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

Chapter 7. The Approach of Revolution: The Problem about Germany


German socialism was born in exile. Its access to material or institutional support was minimal. The group around Karl survived through to the revolutions of 1848 thanks to a new vision, a sense of possibility, which held it together. Never in the past had German radicals, particularly those forced into exile, been able to sustain their conviction, in the face of what seemed to be the obdurate religious, military and royal reality of Germany. But in the coming crisis, it could now be foreseen, Germany could follow England and France on the path to social emancipation.

England had experienced its revolutions in 1640, and in 1688; France in 1789 and again in 1830. But no such dramatic events had taken place in Germany since the Reformation and the Peasants’ War of the sixteenth century. But Karl and other German radicals of the 1840s wondered whether drastic changes could now engulf the states of the German Confederation. German radicals hoped that they might during the whole period of what came to be called the Vormärz (1815–48).1 With Germany’s contribution of new ways of thinking for a modern world, surely this would now be matched by a comparable transformation of its political institutions. The great chance that came with the revolutions of 1830 passed Germany by. However lofty and sublime the contribution of German thought to modernity might have been, any hope of real political transformation faltered and stumbled whenever forced to confront the reality of loyal and God-fearing, phlegmatic and provincial people who were unwilling to act out dramas of revolution.

There had of course been popular mobilization – if not popular revolt – in 1813, but unhappily it was led by the king of Prussia himself against the French. For this reason, dreams about universal emancipation were repeatedly disturbed by the need to dwell upon the persistent reality of a parochial people. Radicals increasingly assumed that theirs was a nation of ‘philistines’.2

In the era of Kant, during the French Revolution of 1789, there had been no pressing need to consider the question. Kant’s endorsement of the French attempt to construct a constitution based upon Reason was widely shared by educated Germans, but few assumed that a comparable upheaval would be required in Germany.3 Furthermore, as the Revolution degenerated into terror and war, the poet Schiller voiced the predominant reaction. For a moment, he wrote in 1795, there seemed to have been ‘a physical possibility of setting law upon the throne, of honouring man at last as an end in himself, and making true freedom the basis of political association’. But it was a ‘vain hope’; the outcome was either ‘a return to the savage state’ or ‘to complete lethargy’.4

This distancing from the course of events in France was reinforced by the German experience of the French occupation of the Rhineland after 1792; opposed – if not actively resisted – by all but a minority of Jacobin enthusiasts in the short-lived republic of Mainz. Subsequent reactions to Napoleonic rule were more ambivalent. Although, in retrospect, the abolition of feudalism and the reform of law were highly valued, the authoritarian style of Bonapartist government offset support for such measures.5 Some, like Karl’s father and uncle, worked with the regime, others, like Hegel’s brother, became officers in the Grande Armée, or, like Jenny’s father, briefly served as state officials in the Napoleonic state of Westphalia. But many of the younger members of the intelligentsia abandoned the political dreams of the 1790s. In these circumstances, few dissented from Madame de Staël’s 1807 portrayal of Germany as a land of poets and thinkers. She cited ‘one of the most distinguished of their writers’, Jean Paul Richter, ‘L’empire de la mer c’était aux Anglais, celui de la terre aux Français, et celui de l’air aux Allemands’ – ‘The empire of the sea was for the English, that of the land for the French and the empire of the air for the Germans.’6

After 1815, the progressive belief in an association between the ‘German’ and the ‘universal’ was most powerfully articulated by Hegel. It was a discourse that made sense so long as Prussia agreed to follow the emancipatory programme started in the ‘Reform Era’. But by the 1820s, Hegel’s approach had already begun to come under strain. The reforms once thought to be imminent – like the promise to summon a representative assembly – had not been realized. Instead, the government had established a series of provincial Diets, summoned along the lines of the traditional estates and denied any power over taxation. Similarly, the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 had severely curtailed freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Finally, the 1830 revolutions, which delivered liberal constitutions in France and Belgium and brought to an end the ‘Protestant Constitution’ in Britain, had only increased the defensiveness of political authorities in Prussia and other German states. Alarmed by a mass democratic gathering at Hambach in the Palatinate in 1832, the German Confederation, prompted by the Austrian chancellor, Metternich, imposed increased censorship and political repression.7

The difficulty of attempting to restate a politically progressive future for Germany in the light of these developments was apparent in the case of Heinrich Heine. Together with other radical writers, he was forced into exile in Paris in the aftermath of the 1830 revolutions. In his History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany of 1834 Heine persisted in the attempt to develop Hegel’s ‘remarkable parallelism’ between German Philosophy and the French Revolution. Thus, Kant was aligned with Robespierre, Fichte with Napoléon, Schelling with Restoration France, and Hegel with the 1830 Revolution. But by this time Heine was working under the spell of the Saint-Simonians in Paris, and so he identified Germany’s contribution to human emancipation not as spirituality – or Innerlichkeit – but as ‘sensualism’ or, in philosophical terms, pantheism. According to Heine’s narrative, Luther was identified with the ‘sensualism’ of everyday life. Luther’s legacy bore fruit in the pantheism of Spinoza, which in turn was restated in the philosophy of the young Schelling. Here, however, the narrative broke down. Pantheism, according to Heine’s argument, had completed its revolution in philosophy and was now ready to spill out into politics and everyday life. For this reason, Germany was on the eve of its own 1789, but one in which ‘demonic forces’ would be unleashed, and ‘a play’ would be enacted ‘which will make the French Revolution look like a harmless idyll’. Nevertheless, the uncomfortable truth had to be faced, that Germany had missed the 1830 revolutions, and that in both Schelling and Goethe pantheism produced forms of conservatism. The tract thereupon dipped despondently with Heine’s admission of ‘a depressingly paralysing effect on my feelings’ made by this ‘pantheist apostasy’.8

As has already been seen, a comparable impasse threatened in the aftermath of the last major attempt to sketch out in Hegelian terms a radically progressive path for Germany in the Vormärz period: that outlined by Karl in the Rheinische Zeitung and by Arnold Ruge in the Deutsche Jahrbücher in 1842. The Young Hegelian project of bringing about reform by raising to consciousness the real desires of the people failed. In 1843, the Prussian government closed down the Rheinische Zeitung and the rest of the opposition press without significant resistance from the people.

How could there continue to be faith in the democratic or republican capacities of a people so timid and parochial? The situation in 1843 only reiterated what had been said about the timidity of the German people in the previous decade. At the time of the 1830 revolutions, Ludwig Börne – in Parisian exile – had mocked Hegel’s celebration of the Reformation and German Innerlichkeit. Perhaps precisely that Protestant spirituality had produced ‘a people that despite its spiritual power and spiritual freedom, does not know how to free itself from a censor that destroys this power and this freedom’.9 Börne added that the passivity of Shakespeare’s Hamlet could be attributed to the time he spent studying German philosophy at the University of Wittenberg. Later in the decade, others began to make analogous attacks upon ‘the Protestant principle’ for its association with individualism and the specifically German preoccupation with privacy, individual security and a parochial relationship with the outside world. This was a condition that radicals contemptuously called ‘Spiessbürgerlichkeit’ (petit bourgeois sentimentality).

Yet hope reappeared in 1844, the year in which German socialism was born. After the suppression of the press in 1843, constitutionalism – faith in the possibility of reforming the state – sharply declined. Karl’s essay ‘On the Jewish Question’ and his introduction to the ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher were influential statements of scepticism about political reform. Others were of equal importance, notably Feuerbach’s ‘Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy’, and Moses Hess’s essay on the ‘Philosophy of the Act’. Feuerbach’s essay shifted the focus of concern from the ‘progress of spirit’ to the condition of the ‘human’. Hess’s essay was particularly striking since it attacked not only the radical constitutionalism of Bruno Bauer, but also the conservative reformism of Lorenz von Stein, who argued that socialism could resolve the social problem within the existing state. Socialism, Hess argued, was not simply concerned with the material needs of the proletariat; it was about the transformation of society as a whole. Furthermore, in his essay ‘on the Essence of Money’, Hess pushed forward from Feuerbach’s conception of abstraction or alienation as a problem afflicting individuals towards a notion of alienation as a social problem, as powerfully present in economic relations as in religious belief.

Radicals did not initially expect to witness the emergence of socialism in Germany in the immediate future. There was alarm among conservatives as a result of the report by the Zurich magistrate Johann Bluntschli detailing the ‘communist’ activities of Wilhelm Weitling and of radicalized German-speaking artisans in Switzerland. But Stein had argued that the advent of communism in Germany was still distant, while Karl’s essay in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher hailed the coming role of the proletariat and implied that change would come from without. His last sentence read, ‘The French cock will crow at dawn.’

This is why the Silesian weavers’ rising in June 1844 was greeted with such excitement. The advent of proletarian revolt in a poor and remote part of Prussia showed that Germany had become part of the political mainstream of Europe. Unlike literary socialism, the ‘rising’ of the weavers – not least thanks to its overblown reporting – was an event large enough to enter popular consciousness, and even national mythology, inspiring poems, songs and pictures.10

The events in Silesia also prompted the crown to take action. In the autumn of 1844, the government founded the Association for the Welfare of the Working Classes, an organization which allowed the formation of local workers’ associations (Arbeitervereine). Although the government thought of these associations as charitable institutions, definitions remained vague, thus allowing liberals, radicals and social reformers to attempt to shape them. Some, for example, followed the practices of migrant artisan clubs in Switzerland and provided communal dining facilities, thus leading to their superficial identification with ‘communism’.11 But whatever the precise character of particular associations, concern about socialism and the social question now acquired a visible and institutional presence.

The reaction to the Silesian events also generated the publication of a whole range of radical and socialist journals, dealing with social conditions and the position of the proletariat. A cluster of journals – including the Deutsches Bürgerbuch, the Rheinische Jahrbücher, the Westphälische Dampfboot and the Gesellschaftsspiegel – all appeared around the end of 1844 and beginning of 1845. The most important of these journals, continuing a tradition of specifically Rhineland radicalism, was the Trier’sche Zeitung, which predated this upsurge of socialist literature. After the closure of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1843, it became the foremost opposition journal in Germany. It employed socialist authors and devoted increasing space to the discussion of social issues. In particular it had taken on Karl Grün, a gifted author and journalist, soon to be seen as Karl’s main rival in the formulation of a socialism appropriate to Vormärz Germany.

