Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion - Gareth Stedman Jones (2016)

Chapter 12. Back to the Future


With the ending of the political reform movement in Britain and the consolidation of an alliance between liberals and trade union leaders, pressure to get out the second volume ceased. The Irish troubles subsided. The response to the publication of the first volume was sluggish, and the only really enthusiastic response was that from Russia by followers of Chernyshevsky, who were not primarily interested in the crisis in the West. In France, after the disaster of the Commune, in the French translation of Capital Karl was keen to soften the edges of the English-based Critique. Not least, he was also relieved that the publication of the second volume could be deferred, since the intellectual problems which had inhibited him from bringing out the whole work originally had only increased.

In 1870, Karl succeeded in recasting almost half the manuscript of what became Volume II of Capital, but the treatment remained confined to abstractions, and thereafter little more was added beyond minor revisions.2 In November 1871, Meissner, his Hamburg publisher, informed him that Volume I had almost sold out, and asked him to prepare a cheaper second edition. Between then and 1873, Karl did just that, spending most of his time preparing a revised second edition, including an attempt to simplify the argument of the first chapter. In 1872, admirers in St Petersburg embarked upon a Russian edition. The translation was begun by Hermann Lopatin and completed by Nicolai Danielson, and it proved a great success. At the same time, Karl signed a contract with Maurice Lachâtre to produce a French edition. It was to appear in instalments. In this form, Karl thought it would be ‘more accessible to the working class’ and ‘for me that consideration outweighs any other’.3 The task was undertaken by Joseph Roy, the translator of Feuerbach, and Karl initially wrote to his daughter that he considered him ‘a man perfectly suited to my purpose’. But the process was very slow; Roy was compelled to work from Karl’s handwritten manuscript of the second German edition, and Karl found many passages unsatisfactory. He wrote to his Russian translator, Nicolai Danielson, in May 1872 that ‘Although the French edition – (the translation is by Mr. Roy, the translator of Feuerbach) – has been prepared by a great expert in both languages, he has often translated too literally. I have therefore found myself compelled to re-write whole passages in French, to make them palatable to the French public. It will be all the easier later on to translate the book from French into English and the Romance languages.’4 Karl spent much time in the following two years rewriting passages for the French translation, which only began to appear in 1875. Slowness in correcting the translation together with tasks left over from the removal of the International to New York would anyway have caused delay in the appearance of the French edition. But these problems were compounded in the spring of 1873 by a serious breakdown in Karl’s health.

Alarm about Karl’s condition became public at the end of June in that year, when Maltman Barry, a radical Conservative and a supporter of Karl, reported in the Standard that Karl was dangerously ill. Engels had to reassure Karl’s admirer Dr Kugelmann, who had read the news in the Frankfurter Zeitung, that the report was an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the situation sounded serious enough. As Engels explained, ‘from time to time, but to an increasing extent over a period of years now, Marx has suffered from insomnia which he has always tried to explain away with all sorts of unconvincing reasons e.g. a persistent cough in the throat … he could not be brought to stop overworking himself until finally a conspicuous pressure at the top of the head and the insomnia increased to an unbearable point where even very powerful doses of chloral had no effect.’5 It was a frustrating return to chronic illness after a period in which he seemed to be on the road to recovery. Back in April 1871, Engels had also tried to convince Kugelmann that Karl’s situation should not be seen ‘in altogether too gloomy a light’. So far as the insomnia, the cough, and his liver were concerned, Engels had written then, ‘you will understand that there can be no speedy cure for an illness that, to my knowledge, has been more or less permanent for the last 26 years’. But he took cheer from the fact that the source of Karl’s cough was ‘solely in the larynx’ and not in the lungs.

Engels was optimistic in 1871 because he believed that Karl was changing his way of life. While the excitement generated by the war and the Commune continued, Engels wrote, ‘he has given up work on heavy theoretical matters and is living fairly rationally’. He even took one-and-a-half- to two-hour walks ‘without my forcing him to’ and sometimes did not ‘drink a drop of beer for weeks on end’. A walk via Highgate to Hampstead, he concluded, ‘is about 1½ German miles and involves going up and down several steep hills. And up on the top, there is more ozone than in the whole of Hanover.’6

It seems clear that it was not so much lack of physical exercise, but rather the need to confront theoretical difficulty that brought on headache attacks, insomnia and liver disease.7 As Karl wrote to Friedrich Sorge on 4 August 1874, ‘That damned liver complaint has made such headway that I was positively unable to continue the revision of the French translation (which actually amounts almost to complete rewriting).’8 And on 12 August, writing to Nicolai Danielson, he added, ‘I have since months suffered severely, and found out myself, for some time, even in a dangerous state of illness, consequent upon overwork. My head was so seriously affected, that a paralytic strike was to be apprehended, and even now I am not yet able to work more than a few hours.’9 Most accounts have simply accepted that it was illness which prevented Karl from completing his life’s work. It cannot be denied that during the last decade of Karl’s life, he spent much of his time in pursuit of one health cure after another. But what this leaves out of account was the nightmare occasioned by Karl’s desire to substantiate a theory which, without the Hegelian props he had employed in the 1850s, was impossible to prove.

In the Grundrisse in the 1850s, Karl had put forward the idea of ‘the declining rate of profit’ in relatively simplistic terms. But when he tried to write up the theory around 1864–5 (the manuscripts used by Engels for his edition of Volume III in 1894), doubts were already crowding in upon him. The supposedly simple operation of this ‘law’ was now so hedged in by ‘counteracting tendencies’ that it was unclear how it could exercise any terminal effect. All that could be claimed was that ‘the law and its counteracting tendencies … breed overproduction, speculation crises and surplus capital alongside surplus population’.10 It was also apparent that the processes of circulation and extended reproduction, which Karl had originally imagined in a form akin to the circular and spiral motions found in Hegel’s Science of Logic, could no longer be employed without substantiation. Nor had he succeeded in refashioning and inserting these motions into an empirical narrative.

This failure touched centrally upon the question that Capital’s first serious readers were asking themselves. Was Capital the enunciation of a universal theory of development, which would affect all countries, or was it a historical account, whose relevance was primarily confined to Britain and Western Europe?11 Karl could not find a way of reiterating his original theoretical position, but was equally resistant to any straightforward admission that he had changed his mind. For this reason, the furtive shifts of position he made had to be disinterred from the qualifications found in the text of the German second edition or the French translation.

Karl was relieved to evade or postpone explicit discussion of these questions for as long as possible. But they would have to be addressed when the second volume was published. Moreover, the problem grew worse as time went on. When Capital was originally being composed in the 1860s, it might have been enough to point to ways in which the capitalist mode of production was already being superseded and place reliance upon an imminent political moment, which for a short time seemed to be developing in the mid-1860s. But now that moment was definitely passed, and increasing pressure would therefore have to be placed upon some grandiose structural contradiction in the overall functioning of the capitalist mode of production. During the 1870s, he preferred to spend his time revising the text of Volume I or assisting Eleanor with her translation of Lissagaray’s History of the Commune of 1871. No doubt the sicknesses were genuine, but it is clear too that they also provided protective cover for postponement of the day of reckoning.

This is suggested as well by Karl’s irritation whenever he was asked directly about the contents of the second volume, as happened in the case of his most persistent admirer, Dr Kugelmann. Karl had stayed with Kugelmann in Hanover when Volume I was being prepared for publication in 1867. Kugelmann’s daughter, Franziska, recalled that her father thought Karl ‘one hundred years ahead of his time’. So his impatience to see what was in the second volume was not surprising. Karl’s reaction had become increasingly defensive. In May 1874, for example, after thanking Kugelmann and his family for their interest in his progress, he continued, ‘But you do me an injustice if you ascribe my failure to write to any other cause than a shaky state of health, which continually interrupts my work, then goads me up to make up for the time lost by neglecting all other duties (letters included) and finally puts a man out of humour and makes him disinclined to activity.’ Karl looked forward to meeting Kugelmann in Carlsbad, where his doctor, Gumpert from Manchester, had recommended that he go for a cure. But in the meantime, on the question of the book, he wrote that ‘While I was unable to write, I worked through a lot of important material for the second volume. But I cannot start on its final composition until the French edition is completed and my health fully restored’.12

Later that summer, Kugelmann arranged for Karl and Eleanor to join his family at the Hotel Germania in Carlsbad. But the holiday was not a success. Karl found ‘unbearable’ the way Kugelmann ‘incessantly pours out his solemn long-winded balderdash in his deep voice’ and was incensed by ‘this arch-pedant’ who constantly railed against his wife for her ‘failure to comprehend his Faustian nature with its aspiration to a higher world outlook’. More prosaically, Eleanor was shocked by the way in which Gertrude Kugelmann was berated every minute by her husband as a woman without money ungrateful for all his Wohltaten (kindnesses) to her. According to Eleanor’s account, Karl became ‘the unwilling listener of a most abominable scene (for the rooms are only separated by a door)’ and was compelled to request to be moved to the floor above.13

There is no reason to doubt this account. But there was also another side to the story, of particular note given Kugelmann’s interest in the progress of Capital. Recalling her holiday as a seventeen-year-old, Franziska Kugelmann wrote in 1926 that during a long walk Karl and Kugelmann had quarrelled in a way ‘which was never smoothed down’. Kugelmann had tried to persuade him to refrain from all political propaganda and complete the third book of Capital before anything else.14

A year later, in October 1875, Engels wrote to Wilhelm Bracke that Karl had returned from Carlsbad ‘a completely different man, strong, invigorated, cheerful and healthy, and will soon be able to get down seriously to work again’.15 In the following year, Engels informed Dr Kugelmann that ‘work on the second volume will be started again in the next few days’.16 In 1878, Karl wrote to Danielson, his Russian translator, promising him the manuscript of the second volume as soon as it was ready, but that would ‘hardly be before the end of 1879’.17 In April 1879, however, Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws provided Karl with an official reason for indefinite postponement: ‘I am obliged to tell you (cela est tout à fait confidentiel [this in strict confidence] that I have been informed from Germany, my second volume could not be published so long as the present régime was maintained in its present severity.’18 From time to time, Karl made attempts to return to the second volume. In July 1878, he started a fair copy, but after seven pages he gave up and never seems to have returned to the task.

In the last seven years of his life, Karl became increasingly secretive about his intellectual preoccupations. He stopped talking to Engels about his work, even though his friend had moved to London and now lived round the corner. In 1883, just after Karl’s death, Engels was shocked to discover how little further work had been done on the second volume. At the end of August, later that year, he wrote to Bebel: ‘As soon as I am back I shall get down to Volume 2 in real earnest and that is an enormous task. Alongside parts that have been completely finished are others that are merely sketched out, the whole being a brouillon [sketch] with the exception of perhaps two chapters.’ Engels went on to complain about the disordered jumble of quotations and the handwriting, ‘which certainly cannot be deciphered by anyone but me, and then only with difficulty’. He also posed the obvious question: ‘You ask why I of all people should not have been told how far the thing had got. It is quite simple; had I known, I should have pestered him night and day until it was all finished and printed. And Marx knew that better than anyone else.’19


In 1874, Karl’s involvement in the winding-up of the International came to an end. Around the same time, Engels reported that there was no further reason for concern about French refugees from the Commune: ‘we are now almost entirely rid of them’.20 The Marx home was no longer a refuge or gathering point for radical exiles. In 1875, the family moved to a smaller house, 41 Maitland Park Road in Kentish Town. Sundays were still a time when friends were welcome to visit.

Karl himself kept mainly to his study. Life was quieter and less fraught with political tension. The change came as a great relief to Jenny. Three years earlier, in a letter to Liebknecht and his wife, she had expressed her admiration for their ‘fortitude, tact and skill’ in standing up to the public outcry in response to their rejection of the Franco-Prussian War and their recognition of the Paris Commune. She had gone on to describe her own experience, and to express her frustrations as a politically engaged woman:

In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear, because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks. That does nothing to dispel our fears and the gnawing day-to-day petty worries slowly but surely sap our spirit. I can say this from over thirty years’ experience and can certainly claim that I am not one to lose heart easily. Now I have grown too old to hope for much and the recent terrible events have completely shattered my peace of mind.

The Paris Commune had placed a colossal strain on their lives:

You cannot imagine what we have had to endure here in London since the fall of the Commune. All the nameless misery, the suffering without end! And on top of that the almost unbearable work on behalf of the International.

She was bitter about the fate that Karl had endured. As long as Karl had covered up the quarrelling between the sections and kept them apart, he spared the International from ridicule, kept himself out of the limelight, and in consequence ‘the rabble remained silent’.

