Ask anyone on the street if they have heard of Karl Marx and the answer more often than not would be yes. Ask those same people what they know about Marx and the responses will be wildly different - and usually wrong.
More than 128 years after his death, not to mention the countless wars and governments fought and formed in his name, who is Karl Marx? I would wager few truly know, and yet he continues to be part of our political dialog, as controversial today as he was unknown during his own time.
In fact, there were two Karl Marxes - the myth and the man. Marx's theory has been used to create the myth of the socialist god or demon, but the man can be found in just one place, among his family. That is the only place one can truly learn to understand him: the place where Marx developed the ideas that would change the world.
And yet, I discovered, that is the area where he has been least often sought. Part of the reason was that his personal story had become yet another battleground, between those who wanted to erase its more sordid details and those who believed as I do that unless one is introduced to Marx's life it is nearly impossible to comprehend his theory. This tug of war over Marx's legacy began immediately after his death in 1883 but intensified as his following grew. Somewhat surprisingly his family was on the side of full disclosure.
Shortly after Marx's youngest daughter, Eleanor, discovered in 1895 that her father was not the exalted being she had devoted her life to serving, she began to distinguish between Marx the political thinker and Marx the man. She needed to separate the two to survive.
The latter Marx -- the impoverished, irresponsible, and cruelly selfish Marx -- had just been painfully revealed to her: she discovered that one of her closest friends, a 45-year-old man named Freddy Demuth, was actually her half-brother. Eleanor learned that having abandoned this child to a foster family in 1851, her father never materially supported him or offered him the consolation of his love.
Like her mother and two sisters, Eleanor had built her life around her father. She believed in his vision of a society without exploitation like a religion, and accepted without complaint a lifetime of personal sacrifice because her father said it was necessary. Their shared goal was much bigger than themselves or their individual needs. Indeed, even after the revelations concerning Freddy, Eleanor still believed in Marx's cause. Her faith in the private Marx, however, was shaken.
It took Eleanor a year to recover from her shock and come to the conclusion that it was important that both sides of the incredible man she called father deserved to be understood. Members of his "party" -- those young followers who claimed socialist and Marxist mantles -- weren't so sure. They feared any personal failings on the part of "the man, the mere man" would reflect negatively on their fledgling organizations and they worked to sanitize Marx's life story.
Eleanor shrugged off the efforts, even allowing some of her father's personal letters to be published. She may have continued to wage that fight but she didn't live long enough to do so. Eleanor killed herself in 1898; the weight of her problems and disappointments had become unbearable.
And so, at the start of the twentieth century, when Marx's name finally gained the currency that eluded him during his own lifetime, the Karl Marx that emerged was nearly more myth than man. To some, he was a stern oracle whose words could be manipulated to support repressive governments, justify massacres, and fight wars. To others, he personified political and social evil. These viewed him as anti-freedom, anti-religion, anti-family, and anti-progress.
To many others -- those tens of millions without food or shelter, those children condemned to work long hours, those men and women exploited as the rich became richer -- he was the beneficent father who offered the hope of a meal and a bed, and ultimately a brighter future. But all of those visions of Marx were muddled. They reflected more on the beliefs and aspirations of the person or party that conjured him up than on the Marx who lived from 1818 to 1883, devoting his life to the study of man's interaction with other men.
The confusion that arose then, and continues to arise today, was due in part to the fact that the people acting in Marx's name did not know him (perhaps did not care to know him); they knew a version of his philosophy. His personal story had either been buried, some of it under orders by Stalin, or altered to suit political purposes.
Against this backdrop, as Marx would have wished, scholars have focused primarily on his theory. There are libraries of books, in nearly every language, dissecting Marx's words. Brilliant pieces have been published by dedicated historians and political scientists analyzing Marx's ideas.
But I found that Eleanor's quest to introduce her father as a man, a husband, and a father -- for better or worse - had languished. In the dozens of biographies of Marx in English alone, I found a slightly personalized version of the myth, but not the flesh and blood creature I had hoped to discover. In 2003, I decided to try to find the real Marx myself.
After digging through archives in four countries, and reading thousands of pages of letters, the man I discovered - brilliant, exasperating, funny, and passionate - bore no resemblance to the legend whose face scowls down from communist propaganda posters.
He was a man, a mere man (as his followers had so feared), which made him all the more approachable and sympathetic. His theories became more comprehensible, too, because there was a story behind them. I knew what he had lived through while writing them. I knew of the physical and mental sacrifices he and his family made along the way. Marx's philosophy was no longer remote.
It became for me the document of a life's struggle - his and our own.