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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Karl Marx of the New York Tribune, 1851-62

An account of the tumultuous time Karl Marx and his comrade Frederick Engels, wrote for one of the most prominent 19th century American newspapers.

Written by Soviet historian Nelly Rumyantseva for the English language magazine Soviet Life in 1983 this is an interesting overview of Marx and Engels' time as correspondents for the New York Tribune between 1851 - 62. "During that period he and Engels wrote a total of about 500 articles, or an average of 50 articles a year -- something like one a week."

The relationship began well, and helped Marx get some much needed money. The piece touches on the personal challenges and tragedies Marx faced. Over time, however, it soured with the Tribune publishing much of his later work unattributed or declining to publish pieces altogether.

Rumyantseva also compiled "Marx and Engels on the United States" which was published in English in 1979.


IN A LETTER dated August 8, 1851, to Frederick Engels, Karl Marx, speaking of various major and minor events in his life, wrote:

The New York Tribune has invited me and Freiligrath ( German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810-1876), a member of the Communist League who abandoned revolutionary activities in the 1850s ) to work as paid correspondents. It's the most widely circulated newspaper in North America. If you could possibly let me have an article in English on conditions in Germany by Friday morning (15th August), that would make a splendid beginning.

What kind of paper was it that invited Marx to write for it, and why did Marx agree to do it?

The first issue of The New York Tribune appeared in 1841. The paper was founded and owned by Horace Greeley (1811-1872), the son of a bankrupt farmer. Greeley started out as a small-town provincial reporter and became one of the most eminent American journalists of the nineteenth century. He was an enthusiast of Fourierist ideas and maintained very close contact with such prominent exponents of Fourierism in the United States as Albert Brisbane and George Ripley.

The Tribune was a favorite of American intellectuals and soon earned a widespread reputation in Europe, especially in its socialist circles. This may have been due to the fact that the paper enlisted the cooperation of important European and American journalists and popular writers of the day. One of its columnists was Charles Anderson Dana (1819-1897), a zealous proponent of Fourierism in America in the late 1840s and the early 1850s. He headed the literature and international news desk and invariably substituted for Greeley during his frequent travels. It was on Dana's initiative that Marx was-invited to contribute to the paper.

Why did Dana pick Marx?

The revolution that broke out in a number of European countries in 1848 required detailed coverage. Dana traveled to Europe to do some on-the-spot reporting for The Tribune. He stayed in France and in Germany for about eight months, but at a time when the counterrevolution was on the offensive. In Germany he visited Berlin, Frankfurt and Cologne, where he went to see Marx, apparently sometime after November 1848. Dana found Marx engrossed in his work for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which played an important role in resisting the attacking counterrevolution.

We learn about that from Dana's letter of July 15, 1850, to Marx:

My dear Sir: ... Since we met in Cologne the world has made many gyrations and not a few of our friends have been flung quite off its surface by the progress. The play is not yet over, thank God, and those who wait today may have no work to do tomorrow. Though I have not had the good fortune to hear from you directly during this time, I have kept myself well informed of your whereabouts and as far as possible of your Wirken and Treiben [work and drive]. I have not for-gotten what you said in Cologne about the revolutionary end you anticipated for your own person, but I always prophesy a different finale for even the most avances [advanced] of my friends. Siegen ist immer besser als besiegt werden [Victory is always better than defeat]. Voila mon opinion [There, that's my opinion]. But really I cannot anticipate any immediate explosion of the great volcano. A good deal of agitation must perhaps first take place, and then the new world will be formed out of the chaos.
Is there no chance of our seeing you in America? I should like to repeat here the delightful evening we had at Deutz.•* With all hopeful and sunny remembrances to Mrs. Marx, believe me.
Yours faithfully, Charles A. Dana

That was Dana's first letter to Marx. It is kept today in the Central Party Archives of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the CPSU Central Committee. About a dozen letters that have come down to us out of that long and intensive correspondence between them give us a real feeling for the essence of that correspondence and an insight into the high points of what was anything but a simple relationship.

The Neue Rheinische Zeitung editor produced an uncommon impression on Dana. Therefore, when a year later The Tribune had to invite new re-porters from Europe, it was decided, on Dana's proposal, to ask Marx. Neither Dana, when he invited Marx to write a few articles on German affairs, nor Marx, when he accepted that offer, had any idea that they would be working together for 10 years and would both leave the paper at almost the same time.

Foreign Correspondent

Marx accepted the offer to write for The New York Tribune. He considered cooperation with bourgeois democratic and progressive bourgeois newspapers to be quite admissible for a proletarian revolutionary, and sometimes very worthwhile in point of principle because workers, too, read bourgeois newspapers. However, his cooperation with the bourgeois press had been sporadic until the early 1850s. But in the years of reaction following the defeat of the 1848-1849 revolutions, there was no working-class press. Most of bourgeois English and continental newspapers had their office doors shut tight to Marx and his associates. Under such conditions The Tribune offer provided the only opportunity for Marx to bring his views to large numbers of people.