But now that his enemies have dragged him into the light of day, have put his name in the forefront of attention, the whole pack have joined forces, and police and democrats alike all bay the same refrain about his ‘despotic nature, his craving for authority and his ambition!’ How much better it would have been, and how much happier he would be, if he had just gone on working quietly and developed the theory of struggle for those in the fight.21

With these strains behind her, she was able to find her own voice. Her passion was the theatre, and she was particularly enthusiastic for Henry Irving and his productions of Hamlet in October 1874 and Macbeth in September 1875. Her reviews and a number of smaller pieces appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung from 1875. Jenny’s interest in drama also found an outlet in the Dogberry, a private Shakespeare reading club, whose subscriptions provided front-row seats at Irving first nights. The club often met at the Marx house, where members joined in play-readings. On occasion, Karl and Engels also took part.

While the relations between Jenny and Engels always remained awkward, as is suggested by the formal terms in which they continued to address each other, an unlikely friendship developed between Jenny and the illiterate Lizzie Burns, after the Engels household moved to London. Lizzie’s health was declining – she died of a tumour in 1878 – and Engels’ main solution was to expose her as much as possible to sea air and different places. Jenny proposed that she and Lizzie go together on a seaside holiday in 1873, and in 1875 they went together to Shanklin in the Isle of Wight and then on to Ramsgate. Each morning, Engels took the two ladies to the railway station bar, where he treated them to a small glass of port before leaving them to themselves for the rest of the day.22

In 1877, Jenny’s own health began to deteriorate. She went to Manchester, stayed with Engels’ friend Sam Moore, and consulted Dr Gumpert, who diagnosed a carcinoma. In the winter of 1878–9, her condition became worse. But perhaps because she also felt more self-fulfilled in this period, accounts of her in her last years stress her capacity for self-mockery, her ‘bright spirit and great heart’.23

The relationship between Jenny and her daughters, particularly Eleanor, appears to have been intense but intermittent. Most of the day-to-day management of the household had been left to Lenchen. Jenny was troubled by the fact that all her actual or prospective sons-in-law were French, and further that as a result of the student radicalism of the last years of the Empire of Napoléon III, followed by the war and the Commune, there were many sources of potential conflict between them. Laura had married Paul Lafargue in April 1868. Jenny became engaged to Charles Longuet in March 1872 and married him on 9 October. Writing to Liebknecht in May 1872, Jenny had admitted that ‘I cannot contemplate their union without great uneasiness and would really have preferred it if Jenny’s choice had fallen (for a change) on an Englishman or a German, instead of a French man, who of course possesses all the charming qualities of his nation, but is not free of their foibles and inadequacies … I cannot help being afraid that, as a political woman, Jenny will be exposed to all the anxieties and torments inseparable from it.’24 Nevertheless, she wrote, ‘he is a very gifted man and he is good, honest and decent’. She also considered that ‘the harmony of opinions and convictions between the young couple (i.e. their lack of religious affiliations) is certainly a guarantee of their future happiness’.25 Engels agreed that he was a ‘very kindly companion’.26

Longuet had been a fellow student with Lafargue, although three years older. Born in Caen in 1839, of a conservative bourgeois landowning family, he had become active in the French branch of the International, and edited its anti-Bonapartist student paper, La Rive gauche, and was imprisoned for eight months in 1866. He translated into French Karl’s ‘Inaugural Address’ to the IWMA, and his Civil War in France. In the Commune, he had served as a member of its Labour Committee and as editor of its official journal, only narrowly managing to escape in the repression that followed. Arriving as a penniless refugee in London, he was unsuccessful in the attempt to secure private tutoring in Oxford, but in 1874 was appointed an Assistant Master in French at King’s College, University of London. Jenny, despite her pregnancy, worked as a governess to the Manning family in 1873, and advertised lessons in singing and elocution. Her health had always been precarious and her first child died in 1874. But in the following years she produced five more children, the last barely a year before her death at the age of thirty-eight in 1883.

During their years of exile in London, the relationship between the Marx family and Paul and Laura Lafargue was a source of anxiety. But in this case, the burden was mainly borne by Engels. In the first years of their marriage in Paris, Laura had borne three children, but only Étienne (‘Schnaps’) had lived to the age of three, the other two dying in their first year. Despite gaining relevant medical qualifications, Paul refused to practise as a doctor. Much to the disappointment of the Marx parents, once in England, after activity in Bordeaux on behalf of the Commune and in Spain on behalf of the International, Paul devoted himself to a series of business ventures, which failed largely because of his impatience and inattention to detail. In various partnerships, he attempted to establish a business in photolithography using new techniques. Jenny Marx remarked in a letter to Sorge in 1877 that he should have stuck to being a doctor. ‘Their business, printing by the procédé Gillot hasn’t been doing very well.’ There had been some improvement. But ‘Lafargue, who always sees everything through rose-tinted spectacles, is now hoping for a big JOB.’27 Needless to say, once again the venture failed and they were bailed out by Engels. Engels himself two years before – perhaps with the Lafargues in mind – had directed his criticism at the French refugees: ‘The French refugees are in utter chaos. They have fallen out with each other and with everyone else for quite personal reasons, money matters for the most part and we are now almost entirely rid of them. They all want to live without doing any real work, their heads are full of imagined inventions which would bring in millions if only someone would enable them to exploit their discoveries, a matter of just a few pounds. But anyone who is naïve enough to take them at their word will be cheated of his money and denounced as a bourgeois into the bargain.’28 Childless and always particularly indulgent to members of the Marx family, Engels never refused their requests, which went on to the end of his life. Between 1874 and 1880, Engels responded to almost forty Lafargue requests, which became increasingly frequent as the years went by.29 Even Engels was sometimes taken aback by their importunity. ‘How can I advise you on business’, he wrote to Lafargue in 1880, ‘if you give me all the information afterwards?’30

If there was a crisis in the Marx family in the years after the International, it was occasioned not by the two elder girls, but by their younger sister. It also seems clear that it was this family crisis, rather than simple overwork, which induced in Karl headaches and insomnia, together with his perennial liver sickness, in the spring of 1873. The crisis concerned the ambitions and desires of Karl’s youngest daughter, the eighteen-year-old Eleanor, or ‘Tussy’, and her parents’ determination to oppose them. Whatever their reservations about the marriages of Laura and Jenny, the Marx parents had not actively obstructed these unions.

In Tussy’s case, their attitude was different. Around the spring of 1872, she had become engaged to Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, another French exile living in London. Lissagaray was a radical journalist and ardent supporter of the democratic and social republic. Already thirty-three years old, he was famed as a heroic combatant in the Paris Commune and a flamboyant personality. He was not, however, attached to any party and saw no reason to become so. This may have been one of the reasons why he and Paul Lafargue so greatly disliked each other.31 Eleanor complained to Jenny Longuet that when the Lafargues coincided with Lissagaray on a visit to the Marx household, the Lafargues refused to shake hands.32 Both Karl and Jenny disapproved of the match. Jenny avoided referring to Lissagaray in her correspondence, while, except on one occasion, Karl mentioned him only in connection with his History of the Commune of 1877.

In the spring of 1873, Karl and Eleanor spent three weeks in Brighton. When Karl returned to London, Eleanor stayed in Brighton and with the help of Arnold Ruge, Karl’s old antagonist now living there, secured a job in a ‘seminary’ for young ladies run by the Misses Hall. Jenny Marx worried that Eleanor would not be strong enough for ‘the treadmill of a boarding school’, as her chest was weak, her back ached and her appetite was ‘wretched’. Karl in the meantime, on Engels’ advice, had gone to Manchester to consult Gumpert. The doctor diagnosed his problem as a ‘certain elongation of the liver’, and suggested a visit to Carlsbad as the best cure.

While Karl was in Manchester, Jenny travelled to Brighton and found that Lissagaray had been visiting Eleanor there. She decided not to tell Karl. From Manchester, Karl wrote to both Eleanor and Lissagaray. What he said is not known since many of these letters were destroyed. But in a letter to Engels Karl concluded that ‘for the moment, Mr. L. will have to make the best of a bad job’.33 In the meantime, Engels showed Karl’s letter to Eleanor to Jenny Marx. It was clear that in relation to Eleanor’s fate, husband and wife were not straightforwardly confiding in each other. Karl fretted that ‘the damnable thing is that for the child’s sake I have to tread very considerately and cautiously’. On the other hand, Mrs Marx had shocked Miss Hall, by proposing that Eleanor leave her teaching job mid-term and accompany Lenchen to Germany on a visit to her dying sister.

Eleanor resisted the pressure and remained in Brighton until the end of term. But she was back in London by September, and in November father and daughter travelled together for a three-week cure in what Jenny described as ‘aristocratic German Harrogate’. Eleanor was prescribed complete rest and the use of ‘Kissingen water’, Karl was to take vigorous exercise. Since Gumpert had forbidden any work, he filled up the hours of inaction by playing chess with Tussy and reading Sainte-Beuve’s book on Chateaubriand, ‘an author I have always disliked’.34

In the following year, all the tensions returned. On 19 January 1874, while making light of ‘my occasional illness’, Karl reported to Kugelmann that the carbuncles had reappeared.35 This, together with the return of headaches and insomnia, compelled him to spend around three weeks in Ramsgate in April and May.36 At the same time, Eleanor’s desire to see Lissagaray remained as powerful as ever. On 23 March 1874, she wrote to her father requesting permission to see ‘L.’ again. ‘When I was so very ill at Brighton (during a week I fainted two or three times a day), L. came to see me, and each time left me stronger and happier; and the more able to bear the rather heavy load on my shoulders.’37 In July 1874, Tussy was once more seriously ill for three weeks, and was tended by Elizabeth Garret Anderson, the first woman to have qualified as a physician in Britain. By 14 August, Karl reported that she was feeling ‘much better; her appetite is growing in geometric PROPORTION’. But, he went on, ‘it is the characteristic feature of these women’s ailments, in which hysteria plays a part; you have to pretend not to notice that the invalid is again living on earthly sustenance. This too becomes unnecessary once recovery is complete.’38

A visit to Carlsbad was arranged and elaborate preparations were made, including an (unsuccessful) application on Karl’s part for British nationality. Therefore, from the middle of August until 21 September, he and Tussy stayed in Carlsbad’s Hotel Germania. The stay was spoilt by Karl’s quarrel with Kugelmann, but he was pleased with Carlsbad and repeated the trip for a month alone in the following year. On that occasion, he was fortunate to meet a Russian aristocrat and land historian, Maxim Kovalevsky. Kovalevsky lived in London, and remained in frequent contact with Karl thereafter. In 1876, Karl travelled to Carlsbad once more with Eleanor. The journey was attended by a number of misadventures, in particular an involuntary stay-over in Nuremberg, where the town was full, not only on account of a millers’ and bakers’ convention but because of ‘people from all over the world who were on their way to state musician Wagner’s Festival of Fools at Bayreuth’. He reported that ‘Tussychen’ had been rather unwell on the journey, but was visibly recovering.39

In 1877, the choice was Neuenahr, a cheaper resort in the Black Forest. As Karl explained to Engels, ‘As you know, my wife suffers from serious digestive disturbances and since I shall in any case be taking Tussy, who has had another nasty attack, my wife would take great exception to being left behind.’40 On arrival, both he and his wife were under the care of Dr Schmitz, who reassured Karl that his liver was no longer enlarged: ‘the digestive apparatus is somewhat disordered. But the actual trouble is of a nervous kind.’ Jenny was required to take medicine before ‘her trouble got worse’, while ‘Tussychen’s appetite is improving, which is the best sign with her’.41

When her mother’s decline became palpable in the summer of 1881, Tussy collapsed again. Alone in London, since Karl had taken his sick wife to visit their grandchildren at the Longuets in Argenteuil, Tussy was not only unable to sleep, but had also stopped eating. The situation became so alarming that her friend Dollie Maitland summoned Karl back from France. Karl reported to Jenny Longuet in Argenteuil that Tussy was looking ‘pale and thin, since weeks she eats almost nothing’. Her ‘nervous system’ was ‘in a state of utter dejection; hence continuous sleeplessness, trembling of the hands, neuralgic convulsions of the face, etc.’42 The impending death of her mother brought about a breakdown. She was twenty-seven, uncertain whether she could make a career as an actor, and without a partner, since Lissagaray had returned to France after the amnesty of 1880. As she later wrote to her friend, Olive Schreiner, this turning point in her life finally prompted her to break off an engagement which after ‘long miserable years’ had become a burden. It had distanced her from her father and she felt guilt about the possibility that her mother died thinking her ‘hard and cruel’. Her sorrow was mixed with anger at the thought that her mother had never guessed that ‘to save her and father sorrow I had sacrificed the best, freshest years of my life’.43

A month after Jenny Marx’s death, Karl and Tussy went for a rest to Ventnor. But the visit was not a success. Karl wrote to Laura that ‘My companion (this strictly between ourselves) eats practically nothing; suffers badly from nervous tics; reads and writes all day long … She is very taciturn and, INDEED, seemingly endures staying with me simply out of a sense of duty, as a self-sacrificing martyr.’44 Many aspects to this sad saga remain unclear, since much of the relevant correspondence was destroyed. Why did the Marx parents so disapprove of Lissagaray? Was it just because of his age? That might have explained Karl’s prohibition in 1873, when Tussy was still eighteen, but that does not explain why the prohibition apparently continued and (but we don’t really know) seems to have been accepted by Eleanor.

