Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter Ten: Dynastic Changes


5. Herr Vogt

It was not long before Lassalle’s warning against appealing to the Prussian courts was shown to be well-founded. Through the mediation of Fischel, Marx instructed Justizrat Weber to begin proceedings for libel against the National Zeitung, but he had even less success than Vogt, who had at least secured a hearing for his action. On the ground of “insufficient evidence” the court refused to permit the action to go to trial because the allegedly libelous statements had not been made in the first place by the National Zeitung, which had published “mere quotations from other persons.” This nonsense was rejected by the court of appeal, but only to be replaced by the-still greater nonsense that it was not an insult for Marx to be termed “the directing and superior head” of a band of blackmailers and coiners. The supreme court of appeal could find “no legal error” in this extraordinary decision and thus Marx’s case was thrown out all along the line.

All that was left for him was to write his own answer to Vogt and this took him almost a year. In order to refute all the rumours and gossip which Vogt had revived, an extensive and protracted correspondence was necessary with people all over the world. The reply was completed on the 17th of November, 1860, and Marx entitled it simply Herr Vogt. It is the only one of Marx’s independent works which has never been reprinted: and there are probably very few copies still extant. First of all, it is very long, amounting to 192 closely printed pages (Marx declared that in ordinary print it would be twice as long), and secondly, it would require detailed commentary to make all the references in it clear to the present-day reader. For the most part this would not be worthwhile, because much of the matter with which Marx deals was forced on him by his opponent and relates to affairs which have long since been completely forgotten and rightly so. In reading the book one involuntarily experiences a sense of discomfort to hear Marx defending himself against slanderous attacks which did not touch him even remotely. On the other hand, the book offers an unusual treat to the literary gourmet. On the very first page Marx propounds a thesis which he pursues through the subsequent pages with the humour of a Shakespere: “The original of Karl Vogt is the immortal Sir John Falstaff and in his zoological resurrection he has lost nothing of his character.” Protracted as the theme is, it never becomes monotonous in Marx’s hands and his vast acquaintance with classic and modern literature offers him arrow after arrow which he despatches with deadly accuracy against the insolent slanderer.

In Herr Vogt we meet the “Vagabonds” again, but this time as a small company of light-hearted students who fled to Switzerland after the crushing of the insurrection in the Palatinate in the winter of 1849-50 and won the hearts of the Geneva beauties with their cheerfulness in adversity and at the same time shocked and startled the local Philistines. When Herr Vogt was written the band had been dispersed for about ten years, but one of its members, since become a worthy merchant in the City of London, Sigismund Borkheim, gave Marx a lively description of the harmless pranks of the fugitive students, and it was published in the first chapter of Herr Vogt. Marx won a loyal friend in Borkheim and it was in general a great consolation to him that numerous fugitives, not only in England, but also in France and Switzerland, sprang to his assistance although many of them hardly knew him and some of them did not know him at all. He was gratified in particular by the generous assistance granted to him by Johann Philipp Becker, a tried and trusted veteran leader of the Swiss working-class movement.

Unfortunately it is not possible to describe in detail how Marx utterly exposed the tricks and artifices of Vogt until not a vestige remained, and in fact the powerful counter-attack he delivered against Vogt was more important, for it showed that both in its perfidy and its ignorance Vogt’s propaganda was nothing but an echo of the slogan issued by the false Bonaparte. The documents published later by the Government of National Defence from the archives of the Tuileries after the overthrow of the Second Empire include a receipt signed by Vogt in August, 1859, for his thirty pieces of silver, in this case, 40,000 francs from the secret funds of the false Bonaparte. It is possible that Vogt received this money through the mediation of the Hungarian revolutionaries and, in any case, this is the most charitable explanation, for he was very friendly with Klapka and did not realize that the position of the German democracy towards Bonaparte was different from that of the Hungarian democracy and that the latter might venture steps which would be shameful treachery for the former.

Whatever the truth about Vogt may be, and even supposing that he did not receive cash from the Tuileries, the fact remains that Marx proved irrefutably that Vogt’s propaganda was logically based on Bonaparte’s slogans. These chapters throw a searchlight on the conditions existing in Europe at the time and they represent the most valuable part of the book, being highly instructive even to-day. Lothar Bucher, whose relations to Marx at that time were hostile rather than friendly, declared that the book represented a compendium of contemporary history, and Lassalle welcomed it as “a masterpiece in every respect,” declaring in his usual frank fashion that he was now able to understand why Marx had been so convinced of Vogt’s corruption, for he had supported his “intrinsic proof with an immense weight of evidence.” Engels even thought that Herr Vogt was better than The Eighteenth Brumaire, simpler in style, just as telling where necessary, and in fact the finest polemical work Marx had ever written. However, Herr Vogt has not become the most important of Marx’s polemical works. On the contrary, it has receded more and more into the background whilst The Eighteenth Brumaire and his polemic against Proudhon have come more and more into the foreground with the passage of time. In part that was due to the material itself, for after all the Vogt case was a comparatively unimportant incident, and in part it was due to Marx himself, to his great capacities and to his little weaknesses.

He was unable to descend to that low level of polemics which is necessary when Philistines are to be convinced, although in this case it was precisely the prejudices of the Philistines which had to be dispelled. The book convinced only those who were described by Frau Marx somewhat naively, but nevertheless aptly, as “people of importance,” in other words, just those people who did not require to be told that Marx was not the scoundrel Vogt tried to make him out to be, but who had sufficient good taste and understanding to read the book for its literary qualities. “Even our old enemy Ruge thinks the book is a fine piece of drollery,” wrote Frau Marx. However, the book was far above the heads of the patriotic worthies in Germany and it hardly penetrated into their circles at all, and even in the days of the anti-socialist law otherwise fastidious writers like Bamberger and Treitschke disinterred Vogt’s “Vagabonds” for service against the German social democracy.

