Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter Eight: Marx and Engels


1. Genius and Society

MARX found a second home in England, but the meaning of the word must not be stretched too far. Actually he was never interfered with in England on account of his revolutionary agitation although in the last resort it was naturally directed against the English State also. The government of “greedy and jealous shopkeepers” displayed a greater measure of self-respect and dignity than did those continental governments whose uneasy consciences caused them to hunt down their enemies with every measure of police oppression even when they were guilty of no more than discussion and propaganda.

In another and deeper sense Marx never found a home once his keen eye had penetrated the shams of bourgeois society. A discussion on the fate of genius in bourgeois society would fill a bulky chapter. Various opinions have been expressed on the subject, from the naive confidence of the Philistine who prophesies the final victory to every man of genius, to the melancholy words of Faust:

Die Wenigen, die was davon erkannt,
Die töricht gnug ihr volles Herz nicht wahrten,
Dem Pöbel ihr Gefühl, ihr Schauen offenbarten,
Hat man von je gekreuzigt und verbrannt

Those few who saw and understood, and then,
With folly opened wide their hearts,
And showed their feelings to the mob,
Died ever at the stake or on the cross.

The historical method which Marx developed permits us to look more closely into the relation of things in this question also. The Philistine, for the very reason that he is a Philistine, prophesies the final victory to every man of genius, and if for once a genius escapes crucifixion, the stake then in the last resort, it is because he resigned himself to becoming a Philistine. Without the powdered pig-tails hanging down their backs neither Goethe nor Hegel would ever have been acknowledged as geniuses in bourgeois society.

Bourgeois society, which in this respect is nothing more than the most clearly defined form of all class societies, may have as many other advantages as you please, but it has never been a hospitable host to genius. In fact, it could not be, for the very essence of genius must always consist in releasing the creative impulses of human nature in the face of all traditional obstacles, and in shaking at those barriers without which class society could not exist. Over the entrance to a lonely cemetery on the island of Sylt, which affords a last resting place to the unknown dead washed up by the sea, stands the pious inscription: “Here is the Cross of Golgotha, the Home of the Homeless.” Unconsciously but none the less aptly this inscription sums up the fate of genius in class society. Homeless in class society, genius finds a resting place only under the cross on Golgotha.

Unless, however, genius agrees to tolerate class society. When genius placed itself at the service of bourgeois society in order to overthrow feudal society, it apparently won tremendous power, but immediately it attempted to act on its own account, that power melted away at once and genius was permitted to end its days on the rocks of St. Helena. Or on the other hand, genius consented to don the sober cutaway of the Philistine, and in that case it was permitted to rise to become Minister of State to the Grand Duke of Weimar or Royal Prussian Professor in Berlin. But woe betide that incorruptible genius which holds itself in proud independence of bourgeois society, which prophesies the approaching end of bourgeois society from the data supplied by the latter’s own internal workings, and which forges the weapons to give bourgeois society the coup de grace! For such genius bourgeois society has nothing but sufferings and tortures still more cruel than the punishments of antiquity or the stake of the middle ages, though outwardly they may appear less brutal.

Amongst the geniuses of the nineteenth century, none suffered more under this lot than the greatest genius of them all, Karl Marx. He was compelled to wrestle with poverty even in the first decade of his public activities, and when he emigrated to London he was loaded with all the burdens of the exile. However, the sufferings which made his lot Promethean befell him only in the prime of his manhood when, in his laborious efforts to advance the cause of humanity, he was compelled at the same time to struggle day after day with the miserable and trivial worries of life, to struggle desperately to obtain the bare means of existence for himself and his family within the framework of bourgeois society.

And in addition, the life he led bore no resemblance to the life the ordinary Philistine in his usual ignorance regards as that of a genius. His tremendous industry matched his tremendous powers, and it was not long before his overworked days and nights began to undermine a constitution originally of iron. He was perfectly serious when he declared that incapacity to work was a death sentence on any human being not really an animal. On one occasion when he had been ill for several weeks he wrote to Engels: “Although I am quite unable to work I have read Carpenter’s Physiology, Lord’s ditto, Kölliker’s Gewebelehre, Spurzheim’s Anatomie der Hirns und Nervensystems and Schwann and Schleiden, Ueber die Zellenschmiere.” In all his insatiable urge to scientific study he never forgot the words he had once used as a young man: a writer must certainly earn money in order to exist and write, but he should not exist and write in order to earn money, and he always recognized “the categoric necessity of earning a living.”

