Franz Mehring gives the background to one of Marx’s greatest works, 1852’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
‘The Eighteenth Brumaire’ (1918) by Franz Mehring, Chapter 7 Section 5 from Karl Marx: The Story of His Life. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1935.
Throughout the revolutionary years Marx’s old friend from Brussels, Josef Weydemeyer, fought courageously as the editor of a democratic newspaper in Frankfort-on-Main. When the counter-revolution became more insolent this paper was also suppressed, and after the discovery of the Communist League, of which Weydemeyer was an active member, the police spies soon got on his track also.
At first he took refuge “in a quiet little inn in Sachsenhausen,” hoping that the storm would roll by and occupying himself in the meantime with a popular book on political economy. However, instead the atmosphere became more and more oppressive until finally Weydemeyer burst out with “the devil take this endless hanging around in hiding.” He was a husband and the father of two small children, and as he saw no likelihood of being able to earn a living in Switzerland or in London, he decided to emigrate to America.
Marx and Engels were both very unwilling to lose such a loyal friend, and Marx racked his brains to find some way of finding him employment as an engineer, railway surveyor or something of the sort, but in vain. “Once you are over there, what guarantee is there that you won’t lose yourself somewhere in the Far West? We have so very few really good men and we must be economical with our forces.” However, when Weydemeyer’s departure proved unavoidable they found it was not a bad thing to have a capable representative of the communist cause in the New World. “We need a reliable fellow like Weydemeyer in New York,” declared Engels. “After all, New York is not out of the world, and we know that if we need him Weydemeyer can be relied on.” In the end, therefore, the two gave him their blessing and he sailed from Havre on the 29th of September and after a stormy voyage which lasted almost forty days he arrived safely in New York.
On the 31st of October Marx sent a letter after him advising him to set himself up as a bookseller and publisher in New York, and to take the best things out of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung and the Neue Rheinische Revue and issue them separately. He was therefore delighted when he received a letter from Weydemeyer informing him, to the accompaniment of a certain amount of abuse directed against the shopkeeper mentality, which Weydemeyer declared was nowhere more brazen and disgusting than in the New World, that he hoped to be able to issue a weekly under the title of Die Revolution at the beginning of January and asking for contributions to be sent over as quickly as possible. Marx immediately enthusiastically mobilized all the communist pens and above all that of Engels. He also secured Freiligrath, from whom Weydemeyer wanted a poem, Eccarius, Weerth and the two Wolffs. In his reply to Weydemeyer he complained that the latter had omitted to mention Wilhelm Wolff when announcing the contributors to the weekly and declared: “None of us has his popular manner, but he is very modest and therefore it is all the more our duty to avoid any appearance of considering his cooperation superfluous.” For his own share Marx announced that apart from a long discussion of a new work by Proudhon, he intended to write on “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” or the Bonapartist coup d’etat of the 2nd of December, which was the most important event of the day in European politics and gave rise to much discussion in print.
Two of the works written on the subject by others became famous and their authors were richly rewarded. At a later date Marx described the difference between these two works and his own as follows: “Victor Hugo’s Napoleon le Petit confines itself to bitter and brilliant invective against the responsible author of the coup d’etat. The coup itself appears to him to have come like a bolt from the blue and to be nothing but the result of the violence of an individual, but he fails to observe that thereby he makes this individual great instead of small by crediting him with a personal power of initiative which would be unexampled in world history. On the other hand, Proudhon’s Coup d’Etat attempts to show the coup as the result of a train of previous historical development, but in his hands the historical construction of the coup develops into a historical apologia for the hero of the coup. Thus he falls into the error of our so-called objective historians. In my treatment of the subject, however, I show how the class struggle in France created conditions and circumstances which made it possible for a mediocre and grotesque individual to play the role of a hero.” Marx’s book appeared like a literary Cinderella beside its more fortunate sisters, but whilst the latter have long since become dust and ashes, his work still shines in immortal brilliance to-day.
