Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
The Life of a Revolutionary: Part 4 of 4
by Alex Callinicos
Estimated Reading Time: 15 min


In 1857 the world economy entered the crisis which Marx had predicted would follow the prosperity of the early 1850s, to Engels’s enormous delight. While all was gloom at the Manchester stock exchange, he told Marx, “People are worrying themselves to death about my sudden and strange good humor.” The two friends hoped that the economic depression would revive the revolutionary movement. “In 1848 we said, ‘Now our time is coming,’ and in a certain sense it came,” Engels wrote. “But this time it is coming in full measure: a life and death struggle. My military studies will at once become more practical.”

Alas, the General’s hopes were to be dashed. There was no revolution of 1858. But the crisis did have the effect of encouraging Marx to resume his economic studies. He told Engels in December 1857, “I am working madly through the nights on a synthesis of my economic studies so that, before the deluge, I shall at least have the main outlines clear.” Fortified by lemonade and “an immense amount of tobacco,” Marx succeeded in producing, between August 1857 and March 1858, the work now known as the Grundrisse, the first rough draft of Capital.

Although Lassalle found a German publisher for the manuscript, Marx decided that it was too much of a mess (“in everything that I wrote I could detect an illness of the liver,” he told Lassalle). All that appeared of this manuscript in Marx’s lifetime was a completely rewritten version of the first part, on money, which was published in June 1859 as A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The preface to this contained an important statement by Marx on his intellectual development and on the basic principles of historical materialism.

During the following eight years, during which the Marxes suffered some of their worst domestic crises and Marx himself resumed serious political work for the first time since 1850, Capital itself took shape. Marx had originally intended the Contribution to be merely the introduction to the “Economics,” which would encompass six volumes: (1) Capital, (2) Landed Property, (3) Wage Labor, (4) The State, (5) International Trade, and (6) The World Market. Between August 1861 and July 1863 Marx set to work on continuing the Contribution. The result was twenty-three notebooks covering 1,472 pages, the work known as the 1861/63 manuscript, which has still to be entirely translated into English. Marx’s investigations during these years led him to change his mind about the “Economics.” He had already discovered the concept of surplus value, the key to his economic theory, in the Grundrisse, but it was only in the 1861/63 manuscript that he formulated his theory of profit. Marx abandoned the six-volume scheme, and decided instead to call the whole work Capital, which would be divided into four volumes—on production, circulation, the system as a whole, and theories of surplus value, incorporating much of the material he had intended to deal with in later volumes of the “Economics.”

In 1863-64 the Marxes’ finances improved thanks to two bequests, from Marx’s mother and from his old comrade Wilhelm Wolff. The first volume of Capital is dedicated to the latter. On the strength of this money, the household moved from Grafton Terrace to a much larger house nearby, at 1 Maitland Park Road. The money soon ran out, and Engels had yet again to dig into his pockets to support them. To add to the renewed money worries, Marx suffered terribly from carbuncles from 1863 onward. He dosed himself on arsenic, creosote and opium, and sometimes cut the boils out himself. Despite all these distractions, Marx wrote the manuscripts of Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of Capital in 1864 and 1865. (He never managed Volume 4, but the relevant sections of the 1861/63 manuscripts were published after his death as Theories of Surplus Value.)

In 1865 Marx signed a contract with the Hamburg publishers Meissner & Behre. Urged on by Engels, he spent much of 1866 preparing Capital Volume 1 for the printers, polishing it up into a finished form. When the relieved Engels heard that the first batch of manuscripts had gone off to Meissner, he drank a “special glass” in celebration. On August 16, 1867, Marx announced that he had finished the proofs of Capital Volume 1:

It was thanks to you alone that this became possible. Without your self-sacrifice for me I could never possibly have done the enormous work for the three volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks. Enclosed two sheets of corrected proofs. The £15 received with best thanks. Greetings my dear, beloved friend!

The book appeared a few weeks later. A thousand copies were printed of the first edition. Other political involvements in the mid-1860s began to draw Marx away from his economic studies. Although the revolution Marx and Engels had expected after the crisis of 1857–58 did not materialize, the early 1860s saw a revival of the European workers’ movement. Trade unionism made rapid strides in Britain and France, while Lassalle was able to launch the first mass workers’ political organization in Germany, the General Union of German Workers (ADAV). Political events stimulated the labor movement to think in terms of international solidarity. The American Civil War, even though it caused a depression in the English cotton industry, led the Lancashire textile workers to support the cause of the North. The Polish insurrection of 1863 against Russian rule won the backing of socialists and democrats throughout Europe.