Like Karl, Grün had been a student in Bonn and Berlin. Towards the end of the 1830s he had fled to France to avoid military service. His radicalism derived from an admiration for the writings of Young Germany rather than for the Young Hegelians. After returning to Germany, he worked for a newspaper in Baden, and then moved to the Rhineland, where he was converted to socialism by Moses Hess. In March 1844, he himself attributed his socialism to a reading of Hess’s ‘Philosophy of the Act’ and two essays of Karl’s, ‘On the Jewish Question’ and the introduction to his ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’.12

Like Hess and Engels in 1845, Grün played an active part in the campaign to develop the workers’ associations in a socialist direction. In contrast to government paternalism, Grün believed that these societies could serve as starting points for the transformation of society and, like others inspired by Feuerbach and Hess, championed an anti-state, anti-constitutionalist approach. Only if politics were ‘dissolved into socialism’ could man ever hope to live in harmony with his ‘species-being’. To reach such a point, private property would have to be abolished, labour reorganized communally, education and culture transformed. At the end of 1844, Grün was heartened by the fact that ‘the question of socialism is starting to infiltrate current affairs in Germany too’. Newspapers were ‘suddenly voicing those loaded terms: abolition of the proletariat, organisation of labour, the establishment of true social relations [Vergesellschaftung]’.13

Grün planned to set up a monthly journal, which would make socialism more widely known among the workers, but its publication was prevented by the censorship authorities, and in the autumn of 1844, he was once more forced into exile in Paris. There he published The Social Movement in France and Belgium, another attack on Stein’s constitutionalist approach to socialism. While the destiny of France was political revolution, in Germany in 1845 he shared Engels’ belief that the shaping power of philosophy itself could transform the country without the need for revolution. Like the Owenites in Britain, Grün combined his socialism with an interest in education and a concern about the emancipation of women.

In 1845, there was little visible disagreement among leading German socialists. The definition of socialism, and certainly the road to socialism, remained relatively vague. Socialism as a doctrine was as much cultural as economic, a concern with humanity rather than the project of any particular class. In the first instance, it was hoped to attract the middle class, as Engels and Hess attempted in their speeches in Barmen and Elberfeld; thereafter, it was believed, the working classes would follow.

But disagreements soon became visible. The group around Karl focused increasingly upon his critique of political economy, and this unavoidably focused attention on the labour question. For this reason, in 1845 Moses Hess, who had originally drawn Grün towards socialism, began to criticize him in 1845 for his lack of interest in political economy or the proletariat. He attempted to interest him in Karl’s work, but Grün by now was unreceptive. What did engage him, when he reached Paris, were his encounters with Proudhon, which began late in 1844.

For Karl, Grün’s relation with Proudhon posed a serious threat to his overarching project ever since he had first arrived in Paris at the end of 1843 – the building of a Franco-German political and philosophical alliance. Proudhon was crucial to the plan for he was the French proletarian who had attacked private property. In The Holy Family Karl had considered it imperative to rescue Proudhon from the interpretation of the Bauer brothers, in which he was presented as a mystic and as a ‘moralist’ believing in justice. Karl in contrast had praised him as ‘a man of the mass’, ‘a plebeian and a proletarian’.14 Proudhon was to be congratulated for making ‘the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation of the basis of political economy, private property’. He was not beyond criticism. His advocacy of equal wages was little more than a proposal for the better payment of the slave. But unlike others Proudhon had taken seriously ‘the human semblance of economic relations’ and sharply opposed it to ‘their inhuman reality’. He had done ‘all that criticism of political economy from the standpoint of political economy can do’. He had produced ‘the scientific manifesto of the French proletariat’.15 For Proudhon’s acquaintance with German philosophy now to be mediated by Karl Grün was a development which Karl found intolerable.


In February 1846, Karl, Engels and a Belgian friend, Philippe Gigot, set up a Communist Correspondence Committee in Brussels. The aim was to organize contacts with German socialists and communists ‘on scientific questions’, to ‘supervise’ popular writing and socialist propaganda in Germany, and to keep German, French and English socialists in contact with each other. Equally important from the start, however, whether avowed or not, was the ambition to eliminate rival visions of socialism.

In the case of Grün, Karl’s hostility was clear from the beginning of 1846. On 18 January, he wrote to Grün’s newspaper, the Trier’sche Zeitung, stating, ‘I have never written a single line for this paper, whose bourgeois philanthropic, by no means communist tendencies are entirely alien to me.’16 Once the Correspondence Committee was established, Karl also wrote to Proudhon on the Committee’s behalf to invite him to join. ‘So far as France is concerned, we all of us believe that we could find no better correspondent than yourself.’ But Karl could not refrain from adding, ‘I must now denounce to you Mr Grün of Paris. The man is nothing more than a literary swindler, a species of charlatan, who seeks to traffic in modern ideas.’ Not only was this man writing ‘gibberish’, but he was ‘dangerous’. ‘Beware of this parasite.’17

There was also the need to deal with the radical artisan communist Wilhelm Weitling, who passed through Brussels and met the Correspondence Committee on 30 March 1846. Weitling was the best-known representative of the type of communism that had developed within secret societies of migrant German artisans in Paris, London, Switzerland and elsewhere since the revolutions of 1830. He had been the most important figure in the early years of the League of the Just, founded in Paris in 1836. The League’s foundation had coincided with the impact of Words of a Believer by the dissident Catholic priest Félicité de Lamennais. During the years that followed, Christian radicalism had been at its height. According to Lamennais, 1789 had heralded the end of poverty, the advent of freedom and equality, and the imminent advent of the earthly paradise promised by Christ. Lamennais’s vision was one of moral renewal, but in the writings of his German followers this was transformed into an aggressive argument for physical force and for ‘communism’ as the return to a Christian community of goods. The newly founded League had discussed these questions in 1837 and commissioned Weitling to report upon its practicability. His report of 1839, Mankind As It is and As It Ought to Be, was adopted as the League’s official programme; it envisioned a social order premised upon equality, the universal duty to work and a centralized economy. Weitling thus became the uncontested leader of the League until challenged in 1843 by dissidents from Switzerland, inspired by the radical nationalism of Mazzini.

From that point on, Weitling’s career appears to have foundered. In answer to criticism, he first attempted to provide a Christian foundation for his views by arguing that ‘communism’ and ‘communion’ stemmed from the same etymological root. When this argument was refuted, he attempted to provide a purely secular theory of communism, published as Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom in 1842. Karl praised this work enthusiastically in 1844 as ‘this vehement and brilliant literary debut of the German workers’.18 But the League was less impressed, and in response Weitling reverted once more to his Christian argument in The Gospel of a Poor Sinner of 1843. His imprisonment in Switzerland interrupted the book’s publication: at his release in September 1844 the League in London gave him a hero’s welcome but the book itself never made much of an impact.

Weitling still retained followers in Switzerland, but in London and Paris the interests of many of the League members had moved on. In Paris under the leadership of Dr Hermann Ewerbeck, the League inclined to Cabet, and then in 1844–5 to the writings of Grün. In London, led by Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll, debates were held, in which the communist settlements of Cabet were rejected. Weitling’s revised theory was also debated on a number of occasions, but was finally rejected in January 1846. In London there had been growing support for the pacific and rationalist approach of the Owenites. Weitling’s polity was criticized for being ‘too military’. Similarly, on the question of religion, not only was Christian-based communism now rejected, but there was growing support for an Owenite atheism or for the communist humanism of Moses Hess, in which God was ‘the human species or mankind united in love’.19

By early 1846, therefore, Weitling’s views had been rejected for the most part, both in London and in Paris. It was clear also that among the ‘Gelehrte’ (the Brussels groups, seen by many of the artisans as a presumptuous educated clique) indulgence of Weitling’s proletarian manners had worn thin. On 24 March 1846, Jenny wrote to Karl, ‘just as he, coming from the artisan class, is perforce incapable of anything more elevated than to herald drinking bouts in popular poetry, so too is he capable of nothing more elevated than ill-fated undertakings which are obviously foolhardy and fail’.20

There was real pathos in the encounter between Weitling and the Brussels Correspondence Committee in March 1846. Weitling did not look ‘an embittered worker, oppressed by the burden of work’. He was ‘a handsome, fair, young man in a somewhat foppishly cut coat, with a foppishly trimmed beard. He looked more like a commercial traveller.’21 Although he had been invited to join the Correspondence Committee, his reception by Karl and the others was bad-tempered and unfriendly. The encounter was memorably described by the Russian traveller Pavel Annenkov, whom Karl had invited to attend.

Karl asked Weitling, ‘with what fundamental principles do you justify your revolutionary and social activity?’ Weitling

began to explain that his aim was not to create new economic theories but to make use of those that were best able, as experience in France had shown, to open the workers’ eyes to the horror of their situation and all the injustices that had, with regard to them, become the bywords of governments and societies, to teach them not to put trust any longer in promises on the part of the latter and to rely only on themselves, organizing into democratic and communist communes … He had a far different audience now than the one that usually crowded around his work bench or read his newspapers and printed pamphlets on contemporary economic practices, and in consequence, he had lost the facility of both his thought and his tongue.

Karl ‘angrily interrupted’ that the ‘stimulation of fantastic hopes’ led only to the ultimate ruin, and not the salvation ‘of the oppressed’. This might do for Annenkov’s country, Russia, where ‘associations of nonsensical prophets and nonsensical followers are the only things that can be put together’, but not ‘in a civilized country like Germany’. Despite these attacks, Weitling went on with ‘the recollection of the hundreds of letters and expressions of gratitude he had received from every corner of the fatherland’. He claimed that

his modest, preparatory work was, perhaps, more important for the general cause than criticism and closet analyses of doctrines in seclusion from the suffering world and the miseries of the people. On hearing these last words, Marx, at the height of fury, slammed his fist down on the table so hard that the lamp on the table reverberated and tottered, and jumping up from his place, said at the same time: ‘Ignorance has never yet helped anybody’ … The meeting had ended. While Marx paced the room back and forth in extreme anger and irritation, I hastily bid him and his companions good-bye …22

Following this confrontation, Karl insisted that there ought to be a ‘sifting’ of the Party.23 What this meant became clear a few weeks later, on 11 May 1846, when the Correspondence Committee issued a ‘Circular’ directed against one of Weitling’s allies, Hermann Kriege. Kriege, who was in New York and working as editor of Der Volks-Tribun, was accused of preaching ‘fantastic emotionalism’ under the name of communism and was therefore ‘compromising in the highest degree to the Communist Party, both in Europe and America’.24

It is hard, however, to believe that something else wasn’t also going on in this otherwise grotesquely self-important missive. In 1845, Kriege had been one of the companions of Engels and Hess, when they were preaching communism in Barmen and Elberfeld. Subsequently, he had defended Weitling’s use of religion: ‘he does not want to let go of the word ‘God’ as the expression of an emotive effect, and the use of Christ as a prophet of communism. In other respects, he is an out and out revolutionary.’ He also raised queries about the extent of radicalism among English and French workers: ‘The only country, where I now see an important movement is North America.’ His words were also those of a rejected lover:

I can tell you, they were the concluding words of your essay on The Philosophy of Right, which took me captive in love towards you. Not the art of rhetoric, not the sharp dialectic, not the strong life blood, which flows through these paragraphs, which connected me with you, it entered my whole being, and for a long time I only bore your children … I would have gone with you wherever you wished. I came to Brussels and I found you as I knew you, but didn’t think that you didn’t know me and my love for you, hence my stupidities, which later became so boring in some letters.25

By the spring of 1846, Weitling and his supporters could be marginalized without much risk. In June 1845, Ewerbeck had reported Weitling’s difficulties in carrying his argument in London, while in 1846 the Chartist leader, Julian Harney, wrote to Engels that although Weitling might have friends in the London Society, it was certainly not the majority. ‘S. [Schapper] is the man who leads, and properly so.’26 This was important, because insofar as Karl and his Brussels group were ever to gain leadership within the League, it was due to the support extended to them by Karl Schapper and the London members.