However, his own efforts in this direction invariably failed in face of the suspicion or hatred or, in the best case, the fear of a hostile world. Even such German publishers as were accustomed to priding themselves on their independence recoiled at the name of the notorious demagogue. All parties in Germany slandered him equally, and where the clear outlines of his giant figure could be distinguished through the artificial cloud around him, the malicious cunning of systematic silence did its infamous work. No nation has ever banished its greatest thinker so utterly and for so long from its national life as Germany did Marx.

The only time he succeeded in providing himself with a halfway secure basis was his work for the New York Tribune, which lasted a good decade beginning in 1851. At that time the New York Tribune had 200,000 readers and was the most powerful and popular newspaper in the United States, and by its agitation for an American brand of Fourierism, it had at least raised itself above the brazen money-grubbing of a purely capitalist undertaking. The formal conditions under which Marx worked for this paper were not unfavourable. He was required to write two articles a week and for each article he was to receive two pounds sterling. That would have meant over 200 pounds a year and would have enabled him to keep his head above water. Freiligrath’s commercial activities brought him in no more than that, in the beginning at least, and Freiligrath always boasted that he had never been without “the luscious beef-steak of banishment.”

Naturally, there is no question of whether the amount paid to Marx by the American newspaper was at all in accordance with the literary and scientific value of his contributions, for a capitalist newspaper concern reckons with market prices, and in bourgeois society it is perfectly justified in doing so. Marx never demanded any better treatment than this, but what he was entitled to demand even in bourgeois society was that the agreement should be respected and perhaps that his work should be valued on its own account also. However, the publishers of the New York Tribune did neither the one thing nor the other. In theory Dana was a Fourierist, but in practice he was a hard-boiled Yankee business man. In a fit of anger Engels once declared that Dana’s socialism resolved itself into the lousiest petty-bourgeois cheating, and in fact, although Dana was well aware of Marx’s value as a contributor and did not fail to advertise that value to his readers, he showed Marx every form of ruthlessness which a capitalist exploiter feels himself entitled to show towards exploited labour-power dependent on him for its existence. By no means his worst offence was that he often stole the contributions Marx sent in and published them in a garbled form as editorial articles, a proceeding which caused their real author understandable annoyance.

And further, not only did Dana immediately put Marx on half pay at the first sign of slacking sales, but he paid only for those articles which he actually printed as Marx’s work, nor was he bashful in throwing out whole articles when their general line did not suit his purpose. On occasions it happened that for three weeks, and even six weeks on end, all the contributions which Marx sent over found their way into the waste-paper basket, whilst those German newspapers to which he was able to contribute, for instance, Die Presse in Vienna, showed themselves no more decent. It was perfectly true when he declared bitterly that in his newspaper work he was no better off than a penny-a-liner.

In 1853, we find him longing for a few months’ peace in which to continue his scientific studies undisturbed: “Apparently I’m not to have it. This constant churning out of stuff for the newspapers bores me. You can be as independent as you like, but in the last resort you are bound to the newspaper and its readers, particularly when you get paid on a cash basis as I do. Purely scientific work is totally different.” After he had been working for a few years under Dana’s despotic sway, his tone became still more bitter: “It is utterly disgusting to have to be grateful when a rag like that kindly consents to give one a lift. Grinding bones and making soup out of them like the paupers in the workhouse, that is what political work for such a paper amounts to, though I have to do it in full measure.” Marx shared the fate of the modern proletariat not only in the scantiness of his means of subsistence, but also in its utter insecurity.

His letters to Engels confirm with terrible and moving details what had been known only in a general way about his situation. On one occasion he was compelled to remain indoors because he had neither coat nor shoes to go out in; on another occasion he had not enough money to buy either writing-paper or newspapers; and on another occasion we find him dashing around to acquaintances to borrow postage to send off a manuscript to a publisher. And then there was the constant bickering with the grocer and other small shopkeepers because he was unable to pay promptly even for the barest necessities of life, not to mention the constant trouble with the landlord, who was forever threatening him with the marshal, and the eternal visits to the pawnbroker, whose usury swallowed up even that Little money which might with difficulty have kept the shadow of starvation from the door.