In this climate the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), to give the First International its proper name, was launched. A delegation of French workers, followers of Proudhon, attended a mass meeting of solidarity with Poland called by the English trade unions in London in July 1863. These contacts led to a mass meeting at St. Martin’s Hall in London on September 28, 1864 at which the IWMA was launched. Marx was one of the thirty-four members of its general council elected at that meeting. Soon he was its effective leader, writing most of its manifestos and addresses, and attending to a large portion of the administrative work and correspondence.

The International was, however, a very different kettle of fish from the Communist League. Werner Blumenberg writes:

The Communist League had been a secret propagandist society in which Marx enjoyed dictatorial powers. But the International was a union of independent (and jealously independent) organizations of working men in various different countries. Marx had no dictatorial powers; he was only one among a number of members of the general council. It was always a matter of convincing the other members. For the International contained many other different currents of thought; there were supporters of Fourier, Cabet, Proudhon, Blanqui, Bakunin, Mazzini and Marx himself. There were all shades of opinion, ranging from peaceful Utopian socialists to the anarchists for whom the revolution was a matter of fighting on the barricades. There were the English trade union leaders, whose unions—the organizational mainstay of the International—were rooted in a section of society where the old professional pride of the guilds still lived on. There were the Germans, easily organized and disciplined, and also the inflammable revolutionaries of the Latin countries.

These political differences were eventually to doom the International, but its first five years were remarkably successful. The effectiveness of the International in preventing the use of foreign scabs to break the London tailors’ strike of 1866 won it increased British trade union supporters and it played a leading role in the Reform League, established with union support to win universal suffrage. The successive congresses of the International (London 1865, Geneva 1866, Lausanne 1867, Brussels 1868, and Basle 1869) took positions on a variety of issues such as working hours and child labor. A number of effective anti-scab operations were mounted on the continent.

Marx also waged an ideological struggle for influence within the International, especially against the followers of Proudhon. It was to the general council in June 1865 that Marx read the lectures which were to become the pamphlet Wages, Price and Profit, showing that, contrary to the arguments of John Weston, a follower of Robert Owen, trade unions could win higher wages for workers. In Germany, although the Lassallean ADAV remained aloof from the International, the formation at Eisenach in 1869 of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, under the leadership of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, gave Marx’s ideas the backing of an organization in his native country for the first time since the split in the Communist League nearly twenty years earlier.

Two developments decisively altered the situation of the International. First, war broke out between France and Prussia in July 1870. Prussia’s rapid and crushing victory led to the abdication of Napoleon III of France and the proclamation of the Third Republic. The reactionary nature of the French provisional government under Thiers then led the workers of Paris to take up arms in March 1871 and proclaim their own government, the Commune. Thiers retreated to Versailles, and dispatched an army which, despite the Parisians’ heroic defense, suppressed the Commune, drowning the uprising in blood.

The International had little influence over the Commune, and Marx himself was doubtful whether the rising had any hope of success. But he sprang to its defense. On May 30, 1871, three days after the fall of the Commune, the general council adopted an address entitled The Civil War in France, drawn up by Marx. It is one of the finest of Marx’s writings, at once a moving vindication of the Communards, a bitter denunciation of their murderers, and an important statement of Marx’s theory of the state, which was later to inspire Lenin’s The State and Revolution.

The fall of the Commune led to an international hue and cry against all socialists. The International naturally became one of the main targets of this campaign. Marx was lifted by the press from obscurity to notoriety as the “Red Doctor,” puppet master of the Commune and, according to some of the more lurid accounts, an agent of Bismarck. The Civil War in France was a popular success, selling eight thousand copies. One result was that the English trade unions, which at this stage represented chiefly a comparatively privileged craft elite, withdrew their support from the International. Odger and Lucraft, the British members of the general council, resigned after The Civil War in France was published.

The second, and more serious, blow to the International was the result of Mikhail Bakunin’s activities. Bakunin, a Russian aristocrat, had worked his way from orthodox to Left Hegelianism in the late 1830s and early 1840s, concluding in 1842 that “the urge to destroy is a creative urge.” He stuck to this basically anarchist position for the rest of his life. After 1848 Bakunin fell into the hands of the Tsar, and was imprisoned in the dreadful Peter-Paul Fortress, where he wrote a secret “Confession” addressed to Nicholas I as his “spiritual father.” In 1861 he turned up in London, having escaped from Siberia.

