Karl Marx had a real pain in the ass. And pains in his crotch, eyes, liver and on his skin.
Actually, Marx had an array of afflictions at the end of his life as he was struggling to complete volumes II and III of Das Kapital.
Marx’s poor health, which he described as “the wretchedness of existence,” began to decline in 1849 with onset of liver and gall bladder problems. The problems plagued him for the remainder of his life.
It would be easy to attribute all of Marx’s late life health issues to the life-long heavy drinking starting in the 1830s when as a young student he joined the Trier Tavern Club drinking society in his hometown of Trier, Germany, which was part of Prussia at the time.
However, his work habits and a possible hereditary condition combined with his overall lifestyle seem equally to blame.
Marx worked long hours, often through the night. He would obsessively revise works, making progress toward completion slow.
During the last years of his life what he was working on obsessively were volumes II and III of Das Kapital.
Marx liked highly seasoned food, smoked fish, caviar, and pickled cucumbers, according to biographer Werner Blumenberg. Marx also smoked a lot of cheap cigars.
These behaviors probably brought on attacks of headaches, eye inflammation, neuralgia, and rheumatic pains. Another symptom was insomnia, which Marx self-treated with narcotics.
But what was probably among the most uncomfortable symptom that affected his work were boils often described as “carbuncles.”
According to his biographer, the boils were so bad that toward the end of his life Marx could neither sit nor work upright. Marx had persistent carbuncles in the armpits, groin, perianal, genital area (penis and scrotum) and suprapubic regions and inner thighs.
Needless to say, these conditions put Marx in a really bad mood. He had frequent conflicts with everyone around him including his writing and business partner Friedrich Engles.
However, Marx’s skin condition offered a clue that more than his lifestyle may have contributed to his horrendous health issues.
Dermatologist Sam Shuster of Newcastle University in England conducted a retrodiagnosis of Marx’s skin disease in 2007.
Shuster concluded most probable explanation was that Marx, amazingly, did not suffer from liver problems.
Instead, Marx had a condition called hidradenitis suppurativa, which is a recurring infective condition that causes “blockage of apocrine ducts opening into hair follicles.” https://web.archive.org/web/20170219163032/https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/hidradenitis-suppurativa/
The exact cause of hidradenitis suppurativa is unclear, but it thought to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. About a third of people with the disease have a similarly affected family member.
Hidradenitis suppurativa was not discovered – “described” in medical literature – until the 1930s. Hidradenitis suppurativa can produce joint pain that could be mistaken for rheumatic disorder as well as painful eye conditions.
To arrive at this retrodiagnoses, Shuster studied primary source material: Marx’s correspondence published in the 50-volume Marx/Engels Collected Works.
Shuster concluded that the locations of the persistent carbuncles were consistent with hidradenitis suppurativa. Shuster wrote in his report in the British Journal of Dermatology that he found “much evidence” for his conclusion in the Marx’s correspondence.
Shuster also examined the psychosocial effects of the disease. He noted the skin is an “organ of communication” and that “hidradenitis suppurativa produces much psychological distress.”
This psychological distress would include “loathing and disgust and depression of self-image, mood, and well-being.” Shuster wondered in his report whether the psychological effects of hidradenitis suppurativa influenced Marx’s theory of alienation.
Marx died in London, England, 14 March 1883 at age 64. His declining health during the last decade of his life has been cited as the reason he couldn’t sustain the kind of work ethic that characterized his life until then.
During his lifetime, Marx produced more than 20 significant works covering the realms of philosophy, economics, history and politics. Love him or hate him, Marx’s works in these subject areas created a significant and lasting set of influential ideas.
The original German language version of Das Kapital Volume I wasn’t a big hit when it was published in 1867. It took five years to sell 1,000 copies.
Sales of Das Kapital eventually took off when it was translated into other languages. The Russian language edition was published on 27 March 1872 and all 3,000 copies printed were sold in a year.
An English translation of volume I was published in 1887 as Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Because you can’t keep a great big wonky book that helped span a political ideology down, Das Kapital was eventually translated in to all major languages.
Das Kapital I has even been twice published in comic book form. A 2008 Japanese pocket version Das Kapital known as Manga de Dokuha was considered a sales success and in 2012, Red Quill Books released an English langue translation Capital: In Manga!
Friedrich Engles completed volumes II and III of Das Kapital from Marx’s notes, and they were published in 1885 and 1894, respectively.
At the time of his death, Marx had also prepared the manuscript for Das Kapital, Volume IV. Volume IV was a critical history of theories of surplus value in 19th century and was based on his earlier manuscript Theories of Surplus Value.
Czech-Austrian philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky edited and published a partial edition of Marx’s surplus-value critique. Kautsky later published a full, three-volume edition as Theorien über den Mehrwert (Theories of Surplus Value).
Marx’s obsessive drive to complete volumes II and III of Das Kapital, (as well as a volume IV, which became The Theories of Surplus Value), probably helped hasten his death.
Books that Killed Their Authors is part of an intermittent series about writers who died before they completed or published their final book.
Shuster, Sam (January 2008). “The nature and consequence of Karl Marx’s skin disease”. British Journal of Dermatology. 158 (1): 071106220718011––. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2007.08282.x. PMID 17986303. S2CID 40843002.
Hidradenitis suppurativa”. Genetics Home Reference. December 2013.