about suicide



Commentary on Karl Marx's book

Marx, feminist?

Exactly: Marx, feminist. The sexual oppression of women, in the great bourgeois century, could not go unnoticed by the libertarian sensibility of the inventor of scientific socialism. Even if it were by chance: this is what this small book that contains the essay about suicide. This, written in January 1846, was printed by Gesellschafts spiegel, Body for Representation of the Dispossessed Popular Classes and for Analysis of the Current Social Situation. What other society, be it social democratic capitalist, would have created a public body with such precise functions? Nothing to do with our vacant (and now practically obsolete) Social Welfare Secretariats.

In the article, Marx takes up the report of a police archivist, Jacques Peuchet, (died in 1830) on the numerous cases of suicide found in statistical research on French society during the Restoration. The text is composed of Marx's comments on excerpts from Peuchet's reports. No choice is neutral. It is noted that when choosing the excerpts from the report, Marx is also being authorial. He goes beyond Peuchet. As Michel Löwy writes in the preface, when looking into the tragic lives of dozens of French workers, the young Marx seems to have discovered what, in the following century, would become a consecrated truth: the inevitable interweaving between politics and life toilet.

“What kind of society is this, in which the deepest loneliness is found in the midst of so many millions; in which one can be seized by an implacable desire to kill oneself, without anyone being able to foresee it?” (p. 28).

The problem that Marx detected – but did not know, in 1846, how to solve it, is that the extensions of political power over private life – which Michel Foucault would later call, in the twentieth century, networks of micropower – do not automatically dissolve as a result of of revolutionary transformations. Peuchet, who went through the French Revolution, perceives this limitation: “The Revolution did not overthrow all tyrannies; the evils that were reproached in despotic powers subsist in families; in them, they provoke crises analogous to those of revolutions” (p.29).

The tables published by Peuchet indicate the occurrence of 2808 suicides in Paris, in just seven years (between 1817 and 1824). What called Marx's attention were not the suicides of workers, motivated by unemployment, poverty, the violent uprooting of people who migrated from the countryside to the cities after the industrial revolution. Of the four cases of suicide narrated in a literary (and melodramatic) style by Marx/Peuchet, only one refers to a member of the royal guard “removed, like many others, without further ceremony” (p. 48) – and without conditions to support the family. The other three are dramas starring young women who fell from grace, as they used to say, due to some slip in your sex life.

A "Women's Salvation"

“The classification of the different causes of suicide should be the classification of own defects of our society”, noted Peuchet (p. 44). He himself, at the end of his report, presents the main reasons that led men and women to end their own lives: passions, fights, domestic dislikes / illnesses, depression, weakness of spirit / Misconduct / misery, etc. The highest incidence is due to suicides caused by illness, depression and “weakness of mind” – whatever that may mean.

If Marx decided to dwell on three cases of suicidal women, it is because Peuchet's reports helped him to understand that the female condition, in the XNUMXth century, transcended the limits of the class struggle. Perhaps the depressions that led women to kill themselves are included among the cases of “weakness of spirit”: the female condition was never as fragile as in the period when the bourgeois nuclear family, as we know it until today, was organized.

Urbanization, and the division of labor, the abandonment of many mothers in the new family configurations – since, in the cities, the old extended families of rural cultures ceased to exist and the homes closed in on themselves, in the form of the modern “ nuclear family” – all these elements made women shoulder greater responsibilities, a greater workload and a much, much greater experience of loneliness.

It is no coincidence that Dostoyevsky wrote, in The Karamazov Brothers, that “hysteria is the salvation of women”. What other resource would they have to express dissatisfaction with the tremendous restrictions imposed by the role of (future) mothers and devoted wives? The old “hysterical attack” (which today, you see, is no longer seen) would be the expression of loneliness, the overload of responsibilities and, above all, the sexual and loving dissatisfaction of modern family mothers – workers or not.

It is also no coincidence that Freud founded psychoanalysis, at the end of the same century, with his Studies on Hysteria, where he established for the first time the hypothesis of the sexual etiology of the neuroses.

The cases examined by Marx are so simple that, nowadays, they would not even serve as arguments for a soap opera: the girl who spent the night with her fiancé, on the eve of her wedding, and was condemned by her own family for that; the wife who literally became the prisoner of her sick and jealous husband; the young woman from a wealthy family who got pregnant by her uncle, who couldn't find a doctor willing to help her with an abortion. Faced with these cases, Marx realizes that the pyramid of power is sustained, ultimately, at the expense of its weakest links – the manual workers, with no other good than their workforce at the service of the reproduction of capital. And women, with no other resource than their reproductive capacity at the service of transmitting family assets.

They are those who, even after the French Revolution, barely constituted themselves, in practice, as subjects of law. Faced with them, and their institutional helplessness, “the most cowardly people, the most incapable of opposing themselves, become intolerant as soon as they can make use of their absolute authority (…). O misuse of that authority is also a rough compensation to the servility and subordination to which these people are subjected (...) in bourgeois society” (p.32).

This is how the discriminatory logic of power is reproduced, according to which the small family authorities, the small public servants, compensate for the pettiness of their condition: submitting to the “rigorities of the law” individuals in an even more fragile position than theirs.

*Maria Rita Kehl is a psychoanalyst, journalist and writer. Author, among other books, of Displacements of the feminine: the freudian woman in the passage to modernity (Boitempo).


Karl Marx. about suicide. Translation: Francisco Fontanella, Rubens Enderle. Sao Paulo, Boitempo.


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