Personal reasons also played a big role. While in exile in London, Marx's family was condemned to a beggarly existence since the breadwinner had no source of income apart from his irregular payment for newspaper articles. There was not enough money to buy clothes and medicines, to pay doctors' bills, buy newspapers so essential for reporting, paper, with-out which those reports could never be written, and postage.

Landlords, grocers, bakers and butchers dogged Marx's steps. They demanded their money and threatened to cut off his credit, evict the family and take possession of his belongings to pay his debts. To settle his ac-counts, Marx often had to pawn some of what was left of his wife Jenny von Westphalen's dowry—the family silver that had once belonged to her celebrated ancestors.

Marx and his family had to move from place to place more than once until they settled down in a two-room flat at 28 Dean Street, Soho, London, in December 1850. A Prussian police agent who had gotten into Marx's home under the pretext of being a visitor was amazed at the abject poverty. This is what he reported to his superiors:

Marx lives in one of the most squalid and, consequently, cheapest districts of London. He occupies two rooms. One, fronting on the street, is a sitting room, and the other, in the back, a bedroom. There is not a single unbroken and tidy thing or piece of furniture in the whole flat. Everything is broken, threadbare or tattered.... In the middle of the sitting room, there is a big antediluvian table covered with oilcloth; his manuscripts, books, newspapers are lying around on it, side by side with children's toys and his wife's sewing accessories, and next to them a few cups with broken edges. . . . None of that, however, seem to embarrass Marx or his wife.. .. You are welcomed in an extremely friendly way, heartily offered a pipe, tobacco and everything there is in the house; a witty and pleasant chat eventually works well for the absence of comfort; it is the only thing that makes this squalid setting tolerable.

It was there in Dean Street that Marx saw four of his children die. Material privation and unending fatigue wrecked his health. He suffered from a kidney disease, inflammation of the eyes and furunculosis. The death of his children, the recurrent grave ailments of his three surviving daughters and his wife's suffering all lacerated Marx's soul. In his letter of August 8, 1851, to Engels, he wrote:

Dear Engels,
You'll excuse me for not having written sooner and acknowledging receipt of the five pounds. I was under such pressure this week that I didn't get around to writing. For the time being I've saved myself from being thrown out of the house by giving the landlord a bill of exchange.

Later on, to describe the condition of emigrants in England in one of his articles for the American newspaper, Marx quoted, with bitterness, the words of the great Dante, which he could well have taken to describe his own lot:

Thou shalt make proof how the bread of others savors of salt, and how hard a path is the descending and the mounting of another's stairs.

Friends in Need

The old saying "A friend in need is a friend indeed" acquired special meaning for Marx in the 1850s. It was in those incredibly hard times that he discovered how strong and genuinely sincere was the friendship that had bound him with Engels since 1843.

In the fall of 1850 Frederick Engels moved to the Manchester office of the textile firm Ermen and Engels largely because of his desire to help Marx and his family. He enthusiastically welcomed the offer to collaborate with Marx on The Tribune articles. Moreover, anxious to give his friend an opportunity to continue his studies on economics, which came to be known subsequently as Capital, Engels wrote a series of articles about German affairs under Marx's name that was later published as Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany in 1848. The first of these articles appeared in The New York Tribune on October 25, 1851. That was the starting point of Marx's official contributions to the American newspaper and his friend Frederick Engels' undisclosed reporting for it. This remained a secret to everyone in the editorial office and even to the close friends of Marx and Engels. It was only in 1913, when the Marx-Engels correspondence was first published, that it became known that many of the articles for The Tribune had been written by Engels.

In August 1852 Marx himself began sending his dispatches to New York. He opened with a series of articles to characterize the British political system in connection with the 1852 parliamentary election. These articles were written at Dana's request.

Unlike Engels, who had a perfect command of English, Marx wrote his articles first in German, and his friends, mostly Engels, translated them into English. But as early as January 1853 he wrote an article in English without resorting to the help of translators. Marx lost no time in communicating that to his friend in Manchester on January 29.

Yesterday I ventured for the first time to write an article in English for Dana.... Once I have good grammar and write away gamely, I should do passablement well.

After he had read the article, Engels replied:

Je t'en fait mon compliment [Congratulations]. The English isn't merely good, it's brilliant!