Political difference does not offer a solution either. Karl didn’t feel comfortable with either of his sons-in-law. In November 1882, he exclaimed, ‘Longuet is the last Proudhonist and Lafargue is the last Bakuninist. Que le diable les emporte! [May the Devil take them!].’45 Longuet never abandoned his Proudhonism, but supplemented it with ‘Marxist’ ideas. In the 1880s, when he returned to France after the amnesty, he joined his friend Clemenceau and they worked together on the radical republican journal La Justice. Made conscious by his background of the strength and conservatism of the peasantry in France, his socialism became ever more moderate and he rejected the need for an independent workers’ party.

Lafargue appeared much closer in outlook to Karl; he was self-avowedly ‘Marxist’.46 Yet the mixture of left-bank anti-religious materialism, the Communist Manifesto and Engels’ Anti-Dühring was only nominally similar to Karl’s approach. As Engels wrote to Bernstein in 1882, ‘Marxism’ in France was ‘an altogether peculiar product’. It was in that context that Karl had once said to Lafargue, ‘if anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist’.47

Conversely, Karl not only admired Lissagaray’s book on the Commune, but spent much of 1877 and 1878 assisting Tussy in her translation of the book into English, and supervising its German translation and publication. Tussy apparently acceded to this appropriation of her relationship and, in the English-language edition, stated that she was ‘loth to alter the work in any way’ since ‘it had been entirely revised and corrected by my father. I want it to remain as he knew it.’48

Whatever Lissagaray’s original desires, he like Tussy acceded to Karl’s pressure, and by the time of his return to France in 1880 the relationship was over. Eleanor was not only unable to confront her father on occasion, but remained a wholly uncritical admirer. That was why it was so upsetting when she eventually learnt that Freddy Demuth was Karl’s unacknowledged son. She refused to believe it and maintained that Engels was lying. But the dying Engels stuck to his statement. She was shattered and wept bitterly. But Engels turned to his friend Sam Moore and said, ‘Tussy wants to make an idol of her father.’49


During the 1870s, Karl’s intellectual reputation as the author of Capital steadily increased. The argument that capital was based upon the buying and selling of labour power explained how the equality in exchange highlighted by the apologists of commercial society was nevertheless compatible with the exploitation of wage-workers and the growth of inequality. Capital presented a graphic, yet sober-minded analysis of the conflict within the factory, and a horrific picture of the condition of workers in different industries. It was supported by a well-documented account of the historical development of the capitalist mode of production. At last, it seemed, the socialist condemnation of prevailing economic conditions depended on more than moral denunciation or utopian speculation alone; it was now based upon economic analysis and historical prediction. In Germany, the first edition sold well; a second edition appeared in 1872, and a third was prepared for 1883. French and Russian editions appeared in 1872 and 1875. The Russian edition, with a print run of 3,000 copies, sold exceptionally well. According to Karl, it was ‘an extraordinary success’ and he expected a second edition in 1873.50

Few, however, were attracted to Karl’s politics. His original fixation on the activities of the Revolutionary Convention of 1792–3 belonged to the decades before 1848. He still dreamed of a Manichaean battle between emancipation and reaction engulfing the whole of Europe; in such a war, one of the major states, forced to the left in a war with Russia, would become enmeshed in a process of revolutionary turmoil and begin the process of emancipation. Until the late 1870s, he continued to hope for a European war. In August 1874, he wrote to Friedrich Sorge in Hoboken: ‘General European conditions are such as to increasingly wage a general European war. We shall have to pass through it before there can be any thought of decisive overt activity on the part of the European working class.’51 The only other political groupings still intent on replaying the political struggles of the French Revolution were the Blanquists, many of whom were exiles in London. But once the French Republic granted an amnesty to ex-Communards in 1880, support for their position declined precipitously.52 Younger revolutionary activists were no longer drawn to the idea of a centralized state, however revolutionary. They were attracted instead to communal, federal or anti-state visions of socialism associated with Proudhon or Bakunin.

In the 1870s, Karl’s reputation as an analyst of capital sat uneasily beside his notoriety as an advocate of what was considered as an outdated and unacceptable form of politics. Whatever his subsequent clarifications, he was stuck with the fame that he had acquired as the alleged ‘Chief’ of the International and the instigator of the Commune. But such fame had its costs. Henry Hyndman recalled that in 1880 ‘It is scarcely too much to say that Marx was practically unknown to the English public, except as a dangerous and even desperate advocate of revolution, whose organisation of the “International” had been one of the causes of the horrible Commune of Paris, which all decent, respectable people shuddered at and thought of with horror.’53 In his book England for All, Hyndman, who had read Capital in French and had adopted its picture of the suffering of the working people ‘under our present landlord and capitalist system’, did not refer to Karl by name. He wrote instead about ‘the work of a great thinker and original writer, which will, I trust, shortly be made accessible to the majority of my countrymen’.54 Similarly, in France in 1880, when Karl’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, together with Jules Guesde, drew upon Karl for a preamble to the founding programme of the Fédération du Parti des Travailleurs Socialistes, Guesde asked Benoît Malon to take responsibility for its authorship.55

In the Eighteenth Brumaire Karl had dismissed the 1848 revolutions as ‘comedy’, no longer the true bourgeois revolution of the past, nor yet the proletarian revolution of the future. He saw them as a farcical replay of the past. He was therefore slow to recognize how 1848 had changed the character of popular political participation on the European mainland. He was suspicious about demands for manhood suffrage and showed little awareness of its capacity to mobilize new types of political engagement. This was another aspect of his difficulty in according any independence to the political sphere, except where there was a majority working-class population. He was still prone to dismiss universal suffrage as an illusion comparable to, or even produced by, the notion of the equality of exchanges in the economy.

Living in London, writing for the New-York Daily Tribune and interacting with British trade unionists in the IWMA had led Karl to revise this position, especially in relation to England after 1867. In an interview published in an American journal in 1871, Karl had stated that universal suffrage might enable English workers to achieve political power without a violent revolution.56 Similarly, at the conclusion of the Hague Congress of the International in September 1872, Karl stated, ‘We know that the institutions, customs and traditions in the different countries must be taken into account; and we do not deny the existence of countries like America, England, and if I knew your institutions better I might add Holland, where the workers may achieve their aims by peaceful means.’ But that did not apply to ‘most countries on the Continent’. There ‘It is force which must be the lever of our revolution; it is force which will have to be resorted to for a time in order to establish the rule of the workers.’57

Following the ‘comedy’ of 1848, Karl had been suspicious of the political developments in Central and Southern Europe at the end of the 1850s. He dismissed the Italian Risorgimento and was sceptical about the beginning of the ‘new era’ in Germany. Yet the ‘new era’ indicated how 1848 had changed political expectations. In Germany, its starting point was neither a secret society born in exile like the League of the Just, nor a clearly defined revolutionary party like the Communist League. Instead, a new movement had grown out of the Workers’ Educational Associations (Arbeiterbildungsvereine), which had flourished in 1848 and were revived again after 1858, together with various liberal and democratic organizations ranging from the National Association (Nationalverein) to the German People’s Party (Deutsche Volkspartei).

The pro-Prussian liberal National Association had counted on the adhesion of these Workers’ Associations. But it was not prepared to concede demands for their political representation. In response to this rejection, Ferdinand Lassalle urged the Workers’ Educational Associations in 1862–3 to reject collaboration with liberal and even democratic parties, and instead to form a party of their own: the General German Workers’ Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein), the first independent workers’ party in Europe.

Outside Prussia, and particularly in South Germany, most of the associations felt a stronger affinity to the German People’s Party, in its opposition to German unification under Prussian dominance, and pressed for a federal and democratic state. They formed the Union of German Workers’ Educational Associations (Verband Deutscher Arbeitervereine), which remained closely allied to the People’s Party. In 1868, however, Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel urged the Union’s congress to affiliate with the International Working Men’s Association. This led to a break with the People’s Party and the formation of the Social Democratic Labour Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei) at Eisenach in 1869. By the end of the 1860s, therefore, there were two competing workers’ parties – the Lassalleans and the Eisenachers – both with a socialist orientation. These parties shared the liberal and democratic principles of 1848, including parliamentary government, universal suffrage, a people’s militia, free association and the separation of church and state. One indication of this shift was the disappearance of the word ‘communism’ and its replacement by the terms ‘socialism’ or ‘social democracy’.

Lassalle was seven years younger than Karl, and his formative political experience had been the German revolutions of 1848, in which he had been imprisoned for six months. While Karl mocked the February Revolution, Lassalle proclaimed 24 February 1848 to be the dawn of a new historical epoch.58 There had been three epochs in the history of the world, he argued, each governed by a ruling idea, expressed in all the social and political arrangements of the time, and embodied in a particular class or estate. In the Middle Ages, the idea of possession of landed property had been the precondition of feudal rule and this had permeated all its institutions. That epoch ended in 1789, replaced by the supremacy of bourgeois property and the rule of capital.

1789 had been the revolution of the ‘Third Estate’. But 1848 was the revolution of the ‘Fourth Estate’. The ‘Third Estate’ had claimed to represent the claims of humanity, but in fact represented the political ambitions of the bourgeoisie, satisfied by free competition and ‘the night-watchman state’. Any claim to universality by the feudal nobility or the ‘Third Estate’ was contradicted by their sectional self-interest. The claims of the workers, on the other hand, were universal. Lassalle drew upon the Communist Manifesto (to Karl’s annoyance): workers, unlike the higher classes, had no particular privileges to defend. But what this meant was not so much that they had ‘nothing to lose but their chains’, as that workers embodied a moral as well as a material principle. The concerns of workers were the concerns of humanity. This was why the fundamental principle underpinning the formation of an independent workers’ party was the demand for universal manhood suffrage, accompanied by direct and secret elections.

Lassalle’s case for the formation of an independent workers’ party was fuelled by his distrust of the liberal middle class. The middle classes had betrayed the ‘Fourth Estate’ in 1848; in 1862, in the constitutional battle over control of the military, they had again shown themselves incapable of breaking the power of the Prussian absolutist regime. Despite the urgings of political economists and social reformers like Friedrich Bastiat and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch, the economic as well as the political case for a middle-class liberal alliance was weak. The interests of workers and employers were not identical. Aided by savings banks, consumer cooperatives and providence societies, individuals might benefit from self-help, but this could not be true of the working classes as a whole. For, at a collective level, the efforts of workers to better themselves would always be thwarted by what Lassalle called ‘the iron law of wages’ – an argument drawn from Ricardo to the effect that wages could never advance much beyond subsistence.

This was another reason why nothing short of universal suffrage would suffice; and it could succeed, if it were pushed forward by a vigorous and large-scale campaign, like that waged by the Anti-Corn League in England. Once this was achieved, a state based upon universal suffrage and dependent upon workers’ support could lead the way to workers’ emancipation, implemented by state-supported producer-cooperatives. Such a state would eliminate the distinction between employers and employed and open the way to universal education and cultural flourishing. Universal suffrage would be the means by which this state would be brought into being. Anything short of this would be a ‘lie’, a form of ‘pseudo-constitutionalism, in which the state declared itself to be a constitutional state, but in reality remained an absolutist state’.59 Lassalle was elected leader of the ADAV for a five-year term, and the Party recruited 4,600 members, but in August 1864 he was mortally wounded in a duel.

Whatever the complexity of his feelings of animosity towards Lassalle (a mixture of apprehension, envy and contempt), Karl could not but acknowledge Lassalle’s achievement. In 1868, he wrote to Lassalle’s successor, Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, that the Lassallean Association was ‘formed in a period of reaction … After fifteen years of slumber, Lassalle – and this remains his immortal service – re-awakened the workers’ movement in Germany.’ But he went on to criticize the split with Schulze-Delitzsch, the advocacy of state-aided cooperatives, the conflation of ‘the state’ with the existing Prussian state and the adoption of the Chartist call for universal suffrage.60

The Eisenach Party was more acceptable, both because it was resolutely anti-Prussian and because Wilhelm Liebknecht, a London friend of Karl’s family from the 1850s, was one of its leaders. But even in London he was not an altogether reliable political ally. In 1865, Engels complained to Karl that ‘Liebknecht simply cannot help putting his foot in it’ whenever he had to act on his own initiative. But he admitted that ‘grumbling will not help matters’ since ‘at the moment he is the only reliable link we have in Germany’.61

In other words, throughout the 1860s and 1870s, Karl’s German contacts were few and his influence upon the internal development of either of these parties was slight. The Eisenach Party had affiliated to the IWMA after its split from the Saxon People’s Party in 1868. But this did not affect its continued commitment to the ideals of the Volksstaat (people’s state). Both the Lassalleans and the Eisenachers believed that workers’ emancipation would be brought about by the democratization of the state, and that this would be achieved through the ballot box. Similarly, although the Eisenachers were not committed to Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’, both parties advocated state-supported cooperatives.