The threat represented by Karl Grün was altogether more serious than that from Weitling. Proudhon responded to the letter from Karl and the Correspondence Committee with a polite but firm refusal to join. He also expressed a reasoned disagreement with their project: he opposed the group’s becoming ‘the apostles of a new religion, even if it were a religion of logic, or a religion of reason … Don’t create a new theology like your countryman, Luther.’ In order to turn political economy in the direction of ‘community’, the burning of property on a gentle flame was called for rather than endowing it with a new strength by resorting to a ‘St Bartholomew’s Eve of the property owners’. This seemed to Proudhon also to be ‘the disposition of the working class in France’. Just as Karl had earlier failed to understand French attitudes to religion when he had first approached French socialists with Arnold Ruge, so now he failed to understand their distaste for another revolution and a Jacobin-style state. Revolutionary action was not the way to accomplish social reform. As for Karl’s attack on Karl Grün, whom he accused of ‘selling socialist ideas’, Proudhon replied that Grün had every right to do so, since he was living in exile with a wife and two children to support. ‘What else do you want him to make a profit from, other than modern ideas? … I owe my knowledge of your writings’, he concluded, ‘and of those of Engels and Feuerbach to Grün and Ewerbeck.’27

Others also hastened to register their disagreement with the intolerant and imperious tone of the missives of the Correspondence Committee. The Committee in London asked, ‘aren’t you being too harsh against Kriege? … Kriege is still young and can still learn’. Similarly, Karl’s Westphalian friend Joseph Weydemeyer reported that there was ‘widespread regret that you have again got involved in such polemics’.28 Hermann Ewerbeck, one of the leaders of the League in Paris and for a time a close collaborator with Grün, who had hailed Karl as a ‘nineteenth-century Aristotle’, could not understand why he should wish to attack Grün. Grün had done good work among cabinetmakers in Paris and had taken workers twenty times on tours of the Louvre.29 As well as acting as the foreign correspondent of the Trier’sche Zeitung, he gave weekly lectures on art to Parisian artisans.

Most upsetting for Karl was the fact that Proudhon was now engaged in writing his own critique of political economy with the active assistance of Grün. Proudhon had been fascinated by what Grün had said about Feuerbach and intended to integrate it into his economic criticism, while Grün in turn celebrated Proudhon as ‘the French Feuerbach’. Grün had been entrusted with the translation of Proudhon’s System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty and announced its forthcoming publication in Germany as early as January 1846.30 According to Ewerbeck, ‘Grün boasts that he and Dr Mendelssohn will transplant the doctrine of Proudhon into Germany.’31Proudhon’s book appeared in France in October 1846, while Grün’s German translation, together with a lengthy introduction, was due to appear in May 1847.

Proudhon’s criticism of political economy was based upon the claim that it reinforced inequality. He attacked the entry of the machine into the workshop. ‘The machine or the workshop, having degraded the worker by setting above him a master, completes the process of cheapening him by ensuring that he sink from the ranks of the artisan to that of the manual labourer.’ After reflecting on the generality of this phenomenon, he also, like Karl, saw an analogy between religion and the economy: ‘With the machine and the workshop, divine right, that’s to say, the principle of authority, makes its entry into political economy.’ ‘Capital, mastery, privilege, monopoly, partnership, credit, property’ were ‘in economic language’ what were otherwise called ‘power, authority, sovereignty, written law, revelation, religion, finally God, the cause and principle of all our poverty and all our crimes, which the more we seek to define it, the more it escapes us’.32

Proudhon’s treatise attacked political economy as a modern form of competition, which resulted in a new form of poverty. The means employed by labour to create wealth entailed an inherent antagonism which produced poverty. Political economy was ‘the affirmation and organisation of poverty’. Political economy was ‘the false organisation of labour’, which created ‘pauperism’.33 Grün went on to claim that Proudhon’s book had finally achieved the unification of French socialism and German philosophy, that it marked a step forward in Lessing’s notion of The Education of the Human Race.34 Socialism was not simply a limited solution to the material concerns of the proletariat. It played a crucial role in the emancipation of humanity.

Grün’s alliance with Proudhon fundamentally threatened Karl’s idea of French–German unity. The Brussels Committee was no more successful than the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher had been in attracting non-German, non-exile participation. Not only Proudhon, but the London Chartist leader, Julian Harney, was reluctant to become involved. Even among the German diasporas, the reception was mixed. The sole definite success, the result of a suggestion by Harney, was the contact established with the leading member of the London League of the Just, Karl Schapper. Common ground was discovered here in a mutual rejection of Weitling’s programme. On this basis a London branch of the Correspondence Committee was established. In Paris, on the other hand, Grün’s high reputation and his popularity among German workers constituted a major obstacle to the expansion of the Correspondence Committee there, a situation made worse by the development of Grün’s alliance with Proudhon.

Proudhon’s book and its German translation also presented a challenge of a more personal kind. Karl’s reputation throughout the German exile community was built upon the promise of his coming critique of political economy. But, as time wore on, even his publisher, C. J. Leske, became increasingly nervous about the character of the promised book and the likelihood of its completion. The evidence from Karl’s notebooks suggests that little had been added to what he had written in 1844. He had accumulated English material on a research trip to Manchester in the summer of 1845, but there was no trace of the ‘revised version of the first volume’, which Karl claimed would be ready at the end of November 1846.35 Work on the project was only resumed in September 1846. For Leske, the final straw was the appearance of ‘a strong competitor’ – Proudhon’s book. On 2 February 1847, therefore, Leske demanded that the contract be annulled and the advance returned.36 This threat to Karl’s position helps to explain why, in contrast to the previous tardiness of progress on his economic critique, Karl sat down to write a book refuting Proudhon as soon as he received it. He started work on The Poverty of Philosophy in December 1846 and completed it in June 1847.

Anxiety about Grün and Proudhon as advocates of an alternative road to socialism in France and Germany dominated the politics of the Brussels group through most of 1846 and 1847. Karl wrote a polemical essay attacking Grün’s Social Movement in France and Belgium, which was eventually published in the Westphälische Dampfboot.37 In August 1846, Engels was dispatched to Paris to meet with members of the Parisian League of the Just and to denounce Grün’s ideas as ‘anti-proletarian, philistine and artisan’. News about his efforts to win over members against Grün dominated his letters to Karl through to December. His campaign was helped by a quarrel between Grün and Ewerbeck, which had occurred in April. But victories were not clear-cut. The prevailing impression was of continuing confusion. All this suggests that the main reason for members of the Brussels group to join the League of the Just was to be better situated in the combat with the ideas of Grün and Proudhon in Paris.

The conventional story of the transformation of the League, its acceptance of Marxian doctrine and its renaming as the Communist League is largely based upon Engels’ reconstruction of events at a later date. Insofar as it was accurate, it was made possible by the fact that the League’s London branch, led by Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll, was worried about the possibility of a return to the tenets of Weitling and was therefore prepared to make an alliance with the Brussels group. It also became possible because Schapper, for his own reasons, came to doubt the belief he had shared with the Owenites that a peaceful transformation was indeed possible. By 1846, Schapper saw revolution as inevitable. After alluding to this point in answer to a letter from Marx, Schapper and the London Committee continued, ‘our task is to enlighten the people and to make propaganda for community of goods; you want the same, therefore let us join hands and work with combined strength for a better future’.38 This convergence of interests was reinforced by the creation of a shared platform in support of the revolt in Poland, and was given a more durable institutional shape through the formation of the Fraternal Democrats.

Schapper and the London League were also responsible for the introduction of a new theme that was otherwise virtually absent from the writings of Karl or Engels. The discussions of 1845–6 were notable for the concern that communism should above all enable the free self-development of individuals. Weitling’s communism like that of Cabet would stultify mankind; equality should mean equal opportunity, not equal consumption or equal enjoyment. Communism and individual self-realization must go hand in hand. It was probably as a result of Schapper’s preoccupation with this theme that the Manifesto spoke of ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.39

But while a satisfactory convergence of positions seems to have been established between London and Brussels, nothing comparable had been achieved among the branches in Paris. Ewerbeck, the League’s main spokesman in Paris, had inclined to Cabet and then to Grün. He then moved closer to the Brussels group, but he was an unreliable ally. Engels had been dispatched to Paris in an attempt to contest the high standing of Proudhon and the popularity of Grün. But he was considered to be arrogant and rude, while Weitling supporters claimed that he was a member of a nasty academic clique with no time for the views of ordinary working men.40 Joining the League and pushing forward a newly constructed reform programme strengthened the position of Karl and the Brussels group. But the extent of division and the continuing strength of Grün supporters were strongly conveyed in the ‘Circular’ of the First Congress of the Communist League on 9 June 1847. ‘In the Paris League itself, there was no sign of the slightest progress, not the slightest concern with the development of the principle or with the movement of the Proletariat, as it was proceeding in other localities of the League.’41

From Engels’ letters to Karl, it appeared that opponents of Brussels were being scattered from the field, and that once ‘the Straubingers’ were defeated, the group around Karl would triumph. But other sources suggest that these triumphs may have been hollow or illusory and that some of Engels’ victories were based on manipulation or deceit. At the Conference of June 1847, Engels had only managed to get himself nominated as a delegate as the result of a ‘presidential trick’ on the part of his one-time friend, Stephan Born, who instead of encouraging a discussion of nominations, asked for those opposed to Engels to raise their hands. When a majority failed to do so, Born declared Engels elected. Engels congratulated Born on his ‘beautiful’ manoeuvre, but Born himself later felt ashamed of his action.42 A little later, Engels boasted how he had managed to sideline what had been a majority in support of Moses Hess’s draft of what ultimately was to become the ‘Communist Manifesto’. In a letter from 25–26 October 1847, he confided to Karl, ‘Strictly between ourselves, I’ve played an infernal trick on Mosi. He had actually put through a delightfully amended confession of faith. Last Friday at the district, I dealt with this, point by point, and was not yet half way through when the lads declared themselves satisfaitsCompletely unopposed, I got them to entrust me with the task of drafting a new one which will be discussed next Friday by the district and will be sent to London behind the backs of the communities.’43 Late in 1847, Engels therefore managed to get the drafting of the League’s ‘Credo’, or ‘Manifesto’, as it was now to be called, into his and Karl’s hands.44

