A comeback for the 'Great Man' theory? What does Marx's illness tell us?

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It emerged this week that Karl Marx, the father of communism, suffered from a chronic and excruciating skin disease with known psychological effects that might have had an impact on his political theories.

The 19th-century revolutionary thinker had a condition called hidradenitis suppurativa, in which the sweat glands in his armpits and groin become blocked and inflamed and his skin covered in boils and carbuncles.

Or so argues Sam Shuster, a professor of dermatology at Britain's University of East Anglia.

"In addition to reducing his ability to work, which contributed to his depressing poverty, hidradenitis greatly reduced his self-esteem," writes Shuster in the current British Journal of Dermatology.

"This explains his self-loathing and alienation, a response reflected by the alienation Marx developed in his writing."

But does it also explain communism? Could Marx's anger over the class struggles of history and the ongoing oppression of the proletariat have been fuelled by his disease?

Marx published Das Kapital in 1867, the same year in which he wrote to his Communist Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels that "the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day."

Though hardly known for it, was Marx joking? Entirely?

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Stephen Cipolla - 11/7/2007

It is totally ridiculous to try to reduce Marx's theory of alienation to his bad skin. I have read, among others, Francis Wheems' bio of Marx and it is clear that the man spent many days in horrible pain due to this skin condition. Equally clear is that he spent thousands of hours seated (in pain) in the British Museum developing the most sophisticated, extensive analysis of any economic system in history.

Perhaps if he'd had a few more carbuncles the incremental increase pain would have helped him fully understand and explicate the "transformation problem."

Perhaps the most ridiculous suggestion in the piece is that the skin condition might have contributed to his theory of alienation. Marxist "alientation" is focused upon the relationship between the worker and the commodity he / she makes. It was not a psychological condition characterised by dissociation or phobias. The worker's labor creates the value in the commodity, which by the boss and sold for a profit. In the meantime the worker gets a subsistance wage.

This is not Durkheim or Kafka we're talking about (maybe toenail fungus was at the root of their theories of alientation, but not Marx's.)

Lorraine Paul - 11/7/2007

Does this man not realise the economic system under which Marx lived may have had more to do with his 'condition'? That his 'condition' may have grown out of the poor diet which is the only avenue for the poverty stricken?

Another 'victim-blaming' twirp!

As for where does this leave 'communism'? Poverty can focus a fine mind to search for a better and more equitable system.