The Life of Karl Marx: Berfrois Interviews Jonathan Sperber


by Russell Bennetts

Jonathan Sperber is a social historian and Curators’ Professor of History at the University of Missouri. His most recent publication is Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life.

Russell Bennetts is the editor of Berfrois.


Was Karl Marx an anti-Semite?


Historians are notoriously reluctant to give yes-or-no answers to any question, and this one is a particularly apt candidate for an ambivalent response. Marx certainly made lots of hostile comments about Jews in his correspondence, whether about his encounters with obscure individuals or in regard to his relations with his pupil and rival Ferdinand Lassalle. In his 1844 essay “On the Jewish Question,” he denounced Judaism as a religion encouraging haggling, greed, obsession with money and a whole host of obnoxious capitalist attitudes. A post-capitalist regime would be, Marx went on, one in which the Jewish religion and Jewish identity would come to an end. Such assertions certainly sound, by today’s standards, distinctly anti-Semitic. From such remarks, many authors have concluded that Marx was a self-hating Jew, that he saw Jews as embodying capitalism and so hated them, making his ideas precursors to both the Nazis’ and the communists’ anti-Semitism.

There is another side to Marx’s attitude, though. In that same essay on the Jewish Question he insisted, in no uncertain terms, on the emancipation of the Jews, that is on their having the same citizenship and civil rights as Gentiles, asserting that such emancipation was a central element in the development of a democratic and republican form of government. Marx’s attitude toward his Jewish ancestry appears in the letters he wrote to his uncle Lion Philips, his mother’s sister’s husband, a person he admired and who was rather a father figure for the adult Marx. In one such letter writing about the development of the higher criticism of the Old Testament, he stated that, “Since…Darwin has proven our common descent form the apes, scarcely any shock whatsoever can shake ‘our pride in our ancestors.’” In another Marx described the Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli, (whom Marx greatly admired, regarding, as the smartest man in British politics) as “our tribal comrade.”  Both of these suggest a detached and ironic attitude toward Marx’s and his uncle’s Jewish ancestry, an attitude not unlike that expressed by Disraeli.

In order to understand Marx’s position, we need to see that being Jewish in mid-nineteenth century Europe was regarded primarily as a matter of religious and cultural affiliation. Marx, who had been baptised at the age of five, brought up as a Protestant, and received a Protestant religious education, was very distant from a Jewish identity. His intellectual world, particularly his relationship to Hegelian philosophy, was shaped by the Young Hegelians, radical philosophers who had all began their scholarly and intellectual careers as Protestant theologians. The hostile remarks about Jews in “On the Jewish Question,” derived from ideas of German liberal Protestant theologians about Judaism as an ethically inferior religion — ideas, incidentally, that were prevalent in German Protestant theology well into the twentieth century. Marx’s own negative comments about Jews generally referred to those who continued to maintain their separate religious and cultural identity, rather than to adopt them to the nations and cultures in which they lived.

A good example of Marx’s attitude can be seen in a letter he wrote to Engels concerning a trip he took in 1875 from London to Karlsbad (today’s Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic). On the train from London he shared a train compartment with a “little Yid.” Marx was merciless about his companion’s Yiddish-inflected German, his dubious financial dealings, which had led to his being swindled about of £1,700 and his equally dubious plans to get his money back. It was a hostile denunciation, in stereotypical terms, of a greedy and uncultured Jews.

But Marx also told Engels that on his way to Karlsbad, he stopped in Frankfurt to have a meeting with Leopold Sonnemann, publisher of Germany’s leading left-wing newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung. The two men discussed the possibilities of political cooperation between the socialists and the bourgeois democrats. Marx was very impressed with Sonnemann, praising the way he had made his newspaper so successful, particularly through his excellent financial and commercial reporting. (Marx, himself an experienced journalist, who had edited two different newspapers and been the European correspondent of the New York Tribune, the world’s largest newspaper during much of the 1850s, knew the business very well and was in a position to judge these matters.)  Sonnemann was also Jewish, but far from denouncing him, Marx praised him as a “man of the world.” What separated Sonnemann from Marx’s train compartment companion was not the two individuals’ ancestry, or their involvement with capitalism, or even their religion, but the degree of assimilation into a broader European society.