The major disagreement was that between supporters and opponents of a Prussian-dominated Bismarckian Reich. Lassallean support for Bismarck’s national policy was countered by the bitterly anti-Prussian politics of the Eisenachers. The argument came to a head during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Was this a war of national defence? In the Reichstag of the North German Confederation, Schweitzer of the Lassalleans and Fritzsche of the Eisenachers voted in favour of the war loan, while Liebknecht and August Bebel, the future leader of the Social Democratic Party, abstained.

The course of the war itself, however, brought about a gradual abatement of hostility between the two parties and helped to prepare the path towards their unification at Gotha five years later. For whatever their initial positions, following the defeat and abdication of Napoléon III, and the proposed annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, both Eisenachers and Lassalleans turned against the war.

Both parties also declared their solidarity with the Paris Commune on 18 March 1871. In this situation, they briefly converged with Karl, who, whatever his reservations, in his capacity as Secretary of the IWMA declared the Commune to be ‘the form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour’.62 At the end of May 1871, reacting to the week of massacres which accompanied the suppression of the Parisian revolt, August Bebel in the Reichstag expressed his solidarity with the Communards, and declared that ‘before many decades have gone by the battle-cry of the Parisian proletariat – “War on palaces, peace to cottages, death to poverty and idleness!” – will be the battle-cry of the entire European proletariat.’63 As a result of socialist support for the Commune, the distance between the social-democratic and liberal parties in the new Reich increased. Lurid pictures of the excesses of the Commune shocked the propertied classes, and were exploited by Bismarck to strengthen his alliance with National Liberals. But solidarity with the Paris Commune at the moment of its suppression – however shocking to the propertied classes – did not impinge immediately upon the domestic strategy of German socialism. The question of unification between the two parties was raised by the Lassalleans in 1872. But the dissension between the two parties over the national question and the role of the state remained too great. As Bebel wrote, however, ‘what did not ensue as a result of friendly negotiations was finally achieved by persecution’.64

The establishment of the Bismarckian Reich was now a fait accompli. The scale of the repression of socialists, whether Lassalleans or Eisenachers, was greatly increased and Lassallean hopes of state socialism correspondingly diminished. Potential friction between the two parties was further reduced by the resignation of Schweitzer, Lassalle’s successor as President of the ADAV. Finally, with the onset of economic depression from 1873 pressure for more concerted action in strikes, and housing agitation, increased among the rank and file. As a result, it was possible for the two parties to unite behind a single programme at Gotha in May 1875.

Karl reacted with fury to the agreement, which he considered to be an abject surrender to the Lassalleans. It was true that crucial passages in the programme were not clearly thought out or were ambiguously expressed – though this was due more to Liebknecht than the Lassalleans themselves. Karl assailed the loose formulation of a labour theory of value, attacked its use of ‘labour’ instead of ‘labour power’, and interrogated the ambiguity of its use of the term ‘free state’ and its designation of non-proletarian classes as ‘one reactionary mass’. He also reiterated his objections to the familiar Lassallean nostrums: state-aided producer-cooperatives, the ‘iron law’ of wages and the failure to mention trade unions. He wrote to Wilhelm Bracke that once the Congress of the Union of German Workers’ Educational Associations was over, he and Engels would ‘entirely disassociate’ themselves from the ‘programme of principles’ and would ‘have nothing to do with it’.65

These were reasonable objections. But in a larger political sense, they failed to confront the point of the exercise, which was no longer to enunciate the doctrine of a revolutionary sect like the Communist League, but to construct a credible electoral programme for a mass-based parliamentary social-democratic party. Karl made no attempt to understand the aspirations of post-1848 social democracy on the Continent. Instead, he dismissed discussion of ‘the old democratic litany familiar to all – universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc.’ as if, in the Bismarckian Reich, these demands had ‘already been implemented’.

Finally, instead of discussing the democratic transformation of the state, he leapt forward to a notional period of revolutionary transition between capitalist and communist society, in which ‘the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’.66 Later on, Engels similarly attempted to redefine the democratic republic as a ‘specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat’, a proposal which also suggested an ambition quite remote from the social-democratic ideals or political realities of the 1860s and 1870s.67 Not surprisingly, both the harsh criticism and threats to withdraw were ignored.68


Nothing could underline more strongly the marginality of Karl’s ideas about politics and party in the new social-democratic constellation of the 1870s. Yet only ten years later the dominant discourse of the leadership of the Social Democratic Party had become a form of ‘Marxism’. Furthermore, between the end of the 1870s and the beginning of the 1890s, there sprang up in every major European country groups and embryonic parties that modelled themselves on the German Social Democratic Party, and identified with the ideas of ‘Marxism’. The French Workers’ Party (Parti Ouvrier Français) in 1879, the Russian Group of the Liberation of Labour in 1883, the English Social Democratic Federation in 1884, the Belgian Workers’ Party (Parti Ouvrier Belge) in 1885, the Austrian and Swiss Social Democratic Parties in 1888, and the Italian Socialist Party in 1892. In 1888, Engels claimed with understandable exaggeration that ‘the Marxist world outlook has found adherents far beyond the boundaries of Germany and Europe and in all the literary languages of world’.69 What had brought about this remarkable change?

The most obvious reason for the founding of German-style social-democratic parties in other countries was the desire to replicate the astonishing electoral success of the German Social Democratic Party. In the Reichstag election of 1871, 124,000 voted for the two socialist parties. In 1877, the united party received 493,000 votes. In 1881, under the impact of Bismarckian repression, the vote fell back to 312,000. But by 1884 it had risen again to 550,000. In 1887, it amounted to 763,000 and in 1890 to 1,429,000.

These gains seemed all the more remarkable when set against the changes in the German Reich between the mid-1870s and the 1880s. By the end of the 1870s, both the strategies originally entertained by the Social Democratic Party had come to nothing. Lassalle’s vision of a path to universal suffrage and the abolition of the ‘iron law’, built upon opposition to the bourgeois liberals and tactical alliance with monarchy and aristocracy, quickly stalled. Bismarck briefly toyed with the idea in 1863 as one means of escape from the constitutional crisis. But he took no further interest after the Prussian triumph over Austria at the Battle of Sadowa in 1866, and after the Commune of 1871 it became unthinkable. Bebel’s speech, Bismarck subsequently claimed, had alerted him to the perils of socialism and the need for anti-socialist laws to combat social democracy, both as a social danger and as a threat to the state.

The Eisenach strategy had looked more promising. Bismarck founded the Second Reich in alliance with the most powerful fraction of the liberal bourgeoisie, the National Liberals. He had been careful to ensure that the political constitution of the Empire left all the essential mechanisms of absolutism in place, including crown control of the army and bureaucracy, the absence of ministerial responsibility to the Reichstag, the retention of the three-class suffrage in Prussia, and Prussian domination of the federal system through the Bundestag. But he also incorporated into its economic foundations all the leading demands of the liberals: above all free trade together with freedom of movement, the end of the usury laws, and the abolition of guild regulation and of state regulation of joint-stock companies.

Liberals were opposed to universal suffrage, but their identification with Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (the legislative attack on German Catholics) found support among many Social Democrats. In particular, Social Democrats could identify with the promotion of secular education, centralization and rationalism over clericalism, particularism, ultramontanism and ‘medieval’ superstition. Liberals themselves still hoped that an alliance with Bismarck against Reichsfeinde (enemies of the Reich) might result in a constitutional state. This was also the hope which justified the Social Democrats’ commitment to the Freistaat (free state) in the Gotha Programme.

Whatever the basis of these expectations, the events of the late 1870s dashed hopes of constitutional change through to the First World War. Prime among these were the political and economic effects of the Great Depression of 1873–96. After the boom of the early 1870s came the spectacular crash of 1873. There was a dramatic fall in wholesale prices, in coal, steel and cotton textiles. The situation was made worse by the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, and so in these industries the first protection societies emerged in 1873–4.

In 1876, however, the falling prices hit agriculture too. Cheap American corn began flooding into England, depriving Prussian producers of their traditional export market. At the same time, cheap Russian and Hungarian corn began pouring into the home market. To the horror of farmers, bad harvests in 1875 and 1876 did not halt the continuing fall in agricultural prices, which brought a wave of bankruptcies in its wake. Protection now gained favour across the Prussian Corn Belt, and the terms were set for the 1879 tariff, based on the celebrated ‘marriage between iron and rye’: what some historians have called ‘the second founding of the Empire’.

The repercussions of these developments extended far beyond the economy. The abandonment of free trade brought about the end of the liberal alliance. The social basis of liberalism had already been fractured by the growing distance between the values and way of life of the traditional middle class (teachers, small merchants, lesser officials) and those of a new and spectacularly wealthy industrial elite, keen to assimilate into the traditional ruling class. The consolidation of a new conservative bloc drawn from army, bureaucracy, landlords and industrialists was also greatly reinforced by alarm about the Paris Commune and fear of the growing workers’ movement. Bismarck was particularly perturbed by ‘the red menace’; already in the early 1870s he had attempted to change the press laws and the penal code to assist the prosecution of socialists. In 1878, on the pretext of two attempts to assassinate the emperor, he dissolved the Reichstag, fought an anti-socialist campaign, and passed an anti-socialist law which effectively outlawed the Social Democratic Party.70

Once reassured that the threat of a Catholic French–Austrian alliance had been removed by the arrival of the anti-clerical Third Republic in France, the government dropped its anti-Catholic campaign. The basic parameters of the new direction followed by the government included tariff protection against England and Eastern Europe, the introduction of measures of social security, an Austrian alliance, rapprochement with the Pope and acceptance of the Catholic Centre Party (the other large mass party apart from the Social Democrats). Liberalism never recovered from 1879. An openly conservative authoritarian state had come into being, in which for liberals, democrats and socialists a constitutional road to power was permanently blocked.

In these new circumstances, hopes of a constitutional struggle for a Volksstaat or a Freistaat, however remote, became wholly unrealistic. For the Social Democratic Party, recognition of Bismarck’s Reich was out of the question. On the other hand, a strategy of extra-constitutional or revolutionary activism would simply invite complete repression. These were the circumstances in which a form of ‘Marxism’ came to offer an opportune solution to the Party’s problems.

The turning point can be dated to the appearance of Engels’ polemic Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, popularly known as The Anti-Dühring, in 1878. Dühring had been a popular Privatdozent (untenured lecturer) at the University of Berlin. He had been dismissed as a result of a dispute with the university. He had a popular following among young socialists, including Eduard Bernstein, Johann Most and, briefly, August Bebel. His plight attracted special sympathy since he had gone blind during the course of his work. Dühring wrote extensively on philosophy, and in economics was a follower of the protectionist arguments of List and Carey. Karl had considered his critical, but respectful, review of Capital ‘very decent’; he was ‘the first expert who has said anything at all’.71 But Dühring accepted the ‘free state’ ideal, rejected the Darwinian principle of struggle for existence and, following Carey, believed in the ultimate harmony of the interests of capital and labour.

Engels’ attack on Dühring, begun at the behest of Liebknecht, initially encountered considerable resistance from the Social Democrats. The Party Conference at Gotha in May 1877 attempted to ban the serialization of Engels’ book in Vorwärts!, the Party paper. But just how much the political climate had changed in a few years was indicated by the impact it subsequently made. According to David Riazanov, Anti-Dühring ‘was epoch-making in the history of Marxism. It was from this book that the younger generation, which began its activity during the second half of the 1870s, learned what was scientific socialism, what were its philosophical premises, what was its method … all the young Marxists who entered the public arena in the early eighties – Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov – were brought up on this book.’72 Or, as Karl Kautsky put it, ‘Judging by the influence that Anti-Dühring had upon me, no other book can have contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is the more powerful work, certainly. But it was only through Anti-Dühring that we learnt to understand Capital and read it properly.’73

Engels’ arguments were distilled in three chapters, from which the detailed polemic against Dühring had been removed, and published as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. It appeared in French in 1880, followed by a German edition in 1882. This pamphlet thereafter became the most popular source for the understanding of ‘Marxism’ for the following twenty years.

