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The Life of a Revolutionary: Part 3 of 4
by Alex Callinicos
Estimated Reading Time: 15 min


After his expulsion from Germany, Marx made his way first to Paris, and then, in August 1849, to London. At first he expected this exile to be brief, believing that the revolution had suffered only a temporary defeat. He was soon joined by Engels, who had taken part in the unsuccessful defense of the last republican stronghold in Germany, the Palatinate, from Prussian invasion.

The two friends played an active role in reviving the Communist League, whose central committee was based in London, and launched a new journal, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-Oekonomisch Revue. In its pages Marx published The Class Struggles in France, an analysis of the revolution of 1848–49. In March 1850 he drafted an address by the central committee which declared that “the revolution . . . is near at hand”, and the following month the League concluded an alliance with the followers of Blanqui, the Universal Society of Revolutionary Communists, whose objective was “the downfall of all privileged classes, [and] the submission of these classes to the dictatorship of the proletariat by keeping the revolution in continual progress [en permanence] until the achievement of communism”.

This revolutionary optimism began gradually to evaporate in the course of 1850. In June Marx obtained a ticket to the Reading Room of the British Museum. Once installed there, he launched himself into intensive economic studies, drawing especially (as many have done after him) on the Economist. The conclusion he drew, spelled out at length in the last issue of the Revue, was that there was no immediate prospect of revolution. The upheavals of 1848 had as their background the general economic crisis which had gripped Europe after 1845. By 1850, however, the world economy had entered a new phase of expansion, stimulated by such developments as the discovery of gold in California, and the improvement in communications brought about by the widespread use of steamships:

With this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society develop as luxuriantly as is at all possible within bourgeois relationships, there can be no talk of a real revolution. Such a revolution is possible only in the periods when both these factors, the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production, come in collision with each other. . . . A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis.

This pessimistic analysis angered and horrified the other leaders of the Communist League. After a bitter debate at a central committee meeting on September 15, 1850, Marx and Engels effectively withdrew from the League, which was in any case broken by mass arrests in Prussia the following May. When members of the League were put on trial, Marx sprang to their defense, writing a pamphlet which (typically) became a small book, Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne.

To all intents and purposes, however, Marx ceased to take part in political activity, from time to time sniping at some of the vast numbers of refugees who congregated in London after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. “I am very pleased with the public and genuine isolation in which we two, you and I, find ourselves,” he wrote to Engels in February 1851:

It entirely suits our position and principles. We have now finished with the system of mutual concessions, with half-truths admitted for reasons of propriety and with our duty of sharing in the public ridicule of the party with all these asses.

Withdrawal from activity freed Marx to concentrate on his economic studies. He resumed work on the great book on “Economics” which he had originally decided to write in 1845, but had given up for political work. Much of 1851 was spent in the British Museum, filling fourteen notebooks with excerpts from the works of political economy that he read. “When you visit him,” one acquaintance wrote, “you are received with economic categories instead of compliments.” In April 1851 Marx told Engels, “I am so far advanced that in five weeks I will be through with the whole economic shit. And that done, I will work over my Economics at home and throw myself into another science in the museum. I am beginning to tire of it.”

When he died thirty-two years later, the “Economics” was still unfinished: Marx left behind him the manuscripts of two of the three volumes of Capital for Engels to edit. One reason for this tardiness was that Marx was a perfectionist, constantly rewriting and expanding his drafts, and reading more books and articles till his research seemed endless. Another reason was the need to analyze and comment on current developments. In 1852 Marx published one of his most brilliant works, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which sought to explain why the Second French Republic had given way to the Second Empire of Napoleon III.

Dominating these years, however, were the sheer pressures of poverty. The Marxes were constantly short of money. Between 1850 and 1856 they lived first at 64 then 28 Dean Street in Soho, where three of their six children died. Life was a constant struggle with creditors—landlord, butcher, baker, greengrocer, milkman. 1852 seems in many ways to have been the worst year. When her daughter Franziska died that Easter, Jenny Marx could find the money to pay for her coffin only by borrowing from a French émigré. In December Marx told a correspondent that he could not leave the house because he had pawned his coat and shoes. But the worst blow came in April 1855, when the Marxes’ eight-year-old son, Edgar, died of consumption (tuberculosis). Marx wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle a few months later:

Bacon says that really important men have so many relations with nature and the world that they recover easily from every loss. I do not belong to these important men. The death of my child has deeply shaken my heart and mind and I still feel the loss as freshly as on the first day. My poor wife is also completely broken down.