In the last decade of Marx’s life, a new attitude toward Jews was developing, the perception of them not so much in religious or cultural terms as in biological ones. Applying the ideas of Charles Darwin to human history and society, this viewpoint understood Jews as members of a race, whose identity was primarily biological in nature and hence immutable, rather than being a matter of religious and cultural affiliation, which could be changed. Hostile versions of this attitude came to be called “anti-Semitism.” (Interestingly, Marx once met the German author Wilhelm Marr, who coined the term anti-Semitism; Marx was not impressed by him.) Authors of newspaper interviews with Marx and writers of his obituary often referred to his “Semitic” features. Later, twentieth century views toward Marx, whether favourable or hostile, tended to see him as “Jewish,” because of his “racial” background. Marx’s own remarks about Jews were reinterpreted in the light of such attitudes, particularly in the wake of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe carried out by the Nazis, for whom, of course, this biological and racial understanding of Jews was central to their genocidal plans. From this twentieth-century viewpoint, Marx’s ideas seem very sinister, but in their nineteenth century context less so, although still rather rigid and intolerant — two attitudes that were, more broadly, part of Marx’s character.


How did his personal relationship with Fredrich Engels develop over the years?


Marx and Engels are often seen as deep, close personal friends, the Jonathan and David of communism, as it were, whose relationship was excellent from the moment they met. This is not quite the case. Their first personal encounter was in Paris in 1844. Engels, on his way back to his home in Barmen from the year he spent in Manchester, working for his father’s business partners, had sought Marx out. They got along at first quite well. Marx’s previous associates had been older, more experienced and better connected men — among them Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge, Heinrich Heine and Ludolf Camphausen — who were Marx’s patrons and mentors. Marx chafed at the dependent status such a relationship implied; he had previously broken up with Bauer and, just a few months before, Ruge in very vehement fashion, leaving bad feelings on all sides. Engels, by contrast, was Marx’s first disciple, someone in whom the mentor-mentee or patron-client relationship was reversed. As for Engels, he was going through a very difficult period in his life: a communist and an atheist, working for his very capitalist father (a pioneering German textile manufacturer), who was also a prominent born-again Christian. Engel’s relationship with Marx was an important resource for him in his stormy relationship with his family.

The two collaborated intellectually and politically over the next four years. But their relationship was not entirely smooth. In 1845, there was a period of considerable estrangement, apparently stemming from the hostile feelings Marx’s wife Jenny had toward Lizzie Burns, Engels’s working-class mistress. Marx, in letters to friends in Cologne, made a number of very hostile and condescending remarks about Engels. (Knowledge of these remarks was long suppressed, and they only appeared in the MEGA, the gigantic edition of everything Marx and Engels ever wrote, as well as all their entire ingoing correspondence, which began being published in 1975.) Although these differences were patched up, contemporaries did not see Engels as Marx’s leading companion and supporter; they mentioned him along with other figures, such as Moses Hess and Heinrich Bürgers. Indeed, at one point during the revolution of 1848, Engels became convinced that Marx had abandoned him, and Marx had to put some effort into convincing him this was not the case — even lending him money.

Marx and Engels became a close political and personal duo in the early years of their English exile at the beginning of the 1850s. It was also then that contemporaries first talked about “Marx and Engels” as a political team. The relationship was cemented by the agreement the two men made in 1850. After they failed to raise the money to move to New York, Engels went to Manchester to work for the business owned by his father in partnership with the Ermen brothers (Engels got a place in the business by going through the books and demonstrating to his father that his partners were cheating him), while Marx remained in London. For the next twenty years, Engels would help support Marx financially and offer him advice, while Marx would be the theorist and the chief political activist of the two.