In a work sparkling with wit and humour, Marx succeeded, thanks to the materialist conception of history, in analysing a contemporary historical event to the very core. The form of the work is as brilliant as its content. From the magnificent comparison contained in its first chapter: “Bourgeois revolutions, such as those of the eighteenth century, storm forward rapidly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in fiery brilliance, ecstasy is the prevailing spirit of every day; but they are short-lived, they soon attain their zenith, and then a long period of depression falls on society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm and stress period soberly. Proletarian revolutions, such as those of the nineteenth century, on the other hand, criticize themselves ceaselessly and interrupt themselves constantly in their own course. They return to what has apparently already been accomplished in order to begin it again and deride with ruthless thoroughness the half-heartedness, weakness and wretchedness of their first attempts. They appear to throw their adversary to the ground only in order that he should draw renewed strength from the earth and rise again still more powerfully before them. They recoil again and again from the uncertain and tremendous nature of their own aims until a situation is created which makes retreat impossible and the circumstances themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” – from this fine beginning to the confident words of the prophetic conclusion: “If the imperial mantle finally falls onto the shoulders of Louis Bonaparte, the bronze statue of Napoleon will crash down from the Vendome column.”
And under what circumstances was this brilliant work written! Least important was the fact that after the first number Weydemeyer was compelled to cease publication of his weekly for lack of funds: “The unparalleled unemployment which has prevailed here since the beginning of the autumn makes it very difficult to start any new venture. And then the workers have been exploited in various ways recently, first Kinkel and then Kossuth. Unfortunately, the majority of them would rather give a dollar for propaganda hostile to them than a cent to defend their own interests. American conditions have an extraordinarily corrupting effect and at the same time they inculcate the arrogant idea that Americans are better than their comrades in the Old World.” However, Weydemeyer did not give up hope of restoring his paper to life, this time as a monthly, and he wanted no more than a miserable two hundred dollars.
Much more important than these troubles was the fact that early in January Marx fell ill and was able to work at all only with great difficulty: “For years nothing has pulled me down as much as this cursed hemorrhoidal trouble, not even the worst French failure.” And above all he was continually troubled by “filthy lucre” or rather the lack of it, which left him no peace. On the 27th of February he wrote: “My affairs have now reached the agreeable point at which I can no longer leave the house because my clothes are in pawn and can no longer eat meat because my credit is exhausted.” But finally, on the 25th of March, he was able to send the last bundle of manuscript to Weydemeyer together with congratulations on the birth of another little revolutionary, of which Weydemeyer had informed him: “It would be impossible to choose a better time to come into the world than at this moment. By the time it is possible to go from London to Calcutta in seven days we shall both have had our heads chopped off or they will be shaky with age. Australia, California and the Pacific! The new world citizens will be unable to realize how small our world was.” Even in the worst of his personal troubles Marx never lost his optimism with regard to the tremendous prospects of human development. And sad days were immediately before him.
In a letter of the 30th of March, Weydemeyer must have robbed him of all hope that his work would be printed. This letter itself has not been preserved, but an echo it produced has, in the shape of a violent letter written by Wilhelm Wolff on the 16th of April, the day on which one of Marx’s children was buried. Wolff declared: “Almost all our friends are afflicted with general misfortune and under horrible pressure.” The letter was full of bitter reproaches of Weydemeyer, whose own life was no bed of roses and who always did his best.
It was a terrible Easter for Marx and his family. The child which had died was their youngest daughter, born a year before, and the following moving description is taken from the diary of Frau Marx: “At Easter, 1852, our poor little Franziska fell ill with severe bronchitis. For three days the poor child struggled against death and suffered much. Her small lifeless body rested in our little back room whilst we all went together into the front room and when night came we made up beds on the floor. The three surviving children lay with us and we cried for the poor little angel who now rested so cold and lifeless in the next room. The poor child’s death took place in a period of bitterest poverty. I went to a French fugitive who lives near us and who had visited us shortly before. He received me with friendliness and sympathy and gave me two pounds and with that money the coffin in which my child could rest peacefully was paid for. It had no cradle when it was born and even the last little shell was denied it long enough. It was terrible for us when the little coffin was carried out to go to its last resting-place.” On this black day Weydemeyer’s letter with its bad news arrived and Marx was sorely troubled about his wife who had witnessed everything fail to which he had set his hand during the previous two years.
However, during those unhappy hours a new letter was already on its way over the water. It was dated the 9th of April and read: “Unexpected assistance finally cleared away the difficulties which prevented publication of the pamphlet. After I had sent off my last letter I met one of our workers from Frankfort, a tailor who also came over here in the summer, and he immediately placed all his savings, forty dollars, at my disposal.” But for this worker The Eighteenth Brumaire would not have been published – and Weydemeyer does not even mention his name! But what does it matter what the man’s name was? The power which moved him was the class consciousness of the proletariat, which never tires of making noble sacrifices for its emancipation.