Anti-Dühring was successful in large part because it transformed ‘Marxism’ into a Weltanschauung, a world philosophy, but not least because it answered the need for a new Party strategy in the late 1870s. Anti-Dühring managed to preserve a vision of the revolutionary collapse of the Bismarckian Reich, together with the dismantling of its repressive state, yet to keep these developments remote from the agency of the Party. Instead, these developments were presented as part of the increasingly crisis-ridden development of capitalism, as observed by ‘scientific socialism’. This ‘science’, according to Engels, was built upon ‘two great discoveries’ made by Karl Marx: ‘the materialistic conception of history’ and ‘surplus value’ as ‘the secret of capitalist production’.74 Analysed in these terms, ‘socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – proletariat and bourgeois’.75

According to Engels, the analysis found in Capital had revealed how ‘modern large-scale industry’ had ‘called into being, on the one hand, a proletariat’, which ‘for the first time in history’ could demand the abolition of class society, and was in such a position ‘that it must carry through this demand’; and on the other, ‘the bourgeoisie, a class which has a monopoly of all the instruments of production and means of subsistence, but which in each speculative boom period and in each crash that follows proves that it has become incapable of any longer controlling the productive forces, which have grown beyond its power; a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety valve the driver is too weak to open.’ The downfall of the Reich and other repressive states in Europe would come about not as the result of the activities of this or that subversive party, but because the productive forces created by the capitalist mode of production had come into ‘crying contradiction’ with that mode of production itself: ‘To such a degree that if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place’.76

Engels also offered an opportune criticism of the ‘ultimate scientific insufficiency’ of the ambition to create ‘a free people’s state’.77 The bourgeoisie through its transformation of productive forces had replaced the means of production of the individual by social means of production only workable by ‘a collectivity of men’. In effect the means of production had already begun to be socialized to such an extent that the state had already begun to take over ‘the great institutions for intercourse and communication – the post office, the telegraphs, the railways’.78 In this way, the bourgeoisie, having transformed ‘the great majority of the population into proletarians’, was itself ‘showing the way to the accomplishing of revolution’. As a result, ‘the proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production in the first instance into state property’.79 But, ‘The first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society – the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society – this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production’. The state, Engels proclaimed, is not ‘ “abolished”. It dies out.’ Or, in previous translations, ‘It withers away.80

The impact of Engels’ arguments was clear in the case of August Bebel, the foremost leader of the Social Democratic Party. In the first edition of his popular work Woman and Socialism in 1879 Bebel still used the idea of Volksstaat. But in the 1883 edition he replaced it with an account of Engels’ doctrine of ‘the withering away’ of the state. Most striking was the shift in the imagination of the revolution itself. One way of removing the atmosphere of menace which surrounded the word was to associate it with gradualism and the avoidance of violence. This was the approach increasingly employed by Liebknecht. Another way was for the Party to develop a more ‘passive’ conception of its role if a revolution occurred. A striking example of this belief was to be found in a report by radical Party members on the Party’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1883. The report began by declaring itself true to ‘the principles of its great master, Marx’. But this meant that ‘we are not a parliamentary party … but also we are not makers of revolutions … we are a revolutionary party … but the manner in which it will be achieved does not depend on us’.81

Bebel also believed that capitalism would collapse as a result of its own internal contradictions. The task of the Party was to enlighten the masses about the inevitability of collapse. When that moment came, the Party had to be ready to step in and undertake the task of social rebuilding. He did not appear to think that a violent class struggle would ensue, since, once catastrophe arrived, the ruling classes would succumb to some sort of ‘hypnotic state’ and submit to everything almost without resistance.82 This vision of revolutionary crisis was also inscribed in the new programme of the Party, the Erfurt Programme, drafted by Karl Kautsky in 1891. In the first part, a Marxian picture of capitalism was presented: ‘The number of proletarians becomes ever greater, the army of surplus workers becomes ever more massive, the contrast between exploiters and exploited becomes ever sharper and the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat which divides modern society into two hostile camps and is the common feature of all industrialised countries, becomes ever more vehement.’83 This struggle of the working class against capitalist exploitation was a ‘political struggle’; it could not be accomplished ‘without political rights’. What followed in the second part of the Programme, therefore, was a reiteration of the political demands to be found in the Eisenach and Gotha Programmes.

The ‘Marxism’ of the 1880s was not simply a picture of class struggle and the end of the bourgeois mode of production. In the Anti-Dühring, Engels provided an all-encompassing vision of nature and existence: ‘In nature, amid the welter of innumerable changes, the same dialectical laws of motion force their way through as those which in history govern the apparent fortuitousness of events; the same laws which similarly form the thread running through the history of the development of human thought and gradually rise to consciousness in thinking men.’84 Now nature was ‘the proof of dialectics’, and that proof had been furnished by ‘modern science’.85 Karl’s breakthrough in the human sciences had been paralleled by Charles Darwin’s breakthrough in the sciences of nature. In his speech at Karl’s graveside in March 1883, Engels declared, ‘Charles Darwin discovered the law of the development of organic nature upon our planet. Marx is the discoverer of the fundamental law according to which human history moves and develops itself, a law so simple and self-evident that its simple enunciation is almost sufficient to secure assent.’86The frontier between humanity and animality had been shifted. In 1844, Karl had started from the distinction between the ‘natural being’ and the ‘human natural being’; unlike a purely ‘natural being’, man had a history. But in the Anti-Dühring man like nature was subject to the Darwinian struggle, which only came to an end with the disappearance of class society: ‘The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions into really human ones.’87

The merger between Marxian theory and that of Darwin was promoted even more emphatically by Karl Kautsky. Kautsky was the editor of Die Neue Zeit, founded in 1883 as the Party’s theoretical journal, and in the years from 1889 through to 1914 Die Neue Zeit remained the leading journal of the Second International. Drawing upon the writings of Thomas Buckle, Kautsky believed that history could become a science akin to the sciences of the natural world. From the writings of Darwin, he inferred man was ‘a social animal’ and that social instincts were the basis of group solidarity, whether of groups, classes or nations. This he conjoined with the assumption that history was the history of class struggle, and that all states were class states, ruled by the ‘dominant economic class’. In Kautsky’s writings, there was no question of any separation from the laws of nature. For socialism was precisely the creation of a new social system according to those laws, building upon his premise that the social instinct had become more and more concentrated in the movement of the oppressed class. For, as Kautsky later put it, organic instincts and drives underlay what philosophers had defined as ethics. ‘What appeared to a Kant as the creation of a higher world of spirits is the product of the animal world … An animal impulse and nothing else is the moral law … The moral law is of the same nature as the instinct for reproduction.’88


How far was Karl’s theory responsible for what became known as ‘Marxism’ in the 1880s and after? How far was ‘Marxism’ a joint product of Karl and Engels in the years after 1867? Karl’s contribution was substantial, but it was only one of the sources upon which the new doctrine was built. In 1867 and even in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859, Karl had appeared to open himself up to a much more determinist view of man than had been evident before; and this seemed to be reinforced by the significant theoretical statement with which he was prepared to associate himself in his afterword to the second German edition of Capital in 1873.89

Karl published little in the 1870s. Following Gladstone’s campaign against Bulgarian Atrocities in 1875–6, and the lead-up to the Russo-Turkish War, Karl, with the aid of Maltman Barry, made some anonymous attacks in the Conservative press against Gladstone’s Russian policy. In 1877, he apparently approved the whole of Anti-Dühring, which Engels read out to him, and even contributed an erudite chapter, criticizing Dühring’s Kritische Geschichte der Nationalökonomie (Critical History of Political Economy).90

Does this mean that in the final decade of his life there was an effective convergence between the views of Karl and Engels? Not entirely. The evidence suggests that, in poor health and with diminished energy, Karl was prepared to allow Engels to act for him. At the same time, Karl’s failure to find satisfactory solutions to the problems posed by the second volume of Capital resulted in a growing, if unacknowledged, divergence in their interests.

Karl no longer talked much about his work to Engels, yet to express disagreement during these years would have been increasingly difficult. No longer capable of producing the journalism once commissioned by the New-York Daily Tribune, and with no expectation of further legacies, the dependence of the Marx family upon Engels’ largesse became ever more acute. Nor was dependence confined to Karl himself: Engels also provided for the girls, especially Laura, as already described. Little evidence of the strains caused by this dependence has survived, especially since Laura went through her parents’ correspondence after their deaths to remove any reference to Engels that might be hurtful. But some hints survive. There is no reason, for example, to disbelieve the testimony of Hyndman, who saw Karl and his family fairly frequently in 1880–81, that ‘Marx was, to put it in the common form, “under considerable pecuniary obligations” to Engels. This, Mrs Marx could not bear to think of. Not that she did not recognise Engels’ services to her husband, but that she resented and deplored his influence over his great friend. She spoke of him to my wife more than once as Marx’s “evil genius” and wished that she could relieve her husband from any dependence upon this able and loyal but scarcely sympathetic coadjutor.’91

On three issues at least, it is possible to discern a significant difference between the assumptions of the newly developing ‘Marxism’ of the 1880s and Karl’s own views. The first of these concerned Karl’s ideas about the collapse of capitalism. From the 1880s well through to the 1920s and 1930s, there was a widespread assumption among Second International socialists, and especially Bebel, that capitalism would come to an end not so much as a consequence of working-class revolt and an ‘epoch of revolution’, but rather as a result of systemic economic failure. These ideas of the Anti-Dühring and Bebel were reiterated in the 1891 Erfurt Programme, which stated that ‘the forces of production have got beyond the control of present-day society’ and that ‘the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat’ was becoming ‘ever more vehement’.92 What was there in Karl’s theory to authorize this idea of collapse? Capital, Volume I, was disappointing, offering nothing to suggest when and how capital would fall, except one purple passage, which spoke about ‘the negation of the negation’ and ‘the expropriation of the expropriators’. Bebel along with others was expecting a real denouement in the second volume. After Karl’s death, Engels, now editing the work, did his best to keep Bebel in a state of excited anticipation. In April 1885, he wrote to Bebel:

25 sheets (out of 38) of Capital, Book II have been printed. Book III is in hand. It is quite extraordinarily brilliant. This complete reversal of all previous economics is truly astounding. Our theory is thereby provided for the first time with an unassailable basis while we ourselves are enabled to hold our own successfully against all comers. Directly it appears, the philistines in the party will again be dealt a blow that will give them something to think about. For it will again bring general economic questions to the forefront of the controversy.93

Engels evidently became frustrated by the absence in the manuscript (untouched since 1864) of any punchline of the kind that the Party was looking for. The place to look was the concluding chapter of ‘The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall’. In the Grundrisse and elsewhere in the 1850s, this had been the focal point of Karl’s expectation of capitalism’s approaching demise. But in the manuscripts of Volume III, while Karl listed various factors which might lead to a fall in the rate of profit, in each case there were complicating counter-factors producing no clear end result. The most that Karl had assembled were a cluster of antagonistic circumstances, in which capital might be erschüttert (shaken). Engels was generally a scrupulous or even timid editor, but in this case he substituted the word ‘zusammengebracht’ (collapsed).94 Here was the origin of what became known between the 1890s and 1930s as ‘Zusammenbruchstheorie.

The second area in which there was an appreciable divergence between Karl’s views and those of Engels concerned the significance of Darwin. At Karl’s graveside in 1883, Engels did his best to associate Karl’s work with that of Darwin. He proclaimed that ‘just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history’.95 And the notorious partner of Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, even invented the story that Karl had wished to dedicate Capital to Darwin.96

This argument was forced. Karl’s objection to Darwin was that he regarded progress as ‘purely accidental’.97 Darwin did not believe that history possessed any unilinear meaning or direction: ‘I believe in no fixed law of development.’98 Karl, on the other hand, maintained that man was not simply a creature of his environment, as the Owenites and later ‘Marxists’ believed. Man’s point of origin as ‘human natural being’ was history, and history was ‘a conscious self-transcending act of origin … the true natural history of Man’.99 History was the process of the humanization of nature through man’s ‘conscious life activity’.100

There is no evidence that Karl ever renounced this view. While later admirers thought Karl started precisely where Darwin left off, Karl himself did not accept the fundamental continuity between natural and human history, as argued by the Darwinists. Karl considered that Darwin’s book ‘suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle’.101 But Darwin’s theory could not accommodate Karl’s belief that the first form of human society preceded private property and patriarchy, and, therefore, class struggle too. Class struggle and competition were not the results of nature-driven necessity, but consequences of man making his history in alien circumstances. Man remained not just a ‘natural being’, but a ‘human natural being’, whose engagement in social struggle was a product of distinctively man-made social and cultural institutions. Class struggle and competition were not therefore to be regarded as resulting from the inherent animality of humans, but from heteronomy, the shaping of their behaviour by alien forces. It was private property and patriarchy, reinforced by religion, which had reduced man to the animal condition, of which class struggle and competition were the expression.

Like others, of course, Karl accepted Darwin’s importance. In the face of Engels’ enthusiasm, he could hardly do otherwise. But his acknowledgements were somewhat backhanded. He was mainly struck by the similarities between Darwin’s portrayal of the animal kingdom and the world of competitive struggle depicted by Malthus and other political economists.102 Moreover, when the opportunity arose, Karl was keen to belittle the esteem in which Darwin was held; for example, in 1864 he discovered ‘a very important work’ by Pierre Trémaux, Origin and Transformation of Man and Other Beings. He recommended it to Engels as ‘a very significant advance over Darwin’.103Engels dismissed it in the most withering terms, ‘utterly worthless, pure theorising in defiance of all the facts’.104 But Karl was not wholly convinced, and even after receiving Engels’ strictures wrote to his admirer Dr Kugelmann, still recommending the Trémaux book, despite its faults, as ‘an advance over Darwin’.105


Karl was respectful of Darwin’s work, but not excited by it. What did excite him – and this was the third area in which Karl’s interests and assumptions diverged from those of the ‘Marxism’ of the 1880s – was the new research of the 1850s and 1860s into the history of man, as it appeared not in biology, but in anthropology, philology and global pre-history. These interests came to the fore in the aftermath of the publication of Capital, Volume I in 1867.