In addition, Marx was not to be spared the misfortunes which invariably attended him in all business matters, though this time he was not completely without fault. Engels urged him to have the book printed and published in Germany, and in view of the conditions prevailing there at the time this would have been possible. Lassalle also advised him to do so, but merely on account of the fact that it would cost less, whilst Engels had more important arguments: “We have had the same experience with emigrant literature on a hundred occasions already. Always the same ineffectiveness, always money and work thrown into the gutter, and on top of that the annoyance ... What’s the use of writing an answer to Vogt if no one sees it?” However, Marx insisted on giving the manuscript to a young German publisher in London on a share and share alike basis both for profit and loss, and he advanced 25 pounds for the printing costs, 12 pounds of which came from Borkheim and 8 pounds from Lassalle, but the new firm was so shaky that it was unable to make proper arrangements for the distribution of the book in Germany and it soon ceased to exist altogether. Marx did not recover one penny of the advance he had paid and he had to pay almost as much again as the result of legal proceedings which the partner of the publisher began against him to recover the whole of the printing costs, Marx having omitted to have a written contract drawn up.

When the trouble with Vogt began Marx’s friend Imandt wrote: “I shouldn’t like to have to write about the affair and I shall be surprised if you can bring yourself to thrust your hand into such a muckheap,” and similar advice came to hand from Russian and Hungarian friends. To-day one almost feels inclined to wish that he had taken it. The deplorable business won him a number of new friends and, in particular, it caused him to resume friendly relations with the Workers Educational League, which immediately supported him vigorously. On the other hand it tended to hamper the great work of his life rather than further it, despite, or rather just because of, the valuable sacrifice in strength and time which it demanded without offering any commensurate gain, and at the same time it caused him serious domestic difficulties.



6. Domestic and Personal Affairs

Frau Marx, who clung to her husband with heart and soul, was even harder hit than Marx himself by “the terrible vexation at the infamous attack of Vogt.” It cost her many sleepless nights and although she held out bravely and made a fair copy of the whole voluminous manuscript for the printer, she had hardly completed this work when she suffered a breakdown. A doctor was called in and he diagnosed the trouble as small-pox and ordered the children from the house immediately.

Terrible days followed. The children were looked after by Liebknecht whilst Marx and the loyal servant of the family, Lenchen Demuth, attended to Frau Marx. She suffered agonies of burning pain, sleeplessness, anxiety for her husband, who never left her side, and the almost complete loss of her physical faculties though she remained conscious all the time. A week later the saving crisis occurred, thanks to the fact that she had been vaccinated twice, and finally the doctor declared that the terrible sickness was in reality a piece of good fortune. The nervous exhaustion from which she had suffered for months had caused her system to fall victim to the poison somewhere or other, in a shop or a bus perhaps, but without this sickness her condition would undoubtedly have led to a dangerous nervous fever or something equally serious.

Hardly had Frau Marx begun to recover when the accumulated anxiety, worries and torments which Marx had suffered caused him to fall sick also. For the first time his chronic liver trouble appeared in an acute form and in his case also the doctor declared that the cause was the ceaseless and wearing excitement through which he had gone. Herr Vogt had not brought in a single penny and the New York Tribune again placed him on half-pay so that creditors began to besiege the house. After his convalescence he decided, as his wife wrote to Frau Weydemeyer, “to make a foray into Holland, the land of his fathers, tobacco and cheese,” to see if he could persuade his uncle to part with some specie.

This letter is dated the 11th of March, 1861, and its sunny good humour provides eloquent proof of the “natural vitality” which Jenny Marx possessed in her own way no less than did her husband. After long years of silence the Weydemeyers, who had suffered their share of this world’s troubles during their American exile, wrote again and Frau Marx immediately poured out her heart to “the courageous and loyal companion in misfortune, the fighter and sufferer, declaring that the one thing which gave her sufficient courage to keep going in all the misery and wretchedness, “the one bright spot in our existence, the light of our lives” was the joy in their children. Seventeen-year-old Jenny took after her father “with her rich, dark and glossy hair, her equally dark, brilliant and soft eyes and her dark Creole complexion which shows a typically English blossom.” The fifteen-year-old Laura was more like her mother “with her wavy, curly, chestnut hair and her green iridescent eyes flashing like fire. Both girls have a really beautiful complexion and at the same time they are really so little vain that in secret I am often surprised, all the more so because I cannot say the same for their mother when she was that age and still in short skirts and frills.”

However, although the two eldest daughters were a great joy to their parents, the “idolized darling of the whole house” was the youngest daughter Eleanor, or Tussy, to give her pet name. “The child was born when our poor little Edgar died and all the love and tenderness we bore him was then transferred to his little sister, and the older girls looked after her and nursed her with almost motherly care. But then it would really be difficult to find a more lovable child, as pretty as a picture and sweet tempered. In particular, she prattles delightfully. She has learned that from the brothers Grimm, who are her constant companions day and night. We all have to read the fairy tales aloud to her until we are almost exhausted, but woe betide us if we leave out so much as a word of the story of Bluebeard or Little Snow White or Rumpelstilzchen. Thanks to these fairy tales the child has learned German, and she speaks it with remarkable accuracy and grammatical precision, and, naturally, she has learned English as a matter of course. The child is Karl’s favourite and her laughter and her merry chatter dispel many of his worries.” Then she praises the faithful friend and servant of the house, Lenchen: “Ask your husband about her. He will tell you what a treasure we have in her. She has been with us now for sixteen years and braved all the storm and stress of our lives.” The charming letter ends with a report on Karl’s friends, and those who had proved themselves wanting in loyalty to him she condemns in her feminine fashion even more sternly than he would have done. “I dislike half-measures,” she writes, explaining why she broke off all relations with the distaff side of the Freiligrath family.

