Francis Wheen’s

Karl Marx: A Life

7. The Hungry Wolves

Source: Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life, Norton, 1999, pgs. 207-213. Used with Mr. Wheen’s kind permission;
Transcribed: by Sally Ryan for, June, 2002.

....Ernest Jones’s apostasy in joining forces with the middle-class liberals incurred the most severe punishment Marx and Engels could mete out: he was labelled an ‘opportunist’. A few years later they passed the same sentence on Ferdinand Lassalle for his proposal that Prussian workers and noblemen should gang up against the industrial bourgeoisie. While railing against these cynical marriages of convenience, however, Marx himself was forming opportunistic partnerships with some pretty rum coves.

The rummiest of them all was David Urquhart, an eccentric Scottish aristocrat and sometime Tory MP who is now remembered, if at all, as the man who introduced Turkish baths to England. ‘To most of his adherents, to the end of his life, Urquhart was the Bey, the Chief, the Prophet, almost "the sent of God",’ one disciple recorded. ‘To his little daughter dreaming of her father ... it did not seem strange that that same father should change, after the strange fashion of dreams, into the Christ. "It is really the same thing, is it not, mother?" she said.’ To less worshipful observers, he was a cantankerous old walrus with a lopsided moustache, a lopsided bow-tie and exceedingly lopsided opinions. ‘There is no art I have practised so assiduously as the faculty of making men hate me,’ Urquhart boasted. ‘That removes apathy. You can get them into speech. Then you have their words to catch and hurl back at them to knock them down with.’ Many mid-Victorian eminences could testify to the success of this technique: he had enemies galore.

Born in Scotland in 1805, educated in France, Switzerland and Spain, Urquhart discovered his long obsession with the East when at the age of twenty-one he sailed—at the suggestion of Jeremy Bentham, an admirer—to take part in the Greek war of independence, and was severely wounded at the siege of Scio. Having caught the attention of Sir Herbert Taylor, private secretary to William IV, he was then dispatched on secret diplomatic missions to Constantinople, where he abruptly changed his allegiance. ‘This chap went to Greece as a Philhellene and, after three years of fighting the Turks, proceeded to Turkey and went into raptures about those selfsame Turks,’ Marx wrote in March 1853 after chuckling over Urquhart’s book Turkey and Its Resources.

He enthuses over Islam on the principle, ‘if I wasn’t a Calvinist, I could only be a Mohammedan’. Turks, particularly those of the Ottoman Empire in its heyday, are the most perfect nation on earth in every possible way. The Turkish language is the most perfect and melodious in the world... If a European is maltreated in Turkey, he has only himself to blame; your Turk hates neither the religion of the Frank, nor his character, but only his narrow trousers. Imitation of Turkish architecture, etiquette, etc. is strongly recommended. The author himself was several times kicked in the bottom by Turks, but subsequently realised that he alone was to blame ... In short, only the Turk is a gentleman and freedom exists only in Turkey.

Urquhart’s hosts in Constantinople were dazzled by his extravagant Turkophilia. ‘The Turkish officials placed such reliance on Urquhart,’ according to the Dictionary of National Biography, ‘that they kept him immediately informed of all communications made to them by the Russian ambassador. Lord Palmerston, however, took alarm ... and wrote to the ambassador, Lord Ponsonby, to remove him from Constantinople as a danger to the peace of Europe.’ As well he might. Urquhart’s passionate partisanship pro-Turkey, anti-Russia—left him at odds with British policy, and persuaded him that his own country’s government had been hijacked by sinister forces. In short, he concluded that the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, must be a secret Russian agent. On his return to Britain he founded several newspapers and a national network of ‘foreign affairs committees’ to disseminate this bold conspiracy theory. After entering Parliament in 1847, he fired off a fusillade of speeches calling for an immediate inquiry into the conduct of the Foreign Office, ‘with a view to the impeachment of the Right Honourable Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston’.

Essentially a romantic reactionary, Uruquhart nevertheless managed to convince some radicals that he was really on their side—speaking for the downtrodden workers against their devious and deceitful rulers. Though the more revolutionary Chartists dismissed him as a Tory spy whose populist crusade against Lord Palmerston was a ‘red herring’, others praised his exposure of ‘the injury done to the labour and capital of this country by the expansion of the Russian Empire, and the almost universal exercise of Russian influence, all directed to the destruction of British commerce.’

This all chimed in most harmoniously with Karl Marx’s own hatred and mistrust of Tsarist Russia. ‘Excited but not convinced’ by Urquhart’s allegations, he set to work with characteristic diligence, poring over old copies of Hansard and the diplomatic Blue Books in search of evidence. His progress can be followed through the changing tone of his letters to Engels. In the spring of 1853 he mocked Urquhart as ‘the mad MP who denounces Palmerston as being in the pay of Russia’. By that summer, he was already showing rather more respect: ‘In the Advertiser four letters by D. Urquhart on the eastern question contained much that was interesting, despite quirks and quiddities.’ Before autumn was out, the conversion to Urquhartism—if not to Urquhart himself—was complete. ‘I have come to the same conclusion as that monomaniac Urquhart—namely that for several decades Palmerston has been in the pay of Russia,’ he wrote on 2 November. ‘I am glad that chance should have led me to take a closer look at the foreign policy—diplomatic—of the past twenty years. We had very much neglected this aspect, and one ought to know with whom one is dealing.’