The resulting document,45 which became the Communist Manifesto, written by Karl in January 1848, was not designed for posterity or even for the wider world. In the first instance, it was intended for the members of the League alone, and its aim was to bind the various branches – particularly those in Paris – to a single agreed programme. But despite Engels’ manoeuvres, at the beginning of 1848 the challenge represented by the supporters of Grün and Proudhon persisted. It was for this reason that although it had received no mention in the previous drafts by Hess and Engels, a four-page section on what Karl called ‘German’ or ‘ “True” Socialism’ now appeared, and was described by the Manifesto as ‘foul and enervating literature’.46

With the advent of revolution in Germany in March 1848, this debate lost its immediate relevance. With constitutional questions once more to the fore, the anti-political position represented by Grün lost its rationale. Grün returned to Trier in February 1848 and became a leading member of the Demokratische Verein zu Trier (Democratic Association of Trier). After the printing of a rushed version in London in February 1848, the Manifesto was shelved. Instead, Karl and ‘the Committee’ of ‘the Communist Party of Germany’ – Schapper, Bauer, Moll, Engels and Wolff – issued on 24 March ‘Demands of the Communist Party in Germany’. The issue now was whether the revolution should be carried through by means of a republican state akin to the French Republic of 1792. The first demand of the ‘Communist Party’ was that ‘the whole of Germany shall be declared a single and indivisible republic’.47 The programme went on to include a state bank, nationalization of transport, progressive taxation and the establishment of national workshops (akin to those proposed in Paris by Louis Blanc). Grün, on the other hand, writing in the Trier’sche Zeitung, criticized the emphasis on centralization and nationalization; its results, he stated, would not be the emancipation of labour, but the replacement of individual monopolies by a ‘collective monopoly’ of the state, and the undermining of individual self-determination.48

The gains achieved by joining up with the League were limited, and with the long-awaited arrival of the revolution in Germany the benefits of continuing to operate within a still disunited party had become questionable. This was probably why, later in the year, Karl formally disbanded the Communist League.


There are few surviving accounts of the domestic life of the Marx family in Brussels between 1845 and 1848. But the little evidence there is suggests that Karl and Jenny’s marriage during these years was a happy one. Joseph Weydemeyer in a letter to his fiancée provided a glimpse of the social life of the household in 1846:

Marx, Weitling, Marx’s brother-in-law [Edgar von Westphalen] and I sat up the whole night playing [cards]. Weitling got tired first. Marx and I slept a few hours on a sofa and idled away the whole of the next day in the company of his wife and his brother-in-law in the most priceless manner. We went to a tavern early in the morning, then we went by train to Villeworde, which is a little place nearby, where we had lunch and then returned in the most cheerful mood by the last train.49

Stefan Born described visiting Marx’s home in autumn 1847: ‘an extremely modest, one might almost say poorly furnished, little house in a suburb of Brussels’. He was particularly impressed by Jenny,50 commenting, ‘throughout her life she took the most intense interest in everything that concerned and occupied her husband’ and ‘Marx loved his wife and she shared his passion.’51 During these years, it appears that she was as fully involved in the Brussels German Workers’ Educational Association as it was possible for a woman to be. On New Year’s Eve 1847, the Association organized a ‘Democratic and Fraternal Celebration’ at the Swan on the Grand’Place. Ladies and young women socialized with old workers and apprentices at an event where 130 guests were present. According to the report in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung, after the speeches an amateur orchestra performed, and various poems were recited. ‘Madame Marx was not the last to give to those assembled the benefit of her dramatic talent and thus provided a remarkable and extremely moving example of a distinguished lady devoting herself to the education of the proletariat.’

In December 1846, Jenny bore a son, named Edgar after her brother, but generally nicknamed ‘Mush’. According to Wilhelm Liebknecht, ‘he was very gifted, but sickly from birth, a real child of sorrow. He had beautiful eyes and a promising head which seemed too heavy for his weak body.’ Liebknecht thought that he might have lived ‘if he had peace and constant care and had lived in the country or by the seaside’. But ‘in emigration, hunted from place to place and amid the hardships of London life’ even ‘the tenderest parental affection and motherly care’ could not save him. In 1853, Edgar developed ‘an incurable disease’ and died in 1855.52

As for their German companions, Jenny later claimed that in the time spent in Belgium from 1845 to 1848 ‘the small German colony lived pleasantly together’. But there were evident frictions, produced by a life of exile, first in Paris and then in Brussels, and they became more acute as the stay in Brussels lengthened. Not only were these Germans in her words, ‘a colony of paupers’, cut off from normal channels of local and family support, but they were also attempting to establish a distinct form of political identity.53 What had started as an informal collective gathered around Vorwärts! in Paris, and in some cases dating back to the preparation of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher at the beginning of 1844, now acquired the aspiration to turn itself into a ‘party’. The aim of this ‘party’, a grouping of a dozen people at most, would be to establish its ascendancy over other socialist groupings and currents of thought, both in Germany and in France. It was a further instalment of the Franco-German alliance so cherished by German radicals in the years before 1848. This was why so much time was apparently spent on the criticism of current German philosophy, a project in which not only Karl and Engels, but also Hess and Joseph Weydemeyer were for a time actively engaged. It was also a major motivation behind Karl’s intended critique of political economy. The ambitions of the Brussels group were clearly stated in a meeting with Louis Blanc in the autumn of 1847. ‘You, I said,’ Engels wrote to Karl, ‘were the chief: vous pouvez regarder M. Marx comme le chef de notre parti (c’est-à-dire de la fraction la plus avancée de la démocratie allemande, que je représentais vis-à-vis de luiet son récent livre contre M. Proudhon comme notre programme’.54

As in other socialist groupings during this period, supporters tended to gravitate around an admired or even revered leader, the ‘social father’ like Robert Owen, or the founder of Icaria, Étienne Cabet. The style of governance of such leaders was autocratic, and was based upon the enunciation of doctrine. In Owen’s case, it was inspired by the vision of ‘a new moral world’; in the case of Cabet, the detailing of the social arrangements of his nineteenth-century rewriting of Thomas More’s Utopia. In Karl’s case, his status as undisputed leader was conceived and articulated in a language made familiar by Young Hegelianism; it was based upon the promise of his ‘critique of political economy’. This was also strongly reinforced by his physical presence, which was vividly conveyed by the Russian traveller Pavel Annenkov:

Marx himself was a man of the type made up of energy, will power and invincible conviction – a type of man extremely remarkable also in outward appearance. With a thick mop of black hair on his head, his hairy hands, dressed in a coat buttoned diagonally across his chest, he maintained the appearance of a man with the right and authority to command respect, whatever guise he took and whatever he did. All his motions were awkward but vigorous and self-confident, all his manners ran athwart conventional usages in social intercourse, but were proud and somehow guarded, and his shrill voice with its metallic ring marvellously suited the radical pronouncements over things and people which he uttered. Marx was now in the habit of speaking in no other way than in such categorical pronouncements over which still reigned, it should be added, a certain shrill note superimposed on everything he said. This note expressed his firm conviction that it was his mission to control minds, to legislate over them and to lead them in his train. Before me stood the figure of the democratic dictator incarnate, just as it might be pictured in one’s imagination during times devoted to fantasy.55

Whatever the intention, the aspiration to form a ‘party’ was seriously qualified by the personal rivalries and animosities that divided the group. While Karl’s leadership was never challenged, conflict developed between those closest to him, in this case Engels and Hess. Engels had been a protégé of Hess and the two remained friends at least until sometime after their arrival in Brussels around April 1845. Together with Hess and Hermann Kriege, Engels had participated in a campaign to bring communism to the middle class of Barmen and Elberfeld in the spring of 1845. Writing from Barmen on 17 March, he described to Karl ‘the long faces’ of his parents on learning that he had spent the previous evening with Hess in Elberfeld, where ‘we held forth about communism until two in the morning’.56

Once in Brussels, Engels and Hess had both promoted Karl’s status as head of a ‘party’. But in the spring of 1846 personal relations deteriorated to the point that Jenny Marx spoke of a ‘radical breach’. Its causes were not entirely clear. One of the issues was certainly Jenny’s open dislike of Engels’ companion, Mary Burns, while another was the friction produced by the brief and forced cohabitation of the Hesses and the Engelses. It was a situation watched with amused scorn by Karl’s Cologne friends Heinrich Bürgers and Roland Daniels. Assuming that the intention of the Brussels group was to produce another volume of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Daniels wrote, ‘I do not understand how you will be able to start on this with the two persons mentioned.’ He and Bürgers had both ‘a good laugh’ reading Karl’s description of the unfortunate situation in which he and Jenny had been obliged to take on both Engels and Hess and their female companions as sub-tenants. According to Roland Daniels:

The ‘tall chap’ Engels, the ami des prolétaires whose company the limping Hess appears to seek because he is a copycat, or rather on principle – then the untameable proletarian woman [Engels’ Manchester companion, Mary Burns], and the boring ‘Frau’ H.57 – we have laughed over this for a week. The ami des prolétaires par excellence even goes so far – I have known several like him – as to blame fine linen, good clothes and the like on ‘the malaise of present day society’. ‘If you don’t become like these proletarians, then you will not enter heaven.’

