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What Karl Barth and Karl Marx Had in Common

A live-in mistress with their family, Barth first:

I just read a disturbing, I mean for me personally, earth-shatteringly disturbing essay by Christiane Tietz about Karl Barth entitled: Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. As most of us know, who have spent any amount of time with Barth’s theology, his “secretary”, Kirschbaum was rumored to be more than a secretary; that she was a mistress…What they reveal is that Kirschbaum and Barth loved each other; more than that, they were lovers; more than that, Barth brought her to live in his own home with his wife and five kids.

And Marx, from Fritz Raddatz’ Karl Marx: A political biography:

Karl Marx had a son by Helene Demuth, his housekeeper; as a result of the most recent Karl Marx research this is now accepted as a proven fact.  For disciples and idol-worshippers the thought is not a pleasing one and there is no consolation to be had from emotional references to the prerogrative of genius, to Beethoven’s illegitimate daughters or the double love-life of the respectable bourgeois Dickens.  If Henry Frederick Demuth was Karl Marx’s son, the new mankind’s Preacher lived an almost lifelong lie, scorned, humiliated, and disowned by his only surviving son.  The spectacle of the Sunday order of march over Hamstead Heath with Helene Demuth trailing behind carrying the provisions basket is not merely humiliating but disgraceful. (p. 134)

Personally, from the standpoint of Barth I don’t have much of a “dog in the hunt,” as I don’t have much interest in Barth.  It’s fair to say that Marx has had more impact on my life and thinking, something that Christians on both ends of the spectrum find exasperating.  But the similarities in the two situations is strange, to say the least.

Depending on whether Barth and Kirschbaum sexualised their relationship–not a given like it is now–Barth’s greatest mistake was being on the wrong side of the Reformation.  Roman Catholicism would probably not be as condemnatory of Barth had he not consummated the relationship as his fellow Protestants are, especially if the Jesuits got into the act.  After all, people who marry with a divorce behind them can live together and receive the “sacred pledge of the Eucharist” as long as they live “as brother and sister.”  OTOH, given the irreversibility of election in Reformed thought, any result of Barth’s actions (assuming he was elect) in a logically consistent sense is doubtful.

For all of his wish to overthrow the bourgeois order, Marx was very bourgeois himself in many ways, from his preferred mode of living to his attitude towards homosexuality.  After the triumph of Marx’s disciples and their initial liberating moves (like Women’s Day) things got pretty bourgeois in the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  They left the real work of breaking “bourgeois” sexual mores to the likes of Margaret Sanger and her disciples, and the effect of that is very clear today.


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