The first fruit of these researches was a series of articles for the New York Tribune at the end of 1853, describing Palmerston’s clandestine ‘connections’ with the Russian government. Urquhart, understandably delighted, arranged a meeting with the author early in 1854 at which he paid him the highest compliment in his lexicon by saying that ‘the articles read as though written by a Turk’. Marx, rather crossly, pointed out that he was in fact a German revolutionist.

‘He is an utter maniac,’ Marx reported soon after this strange encounter:

is firmly convinced that he will one day be Premier of England. When everyone else is downtrodden, England will come to him and say, Save us, Urquhart! And then he will save her. While speaking, particularly if contradicted, he goes into fits... The fellow’s most comical idea is this: Russia rules the world through having a specific superfluity of brain. To cope with her, a man must have the brain of an Urquhart and, if one has the misfortune not to be Urquhart himself, one should at least be an Urquhartite, i.e. believe what Urquhart believes, his ‘metaphysics’, his ‘political economy’ etc etc. One should have been in the ‘East’, or at least have absorbed the Turkish ‘spirit’, etc.

When some of Marx’s Palmerston articles from the Tribune were reprinted as a pamphlet, he was horrified to discover that polemics by Urquhart were appearing in the same series—and promptly forbade any further publication. ‘I do not wish to be numbered among the followers of that gentleman,’ he explained to Ferdinand Lassalle, ‘with whom I have only one thing in common, viz. my views on Palmerston, but to whom in all other matters I am diametrically opposed.’

One might infer from this that any further offers or inducements from the maniac would be rejected with a brisk ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ But Marx could not afford to maintain his principled posture for long. Harried by impatient creditors, he found it hard to resist a commission to write a series for one of Urquhart’s journals, the Sheffield Free Press, in the summer of 1856. ‘The Urquhartites are being damned importunate,’ he grumbled. ‘A good thing financially. But I don’t know whether, politically, I ought to get too involved with the fellows.’ The articles were suitably sensational: he claimed to have discovered, among the diplomatic manuscripts at the British Museum, ‘a series of documents going back from the end of the eighteenth century to the time of Peter the Great, which revealed the secret and permanent collaboration of the Cabinets at London and St Petersburg’. More alarmingly still, the aim of Russia throughout this period had been nothing less than the conquest of the earth. ‘It is yet the policy of Peter the Great, and of modern Russia, whatever changes of name, seat and character the hostile power used may have undergone. Peter the Great is indeed the inventor of modern Russian policy, but he became so only by divesting the old Muscovite method of its merely local character and its accidental admixtures, by distilling it into an abstract formula, by generalising its purpose, and exalting its object from the overthrow of certain given limits of power to the aspiration of unlimited power.’

There was a rather obvious flaw in the theory that Britain and Russia had been in cahoots for the previous 150 years: the Crimean War. Urquhart and Marx had a ready explanation. The war had been a cunning ploy to throw sleuths off the scent of Palmerston’s corrupt alliance with Russia; and Britain had deliberately prosecuted the war as incompetently as possible. To the dedicated conspiracy theorist, all is explicable, and any inconvenient facts are merely further confirmation of the diabolical deviousness of his prey.

Marx may have convinced himself, but few others were persuaded. His philippics against Palmerston and Russia were reissued in 1899 by his daughter Eleanor as two pamphlets, The Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century and The Story of the Life of Lord Palmerston—though with some of the more provocative passages quietly excised. For most of the twentieth century they remained out of print and largely forgotten. The Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow omitted them from its otherwise exhaustive Collected Works, presumably because the Soviet editors could not bring themselves to admit that the presiding spirit of the Russian revolution had in fact been a fervent Russophobe. Marxist hagiographers in the West have also been reluctant to draw attention to this embarrassing partnership between the revolutionist and the reactionary. An all-too-typical example is The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx by John Lewis, published in 1965; the curious reader may search the text for any mention of David Urquhart, or of Marx’s contribution to his obsessive crusade but will find nothing.

Urquhart himself later turned his attention to other, equally quixotic causes. A devout if unorthodox Roman Catholic, he spent many years appealing to Pope Plus IX for the restoration of Canon Law while also proselytising tirelessly on behalf of the Turkish bath. (‘Did you overlook, in one of the Guardians you sent me, the item in which David Urquhart figures as an infanticide?’ Marx wrote to Engels in 1858. ‘The fool treated his thirteen-month-old baby to a Turkish bath which, as chance would have it, contributed to congestion of the brain and hence its subsequent death. The coroner’s inquest on this case lasted for three days and it was only by the skin of his teeth that Urquhart escaped a verdict of manslaughter.’) Urquhart’s house in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, was described by one visitor as ‘an Eastern palace, with a Turkish bath ... which in luxuriousness was inferior to none in Constantinople’. A session in this ornate sweat-chamber might have done Marx’s carbuncles a power of good, but as far as one can discover he never had the pleasure.


See also The death of William Urquhart, or, Karl Marx loved a good gossip, and Marx and the Working Class by Francis Wheen.