Marx had been on friendly terms with Bakunin and sent him a copy of Capital Volume 1 as an “old Hegelian.” They were, however, very much opposites. Bakunin’s fellow Russian exile, Aleksandr Herzen, wrote that “to a passion for propaganda, for agitation, for demagogy, if you like, to incessant activity in founding and organizing plots and conspiracies and establishing relations and in ascribing immense significance to them, Bakunin added a readiness to be the first to carry out his ideas, a readiness to risk his life, and recklessness in accepting all the consequences.” His reaction to the fall of Napoleon III was to rush to Lyons, where he declared the state abolished outside the town hall, and was carried off by the police. He also fell under the influence of the sinister Nechaev, whose murderous activities were immortalized by Dostoyevsky in his novel The Devils.

In 1868 Bakunin joined the International. At the same time he set up the Alliance for Social Democracy, which soon assumed the role within the International of “a state within a state,” in Engels’s words. The anarchists were especially strong in the Swiss, Italian and Spanish sections of the International. The differences between Marx and Bakunin became especially pronounced after the defeat of the Commune. In a sense, it was a repetition of the split in the Communist League after 1848. Marx argued that revolutionary prospects were receding, while the Bakuninists urged immediate uprisings everywhere. Realizing that his position was becoming untenable with the effective withdrawal of the British unions, previously the mainstay of the general council, Marx decided to dissolve the International. This took place at the Congress of the International held at The Hague in September 1872, ironically the only one Marx ever attended. His supporters succeeded in beating off an attack on the general council, expelled Bakunin from the International, and moved its headquarters to New York, thus depriving it of any influence. The International was formally dissolved in 1876.


After the collapse of the First International, Marx ceased to play much of an active part in politics. Financially, life for the Marxes was much better than it ever had been. Ermen bought Engels out in 1869, which meant that the General now had a sizable capital sum whose income could support him and the Marxes in comfort. The next year he moved to London and bought a large house in Regents Park Road, less than ten minutes’ walk away from the Marxes. For the next quarter of a century, long after his friend’s death, this house was to be the center of the international working-class movement.

Withdrawal from the International should have freed Marx to complete Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital. Certainly he was not idle. He closely supervised the French translation of Capital Volume 1, revised the original German manuscript for a second edition which appeared in 1873, and undertook detailed studies of the agrarian question in Russia for his analysis of rent in Volume 3. (The first translation of Capital Volume 1 appeared in Russia in 1872; the censors let it through because they thought “few would read it and still fewer understand it,” but it was an enormous success among the radical intelligentsia.)

According to Engels, after 1870 Marx studied “agronomics, rural relations in America and, especially, Russia, the money market and banking, and finally natural sciences such as geology and physiology. Independent mathematical studies also figure prominently in the numerous extract notebooks of this period”. But Marx did little work on the manuscripts of Capital Volumes 2 and 3. The years of “bourgeois misery” had taken their toll. Marx suffered from constant headaches and insomnia, and went on regular health cures, visiting Karlsbad annually in 1874–76. As David McLellan puts it, “He was now mentally and physically exhausted: in a word, his public career was over.”

Exhausted Marx may have been, but he did not lose that toughness of mind that had made him feared and respected among European radicals since the 1840s. H. M. Hyndman, an ex-Tory who became one of the main promoters (and vulgarizers) of Marx’s ideas in England, recalled “saying to him once that as I grew older I thought I became more tolerant. ‘Do you,’ he said, ‘do you?’ It was quite certain that he didn’t.” Marx’s most important intervention in these years came when the two German workers’ parties fused in 1875 to form the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Marx and Engels believed that the program adopted by the new party’s founding congress at Gotha made too many concessions to Lassalle. In the Critique of the Gotha Program Marx called his followers to order, in the process writing his most important discussion of the transition from capitalism to communism. (The SPD leaders Bebel and Liebknecht prevented the publication of the Critique until 1891.)

