‘Karl Marx: Genius and Society’ by Franz Mehring from Karl Marx: The Story of His Life. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1935.

A wonderfully written chapter from Franz Mehring classic biography, this warm-hearted appreciation of Marx’s hard-working genius, and its rejection by and hostility from bourgeois society; his life as an exile in London, and his his labors in the midst of poverty, disappointment, and worldly travails. Beautiful.

‘Karl Marx: Genius and Society’ by Franz Mehring from Karl Marx: The Story of His Life. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1935.

MARX found a second home in England, but the meaning of the word must not be stretched too far. Actually he was never interfered with in England on account of his revolutionary agitation although in the last resort it was naturally directed against the English State also. The government of “greedy and jealous shopkeepers” displayed a greater measure of self-respect and dignity than did those continental governments whose uneasy consciences caused them to hunt down their enemies with every measure of police oppression even when they were guilty of no more than discussion and propaganda.

In another and deeper sense Marx never found a home once his keen eye had penetrated the shams of bourgeois society. A discussion on the fate of genius in bourgeois society would fill a bulky chapter. Various opinions have been expressed on the subject, from the naive confidence of the Philistine who prophesies the final victory to every man of genius, to the melancholy words of Faust:

Die Wenigen, die was davon erkannt,
Die töricht gnug ihr volles Herz nicht wahrten,
Dem Pöbel ihr Gefühl, ihr Schauen offenbarten,
Hat man von je gekreuzigt und verbrannt

Those few who saw and understood, and then,
With folly opened wide their hearts,
And showed their feelings to the mob,
Died ever at the stake or on the cross.

No. 28 Dean Street, off Oxford Street, Soho where Marx and family lived in poverty for much of the 1850s.

The historical method which Marx developed permits us to look more closely into the relation of things in this question also. The Philistine, for the very reason that he is a Philistine, prophesies the final victory to every man of genius, and if for once a genius escapes crucifixion, the stake then in the last resort, it is because he resigned himself to becoming a Philistine. Without the powdered pig-tails hanging down their backs neither Goethe nor Hegel would ever have been acknowledged as geniuses in bourgeois society.

Bourgeois society, which in this respect is nothing more than the most clearly defined form of all class societies, may have as many other advantages as you please, but it has never been a hospitable host to genius. In fact, it could not be, for the very essence of genius must always consist in releasing the creative impulses of human nature in the face of all traditional obstacles, and in shaking at those barriers without which class society could not exist. Over the entrance to a lonely cemetery on the island of Sylt, which affords a last resting place to the unknown dead washed up by the sea, stands the pious inscription: “Here is the Cross of Golgotha, the Home of the Homeless.” Unconsciously but none the less aptly this inscription sums up the fate of genius in class society. Homeless in class society, genius finds a resting place only under the cross on Golgotha.

Unless, however, genius agrees to tolerate class society. When genius placed itself at the service of bourgeois society in order to overthrow feudal society, it apparently won tremendous power, but immediately it attempted to act on its own account, that power melted away at once and genius was permitted to end its days on the rocks of St. Helena. Or on the other hand, genius consented to don the sober cutaway of the Philistine, and in that case it was permitted to rise to become Minister of State to the Grand Duke of Weimar or Royal Prussian Professor in Berlin. But woe betide that incorruptible genius which holds itself in proud independence of bourgeois society, which prophesies the approaching end of bourgeois society from the data supplied by the latter’s own internal workings, and which forges the weapons to give bourgeois society the coup de grace! For such genius bourgeois society has nothing but sufferings and tortures still more cruel than the punishments of antiquity or the stake of the middle ages, though outwardly they may appear less brutal.

Amongst the geniuses of the nineteenth century, none suffered more under this lot than the greatest genius of them all, Karl Marx. He was compelled to wrestle with poverty even in the first decade of his public activities, and when he emigrated to London he was loaded with all the burdens of the exile. However, the sufferings which made his lot Promethean befell him only in the prime of his manhood when, in his laborious efforts to advance the cause of humanity, he was compelled at the same time to struggle day after day with the miserable and trivial worries of life, to struggle desperately to obtain the bare means of existence for himself and his family within the framework of bourgeois society.

With daughter Jenny in 1866.

