‘A Worker’s Memories of Karl Marx’ by Friedrich Lessner from Karl Marx: Man, Thinker, and Revolutionist. International Publishers, New York. 1927.

‘A Worker’s Memories of Karl Marx’ by Friedrich Lessner from Karl Marx: Man, Thinker, and Revolutionist; a Symposium edited by David Riazanov, Translations by Eden and Paul Cedar. International Publishers, New York. 1927.

Since the death of our great champion, much has been written about him, his life, and his work — and this both by adherents and by opponents. But the writers of these essays, with few exceptions, were not (I use a phrase current among certain trade unions in “free” England) bona-fide workers. Either by origin or position in life, most of them belonged to what is called the middle class.

with daughter Jenny.

I do not think, then, that my forerunners will take it amiss if I, as a workman, as a plebeian knight of the needle, write down for the benefit of my younger comrades, on the occasion of this commemorative festival, my memories of our immortal champion. These memories are based upon many years’ personal intercourse with Karl Marx. In part they will describe the impressions which Marx made on myself and others, and in part they will amplify the picture of his life.


I was still a very young man when, in the middle forties, I first came across the name of Karl Marx in the columns of the “Deutsche Brusseler Zeitung.” In 1847, during the discussion and acceptance of the draft of that historical document the Communist Manifesto, I became more closely acquainted with his doctrines. At that time I was working in London, and was a member of the Communist Workers’ Educational Society, which met at 191 Drury Lane. Here, in the end of November and the beginning of December, 1847, was held a conference of the members of the central committee of the Communist League. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels attended this conference, having journeyed from Brussels to give the members of the League their views concerning modern communism and its relationship to politics and the working-class movement. The sittings of this conference were, of course, held in the evenings. Only delegates were admitted, but we who were not delegates were keenly interested in the progress of the discussions, and were kept informed as to what was going on. Ere long we learned that, after prolonged debates, it had been unanimously agreed to accept the principles expounded by Marx and Engels, who were commissioned to write a manifesto embodying their outlooks. When, early in 1848, the manuscript of the manifesto reached London, I was privileged to play a modest part in the publication of this epoch-making document, for I took the manuscript to the printer and in due course brought back the proofs for correction to Karl Schapper, the principal founder of the Communist Workers’ Educational Society.

In 1848, after the outbreak of the revolution, the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” was founded at Cologne by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who had various members of the Communist League and a number of convinced democrats as collaborators. I, too, went to live in Cologne, and did my utmost to help the comrades in their propaganda, Wherever I happened to be working, I distributed copies of the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung,” and often, while at work, read some of the articles aloud to my fellow-workers, who usually formed an enthusiastic audience. In May, 1849, after the Prussian government had again and again taken legal proceedings against the newspaper, it was forcibly suppressed, and Marx was expelled from Cologne. Soon afterwards I shared this fate. In the year 1851, I was arrested in Mainz. After spending two years in prison on remand, I was at the famous trial of the Cologne communists, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in a fortress. I served my time in Graudenz, and in Silberberg on the Silesian frontier.

Cologne Communist trial.

During the trial, Marx (now settled in London) did all he could on our behalf; but his labours and those of his friends were rendered fruitless by the machinations of Police Commissary Stieber and other saviours of society, by the class prejudice of the jury, and — I must sadly admit — by the stupidity of some of our own folk for whose blunders we were held responsible.

Already in those days there were quite a number of so-called men of action, ultra-revolutionary by profession, for whom nothing was radical enough. They cherished the illusion that the revolution could be brought about at any moment by “putsches” or extemporized insurrections. Nine out of ten of them, however, were men of words and not of deeds, phrase-makers who had never done any serious work in the movement. The most rabid among them, whose clamour was designed to make you feel that they longed to fix their teeth in every exploiter’s throat, have since then become the worst exploiters of the lot. Some of them were to be seen in later years driving in their private carriages through the streets of London.

No. 28 Dean Street, Soho, London where the Marx family lived for most of the 1850s.

When my term of detention in a fortress was over I returned to London in 1856, and there I at length came into personal contact with Marx.

In 1850 he and his intimates had left the Communist Workers’ Educational Society, because the putschists, under the leadership of Willich, had gained the upper hand in that body. But when Kinkel, who in his day was one of the ultra-revolutionists, had been expelled, I was able to induce Marx to visit the Society once more, and to give lectures there upon political and economic topics. Liebknecht and other party comrades also rejoined the organisation.