In the meantime, the “foray” into Holland had been fairly successful and after visiting his uncle Philips, Marx went on to Berlin to see if anything could be done to found a party organ, a proposal which Lassalle had made repeatedly. The lack of such an organ had made itself felt keenly, particularly during the crisis, and, thanks to the amnesty which William, now King William, had proclaimed in January, 1861, after coming to the throne, there was now a possibility of making good this deficiency. The amnesty was miserable enough in all conscience and full of traps and reservations, but at least it permitted the one-time editors of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung to return to Germany.

Marx was received with “the greatest friendliness” by Lassalle in Berlin, but “the place” remained “personally unsympathetic” to him. No politics of any calibre, but merely squabbles with the police, and the antagonism between the military and the civilians: “The atmosphere in Berlin is insolent and frivolous. The chambers are treated with contempt.” Even compared with the conciliators of 1848, who were certainly no Titans, he found the Prussian Chamber of Deputies with its Simsons and its Vinckes “a queer mixture of bureaucracy and the school bench.” The only half-way decent figures, at least in appearance, in this gathering of pygmies were Waldeck on the one hand and Wagener and Don Quixote von Blankenburg on the other. However, he thought he could detect a general tendency towards enlightenment and, amongst a great section of the public, dissatisfaction with the bourgeois press; people of all classes regarded a catastrophe as inevitable; in the elections which were to take place in the autumn the former conciliators, who were regarded as red republicans by the King, were certain to be elected; matters might then come to a head over the new military budget. Marx therefore regarded Lassalle’s plan for founding a paper to be worth considering, at least in principle.

However, he was not in agreement with Lassalle in matters of detail. The latter proposed that the editorship of the paper should be in the hands of a triumvirate consisting of Marx, Engels and himself, but with the proviso that Marx and Engels should have only one vote between them on matters of policy, as otherwise he would find himself out-voted every time. This extraordinary suggestion would have meant trouble from the beginning and it is probable that Lassalle let it fall only in a chance conversation, but in any case, this is not important in view of the fact that Marx was not inclined to give him any important say in connection with the paper at all. Writing to Engels he declared that, dazzled by the reputation he had won in certain learned circles by his Heraclitus, and in certain parasitic circles by his good table and wine, Lassalle was naturally unaware of the fact that he was discredited amongst the general public: “And then there is his dogmatic insistence that he is always right, his hopeless attachment to ‘the speculative conception’ (the fellow is even dreaming of a new system of Hegelian philosophy raised to the second power and he is going to write it himself), his infection with old French liberalism, his boastful pen, his self-assertiveness and tactlessness, etc. Under strict discipline he could render good service as one of the editors but otherwise he would only do us harm.” This was Marx’s report to Engels on his negotiations with Lassalle, and he added that in order not to wound his host he had postponed the final decision until he had discussed the matter with Engels and Wilhelm Wolff. Engels harboured the same misgivings as Marx and also opposed Lassalle’s proposals.

In any case, the whole plan turned out to be what Lassalle had once prophetically termed it, a castle in Spain. Part of the cunning of the Prussian amnesty was that, even when it permitted the fugitives of the revolutionary years to return to their homes under half-way tolerable conditions, it did not give them back their civil rights and their nationality which, according to Prussian law, they had lost by a stay of longer than ten years abroad. The men who returned under such conditions were likely to be chased across the frontier at any moment at the whim of a bad-tempered police jack-in-office. Marx’s own situation was even worse because several years before the revolution he had voluntarily abandoned his Prussian nationality. It is true that he was goaded into doing so by police chicanery, but this did not alter the fact that he had voluntarily abandoned his nationality. Lassalle represented him in the matter and moved heaven and earth to secure the return of his Prussian citizenship. He waited zealously on the Police President of Berlin, von Zedlitz, and on the Minister of the Interior, Count Schwerin, one of the most prominent supporters of the “New Era,” but all to no purpose. Zedlitz declared that the only objection to the re-naturalization of Marx was his “republican or at least non-royalist convictions,” whilst replying to Lassalle’s urgent exhortations not to indulge in the same “inquisition of conscience and persecution on account of political convictions” he had so sharply condemned in his predecessors Manteuffel and Westphalen, Schwerin declared tersely: “For the moment at least there appears to be no particular reason for granting re-naturalization to the person in question.” A State like Prussia could not digest a man like Marx and in this respect the obscure Ministers, Schwerin and his predecessors, Manteuffel and Kühlwetter, were right.

After leaving Berlin Marx made a detour to visit old friends in Cologne and in particular to see his old mother again, who was rapidly approaching her end. In the beginning of May he was again in London where he now hoped to be able to escape the exhausting life he had been leading and to find time and peace enough to finish his book. While in Berlin he had succeeded in making arrangements with Die Presse in Vienna despite his repeated earlier failures, and the paper promised to pay him a pound for each article and ten shillings for each report. At the same time his connection with the New York Tribune showed signs of improvement again and it repeatedly printed his articles with express praise of their excellence. “These Yankees have a peculiar habit of handing out testimonials to their own correspondents,” he wrote. Die Presse in Vienna also “made a lot of his contributions,” but still, his old debts had never been completely paid off and the fact that he had earned nothing during his sickness, coupled with the expenses of the journey to Germany, combined “to flush all the old filth to the surface again,” as he put it. In his New Year’s greetings to Engels he added that unless it turned out to be better than the old one it could go to the devil as far as he was concerned.