And in addition, the life he led bore no resemblance to the life the ordinary Philistine in his usual ignorance regards as that of a genius. His tremendous industry matched his tremendous powers, and it was not long before his overworked days and nights began to undermine a constitution originally of iron. He was perfectly serious when he declared that incapacity to work was a death sentence on any human being not really an animal. On one occasion when he had been ill for several weeks he wrote to Engels: “Although I am quite unable to work I have read Carpenter’s Physiology, Lord’s ditto, Kölliker’s Gewebelehre, Spurzheim’s Anatomie der Hirns und Nervensystems and Schwann and Schleiden, Ueber die Zellenschmiere.” In all his insatiable urge to scientific study he never forgot the words he had once used as a young man: a writer must certainly earn money in order to exist and write, but he should not exist and write in order to earn money, and he always recognized “the categoric necessity of earning a living.”

However, his own efforts in this direction invariably failed in face of the suspicion or hatred or, in the best case, the fear of a hostile world. Even such German publishers as were accustomed to priding themselves on their independence recoiled at the name of the notorious demagogue. All parties in Germany slandered him equally, and where the clear outlines of his giant figure could be distinguished through the artificial cloud around him, the malicious cunning of systematic silence did its infamous work. No nation has ever banished its greatest thinker so utterly and for so long from its national life as Germany did Marx.

Marx’s near indecipherable handwriting, this the Manifesto.

The only time he succeeded in providing himself with a halfway secure basis was his work for the New York Tribune, which lasted a good decade beginning in 1851. At that time the New York Tribune had 200,000 readers and was the most powerful and popular newspaper in the United States, and by its agitation for an American brand of Fourierism, it had at least raised itself above the brazen money-grubbing of a purely capitalist undertaking. The formal conditions under which Marx worked for this paper were not unfavourable. He was required to write two articles a week and for each article he was to receive two pounds sterling. That would have meant over 200 pounds a year and would have enabled him to keep his head above water. Freiligrath’s commercial activities brought him in no more than that, in the beginning at least, and Freiligrath always boasted that he had never been without “the luscious beef-steak of banishment.”

Naturally, there is no question of whether the amount paid to Marx by the American newspaper was at all in accordance with the literary and scientific value of his contributions, for a capitalist newspaper concern reckons with market prices, and in bourgeois society it is perfectly justified in doing so. Marx never demanded any better treatment than this, but what he was entitled to demand even in bourgeois society was that the agreement should be respected and perhaps that his work should be valued on its own account also. However, the publishers of the New York Tribune did neither the one thing nor the other. In theory Dana was a Fourierist, but in practice he was a hard-boiled Yankee business man. In a fit of anger Engels once declared that Dana’s socialism resolved itself into the lousiest petty-bourgeois cheating, and in fact, although Dana was well aware of Marx’s value as a contributor and did not fail to advertise that value to his readers, he showed Marx every form of ruthlessness which a capitalist exploiter feels himself entitled to show towards exploited labour-power dependent on him for its existence. By no means his worst offence was that he often stole the contributions Marx sent in and published them in a garbled form as editorial articles, a proceeding which caused their real author understandable annoyance.

And further, not only did Dana immediately put Marx on half pay at the first sign of slacking sales, but he paid only for those articles which he actually printed as Marx’s work, nor was he bashful in throwing out whole articles when their general line did not suit his purpose. On occasions it happened that for three weeks, and even six weeks on end, all the contributions which Marx sent over found their way into the waste-paper basket, whilst those German newspapers to which he was able to contribute, for instance, Die Presse in Vienna, showed themselves no more decent. It was perfectly true when he declared bitterly that in his newspaper work he was no better off than a penny-a-liner.

In 1853, we find him longing for a few months’ peace in which to continue his scientific studies undisturbed: “Apparently I’m not to have it. This constant churning out of stuff for the newspapers bores me. You can be as independent as you like, but in the last resort you are bound to the newspaper and its readers, particularly when you get paid on a cash basis as I do. Purely scientific work is totally different.” After he had been working for a few years under Dana’s despotic sway, his tone became still more bitter: “It is utterly disgusting to have to be grateful when a rag like that kindly consents to give one a lift. Grinding bones and making soup out of them like the paupers in the workhouse, that is what political work for such a paper amounts to, though I have to do it in full measure.” Marx shared the fate of the modern proletariat not only in the scantiness of his means of subsistence, but also in its utter insecurity.