And often enough the shadow not only fell across the threshold but over the very table itself. Accustomed from earliest childhood to a carefree life, his high-minded wife sometimes staggered under the slings and arrows of a really outrageous fortune, and then she wished herself and her children in the grave. There are indications of domestic scenes in some of Marx’s letters, and on one occasion we find him expressing the opinion that people who pursued the general aims of humanity could commit no greater folly than that of marriage because thereby they betrayed themselves into the toils and petty cares of private life. However, although his wife’s complaints may have made him impatient at times, he always excused and justified her, declaring that she had incomparably more to suffer from the indescribable humiliations, worries and cares which people in their position had to go through, all the more so because she was denied that respite and refuge in the halls of science which saved him again and again. And to see the innocent pleasures of childhood so brutally shortened for their children weighed equally heavily on both parents.

The lot of his genius was sad enough in all conscience, but it was raised to tragic heights by the fact that he voluntarily shouldered such torments and sufferings for decades, and steadfastly rejected every temptation to save himself in the peaceful harbour of some bourgeois career, although he might have done so without dishonour. His attitude he explains himself without any bombast and in simple words: “I must follow my goal through thick and thin, and I shall not permit bourgeois society to turn me into a money-making machine.” This time it was not the chains of Hephaestus which bound Prometheus, but his own indomitable will, which kept his course pointed unswervingly towards the greatest good for humanity with the certainty of a magnetic compass. His character was like pliant steel. It is extraordinary to experience in one and the same letter how he is apparently crushed down by the weight of petty miseries and then to find him suddenly transformed and discussing the most complicated problems with the calm judiciousness of a scholar whose brow is never furrowed by the material cares of the day.

However, Marx certainly felt the blows which bourgeois society dealt him, and he felt them deeply. It would be foolish stoicism to ask: what do such cares matter to a genius who in any case looks to his justification from the verdict of posterity? Conceited literary ambition, anxious to see its name in the papers every day if possible, is foolish enough, but for all that creative forces must have elbowroom for their development and they win new strength from the echo their creations arouse. Marx was no virtuous and stilted chatterbox such as can be found in bad plays and novels, but a man, who like Lessing, liked to enjoy life and the world; and the mood in which the dying Lessing wrote to one of his oldest friends was not unknown to him: “I am sure you do not regard me as a man avaricious for praise, but the coldness with which the world is accustomed to indicate to certain people that nothing they do is right is, if not killing, at least paralysing.” It was the same mood in which Marx wrote on the eve of his fiftieth birthday: “Half a century on my back and still a pauper!” On one occasion he wished himself a hundred fathoms under the sea rather than have to go on vegetating, and on another occasion he burst out desperately that he would not wish his worst enemy to go through what he had been going through for eight weeks, and his heart suffused with anger because his intellect and working capacities were being broken by trivialities.

But for all that, Marx never became “a damnably sorry dog,” an expression he once used mockingly to describe himself, and in this sense Engels was right when he declared that his friend never despaired. Marx has often been credited with a hard character, but the shower of blows he received on the anvil of misfortune made him harder and harder. The blue sky which had hung over his early youth gradually became covered with heavy storm clouds which his ideas rent like flashes of lightning. His judgments on his enemies, and often enough on his friends, developed a searing trenchancy which wounded even those who were not unduly sensitive. Those who for this reason abuse him as an ice-cold demagogue are no more and no less wrong than those worthy subaltern souls who regard a great fighter and a great human being as no more than a stuffed puppet on a parade ground.



2. An Incomparable Alliance

Marx had to thank more than his own tremendous powers for the victory of his life. According to human judgment he must have gone under in the struggle in one way or the other but for the friend he had in Engels, whose self-sacrificing loyalty we are beginning to understand only now that the correspondence between the two friends has been published.