Not only was the year 1862 no better for Marx, but it was even worse. Although Die Presse advertised his contributions widely, it treated him if anything in an even more scurvy fashion than did the American paper. In March he wrote to Engels: “I am not so much concerned about the fact that they don’t print the best articles (though I always write them in such a fashion that they could very well do so), but it is financially impossible for me when they print only one out of four or five and pay only for one. That depresses me far below the standard of the penny-a-liners.” During the course of the year all connections with the New York Tribune were broken off. The reason is not quite clear, but it seems to have been chiefly due to the American Civil War.

Although, therefore, this war brought him considerable personal misfortune, Marx welcomed it with the greatest sympathy. “Let there be no mistake about it,” he wrote a few years later in the preface to his scientific masterpiece, “just as the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class in the eighteenth century, so the American Civil War sounded it for the European working class in the nineteenth century. His letters to Engels show that he followed the course of the war with close interest. He regarded himself as a layman in military matters and gladly listened to what Engels had to say on the matter, and the latter’s observations are still of the greatest value to-day, not only from the military standpoint, but also politically, for instance, he went to the very core of the military and militia question with the words: “Only a society based on and educated in communism can approach closely to the militia system, and even then it will not completely achieve it.” The words of Goethe, in der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister are applicable here, though in a different sense from that intended by the poet.

The mastery which Engels had achieved in military matters limited his general horizon, and the miserable military leadership of the Northern armies sometimes made him doubt their final victory. Writing in May, 1862, he declared: “What makes me doubt the victory of the Yankees is not so much the military situation in itself, for that is merely the result of the general slackness and apathy which is typical of the North, but where is there revolutionary energy amongst the people? They let themselves be drubbed and are really proud of the kicks they are getting. Where can one find throughout the North a single indication that they mean serious business in any respect? I have never seen such a thing, not even in Germany in its worst days. The Yankees seem to extract most pleasure from the prospect of swindling their creditors.” In July he was afraid that all hope was lost for the North, and in September he declared that the Southerners, who at least knew what they wanted, seemed like heroes to him in comparison with the slackness of the Northerners.

Marx, however, staunchly believed in the final victory of the Northern States, and in September he answered: “As far as the Yankees are concerned, I am still quite convinced that they will win in the end ... The way in which they are waging the war is quite natural for a bourgeois republic which has been ruled so long by fraud. The Southern States are ruled by an oligarchy and an oligarchy is better suited for waging war, particularly an oligarchy like the one in the Southern States where all productive labour is performed by the Niggers and the four million Whites are freebooters by profession, but for all that I am prepared to stake my head that these fellows will get the worst of it in the end ...” He was right, and his judgment that in the last resort war too would be decided by the economic conditions under which the belligerents lived was vindicated.

This wonderful clarity was all the more remarkable because the same letter revealed the pressing straits in which Marx found himself at the time. They were so desperate in fact that he had decided to do something he could never bring himself to do previously and never did again. He informed Engels that he was doing his best to get some sort of job and that he had every prospect of obtaining employment in the offices of one of the English railway companies. In the end he failed – he was unable to decide at the time whether this was piece of misfortune or luck – because his handwriting was not good enough. The poverty of his family grew more and more bitter, and the situation was made worse by the fact that he repeatedly fell ill. Apart from his old liver trouble he began to suffer from painful boils and carbuncles, and this new trouble stayed with him on and off for years. The general hopelessness of the situation also threatened to cause another breakdown in his wife’s health. The children had not even proper clothes and footwear to go to school in, and whilst their school friends were amusing themselves in the year of the Great Exhibition, they had a horror of visits on account of their poverty. The oldest daughter, who was by this time old enough to realize the truth of the situation, suffered terribly under it and without her parents’ knowledge she made an attempt to train herself for the stage.

Things grew so bad that Marx finally made up his mind to a step which he had often considered but always abandoned out of consideration for his daughters’ education. He decided to leave his furniture to the landlord, who had already put in the bailiffs, to inform all his other creditors that he was bankrupt, to obtain positions for the two elder girls as governesses through the good offices of English friends of the family, to find Lenchen Demuth some other employment, and to move with his wife and youngest daughter into one of those blocks of buildings which had been run up to meet the needs of the poorer classes.

In the end, however, and thanks to Engels, this counsel of despair was not followed. Engels’ father had died in the spring of 1860 and Engels had then been given a better position in the firm of Ermen & Engels, with the prospect of later becoming a partner, though this improvement meant also that he would have to live in greater style than before. In addition, the American crisis weighed heavily on the business and cut down his income considerably. In the early part of 1863 he also suffered a great personal misfortune. Mary Burns, the Irish girl with whom he had lived for ten years without the sanction of society, died and her death was a terrible blow to him. Writing to Marx he declared: “I simply cannot describe my feelings. The poor girl loved me with her whole heart,” but Marx answered with less sympathy than Engels had expected and this fact alone showed more strikingly than anything else could have done how deeply he was in trouble himself. He referred to Engels’ great loss with a few rather cool words and then went on to describe the desperate situation in which he found himself, declaring that unless he could get hold of a fair amount of money at once he would not be able to keep his head above water for more than a couple of weeks. It is true that he found it “disgustingly egoistical” to plague his friend with other people’s troubles at such a moment, “but, after all, what can I do? In the whole of London there is no one to whom I could even speak openly and at home I have to play the silent stoic in order to forestall an outburst from the other side.”

