Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Author’s Preface


THIS BOOK has a little history of its own. When a proposal was made to publish the correspondence which had passed between Marx and Engels, Marx’s daughter, Madame Laura Lafargue, made it a condition of her agreement that I should take part in the editorial work as her representative. In a letter from Draveil dated the 10th of November, 1910, she authorized me to make what notes, explanations or deletions I might consider necessary.

As a matter of fact I made no practical use of this authorization because no important differences of opinion arose between the editors, or rather the editor, Bernstein – Bebel did no more than give his name to the work – and myself. I had neither the occasion, nor the right, nor naturally, any inclination to interfere with his work in the interests of Madame Lafargue without cogent and urgent reasons.

However, during the long work I did in connection with the publication of the correspondence, the knowledge which I had gained of Karl Marx during many years of study was rounded out. I felt the spontaneous desire to give it a biographical frame, particularly as I knew that Madame Lafargue would be delighted at the idea. I had won her friendship and confidence not because she thought me the most learned or the most sagacious amongst the followers of her father, but because she felt that I had obtained the deepest insight into his character and would be able to portray it most clearly. Both in conversation and in her letters she often assured me that many half-forgotten memories of her home life had become fresh and vivid again from the descriptions in my history of the German Social Democracy and in particular in the posthumous edition which I issued [1], and that many names often heard from her parents developed from a shadowy existence into a tangible reality thanks to my writings.

Unfortunately this noble woman died long before the correspondence between her father and Engels could be published. A few hours before she voluntarily took leave of life she sent me a last, warm message of friendship. She inherited the great qualities of her father and I thank her beyond the grave for having entrusted me with the publication of many treasures from his literary remains without having made even the slightest attempt to influence my critical judgment in any way. For instance, she gave me the letters of Lassalle to her father, although she knew from my history of the German Social Democracy how energetically and how often I had defended Lassalle against him.

When I finally began to carry out my intention of writing a biography of Marx, two of the stalwart defenders of Zion in the Marxist ranks failed to show even a trace of the generosity of this great-hearted woman. They sounded the horn of moral indignation with all their might because I had made one or two observations in Die Neue Zeit [2] concerning the relations of Marx to Lassalle and to Bakunin without first having made the traditional kow-tow to the official party legend.

First of all, Karl Kautsky accused me of “anti-Marxism” in general, and of “a breach of confidence” towards Madame Lafargue in particular. When I nevertheless insisted on carrying out my intention of writing a biography of Marx he even devoted sixty odd pages of Die Neue Zeit, space in which was notoriously precious, to an attack on me. In this attack D. Riazanov did his best to prove me guilty of the basest betrayal of Marx, and accompanied his efforts with a flood of accusations whose lack of conscience was equalled only by their lack of sense. I have permitted these people to have the last word out of a feeling which for politeness’ sake I will not call by its real name, but I owe it to myself to point out to my readers that I have not given way one hair’s breadth to their intellectual terrorism and that in the following pages I have dealt with the relations of Marx to Lassalle and to Bakunin strictly in accordance with the exigencies of historical truth whilst completely ignoring the official party legend. Naturally, in doing so I have again avoided any sort of polemic.

My admiration and my criticism – and both these things must have an equal place in any good biography – have been centred on a great man whose favorite and most frequent utterance about himself was, “nothing human is foreign to me.” The task which I set myself when I undertook this work was to present him in all his powerful and rugged greatness.

My end determined the means which I took to attain it. All historical writing is at the same time both art and science, and this applies in particular to biographical writing. I cannot remember at the moment what wiseacre first gave vent to the extraordinary idea that aesthetic considerations have no place in the halls of historical science, and I must frankly confess, perhaps to my own shame, that I do not loathe bourgeois society quite so thoroughly as I loathe those stern thinkers who, in order to take a slap at the worthy Voltaire, declare that a boring and tiresome style is the only permissible one. In this connection Marx himself is more than suspect with me. With the old Greeks he loved so well he counted Clio one of the nine Muses. The truth is that only those scorn the Muses who have been scorned by them.

If I may assume the agreement of the reader with the form I have chosen for my work, I must nevertheless ask him for some indulgence for its content. From the beginning I was faced with one inexorable necessity: that of preventing the book growing too large and at the same time keeping it within the reach and comprehension of at least the more advanced workers. As it is, it has already grown half as long again as the length I originally planned. How often have I been compelled to content myself with a word when I would rather have written a line, with a line when I would rather have written a page, with a page when I would rather have written a chapter! My analysis of the scientific writings of Marx has suffered in particular from this outward compulsion, and in order to forestall any doubt about the matter I have refrained from giving my book the second part of the traditional sub-title of any biography of a great writer: The Story of His Life and Works.

There is no doubt that the incomparable stature of Marx is due not a little to the fact that in him the man of ideas was indissolubly bound up with the man of action, and that the two mutually complemented and supported each other. Neither is there any doubt that the fighter in him always took precedence over the thinker. The great pioneers of socialism were all in agreement in this respect; as Lassalle once put it, how gladly would he leave unwritten all he knew if only the time for action would come! And in our own days we have observed with horror how right they were. Lifelong followers of Marx, men who had brooded for three and even four decades over every comma in his writings, failed utterly at the historic moment when for once they might and should have acted like Marx. Instead they swung this way and that, like creaking weather vanes in a blustering wind.

Nevertheless, I have no wish to pretend that I feel myself called before all others to mark down the boundaries of that tremendous field of knowledge which was Marx’s domain. For instance, in order to give the reader a clear and adequate picture of the second and third volumes of Marx’s Capital, I appealed to my friend Rosa Luxemburg for assistance, and he will thank her as I do for readily agreeing to assist me. Chapter XII, No.3, The Second and Third Volumes, was written by her.

I am happy to be able to embody a treasure from her pen in my book, and I am no less happy that our joint friend Clara Zetkin has given me permission to launch my little ship and send it out on to the high seas under her flag. The friendship of these two women has been an incalculable consolation to me at a time when boisterous storms have swept away so many “manly and steadfast pioneers of socialism” like dry leaves in the autumn winds.

Berlin-Steglitz, March, 1918.




1. The famous Nachlassausgabe. See Bibliography. – Tr.

2. Die Neue Zeit [The New Age]: Stuttgart, 1883 to 1923. Under Kautsky’s editorship until 1917. Official theoretical organ of the German Social Democratic Party. – Tr.


Last updated on 16.8.2004