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“Are you studying…on Mary?”

August 9, 2013

If it is Mary Burns’ death, not life, that scholars focus on, that is because it occasioned a momentous falling-out between Engels and Marx—the only one recorded in four decades of close friendship. The earliest signs of discord date back several years. During a sojourn in Belgium between 1845 and 1848, during which the two men wrote the Communist Manifesto, Mary went to live in Brussels, an unusual adventure in those days for someone of her sex and class. Jenny Marx had few acquaintances among working-class women, and was undoubtedly shocked when Engels held up his lover as a model for the woman of the future. Burns, Jenny thought, was “very arrogant,” and she observed, sarcastically, that “I myself, when confronted with this abstract model, appear truly repulsive in my own eyes.” When the two found themselves together at a workers’ meeting, Simon Buttermilch reported, Marx “indicated by a significant gesture and a smile that his wife would in no circumstances meet Engels’ companion.”

It was against this backdrop that Engels wrote to Marx to tell his friend of Mary’s death. “Last night she went to bed early,” he wrote, “and when at midnight Lizzie went upstairs, she had already died. Quite suddenly. Heart disease or stroke. I received the news this morning, on Monday evening she was still quite well. I can’t tell you  how I feel. The poor girl loved me with all her heart.”

Marx sympathized–briefly. “It is extraordinarily difficult for you,” he wrote, “who had a home with Mary, free and withdrawn from all human muck, as often as you pleased.” But the remainder of the missive was devoted to a long account of Marx’s woes, ending with a plea for money. “All my friends,” Engels fired back in anger, “including philistine acquaintances, have shown me, at this moment which hit me deeply, more sympathy and friendship than I expected. You found this moment appropriate to display the superiority of your cool intellect.”

Read More | “How Friedrich Engels’ Radical Lover Helped Him Father Socialism” | Mike Dash | Smithsonian