On Hess, Daniels observed, ‘you don’t write much about H; but very appropriately you call him “a sponge” ’. On Hess’s pretensions, he wrote, ‘you must have conveyed to him your plan for an “analysis” of the Philosophy of Communism in yet another attempt to re-launch the so-called Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. Immediately, he writes, “We shall very soon conduct an ‘analysis’ – in order to separate the sheep from the goats.” ’ Not only was his letter ‘rather patriarchal’, but also it seemed from his letter ‘as if you too wanted to make Brussels into the ruling centre of communism, and Hess be its high priest’.58

In a letter to Karl from late February 1846, Bürgers also remarked upon ‘the absolute impossibility of a humane communal existence between such heterogeneous elements that had suddenly been thrown together’. He saw it as ‘a second edition enlarged and improved’ of Karl’s brief Parisian experience of cohabitation with the Ruges and the Herweghs. What disgusted him was:

the cowardly manner in which these people too make your wife responsible for the fact that their ill-bred behaviour is not applauded … In order not to break with you, whom they need to have on their side, but who will never confront them with the bitter truth, they employ well-known speculative methods to turn you into a weak-minded husband, who for the moment for the sake of peace at home, gives in to the dictates of aristocratic arrogance and is persuaded into an unjust condemnation of his plebeian friends.59

On Engels, Bürgers commented, ‘if your wife did not exist, he would convince himself that you wouldn’t hesitate to recognise the pastures of free sexual relations, and possibly the object of his love’. ‘Incidentally,’ he went on, ‘you are seeing how a new life situation completely destabilises easily excitable, but superficial characters like E. beyond all bounds.’ Bürgers’ judgement of Hess was similarly withering, if for different reasons. Because of his ‘Spinozism and his spiritualising habits of mind’, he was ‘far too indifferent to the misery of our society in small things in their daily and hourly manifestations to think it worth the trouble to react strongly against such everyday occurrences’. And, he continued, ‘he only ever sees what his intellectual preoccupations allow him to see; he is blind, when the reality of his imaginings takes on a threatening aspect … if someone agrees with Hess in the general condemnation of society, that is enough for him, whether the fellow acts out of polite hypocrisy, or conviction or from insight’.60

Some of these observations were confirmed by a letter written around the same time by Jenny, who was tending to her sick mother in Trier. On 24 March 1846, she wrote to Karl, ‘it seems that murder and mayhem has broken loose among you! I am glad that this radical breach should not have taken place until after my departure. Much of it would have been attributed to the machinations of that ambitious woman, Lady Macbeth [i.e. Jenny herself], and not without reason.’ She admitted that for too long she had been ‘exercising la petite critique’ (petty criticism), but demurred at the suggestion that Mary was a rare example of a woman ‘as she ought to be’ (a sarcastic reference to Weitling’s Mankind As It is and As It Ought to Be). On the contrary, ‘there is an abundance of lovely, charming, capable women and they are to be found all over the world’. On Hess, she agreed with the friends in Cologne. For ‘Rabbi Rabuni’, as she called him, ‘all cats are of the same colour … He sees rosy tints appear in far away Poland; he forgets that the colour of these blood-red roses is not genuine.’ Men like Hess were in fact ‘nothing but ideologists, who actually have no real flesh and blood, but only as it were, an abstraction of the same’.61

As a result of what had happened, Hess wrote to Karl on 29 May 1846 apologizing for the tone of his previous letter. But, he continued, ‘you have a right to be irritated, but not Engels, my letter was not intended in any way for him’. And he concluded: ‘with you personally, I would still very much like to be involved; but I wish to have nothing more to do with your party’.62 After this, matters got even worse. Perhaps because he was ‘an excessive reconciler’, as he himself admitted, Hess soon attempted to patch up his quarrel with Engels, and by July was requesting Engels’ help in smuggling the passport-less Sybille from Brussels into France. Engels obliged, but was soon complaining to Karl that Sybille did not care about Hess, and was on the lookout for a husband.63

From the time he had joined Karl in Brussels Engels’ attitude towards Hess had become steadily more hostile. Perhaps he was jealous of Hess’s intellectual influence over Karl, or perhaps he wished to take revenge for ‘all the dirty tricks’, he claimed, ‘they had played on Mary’ around the time of the ‘breach’. Whatever the reason, in 1846–7 Engels missed no opportunity to belittle, deride and ultimately humiliate Hess. In July, he referred to his ‘stupidities’, and in September he mocked Hess’s attempt to ‘re-establish relations’; in Paris, he appears to have taken up with Sybille. In October, Engels referred to Hess, who had returned to Cologne because of lack of funds, as the member of a ‘muddled school’. When Hess finally arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1847, Engels boasted to Karl that when ‘the worthy man came to see me … my treatment of him was so cold and scornful that he will have no desire to return’.64

Eventually, in early 1848, Hess found out that Engels had had an affair with Sybille. He accused Engels of rape and spoke of challenging him to a duel. Engels’ attitude was once again callous. On 14 January, he wrote to Karl, ‘I was enormously tickled by the Mosi business, although annoyed that it should have come to light … Moses brandishing his pistols, parading his horns before the whole of Brussels … must have been exquisite.’ The report of Hess’s accusation ‘made me split my sides with laughter’. In July 1847, he continued, Sybille, ‘this Balaam’s she-ass’, made to him a ‘declaration of love’ and ‘Her rage with me is unrequited love, pure and simple.’65

As for Engels, his correspondence with Karl clearly bears out the picture of an incongruous combination of dutiful subservience to Karl as his political fixer and louche pursuit of sexual adventure with street- or factory-women. In 1845, he had been keen to leave Barmen, not least because a love affair had come to its end. While protective of Mary Burns, when she came to Brussels in the spring of 1846, he still pursued further amatory encounters when in Paris later in the year. As he wrote to Karl towards the end of 1846, the informers from the Prefecture, who had been following him, must have acquired ‘a great many entrance tickets to the bals Montesquieu, Valentino, Prado, etc.’, and that he was indebted to the Prefect ‘for some delicious encounters with grisettes and for a great deal of pleasure’, since he wished day and night to take advantage of what Paris had to offer. For the days he spent there, he claimed, might be his last.66 In March 1847, however, still from Paris, he wrote to Karl, ‘it’s absolutely essential that you get out of ennuyante Brussels for once and come to Paris, and I for my part have a great desire to go carousing with you’. In his own case, ‘if there were no French women, life wouldn’t be worth living. Mais tant qu’il y a grisettes, well and good’.67


What held the ill-assorted Brussels group together was their faith in the promise of Karl’s critique of political economy. Already in August 1845, Jenny was ‘anxiously awaiting’ its publication, while Ewerbeck enquired urgently, ‘when will your great book appear?’68 Beyond a small group of radical intellectuals, Karl was unknown. But within this group faith in his imminent ‘greatness’ was unanimous. Georg Jung in Cologne, a strong supporter since Karl’s time on the Rheinische Zeitung, awaited the ‘book on political economy and politics with the greatest eagerness … You must become for the whole of Germany, what you already are for your friends. With your brilliant prose style and the great clarity of your argumentation, you must and will assert yourself here and become a star of first rank.’69 The entreaties to get on with the book and not be diverted into other projects continued into 1846. Joseph Weydemeyer urged the importance of finishing the book soon, since the accounts in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher and The Holy Family were too brief and there was ‘nothing to recommend to those who want to read something sensibly argued about communism’.70 Moses Hess wrote that he had thrown himself exclusively into the reading of economics and was looking forward ‘with great excitement to the book’.71

The admiration of the Brussels group and of his friends from Cologne was not surprising. Karl was the first German radical to display a real knowledge of political economy and develop a radical critique of it. During the years from 1845 through to 1849 his writings, lectures and speeches presented this critique in an ever clearer form. During this time, he abandoned the Feuerbachian approach which had so impressed him in 1844 – the translation of the ‘economic’ into the ‘human’ – and instead began to develop a radical reading of political economy in its own terms.72 While in 1844 he had criticized Proudhon for not being able to get beyond a critique of political economy, in 1846, faced by the challenge of Proudhon’s System of Economic Contradictions, Karl adopted a new approach. Instead of dwelling upon the supposed silences and contradictions of political economy as an ideology, his aim was now to demonstrate his superior acquaintance with its findings.

In 1845, Karl had not yet added to his manuscripts of the previous year. But his trip to Manchester with Engels in the summer of 1845 must have strengthened his knowledge of economic literature in England and placed him in a better position to suggest an alternative to Proudhon’s approach. This enabled him in particular to distinguish between the historical course of economic development and its representation in works of political economy. As he now observed in relation to what he had once attacked as the ‘cynicism’ of Ricardo, ‘the cynicism is in the facts and not in the words which express the facts’.73

On the basis of his reading of Ricardo, Karl attacked Proudhon’s ideal of the determination of value by labour time. He pointed out that ‘determination of value by labour time – the formula M. Proudhon gives us as the regenerating formula of the future – is … merely the scientific expression of the economic relations of present-day society, as was clearly and precisely demonstrated by Ricardo long before M. Proudhon’.74 He was also able to show that the idea of equal exchange as an egalitarian application of Proudhon’s formula had already been explored in the 1820s and 1830s by English ‘socialists’, including Thomas Hodgskin, William Thompson and John Francis Bray.75Finally, a better acquaintance with developments in the industrial economy in Britain led him to devote special attention to the ‘automatic system’ of machine production, described in Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of Manufactures.76Rather than considering the machine a simple negation of the division of labour, as Proudhon saw it, ‘the automatic system’ heralded a new factory stage in the development of the division of labour. In it, as he was later to argue in Capital, the division of labour took place not between persons, but between machines, while the operatives were reduced to the role of simple machine-minders.

In speeches and lectures following The Poverty of Philosophy, notably a series of lectures given to the Brussels German Workers’ Educational Association on ‘Wage Labour and Capital’ in the autumn of 1847, and in a speech on ‘The Question of Free Trade’ delivered to the Brussels Association Démocratique in January 1848, Karl put forward a critical account of the growth of ‘the productive powers of capital’ – the development of an industrial economy and its relationship with world trade.

For radical critics of political economy, the fundamental question was why should an exchange between the wage-earner and the capitalist, which was ostensibly free and equal, so disproportionately benefit the capitalist at the expense of the wage-earner. Like other critics of the period, Karl’s answer to this question stressed that labour was not a commodity like any other. He cited John Wade: ‘the saleable commodity labour differs from other commodities in particular by its evanescent nature, by the impossibility of accumulating and by the fact that the supply cannot be increased or reduced with the same facility as with other products’.77 The wage was not ‘the worker’s share in the commodity produced by him’. Wages were ‘part of already existing commodities with which the capitalist buys for himself a definite amount of productive labour’. The price of labour was determined by competition and fluctuated around the cost of production of labour. This price had nothing to do with the contribution made by labour to the value of the product; it was solely determined by the cost of production of labour (that which in Ricardo’s terms is necessary to enable the labourer to subsist and reproduce his kind).

