Karl Marx returns to Berlin

Sabine Kritter, the curator of the "Karl Marx and Capitalism" exhibition at the DHM, spoke to us about the many faces of Marx

Your commune needs you. Marx comes to the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Image: DHM

The big “Marx year” was 2018 when we celebrated the 200 years since his birth. So the obvious question is why Marx, why now?

You’re right, it’s not an anniversary, and the exhibition is not a biographical survey of Marx’s life. Rather, we’re interested in different perspectives on capitalism in the 19th century. We’re also planning an exhibition on Richard Wagner in April. So this year we’ll deal with two German figures and the way they approached the massive economic, social and cultural changes that happened in their times. Interestingly, Marx’s theories evolved with the historical situations he was confronted with and we think there are some parallels between our times and the radical changes that took place in the 19th century.

He thought workers shouldn’t work more than six hours a day – on the other hand, he said fighting for shorter working hours is like slaves fighting for more to eat!

So you see similarities between the early stages of capitalism Marx knew and criticised, and the digitalised age of capitalism we live in today?

Yes, take the tremendous changes brought about by digitalisation for example. Something similar happened in the 19th century, when the introduction of machinery radically changed the way people lived and worked. It changed the relationship between human beings and labour, but also raised many questions about the relationship between humankind and machines, just the way artificial intelligence does today.

Surprisingly, you have a section on nature and ecology in the exhibition. Did Marx have much to say about environmental issues?

Actually more than what you’d think. It’s not so well known, but Marx also dealt with ecological issues. He was an early proponent of penguin poop or guano, as a way to fertilise soil. His main concern here was to solve the challenge raised by Malthus – how to feed an exponentially increasing population with a limited availability of food supply. He really went into chemical analysis of the potential of guano. However, he finally concluded guano wasn’t such a perfect fertiliser, that intensive exploitation of soil has its limits.

Marx believed that exploitation of workers and of nature went hand-in-hand. There’s a quote I like where he says, “Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”

But next to his criticism of capitalism’s greedy exploitation of natural resources, Marx was a huge supporter of the modern technology that was to accelerate the destruction of our planet. He was fascinated by all that new machinery…

Yes, he thought it was a huge progress that capitalism was able to produce so much more. He was fascinated by all this machinery, which, like the steam machines, used a lot of coal and was polluting the atmosphere. So, of course, I wouldn’t say he would be an ecological activist by today’s standards, but he pointed to the systematic depletion of natural resources and criticised it. He also criticised private ownership of forests that led to their exploitation and destruction for profit.

Marx may have been a tiny bit ‘green’, but you wouldn’t call him a feminist, right? He fought to emancipate workers, but he was never interested in the emancipation of women. What are his credentials in terms of women’s rights?

As a principle Marx did believe that there should be no real emancipation of workers and society at large without the emancipation of women. You find this in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, for example. It was a very progressive position, but he mainly dealt with women’s working conditions. He also harshly criticised the exploitation of the female workforce in Das Kapital.

Meanwhile he led a pretty conservative bourgeois lifestyle, with his wife Jenny (née von Westphalen) in the supportive role as mother, housewife, personal assistant …

Absolutely. Jenny fled her provincial, aristocratic social milieu to marry Marx, a man below her in terms of class status. She wanted to escape boring Trier and the fate of women of her class. For a woman of that time, she had an active role, including her own political positions, but yes, as Mrs. Marx she led a typical married life taking care of the kids and the household. Meanwhile, she’d discuss her husband’s texts with him and transcribe them. Some of her own ideas ended up in his work. Also her English was better than his and when they moved to London, she helped with the English text a lot.

[We] are not the owners of the globe.. only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and… must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition

In the exhibition you set up a fictitious dialogue between one of the most extraordinary Marxist feminists of the 1870s, Victoria Woodhull who founded the first newspaper to print the Communist Manifesto in English, in 1872, and Marx himself – can you say more about this?

