When Karl Marx Worked For Horace Greeley

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In fact, much of the material he gathered for Greeley, particularly on the impoverishment of the English working classes during the depression of the late 1850’s, went bodily into Das Kapital. So did portions of a particularly virulent satire he wrote for the Tribune on the Duchess of Sutherland, a lady who had taken the visit of Harriet Beecher Stowe to London as the occasion to stage a women’s meeting that dispatched a lofty message of sympathy to their “American sisters” in their cause of abolishing Negro slavery. Marx scornfully asked what business the Duchess of Sutherland had stepping forth as a champion of freedom in America, when at home she herself was living off vast Scottish estates from which not so long ago her own family had driven off 3,000 tenant families and burned their villages in order to turn the land back to pasture lands and ducal hunting preserves.

The Tribune was not only Marx’s meal ticket but his experimental outlet for agitation and ideas during the most creative period of his life. Had there been no Tribune sustaining him, there might possibly— who knows?—have been no Das Kapital. And had there been no Das Kapital, would there have been a Lenin and a Stalin as the master’s disciples? And without a Marxist Lenin and Stalin, in turn, would there have been…? We had best leave the question there. History sometimes moves in mysterious ways.

Few episodes in journalism seem more singular and unlikely than this association of the frowning ideologist of Soho on one hand and, on the other the moon-faced, owlish Vermont Yankee known affectionately to legions of readers in North and West as “Uncle Horace” as he traipsed around the country on the steamcars with his squeaky rural voice, his drooping spectacles, his carpetbag, and his broad-brimmed white hat. It is startling enough today that their careers should ever have become intertwined. What is even more odd in retrospect is the degree to which they did. Although Marx filed well over 500 pieces to the Tribune, just how many there were nobody knows, since many were “spiked,” killed and forgotten, while others were cut up and cannibalized, and still others were taken over bodily and printed without his by-line as leaders in the special precincts of Greeley’s own editorial page. Precisely which of Marx’s pieces were so used only a process of deduction and guesswork can tell, since no copies were kept. Today, scanning the Tribune’s files, one cannot be sure whether the voice one encounters thundering on its most famous page is that of the great Greeley himself or that of his rabid man in London, Herr Doktor Marx.

And the puzzle goes one step further. Even on those occasions when a Tribune contribution is clearly labeled as by Karl Marx, one cannot be sure that it really was written by Marx at all. Managing editor Dana, who conducted the office’s day-to-day dealings with its London correspondent, evidently believed that whatever Marx sold the Tribune as his own really was his own. But today we know better. From Marx’s immense correspondence with his acolyte, financial angel, and amanuensis, Friedrich Engels (still published for the most part only in the original German) we can discover something his American employers at the time never suspected, namely that much of what they bought as by “Karl Marx” was actually ghostwritten by the ever-helpful Engels.

Not one word of the opening article which the Tribune heralded as being by this “clearest and most vigorous” of German writers, Karl Marx, was penned by Marx at all. Nor was anything he sent to the paper under his own name for the next six months or so. Even after that, what was really Marx’s and what was Engels’ is a question that remains to be explored by Ph.D.’s in search of occupation. But all that matters is that much of what the Tribune’s subscribers in the 1850’s took to be the work of Greeley was the work of Marx, and what they took to be the work of Marx was often that of an unknown assistant in Manchester, England, named Engels.