Capital consisted of ‘raw materials, instruments of labour and food of all kinds which are employed to create new raw materials, instruments of labour and food. All these are creations of labour, products of labour, accumulated labour.’ Capital was not simply an aggregation of physical goods. It was also ‘a social relation of production’, ‘a bourgeois production relation’. Means of subsistence, instruments of labour and raw materials were ‘utilised for new production under given social conditions, in definite social relations’. It is ‘this definite social character which turns the products serving for new production into capital’; and the most important of these conditions was the existence of a class possessing nothing but the capacity to work; ‘Capital does not consist in accumulated labour serving living labour as a means for new production. It consists in living labour serving accumulated labour as a means of maintaining and multiplying the exchange value of the latter.’78

This in turn served to explain the process of capital accumulation. ‘The worker receives means of subsistence in exchange for his labour, but the capitalist receives in exchange for his means of subsistence labour, the productive activity of the worker, the creative power whereby the worker not only replaces what he consumes but gives to the accumulated labour a greater value than it previously possessed.’ The worker in the cotton factory did not merely produce cotton textiles but produced capital: ‘The wage labour can only be exchanged for capital, by increasing capital, by strengthening the power whose slave it is. Hence, increase of capital is increase of the proletariat, that is, of the working class.79

The exchange value of capital – profit – increased to the same extent that the exchange value of labour, the day wage, fell and vice versa. There was a conflict of interest between labour and capital because if capital expanded, wages might also rise, but not in the same proportion, because profit and wages were in an inverse proportion. ‘The indispensable condition for a tolerable situation of the worker’ was ‘the fastest possible growth of productive capital’.80 But the growth of productive capital meant ‘the growth of the power of accumulated labour over living labour … of the bourgeoisie over the working class’; and this could be specified in various ways. When enlarged to include the whole world market, the results were ‘uninterrupted division of labour, the application of new and the perfecting of old machinery precipitately and on an ever more gigantic scale … The greater division of labour enables one worker to do the work of five, ten or twenty … labour is simplified. The special skill of the worker becomes worthless. Therefore, as labour becomes more unsatisfying, more repulsive, competition increases and wages decrease.81 In sum, ‘in the course of the growth of the productive forces the part of productive capital which is transformed into machinery and raw material, i.e. capital as such, increases in disproportion to the part which is intended for wages; i.e. in other words, the workers must share among themselves an ever smaller part of the productive capital in relation to its total mass’.82

Many of the issues raised by the world-wide development of commercial society and the industrial economy were pinpointed in the debate about free trade. What position should socialists and communists adopt towards it? For Karl, there could be no doubt that the situation of the worker would be worsened by the coming of free trade; and in 1847 he reiterated the point often evaded by free traders in England when taunted by Chartists. As he wrote in the Northern Star in September 1847, ‘we accept everything that has been said of the advantages of Free Trade. The powers of production will increase, the tax imposed upon the country by protective duties will disappear, all commodities will be sold at a cheaper price’, but also, according to Ricardo, ‘labour being equally a commodity will equally sell at a cheaper price’. It had to be accepted that ‘under the freedom of trade the whole severity of the laws of political economy will be applied to the working classes’. But that was no reason for accepting protectionism, because ‘by Free Trade all economical laws, with their most astounding contradictions, will act upon a larger scale, upon a greater extent of territory, upon the territory of the whole earth; and because from the uniting of all these contradictions into a single group, where they stand face to face, will result the struggle which will itself eventuate in the emancipation of the proletarians’. Or as Karl stated a few months later, in January 1848, ‘the Free Trade system hastens the Social Revolution. In this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, I am in favour of Free Trade.’83

Karl’s interpretation of the logic of political economy during these years did not as yet amount to a new theory. It presented an exceptionally clear, if selective, summary of the critical writings of Simonde de Sismondi, Louis Blanc, Pellegrino Rossi, Eugène Buret and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; in England, it incorporated the work of Bray, Thomas Hodgskin, MacCulloch and James Mill. The readings were partial and, in the case of mainstream political economists, often misleading or distorted. His 1844 presentation of Adam Smith as an apologist of immiseration remained uncorrected, while in the case of Ricardo he took no account of the crucial qualifications Ricardo had made to his theory of the determination of value by labour time, subsequent to the first edition of The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in 1817. But, despite all this, his depiction of the pressures upon the proletariat created by the development of an industrial economy and its relationship with the growth of world trade powerfully captured some real aspects of the trajectory of economic development in the 1830s and 1840s.

Far less successful was Karl’s account in the Communist Manifesto of how these developments were related to politics and class struggle. However highly stylized, the set of characters in play in his writings up until 1845 – ‘the Christian state’, ‘the Philosopher’, ‘the rational state’, ‘the censor’, ‘civil society’, ‘the peasantry’, ‘the Germans’, ‘the Philistines’ and even ‘the proletariat’ – had still borne some relation to local realities. But once Karl moved to France and Belgium, in texts running from the so-called German Ideology to the Communist Manifesto, these were replaced by a new cast of characters and processes – most prominently ‘the modern state’, ‘the class struggle’, ‘the bourgeoisie’ and ‘the proletariat’. Although purportedly universal, these figures were more abstract and possessed less explanatory power than those which they replaced, especially in relation to Germany.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl combined a brilliant thumbnail sketch of the development of modern capitalism with a depiction of the contemporary conflict between classes as its necessary outcome. The word ‘bourgeois’ was taken from the political debates in France during the years of the July Monarchy, and more specifically from the vocabulary of opposition journalists, especially Louis Blanc. Blanc characterized ‘the social history of the bourgeoisie’ as ‘the banking interest enthralling industry and commerce; individual credit profiting the strong, injuring the weak; in a word, the reign of competition tending inevitably to overthrow small fortunes, and to undermine those of middle standard and all this for the purpose of arriving at a real financial feudality – an oligarchy of bankers’. ‘From 1815 to 1830’, Blanc continued, ‘the bourgeoisie busied itself only with completing its domination. To turn the elective system to its own advantage, to seize on the parliamentary power and render it supreme after having achieved its conquest, such was for fifteen years the work prosecuted by liberalism.’84

But this ‘bourgeois’ was no longer the overfed businessman, sketched by Daumier, the coupon-clipper living off his rentes or the hard-hearted landlord deaf to the entreaties of poor tenants he threw onto the frosty Parisian streets. Nor was he simply the epitome of self-centred greed and mediocrity evoked a little later by Tocqueville.85 The ‘middle classes’, the ‘bourgeoisie’, the ‘Mittelklasse’ were no longer simply local translations of ‘the possessing class’, as they had been for Engels in 1845.86 They were now the personification of capital itself.

In the Manifesto, impersonal forces – the division of labour and the unseen hand – conceived to be at work in the expansion of exchange relations and in the progress of commercial society, were presented as stages in the formation of the collective physiognomy of a class, and by the same token the portly representatives of the once inconspicuous European middle orders were endowed with the demonic energy of capital itself. Similarly, the proletarian, mainly thanks to Friedrich Engels’ portrayal in the Condition of the Working Class in England, blended the uncompromising sectarian zeal of the Parisian revolutionary Babouvist with the mass democratic activism of the Lancashire Chartist.87

These classes were no longer struggling over anything as specific as the ‘Prussian Christian state’, the ‘Reformed Parliament’ or the ‘July Monarchy’. The arena now described was that of the ‘modern state’. But this notion, except in contrast to feudalism or the ancien régime, proved to be an empty category, and as late as 1875, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Karl was still trying to provide it with corresponding content. He criticized the German Social Democrats for talking vaguely about the ‘present state’; given their empirical diversity, the ‘present state’ was ‘a fiction’. But his own presumption continued to be that despite ‘their motley diversity of form’, modern states do have things in common: ‘they all stand on the ground of modern bourgeois society’. ‘They thus also share certain essential characteristics.’ What were these ‘essential characteristics’? Karl did not specify, and, as one critic has noted, the whole passage could be called ‘an impressive sounding tautology’.88 Karl himself seemed well aware of his failure in this area. In a letter of 1862 to his admirer Dr Kugelmann, he claimed that he had arrived at the basic principles from which even others could reconstruct his system ‘with the exception, perhaps, of the relationship between the various forms of state and the various economic structures of society’.89

Even at the time, doubts were raised about the social and political scenario envisaged by the Manifesto. Harney, Engels’ Chartist friend and editor of the Northern Star, wrote to him in 1846: ‘Your speculations as to the speedy coming of a revolution in England, I doubt … Your prediction that we will get the Charter in the course of the current year, and the abolition of private property within three years will certainly not be realised – indeed as regards the latter, although it may and I hope will come, it is my belief that neither you nor I will see it.’90 From London in 1845, Hermann Kriege wrote to Karl: ‘my dear Marx, where are all these English workers that Engels is so enthusiastic about? I have had the opportunity to meet with the leading socialists here; I tell you that they are the most cockeyed philistines that anyone could meet’.91

After the tumultuous conflicts of the years 1831–4, there was also some despondency about the situation in France. In 1846, Carl Bernays wrote:

Every day my hopes for France dwindle further. It is incredible how rapidly the juste milieu has gained credence amongst the lowest classes. Respect for property among the lowest classes is still much too much, much greater than in Germany and even than in the Rhineland. You will have seen in all the workers’ uprisings, that the improvement of the condition of the workers is only sought in an indirect way through wage rises, and never by direct means. This desire is not only utterly contrary to communist principles, but also to communist instincts. The worker appears therefore not as an enemy, but rather as someone who enjoys making agreements.

Bernays thought a peasant jacquerie more likely than a workers’ uprising.92 As to Germany, there was just as much doubt whether the German Bürgertum would behave like a bourgeoisie. According to Heinrich Bürgers writing from Cologne:

Now I have returned to the bosom of the German petit bourgeois. I have taken the opportunity to become familiar with the state of their consciousness and of their practice in the various circles of German society. I have come to the conclusion that both are located at a colossal distance from our consciousness, which has as its presupposition knowledge of the practice of the entire civilised world, and on that basis makes its critique of existing conditions. Nowhere is there even the beginning of the understanding of the questions that lead us to turn them into topics of public debate. The German bourgeoisie has so far not at all learnt to be a bourgeoisie in our sense; it is still richly infected by that philanthropism which does not yet envisage the conflict against a class subordinated beneath it. Out of the whole manufacturing and trading public of Cologne, for example, there are perhaps not ten people, whom one could call intelligent and determined bourgeois.93


In the course of 1847 events took a more hopeful turn. Chartist agitation, which had died down after 1842, appeared once again as hopes were invested in another petition to be presented to Parliament in 1848. In Prussia, financial difficulties forced the summoning of the estates in a ‘United Landtag’. Its members, drawn from all the different Prussian provinces and chosen along traditional estate lines, had nevertheless refused to sanction a new form of tax, unless the government agreed to constitutional reform, whereupon the Landtag was adjourned. In France, as well, there was a revival of political agitation in the mid-1840s. Opposition centred on the narrowness of the franchise and took the form of a banqueting campaign – a tactic designed to circumvent the ban on political meetings. The campaign had originally been confined to the propertied classes, but increasingly attracted the support of republicans, democrats and the working classes in the streets. In January 1848, Engels claimed that the previous year had certainly been ‘the most stormy we have experienced for a very long time’. He listed not only ‘a constitution and a United Diet in Prussia’, but ‘an unexpectedly rapid awakening in political life and a general arming against Austria in Italy’ and ‘a civil war in Switzerland’, where radicals from Protestant cantons expelled the Jesuits and defeated the Catholics. He could also point to unexpectedly liberal moves towards reform on the part of the new Pope, Pius IX, a rebellion against Bourbon rule in Naples, and the victory of the Liberals in the Belgian elections.94

In Brussels, Karl had also become more active in day-to-day politics. The Brussels Correspondence Committee turned itself into the Brussels branch of the Communist League. It then followed the example of London and formed the Brussels German Workers’ Educational Association (Deutscher Arbeiterbildungsverein), a legal organization designed to attract resident German artisans. Regular meetings were held twice a week. On Wednesdays there were lectures, including Karl’s on ‘Wage Labour and Capital’, while on Sundays there were weekly updates on the news by Karl’s friend Wilhelm Wolff, followed by poetic recitals, singing and dancing.

