James P. Cannon

Karl Marx, The Man

(April 1930)

Written: April 1930.
First Published: The Militant, New York, Vol. 3, No. 16, April 19, 1930, p. 7.
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription/HTML Markup: D. Walters.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (September 2012).
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Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs,
by Wilhelm Liebknecht
Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Company, 1930

The great figures who have helped to shape the course of history and to mold human thought are always the object of insatiable curiosity to living men. This is particularly true of those who leave a heritage of ideas on which the minds of men are fed. Light on the personalities of the great doers of the past stimulates interest in their work and aids in an understanding of it. Hence the great popularity and the great value of biography.

In this little volume devoted to memories of Karl Marx, the older Liebknecht brings the founder of the communist movement nearer to the proletariat as a man and father. Incomplete and inadequate as these sketches are, in consideration of the magnitude of the subject, they have a double merit. They come from one who lived in almost daily contact with Marx for nearly twelve years of his most fruitful activity; and one who, in a lifetime of struggle, bore the proud name of “Soldier of the Revolution.” Thus he speaks with an exceptional authority.

This is not a treatise on Marx’s doctrines. Liebknecht, in the book under review, confines himself to a series of reminiscences about him as he revealed himself at work and play, in the circle of his intimates, in the bosom of his family – in short, Marx the man, whom the world, seeing him from afar, did not know. He draws, if not a full portrait, at least an outline of that great figure which grows in immensity as the world moves to its remolding on his ideas. And what a man emerges from that outline!

Marx forged the incomparable weapons of the workers’ emancipation struggle in a lifetime of the most assiduous and painstaking inquiry and labor. Guesswork had no part in his philosophy; ignorance, especially in one filling the role of leadership, was anathema. Politics to Man was a study; and the business of a proletarian, to know, to understand. “How wild Marx would become when speaking of those hollow skulls who arrange matters for themselves with a few cant phrases.” Reading these words of Liebknecht’s one can imagine the lion rising from his grave to storm against those who transform his science into a system of catchwords devoid of reality and alien to his method.

Scientific Truth Was Marx’s Guide

Marx was affected not a particle by the superficial judgment of the majority at the moment. Scientific truth was his guiding line. And, rejected in his own day while scamps won the applause and favor of the world, he solaced himself with the self-confident motto of Dante: “Follow your course and let the people talk.” He was concerned only to establish the wisdom and verity of that course and that, thereby, it might become the course of humanity’s future.

From his evaluation of politics as a science came his contemptuous disregard of “agreements” on a false foundation, and his intransigeance in questions of principle – a quality which marked the course of Lenin when his Bolsheviks were but a handful against the world, and which now marks the leadership of Trotsky in the struggle to reform the disrupted ranks of the proletarian vanguard. It was on this point that Liebknecht himself came into conflict with his teacher – not once but twice.

The first time, in the days of his London exile, it led to an estrangement there; and the second time – some twenty years later, on a much larger scale – it led to Marx’s trumpet blasts against the Gotha Program – a compromise at the expense of principle for the sake of unity. The weakness of Liebknecht on this decisive question was surely his greatest shortcoming – a shortcoming he did not recognize, for he attempts to justify it in his book about Marx. But history has already answered this question in accents which all revolutionaries must hear. In the welter of confusion which besets the Communist movement of the world, intransigeance must be their motto no less than it was the motto of Marx and Lenin.

Marx knew his value, but the legends spread by his enemies about envy, spite, conceit, and vanity – all this, says the author who worked under his direct guidance for more than a decade, is pure fantasy. He simply insisted on scientific exactitude in the doctrines of the proletariat. Marx could tolerate no blunting of their weapons, whether from ignorance or any other cause. Unworthy personal considerations were not even within his comprehension, to say nothing of their actuating him.

“Marx was the most generous and just of men, when it came to acknowledging the merits of others. For envy and jealousy as well as for conceit, he was too great. Only the false greatness, the artificial fame inflated by incompetence and vulgarity, he regarded with a deadly hatred – as he did everything false and adulterated.”

He was no man of mush, as Liebknecht draws him, but a doughty fighter and an irreconcilable hater of the false, the superficial, the pretentious. Windbags were an abomination to this man, whose words always stood for facts and deeds.

