When Karl Marx Worked For Horace Greeley


On Saturday morning, October 25, 1851, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, entrenched after a decade of existence as America’s leading Whig daily, appeared with twelve pages rather than its usual eight. The occasion was too noteworthy to be passed over without comment by the paper itself. So a special editorial was written—probably by Greeley’s young managing editor, the brisk, golden-whiskered Charles A. Dana—to point it out.

Besides a “press of advertisements,” the editorial ran, this morning’s enlarged paper contained “articles from some foreign contributors that are especially worthy of attention.” Among these were “a letter from Madame Belgioioso, upon the daily and domestic life of the Turks, and another upon Germany by one of the clearest and most vigorous writers that country has produced—no matter what may be the judgment of the critical upon his public opinions in the sphere of political and social philosophy.”

Turning the pages to see who this most clear and vigorous German might be, readers glanced past such items as a “Grand Temperance Rally in the 13th Ward"; a Philadelphia story headlined “Cruelty of a Landlord—Brutality of a Husband”: a Boston campaign telegram announcing a Whig demonstration “in favor of Daniel Webster for President.” Then they reached a long article entitled “Revolution and Counter-Revolution,” over the by-line, Karl Marx.

“The first act of the revolutionary drama on the Continent of Europe has closed,” it began upon a somber organ tone: “The ‘powers that were’ before the hurricane of 1848, are again the ‘powers that be.’” But, contributor Marx went on, swelling to his theme, the second act of the movement was soon to come, and the interval before the storm was a good time to study the “general social state … of the convulsed nations” that led inevitably to such upheavals.

He went on to speak of “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat”—strange new words to a readership absorbed at the moment with the Whig state convention, the late gale off Nova Scotia and with editor Greeley’s strictures against Tammany and Locofocoism. “The man goes deep—very deep for me,” remarked one of Greeley’s closest friends, editor Beman Brockway of upstate Watertown, New York. “Who is he?”

Karl Marx, a native of the Rhineland, had been for a short time the editor of a leftist agitational newspaper in Cologne until the Prussian police closed it down and drove him out. At thirty, exiled in Paris, he had composed as his own extremist contribution to the uprisings of 1848 an obscure tract called the Communist Manifesto. At least at this moment it was still obscure, having been overtaken by events and forgotten in the general tide of reaction that followed the surge of 1848 abroad. Thrown out of France in turn as a subversive character, he had settled in London, tried unsuccessfully to launch another left-wing journal there, spent the last of his small savings, and now was on his uppers with his wife and small children in a two-room hovel in Soho, desperately in need of work.

The following week Karl Marx was in the Tribune again, continuing his study of the making of revolutions. And again the week after that. “It may perhaps give you pleasure to know,” managing editor Dana wrote him as his series of pieces on the late events in Germany went on, “that they are read with satisfaction by a considerable number of persons and are widely reproduced.” Whatever his views might be, evidently the man could write. Next he branched out and wrote for Greeley and Dana on current political developments in England, France, Spain, the Middle East, the Orient—the whole world, in fact, as seen from his Soho garret. News reports, foreign press summaries, polemics, and prophecies poured from his desk in a continuous, intermixed flow, sometimes weekly, often twice-weekly, to catch the next fast packet to New York and so to earn from Greeley five dollars per installment.

This singular collaboration continued for over ten years. During this period Europe’s extremest radical, proscribed by the Prussian police and watched over by its agents abroad as a potential assassin of kings, sent in well over 500 separate contributions to the great New York family newspaper dedicated to the support of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, temperance, dietary reform, Going West, and, ultimately, Abraham Lincoln. Even at his low rate of pay—so low that his revolutionary friend and patron, Friedrich Engels, agreed with him that it was “the lousiest petty-bourgeois cheating”—what Marx earned from the Tribune during that decade constituted his chief means of support, apart from handouts from Engels. The organ of respectable American Whigs and of their successors, the new Republican party, sustained Karl Marx over the years when he was mapping out his crowning tract of overthrow, Das Kapital.