Their friendship is without equal in history, which can show many cases of famous friendships: the friendships of men whose life’s work was so closely connected that it can no longer be divided into thine and mine, and German history can show such cases also. But always there has remained some trace of wilfulness or obstinacy, or even no more than a secret objection to abandoning completely the individual personality, something which in the words of the poet is “the highest prize of the children of this earth.” In the last resort Luther regarded Melanchthon as the faint-hearted scholar, whilst Melanchthon regarded Luther as a raw peasant, and one must be the willing victim of obtuseness not to detect the underground note of discordancy between the great Minister of State and the little Councillor in the correspondence which passed between Goethe and Schiller. The friendship which bound Marx and Engels knew nothing of this last remnant of human pettiness. The more their thought and their development became one, the more they each remained a separate entity and a man.

In outward appearance they were very different. Engels the blond German, tall and, as an observer has informed us, with English manners, always carefully dressed and upright as a result of discipline in barracks and office. With six clerks, he declared, he could organize an infinitely more simple and efficient administration than with sixty privy councillors, who could not even write legibly and would muck up the books to such an extent that not a soul would be able to make head or tail out of them afterwards. He was a highly respected member of the Manchester Stock Exchange and prominent both in the business and in the pleasures of the English bourgeoisie, its fox-hunting and its Christmas parties, but the intellectual leader and fighter had a treasure in a little house far away on the other side of the town, a child of Ireland in whose arms he recovered his spirits when he had grown all too tired of the bourgeois pack in whose midst he was compelled to live.

Marx on the other hand was stocky and powerfully built, with dark, flashing eyes and a lion’s mane of jet-black hair which indicated his Semitic origin. His bearing was careless; the troubled father of a family, he stood aloof from the business life of the metropolis; he exhausted himself in intellectual labours which hardly left him time to swallow his meals, and which lasted far into the night, undermining his constitution; he was an indefatigable thinker for whom thought was the highest pleasure and he was a worthy successor of Kant, Fichte and particularly Hegel, whose words he often repeated with pleasure: “Even the criminal thought of a scoundrel is loftier and more magnificent than all the wonders of Heaven” – only that Marx’s thought strained forward ceaselessly towards fulfilment in action; he was unpractical in small matters, but more than practical in great ones; much too inept to manage a small household, he was incomparable in his genius for raising an army and leading it forward to change the face of the earth.

Style is said to reveal the man and they were different as authors also. Each was a master of language in his own way and each was a brilliant linguist who had mastered many languages and even dialects. In this respect Engels achieved even more than Marx, but when he used his mother tongue, even in his letters, not to speak of his books, he kept a tight hand on the reins and permitted no stumbling either to right or left into foreign pitfalls, whilst at the same time carefully avoiding the pot-holes of the Teutonic purists and language reformers. He wrote easily and with a light touch and his prose is so limpid and clear that at all times one can see through the running stream of his words to the very bottom.

Marx on the other hand, wrote with less care and greater difficulty. In his early letters, like those of Heine, one can feel the struggle for mastery, and in the letters of his later years, particularly in those he wrote after he went to England, he uses a terrible hedge-podge of German, English and French expressions. Even his formal writings contain more foreign words than was absolutely necessary, and abound in Anglicisms and Gallicisms, but even so, he was such a master of the German language that his works cannot be translated without grievous loss. After having read a chapter of a French translation of one of Marx’s works, Engels declared, despite the fact that Marx himself had polished the translation with great care, that the power, sap and life of the original had gone to the devil. Goethe once wrote to Frau von Stein: “In similes I am running a race with Sancho Panza’s proverbs,” and in the striking imagery of his language Marx could run a race with the greatest masters of language, with Lessing, Goethe or Hegel. He had mastered Lessing’s principle that content and form must agree like man and wife in a happy marriage, and for this he was roundly attacked by the university bigwigs, from the veteran Wilhelm Roscher to the youngest university lecturer, who overwhelmed him with the crushing accusation that he succeeded in making himself understood only vaguely and with “a patchwork of similes.” Marx always dealt with questions in a way which left food for fruitful thought for his reader and his language was like the play of the waves on the purple depths of the ocean.

