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?
He started complaining about pus-discharging boils in 1864, when he was 46. Shuster says thathidradenitis, which causes swelling, skin thickening and scarring, could also explain a number of his other physical ailments, among them joint pain and a painful eye condition. His attempts at treatment, which included arsenic and lancing, would hardly have helped his concentration or his mood.
Shuster based his retrospective diagnosis on Marx’s correspondence with friends in which he frequently wrote about his ill health, describing his skin lesions as “curs” and “swine.” His only consolation, he said, was that the carbuncles were “truly a proletarian disease.”
Should they now be factored into Marx’s insistence that the bourgeoisie must be overthrown by the working class at whatever cost? Or are they merely an interesting detail to be added to the body of knowledge on a failed political ideology and its chief exponent?
The 19th-century philosopher Thomas Carlyle famously argued that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Or evil ones.
What became known as the Great Man theory of history – which holds that it is individuals who push forward events, who are the agents of change, for good or for ill – once held academic dominance. It fell out of favour in recent decades, at least until recently.
“I think the pendulum is starting to turn back to emphasizing personality along with the structural determinants of history, economics, cultural aspects and so on,” says University of Toronto historian Sidney Aster.
For instance, Aster wonders if the fact that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s gout flared up on the morning of Sept. 3, 1939 lead to war being declared that particular day: “A sort of, `Let’s get this over with, I want to go home.'”
Not, of course, that Chamberlain’s gout was the sole determinant of the timing of the war.
Any more than Napoleon’s hemorrhoids decided the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo.
They matter in the sense that he was plagued by them that day, perhaps undermining his tactical thinking and losing him the battle. But would Napoleon’s roar through Europe have come to an end nonetheless? Of course.
Does it matter that poor King George III, during whose reign the American colonies were lost, was not mad, but misunderstood? It’s now accepted that he suffered from a severe form of porphyria, a rare blood disorder, and wasn’t periodically as mad as a March hare. America, in any event, was en route to independence.
In Pox, her 2004 history of syphilis, American historian Deborah Hayden says that many prominent 19th and 20th-century figures in diverse fields suffered from the disease. She lists Beethoven, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler as likely syphilitics.
Hayden draws a parallel between the effects on the brain of advanced syphilis and of manic-depression (bipolar disease), which has been linked by some researchers to increased creativity.
In late-stage syphilis, episodes of euphoria and heightened perception occur, which surely, she argues, must have had some influence on these people’s output.
Of course, the later stages can also lead to raging mania.
Hitler is indeed thought by some historians to have suffered from syphilis. Could it be linked to his hatred of the Jews and persistence in a catastrophic war that was lost long before it actually ended?
That a Jewish prostitute in Vienna had infected him was a notion that the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, among others, once advanced in a search for the “why” of Hitler. Proponents say that the (on-again off-again) theory could account for Hitler’s well-documented and multiple health problems (from skin lesions to an abnormal heartbeat), his lack of sexual interest in his mistress/last-minute wife, Eva Braun, and his personal physician being Germany’s leading syphilis expert.
It might also account for Hitler’s progressively irrational outbursts. After the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last, unsuccessful offensive, in December 1944, he hysterically screamed: “We will not capitulate. Never. We can go down. But we will take a world with us.”
Supporters say there is convincing, if circumstantial, medical evidence to support the retrospective diagnosis. Others counter that, if true, it might in part explain Hitler the man, but not German’s embrace of Nazism. Still others roll their eyes.
“It’s perfectly appropriate to look at the personal circumstances of influential historical figures,” says U of T historian Jeffrey Kopstein.
“But it’s not all right to reduce their ideas to their health conditions.”
Yet Sidney Aster cites the eminent historian Ian Kershaw’s latest book, Fateful Choices: Ten Choices That Changed the World 1940-1941, as part of the trend back to the personal.
Kershaw examines the emotions, as well as the circumstances, which framed the decisions made by Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, Mussolini and Stalin.
Speaking of whom, a famous Soviet doctor once was asked how Stalin was. “What can I say?” he replied. “He’s paranoid.”
(He was killed a few days later on Stalin’s orders.)
“Without a doubt,” says Aster, “Stalin’s paranoia had an effect on the history of the Soviet Union.”
But were Marx’s carbuncles the start of it?
By Wed., Dec. 26, 2012Psychology