Marx in the german historical museum: this is what the curator says

We talk to Sabine Kritter, curator of the new exhibition "Karl Marx and Capitalism" at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. It is not only about topics like Marx and anti-Semitism and how to relate it to the present time. But also about some of the lesser-known facets of the father of "Das Kapital" – and, among other things, his interest in ecology and the use of pingunin excrement for fertilization.

"Karl Marx and Capitalism" are the topic at the German Historical Museum. The picture shows the bronze sculpture of Marx and Friedrich Engels at the Marx-Engels Forum in Berlin. Photo: Imago/Steinach

Exhibition is "not a biographical overview of Marx’s life"

tipBerlin The big Marx year was 2018, when we celebrated the anniversary of his 200th birthday. birthday. So the obvious question is: Why Marx, why now??

Sabine Kritter You’re right, it’s not an anniversary, and the exhibition is not a biographical overview of Marx’s life. Rather, we are concerned with different perspectives on capitalism in the 19. Century. We are also planning an exhibition in April on Richard Wagner’s. So this year, we’re looking at two German personalities and how they dealt with the massive economic, social and cultural changes in their time. Interestingly, Marx’s theories evolved with the historical situations he faced, and we think there are some parallels between our time and the radical changes in the 19th century. Century gives.

tipBerlin So you see similarities between the early stages of capitalism that Marx knew and criticized, and the digitalized age of capitalism that we live in today?

Critics Yes, take for example the enormous changes that digitalization is bringing about. Something similar happened in the 19. Marx was fascinated by the nineteenth century, when the introduction of machines radically changed the way people lived and worked. It changed the relationship between man and work, but also raised many questions about the relationship between man and machine, just as artificial intelligence does today. Who is ultimately in control? Is it the people or is it the machines? You see, they are similar discussions.

Karl Marx and ecology: a view for the planet

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

Critics Actually more than one would think. What is less well known is that Marx was also concerned with ecological issues. He was an early proponent of penguin droppings or guano (single-grain powder made from the excrement of seabirds, note.d.R.) as a means of fertilizing the soil. His main concern was to change the way in which Malthus’s (British economist, note.d.R.) to solve the challenge posed – how to feed an exponentially growing population with limited food availability. He was deeply involved in chemical analysis of the potential of guano. Eventually, however, he concluded that guano is not such a perfect fertilizer and that intensive exploitation of the soil has its limits. Marx believed that the exploitation of workers and nature go hand in hand. I like a quote of his in which he says: "Even a whole society, a nation, even all societies existing at the same time taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its owners, its beneficiaries, and like boni patres familias they must pass it on to future generations in an improved condition."

tipBerlin But in addition to his criticism of capitalism’s greedy exploitation of natural resources, Marx was also a big proponent of modern technology to accelerate the destruction of our planet. He was fascinated by all these new machines…

Critic Yes, he thought it was a great advance that capitalism could produce so much more. He was fascinated by all these machines, which, like steam engines, consumed a lot of coal and polluted the atmosphere. Of course, I wouldn’t call him an environmental activist by today’s standards, but he pointed out and criticized the systematic depletion of natural resources. He also criticized the private ownership of forests, which has led to their exploitation and destruction for profit.

Karl Marx: First the workers, then the women

tipBerlin Marx may have been a bit "green," but you wouldn’t call him a feminist, would you? He fought for the emancipation of workers, but he was never interested in the emancipation of women. What are his position when it comes to women’s rights?

Critic Basically, Marx believed that without the emancipation of women, there should be no real emancipation of workers and society in general. This can be found, for example, in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann. It was a very progressive position, but he was mostly concerned with women’s working conditions. He also sharply criticized the exploitation of female labor in Das Kapital.

The logo of the exhibition on Karl Marx at the German Historical Museum. Photo: DHM

tipBerlin In the meantime, he led a fairly conservative bourgeois lifestyle, with his wife Jenny (nee. von Westphalen) took on the roles of mother, housewife, personal assistant…

Critics Exactly. Jenny fled her provincial, aristocratic milieu to marry Marx, a man below her class standing. She wanted to escape from the boring Trier and the fate of the 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 children and the household. Meanwhile, she discussed her husband’s texts with him and transcribed them for him. Some of their own ideas were incorporated into his work. Moreover, her English was better than his, and when they moved to London, she helped him a lot with the English texts.

tipBerlin In the exhibition, you staged a fictional 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 that?