They became increasingly close friends. When the Marx family servant Lenchen Demuth became pregnant by Marx in 1850, and gave birth the following year, Engels claimed to be the father, thus saving Marx’s marriage. As is well known, Engels, who did very well at Ermen and Engels, sent remittances to the Marxes, enabling them to survive the worst of their poverty and to begin paying off their debts. Marx’s own fondness for Engels might be seen from an episode in 1857, when Engels developed a persistent and lasting illness, probably mononucleosis. Marx dropped his economics research at the British Museum and spent his time there researching at length the latest medical opinions for remedies, which he sent on to his friend. When Marx finished Volume 1 of Das Kapital in 1867, he was truly fulsome in his praise of Engels’s assistance, asserting that without it all his labours would have been in vain.

The closeness of the two men was an enormous resource for Marx: a source of funds, of course, but also of emotional support. Engels had lots of useful suggestions for Marx’s economic, historical and sociological publications, and Marx always consulted with him about courses of political action. But the closeness of the two men had its down side. They cemented their personal friendship by insulting other socialists and non-socialist radicals, constantly exchanging hostile, sarcastic and jeering comments. This tended to isolate Marx politically.

Fredrich Engels in 1868. Photograph by George Lester

As Marx’s health declined in the 1870s and early 1880s, Engels increasingly took over Marx’s political work, particularly his relationship with the nascent socialist parties on the European continent. After Marx’s death, Engels became his literary executor and in 11 years of extensive labour turned the enormous mass of notes and manuscripts, all in Marx’s notoriously difficult handwriting, into volumes two and three of Das Kapital. In works such the Anti-Dühring, and The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Scholarship (generally called in English, Socialism Utopian and Scientific),Engels developed a canonical form of Marx’s doctrines. Most of what would come to be called “Marxism” in the 20th century might be better designated “Engelsism.” It’s not that Engels falsified Marx’s works, as some indignant scholars have asserted, but that he tended to iron out a number of ambiguities in Marx’s thought and replace them with his own more one-sided positivist and scientifistic formulations.


But you do argue that Marx was undeniably influenced by positivism. Is this something he himself would recognise?


Marx was certainly influenced by positivism. Examples of this influence would include his panoramic description of the stages of human history in the introduction to On the Critique of Political Economy (1859), his first book of economics. The whole description there of human history progressing inevitably through stages is very reminiscent of Comte or Spencer.

Marx also greatly admired Darwin — although the story that he tried to dedicate Das Kapital to   Darwin is not true. He asserted that Darwin’s work provided the scientific basis for his own economic and social theories. This is definitely positivism — the idea that the methods and conclusions natural sciences provide the basis for and validation of other scholarly disciplines and knowledge in general. But Marx was also critical of both Darwin and the positivists. After re-reading On the Origin of Species he let Engels know that Darwin’s theories involved a transposition to nature of capitalist ideas and institutions of competition, taken from bourgeois political economy. Marx repeated this observation on several different occasions. Such an attitude is more Hegelian than positivist, since it involves the use of philosophy, or Marx’s philosophizing political economy, to criticise the natural sciences, rather than taking them as a model for knowledge more generally. In the afterword to the second edition of Das Kapital, Marx denounced contemporary German intellectuals who treated Hegel like a “dead dog.” He mentioned no names, but in his private correspondence he identified two of them as Ludwig Büchner and Friedrich Albert Lange, two prominent German Darwinians.

So the point is that Marx was rather ambivalent about the transition from Hegelian to positivist modes of thought, a transition going on in Germany in the decades following 1850. Engels was not: he had been a positivist all along, and he identified Hegel’s ideas with those of positivism. This rather unsophisticated approach, following Marx’s death, and the publication of Engels’s interpretation of Marx’s ideas, became the standard understanding of “Marxism,” which is why I would refer to it as “Engelsism.” It was only later in the 20th century, particularly after 1945, when Marx’s youthful unpublished manuscripts — especially the so-called Paris manuscripts, of 1844 — appeared, that the Hegelian elements in Marx’s thought received more consideration.


How helpful was the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) in the writing of your book?