However, Engels had been hurt by “the frosty reception” his misfortune had met with at Marx’s hands and in his reply, which he delayed for a few days, he made no attempt to conceal his feelings, but at the same time he made a number of proposals to assist Marx out of his trouble, though he declared that for the moment he was not in a position to raise any large sum of money. Marx too delayed his reply for a few days, but only in order to give Engels a chance to calm down, and not in order to persist in the wrong he had done by his lack of sympathy. He denied the suggestion of “heartlessness,” but he frankly admitted that he had not expressed a proper sympathy. In this letter and in a later letter he described the situation which had put his head in a whirl. The tone he uses is tactful and conciliatory, because it is probable that Engels was wounded chiefly by the fact that Frau Marx had not sent him a word of sympathy on the death of his beloved friend. “Women are funny creatures,” wrote Marx, “even the most intelligent. In the morning my wife cried over the death of Mary and your loss so much that she quite forgot our own misfortunes, which culminated on that very day, but in the evening she felt that no one in the world knew what suffering was unless he had the bailiffs in the house and children to feed.”

The first words of regret had mollified Engels immediately and he wrote: “One cannot live for years with a woman and then not feel her death terribly. I felt that my youth had been lowered into the grave with her. When I received your letter she was still unburied. Frankly, your letter was in my head for a week and I couldn’t forget it. Never mind, your last letter has made up for it and I am heartily glad that I did not lose my oldest and best friend together with Mary.” This was the first and last sign of tension that ever showed itself between the two men.

Thanks to “an extremely daring coup,” Engels succeeded in raising a hundred pounds, and with this sum Marx was able to keep his head above water without moving into cheaper lodgings. He managed to scrape his way through the year 1863 and towards the end of it his mother died. It is unlikely that he inherited very much from her and it was in fact the eight or nine hundred pounds which he received later as the chief legatee of Wilhelm Wolff which afforded him a generous breathing space.

Wilhelm Wolff died in 1864, deeply mourned by both Marx and Engels. He was only 55 when he died but in the storm and stress of an adventurous life he had never spared himself, and Engels even complained that his obstinate devotion to his duties as a teacher had hastened his end. Thanks to his great popularity amongst the Germans in Manchester, he had worked his way up into quite comfortable circumstances, but the first years of his exile had been difficult enough. It would seem too that shortly before his death his father had left him a small inheritance. Later Marx dedicated the first volume of his immortal work to his “unforgettable friend, a brave, loyal and noble pioneer of the proletariat,” and Wilhelm Wolff’s last gesture of friendship did much to give Marx the peace he needed in order to work on it.

The worries and troubles of his life had not been banished forever, but they never returned in quite the same heart-breaking fashion of the previous years, because in September, 1864, Engels signed a contract with Ermens which made him a partner in the firm, and from then on he was in a position to continue his unfailing assistance with a still more generous hand.



7. Lassalle’s Agitation

In July, 1862, at a time when the Marx family was in the severest straits, Lassalle made his return visit to London.

“In order to maintain certain dehors towards him my wife had to take practically everything that wasn’t actually nailed down to the pawnshop,” wrote Marx to Engels. Lassalle had no idea how desperate the situation was and he accepted the appearances Marx and his wife presented at their face value, and the careful housekeeper, Lenchen Demuth, never forgot the visitor’s hearty appetite. Thus a horrible situation” developed, and it is really no reproach to Marx, particularly as Lassalle’s attitude was not over-modest at any time, that he could not quite overcome the feelings which once caused Schiller to say of Goethe: “How easily this man achieves all things, and how hard I have to fight for everything!”

Only on his departure after a stay of several weeks does Lassalle seem to have realized the situation and he then offered his assistance, declaring that by the end of the year he could provide 15 pounds and that Marx could also draw bills on him to any amount, providing that Engels or someone else would stand good for them. With the assistance of Borkheim Marx then tried to obtain 400 thaler in this way, but Lassalle wrote a letter making his agreement dependent on a written undertaking by Engels to place him in possession of the necessary sum at least eight days before the bill fell due, “in order to guard against unforeseen circumstances.” The lack of confidence displayed by Lassalle in Marx’s personal guarantee was naturally hurtful, but Engels urged Marx not to get excited about “such foolishness” and immediately gave the required undertaking.

The subsequent development of this financial arrangement is not quite clear. On the 29th of October, Marx wrote to Engels that Lassalle was “very angry” with him and had demanded that the covering sum should be sent to his private address as he had no banker. On the 4th of November, Marx wrote that Freiligrath was ready to send the 400 thaler to Lassalle, and the next day Engels answered that he would send 60 pounds to Lassalle “to-morrow,” but at the same time they both referred to a “prolongation” of the bill. Something must have gone wrong in this connection for on the 24th of April, 1864, Lassalle declared to a third party that he had not written to Marx for two years because “for financial reasons” their relations were strained. He had in fact last written to Marx at the end of 1862 sending him a copy of his pamphlet What Now? This letter is no longer extant, but in a letter to Engels on the 2nd of January, 1863, Marx declared that it was a request for the return of a book. In a further letter to Engels on the 12th of June, Marx severely criticized Lassalle’s agitation in Germany and wrote: “Since the beginning of the year I have not been able to bring myself to write to the fellow.” According to this letter, therefore, Marx broke off his correspondence with Lassalle for political reasons.

