When Karl Marx Worked For Horace Greeley

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If readers were astonished at their Uncle Horace for bringing so alien a person as this Marx into their fold, they had only to remember that he had surprised them often before. In the ten years of its existence, his paper had espoused more varied causes and assembled around itself a more unconventional array of talents than any major daily had ever done before (and, one may safely add, than any has done since). It had come out for free homesteading and labor unions at a time when these were drastic new ideas. It had also backed socialist community experiments, the graham bread cult, pacifism, vegetarianism, and Mrs. Bloomer’s clothing reform. The Utopian Albert Brisbane had preached in its pages the virtues of his North American Phalanx, a communal colony set up according to the principles of the Frenchman Charles Fourier. The formidable, rhapsodic Margaret Fuller, whom Nathaniel Hawthorne had once called “the Transcendental heifer,” had preached feminism in itand then moved right into Greeley’s own married home. The paper’s star performers ranged from Bayard Taylor, the romantic poet and world traveler whose profile made him look the part of an American Lord Byron, to George Ripley, the exuberant Unitarian minister who had broken away to found the cooperative retreat at Brook Farm where intellectuals carried on Socratic discourse and took in each other’s washing.

Greeley himself was always inquiring and imaginative, and with the priceless possession of an independent popular newspaper at his command he stood at the center of the turbulence as a barometer, a bellwether, a broker of new notions and ideas. Nothing was quite alien to him in the assorted stirrings of that era—not even the Fox sisters of Rochester, who had attracted much attention with their clairvoyant “spirit-rappings,” and whom he invited to his house for a séance along with the famed Swedish soprano, Jenny Lind, newly brought to this country as the protégée of his somewhat gamy yet still moralistic crony, Phineas T. Barnum.

For such a man as Greeley, then, not even Karl Marx was quite beyond the pale. What was meant by this new gospel of socialism, after all? Did it really involve total overthrow? One of the Tribune’s intellectual friends, Henry James senior, speaking at a time when his more famous sons, William and Henry junior, were still playing with building blocks, had put the case for socialism on a religious basis. Our present society, he had said, “affords no succor to the divine life in man.” Yet every creature of God was entitled to ample physical as well as social subsistence—that is, the respect and brotherly affection of every other creature of God. Greeley, deeply devotional himself, had been moved by the force of the argument. At the same time he balked at the idea of an all-knowing new system that would paternally take care of everyone. The ancient conflict between freedom and order burned in his mind. Better go on listening to both sides, then, he thought.

Up to a point, the apostles of change had a good case, he said in the Tribune. “We … who stand for a comprehensive Reform in the social relations of mankind impeach the present Order as defective and radically vicious in the following particulars…. It does not secure opportunity to labor, nor to acquire industrial skill and efficiency to those who need it most…. It dooms the most indigent class to pay for whatever of comforts and necessaries they may enjoy … at a higher rate than is exacted of the more affluent classes … [and] for the physical evils it inflicts, Society has barely two palliatives—Private Alms-giving and the Poorhouse….” Yet he did not want a class revolution, he insisted. He wanted to see co-operation and harmony. He looked forward to a reorganization of life amid the threatening weight of the factory system that would give each worker a share of the proceeds of the enterprise or else an opportunity to strike out on his own on free land from our national domain, where he could build his own enterprise.

Such ideas, far from seeming subversive, pulsed like wine through the veins of a young generation. One of those who had been swept up was a well-bred Harvard junior named Charles A. Dana. Young Dana, handsome, well-spoken, and idealistic, joined Ripley’s colony when it was set up at Brook Farm and lived there for five years, milking the cows, teaching other intellectuals’ children German and Greek, and waiting on tables to such distinguished visitors as Hawthorne, William Ellery Channing, Miss Fuller, and Greeley himself.

When Brook Farm burned down both Ripley and his young helper found berths on Greeley’s everhospitable Tribune. The year 1848 broke—a time of real revolution abroad as against the pastoral make-believe of Brook Farm at home. Young Dana, fired by the reports the first packet steamers were bringing in, managed to get a leave of absence from the fourteen-dollar-a-week job he then held as Greeley’s city editor to go to Europe and see the drama. He was in Paris at the height of the insurrection that overthrew the July Monarchy. Paris went to the barricades, and reporter Dana climbed them too. He saw blood flow in the rue de Rivoli.

From this scene Dana sped on to Germany for more hopeful signs. There, in Cologne, he called on editor Karl Marx, then functioning during a brief lifting of the police ban as editor of the grubby Neue Rheinische Zeitung.