The MEGA was essential to my project. I will mention four particular aspects of it that were especially useful. One is that everything in the MEGA is published in the original language, rather than in translation. Another is that in the MEGA, unlike other editions of Marx’s and Engels’s works (including both the English- and German-language collected works), the letters written to Marx and Engels are published, as well as the letters they themselves wrote. This incoming correspondence can be enormously informative, and often has material concerning letters Marx and Engels themselves wrote, which are now lost. Third, the MEGA includes Marx’s very extensive notes and excerpts from his readings (and Marx read an enormous amount), important clues to his thought. Finally, the MEGA’s textual apparatus — its publication of variants of texts, its notes about individuals or events mentioned in the works published — is excellently done and endlessly helpful to a biographer. As I was working on the book, the sight of me staggering out of Ellis Library at the University of Missouri, under the weight of a pile of the MEGA’s blue-and-red volumes, was a source of amusement for librarians, passers-by and even colleagues. Sometimes, the pile of volumes was so high that they crashed to the ground. But the physical labour of carrying all those volumes — as is surely appropriate for a Marx biographer — produced distinct intellectual rewards.


How did Marx the editor differ from Marx the political activist?


Marx began his political activity as an editor — acting editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung [one could translate this as The Rhineland News] in Cologne for four months in 1842-43. After the Prussian government prohibited the newspaper, Marx immediately set out to find new editorial ventures. He ran through a number, none very successful, until the outbreak of the revolution of 1848. Marx returned to Cologne and brought out the Neue Rheinische Zeitung [The New Rhineland News] from June 1848 to May 1849. Between 1843 and 1849, Marx did engage in other political activities: for instance, he became a member of the Communist League, for which he wrote his celebrated Manifesto. In 1848, he was an active member of the Cologne Democratic Society and of the provincial directory of the democratic clubs of the Prussian provinces of the Rhineland and Westphalia. But editing a newspaper was his chief form of political activity. In May 1848, Marx dissolved or suspended the Communist League, to devote his energies to his newspaper. Contemporaries criticised him for neglecting the provincial democratic federation to pour his energies into the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Marx and his followers were generally known as the “party of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.” The newspaper was quite successful, acquiring a following in many different parts of central Europe, as can be seen from the letters to Marx as editor, published in the MEGA. Under Marx’s editorial leadership, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung specialised in attacks on the Prussian government, the royal family and the army; it called for a Jacobin-style German republic and a revolutionary war against Russia. During the final crisis of the 1848-49 revolution, in May 1849, the Prussian government closed down the newspaper by expelling Marx from the country.

Driven into exile in London by September 1849, Marx planned his political comeback as editor a magazine, Neue Rheinische Zeitung — Politisch-ökonomische Revue, which he hoped to turn into a daily newspaper. The venture was not a success, but Marx’s non-newspaper radical political experiences of the time were much worse. Following a series of very nasty quarrels, in which political differences and personal animosities were mixed, Marx and his friend Engels had become alienated from all the left-wing political exiles in London, lost the support of the German artisans living in London and were expelled from the Communist League. Marx decided then that he had had it with political parties and political associations — he was fed up, as he said, with “being insulted by any party-jackass.” Future political activities would take the form of newspaper editing.

As the possibilities for political action increased in the late 1850s and early 1860s, with the waning of the post-revolutionary decade of reaction, Marx hoped once again for a political comeback as a newspaper editor. He followed several plans, the most important of which was protracted negotiations in 1861-62 with his pupil and potential rival, Ferdinand Lassalle, about editing a left-wing daily newspaper in Berlin that would be a successor to the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Marx took these negotiations very seriously, even traveling to Berlin (his first visit back to Prussia and Germany since 1849) to discuss matters with Lassalle. This plan never came to fruition, for a number of reasons, including the reluctance of both Engels and Marx’s wife and daughters to leave England and return to Germany, but mostly because Marx and Lassalle — two very strong-willed individuals with distinct and clashing political views — each wanted to be the dominant figure in their partnership.

So for some two decades, from the mid-1840s to the mid-1860s, Marx’s political activities had been primarily as a newspaper editor. This changed, and drastically, in 1864, when Marx decided to become involved in the newly founded International Working Men’s Association. He wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer, one of his old friends and associates from the 1840s, by then living in St. Louis, that working with this association was a big change from him, after swearing off activities in political parties and associations, but he felt that the group presented an opportunity he could not pass up. In working with the IWMA, Marx was giving up what had been his previous chief mode of political activity as a newspaper editor. By the mid-1870s, when the IWMA was dissolved (actually, Marx himself took the decisive actions leading to its dissolution), Marx was in ill health and prematurely aged, no longer able to consider an active political role, so there was no possibility of resuming his old role as activist and editor.