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl had firmly placed his confidence in ‘the bourgeoisie’, who compelled ‘all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production’.106 In the case of India, he had applauded what he thought would be the effect of steam power and free trade in bringing about the dissolution of the age-old ‘village system’ based upon the ‘domestic union of agricultural and manufacturing pursuits’.107

On this basis, in 1859 he had also attacked the ‘absurdly biased view’ that ‘primitive communal property is a specifically Slavonic, or even an exclusively Russian phenomenon’. He pointed out that such forms could also be found ‘among Romans, Teutons and Celts’ and still survived in a disintegrated form in India. The passage was repeated, almost word for word, and with the same examples, in the first edition of Capital.108 As Karl wrote to Engels in 1868, Russian village institutions, far from being unique, were a survival of a mode of production once found in Europe as well as Asia. ‘The whole business down to the smallest detail is absolutely identical with the Primeval Germaniccommunal system.’ But he went on specifically to align ‘the Russian case’ with ‘part of the Indian communal systems’, highlighting in particular ‘the non-democratic, but patriarchal character of the commune leadership’ and ‘the collective responsibility for taxes to the state’.109

Karl’s target was the Slavophil theory which identified the Slavic spirit with the church, popular traditions and the obshchina (the communal institutions of ownership in the Russian village). Particularly alarming to Karl was the fact that this theory appeared to have been accepted not simply by Romantic and conservative nationalists, but also by liberals and socialists, hence his outburst against Herzen at the end of the first German edition of Capital. Herzen was accused of prophesying the rejuvenation of Europe through ‘the knout’ and ‘the forced mixing with the blood of the Kalmyks … This Belle Lettrist’, he went on, ‘has discovered “Russian” communism not inside Russia but instead in the work of Haxthausen, a councillor of the Prussian government.’110

But from the mid-1870s there was a remarkable change in Karl’s general outlook, accompanied by subtle but noticeable changes in the character of his theory as a whole. This appears to have resulted from a combination of difficulties, both conceptual and practical. The theoretical changes have already been discussed. The mounting theoretical problems he had encountered can be detected by a comparison between the unmistakeably unfinished character of the published volume of 1867 and the various plans and manuscript drafts which had preceded it.

The inclusion of ‘circulation’ would have required a discussion of the expansion of capitalist relations across the world, what Karl called ‘expanded reproduction’, and this process was supposed to be distinct from ‘primitive accumulation’ (the origins of capitalism). How, then, did ‘expanded reproduction’ ‘dissolve’ earlier modes of production, and how did it refashion pre-existing societies along capitalist lines? In particular, how did the subordination of agriculture to capital occur? That was to be the topic covered in what Karl called ‘the genesis of capitalist ground-rent’, the main theme of Capital, Volume II. Furthermore, just as England had provided the basis for the discussion of capitalist production, so, it was planned, Russia, particularly after the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, would provide the basis for the discussion of the genesis of ‘capitalist ground-rent’.111

But these plans were not realized. The 1867 volume of Capital did not include the intended analysis of circulation. Instead, the volume ended with ‘primitive accumulation’, a historical account of ‘the expropriation of the agricultural population from the land’ by means of enclosure and ‘bloody legislation’ in medieval and early-modern Britain.112 Therefore, the question arose: was this British story to be understood as part of an inevitable and universal global process in which communal ownership died out? Many readers of the first edition of Capital certainly assumed so. But Karl himself had begun to back away from this position. Instances in which peasant communal production was ‘dissolved’ in a purely economic process had proved extremely hard to find. Conversely, researches into the history of land-holding suggested that peasant communal ownership was far more resilient than had previously been supposed, and in some areas had survived until recent times. Peasant communal ownership, it seemed, did not simply ‘dissolve’ in the face of capitalist exchange relations; rather, as in Britain, it was destroyed by force or by destructive forms of taxation designed by the state.

If this were true, it suggested the need for a different approach to the question of the survival of the peasant commune in Russia, and the effect upon it of the emancipation of the serfs by the Russian government in 1861. It also suggested the need to examine the history of the peasant commune or village community elsewhere, especially the supposed universality of its existence as a primitive social form. For this reason Karl became interested in the works of Georg von Maurer in the year after the publication of the first volume of Capital. Maurer’s work was one of the most important contributions to a debate which had begun in Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century, spread to other countries in Northern Europe after 1815 and by the 1860s, through the work of Henry Maine, been extended to the village system in Asia.

The village community was a German idea, which in its nineteenth-century forms was associated with what was called the Teutonic Mark. It went back to the writings of the eighteenth-century conservative patriot Justus Möser, who in his famous history of Osnabrück argued that the agrarian system in his native Westphalia, a pattern of isolated farmsteads, was ‘still like that of the earliest times’, by which he meant the times of Caesar and Tacitus.113 In Möser’s account, that early period was ‘a “golden” age of free German farmers, associated with each other for purposes of self-government under an elected magistrate’, an arrangement which lasted until the time of Charlemagne.114Each separate homestead, Möser claimed, was privately owned, but the ‘common use of forest, pasture, moor, or mountain, where no one could fence off his own share, first united a few of these men in our part of the world. We call such common preserves Marks; and perhaps the earliest tribes who settled in isolated communities were members of a Mark-association (Markgenossen)’.115 The division of the countryside into Marken, it was claimed, was dictated by nature; the Mark was therefore the oldest form of association in Westphalia.

In the Restoration Germany of 1815, fresh from the final defeat of Napoléon and intent upon the extirpation of Jacobin ideas from the public sphere, the attractions of this patriotic conservative combination of liberty, democracy and antiquity were irresistible. The alleged customs of the Mark were soon incorporated into histories of law and extended outwards from Westphalia to the rest of Germany. Karl Friedrich Eichhorn, a legal historian badly wounded as a volunteer at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, took the lead. His foundation of the Zeitschrift für geschichtliche Rechtswissenschaft (Journal of the History of Jurisprudence), together with Karl Savigny and other leading representatives of the German Historical School of Law, was intended in part as a patriotic celebration of the expulsion and defeat of the French. In 1815, he declared that it was a ‘known and proven’ fact that ‘according to German ideas all law proceeded from the whole body of full citizens, by means of which they preserved their life, their honour and their property’.116

But the Mark could also be placed in a more liberal and cosmopolitan setting. Following on from his claim that the Indo-European family of languages contained affinities not only of words and grammatical forms, but of mythology and culture, Jacob Grimm moved on to the ancient German Mark. It was identified with what had once been a widespread type of European folk community: the original village unit, both patriarchal and democratic, in which land was held and worked in common, and the elements of the polity formed.117

It was not long before the ancient village community was discovered in other nations beyond Germany. In 1849, John Mitchell Kemble, the translator of Beowulf, who had studied with Jacob Grimm, introduced the Mark into English historiography. In his two-volume study The Saxons in England, Kemble considered it ‘the original basis up on which all Teutonic society rests’.118 It had been brought over to England at the time of the invasions of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

Prominent historians of the mid-Victorian period soon took up the idea. According to Bishop Stubbs, the Teutonic liberties of the Mark formed ‘the primeval polity of the common fatherland’, and he further elaborated this theme in 1866, when as Regius Professor in Oxford he delivered his inaugural lecture course on ‘Constitutional History from Tacitus to Henry II’.119 Edward Freeman, an enthusiast for the democratic traditions of ‘the Aryan race’, expressed the idea with characteristic extravagance. Commemorating the ancient German victory over the Romans at Teutoburg Wood, he proclaimed that Arminius, the German leader, was but ‘the first of a roll which goes on to Hampden and to Washington’.120 According to Freeman, signs of ancient Teutonic custom were visible everywhere, not least in ‘what is undoubtedly a trace of the Teutonic comitatus, the fagging of our public schools’.121 As in Germany, much of the attraction of this Teutonic liberties tradition, which, in the words of J. R. Green, stretched back from Westminster to the ‘tiny moots, where the men of the village met to order the village life and the village industry’, derived from its contrast with the absolutist ideas of Roman lawyers, or with the revolutionary abstractions of Jacobins and socialists.122

English historians were more interested in the evidence of ancient liberty and democratic government than in the form in which the land of the Mark had been owned or cultivated. But in this area there had been a growing identification of the Mark with communal ownership. Already in the later work of Eichhorn, private property in arable land, a prominent feature of Möser’s original conception, was restricted to a right of usufruct, which was regulated by the community.123 Möser’s emphasis upon individual units and private property in his account of the origins of land ownership had been challenged from a number of quarters in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1821, a Danish study by Olufsen criticized Möser’s picture on the basis of existing field divisions. In 1835, Georg Hanssen had argued that individual landownership had not existed among the German tribes. He elaborated his case on the basis of an 1831 study by J. Schwarz of the household communities (Gehöferschaften) of the Hunsrück district of Trier, claiming that these were survivals of the ancient communal system once existing among the German tribes.124

Hanssen’s approach was very close to that which had been employed in 1829 by August von Haxthausen, in On the Agrarian Constitution in the Principalities of Paderborn and Corvey.125 His study of this region’s common-fields (Gewannflur) system presented it as a relic of an agrarian community going back to the time of Charlemagne and ‘reaching back into mythical times’ with originally equal allocation of holdings between companions (Genossen) and periodic redivision of the land. Haxthausen was honoured for his work by the Prussian king, and went on to discover, or rather project the same basic system onto, the character of the Russian mir (peasant community). This, he argued, was the legacy of a pre-agricultural epoch whose roots stretched back beyond the settlement of land with common usufruct (Gemeindeweise) to the older, patriarchal family community with communal use of meadows.126

This change of perspective in turn helped to inspire the work of Georg von Maurer, formerly a key adviser in the setting up of the independent Greek kingdom with a member of the Bavarian Wittelsbach family as its first king. His most cited book was the Introduction to the History of the Constitution of the Mark, Farmstead, Village and Town, and of the Public Power, which appeared in 1854.127 In opposition to Möser, Maurer claimed that ‘the first cultivation of the land in Germany had not been carried out by individuals, but by whole families and tribes’. Originally nomadic, ‘somewhat like [tribes] in Africa still today’, Germanic tribes wandered to and fro, settling permanently only when they ceased to be attacked and continuing to retain elements of their tribal structure, as found in the peasant communities of the Dithmarsch in Schleswig-Holstein down to the present.128 Maurer also instanced ‘samples of ancient Teutonic agricultural customs and ancient forms of property in land’ found in ‘the more backward parts of Germany’.129 It was claimed by his followers that ‘the Mark, through a great part of Germany, has stamped itself plainly on land-law, on agricultural custom, and on the territorial distribution of landed property’.130

In the 1860s, the credibility of the Teutonic Mark as the universal starting point of a shared Indo-European culture was amplified still further by claims made on behalf of what was called the ‘comparative method’, an extension of the new nineteenth-century science of ‘comparative philology’. Deriving from the discovery that the Germanic languages were related to Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, comparative philology assumed that a genetic relationship could be established between them, leading to the possibility of reconstructing the original form from which such variants developed. This in turn would make it possible to situate the range of Indo-European societies within a developmental sequence. The boldest example of the application of this approach was to be found in the writings of Sir Henry Maine, notably Ancient Law in 1861. According to Maine, ‘we take a number of contemporary facts, ideas and customs, and we infer the past form of those facts, ideas and customs, not only from historical records of that past form, but from examples of it which have not yet died out of the world, and are still to be found in it’.131 To confirm his point, Maine cited Freeman’s field trip – ‘democratic fossil hunting’, as John Burrow has called it – to Switzerland in 1863–4.132 Freeman had discovered that Kemble’s Mark community, notably the solemn ‘Ding or court’ of the , or shire, at which ‘thrice in the year the markmen assembled unbidden’, was one of ‘the fragments of Teutonic society, organised on its primitive model … an archaic political institution which has survived to our day’ and was alive and well, and to be found in ‘the Forest Cantons of Switzerland’.133 Maine wished to emphasize that European writers were ‘obviously unaware of the way in which Eastern phenomena confirmed their account of the primitive Teutonic cultivating group, and may be used to extend it’. The causes which had transformed the Mark into the feudal manor in the West, had barely impinged upon ‘the Indian Village Community’, which therefore remained ‘a living, and not a dead, institution’.134

Maine shared none of the English historians’ nostalgic celebration of the Teutonic past. Ancient Law depicted the transition from ancient to modern society as a ‘movement of the progressive societies … a movement from Status to Contract’.135 Maine saw the village community as the inverse of modern individualism, a sombre warning about what the renewed threat of communism and the tyranny of custom would portend. The modern territorial state based on private property, written laws, individual freedom and economic innovation was contrasted with a static and custom-bound archaic community, based upon collective ownership and the ascriptions of kin.