Kinkel had founded a periodical called “Hermann,” and in the days of the Italian war this voiced the Bonapardst slogans. As a counterblast, “Das Volk” was published in the spring of 1859, and Marx was invited to contribute to its columns. He wrote for it some very interesting articles upon Prussia’s attitude towards the Italian imbroglio, and also sent a whip round among his friends for funds to support the new paper. The same year appeared Zur Kritik der politischen Oeconomie (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy); and in 1860 Marx published Herr Vogt, to expose the Bonapartist machinations of this gentleman and those of his “patrons and confederates.” This work was penned to refute the shameless calumnies that were being circulated by Vogt and his friends. It contains a great deal of information concerning the history of the refugee movement after the revolution of 1848, and a valuable account of the diplomatic intrigues of the European cabinets.

At length, in 1864, the International was called to life. I played an active part in its foundation, and became a member of the General Council, being thus brought into closer relationship with Marx.

Founding the International in 1864.

He was always especially delighted to get into touch with manual workers, and to have opportunities for conversing with them. He especially sought the company of those who did not hesitate to oppose his views frankly, and those who did not trouble him with flattery. The views of manual workers concerning the movement were of great interest to him. He was always ready to discuss important political and economic problems with them, quickly discovering whether they really knew what they were talking about, and being overjoyed when this was the case. During the lifetime of the International, he never missed a sitting of the General Council. After the sittings, most of us, Marx included, usually adjourned to a quiet tavern and continued the discussions informally over a glass of beer. On the way home, Marx often talked about the normal working day, for as early as 1866 we had begun agitating on behalf of the eight-hour day, and this became part of our program at the Geneva Congress in September, 1866. Marx was fond of saying: “We want to get an eight-hour day established as the normal, but we ourselves are apt to work at least twice as long!” It is unfortunately true that Marx was too prone to work overtime, that he suffered from overwork. The International alone cost him a vast amount of time and energy — how much, no outsider can possibly realise. Besides this, he had to work for his living, and to spend innumerable hours in the British Museum Reading Room gathering material for his historical and economic writings. I lived not far from the Museum, and on his way back to his home, in Maitland Park Road, Haverstock Hill, North London, he would often drop in to have a word with me about some matter connected with the affairs of the International. When he got home, he would sup, and then take a short rest. After that he usually set to work again, often working far into the night and even into the small hours — more especially when he had been kept away from his desk too long after supper by visits from comrades.

A young Jenny von Westphalen.

Marx’s house was always open to a trusty comrade. I can never forget the happy hours which I, like so many others, spent in his family circle. Here his wife was the most striking figure. She was a tall and very beautiful woman, of distinguished appearance, but at the same time so kindhearted, so amiable, so full of life and withal so natural and so free from stiffness, that visitors felt as much at home with her as if she had been their own mother or sister. Her whole personality irresistibly recalled the words of Thomas Otway: “Woman, lovely Woman, nature made thee to temper man.” She was an enthusiast for the workers’ cause; and she rejoiced at any victory, however small, won by the workers in their fight with the bourgeoisie.

The three daughters, too, were from earliest childhood keenly interested in the modern working-class movement, which was always the main topic of conversation in the Marx household. The relationships between Marx and the girls were the most intimate and unconstrained that can be imagined. They treated him more like a brother or a friend than a lather, for Marx had no love for the role of authoritative parent. In serious matters, he was his children’s counsellor; and when he could spare the time, he was their playmate. He had, in fact, an intense love for children, and would often say that what he liked best in the biblical figure of Jesus was the latter’s fondness for the little ones. When nothing called him to central London, and his walks took him towards Hampstead Heath, the author of Capital would, as likely as not, be seen having a romp with a crowd of children of the streets.

Like all truly great men, Marx was quite free from arrogance, giving due credit to all honest endeavour, and valuing every opinion grounded on independent thought. As I have said before, he was always eager to learn what simple manual workers thought about the labour movement. In the afternoons he frequently came to see me, took me out for a walk, and talked to me of anything and everything. Of course, I left the conversation to him as far as I could, for it was such a delight to listen to the development of his thoughts and also to hear him when he was in lighter vein. I was enthralled on such occasions, and found it difficult to tear myself away from him. The charm of his companionship impressed, one might almost say bewitched, all who came in contact with him. He had an inexhaustible fund of humour, and his laughter invariably rang true. If some of our own folk had gained a success anywhere, no matter in what country, he would express his jubilation with such heartiness that those in his company were irresistibly swept into the current of exultation. He was overjoyed at every electoral victory won by the German workers, and at every victorious strike. What intense pleasure he would have had could he have lived to witness the huge May Day demonstrations we are now able to organise. The attacks of his opponents only amused him, and I loved to hear the ironical and sarcastic way in which he spoke of them. Very remarkable was his nonchalance in the matter of his own works, once they had played their part. Should the name of one of his earlier books crop up in the conversation, he would say to me: “If you want to see a complete collection of my writings, you must apply to Lassalle, who keeps track of them all. For my part, I have not even one copy of most of them.” This was not a rhetorical exaggeration, but the simple truth. Again and again, he asked for the loan of some book of his of which I happened to have a copy.