His letters to Engels confirm with terrible and moving details what had been known only in a general way about his situation. On one occasion he was compelled to remain indoors because he had neither coat nor shoes to go out in; on another occasion he had not enough money to buy either writing-paper or newspapers; and on another occasion we find him dashing around to acquaintances to borrow postage to send off a manuscript to a publisher. And then there was the constant bickering with the grocer and other small shopkeepers because he was unable to pay promptly even for the barest necessities of life, not to mention the constant trouble with the landlord, who was forever threatening him with the marshal, and the eternal visits to the pawnbroker, whose usury swallowed up even that Little money which might with difficulty have kept the shadow of starvation from the door.

And often enough the shadow not only fell across the threshold but over the very table itself. Accustomed from earliest childhood to a carefree life, his high-minded wife sometimes staggered under the slings and arrows of a really outrageous fortune, and then she wished herself and her children in the grave. There are indications of domestic scenes in some of Marx’s letters, and on one occasion we find him expressing the opinion that people who pursued the general aims of humanity could commit no greater folly than that of marriage because thereby they betrayed themselves into the toils and petty cares of private life. However, although his wife’s complaints may have made him impatient at times, he always excused and justified her, declaring that she had incomparably more to suffer from the indescribable humiliations, worries and cares which people in their position had to go through, all the more so because she was denied that respite and refuge in the halls of science which saved him again and again. And to see the innocent pleasures of childhood so brutally shortened for their children weighed equally heavily on both parents.

The lot of his genius was sad enough in all conscience, but it was raised to tragic heights by the fact that he voluntarily shouldered such torments and sufferings for decades, and steadfastly rejected every temptation to save himself in the peaceful harbour of some bourgeois career, although he might have done so without dishonour. His attitude he explains himself without any bombast and in simple words: “I must follow my goal through thick and thin, and I shall not permit bourgeois society to turn me into a money-making machine.” This time it was not the chains of Hephaestus which bound Prometheus, but his own indomitable will, which kept his course pointed unswervingly towards the greatest good for humanity with the certainty of a magnetic compass. His character was like pliant steel. It is extraordinary to experience in one and the same letter how he is apparently crushed down by the weight of petty miseries and then to find him suddenly transformed and discussing the most complicated problems with the calm judiciousness of a scholar whose brow is never furrowed by the material cares of the day.

Monument to Marx in Karlovy Vary, Karlsbad.

However, Marx certainly felt the blows which bourgeois society dealt him, and he felt them deeply. It would be foolish stoicism to ask: what do such cares matter to a genius who in any case looks to his justification from the verdict of posterity? Conceited literary ambition, anxious to see its name in the papers every day if possible, is foolish enough, but for all that creative forces must have elbowroom for their development and they win new strength from the echo their creations arouse. Marx was no virtuous and stilted chatterbox such as can be found in bad plays and novels, but a man, who like Lessing, liked to enjoy life and the world; and the mood in which the dying Lessing wrote to one of his oldest friends was not unknown to him: “I am sure you do not regard me as a man avaricious for praise, but the coldness with which the world is accustomed to indicate to certain people that nothing they do is right is, if not killing, at least paralysing.” It was the same mood in which Marx wrote on the eve of his fiftieth birthday: “Half a century on my back and still a pauper!” On one occasion he wished himself a hundred fathoms under the sea rather than have to go on vegetating, and on another occasion he burst out desperately that he would not wish his worst enemy to go through what he had been going through for eight weeks, and his heart suffused with anger because his intellect and working capacities were being broken by trivialities.

But for all that, Marx never became “a damnably sorry dog,” an expression he once used mockingly to describe himself, and in this sense Engels was right when he declared that his friend never despaired. Marx has often been credited with a hard character, but the shower of blows he received on the anvil of misfortune made him harder and harder. The blue sky which had hung over his early youth gradually became covered with heavy storm clouds which his ideas rent like flashes of lightning. His judgments on his enemies, and often enough on his friends, developed a searing trenchancy which wounded even those who were not unduly sensitive. Those who for this reason abuse him as an ice-cold demagogue are no more and no less wrong than those worthy subaltern souls who regard a great fighter and a great human being as no more than a stuffed puppet on a parade ground.

Karl Marx: The Story of His Life by Franz Mehring. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1935.

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

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