Full Marx: Bee Wilson on the Dietary Habits of the First Champagne Socialist. (Food)

Article excerpt

"On Good Friday I eat 16 hot cross buns, Laura and Jenny eat 8." Thus wrote the 12-year-old Eleanor Marx to her father Karl on 26 April 1867. Apart from the wondrous scale of the gluttony, it is a good example of the way that the Marx family, during their long exile in London, often participated enthusiastically in the bourgeois -- and even religious -- habits that Karl wanted to render obsolete. Karl himself enjoyed speculating on the London Stock Exchange -- but that's another story...

Marx had a very coarse palate, as befits a materialist. His biographer Francis Wheen once told me he thought that, if Marx were alive today, he would be a devotee of curry houses, ordering the hottest vindaloos, the spiciest pickles and the strongest lager. As it was, he enjoyed assaulting his mouth with pickled herrings and cockles, washed down with beer. He had robust tastes, in drink, food and philosophy, enjoying piquancy in everything. That these tastes dated from childhood is shown by the anxious advice his mother sent him in a letter, written when Marx was 17, and unwell. "You must avoid everything that could make things worse, you must not get over-heated, not drink a lot of wine or coffee, and not eat anything pungent, a lot of pepper or other spices. You must not smoke any tobacco, not stay up too long in the evening, and rise early." In fact, his whole life, Marx, a born contrarian, did the opposite of what his mother advised, staying up far too late smoking and reading, eating spicy food and drink ing strong coffee and stronger wine.

The example of Marx shows what a peculiar phrase "champagne socialist" is. It used to be levelled disparagingly at people such as Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, implying that drinking champagne disqualified you from true socialism. If so, then neither Marx nor Engels qualifies as a socialist. So long as someone else was paying, Marx was only too delighted to get drunk on champagne (though he tended to stick to ale when he was buying). Wine was, like religion, a way of escaping from this vale of tears. But unlike religion, that opium for the people, wine did not entail self-alienation, except perhaps in the form of the hangover. As in matters of food, Marx was more interested in intensity and quantity than quality. Engels, being wealthier, was more of a connoisseur. For Christmas 1859, the year after the Grundrisse, he sent the Marx family some wine, remarking: "The champagne and the Bordeaux [Chateau d'Arcin] can be drunk at once, while the port wine should be allowed to rest a little, and won't be in prop er condition until about New Year. …