Jenny and Laura Marx.

For many years, Marx’s writings remained quite unknown to the masses; and even today they have never been sufficiently appreciated. This applies, above all, to the works written before and during the revolution of 1848 and in the years next ensuing — works whose circulation at that time encountered very serious difficulties. But there is no widespread knowledge even of his other books, for he was never the man to blow his own trumpet. Those who collaborated with Marx and Engels from the earliest days cannot but laugh when they hear the foundation of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiter-verein (the General Union of German Workers) described as the beginning of the modern working-class movement. The organisation of this body took place in the early sixties, when Marx, Engels, and others had been busily engaged in propaganda for twenty years. I do not write this in any spirit of opposition to Lassalle. I knew him personally during the years 1848 to 1850, prized the man for his volcanic energy, and am glad to acknowledge the powerful effect of his agitational work. Thanks to Lassalle, the movement took a great stride forwards. The last time I saw him was in October and November, 1852, during the trial of the Cologne communists, which he attended as an interested spectator. I did not meet him during any of his repeated visits to London. He did not come to the Communist Workers’ Educational Society, and I missed him at Marx’s.

In the beginning of October, 1868, Marx told me gleefully that the first volume of Capital had been translated into Russian and was in the press in St. Petersburg. He had a very high opinion of the Russian movement, referring with much respect to the Russians, who were making such great sacrifices for the study and spread of works on scientific theory, and commending them for their grasp of modern thought. When the first copy of the Russian edition of his book came to hand, this seemed to him a notable sign of the times, and was an occasion for rejoicing, not to Marx alone, but to his family and his friends as well.

Marx in 1866.

Whenever the workers sustained a defeat in their conflict with the exploiting class, Marx took the cause of the vanquished very much to heart, and rallied vigorously to their defense against the never-failing taunts of the conquerors. Such was his reaction after the June Days (Paris, in 1848), after the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Germany, and after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 — when the reactionaries all over the world and even the majority of the unenlightened workers turned furiously on any who dared to espouse the cause of the Communards. Marx was the very first to champion the massacred and persecuted fighters for the Commune; and the Address of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, called The Civil War in France, shows with what splendid energy he did this. Verily, it is after a defeat that we know our true friends.

After the downfall of the Commune, work in the International became continually more irritating to Marx and brought him less and less inward satisfaction. Every revolution attracts, in addition to all the doughty fighters, a number of undesirable characters, adventurers of one sort and another who hope to derive personal advantage from the situation. There were many such undesirables among the Communard refugees; and, for the very reason that they had derived loss instead of profit from what had happened in Paris, they now did their utmost to sow dissension. To do this was all the easier because there already existed a conspicuous lack of harmony in the ranks of the Communards. The Blanquists, the Proudhonists, the autonomists, the anarchists, and “ists” of various other denominations were perpetually flying at one another’s throats. The troubles were reflected in the sittings of the General Council. These were often stormy, and Marx had the utmost difficulty in persuading his fellow-members to be reasonable. The patience he usually displayed on these occasions beggars description. But from time to time the distorted views and the crazy schemes of the disappointed Communards exasperated him beyond endurance.

The worst hotheads, the most unreasonable, were the Blanquists. They already had the revolution in their pockets once more, and were ready to deal out death-sentences right and left.

No. 9 Grafton Terrace where the Marx family lived from 1856-1864

So far, these disputes were amusing rather than serious; but the quarrels among the French dragged the delegates of other nations into the fray. Some sympathized with one faction, some with another. Since, in addition, Bakunin, an arch-intriguer, was busily at work, the sittings in High Holborn (where the General Council then met) were more lively than words can tell. There was incessant friction. The babel of tongues, the conflict of temperaments and outlooks, made it a Herculean task to keep the peace. Those who are in the habit of blaming Marx for his intolerance should have watched the skill and the patience with which he entered into the ideas of the disputants, and showed them where their reasoning was erroneous.