Karl presented himself in public as a representative of this German Workers’ Educational Association, and in this capacity he started to write for the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung in April 1847. The Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung was a journal edited by Adalbert von Bornstedt, who had formerly been active in the running of Vorwärts! in Paris in 1844.95 Both Heine and Freiligrath still believed Bornstedt to be a spy, and as the Prussian archives later confirmed, around the end of the 1830s Bornstedt had supplied spy reports. But by 1846 the increasing political boldness of his paper and the annoyance expressed by the Prussian authorities suggested not only that Bornstedt had ceased spying, but that he was a genuine convert to the radical cause. The Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung was important since it was read by German artisans working in Brussels. Karl was therefore happy to urge his own circle to contribute to it.

During the same period, Karl also became actively involved in the Association Démocratique, an organization originally proposed by Karl Schapper during a meeting to honour Weitling in London in September 1844. Its aim was to unite democrats from all countries. In September 1845, after a meeting of 1,000 democrats of different nationalities to celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution, the idea was further advanced by the Chartist leader, Julian Harney. It acquired institutional form in 1846 with the formation of the Fraternal Democrats, and in 1847 a secretary was appointed to represent each nationality. Harney represented the English and Schapper the Germans; their motto was the same as the German Workers’ Educational Association: ‘All men are brothers’.

In Belgium, on 27 September 1847, Bornstedt founded the Association Démocratique as the local branch of the Fraternal Democrats. He hoped to take advantage of Karl’s temporary absence from the country to assume control of the organization, but was outmanoeuvred by Engels, who secured the position of Vice-President. In November 1847, Karl returned and was elected as the German representative, while its Belgian representative was Lucien-Léopold Jottrand, a prominent liberal lawyer and editor of Débat Social.

The Belgian Association grew rapidly, especially in the depressed textile districts of Flanders; in Ghent, at a meeting attended by Karl, a branch of 3,000 members, mainly workers, was formed. The Belgian democratic leaders, particularly Jottrand, were inspired by the example of Chartism and aspired to found a comparable organization capable of mounting democratic pressure from without. Karl devoted much of his time to the Association but, unbeknown to the Belgians, also continued to fulfil his responsibilities in the clandestine Communist League. Thus, on 27 November, he embarked on a ten-day trip to London, ostensibly to represent the Association at a meeting of the Fraternal Democrats, but also to participate in the conference to agree upon the statutes of the Communist League. Karl was almost without resources and was only able to return to Brussels thanks to a loan from his Russian friend Pavel Annenkov. Previously, he had left Belgium to visit his relatives and press his claim for part of his inheritance. In January, he was similarly engaged both in the political direction of the Association and in writing up a final draft of what was to become The Communist Manifesto. The text was completed during January 1848, under pressure from the League, which threatened to withdraw the commission if he failed to meet his deadline.

The internal arguments among German radicals, which led to the need to produce what became the Manifesto, especially the aim to marginalize Karl Grün and his supporters, have already been discussed, but not the actual stages in its preparation.96 The Manifesto was originally entitled the ‘communist credo’ or ‘communist confession of faith’ and had been under discussion since June 1847. Friedrich Engels was a vital intermediary between London and Brussels in the process of devising the new ‘credo’. As an emissary from the Brussels Committee he put forward the original ‘Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith’ at the First Congress of the newly named Communist League, in London in June 1847. In September, he almost certainly contributed to the first and only number of the League’s newspaper, Die Kommunistische Zeitschrift; and it is likely that he suggested the League’s new watchword, ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ in place of ‘All men are brothers’.

At a meeting of the Paris branch of the League on 22 October 1847, Engels proposed a second draft of ‘the credo’, the so-called ‘Principles of Communism’, which he managed to get accepted in preference to the alternative put forward by Moses Hess.97 Both Karl and Engels attended the Second Congress of the League in London between 28 November and 8 December 1847. At this congress, Engels’ draft appears to have been accepted as the basis of a final version. A week before this congress, Engels wrote to Karl, providing a brief summary of the ‘Principles’. He suggested that since ‘a certain amount of history has to be narrated in it’, they should ‘abandon the catechetical form and call the thing the Communist Manifesto’. As for the congress itself, he assured Karl, ‘THIS TIME WE SHALL HAVE IT ALL OUR OWN WAY.’98

After the congress, Karl and Engels spent a few days in London and then a further ten days together in Brussels before Engels returned to Paris. Engels did not return to Brussels until 29 January, while the manuscript of the Manifesto was apparently delivered before 1 February. Only one page of preparatory notes survives of a plan of section two, probably dating from December 1847. It seems, therefore, that Karl wrote up the final version alone in January 1848.

The structure of the Manifesto closely followed Engels’ ‘Principles’. Its first two historical sections correspond to questions 1–23 of the ‘Principles’. Section three on communist literature elaborates question 24 of the ‘Principles’; section four on communists and opposition parties relates to question 25. In substance if not in form, the Manifesto was not an original piece of work. Apart from Engels’ ‘Principles of Communism’, his Condition of the Working Class in England and some of his shorter pieces, Karl drew heavily upon his own writings, particularly the unpublished Paris manuscripts of 1844 and The Poverty of Philosophy. Much of the thumbnail history contained in the Manifesto – its arguments about the transition from ‘feudal’ to ‘bourgeois’ society, about the growth of free trade and the world market, about the industrial revolution and the end of ‘patriarchal idyllic relations’, and about the formation of the proletariat – had already been expressed in 1844 in Engels’ writings about England. The historical case for ‘communism’ placed at its centre a barely concealed account of what amounted to specifically English social and economic development. He also drew upon manuscripts assembled collectively for the German Ideology, and on some articles by Moses Hess. From these writings, Karl either paraphrased relevant propositions or simply lifted appropriate sentences and phrases.

The Manifesto is still rightly celebrated as Karl’s most memorable text. Its phrases have resonated in literature and the political imagination long after the disappearance of the circumstances which originally brought them into being. Intellectually, the compelling power of its argument – or at least that of its most famous, first section – was the result of the bringing together of Karl’s two most original insights in the 1840s. These were, firstly, his development of the legacy of German idealism – man was not just a creature or product of nature, but a being who transformed nature, both his own and the natural world, by his productive activity. Secondly, this was put together with his elaboration of the economic criticism, which had been developed by English and French authors, of the emergence of industrial capitalism and its relationship with the world market.

Building upon these insights, Karl was the first to evoke the seemingly limitless powers of the modern economy and its truly global reach. He was the first to chart the staggering transformation produced in less than a century by the emergence of a world market and the unleashing of the unparalleled productive powers of modern industry. He also delineated the endlessly inchoate, incessantly restless and unfinished character of modern capitalism as a phenomenon. He emphasized its inherent tendency to invent new needs and the means to satisfy them, its subversion of all inherited cultural practices and beliefs, its disregard of all boundaries, whether sacred or secular, its destabilization of every hallowed hierarchy, whether of ruler and ruled, man and woman or parent and child, its turning of everything into an object for sale.

But whatever its lasting importance in defining modernity during the last century and a half, judged by the circumstances of 1847–9 the political position adopted by Karl and his circle was impossibly self-contradictory. Since the battle with Weitling, Karl and his group were committed to the condemnation of a ‘primitive’ insurrectionism, a pose which took no account of changing circumstances. But equally as an answer to Grün and his supporters, it was impossible to accept the withdrawal from politics associated with many forms of socialism. Another option was simply to represent the particular grievances of the workers at a local level. This was to be the choice of another member of the Communist League, a doctor, Andreas Gottschalk, who later became the leader of the workers in Cologne. This position was rejected by Karl and his friends on the grounds that it would divide worker from bourgeois in the assault upon Prussia’s feudal regime. On the other hand, given Karl’s public criticism of political economy, it was no longer possible simply to merge into the democratic republican flank of a liberal-constitutionalist movement like Ruge or Heinzen. For since 1843 Karl had been committed to the exposure of what he considered to be the illusory vision animating the politics of republican democrats. The resulting position deriving from these diverse criticisms was contradictory and politically unsustainable. It meant supporting the liberals while at the same time pointing out that the achievement of liberal-bourgeois success would place the proletariat in an even worse situation than before. The communism of the Gelehrten (learned) involved support of the bourgeois revolution, but only as a prelude to a proletarian revolution, in which the bourgeoisie would be overthrown. This meant playing a contradictory dual role, both supporting and subverting political alliances at the same time.

As a leading member and spokesman of the Association Démocratique, on New Year’s Eve 1847, Karl publicly saluted the liberal mission of Belgium in opposition to absolutism. He ‘forcefully’ expressed his appreciation of ‘the benefits of a liberal constitution, of a country where there is freedom of discussion, freedom of association, and where a humanitarian seed can flourish to the good of all Europe’.99 Yet on 6 February 1848 Karl angrily denounced the position of Lucien Jottrand, the President of the Association, when he cited the United States, Switzerland and England as examples where the ‘system of government was in tolerable transition towards a more perfect system’.100Belgian democrats, Jottrand argued, were not utopians, but wished to make use of the constitutional right of association in order to obtain for the people the right to vote, a reduction of taxation and a more equitable distribution of tax burdens.

