Karl Marx suffered from a skin disease that can cause severe psychological effects such as self-loathing and alienation, according to a British dermatologist.
The father of communism’s life and attitudes were shaped by hidradenitis suppurativa, said Sam Shuster in the British Journal of Dermatology. One of its symptoms is alienation – a concept that Marx, a martyr to boils and carbuncles, put into words as he wrote Das Kapital.
The condition was described as early as 1839 by a French physician, Alfred Velpeau. But, Professor Shuster says, ideas crossed the Channel less readily than wine and Marx’s true condition was never diagnosed.
Hidradenitis suppurativa is a disease of the apocrine 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, who was born in Germany but lived most of his life in London, called them “furuncles, boils and carbuncles”, but Professor Shuster says that they were too persistent and recurrent for that. 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 *****” – 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.”
The evidence that he suffered hidradenitis suppurativa is strong, says Professor Shuster. 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”.
The illness also contributed to Marx’s poverty, Professor Shuster says. “This new diagnosis is not just important in terms of historical accuracy,” he said. “The skin is an organ of communication, which is why its disorders produce so much psychological distress, with depression of self-image, mood and wellbeing, and with self-loathing and disgust.
“In addition to reducing his ability to work, which contributed to his depressing poverty, hidradenitis greatly reduced his self-esteem. This explains his self-loathing and alienation, a response reflected by the alienation Marx developed in his writing.”
Nina Goad, of the British Association of Dermatologists, said: “It is fascinating to discover that such an influential figure suffered from [hidradenitis], especially considering how it might have affected his work.”
Somebody give Obama a pain killer please?