The Teutonic Mark was just a step beyond the aboriginal condition of mankind, in which corporate groups ruled by despotic patriarchs had occupied the land. It was originally an assemblage of co-proprietors, of families connected with one another by ties of kinship, real or imagined. The historical existence of this community could be inferred from the character of the feudal manor that succeeded it. For the manor contained ‘characteristic and curiously persistent marks’, which could be traced ‘backwards to an earlier social form, a body of men democratically or rather aristocratically governed, in which the free tenants had as yet no lord’.136

Maine considered the displacement of the Mark community by the feudal manor to be a positive phenomenon. For modernity could only be attained by way of the social differentiation entailed in the breakup of the Mark. In this process, one cultivating family became dominant; common ownership of agricultural land was turned into feudal tenures through enclosure of the commons; free villagers became feudal villeins; the village assembly became the baronial court. As a result, the ascribed status bestowed by kin or blood relationships was replaced by feudal tenures recorded in contracts. The individual, whether as lord or tenant, was progressively freed from customary laws and archaic forms of collective ownership. It was this loosening of social ties which made possible the growth of individual freedom and economic innovation.

Just as the Historical School of Law had been concerned to combat rationalist proposals for legal codification in Germany in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, so Maine designed Ancient Law as a riposte to Benthamite schemes of legal rationalization in post-Mutiny India.137 Maine considered that Bentham’s idea of law as the command of the sovereign ignored the stubborn existence of ancient custom in the interior of India. He attacked the assumption that a perfect social order could be evolved from the simple consideration of the natural state. He associated this idea with Bentham and Rousseau. It was an idea of a ‘social order wholly irrespective of the actual condition of the world and wholly unlike it’. Maine proposed instead to apply ‘the Historical Method of inquiry’ in order to establish ‘the rudiments of the social state’.138

In this enquiry, Maine considered Maurer’s work to be of central importance. ‘For many years past’, he wrote in Village-Communities, ‘there has been sufficient evidence to warrant the assertion that the oldest discoverable forms of property in land were forms of collective property’. In the Western world the only ‘forms of collective property which had survived and were open to actual observation were believed to be found exclusively in countries peopled by the Sclavonic race’. It was not until Maurer published a series of works, Maine continued, ‘that the close correspondence between the early history of Teutonic property and the facts of proprietary enjoyment in the Germany of our own day was fully established’.139 Furthermore, Erwin Nasse had recorded similar findings ‘concerning the plain and abundant vestiges of collective Teutonic property which are to be traced in England’.140 By 1875, therefore, Maine felt confident enough to assert that ‘The collective ownership of the soil by groups of men either in fact united by blood-relationship, or believing or assuming that they are so united, is now entitled to take rank as an ascertained primitive phenomenon, once universally characterising those communities of mankind between whose civilisation and our own, there is any distinct connection or analogy’.141

Like Maine, Karl was impressed by the importance of Maurer’s work. On 14 March 1868, he wrote to Engels about studying Maurer’s writings. ‘Old Maurer’s books (from 1854 and 1856, etc.) are written with real German erudition.’ Maurer was praised for completely refuting ‘the idiotic Westphalian squirearchical opinion’, associated with Möser, that ‘the Germans settled each by himself, and only afterwards established villages, districts, etc.… It is interesting just now that the Russian manner of redistributing land at certain intervals (in Germany originally annually) should have persisted in some parts of Germany up to the eighteenth century and even the nineteenth.’ In this letter, Karl’s references to Maurer were still overshadowed by the settling of old scores. Unbeknown to Maurer, his studies simply offered a further proof of ‘the view I put forward’, that ‘the Asiatic or Indian property forms everywhere mark the beginning in Europe’. Similarly, in relation to Karl’s long-standing irritation with the claims of Herzen and Haxthausen about the peasant commune in Russia, Maurer’s work had vindicated Karl’s position.142‘For the Russians, there disappears the last trace OF ORIGINALITY even in THIS LINE.’143

Karl wrote to Engels again ten days later on 25 March, with further thoughts about Maurer, this time of a more revealing and far-reaching kind. The letter contained a new assessment of Maurer’s work: ‘His books are extremely significant. Not only the primitive age but also the entire later development … get an entirely new character … The history of mankind’, he goes on, ‘is like palaeontology. Owing to A CERTAIN JUDICIAL BLINDNESS, even the best minds fail to see, on principle, what lies in front of their noses. Later, when the time has come, we are surprised that there are traces everywhere of what we failed to see.’ After admitting that ‘we are all very much in the clutches of this JUDICIAL BLINDNESS’, he cited the example of the Hunsrück: ‘right in my own neighbourhood, on the Hunsrück, the old Germanic system survived until the last few years. I now remember my father talking about it to me from a lawyer’s point of view.’ Then, after blaming Grimm for mistranslating the relevant passages of Tacitus under the influence of Möser, Karl went on to claim that ‘such Germanic primitive villages, in the form described [by Tacitus], still exist here and there in Denmark.’ Scandinavia will become ‘as important for German jurisprudence and economics as for German mythology … Only by starting from there will we be able once again to decipher our past.’144

This letter was not a flash in the pan. Thirteen years later, in one of the drafts of his reply to Vera Zasulich on the future of the peasant commune in Russia, Karl spelled out its implications in further detail. The ancient commune, he speculated, ‘perished in the midst of incessant wars, foreign and internal; it probably died a violent death. When the Germanic tribes came to conquer Italy, Spain, Gaul, etc., the commune of the archaic type no longer existed.’ But, he continued, ‘its natural viability is demonstrated by two facts’. Firstly, there were ‘sporadic examples which survived all the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages and have been preserved into our own day’, and specifically Trier, ‘in my native country’. Secondly, Karl put forward his own version of comparative philology and ‘the comparative method’. For ‘more importantly’, this anterior social form ‘imprinted its own characteristics so effectively on the commune which replaced it – a commune in which the arable land has become private property, whereas forests, pastures, common lands, etc., still remain communal property – that Maurer, when analysing this commune of secondary formation, was able to reconstruct the archaic prototype’. Lastly, Karl, like all the other admirers of the Teutonic Mark, reiterated its connection with a tradition of liberty and democracy that stretched back to ancient times: ‘Thanks to the characteristic features’ borrowed from ‘the archaic prototype’, ‘the new commune introduced by the Germanic peoples in all the countries they invaded was the sole centre of popular liberty and life throughout the Middle Ages’.145

Unlike his attachment to communism or his ambition to merge state and civil society, Karl’s enthusiasm for Maurer and the primeval village community was part of a mainstream development which had occurred in German and Anglo-Saxon culture, reaching the peak of its appeal in the 1860s and 1870s. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, scholars, politicians and writers attached importance to questions about the historical existence and social character of the ancient village community for a variety of reasons. In Karl’s case, his major preoccupation in his last years was related to his attempt to discover another and less vulnerable starting point from which to defend his vision of history and human nature.

Karl’s letters of March 1868 can be regarded as a serious turning point. Why did he regard Maurer’s books as ‘extremely significant’? It is true that Maurer had endorsed the communism of the ancient German folk community, but mainly in the spirit of Grimm and the English constitutional historians. Maurer himself wrote that knowledge of the history of a people and its institutions was indispensable for those who led states: ‘For he who would guide a state, must know above all the ground upon which he will operate … not only the physical properties of the land, but also above all its spiritual properties, therefore its historical foundations.’ For what turning away from the past – breaking wholly with it – meant was revealed by ‘the abyss’ confronting ‘a great neighbouring state on the other side of Rhine’.146

As a would-be poet, Karl had once been touched by such Romanticism himself. Yet since 1838 he had moved to the anti-Romanticism of Hegel, and had accepted the satire of Heine’s Romantische Schule, and the anti-Romantic polemic of Ruge’s Hallische Jahrbücher. Karl’s writings from the early 1840s through to the publication of Capital in 1867 were resolutely modernist and anti-Romantic in tone. They were of a piece with his critique of political economy, and his identification of socialism with a post-capitalist future, which would be heralded by a revolt of the new industrial working class. But in the 1868 letter he modified his judgement: ‘The first reaction to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment bound up with it was naturally to regard everything as medieval, Romantic, and even people like Grimm are not free from this.’ But, he went on: ‘the second reaction to it is to look beyond the Middle Ages into the primitive age of every people – and this corresponds to the socialist tendency, though these learned men have no idea that they are connected with it. And they are then surprised to find what is newest in what is oldest, and even EGALITARIANS TO A DEGREE which would have made Proudhon shudder.’147 In a context in which previous assumptions about the displacement of communal or other traditional forms of agriculture did not work, arguments about the viability and longevity of the village community – not least those found in Maurer’s work – seemed attractive. Starting from Maurer, it was not difficult to see how Karl’s new-found enthusiasm for the discovery of ‘what is newest in what is oldest’ could find reinforcement in the political case for the support of the Russian mir: the communal ownership and periodic redivision of land in the Russian village community.

It was in this spirit – like Freeman’s rediscovery of the Mark in the Swiss forest cantons and Maine’s picture of the ‘Indian village community’, ‘a living, and not a dead, institution’ – that the mir provided yet another example of future regeneration by building upon the survivals from the archaic communal past. Haxthausen’s claims were similar. He had conceded that over 1,500 years, with the introduction of agriculture, of Christianity, of the European concept of monarchy, and modern civilization, Russia had acquired ‘a political organism’ nearly identical to ‘the other agricultural peoples of Europe’. But, he went on, ‘the fundamental principles of the original nomadic society are still manifest in the character, the customs and the entire history of the Great Russians’.148

Before the mid-1870s, Karl found it hard to accept anything of value in the work of Haxthausen. But when radically reformulated from a socialist perspective, without homilies to the czar and the Russian church, by Nicolai Chernyshevsky, Karl found the argument irresistible. For Chernyshevsky had argued in 1858 that private property was only an intermediate stage in the development of property relations, that the ultimate stage would entail the return of communal production, and therefore that in the interim everything should be done to ensure the survival of the existing peasant commune.

It would seem that Karl’s praise of Maurer and the beginnings of his interest in the Russian debate on the peasant commune developed around 1868. Karl first came to learn about Chernyshevsky in 1867 through N. A. Serno-Solovevich, one of his admirers based in Geneva. His reflections on Maurer were written in March 1868. He was first contacted by Nicolai Danielson, the leader of a group of Chernyshevsky enthusiasts in St Petersburg, and future translator of the Russian edition of Capital, in September of the same year.149

In Karl’s writings of the 1850s and 1860s, this form of communal property appeared inseparable from despotic rule. Nowhere was there any indication that the culture or politics of these regions contained – in however camouflaged a form – some germ of a different future. On the contrary, what stood out most sharply was the imprisonment of these forms in an irrational and despotic past. As Karl wrote of ‘the ancient Asiatic and other ancient modes of production’ in Capital, ‘Those ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent. But they are founded either on the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellow men in a primitive tribal community, or upon direct relations of subjection.’150 If in Asiatic and other pre-capitalist societies, communal ownership came coupled with despotism or ‘lordship and bondage’, it clearly had no place in a communist future.151

But after 1870 Karl discarded the assumption that communal property and despotic rule necessarily went hand in hand. The change was most obvious in his references to Russia. In 1881, Vera Zasulich from the Geneva group around Plekhanov requested Karl to make clear his position on the Russian village commune.152 After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, she asked, would the commune inevitably disappear as Russian capitalism developed? Or could it, before capitalist development became unstoppable, become ‘the direct starting point’ or ‘element of regeneration in Russian society’? In reply, Karl conceded that ‘isolation’, even if not ‘an immanent characteristic’, was a weakness of the commune that, ‘wherever it is found, has caused a more or less centralized despotism to arise on top of the communes’. Yet despite this he now argued that ‘it is an obstacle which could easily be eliminated’, that it would be ‘an easy matter to do away with … as soon as the government shackles have been cast off’, or even that ‘it would vanish amidst a general turmoil in Russian society’.153

Once again, this change in his evaluation of the village commune went back to the work of Nicolai Chernyshevsky, particularly an essay on the community ownership of land in Russia, and his review of Haxthausen. Chernyshevsky argued that Slavophil mysticism was a symptom of the nation’s backwardness. But he had then gone on to argue that this backwardness could now be an advantage. For ‘the development of certain social phenomena in backward nations, thanks to the influences of the advanced nation, skips an intermediary stage and jumps directly from a low stage to a higher stage’.154 If this was correct, Chernyshevsky believed, it would be possible for Russia to proceed straight from the village commune to socialism.