Engels always recognized the superior genius in Marx and he never aspired to play anything but the second fiddle to the other’s lead. However, Engels was never merely Marx’s interpreter or assistant, but always an independent collaborator, an intellectual force dissimilar to Marx, but his worthy partner. At the beginning of their friendship Engels gave more than he received on a very important field of their activities, and twenty years later Marx wrote to him: “You know that, first of all, I arrive at things slowly, and, secondly, I always follow in your footsteps.” Engels wore lighter armour and was able to move more quickly. His eye was keen enough to see the decisive point of any question or any situation immediately, but he did not penetrate into things deeply enough to see all the pros and the cons of the matter at once. For a man of action such a capacity is a great advantage and Marx never made any political decision without first consulting Engels, who invariably hit the nail on the head.

In accordance with this relation between the two men, therefore, the advice which Marx sought and received from Engels in theoretical questions was not as fruitful as that he received in political matters, for in the former Marx was usually ahead of his friend. And there was one piece of advice in particular to which Marx invariably turned a deaf ear. It was when Engels tried to persuade him to finish off his scientific work quickly: “Don’t be quite so conscientious with your work. It will be much too good for the general public in any case. The great thing is that you should finish it finally and have it published. The weak points which you may be able to see will never be discovered by the fools in any case.” This advice was typical of Engels just as the refusal to follow it was typical of Marx.

From all this we can see clearly that Engels was better able to cope with daily journalistic work than was Marx, who once described his friend as, “A positive encyclopaedia, ready for work at any hour of the day or night, full or sober, quick at writing and as active as the devil.” It would appear that after the Neue Rheinische Revue ceased publication in the autumn of 1850 the two friends had a new joint project in view in London. At least, Marx wrote to Engels in December, 1853: “If we had started the English correspondence business in London in good time you would not be in Manchester now, plagued with business worries, and I should not be plagued with debts.” The fact that Engels preferred to take a job in his father’s firm rather than rely on the “correspondence business” was probably due to the dismal situation in which Marx found himself at the time, and to the hope that things would improve, rather than to any intention of devoting himself permanently to “damned commerce.” In the spring of 1854 Engels once again, but for the last time, considered abandoning business and going to London to take up writing, and at about this time he must have decided to bear the hated yoke permanently in order to assist his friend and at the same time to preserve the greatest intellectual force of the party. Only under such circumstances could Engels have made the sacrifice and Marx have accepted it. Both the offer and its acceptance presuppose the same degree of high-minded selflessness.

In due time Engels rose to be a partner in the firm, but until he did so his own financial situation as a simple employee of the firm was none too rosy. In spite of this, from the first days of his stay in Manchester he assisted Marx to the best of his ability and he never grew tired of assisting. Five pound notes, ten pound notes, and, later on, even hundred pound notes, constantly went from Manchester to London. He never grew impatient even when his patience was occasionally subjected to a greater strain than was absolutely necessary by Marx and his wife, whose ideas of how a household should be run would appear to have been none too modest. Even when on one occasion Marx had forgotten all about his indebtedness on a note and was extremely and unpleasantly surprised when it matured, Engels hardly showed any despair at the unpractical nature of his friend. Or when on another occasion he once again placed the family finances on a new footing and Frau Marx, out of false consideration for him, concealed a whole budget of debts in the hope of being able to pay them off herself by saving on the household money, whereas in reality the old privations and difficulties began all over again in consequence. He left it to his friend to enjoy the somewhat pharisaical satisfaction of complaining about “the folly of women” who “obviously needed to be on leading-strings all the time,” and contented himself with the good-humoured exhortation, “See to it that it doesn’t occur again.”

Not only did Engels drudge for his friend during the day in his office and on the Stock Exchange, but he also sacrificed the greater part of his leisure hours in the evening, often working far into the night. In the beginning he did so in order to draft or translate the letters for the New York Tribune because Marx did not have a sufficient command of the English language for the purpose, but when this reason was no longer valid he still continued his silent co-operation.

But all this fades into insignificance when compared with the greatest sacrifice of all, his voluntary abandonment of all hope of attaining that measure of scientific achievement which would have been his as the reward of his tremendous capacity for work and of his rich talents. In this case also, it is the correspondence between the two men which gives us a real idea of the situation, even if we consider only the military and language studies which Engels pursued, partly “from inclination” and partly owing to the practical exigencies of the proletarian struggle for emancipation. Although he hated “auto-didacticism – it is always nonsense,” he wrote contemptuously – and although his method of scientific work was thorough, he was no more a mere arm-chair scholar than Marx, and every new piece of knowledge was doubly valuable if it could be put to use immediately in the struggle to break the chains of the proletariat.