Marx's and Engels' articles attracted the attention of The Tribune read-ers right away because of the depth and clarity of their political characterization. That was what the editors admitted, too. An editorial on April 7, 1853, said that the paper wanted to pay tribute to the "remarkable ability" of its correspondent. It continued:

Mr. Marx has very decided opinions of his own, with some of which we are far from agreeing, but those who do not read his letters are neglecting one of the most instructive sources of information on the great questions of current European politics.

Marx's article on the budget presented by the then British Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, published in May 1853, carried the following footnote:

Our readers will find masterly coverage of Gladstone's budget and the reactions to this budget of the present parties in England in the article by our London correspondent, Dr. Marx, published in today's morning edition of The Tribune. We have not had any opportunity of meeting a more ingenious critic of this budget and of its author, nor do we hope that anything like it can ever appear.

Great success attended Engels' military reviews published in the New York paper on December 6, 1853. Dana, unaware that those articles had been written by another author, wrote:

My dear Marx, Let me cordially thank you for the article on the war on the Danube . . . published as a letter in The Tribune of today. Like your former article on the same subject, it is a most admirable exposition of the movements of the two armies. It will excite general attention.

In one of his letters Dana told Marx that American readers attributed the authorship of the articles on the 1853-1855 Crimean War to General Winfield Scott, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army. Communicating this to Engels, Marx wrote:

Your military articles produced a great sensation. There is a rumor abroad in New York that they have been written by General Scott.

Not All Smooth Sailing

Reading these lines, you might think that Marx's relationship with the American newspaper was unclouded. But it was far from that. His collaboration with The Tribune was neither simple nor easy for many reasons.

The offer to write several articles on German affairs did not mean that Marx was invited to become a staff correspondent. Everything depended on whether he would be able to make himself indispensable. In other words, Marx's status on The Tribune was uncertain. Besides, he had quite a few rivals who wrote for the same paper both about German affairs and about the political situation in England, who, incidentally, had some influence in the editorial office because their views often coincided. Marx, on the other hand, had to adjust his pen to the tone which was habitual for that paper and learn the Aesopian language to clothe his scathing characterizations of the flaws of capitalist society and the policies of the ruling classes in the trappings of his run-of-the-mill dispatches.

What caused his greatest displeasure was the loose editorial treatment of his articles. Many of them were printed unsigned. On April 22, 1854, Marx complained to his friend:

Of late The Tribune has again been appropriating all my articles as editorials and putting my name to nothing but rubbish.

What often determined the fate of many of Marx's and Engels' dispatches was also the international orientation of the editorial office and board and the financial position of the paper itself.

Dana returned a series of 15 articles by Engels critical of pan-Slavism and three by Marx on the Danubian principalities because the United States was trying to improve relations with czarist Russia at the time. Not all of Marx's articles about revolutionary Spain were published as the editors decided their readers had lost interest in the subject.

Arbitrary intrusions in the text of the articles that were eventually published were not uncommon. As a rule, The Tribune editors split them up or cut them at their own discretion, making their own notes and writing some into the body of the articles that often ran counter to their substance.

Out of the subsequently famous Lord Palmerston, which Marx had conceived as a series of eight articles, the paper published only half, and even that half as editorials and under different headlines.

The editors published one of Marx's articles about revolutionary Spain with the following note: "Our readers can judge whether the Spanish Revolution is likely to have any useful result or not."

Nevertheless, Marx kept writing for The Tribune. He believed that any opportunity to get his views home to the general public, even if unsigned, was important.

Marx's collaboration with the American newspaper lasted for more than 10 years. During that period he and Engels wrote a total of about 500 articles, or an average of 50 articles a year—something like one a week.

Then came the Civil War between the North and the South, which broke out in April 1861. The readers were now consumed with a desire for home news, and their interest in European matters subsided. The number of Marx's articles that The Tribune used fell off. The ones they published revolved essentially around the issue of whether or not England would intervene in the war between the North and the South. His scathing criticism of the Southern states that had rebelled "for the supremacy of slavery" and also of those who sought a compromise with the South caused irritation in The Tribune editorial office, where the influence of the partisans of a compromise had increased.

Marx guessed as much and expected the paper to refuse his services any day now. On March 15, 1862, he wrote to Engels:

I am rather sure that it [The Tribune editorial office] is going to throw me over-board again along with all the other European correspondents. It has been reduced in size; of three articles, it is printing, perhaps, one or none at all. These are the common precursors of such a procedure.

His presentiment came true. On March 16, 1862, The New York Tribune published an article by Marx for the last time. Unlike Marx's first article, it appeared unsigned. That was the end of the collaboration with one of the most popular American newspapers of last century of "a vigorous and fruitful thinker—the strongest, best equipped and most accomplished intellect which has ever approached the labor problem from a workingman's point of view," as Dana would write about him later on.

( A version of this appeared on the original The Left Chapter blog in December, 2019)


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