When Karl Marx Worked For Horace Greeley

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Under such circumstances, the relationship to the Tribune of a man who was haughty and irascible to begin with, and stone-broke, bitter, and fearful of his family’s very survival besides, promised to be stormy. Marx constantly importuned his New York employers for more linage, better treatment of his copy, and, above all, more pay. When this was not forthcoming, he vented his spleen in scribblings to Engels in which he variously described the Tribune as Löschpapier (that blotter) or Das Lauseblatt (that lousy rag), its editors as Kerle and Burschen (those guys, those bums), Dana as Der Esel (that ass) and Greeley himsell as “ Dieser alte Esel with the face angelic.” The two German intellectuals consoled themselves by looking down their noses at the the mass-circulation Yankee daily for which they found themselves having to work. “One really needn’t put one’s self out lor this rag,” said Engels to Marx; “Barman struts about life-size in its columns, and its English is appalling.” And Marx in turn muttered to Engels, “It’s disgusting to be condemned to regard it as good fortune to be taken into the company of such a rag. To pound and grind bones and cook up soup out of them like paupers in the workhouse—that’s what the political work comes down to which we’re condemned to do there.”

Moreover, Marx disagreed with many of the Tribune ’s policies—although he avoided an open break, fearful of losing his meal ticket. One particular anathema to him was the idea of a protective tariff. Yet Greeley, whose dallyings with socialism had never interfered with his enthusiasm for American business enterprise, felt that protectionism was just the thing. When he heard this, Marx erupted darkly to Engels, “Das alles ist very ominous.”

Managing editor Dana had a difficult time with the impetuous pair in London. Most of the letters in which he answered Marx’s multilingual torrent of demands and protests have been lost. But Dana was a born diplomat, shrewd, worldly, a trifle sardonic, and his responses were always smooth. He addressed Marx gracefully “in the name of our friendship,” but avoided paying him the triple rate Marx had asked for, and eventually also cut down his space. Marx stormed but went on writing for the Tribune, which at least let him say what he wanted to say. “Mr. Marx has indeed opinions of his own, with some of which we are far from agreeing,” an editorial note in the paper remarked; “but those who do not read his letters neglect one of the most instructive sources of information on the great questions of European politics.”

For, in spite of all their letting off steam to one another about the “lousiness” of the Yankeeblatt the partners Marx and Engels finally settled down together to do an extraordinary journalistic job for it. In a day before the coming of the transatlantic cable, and when Europe’s own overland telegraph lines were still too sparse and costly to carry more than fragmentary press reports, England was the world’s great communications center by reason of its unrivaled sea traffic in every direction. Marx and Engels were keenly aware of this and set themselves up as a sort of central agency amassing world news and intelligence for their American client—with their own slant, of course. With Teutonic diligence they dredged up from diplomatic dispatches, statistical abstracts, government files, the British Museum, gossip, and newspapers in half a dozen languages gathered from Copenhagen to Calcutta, a mass of information on going topics such as had never reached an American newspaper before.

In 1853 the eyes of Europe turned apprehensively toward the growing crisis between the Western powers and Russia over the control of weak but strategic Turkey—a contest that soon led to the Crimean War. Marx and Engels provided their American readers with a background series that discussed the ethnic make-up of the area, reviewed its diplomatic history as far back as the treaty of 1393 between the Sublime Porte and Walachia, characterized all its chief personalities, and estimated down to battalion strengths the military forces and capabilities of the contenders. Some of this made for dry reading, but Marx had a way of breaking through into language of a vigor any American could understand. He poured vitriol on the Western rulers trying to maintain decadent Turkey as their tool:

“Now, when the shortsightedness of the ruling pygmies prides itself on having successfully freed Europe from the dangers of anarchy and revolution, up starts again the everlasting topic, ‘What shall we do with Turkey?’ Turkey is the living sore of European legitimacy. The impotency of legitimate, monarchial governments ever since the first French Revolution has resumed itself in the axiom, Keep up the status quo.... The status quo in Turkey! Why, you might as well try to keep up the present degree of putridity into which the carcass of a dead horse has passed at a given time, before the putridity is complete.”