The Eighteenth Brumaire formed the first number of the monthly Revolution which Weydemeyer now began to issue. The second and final number contained two poetic contributions by Freiligrath in the form of letters to Weydemeyer, scourging with brilliant wit and humour the mendicant peregrinations of Kinkel in America. And that was the end of the venture. A number of contributions sent in by Engels were lost on the way.
Weydemeyer printed a thousand copies of The Eighteenth Brumaire and about one-third of this number went to Europe, but not into the hands of the booksellers. They were distributed by friends and sympathizers in England and in the Rhineland, for even “radical” booksellers could not be persuaded to handle such an “untimely effort, and an English translation drafted by Pieper and polished by Engels was unable to find a publisher.
If it was at all possible to increase the difficulties of Marx in finding a publisher this was done by the circumstance that the Bonapartist coup d’etat in France was followed by the Cologne Communist Trial in Germany.
Karl Marx: The Story of His Life by Franz Mehring. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York.
Franz Mehring brought all his considerable gifts to bear for this classic 1918 biography of Karl Marx. A major undertaking and labor of love, it is the first substantial biography in any language of Marx. Mehring, through his connections to the Marx family, had access to letters, drafts, and unpublished material unavailable to others. Delayed and hampered by military censorship and World War One, Mehring died just months after it was published and only two weeks after the murder of his comrades Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Considered by many to be the Marx biography by which all others are measured, this work has been translated into over two dozen languages. This is the first English language translation and edition. It deserves to be on the shelf of every student of Marx and Marxism.
Contents: Author’s Preface, Chronology, I) EARLY YEARS, Home and School, Jenny Von Westphalen, II) A PUPIL OF HEGEL, The First Year in Berlin,The Young Hegelians, The Philosophy of Self-Consciousness, The Doctoral Disseration, The Anekdota and the Rheinische Zeitung, The Rhenish Diet, Five Months of Struggle, Ludwig Feuerbach, Marriage and Banishment, III) EXILE IN PARIS, The Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, A Philosophic Perspective, On the Jewish Question, French Civilization, The Vorwärts and the Expulsion of Marx, IV) FRIEDRICH ENGELS, Office and Barracks, English Civilization, The Holy Family, A Fundamental Socialist Work, V) EXILE IN BRUSSELS: The German Ideology, “True Socialism”, Weitling and Proudhon, Historical Materialism, The Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung, The Communist League, Propaganda in Brussels, The Communist Manifesto, VI) REVOLUTION AND COUNTER-REVOLUTION, February and March Days, June Days, The War against Russia, September Days, The Cologne Democracy, Freiligrath and Lassalle, October and November Days, An Act of Perfidy, And Another Cowardly Trick, VII) EXILE IN LONDON, The Neue Rheinische Revue, The Kinkel Affair, The Split in the Communist League, Life in Exile, The Eighteenth Brumaire, The Communist Trial in Cologne, VIII) MARX AND ENGELS, Genius and Society, An Incomparable Alliance, IX) THE CRIMEAN WAR AND THE CRISIS, European Politics, David Urquhart, G. J. Harney and Ernest Jones, Family and Friends, The Crisis of 1857, The Critique of Political Economy, X) DYNASTIC CHANGES, The Italian War, The Dispute with Lassalle, New Struggles in Exile, Interludes, Herr Vogt, Domestic and Personal Affairs, Lassalle’s Agitation XI) THE EARLY YEARS OF THE INTERNATIONAL, The Founding of the International, The Inaugural Address, The Breach with Schweitzer, The First Conference in London, The Austro-Prussian War, The Geneva Congress, XII) DAS KAPITAL, Birth Pangs, The First Volume, The Second and Third Volumes, The Reception of Capital, XIII) THE INTERNATIONAL AT ITS ZENITH, England France and Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, Bakunin’s Agitation, The Alliance of Socialist Democracy, The Basle Congress, Confusion in Geneva, “The Confidential Communication”, The Irish Amnesty and the French Plebiscite, XIV) THE DECLINE OF THE INTERNATIONAL, Sedan, After Sedan, The Civil War in France, The International and the Paris Commune, The Bakuninist Opposition, The Second Conference in London, The Disintegration of the International, The Hague Congress, Valedictory Twinges, XV) THE LAST DECADE, Marx at Home, The German Social Democracy, Anarchism and the War in the Near East, The Dawn of a New Day, Twilight, The Last Year, Bibliography, Index. 608 pages, illustrated.
PDF of 1935 book: https://archive.org/download/karlmarxstorylife/karlmarxstorylife.pdf