Marx and Engels were often in conflict with the German socialists. Engels had to write Anti-Dühring in 1877 to defend their ideas against an academic socialist, Eugen Dühring, who was gaining some influence in the SPD. In 1879 they wrote a circular letter denouncing certain SPD leaders influenced by Dühring (including the future father of “revisionism,” Eduard Bernstein), whose version of socialism was little different from liberal democracy. It was in these years that Marx declared, “All I know is that I am no Marxist.”

The final years of tranquility suited Marx. An acquaintance portrayed him at this time as a

highly cultivated gentleman of the Anglo-German pattern. Intimate relations with Heine had endowed him with a cheerful disposition and a capacity for witty satire. Thanks to the fact that the conditions of his personal life were now as favorable as possible, he was a happy man.

In a questionnaire he filled out for his daughters in 1865, Marx described his favorite activity as “bookworming.” The sheer range of Marx’s reading is extraordinary. S. S. Prawer, professor of German at Oxford University, has shown in a recent study the extent to which Marx was acquainted with, and drew on, an enormous variety of European literature:

He felt at home in the literature of classical antiquity, German literature from the Middle Ages to the age of Goethe, the worlds of Dante, Boiardo, Tasso, Cervantes, and Shakespeare, the French and English prose fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and he showed himself interested in any contemporary poetry which might help—as that of Heine had certainly done—to undermine respect for traditional authority and arouse hopes of a socially juster future. On the whole, however, his gaze was directed more to the past than the present, more toward Aeschylus, Dante and Shakespeare than toward the writings of his own contemporaries.

Greek and Roman literature was one of Marx’s special loves. At a time of great mental and physical discomfort Marx took to reading “Appian’s account of the Roman civil wars in the original Greek. . . . Spartacus appears as the most capital fellow to be found in the whole of ancient history. A great general . . . a noble character, a true representative of the ancient proletariat. Pompey [the Roman general who crushed the slave revolt led by Spartacus] is nothing but a turd.”

In a famous passage from the Grundrisse, Marx wondered why, even though “the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development . . . they still afford us artistic pleasure and . . . count as a norm and an unattainable model”. Marx also greatly admired Balzac for his realistic portrayal of class relations in post-revolutionary France. One of his many unrealized projects was a study of Balzac.

Marx’s two elder daughters got married, Laura to Paul Lafargue in 1868, and Jenny to Charles Longuet in 1872. Marx was not an especially easy father-in-law. Lafargue in particular had to submit to careful cross-examination before Marx would consent to the match. But it was his youngest daughter, Eleanor, or Tussy, as she was known by the family, the most like her father (“Tussy is me,” he once said), who had to face the toughest opposition when she fell in love with a young French journalist called Lissagaray, the first historian of the Commune. (London was full of French exiles after 1871.) The row embittered relations between father and daughter for some years.

Eleanor had pretensions to be an actress. A Shakespeare reading club used to meet at Maitland Road. One of its members described Marx thus:

As an audience he was delightful, never criticizing, always entering into the spirit of any fun that was going on, laughing when anything struck him as particularly comic, until the tears ran down his cheeks—the oldest in years, but in spirit as young as any of us.

1881 marked a turning point. The Longuets moved to Paris: Marx bitterly missed their three children. By this time, Jenny Marx had been diagnosed as suffering from incurable cancer of the liver. Marx himself was ill with bronchitis. Eleanor recalled:

It was a terrible time. Our dear mother lay in the big front room, Moor [Marx’s family nickname] in the small room behind. And the two of them, who were so used to one another, so close to one another, could not even be together in the same room. . . . Never shall I forget the morning when he felt strong enough to go to Mother’s room. Then they were young again—she a young girl and he a loving youth, both on the threshold of life, not an old man devastated from illness and an old dying woman parting from each other forever.

On December 2, 1881, Jenny Marx died. Engels told Eleanor, “Moor is dead, too.” Marx spent some time in Algiers, visited the Longuets in Paris, taking refuge in “the noise of children, this ‘microscopic world’ that is much more interesting than the ‘macroscopic,’” and went to Vevey in Switzerland with Laura. He returned to England and caught a cold in the Isle of Wight, only to learn of his daughter Jenny’s death at the age of thirty-eight. On March 14, 1883, Engels visited Maitland Road to find “the house in tears. It seemed that the end was near.” When he and Helene Demuth went upstairs to see Marx, they found that he had died quietly in his sleep. Engels wrote to Friedrich Sorge with the news: “Mankind is shorter by a head, and that the greatest head of our time.”

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