in the original draft of The German Ideology (1845-46) he included a passage strongly reminiscent of his poems, dealing with ‘the Day of Judgment’, ‘when the reflections of burning cities are seen in the heavens…and when the “celestial harmonies” consist of the melodies of the Marseillaise and the Carmagnole, to the accompaniment of thundering cannon, while the guillotine beats time and the inflamed masses scream Ça ira, ça ira, and self-consciousness is hanged on the lamppost’. Then again, there are echoes of Oulanen in the Communist Manifesto, with the proletariat taking on the hero’s mantle. The apocalyptic note of the poems again erupts in his horror-speech of 14 April 1856: ‘History is the judge, its executioner the proletariat’-the terror, the houses marked with the red cross, catastrophic metaphors, earthquakes, lava boiling up as the earth’s crust cracks.
The point is that Marx’s concept of a Doomsday, whether in its lurid poetic version or its eventually economic one, is an artistic not a scientific vision. It was always in Marx’s mind, and as a political economist he worked backwards from it, seeking the evidence that made it inevitable, rather than forward to it, from objectively examined data. And of course it is the poetic element which gives Marx’s historical projection its drama and its fascination to radical readers, who want to believe that the death and judgment of capitalism is coming. The poetic gift manifests itself intermittently in Marx’s pages, producing some memorable passages. In the sense that he intuited rather than reasoned or calculated, Marx remained a poet to the end.