Karl chose to interpret Jottrand’s disavowal of utopianism as an attack on German communism. He replied belligerently, firstly, that German communism was not utopian, but based upon historical experience; secondly, although Germany was ‘retarded in its political development’, it was a country of more than 40 million inhabitants and when it prepared for revolution, it ‘will not seek the model for its movement in the radicalism in small free countries’.101His advice on free trade was similarly barbed. ‘We must admit that under this same Free Trade the whole severity of the economic laws will fall upon the workers.’ The freedom supported by free traders was not ‘the freedom of one individual in relation to another, but the freedom of Capital to crush the worker’. If he supported free trade, it was because ‘the Free Trade System hastens the Social Revolution’.102

Political questions, he maintained, were already turning into social ones. Poland at the time of the Cracow rising of 1846 was to be congratulated for combining national demands with the abolition of feudalism. The solution to Poland’s national question would only be brought about through the resolution of its social question. For ‘it is not only the old Poland that is lost. The old Germany, the old France, the old England, the whole of the old society is lost.’ But this was no loss ‘for those who have nothing to lose in the old society, and this is the case of the great majority in all countries at the present time’. The answer was ‘the establishment of a new society, one no longer based on class antagonisms’. Therefore, the crucial issue for Poland was ‘the victory of the English proletarians over the English bourgeoisie … Poland must be liberated not in Poland but in England.’103 This reduction of the political to the social was, he thought, happening everywhere. Something similar had occurred in England, where ‘in all questions from the Reform Bill until the abolition of the Corn Laws’, political parties fought about nothing except ‘changes in property rights’, while in Belgium the struggle of liberalism with Catholicism was ‘a struggle of industrial capital with large landed property’.104

Engels expressed the point more crudely. He could not ‘forbear an ironical smile’ when he observed ‘the terrible earnestness, the pathetic enthusiasm with which the bourgeois strive to achieve their aims’. ‘They are so short-sighted as to fancy that through their triumph the world will assume its final configuration. Yet nothing is more clear than that they are everywhere preparing the way for us, for the democrats and Communists; than that they will at most win a few years of troubled enjoyment, only to be then immediately overthrown.’ The great denouement which was approaching had been brought about by machinery and modern industry. ‘In England, as a result of modern industry, of the introduction of machinery, all oppressed classes are being merged together into a single great class with common interests, the class of the proletariat … as a consequence, on the opposite side all classes of oppressors have likewise been united into a single class, the bourgeoisie. The struggle has thus been simplified and so it will be possible to decide it by one single heavy blow.’105

This stance on the part of Karl and his Brussels circle created confusion among his democratic allies, suspicion and alarm among his governmental adversaries. As he was soon to discover, it was not a sustainable form of politics. In Paris, on 23 February 1848, soldiers fired upon a peaceful demonstration. The morning after, the city was filled with barricades, and the demand was no longer just for electoral reform, but for a republic. On the same evening, the Palais Royal was captured by insurrectionists. The king fled and his throne was put on a bonfire. A republic was declared and a provisional government was formed.


On 26 February, the Paris train brought news of the revolution to Brussels. On board the train was a royal adviser, Comte de Hompesch, come to warn Leopold, king of the Belgians, of the gravity of the situation in Paris. Hompesch’s solicitor was Lucien Jottrand, so as President of the Association Démocratique Jottrand immediately summoned the Executive Committee, of which Karl was a member; and it was agreed that an open meeting should be held the next day at the Old Court, Rue de Soeurs Noires.

According to an account written by Jenny a decade later, Karl helped to arm the workers in preparation for a republican insurrection. This point was reiterated in 1934 in the official communist chronology, Karl Marx: Chronik seines Lebens, and has been repeated in many biographical accounts ever since. Why Jenny made this statement, whether it was the result of confusion or of an unconscious desire to present a more heroic account of their exit from Belgium, is unclear. But the Belgian archives tell a different story, which clearly shows that Karl was totally uninvolved in any insurrectionary preparations.106

At the meeting at the Old Court on 27 February, a crowded and enthusiastic assembly agreed to Jottrand’s proposal that the Association reassemble every evening to put democratic pressure on the government. Two addresses were voted on: the first congratulated the new French Provisional Government, a second expressed solidarity with the Fraternal Democrats. Another resolution pressing the government to call up artisans and workers to supplement the predominantly bourgeois Civic Guard was signed only by Belgian members of the Committee. Karl was punctilious in emphasizing that his participation was only in support of the cosmopolitan aims of the Association, thus honouring his official commitment not to become involved in Belgian politics.

The government feared trouble and by 26 February had increased police patrols and mobilized the army. It was therefore well prepared when, at the end of the meeting, younger members of the gathering, carried away by enthusiasm, prowled the streets shouting slogans like ‘Vive la République’ and attempted to enter the Grand’Place. Several arrests were made, including of Karl’s companions Wilhelm Wolff, Philippe Gigot and Victor Tedesco together with other members of the German Workers’ Educational Association. This was not the attempted insurrection that subsequent accounts have implied. It was a minor street disorder, and by 10.30 p.m. calm had been restored. The repressive response of the government continued. The mayor was asked to forbid public meetings, and special attention was paid to the surveillance of foreigners, who were to be verified or else be expelled from the country. Further arrests were made, including of a shoemaker called Dassy, who had shouted ‘Vive la République’ and was said to possess a dagger belonging to Bornstedt, and another shoemaker, called Merkens, accused of arguing for the use of the guillotine.

The government’s alarm was not the result of the activities of the Brussels Association Démocratique, but of those Belgian republicans and refugees in Paris. One of these republicans, Blervacq, was recruiting members of a ‘Belgian Legion’ and was enlisting not only Belgians but unemployed French and Germans too. Furthermore, the process was unofficially encouraged by Paris’s republican Police Commissioner, Caussidière, who was happy to pay for the travel of volunteers to the frontier, and was assisted by préfets who had opened up arsenals in Lille and Valenciennes.

In these circumstances, the suspicions of Charles de Bavay at the Brussels Court of Appeal focused particularly upon Karl. As a leading member of the German Workers’ Educational Association and as an active participant in the Association Démocratique, Karl was already notorious. On his return from London on behalf of the Association on 13 December 1847, the Journal de Bruxelles had mocked his activist cosmopolitanism by comparing it with that of a notorious Low Countries Jacobin, Anacharsis Cloots. On hearing of Karl’s presence at the Association meeting of 27 February and of the subsequent disorderly behaviour of German and Belgian workers on the streets, de Bavay became convinced that Karl was at the centre of a conspiracy to mount an insurrection.

What particularly attracted de Bavay’s attention had been Karl’s recent financial transactions: through the good offices of his brother-in-law, Wilhelm Schmalhausen, Karl had finally secured 6,000 francs, a portion of his inheritance from his mother. De Bavay believed that the inheritance was just a cover story to conceal Karl’s financing of the Belgian republican movement in Paris. On this basis, Baron Hody, Chief of National Security, asked the Minister of Justice to decree Karl’s expulsion on the grounds that he had breached the terms of his residence permit. The Council of Ministers approved the measure on 1 March and the king confirmed the order on the next day. On 3 March, Karl was informed that he must leave Belgium within twenty-four hours.

At de Bavay’s instigation an enquiry into the behaviour of the proscribed German took place on that day at the Palais de Justice. There it was revealed that a few days after receiving his inheritance, Karl and his family had moved from their residence in the Rue d’Orléans back to the more comfortable quarters of the Bois Sauvage hotel. Evidence was collected from restaurateurs, shopkeepers and a coachman to make up a dossier. It emerged that Karl had been visited by a number of foreigners, while a local saddler suggested that foreign persons might have been trying to acquire holsters and sword-belts. A coachman from a local inn, the Vigilante, reported that Karl and two other members of the Association Démocratique visited a bank to change 2,100 francs into banknotes, thus reinforcing the belief of the authorities that Karl was either preparing an armed insurrection in Brussels or else assisting the mobilization of Belgian revolutionaries in Paris.

While the judicial process continued, Karl contacted three lawyers at the Court of Appeal, including Jottrand, who tried to negotiate with the ministers a delay in the expulsion. But on the same day, 3 March, Karl received from his friend Flocon, editor of La Réforme and now a minister in the French Provisional Government, a letter rescinding his previous expulsion from France and inviting him back to Paris.

According to the report of the First Division of Police on the evening of 3 March, after a meeting at the Court of Brussels, several individuals, mainly foreigners, exchanged loud words of ‘exalted republicanism’, and then made their way to Bois Sauvage at around eleven in the evening. A meeting was held, which went on until after midnight. This was a meeting with members of the German Workers’ Educational Association, followed by the Committee of the Communist League. After the meetings were dispersed, Police Inspector Daxbeck entered the Bois Sauvage and asked Karl to hand over the papers he was working on. Karl attempted to resist and as a result he – and later Jenny – was arrested.

This official version of events was challenged a few days later and a request lodged to investigate the conduct of the police. A new enquiry took place at the Hôtel de Ville on 11 March in the presence of the mayor and seven councillors. There it emerged that the original report contained ‘grave errors’. The raid on Bois Sauvage by Daxbeck was unauthorized and in any case nothing untoward was found. The papers seized by Daxbeck revealed that ‘the society’ of which Karl was Vice-President had been dissolved and moved to Paris. The authorities originally assumed that this ‘society’ must refer to the Association Démocratique, thus showing that they were unaware of Karl’s parallel role in the Communist League.

After his arrest, Karl was taken to the Amigo, a detention centre next to the Hôtel de Ville. Jenny went to consult Jottrand about Karl’s plight. In the meantime Daxbeck returned to the Hôtel de Ville and ordered that Jenny be arrested on her return on the grounds that she lacked papers. She too was taken to the Amigo, where a Belgian friend, Gigot, who tried to intervene on her behalf, was also imprisoned. Most embarrassing in the eyes of the new enquiry was that Jenny, ‘the sister of the governor of Pomerania’ (Ferdinand von Westphalen), had briefly been forced to share a cell with three prostitutes. Brussels liberals were outraged at the treatment of the Marx family, and Baron Hody requested the dismissal of Daxbeck, contending that Belgium was a free country and that the police had no right to seize Karl’s papers, even when it had emerged that they referred to the Communist League. But, despite all this, de Bavay persisted in his suspicion about the connection between Karl’s inheritance and the financing of insurrection. He traced the passage of the bill of exchange through the banking house of Fould and Oppenheim in Paris and back to the original deposit in Trier. All these enquiries confirmed that the funds had been legitimately transferred from Frau Marx in Trier and were intended for her son. Finally, de Bavay was convinced that Karl had not financed an uprising.

Karl reached Paris on 4 March, having armed no Belgian workers. He wrote to the editor of La Réforme protesting at his wife’s treatment. ‘My wife, under the charge of vagabondage, was taken to the prison at the HÔtel de Ville and locked up in a dark room with prostitutes.’ Her ‘only crime consists in the fact that, although belonging to the Prussian aristocracy, she shares the democratic opinions of her husband’.107