The End of Apprenticeship

Among the socialist organizations Marx made contact with in Brussels was the German Workers' Educational Association, headed by a type-setter (Schapper), a cobbler (Bauer), and a watchmaker (Moll); its headquarters were in London, and it was affiliated with a federation called the Communist League. In 1847 this group commissioned Marx to write a document expounding its aims and beliefs. Reworking a first draft provided by Engels, Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in a burst of creative energy and dispatched it to London early in 1848. It was published, without having any major impact, a few weeks before the outbreak of the Paris revolution. The by now familiar first sentence, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle," adumbrates what is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of all of Marx's later work. His period of apprenticeship was over. He would elaborate and refine his message later on, and his specific political views and orientations would undergo many changes, but the main line of his intellectual development was determined.

When the 1848 revolution broke out in Germany, Marx returned to the Rhineland, after having spent some time in revolutionary Paris, and once again assumed the editorship of a radical newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. He and Engels now worked for an alliance of the liberal bourgeoisie with the incipient working-class movement. When the revolution failed, Marx, back again in exile, entertained for a while the will-o'-the-wisp of an impending new revolutionary outbreak. Castigating the liberals for their failure and their cowardice, Marx still expected that the revolutionary flame would be rekindled in the very near future.

In August 1849, Marx was presented by the French government with the alternatives of retiring into a distant provincial retreat or leaving the country. He made his decision and embarked for London. He was never to leave this city again for any length of time.

During the first phase of his stay in London, Marx considered the city a temporary port he would soon leave when the Continental revolution came again. In these early years he wrote his most brilliant historical pamphlets, The Class Struggles in France (1850) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). These works are informed by a burning revolutionary ardor, but perhaps more importantly, they show Marx at his best in his new role as a social historian of distinction.

As the London years went on, Marx, although never despairing of the coming of a new revolutionary upsurge, realized that the fires of 1848 had burned out. Refusing to participate in a variety of insurrectionary conspiracies advocated by Continental revolutionaries, Marx and Engels withdrew from most of their fellow refugees. Since he had not managed to make many contacts in the British labor and socialist movement, Marx now retired almost completely into the narrow circle composed of his family, Engels and a few other devoted friends and disciples. He remained in this isolated condition throughout most of his life. When he wrote to Engels about "our party" he was referring to Engels and himself.

In June 1852 Marx obtained an admission card to the reading room of the British Museum. There he would sit from 10:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. every day, pouring over Blue Books of factory inspectors and perusing the immense documentation about the inequities of the operation of the capitalist system that was to become an important part of Das Kapital. Here also, filling notebook after notebook, he deepened his knowledge of the British political economists whom he had begun to study during the Paris days.

Throughout most of the London period Marx lived in dire and abject poverty. Only once had he attempted to find regular gainful employment (as a clerk in a railway office) but was turned down because of his illegible handwriting. Being entirely devoted to his work and absolutely convinced that the anatomy of the political economy of capitalism, which he now was describing, would provide an indispensable instrument for the "necessary" emancipation of the working class, Marx continued his scholarly tasks even when he and his family were pursued by angry creditors and found it hard to obtain lodging. Three of his children died from malnutrition or lack of proper care. When one of them died, he had no money to pay for a coffin until a fellow refugee came to his rescue. He and his family were exhausted by a variety of illnesses, some of which clearly stemmed from their miserable living conditions. But Marx persevered. Had it not been for the financial support that the devoted Engels gave to the full measure of his ability, the family might have gone down completely.

Meanwhile, work on what was to become Das Kapital proved even more time-consuming than had been anticipated. A first sketch entitled A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy had been published in 1859 but attracted little attention. The first volume appeared in 1867. Marx never completed the subsequent volumes; they were finally published by Engels and Kautsky after his death.

Marx's grinding poverty was slightly relieved for a time when the foreign editor of the New York Daily Tribune, then probably the world's largest newspaper and one with a radical orientation to boot, asked him to become its regular correspondent for European affairs at one pound sterling for each article. He was to send them regular weekly dispatches for almost ten years. When ill health, lack of detailed knowledge, or the pressure of work on Das Kapital prevented him from writing, Engels, much more the facile journalist, took over. Recently, efforts to establish which of the unsigned articles were written by Marx and which by Engels have proved a profitable occupation for Marxicologists. In any case, these occasional writings provide privileged access to the operation of Marx's mind. The articles range over a variety of subjects--diplomatic events, social histories of England and the Continent, analyses of the secret sources of war and crisis, analytical accounts of the consequences of British domination in India--and reveal his reactions to the passing scene that are otherwise available only in his Correspondence, particularly with Engels.

Throughout the fifties, Marx and Engels watched expectantly for signs of the major economic crisis that would inaugurate a new period of revolutions. None came for many years. When a serious slump finally occurred in 1857, it had no revolutionary consequences. Marx then concentrated less on the expected economic breakdown and more on organizing the working class, but here too he was disappointed for a long time. To be sure, Ferdinand Lassalle, the romantic firebrand of German socialism, had created a German labor movement. But Marx disapproved of its political orientation even more than of Lassalle's histrionic manners. Jealousy of Lassalle, who had borrowed most of his theoretical weapons from Marx, may have been one of the motives for Marx's hostility, but there were more objective reasons. He was suspicious of Lassalle's tendency to build a socialist movement upon some sort of unspoken alliance with Bismarck and the Prussian government.

On the rest of the Continent, more particularly in France, the working-class movement was quiescent, not having fully recovered from the disasters of 1848. As for England, Marx never managed to have much sympathy for the stolid, unideological and pragmatic labor leaders who dominated the union movement there. He regarded most of them with withering contempt and they, in turn, to the extent that they knew him at all, returned the compliment.


From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 63-65.


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