It is usually the case for significant birthdays of well-known personalities to be valued by documentaries or TV films. Books alike, whether it be biographies or historical novels, in the course of big sales opportunities are (once again) published. It happened once more lately upon the bicentenary birthday of a famous German philosopher: Karl Marx.
Who is Marx?
Well, I have to face it: Regrettably I know very little about Marx. Unfortunately he has never been part of my (history) education that’s why I can just come up with some superficial knowledge. As his name implies, he is the founder of Marxism and skeptical about capitalism, based on and simplified said that the ideology of capitalism exploits common workers, even degrades them to a mere commodity. Amongst others I remember that Marx & Engels were often mentioned in the same breathe and their busts – unless until 1989 – enjoy places of honour especially in the “communist part of the world.”
Marx in Algier
As Marx‘ theories (to the extend that I know them) do not alienate me at their core, I decide to take this opportunity to engage myself in this matter and find out some details about this philosopher and dissident. I chose a TV production with an approach of a documentary called “Karl Marx: The German philosopher” to start with, which was shown on Arte lately. The starting sequence already dazzled me. The film starts with a sequence in Algier, where Marx spends a health therapy in spring 1882. Of all places, Algier! Marx visited an Arabic country. I am spellbound – I instantly want to know every detail about it. The part of the film that takes place in Algier is however so short that my piques my curiosity but does not satisfy it.
Reason for this journey are health problems. Next to a skin disease a severe bronchitis threatens him. Another distinctive fact of his stay in Algier is a visit to an Arabic shaver who does not only trim his mane but also his beard.
He has travelled from Marseille to Algier on board of the steam-ship „Said“ (the lucky one). On February 20th 1882 he arrives in North Africa. The film however does not reveal more on that stay than what has already mentioned before. Especially one thing is left unsettled: How did Marx experience the colonial Algeria? He, who seems to have had a particular eye on social circumstances, should have concerned himself with the living conditions under French colonial rule.
The blind spot
Actually the ten week’s stay of Marx in North Africa seems to be a kind of blind spot of his biography. Comparatively little has been published on that topic so far. There is the record of journalist Marianne Vesper “Marx in Algier” of 1995 on the one hand and on the other hand there is Hans Jürgen Krysmanski’s book: “Karl Marx’ last journey” from 2014. Just published has been Uwe Wittstock’s work: “Karl Marx at the barber. Life and last journey of a German revolutionary”, which has already received favourable critics and has just found its way onto my private book list.
An excerpt of Wittstock’s biography raises some questions: Was Algier a kind of collecting pit a that time for dissidents of the French and other European governments (as a reminder: Marx was stateless at the time)? What means exile to one person is the occupied homeland of another. As the French had already “furnished” their adopted country in a French style: old Arabic houses made room for numerous villas of rich French people with luscious gardens. The first chapter however gives the impression that Marx spend his time in Algier among like-minded people: Europeans that live a privileged life in French occupied Algeria.
Was that the birth of his saying: “All that I know is that I am not a Marxist?”
Marx leaves the Algerian capital on May 2nd, 1882 on board the steam-ship “Peluse”. He returns to Europe where he dies almost one year later in London.