“Woe to him who indulged in phrases. There he was inexorable. ‘Phrasemonger’ was in his mouth the sharpest censure – and whomever he once had recognized as a ‘phrase-monger’ he ignored forever. To think logically and to express your thoughts clearly – this he impressed on us ‘young fellows’ on every occasion and forced us to study.”

Marx in Exile at London

In this book, Wilhelm Liebknecht paints an unforgettable picture of the group of exiles who gathered around Marx in London in the years 1850 to 1862. During that period he was almost daily in the company of the great teacher, and his reminiscences are a treasure to the present – day disciples of Marx who seek to know the man behind the doctrine. In these pages the legendary figure is brought near, made real, alive, and human. We are drawn into the march of the author’s charming narrative and move in that immortal company.

The first genius of the proletariat, dead these forty-seven years, rises and walks before us. We see Marx as Liebknecht saw him through his days and nights of systematic and undeviating labor on his monumental works; we watch his furious concentration on a game of chess and his childlike exasperation when he fails to win; we see him a playmate of his children and a plaything in their hands; we walk with the group of family and friends on a holiday to Hampstead Heath, feast with them from the picnic basket, and slake our thirst with them in unforbidden British beer; we are with the lion at the graveside of his son and see him broken and humbled in the dust of grief.

The Marx that Liebknecht describes was a pure-hearted lover of children – his own and of all. The sight of a helpless child in misery tore his great heart with pity.

“Time and again he would suddenly tear himself away from us on wandering through districts of poverty in order to stroke the hair of some child in rags or to slip a penny or half-penny into its little hand. He mistrusted beggars. But when a beggar or beggar woman with a whimpering child accosted Marx, then he was lost without fail …. He could not withstand the imploring eyes of a child.”

In Marx’s day as now, society bestowed its honors and rewards on charlatans, cheats, and swindlers; persecution, hardship, and poverty is the coin with which it paid those who served it truly.

Such was the lot of Marx. He who held up to society the picture of its future and charted the way toward it, worked with humiliating want and privation as daily companions. In his ability to endure all this, and to carry on his work and hold to his course in spite of it, he has set a stem example to all those who follow his path. For years, even when the worst of this was past, the pound sterling he received every week for his articles in the New York Tribune was his only certain source of income.

“On Capital he was at work forty years – and he did work! Only a Marx can work so. And I am not exaggerating when I say: The worst paid laborer in Germany has received more wages in forty years than Marx did for a salary.#8221;

The economic hardships suffered by Marx and his family were “not a solitary case of want, such as anybody may meet with, especially in a foreign country where points of recourse are scarce; the misery of exile lasted for years in its most acute form for Marx and his family.”

Marx the Teacher

For the exiles grouped around him in London, Marx was a teacher who forced them to respect knowledge as indispensable in a revolutionist and to labor to acquire it. In such an atmosphere his first disciples were trained. While the superficial revolutionaries, like many who have come after them, were substituting wishes for knowledge and reality, intoxicating themselves with phrases about the revolution which was to start “tomorrow,” Liebknecht tells of the pupils of Marx “sitting in the British Museum and trying to educate ourselves and to prepare arms and ammunition for the battles of the future.#8221;

This was Marx’s way to train the leaders of the proletariat and make them fit for their occupations.

“To learn! To learn! This was the categorical imperative he frequently enough loudly shouted to us, but it also was expressed by his example, yea, by the sole aspect of this forever strenuously working mind.”

These are golden words for the guidance and inspiration of the young communists – and not only for the young ones – who are enlisting in the great battle for restoration of Marxism under the banner of the Opposition. Phrasemongering ignorance has had its evil day in the ranks of the workers’ vanguard. Disorganization and defeat are the fruit of it. Those who aspire to reform the disrupted movement will be successful only insofar as they master the basic truths of Marxism and learn how to apply them as a guide to action.

This knowledge will not fall from heaven; it will be acquired only by those who have the mind and the will to study, as Marx required of his first disciples. Wilhelm Liebknecht’s little volume of reminiscences will be an aid and stimulus in this direction. It ought to have a place on the bookshelf of every revolutionary worker.

Last updated on: 22.9.2012