However, there is not necessarily any real contradiction between the two versions, for one thing may very well have coincided with the other. The extremely uncomfortable circumstances under which the two men last met probably contributed to aggravating their political differences, which had certainly not grown less since Marx’s visit to Berlin, to say the least of it.

In the autumn of 1861 Lassalle had visited Switzerland and Italy. In Zurich he had made the acquaintance of Rüstow, and on the island of Caprera that of Garibaldi, and whilst in London he had visited Mazzini. He seems to have been interested in a somewhat fantastic plan of the Italian Party of Action according to which Garibaldi should land his volunteers in Dalmatia and from there proceed to raise the standards of revolt in Hungary. This plan was never carried into execution and Lassalle makes no written references to it anywhere. At the utmost it was probably no more than a fleeting idea for he had quite different affairs in his head and even before he visited London he had begun to carry his own plans into execution.

The winning of Marx as an ally was of far greater importance to him than all the Italian notions, but Marx proved even less approachable than he had been the year before. Lassalle still harboured the idea of founding a paper, but Marx declared that although he was prepared to act as its English correspondent in return for good pay, he would not take any share of the responsibility, political or other wise, because he disagreed with Lassalle in everything except a few far-off and ultimate aims. He also showed himself no less opposed to the plans Lassalle laid before him for agitation amongst the workers. He declared that Lassalle let himself be influenced too much by the immediate circumstances of the moment. Lassalle wanted to oppose a pygmy like Schulze-Delitzsch as the focus of his agitation: State aid against self-help. With this he was merely resuscitating the slogan which the Catholic socialist Buchez had used against the real working-class movement in France in the forties. When adopting the Chartist demand for the general franchise, Lassalle had overlooked the difference between English and German conditions, as well as the important lesson which the Second Empire had given the world in the question of franchise. By denying all natural connections with the earlier movement in Germany he had fallen into the error of the sectarians, Proudhon’s error, and instead of seeking the real basis in the genuine elements of the class movement he sought to lay down the lines of development of the latter according to a certain dogmatic recipe.

However, Lassalle did not permit himself to he disheartened by these criticisms and he continued his agitation as a purely working-class movement from the spring of 1863 on. He still hoped to be able to convince Marx of the value of his work and even after they had ceased corresponding he sent Marx his agitational material regularly, though its reception at Marx’s hands was hardly what he had hoped for. In his letters to Engels Marx condemns Lassalle’s activities with a severity which occasionally develops into bitter injustice. It is not necessary to go into the unpleasant details here and they can be read in the correspondence between Marx and Engels. Sufficient to say that the writings which have since given new hope and new life to hundreds of thousands of German workers were flung contemptuously on one side by Marx as the plagiarisms of a schoolboy, when he read them at all, and as juvenile exercises not worth reading even to kill time, when he did not read them.

Only shallow-pated Pharisees will attempt to gloss over these facts with the foolish remark that as Lassalle’s teacher, Marx had the right to treat him in such a fashion. Marx was not a superman and he never pretended to be anything more than a man, declaring that nothing human was foreign to him. The thoughtless repetition of the ideas of others was one of the things which annoyed him intensely. In justice to him, it is as necessary to repair the wrong he did to others as it is to repair the wrong others did to him. His figure gains more in fact by an unprejudiced criticism of his relations to Lassalle than it would if we were to follow the example of his all-too-orthodox adherents and plod along the path he laid down, looking neither to left nor right and, to quote Lessing, carrying his carpet-slippers.

In one sense Marx was certainly Lassalle’s teacher and in another sense he was not. From one point of view Marx might have said of Lassalle what Hegel is alleged to have said on his deathbed about his own pupils: only one of them understood me, and he misunderstood me. Lassalle was incomparably the most brilliant adherent Marx and Engels won during their lives, but he never fully grasped the alpha and omega of their new world outlook, historical materialism. Marx was quite right when he declared that Lassalle was unable to free himself from “the speculative conception” of Hegelian philosophy. Although he thoroughly grasped the tremendous historical importance of the proletarian class struggle, he understood it only in those idealist forms of thought which were peculiar above all to the bourgeois epoch, in the philosophical and legal forms.

The result was that, as an economist, Lassalle did not approach Marx in stature and either failed to grasp the full significance of the latter’s economic teachings or misunderstood them altogether. Marx occasionally judged him too leniently in this respect though more often his strictures were too severe. Referring to Lassalle’s presentation of the Marxian theory of value, Marx observed mildly that Lassalle had fallen victim to “considerable misunderstandings,” whereas it would have been nearer the truth to declare roundly that he had failed to understand it at all. Lassalle adopted only that part of Marx’s theory of value which fitted in with his own legalist and philosophic way of looking at the world: the proof that general social labour-time, which determined value, made general social production necessary in order to secure for the worker the full product of his toil. For Marx, however, the theory of value represented the solution of all the mysteries of the capitalist mode of production; it was a key to the formation of value and surplus-value as a historical process which would inevitably change the capitalist order of society into a socialist one. Lassalle overlooked the difference between labour-power which results in use-value and labour-power which results in exchange-value, the double nature of labour embodied in commodities, which for Marx was “the vital point” on which an understanding of political economy depended. The real difference between the two is revealed at this decisive point. It is the difference between the legalist-philosophical outlook and the economic-materialist outlook.

In other economic questions Marx judged Lassalle’s weaknesses all too harshly and particularly the two main economic pillars of Lassalle’s agitation: “the iron law of wages,” so called by Lassalle, and the workers’ co-operatives working with State credit. Marx declared that Lassalle had borrowed the one from the English economists, Malthus and Ricardo, and the other from the French Catholic socialist, Buchez, although as a matter of fact Lassalle had taken them both from The Communist Manifesto.

