01 November 2007

According to dermatologist Sam Shuster, Karl Marx’s life and attitudes could have been shaped by a skin disease called hidradenitis suppurativa which can also have severe psychological effects including self-loathing and alienation.


Hidradenitis suppurativa is a disease of the sweat glands, found in the armpits and the groins. The skin in the affected areas shows a mixture of blackheads, lumps that look like boils, spots and areas that leak pus. Doctors and Marx, called them “furuncles, boils and carbuncles”, but Professor Shuster is of the view that they were too persistent and recurrent for such descriptions. He searched Marx’s letters and found that he had started complaining of carbuncles in 1864, when he was 46, though it is possible that he had them earlier. In 1867 he wrote to Friedrich Engels of the boils “on my posterior and near the penis” – areas characteristic of the condition. Marx was often unable to work because of the pain. He wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann in 1867: “I still have a carbuncle on the left loin not far from the centre of propagation, as well as numerous furuncles.”


Marx was treated with arsenic, poultices and lancing, but with little effect. His only consolation, he told Engels, was that carbuncles were “a truly proletarian disease”.


Shuster could well be correct in his diagnosis and it is very possible that it had a profound effect on Marx. Personally it amuses me to think that Marxism may not have existed if antibiotics and steroid creams were available in the 19th century. The chances are that someone else would have come up with a similar ism. In a different universe the book Capital may have been the bedrock of McGonagallism...

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating political post - it is always wise to ask extreme political figures if they suffer from any painful or embarrassing disease - just to be sure. I have a friend who tells me that Tony Benn has tertiary syphilis... I wonder if this is true?

jams o donnell said...

I daresay some of them probably do. Tony is a different drummer methinks. George Galloway probably has a severe anal fistula though!

Redwine said...

Wouldn't be shocked to learn that your Galloway has something anal...the problem is, not much on his neck...there is the rub or there isn;t the head.

Btw, have you read Ces malades qui nous gouvernent?

jams o donnell said...

I've not heard of that Red. Perhaps Galloway's piles are full of brain tissue!

Roland Dodds said...

An interesting idea, but I generally don’t like to think that some of the great minds of our time were simply the side-effect of madness or sickness. I figure Marx was as sane as most of those around him.

I also support Joshua Muravchik’s thesis in “Heaven on Earth” that Marxism is really Engelism. Engels was the brains and money behind getting the ideas out, but Marx had the forceful and self assured persona that Engle’s lacked.

jams o donnell said...

It is an interesting idea. Seriously I blogged the story simply because it amused me to think that Marxism may not have existed had antibiotics been around at the time.

I can't comment on Muravchik. I have to admit my knowledge on Marx is not that extensive.

roman said...

This is way too much information that I need about the man. It reminds me of the purported severe constipation and hemmorhoids which plagued Martin Luther.
Your conclusion may be close to the mark, however, as I'm sure that with this condition, 'ole Karl
did'nt see much "action" with the ladies. This would have left him plenty of time to think about the inequalities of life and the sad state of the human condition.

jams o donnell said...

I have no idea if the doctor is on the mark or not but a degree of alienation could well have focused his mind on writing rather than a different tack