In certain respects and to a certain degree, every political warrior must be intolerant; and in my opinion we should be extremely grateful to Marx for having done everything he could to keep contentious and ambiguous elements out of the International. In the early days of the organisation, a very mixed lot of people applied for membership — among others, Bradlaugh, the high-priest of atheism. To Marx, chiefly, we owe it that these worthies were given to understand that the International Workingmen’s Association was not a nursery for sectarians, whether religious, anti-religious, or of any other persuasion.

Eleanor Marx.

It was a great satisfaction to Marx when his daughters, Jenny and Laura married two excellent fellows of the same way of thinking as himself. Jenny’s husband was Charles Longuet, and Laura’s was Paul Lafargue. The youngest girl, Eleanor, likewise ultimately married a talented socialist, Edward Aveling; but, alas, this was not until after the death of both her parents. With what keen enjoyment would they have watched their children’s activities on behalf of the emancipation of the workers; and how delighted would they have been to acclaim the advances made by the working-class movement during the last ten years!

Marx’s eldest daughter, Jenny, was endowed with all the qualities of her mother, qualities that were good without exception. Her untimely death in 1882 was a misfortune which occurred at a particularly unfavourable moment for Marx. The elder Jenny, Marx’s lifelong companion, had died barely twelve months earlier, on December 2, 1881, and he never recovered from these two terrible blows. He was already suffering from an extremely bad cough, which was so violent that it seemed as if it would shake his powerful frame to pieces. But for years before this, his constitution had been weakened by persistent overwork. About seven years earlier, his doctor had forbidden him to smoke. He had always been a heavy smoker, and this was a great sacrifice. The first time I saw him after the prohibition had been issued, he proudly told me how many days had elapsed since his last smoke, and said he was determined not to smoke any more until the doctor gave him leave. On subsequent visits, it was just the same; he always told me the exact sum in days and weeks since this severe regimen had been enforced on him, and assured me that he had never broken the rule. In fact he could hardly believe in the reality of his own abstinence. All the greater, then, was his pleasure when, after a while, his medical adviser allowed him one cigar a day.


There can be no two opinions as to the fact that Karl Marx’s death was premature. Those who were in confidential intercourse with him had long been anxious about his health, for Marx would take no proper precautions when the interest of his scientific studies and that of the labour movement were at stake. None of his friends and none of the members of his family circle could influence him in these matters. His posthumous papers suffice to show what a wealth of knowledge has gone with him into the grave, though they do not contain as much as a tenth part of what he had planned to write. Still, these papers have come down to us as his legacy, and will be made accessible to us. We can congratulate ourselves that Marx’s oldest and most intimate friend, Friedrich Engels, is still with us in full vigour of mind and body. He will make himself responsible for the editing of these posthumous works of Marx.

While Marx is thus supplying us, even after his death, with new knowledge and new outlooks, his teachings are spreading ever more widely throughout the fighting proletariat, and everywhere the working-class movement is being more and more influenced by these teachings. For Marx was not content with giving the masses the mighty slogan, “Workers of the world, unite”; he also furnished the platform upon which their union could take place and is taking place. The International, whose animating spirit Karl Marx was, has been reborn, more powerful than ever; and the banner round which the working-class battalions of the international labour movement throng, is the banner which Marx raised in 1848, the one which the fighting proletariat has carried for a whole generation. Beneath this banner the workers’ army is now marching onward from victory to victory.

Karl Marx: Man, Thinker, and Revolutionist; a Symposium edited by David Riazanov, Translations by Eden and Paul Cedar. International Publishers, New York. 1927.

Contents: Introduction by D. Ryazanoff, Karl Marx by Friedrich Engels, Engels’s Letter to Sorge concerning the Death of Marx, Speech by Engels at Marx’s Funeral, Karl Marx by Eleanor Marx, The June Days by Karl Marx, The Revolution of 1848 and the Proletariat A Speech by Karl Marx, Karl Marx by G. Plehanoff, Karl Marx and Metaphor by Franz Mehring, Stagnation and Progress of Marxism by Rosa Luxemburg, Marxism by Nikolai Lenin, Darwin and Marx by K. Timiryazeff, Personal Recollections of Karl Marx  by Paul Lafargue, A Worker’s Memories of Karl Marx by Friedrich Lessner, Marx and the Children by Wilhelm Liebknecht, Sunday Outings on the Heath by Wilhelm Liebknecht, Hyndman on Marx by Nikolai Lenin, Karl Marx’s “Confessions” by D. Ryazanoff.

PDF of book: https://archive.org/download/in.ernet.dli.2015.54746/2015.54746.Karl-Marx-Man-Thinker-And-Revolutionist_text.pdf

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