Yes, in the practical context of the First International he did oppose someone like Victoria Woodhull, who was the first woman to run for the presidency in the US at a time when women couldn’t vote, and was fighting for women’s suffrage.

For Marx, the workers‘ issue was the priority and had to be solved first. He criticised Woodhull and her New York Section of the International Workingman’s Association for pushing voting rights for women to the forefront, Victoria Woodhull also openly advocated women’s sexual liberation and that’s not something Marx could understand, that free love could be part of a worker’s movement.

Then, the conflict between them encompasses the worker’s movement at large. Should a workers’ movement deal only with worker’s issues or also with topics like sexual liberation and women’s suffrage? This was part of the conflict and it ended with Woodhull and the New York Section being expelled at the First International, in 1872.

On the Jewish Question, an essay Marx wrote as a 25-year-old grandson of two rabbis, earned Marx the reputation of being a “self-hating Jew”. Are you shedding a different light on this issue as well?

Marx grew up in a Jewish family who converted to Protestantism, which his dad did when their hometown of Trier passed from liberal French rule to Prussia. He had to in order to con- tinue practicing as a lawyer. Marx was himself baptized as a Lutheran, but was an atheist all his life. He wrote On the Jewish Question in 1843. In it he supported the emancipation of the Jews.

But there were also pretty damning parts reinforcing antisemitic stereotypes, for example characterising Jews as the epitome of money-hungry capitalists.

This is the second part, in which he essentially reproduces pretty typical antisemetic stereotypes of his time, by which Jews are portrayed as greedy and selfish. For him, these “Jewish principles” have become the prevailing principles of modern, capitalist Christian society. It is part of his critique of finance capital. This is in the 1840s when Marx hadn’t started analysing capitalist production yet, and he’s focused on the financial sphere.

Would you say that Marx was an anti-semite?

I mean, the arguments he uses are antisemitic stereotypes that were common among socialists of his time. He doesn’t reflect on them. I think what’s important is that in the 1850s when Marx starts dealing in depth with capitalist economy – and that the finance sphere is one aspect combined with production – he doesn’t return to those stereotypes anymore. I think it’s important, that it is part of an analysis of financial capital that vanishes later in life.

Did you discover anything new about Marx while putting together this exhibition?

I found the fact that Marx dealt with ecological questions new. I also found it interesting that Marx actively supported workers’ unions to stand up against bosses, so he didn’t always advocate revolution, but engaged in concrete battles to improve working and living conditions here and now.

He thought workers shouldn’t work more than six hours a day – on the other hand, he said fighting for shorter working hours is like slaves fighting for more to eat! So for Marx there are different approaches and strategies which depend on the historical moment. Often, you know Marx as a revolutionary communist, not necessarily as a unionist.

In a country like Germany where the DDR experience – but also the far-left terrorism of the 1970s in West Germany, contributed to discredit Marx and Marxism, do you see a Marx revival, especially among younger generations?

I think the financial and economic crisis in 2007-08 changed a lot about how Marx is dealt with in social sciences and in public or political debates. Even within political movements. Many of the things that people held for certain – that free market capitalism would give us security and material comfort forever – these certainties have been shattered.

In the years following the crisis, many went back to Marx. Even liberal economists like Hans-Werner Sinn said Marx was right in certain aspects of how to deal with capitalist crises. In the social sciences, but also philosophy, there are more debates on Marxist ideas, especially the concept of alienation. This is particularly true for younger generations and it shows.

That’s what you can see in the IPSOS survey conducted for the DHM last summer: when asked if they thought Marx’s critique of capitalism was relevant today, a majority of those aged between 16-22 thought it was – and it’s the same among their grand- parents’ generation aged 55-65. So I guess you can say that after two generations, the interest in Marx is back.


Sabine Kritter is the curator of the exhibition „Karl Marx and Capitalism“. Born in 1975, she joined the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin in 2020 after co-curating exhibitions at the memorial sites Ravensbrück, Wewelsburg and Sachsenhausen.