Kritter Yes, in the context of the First International, he opposed someone like Victoria Woodhull, who was the first woman to run for president in the U.S. (at a time when women could not vote) and fought for women’s suffrage. For Marx, the workers’ question was paramount and had to be solved first. He criticized Woodhull and her New York chapter of the "International Workingman’s Association" for bringing women’s suffrage to the fore, Victoria Woodhull also openly advocated women’s sexual liberation, and this Marx could not understand, that free love could be part of a labor movement. Then the conflict between them encompasses the labor movement as a whole. Should a labor movement deal only with workers’ issues or also with issues such as sexual liberation and women’s suffrage? This was part of the conflict, and it ended with Woodhull and the New York section being expelled from the First International in 1872.

Poster of the Occupy movement with portrait of Karl Marx
by designer Azlan McLennan, 2008 Photo: Azlan McLennan, Melbourne/Australia

Marx and anti-Semitism

tipBerlin The essay "On the Jewish Question," which Marx wrote as the 25-year-old grandson of two rabbis, earned him a reputation as a "self-hating Jew". Throw a different light on this issue as well?

Critics Marx grew up in a Jewish family that converted to Protestantism. His father did so when their hometown of Trier passed from liberal French rule to Prussia. He had to do this in order to continue to practice law. Marx himself was baptized Lutheran, but was an atheist all his life. In 1843 he wrote the paper On the Jewish Question. In it he argued for the emancipation of the Jews.

tipBerlin But there were also quite disparaging parts that reinforced anti-Semitic stereotypes. One example is his characterization of Jews as the epitome of money-grubbing capitalists.

Critics This is the second part, in which he essentially reproduces fairly typical anti-Semitic stereotypes of his time, portraying Jews as greedy and selfish. For him, these "Jewish principles" have become the dominant principles of modern, capitalist, Christian society. This is part of his critique of finance capital. This is in the 1840s, when Marx had not yet begun to analyze capitalist production and was focusing on the financial sphere.

tipBerlin Would you say that Marx was an anti-Semite??

Critics The arguments he uses are anti-Semitic stereotypes that were common among socialists of his time. He did not question it. Importantly, in the 1850s, when Marx begins to look in depth at the capitalist economy – and that the financial sphere is one aspect, along with production – he doesn’t return to these stereotypes. It is important to see that they are part of an analysis of finance capital that later disappears.

Marx in the german historical museum: this is what the curator says

"Das Kapital," personal copy by Karl Marx with handwritten annotations
Publishing house of Otto Meissner Hamburg, 1867 Photo: International Institute of Social History, Amste.

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

Critics What was new for me was that Marx dealt with ecological issues. I also found it interesting that Marx actively supported unions to fight back against the bosses. So he did not always advocate revolution, but engaged in concrete struggles to improve working and living conditions here and now. He believed that workers should not work more than six hours a day – on the other hand, he said that fighting for shorter hours was like slaves fighting for more food! So there are different approaches and strategies for Marx, depending on the historical moment. Marx is often known as a revolutionary communist, not necessarily as a trade unionist.

tipBerlin In a country like Germany, where the experience of the GDR, but also of the left-wing extremist terrorism of the 1970s in West Germany, contributed to a discrediting of Marxism, do you see a revival of Marx, especially among younger generations?

Critic At least that’s what the exhibition seems to indicate. I think the financial and economic crisis of 2007-08 changed a lot about how Marx is treated in the social sciences and in public or political debates. Even within political movements. Many of the things that people thought were certain – that free market capitalism would give us security and material comfort forever – those certainties were shattered. In the years following the crisis, many returned to Marx. Even liberal economists such as Hans-Werner Sinn said that Marx was right in certain aspects of dealing with capitalist crises.

In social sciences, but also in philosophy, there are more debates about Marxist ideas, especially about the concept of alienation, and in the past decade many books on sociology have been published. This is especially true for the younger generations, and it becomes visible. This is shown by the IPSOS survey conducted last summer for the German Historical Museum: When asked if they thought Marx’s critique of capitalism was relevant today, a majority of 16- to 22-year-olds said it was, and the same was true of their grandparents’ generation, aged 55 to 65. So you can say that after two generations the interest in Marx is back again.

tipBerlin If Marx showed up today, what would you ask him?

Critic I would ask him what he thinks about what has been made of his ideas, especially in socialist countries.

About the person

Sabine Kritter is the curator of the exhibition "Karl Marx and Capitalism". Born in 1975, she joined the German Historical Museum in Berlin in 2020 after co-curating exhibitions at the Ravensbruck, Wewelsburg and Sachsenhausen memorials.

  • German Historical Museum, Unter den Linden 2, Mitte, 10.2.-21.8., tagl. 10 am – 6 pm, 8/ 4 €, info and tickets here

More on the topic

In honor of Karl Marx the boulevard of the GDR bears his name. Learn more about this street and socialism in Germany. Even decades later, traces of the GDR can still be found in reunified Berlin. We have tips for you, where you can trace the East in the middle of the city. We will keep you up to date on the best current exhibitions on our exhibition calendar.

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