Karl accepted Chernyshevsky’s claim. In 1873, in the second German edition of Capital, he dropped the sneering reference to Herzen, and instead introduced a glowing tribute to Chernyshevsky, ‘the great Russian Scholar and critic’.155 Acceptance of this claim also meant abandoning the universal terms in which Karl had originally framed his argument in Capital. From the first edition in 1867, one sentence in particular stood out. It stated – and added an exclamation mark for further emphasis – that ‘the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future!’ In the 1870s, Karl stealthily backed away from this claim. In the second German edition of 1873, the exclamation mark was dropped, and in the French translation of 1875 the chapter on ‘The Secret of Primitive Accumulation’ was amended to imply that the story of the dispossession of the English peasantry from the land applied only to the path followed by Western Europe. This enabled Karl two years later to dissociate himself from the idea that Capital’s depiction of the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ necessarily applied to Russia.156

With this shift also came the endorsement of the politics of Populism. That is, Karl now agreed that following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, a socialist revolution must be made before capitalist development in the countryside destroyed the village commune. In one of the drafts of the letter to Vera Zasulich in 1881, Karl declared, ‘to save the Russian commune, a Russian revolution is needed’, and went on to argue that ‘if the revolution comes at the opportune moment, if it concentrates all its forces so as to allow the rural commune full scope, the latter will soon develop as an element of regeneration in Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist system’.157 At the same time, Karl strongly repudiated those of his social-democratic followers who believed that a socialist revolution would only be possible in the aftermath of capitalist development. In another of the drafts of the Zasulich letter, presumably referring to other members of Plekhanov’s group, Karl wrote, ‘The Russian “Marxists” of whom you speak are quite unknown to me. Russians I hold “diametrically opposed views”.158

Karl’s vision of the village community in the 1870s entailed more than a shift of position on Russia.159 It went together with other changes, both political and theoretical. Politically, the prospect of anti-capitalist revolution in the industrialized nations was becoming remote. This had become clear in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, the defeat of the Commune and the growth of moderate and constitutionally oriented labour movements in Western Europe and North America. Conversely, the future of czarist Russia looked increasingly unstable. This looked particularly to be true at the outset of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877, when, intoxicated by the prospect of Russian defeat and revolution, an excited Karl wrote to Sorge in September 1877: ‘this crisis is a new turning point for the history of Europe … This time the revolution will begin in the East, hitherto the impregnable bastion and reserve army of counter-revolution.’160 But, in this war, the Russians were victorious.

More generally, Karl had also begun to adopt a different attitude towards empire and the fate of the extra-European world. In 1853, Karl had confided to Engels that he was waging a ‘clandestine’ campaign against the editorial line of the New-York Daily Tribune, which he described as the ‘Sismondian-philanthropic-socialist anti-industrialism’ of ‘the protectionist, i.e. industrial bourgeoisie of America’. He had therefore hailed ‘England’s destruction of native industries’ in India as ‘revolutionary’.161 But in the late 1870s Karl no longer praised the breakdown of traditional and often communal social structures by European merchants and colonizers. The main difference between Russia and India or China was that ‘it is not the prey of a foreign conqueror, as the East Indies, and neither does it lead a life cut off from the modern world’.162 Karl now appeared to believe that, as in Russia, primitive communal structures left to themselves were resilient enough to survive in the modern world, and in favourable political conditions could even develop.

In India, Africa and China, countries had been prevented from doing so by European colonization. He agreed with much of the account of the impact of colonization upon communal forms of property provided by his friend Maxim Kovalevsky, particularly in the case of the French conquest of Algeria. Underlining Kovalevsky’s analysis, Karl noted that ‘to the extent that non-European, foreign law is “profitable” for them, the Europeans recognise it, as here they not only recognise the Muslim law – immediately! – but “misunderstand it” only to their profit, as here’.163 Similarly, in the case of the East Indies, it was not true, as Maine claimed, that the destruction of the communes was the result of ‘the spontaneous forces of economic laws … Everyone except Sir Henry Maine and others of his ilk, realises that the suppression of communal landownership out there was nothing but an act of English vandalism, pushing the native people not forwards but backwards.’164

Political disappointment was compounded by theoretical difficulty. Karl’s critique of political economy had resulted in an inconclusive account of capitalist crisis. Similarly, there was nothing in his theory to account for the different politics of different capitalist states.165 Ill-health was no doubt in part to blame. But that did not prevent the growth of other interests, notably his Russian researches and an increasing preoccupation with the early history of man.166 The character of these interests also suggested a distancing from his previous perspectives. References to bourgeois society, so expansive in the 1850s, became cursory and dismissive. The Russian rural commune could by-pass the capitalist mode of production, Karl argued, because it could appropriate its ‘positive acquisitions without experiencing all its frightful misfortunes’. But the ‘acquisitions’ mentioned were purely technological – the engineering industry, steam engines, railways, the ‘mechanism of exchange’.167 There was no mention of the changes in productivity and the division of labour which this technology presupposed. Capitalist production was ‘merely the most recent’ of a succession of economic revolutions and evolutions which had taken place since ‘the death of communal property’. Although it had resulted in ‘a wondrous development of the social productive forces’, ‘it has revealed to the entire world except those blinded by self interest, its purely transitory nature’.168

Conversely, capitalism’s communal ancestor was endowed with a ‘natural viability’. It had survived in certain places, like the area around Trier, and had ‘imprinted its own characteristics … on the commune which replaced it’. Therefore, as noted earlier (see here), Maurer, the historian of ancient Germany, when ‘analysing this commune of secondary formation, was able to reconstruct the archaic prototype’.169 ‘The vitality of primitive communities’, Karl claimed, ‘was incomparably greater than that of Semitic, Greek, Roman, etc. societies, and a fortiori that of modern capitalist societies.’170 Or, as he noted of the work of the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, both on the Grecian gens and on the character of the Iroquois, ‘unmistakeably … the savage peeps through’.171 Karl was inspired by Morgan’s depiction of the gens as that form of primitive community which preceded patriarchy, private property, class and the state. Morgan inferred the existence of the gens, both from his contemporary researches on the tribes of North America, especially the Iroquois, and from his classical study of Greece and Rome.172

Excited by the new world which prehistory had opened up, Karl now had a vision that encompassed not ‘merely’ bourgeois society, but the whole trajectory of ‘civilization’ since the downfall of the primitive community. Remarkably, Karl had come to agree with the French ‘utopian’ socialist Charles Fourier that ‘the epoch of civilization is characterised by monogamy and private property in land’ and that ‘the modern family contained within itself in miniature all the antagonisms which later spread through society and its state’.173 ‘Oldest of all’, he noted, primitive community contained ‘the existence of the horde with promiscuity; no family; here only mother-right could have played any role’.174

One of the most interesting features of Karl’s new focus upon the durability and ‘viability’ of the archaic village community was the way in which it invited the restatement of the conception of human nature so eloquently spelled out by him in 1843 and 1844 during his time in Paris. This conception had not, as many commentaries assume, been discarded as the unwanted juvenilia of ‘the young Marx’. But it had been rendered virtually invisible during the twenty years between his Paris writings of 1844 and the publication of Volume I of Capital in 1867, as Karl focused upon the estranged character of human interaction under the domination of private property and exchange relations. If it were true, as Karl had claimed in 1844, that man’s social nature could only be expressed in estranged form once human relations were inverted by the advent of private property, then – conversely – archaic communal forms, in the era preceding private property, expressed the true character of human nature in its spontaneous and pre-alienated form.175 This is why the late writings and Karl’s notebooks contain a larger number of relatively straightforward pronouncements upon human nature and human attributes.

It also explains why Karl became so incensed by Sir Henry Maine, ‘the donkey’ or ‘block-headed John Bull’, now nominated as the supreme representative of ‘civilization’, and English civilization in particular. Archaic communist society was on no account to be equated with primitive patriarchal despotism. Maine was accused of being unaware of descent through the female line in ‘gentile society’ and of transporting ‘his “patriarchal” Roman family into the very beginning of things’.176 Karl had become acquainted with Bachofen’s Mother-Right of 1861, reinforced by McLennan’s Primitive Marriage of 1865 and Morgan’s Ancient Society of 1877.177 Maine could only understand the primitive as ‘the despotism of groups over the members composing them’.178 He did not realize, as Karl did, that primitive community had preceded the subjection of women, and had embodied ‘economic and social equality’. Kingship and private property in land – the political realm as such – both arose from the gradual dissolution of ‘tribal property and the tribal collective body’.179 Maine did not understand that the state was ‘an excrescence of society’. Just as it had only appeared at a certain stage of social development, so it would disappear again, once it reached another stage yet to be attained: ‘First, the tearing away of individuality from the originally not despotic chains (as the blockhead Maine understands it), but satisfying and comforting bonds of the group, of the primitive commune – then the one-sided spreading of individuality.’180 ‘Civilization’, however, was now approaching its term. Capitalism was now in a ‘crisis’, which will only end in its ‘elimination’ and ‘in the return of modern societies to the “archaic” type of communal property’.181

Karl’s pressing, if unavowed, political expectations no longer wholly hinged upon the point at which the urban and industrial working classes of Western Europe might force a revolution against bourgeois society; neither the French, the British nor the Germans were showing any desire to embark upon an aggressive course of class struggle.182 Karl’s attention was directed rather to the point at which primitive communal systems of cultivation might be displaced by a transition to private property. In the reply Karl finally sent to Vera Zasulich about the future of the peasant commune in Russia, he stressed that ‘the basis of the whole development’, ‘the expropriation of the agricultural producer’, had nowhere been ‘accomplished in a radical fashion … except in England’ and that ‘the “historical inevitability” of this process is expressly limited to the countries of Western Europe.’ In Western Europe ‘private property, based on personal labour’ was being supplanted by ‘wage labour’: in other words, one form of private property was being replaced by another. But, Karl emphasized, ‘In the case of the Russian peasants, their communal property would, on the contrary, have to be transformed into private property.’183


Karl’s last three years were darkened not only by his own incurable bronchitis, but also by the death of his wife and of his eldest daughter, Jenny Longuet. It was a period entirely dominated by anxieties about health, both his own and that of various members of the family. From 1879, it became clear that Mrs Marx was suffering from cancer of the liver. Karl took her to see Dr Gumpert in Manchester, but nothing much could be done, and in June 1881 it became clear that she was dying. She was occasionally able to manage a visit to the theatre, and in July Karl took her to Eastbourne, where she spent three weeks perambulating the front in a wheelchair. Life had also become lonelier without the presence of grandchildren, once the Longuet family had returned to Argenteuil in France in February 1881. At the same time, Eleanor was assailed by acute depression, while Jenny Longuet had to suffer prolonged bouts of asthma.

The autumn and winter of that year were especially cruel. Karl’s bronchitis was so serious that he was unable to leave his bed, even to see his wife in the adjoining room. Eleanor together with Lenchen tended to both, but Jenny’s pain became more and more acute. She spent the last few days of her life helped by morphine, and died in her sleep on 2 December 1881. Karl was devastated by her loss but too ill to attend the funeral. As Engels observed, ‘Moor is dead too’ (Karl’s nickname within the family).

In 1882, there was a slight improvement in Karl’s health. He was able briefly to attend to political matters and agreed to a short preface to the Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto co-authored with Engels in early 1882. The preface contained an ambivalent formulation which concealed the extent of their differences on the Russian peasant commune: ‘If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.’184

After this, he and Eleanor went to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. But the stay brought little relief. Karl’s cough continued unabated, and Eleanor remained on the verge of a breakdown, connected with the ending of her relationship with Lissagaray, but also despair about her lack of success on the stage. Her friend Dolly Maitland came to help, but this irritated Karl, who could not understand what his daughter’s problem was and why she should seek help from a friend. Back in London with neither of his other daughters at that moment able to accommodate him, Karl was persuaded to stay for ten weeks in Algiers. But this bid to escape the European winter was a failure. Algiers was wet and cold: ‘I have been frozen to the marrow … landed at Algiers on 20 February … February cold, when not also damp. I struck the 3 coldest days of the said last month … no sleep, no appetite, a bad cough.’185

From Algiers, Karl travelled to Monte Carlo, but still ailing with bronchitis and pleurisy. In June, he went to stay for three months with Jenny at Argenteuil. Although it was enjoyable to see the grandchildren, it was not a restful place. Jenny was expecting a baby, and her husband was bad-tempered and unwilling to help. In September, Karl prevailed upon Laura to accompany him to Vevey in Switzerland. There he encouraged her to undertake the English translation of Capital and promised her the archives of the International, so that she could write its history. In October, Karl returned to his London home, where not only Lenchen and Eleanor, but also Jenny Longuet’s son, Johnny, were at hand. Karl once more set off for Ventnor, this time on his own.

Jenny herself was unwell. From April 1882 she developed cancer of the bladder. With four children, a resentful and uncooperative husband, and a mother-in-law who blamed her for the family debts, Jenny’s decline was rapid. When the Lafargues went to see her in early January 1883, they found her ‘sunk in torpor broken by nightmares and fantastic dreams’.186 She became delirious and died on 11 January 1883 aged thirty-eight.

For Karl, whose thoughts over the past year had been haunted by memories of his wife, the death of ‘the daughter he loved most’ was an insupportable blow.187 With chronic bronchitis and confined to his room by frost, snow and a bleak north-east wind, he was not up to reading more than the occasional light novel by Paul de Kock. He was looked after with customary loving care by Lenchen, but his health worsened. Karl developed an ulcer on the lung and on 14 March 1883 died of a haemorrhage.