For this reason he began to study the Slav languages, declaring that when the time for political action again arrived “at least one of us” must know something about the language, history, literature and social institutions of those nations with which they would immediately come into conflict. In the same way the entanglements in the Far East caused him to study oriental languages. Arabic with its four thousand roots frightened him off, but Persian he found “mere child’s play,” and in three weeks he hoped to have mastered it. And then he turned his attention to the Germanic languages: “I am now up to my eyes in Ulfilas. I ought really to have finished with this damned Gothic long ago, but I am so desultory in my studies. To my astonishment I have discovered that I know far more than I thought. With a good dictionary I ought to be through in about a fortnight, and then I shall go on to Old-Nordic and Old-Saxon, with which I have always had a nodding acquaintance. Up to the moment I have been working without a dictionary, just with the text and Grimm; the old fellow is really marvellous.” When the Schleswig-Holstein question became acute in the sixties he went in for a little Frisian-English-Jutish-Scandinavian philology and archaeology,” and when the Irish question flared up again he turned his attention to “a little Gaelic” and so on. In later years his magnificent command of many languages stood him in good stead on the General Council of the International. “Engels stutters in twenty languages” someone once declared, for when he was excited he had a slight tendency to stutter.

Owing to his even more enthusiastic and detailed study of military science he earned the nickname of “General.” In this case also an “old inclination” was encouraged by the practical necessities of revolutionary politics. He reckoned with “the enormous importance which the partie militaire must have in the coming movement.” Those officers who had gone over to the side of the people in the years of the revolution had not turned out to be altogether satisfactory. “This mob of military men possesses an incredibly disgusting corps spirit,” he declared on one occasion. “They hate each other like poison and envy each other the slightest distinction like schoolboys, but they stand together like one man against the ‘civilians.’ “ His aim was to master military science sufficiently to permit him to say a word or two in theoretical military matters without making a fool of himself.

He had hardly settled down in Manchester when he began “to swot up militaria,” beginning with “the most ordinary and humdrum matters such as are demanded in the examinations for cadets and subalterns, things which for that reason are usually taken for granted.” He studied military organization in all its technical detail: elementary tactics, the fortification system from Vauban to the most modern system of self-contained forts, bridge-building and trench-digging, the use of arms, the various types of gun-carriages and emplacements, the supply system, the hospital system and numerous other details. And finally he turned his attention to general military history and zealously studied the Englishman, Napier, the Frenchman, Tomini and the German, Clausewitz.

Engels never wasted the time of his readers with platitudinous enlightenment on the moral irrationalism of war, instead he sought to lay bare the historical reasons for war, and these efforts more than once brought down the hot anger of the democratic demagogues on his head. Byron once poured burning scorn on the leaders of the two armies which fought at Waterloo as the standard bearers of feudal Europe and delivered the death blow to the heir of the French Revolution, and a happy chance caused Engels to give a historical sketch of both Wellington and Blücher in one of his letters to Marx. Although the frame is limited, the sketch is so clear and concise that even taking the great advance of military science into account it would hardly be necessary to alter as much as a line even to-day.

Engels also worked gladly and arduously on a third field, that of natural science, but here too he was fated never to put the finishing touches to his investigations during the long decades in which he performed task-work to clear the way for the intellectual labours of a still greater man.

It was a tragic fate, but Engels never whined, for sentimentality was as foreign to him as it was to his friend. He always considered it the great good fortune of his life that for forty years he was able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Marx, even at the cost of being overshadowed by the greater figure, and when for a decade and more after the death of his friend he played the leading role in the international working-class movement and his authority was undisputed, it did not appear to him as a belated satisfaction. On the contrary, he always declared that he was given greater credit than was his due.

Both men gave themselves completely to the common cause and both of them made, not the same, but an equally great sacrifice in its interests without the faintest trace of discontented grumbling or boasting and for these reasons their friendship was an incomparable alliance of which history can show no second example.


Last updated on 27.2.2004