On the basis of the theory of population put forward by Malthus, according to which population always increases more quickly than the production of foodstuffs, Ricardo developed his law that the average wage must limit itself to the amount necessary, generally speaking, to support bare existence and the perpetuation of the race. Lassalle never accepted this justification of the law of wages by an alleged natural law, and he opposed the population theory of Malthus just as energetically as did Marx and Engels. He insisted on the Iron character of the law of wages only for capitalist society, “under presentday conditions, under the rule of supply and demand,” and in this he was only following in the footsteps of The Communist Manifesto.

Lassalle had been dead three years before Marx proved the elastic character of the law of wages as it develops at the height of capitalist society, finding its highest level in the necessity for the utilization of capital and its lowest level in that depth of poverty which a worker can just tolerate without dying of starvation. Within these limits wage levels are not determined by the natural fluctuations of population, but by the degree of resistance which the workers offer to the steady tendency of capital to squeeze as much unpaid labour as possible out of their labour-power. After this the organization of the working class in trade unions was seen to have a far greater significance than Lassalle had been prepared to grant it.

In this respect, therefore, Lassalle was merely behind Marx in economic insight, but with regard to his productive associations, he fell into a serious error. He did not borrow them from Buchez and he did not regard them as a panacea for all social evils, but as a step towards the socialization of production. In the same connection The Communist Manifesto mentions the centralization of credit in the hands of the State and the founding of State factories, together with a number of other measures, but at the same time it declares that these measures “appear economically insufficient and untenable, but in the course of the movement they outstrip themselves and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.” On the other hand, Lassalle regarded his productive associations as “the organic seed, unfolding from within and inevitably driving forward all further development.” Here he certainly betrayed an “infection with French socialism” when he assumed that the laws of commodity production could be liquidated on the basis of commodity production.

His economic weaknesses, which can be referred to only in their main points here, were certainly calculated to upset Marx, who observed him throwing into confusion again what he, Marx, had already laboriously solved. If Marx had contented himself with an energetic and even angry protest his attitude would have been understandable, but in his justifiable annoyance he failed to observe that Lassalle’s policy was fundamentally his own, despite all Lassalle’s theoretical misunderstandings. Marx himself had always been in favour of seizing on the extremest edge of an existing movement as a lever to impel it still further forward and this is what he did in 1848. Lassalle was therefore no more influenced by “the immediate circumstances of the moment” than Marx himself had been in the revolutionary years. Lassalle is accused of sectarianism and of denying all natural connections with the earlier movement in Germany, but this is true only in so far as Lassalle never mentioned either the Communist League or its manifesto in his agitation, and it is just as true that in the several hundred numbers of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung there is just as little reference to either of them.

After the death of both men Engels indirectly, but nevertheless strikingly, justified Lassalle’s tactics. In the years 1886-87 a proletarian mass movement began to develop in the United States with a very confused program, and Engels wrote to his friend Serge: “The first great step which must be taken in any country newly entering into the movement is to organize the workers into an independent political party, no matter how, providing it is a definite workers’ party. And he went on to point out that if the program adopted by such a party was confused and even highly deficient, this was an inevitable and only temporary evil. He also wrote in a similar strain to other party friends in America, declaring that Marxist theory did not claim the monopoly of being the sole true dogma, but that it was the exposition of a process of development. One should not make the inevitable confusion of the first mobilization of working-class forces worse confounded, by forcing the workers to swallow ideas which for the moment they were unable to digest, but which they would willingly accept later on.

In support of his argument Engels pointed to the attitude of Marx and himself in the revolutionary years in Germany: “When we returned to Germany in the spring of 1848, we joined the Democratic party as the only means of obtaining the ear of the working class. We were the most advanced wing of the party, but still we were a part of it.” And just as the Neue Rheinische Zeitung had avoided all mention of The Communist Manifesto, so Engels warned the Americans against making it their immediate creed, pointing out that like almost all other minor works of Marx it was too difficult for the American workers to understand at the moment. They were coming into the movement for the first time and they were still somewhat clumsy, and enormously backward in theoretical matters: “We must use the practical everyday movement as a lever, and for this we need an entirely new literature. Once the American workers are more or less on the right path the manifesto will not fail to have its effect, but at the moment it would influence only very few workers.” And when Serge objected that the manifesto had exercised great influence on him when he had first read it, although he had been only a boy at the time, Engels replied: “You were Germans forty years ago with the German capacity for theory, and therefore the manifesto had its effect: on you, but although it was translated into English, French, Flemish, Danish, etc., it had absolutely no effect on the other peoples.” By 1863, long years of leaden oppression had left very little of this capacity for theory amongst the German workers, and years of education were necessary before they again began to understand the manifesto. With regard to what Engels, appealing always and with complete justification to Marx, described as “the first great step,” Lassalle’s agitation was beyond reproach. As an economist Lassalle was undoubtedly far behind Marx, but as a revolutionary he was Marx’s equal, unless one cares to reproach him with the fact that his restless desire for revolutionary action outweighed the untiring patience of the scientific student. All his writings, with the one exception of Heraclitus, were written with a view to securing an immediate practical effect.