It was during these terrible years that Helene Demuth, a von Westphalen family servant who had been the Marxes’ maid since 1845, gave birth to an illegitimate son, Frederick, whose father was almost certainly Marx. The scandal was hushed up. Engels agreed to pretend to be the child’s father, only revealing the secret to Eleanor Marx on his deathbed in 1895. The affair revealed that Marx himself was not wholly hostile to the conventions of bourgeois respectability. Indeed, he and Jenny constantly sought to maintain a middle-class household, complete with Helene as loyal retainer. They brought up their surviving daughters, Jenny, Laura and Eleanor, to the extent it was possible, as good bourgeois girls. None of this should come as any surprise, for there is no way in which individuals can escape the pressures of the society in which they live, however much they oppose that society.

In 1856 Jenny Marx received two small bequests which enabled them to move out of their cramped Soho lodgings to 9 Grafton Terrace, as she put it, “a small house at the foot of romantic Hampstead Heath, not far from lovely Primrose Hill.” But their troubles were far from over. In January 1857 Marx wrote, “I have absolutely no idea what I shall do next, and now I am in an even more desperate situation than I was five years ago. I thought I had swallowed the ultimate filth. Mais non.”

A year or so later he told Engels that “there is no greater stupidity than for people of general aspirations to marry and so surrender themselves to the small miseries of private and domestic life.” In 1862 things were so bad that Marx tried to get a job as a railway clerk: his handwriting was so illegible that he was turned down. A few months afterwards he wrote:

Every day my wife tells me she wishes she and the children were dead and buried. And really I cannot argue with her. For the humiliations, torments and terrors that have to be gone through in this situation are really indescribable. . . . I pity the poor children all the more because this has happened during the “Exhibition” season, when all their friends are enjoying themselves, while they are only terrified in case someone should visit us and see the filth.

That the Marxes survived at all during these years was due to Engels’s self-sacrificing and constant support. In November 1850 he had returned to Manchester to take up his old job at Ermen & Engels. That he did so very much against his own inclinations is made clear by a letter to Marx of January 1845: “This penny-grabbing is too horrible. . . . It is too horrible to continue to be, not only a bourgeois, but a manufacturer, a bourgeois in active opposition to the proletariat.”

Engels’s biographer Gustav Mayer writes:

A man who wrote so fluently as Engels had no need to worry about his future. If he did, nevertheless, return to “filthy business,” it was for the sake of Marx; for Engels felt that Marx’s great talents were of vital importance to the future of the cause. Marx could not fend for himself and his family: he must not become a victim of émigré life. To avoid that, Engels was glad to go back to the office desk.

Without Engels’s regular subsidies, the Marxes would have sunk without a trace. Marx acknowledged this debt after he had sent the first volume of Capital to the printers:

Without you I could not have completed the book, and I assure you that it has always been a load upon my conscience to think that you, chiefly for my sake, were wasting your brilliant powers in business routine, and perforce had to share all my petites misères [small wretchednesses] into the bargain.

Engels’s importance to Marx was far more than as a source of money. Engels always insisted that he was the junior partner in their relationship. But he brought to their partnership a number of gifts. He had a quick and lively mind, and had developed into a revolutionary communist much more quickly than Marx. (“You know that I am slow to grasp things,” the latter wrote twenty years afterwards, “and that I always follow in your footprints.”) Writing was not the laborious process for Engels that it was for Marx: he wrote rapidly and fluently. He had a marvelous gift for languages, and wide interests in the natural sciences. It has also been argued that his historical judgements were nearly always superior to those of Marx, and that he had a deeper knowledge of European history. Finally, he was, far more than Marx, a man of action (his nickname among the Marxes was “the General” because of his interest in military affairs) and was much more of a practical organizer. In all these ways, his talents complemented those of Marx.

Even Engels’s companionship and financial assistance could not prevent the struggles and privations of the 1850s and 1860s from leaving their mark. There is little doubt that Jenny Marx suffered the most. She was frequently physically ill, and her experiences took a mental toll as well, as this letter to Marx shows: “Meanwhile I sit here and go to pieces. Karl, it is now at its worst pitch. . . . I sit here and almost weep my eyes out and can find no help. My head is disintegrating.” As early as 1851 Marx told Engels:

At home everything is constantly in a state of siege, streams of tears exasperate me for whole nights at a time and make me completely desperate. . . . I pity my wife. The chief burden falls on her, and au fond she is right. . . . All the same you must remember that by nature I am très peu endurant and quelque peu dur, so that from time to time I lose patience.
Impatient and rather hard

