When Karl Marx Worked For Horace Greeley

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Equally, he turned on tsarist Russia, in whose “good will” toward Turkey the Times of London was at the moment voicing hopeful confidence. “The good will of Russia toward Turkey!” he snorted. “Peter I proposed to raise himself on the ruins of Turkey…. Czar Nicholas, more moderate, only demands the exclusive Protectorate of Turkey. Mankind will not forget that Russia was the protector of Poland, the protector of the Crimea, the protector of Courland, Georgia, Mingrelia, the Circassian and Caucasian tribes. And now Russia, the protector of Turkey!”

On this score there was trouble again between Marx and Greeley. Greeley, a perennial twister of the British lion’s tail, was inclined to take sides with Russia’s aspirations. Marx was violently against all imperial ambitions in Europe. “The devil take the Tribune!” he exploded to comrade Engels. “It has simply got to come out against Pan-slavism. If not, we may have to break with the little sheet.” But he added quickly, “Yet that would be fatal.”

When Marx turned around again and let fly at the British government and social system, he spoke a language more pleasing to Greeley and his American constituents. The foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, was “that brilliant boggler and loquacious humbug.” Lord John Russell was “that diminutive earth-man.” Gladstone was “a phrase-mongering charlatan.” And as for Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, “He has devoted his time partly to fattening pigs, to inventing ridiculous hats for the army, to planning model lodging-houses of a peculiarly transparent and uncomfortable kind, to the Hyde Park exhibition, and to amateur soldiery. He has been considered amiable and harmless, in point of intellect below the general average of human beings, a prolific father, and an obsequious husband.” By the time he wrote this, Karl Marx had clearly mastered English on his own and needed little further help from Engels.

But from under this coruscating surface there always emerged before the end of the article the same Marxian refrain. It was that of the inevitable approach of new and sweeping revolution. Marx saw it coming everywhere. One of his most scathing pieces, written with the atmosphere of a columnist’s exclusive, was a detailed forecast of the cynical maneuvers which he said the five Great Powers were about to stage over the Middle East. “But,” he wound up, “we must not forget that there is a sixth power in Europe, which at any given moment asserts its supremacy over the whole of the five so-called Great Powers, and makes them tremble, every one of them. That power is the Revolution. Long silent and retired, it is now again called to action…. From Manchester to Rome, from Paris to Warsaw to Perth, it is omnipresent, lifting up its head….”

And so on. Eventually the Tribune began to weary of Marx’s obiter dicta. For the next revolution in Europe showed no signs of coming. Instead of making for Marx’s barricades, the masses seemed intent simply on pursuing their own business. In 1855 editor Greeley traveled to Europe, a somewhat incongruous figure in his Yankee whiskers and duster. But he refrained from calling upon his chief correspondent and revolutionary expert in London, Karl Marx. So the two men, moving like tall ships on contrary courses in the narrow seas of Europe, never met.

Perhaps Marx had laid on too thickly. Perhaps, while marshaling his massive batteries of facts and handing down his imperious conclusions, he had presumed too much on the hospitality of his readership. Or perhaps America, open-minded yet realistic and absorbed in the practicalities of its own fast-changing existence, had outgrown him. In any case he was not talking about unleashing the “divine life” in man, as the idealists around Greeley had done not so many years before. (Once a Tribune editor appended to a homily of Marx’s that was run as an editorial a windup sentence beginning, “God grant that—” which at once aroused Marx’s ire. He wasn’t asking God to grant anything.) Marx was calling for revolutionary wars and barricades. A war did come—but not the one Marx had projected. It was our own.

In 1857, a year when American minds were intent on our imminent crisis over the extension of slavery, Dana wrote Marx circumspectly on Greeley’s behalf to say that because of the current economic depression the Tribune found itself forced to reduce drastically all its foreign correspondence. “Diese Yankees sind doch verdammt lausige Kerle” (damned lousy bums), Marx burst out to Engels in his original German, charging that they now wanted to toss him aside like a squeezed lemon. But Dana, knowing Marx’s financial situation, came through with an offer of outside help. He himself was editing on the side a compilation to be called the New American Cyclopaedia. Wouldn’t Marx like to do a number of short sketches on historic personalities for it, at two dollars per printed page? Marx had no alternative but to accept. So the twin revolutionists sat down, grumbling as ever, to deliver hackwork biographies beginning under letter B with Barclay, Bernadotte, Berthier, Blücher, Bourrienne…