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Birnbach, M. (1987). The Angry Marx. Am. Imago, 44(3):195-211.

(1987). American Imago, 44(3):195-211

The Angry Marx

Martin Birnbach

Karl Marx's writings contain little enough humor. Nearly all of it is of the nature of sneers, taunts, and gibes, the studied insult rather than the light-hearted quip. Marx's humor is more like anger, his laughter what the novelist Zamyatin calls “a distant echo of an explosion within us….” And as Zamyatin also puts it, laughter is “the most terrible of weapons; you can kill anything with laughter, even murder.”1 Again and again Marx's jokes are ill-concealed, excessive, and lethal.

We know very well that authors project their personalities into their writings, intentionally or not; so did Marx. In this essay I will show that repeatedly the personality that Marx reveals in his humor expresses hostility, antagonism, and contempt, and that much of the aggressive humor in Marx's writings is directed against rival political economists who could have been threats to him, Proudhon in particular. The language of his writings suggests that Marx is defending his appropriation of a major concept from Hegel: by coming to terms with Hegel emotionally as well as intellectually, Marx was able to emancipate his thinking and unleash the extraordinary intellectual powers for which he is justly famed. I will argue that Marx thus left himself with the problem of defending the authenticity of his legacy, which accounts for the polemical style of so many of his writings.

Marx's daughter, Eleanor, saw another side to him, “the cheeriest, gayest soul that ever breathed … a man brimming over with humor and good-humor, whose hearty laugh was infectious and irresistible….” Perhaps that needed the qualification given by Marx's semi-official biographer Mehring: “In his family circle and amongst friends he was always a cheerful and witty companion whose deep-chested laughter came easily.” Paul Lafargue, Marx's son-in-law, let the cat out of the bag.

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