As this last letter suggests, Marx’s response to their domestic circumstances was to retreat into himself, adopting a cold and tough exterior. He described himself as having “a hard nature,” and told Engels that “in such circumstances, I can generally save myself only by cynicism.” Nevertheless, he fell victim to a variety of physical complaints: insomnia, attacks of the liver and gall, and carbuncles or boils (“I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles all the rest of their lives,” he once wrote to Engels). Anxiety caused by his domestic distress and his liver troubles often impeded Marx’s work. He wrote to Engels in July 1858, when he was working on the Grundrisse, the first draft of Capital: “The situation is now absolutely unbearable. . . . I am completely disabled as far as work goes, partly because I lose most of my time running around trying to make money and partly (perhaps as a result of my feeble physical condition) my power of intellectual concentration is undermined by domestic problems. My wife’s nerves are quite ruined by the filth.” As Werner Blumenberg remarks:

It has often been asked why Marx was unable to complete his masterpiece Capital, to which he devoted three decades of his life, and it has been thought that the reason lay in theoretical difficulties. But the circumstances of the author’s life make it rather seem miraculous that he was able to complete so much.

Marx’s sufferings undoubtedly made him more suspicious of other people, and harsh and bitter in what he said about them. The brutal and sometimes anti-Semitic remarks in his correspondence with Engels concerning the German socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle reflect not only their political differences, but also Marx’s resentment of a man who moved in the smartest social circles, was wealthy, and basked in popular acclaim. Their relationship never recovered from Lassalle’s visit to the Marxes in 1862, when he infuriated Marx by spending a pound a day just on his cigars, while (Marx told Engels) Jenny “had to take to the pawnbroker everything that was not actually nailed down” to entertain their guest in the style to which he was accustomed.

Early in the next year Marx’s hard and cynical front nearly cost him his friendship with Engels. When Engels wrote to him with news of the death of his companion, Mary Burns, Marx replied in a letter which, after some rather perfunctory condolences, treated Engels to a lengthy account of his latest financial difficulties. Only after a Marx family row and the most profuse apologies was the understandably hurt Engels reconciled.

Marx’s writings of the 1850s also reflect his circumstances. In these years Engels could not afford to provide the Marxes with more than a pound or two at a time, so Marx had to supplement his income by writing for the New York Daily Tribune (many of the articles were in fact written by Engels, whose English was at first better). Marx’s judgement was not always wholly sure. When Britain and France went to war with Russia in the Crimea (1854–56), Marx, who was fanatically anti-Russian because of the tsar’s role in cementing the reactionary Holy Alliance, formed a rather dubious alliance with an eccentric Tory MP, David Urquhart, in whose paper, the London Free Press, many of Marx’s articles appeared. Marx also allowed himself to be dragged into émigré squabbles, most notably when a French government agent produced a pamphlet libeling him. The result was a three-hundred-page book, Herr Vogt (1860), notable chiefly for Marx’s talent for abuse.

One should not exaggerate the gloom of these years. There were regular Sunday outings to Hampstead Heath, when family and friends read the Sunday papers, rode donkeys, and recited Dante and Shakespeare. Marx was not an ascetic socialist. He liked a drink, preferring wine but being happy to settle for beer. On one memorable occasion, Marx, Edgar Bauer, an old friend and sparring partner from his Young Hegelian days, and Wilhelm Liebknecht went on a pub crawl in London from Oxford Street to Hampstead Road, stopping at every pub on the way. All went well till they reached the end of Tottenham Court Road, where they nearly got into a fight with a party of celebrating Oddfellows and started to throw paving stones at streetlamps. Naturally, the police appeared, and chased them. They got away, thanks partly to a surprising burst of speed on Marx’s part.

A Prussian police spy who visited Dean Street in 1852 painted this picture of the Marx household:

As father and husband, Marx, in spite of his wild and restless character, is the gentlest and mildest of men. . . . When you enter Marx’s room smoke and tobacco fumes make your eyes water so much that for a moment you seem to be groping about in a cavern, but gradually, as you grow accustomed to the fog, you can make out certain objects which distinguish themselves from the surrounding haze. Everything is dirty, and covered with dust, so that to sit down becomes a thoroughly dangerous business. Here is a chair with only three legs, on another chair the children are playing at cooking—this chair happens to have four legs. This is the one which is offered to the visitor, but the children’s cooking has not been wiped away; and if you sit down you risk a pair of trousers. But none of these things embarrass Marx or his wife. You are received in the most friendly way and cordially offered pipes and tobacco and whatever else there may happen to be; and eventually a spirited and agreeable conversation arises to make amends for all the domestic deficiencies, and this makes the discomfort tolerable. Finally you grow accustomed to the company, and find it interesting and original.
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