He based his agitation on the broad and firm foundation of the class struggle and he made its unswerving aim the conquest of political power by the working class. Marx’s reproach that he sought to lay down the lines of development of the class struggle in accordance with a certain dogmatic recipe, was unjust, for Lassalle proceeded in fact from just those “genuine elements” which had naturally produced a movement amongst the German workers: the demand for the general franchise and the question of productive associations. His estimate of the general franchise as a lever of the proletarian class struggle was more correct than that of Marx and Engels, at least as far as his own day was concerned, and whatever may be said against his productive associations with State credit, they were nevertheless based on the correct fundamental idea that – to quote the words Marx himself used a few years later – “in order to save the working people, co-operative labour must grow to national dimensions and logically therefore be supported by State means.” Only as a result of the great and occasionally excessive admiration his followers had for him might Lassalle have appeared on the surface as a “sectarian,” but the real and original responsibility for this was at least not his, and he went to enough trouble to avoid “the movement taking on the character of a one-man show in the eyes of the blockheads.” He tried to win not only Marx and Engels, but also Bucher and Rodbertus. He did not succeed and he found no equal to work with him. It was therefore natural enough when the gratitude of the workers occasionally took on the not very agreeable form of a Lassalle cult. On the other hand, it is also true that he was not the sort of man to hide his own light under a bushel and he did not possess the self-effacement with which Marx always placed himself behind the cause.

Another very important point remains to be considered, namely the apparently violent struggle of the liberal bourgeoisie against the Prussian government. It was out of this struggle that Lassalle’s agitation developed. Since 1859, Marx and Engels had again been paying closer attention to German affairs, but, as their letters up to 1866 show in various ways, they did not always succeed in obtaining a correct grasp of the situation. Despite their experience in the revolutionary years they still reckoned with the possibility of a bourgeois and even a military revolution, and as they over-estimated the German bourgeoisie so they under-estimated the Greater Prussia policy. They never succeeded in overcoming the impressions of their youth, when their Rhenish homeland, proudly conscious of its modern culture, looked down with contempt on the Old Prussian provinces, and the more they concentrated their attention on the Tsarist plans for world dominance, the more they came to regard the Prussian State as nothing but a Russian province. Even in Bismarck they were inclined to see no more than the tool of a Russian tool, the puppet of “the mysterious man in the Tuileries,” of whom they declared even in 1859 that he danced only to the tune of the Russian diplomatic pipe. The idea that the Greater Prussia policy might, for all its otherwise objectionable features, lead to results which would be equally unpleasant for Paris and St. Petersburg did not occur to them. They considered a bourgeois revolution in Germany to be still possible and therefore they necessarily found Lassalle’s agitation thoroughly out of tune with the developments.

However, Lassalle saw things from close up and his judgment was sounder. He based his policy on the assumption that the Philistine movement of the progressive bourgeoisie would never lead to anything “not even if we wait for centuries, for geological eras,” and he was right. Once the possibility of a bourgeois revolution was excluded, he realized correctly that the unification of Germany, as far as it was possible at all, could only be the result of dynastic changes, and in his opinion the new workers’ party should act as a driving wedge. He therefore opened up negotiations with Bismarck and attempted to entice the latter on to thin ice with his Greater Prussia policy, but he ventured too far himself and although he did not violate his principles, he certainly did violate the exigencies of political tact, a proceeding which caused Marx and Engels to object strongly and with justification.

In the last resort, what separated Marx and Engels from Lassalle in the years 1863-64 was “opposing judgments on given conditions,” and thus the appearance of personal rancour which seems to pervade the harsh judgments which Marx passed on Lassalle during these years must be discounted. However, Marx was never completely able to overcome his prejudice against the man whom the history of the German social democracy will always mention in the same breath with him and Engels, and even the mitigating power of death had no permanent effect.

He received the news of Lassalle’s death 6 from Freiligrath, and telegraphed it to Engels on the 3rd of September, 1864. The next day Engels answered: “You can imagine how the news surprised me. No matter what Lassalle may have been personally, and from a literary and scientific standpoint, politically he was certainly one of the finest brains in Germany. For us he was a very uncertain friend at the moment and would have been a fairly certain enemy in the future, but all the same it hits one hard to see how Germany is destroying all the more or less capable men of the extreme party. What joy there will be amongst the manufacturers and the Progressive swine – after all, Lassalle was the only man in Germany of whom they were afraid.”

Marx let a few days pass and then on the 7th of September he answered: “Lassalle’s misfortune has been worrying me damnably during the last few days. After all, he was one of the old guard and an enemy of our enemies ... But for all that I am sorry that our relations were so clouded during the past few years although it was his fault. On the other hand I am very glad that I resisted the incitement from various quarters and refrained from attacking him during his ‘jubilee year.’ The devil take it, the group is becoming smaller and smaller and there are no reinforcements.” In a letter of consolation to Countess Hatzfeldt he declared: “He died young – in battle – like Achilles.” And when a little later the windbag Blind tried to make himself important at Lassalle’s expense, Marx crushed him with the contemptuous words: “I have no intention of trying to explain the character of a man like Lassalle and the real significance of his agitation to a grotesque clown with nothing behind him but his own shadow. In any case, I feel quite convinced that Herr Karl Blind is only obeying the dictates of his own nature when he spurns the dead lion.” And a few years later in a letter to Schweitzer Marx praised “the immortal service of Lassalle” who, despite “the great mistakes” he made in his agitation, had awakened the German working-class movement to life after a slumber of fifteen years.

Unfortunately, however, days came when he judged the dead Lassalle more bitterly and more unjustly than he had ever judged him during his lifetime. Thus an unpleasant residue remains and is resolved only in the inspiring thought that the modern working-class movement is far too tremendous for any single brain, even the most powerful, to grasp it in its entirety.


Last updated on 27.2.2004