Karl Marx did his best writing on deadline.
Commissioned by the Communist League in mid-1847 to write a “profession of faith,” Marx and Engels procrastinated, traveled, experimented with form and might never have written the manifesto of the Communist Party if not for a sternly worded letter from the league ordering them to deliver the document by February 1, 1848.
A few all-nighters later, Marx produced a stirring document that by now has been read by tens of millions of people. Far fewer realize that regular deadline commentary provided Marx with the closest thing he ever had to actual employment. From 1852 to 1862 he was a regular London correspondent for the New York Tribune. All told, Marx contributed almost 500 columns to the Tribune (about a quarter of which were actually written by Engels). Marx’s newspaper writing takes up nearly seven volumes of the fifty-volume Collected Works of Marx and Engels–more than Capital and indeed more than any of Marx’s works published in book form.
The Tribune was in some ways a logical place for Marx’s journalism. The paper was founded in 1841 by Horace Greeley as a crusading organ of progressive causes with a pronounced American and Christian flavor; one contemporary writer described the paper’s political stance as “Anti-Slavery, Anti-War, Anti-Rum, Anti-Tobacco, Anti-Seduction, Anti-Grogshops, Anti-Brothels, Anti-Gambling Houses.” During Marx’s tenure as a correspondent, the Tribune was the largest newspaper in the world, reaching more than 200,000 readers.
At the same time, there was probably no publication in the world that would have been a perfect fit for Marx’s cantankerous prose and personality. Even when Marx wrote in English, his strident Germanic tone dominated. His analysis was so unsparingly radical that at times the Tribune felt the need to distance itself from its fulminating London correspondent; introducing one of his 1853 essays, for example, the editors wrote, “Mr. Marx has very decided opinions of his own, with some of which we are far from agreeing,” but then conceded that “those who do not read his letters neglect one of the most instructive sources of information on the greatest questions of current European politics.”
And the ambivalence was mutual–to put it mildly. At times Marx viewed newspaper writing as just one more form of capitalist exploitation. “It’s truly nauseating,” he wrote to Engels in 1857, “that one should be condemned to count it a blessing when taken aboard by a blotting-paper vendor such as this. To crush up bones, grind them and make them into soup like paupers in the workhouse–that is what the political work to which one is condemned in large measure in a concern like this boils down to.” Yet Marx was proud when his work attracted attention. In November 1857, he predicted that the Bank of England would have to be suspended, a prophecy the New York Times labeled “simply absurd”; when the bank was suspended in early December, he boasted to Engels about his “gratifying” scoop. Moreover, as some modern Marxist scholars have noted, Marx’s newspaper articles–far from impeding his book-length work–enhanced it by providing him raw material he could then revisit in a fuller context.
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Marx’s dispatches do not fall into any category that would be familiar to today’s reader. He did essentially nothing that could be labeled original reporting, which is hardly surprising; his relations with government authorities were tenuous and the restrictions on his travel were substantial. Instead Marx crafted his dispatches using the same tools he relied on for his books: the materials available to him in the reading room of the British Museum, including history books, government reports and foreign newspapers. He also incorporated private letters sent to him by political allies across Europe. Although he always insisted on placing unfolding events in the context of hundreds of years of history, Marx was diligent about making his newspaper columns as up-to-date as possible. Thus dozens of columns between 1853 and 1856 were essentially battle-by-battle analyses of the unfolding Crimean War. These columns drew extensively on European newspaper dispatches that Marx’s American readers could not easily have found themselves, as well as on Engels’s formidable knowledge of military history and tactics.
Another category of article involved Marx trying to find the local insurrection that might spark the revolution across Europe he believed to be imminent. Probably no single historical moment shaped his political thinking as much as the events of 1848. Not only did the energy of those revolutions fuel the rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto; their eventual crushing by the likes of Louis Napoleon forced Marx to deepen his analysis of state and economic power. Sprinkled throughout his articles are remarkably detailed analyses of later insurrections in Greece, Spain and Italy.
Perhaps Marx’s most “Marxist” articles were those dealing with the opium trade in China and India and slavery in America. These were the open sores of imperialism, and Marx railed against them repeatedly and loudly. In his view the British government and the East India Company had deliberately encouraged opium addiction among the Chinese population purely for financial gain. Similarly, the British textile industry depended heavily on American cotton, leading the British ruling classes to repeatedly turn a blind eye to the conditions of slavery in the American South, all the while preaching to the world the virtues of “free trade.”
Thus, in a typical 1853 passage about the British role in India, Marx wrote, “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”
While such rhetoric may be predictable, there are constant surprises throughout Marx’s newspaper writing. He could be scathingly ironic, as in an 1853 essay attacking the antislavery philanthropy sponsored by the Duchess of Sutherland, whose family, Marx pointed out, systematically forced thousands of Scots from their ancestral homes in the early 1800s. He could render a tale of starvation as persuasively and movingly as any tabloid journalist. And despite the intellectual groundwork that Marx’s theories provided for what would later be called state socialism, Marx could be witheringly skeptical of the absurd extension of state power, as in an 1858 essay titled “Project for the Regulation of the Price of Bread in France.”
Marx’s Tribune columns were as sweeping, provocative and challenging as the rest of his writing. While Marx is remembered as a philosopher, economist and political theorist, it is long past time to try to understand him as a journalist.