More broadly, we could say that in Marx’s political heyday, roughly the decades of the 1840s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, left-wing political activists generally earned their living as writers — freelance authors, journalists, newspaper editors and the like. In this respect, Marx’s own activities were part of a broader political current. With the rise of mass labour and socialist parties, and trade union and cooperative movements in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, new possibilities for left-wing activists to earn a living as a party or association functionary began to appear. These were not an option for Marx, since such mass parties or associations largely did not exist during his lifetime.


How do you feel Marx would view the 20th century’s ‘actually existing socialism’?


I get asked this question a lot (among others, by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show), and I always have the impression that interlocutors want one of two answers. Either they expect me to say that Stalin’s or Mao’s crimes were all Marx’s fault, or they want to hear that Marx would have totally disapproved of these regimes, and his ideas were not in any way tainted by their undemocratic nature and ultimate lack of success. Unfortunately, I have to disappoint people by giving a more ambiguous answer.

In 1858, Marx wrote a very interesting letter to Engels. At the time, he was anticipating a large-scale revolutionary upheaval in Europe any day, as a result of the crisis of 1857, the first worldwide recession. Marx noted to Engels that he expected the revolution to lead to communist regimes in many European countries. But he went on to note that outside of Europe, in the United States and the British Empire, capitalism was still very vigorous, and, expanding globally. Could these communist regimes, Marx wondered, still survive in a world when global capitalism was still in the ascendant?

The communist revolution Marx was expecting did not happen, either in 1858 or at any other point in his lifetime, and the following year Marx turned his attention to the question of German national unity as part of his hope for a post-1849 political comeback. He never returned to the issue. But the question he posed — could a communist government survive in a world dominated by Anglo-American capitalism — was one that the leaders of the twentieth century communist regimes in the USSR, China, Vietnam, or Cuba would have to face. Their response to the question was to try to modernise their countries economically and technologically, so that they could stand up to global capitalism. Some of their efforts to do so, including Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture and forced industrialization or Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in tens of millions of deaths. In the end, all their efforts to create a modern, industrialised, technologically and scientifically advanced socialist realm were failures, and by the beginning of the 21st century, they had reverted to forms of capitalism. (Admittedly, Cuba is not yet fully a capitalist country but is clearly moving in that direction.) So history has given an answer to the question Marx posed in 1858, and that answer, like it or not, is no.


This magazine is based in Kentish Town. What can you tell us about Marx’s time in the area?


When the Marx family moved to Kentish Town in 1856, it was an enormous relief, after years living in a one-room slum apartment in a cholera-ridden part of Soho. The apartment had been the site of awful experiences, including the death of three of the Marxes’ children, especially the heart-rending demise of their eight-year-old son Edgar in 1855, probably from a ruptured appendix.

The family financial situation had improved, since Marx had acquired a well-paying post as European correspondent for the New York Tribune. But they had a burden of old debts they had acquired in the first half of the decade, and their means were still limited. Their house, on Grafton Terrace, was in a newly constructed subdivision. Paved streets had not yet appeared. So when it rained, everything was covered in mud.


What’s most amusing Marx anecdote that you know of?


In 1867, Marx was returning to London by ship from Hamburg, where had brought to his publisher the manuscript of the first volume of Das Kapital. On the ship, there was a “German Fräulein,” a damsel in distress, who did not know what she would do with her baggage when the ship docked in London. It was Sunday, and in Victoria’s pious England no porters were working. The young women turned to Marx, a distinguished-looking German gentleman, and asked for his assistance. Marx gallantly escorted her on arrival, bought her ice-cream, took her for a stroll in Hyde Park, and saw her off on her train. The young woman was Elizabeth von Puttkamer, Bismarck’s niece, and she was quite astonished to discover that the helpful bourgeois gentleman was a notorious subversive and red.

Cover image from Portrait Of Thomas Jefferson As Karl Marx, by Alastair MacKinven, 2009