Marx Comes Out of Storage
Editor’s note: Interest in Marz was virtually non-existant in the mainstream
press between 1986 and 2008. All that has changed.
Joblessness was liberating for Karl Marx in 1844 — it meant he could
go back to school. His
classrooms were Paris’ gaslit cafes and wine cellars, and small
offices filled with cigar smoke.
There were no lectures, there were discussions –boisterous
gatherings that drew curious passers-by who watched men from
many nations shout at one another about the relative merits of
socialism, communism, nationalism, liberalism and democracy, and
whether governments should be taken by force and rebuilt from
the ruins, or whether appeals should be made to the ruling class
that fundamental social change was coming.
All sides of the debate saw the need for new forms of
government in Europe; the nature of society had changed.
Absolute monarchs with their obsequious courtiers and despots
with their bloody henchmen seemed like costume characters from
another era. The men in Marx’s circle agreed the monarchies must
go. They could not agree, however, on how, or on what would
At that time, there were no international organizations
under whose auspices these men could gather. Gradually, however,
in the melting pot of Paris, those who were at the forefront of
the new ideologies began transcending the barriers of languages
and customs to talk about common concerns. Several dominant
strands were prominent among these middle-class reformers:
liberalism, radicalism, nationalism and socialism.
All of those isms, however, existed largely in the
theoretical realm, topics of discussion that could not be
applied because they had no mass support — no army. The reason
for this was relatively straightforward: The working class was
suspicious of middle-class reformers and consequently of their
ideologies. Marx, too, was suspicious of these ideas.
Marx did not recognize in any of the isms a real
understanding of the disease spreading through Europe’s
fledgling industrial economic system, and without that
knowledge, no meaningful social change was possible. Fully
admitting that he, too, did not completely understand, Marx set
out in search of answers.
He returned to the books he had been reading that year,
specifically texts by French and English economists, filling
notebook after notebook with scrambled jottings. These became
the “Economic and
Philosophical Manuscripts” or “1844
Manuscripts,” which Marx left unfinished but which formed the
basis for his life’s work.
The study of these “bourgeois economists” led Marx to the
conclusion that these thinkers believed economic systems
operated according to cold, immutable laws that carried men
along and were beyond their control. These economists also
believed that business, left to grow without government
interference, would eventually produce a general benefit for all
mankind. But Marx had seen and heard evidence to the contrary,
and he set out to demythologize economics, to describe its real-
world mechanics and, most forcefully, its consequences.
Marx worked his way through wage, rent, credit, profit,
private property vs. communism, and the relations of capital to
labor. What he discovered was that acquisition of the glittering
prize of the new economic system, money (and by extension the
things that such capital could buy), had become the driving
force in modern man’s existence, perverting every aspect of his
relations with other people, even how he viewed himself. It
magically enabled the rich man to become whatever he chose.
Meanwhile the labor that produced the rich man’s wealth
robbed the worker of his lifeblood: “It produces palaces — but
for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty — but for the
worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws
one section of the workers back to a barbarous type of labor,
and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces
intelligence — but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.”
Marx sought to explain how this corrosive relationship had
developed. He began placing man in a system in which the grand
bourgeoisie, which controlled all the money as well as the means
of production, dehumanized the worker by reducing him to selling
his labor for a wage determined by his employer. The worker in
the new industrial relationship became alienated from his work,
laboring for a class of men who reaped all the benefits and gave
him in return only the means to survive.
Marx’s theories became spectacles; evidence was luminescent
everywhere. Wages had been falling for nearly 20 years while the
cost of living during the same time rose 17 percent. In 1844
wide-scale food shortages began. A series of scandals exposed
how French officials had helped create the economic imbalance by
concentrating extreme wealth in the hands of a select few.
Although he had once discounted communism as unrealizable,
Marx now saw it as the means to recalibrate society. Wealth
would not be private property but shared. Men would work, but
their work would benefit themselves and the greater good, not
the property owner. He described communism as “the genuine
resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between
man and man … between freedom and necessity.”
French and German workers in Paris who identified
themselves as communists believed revolution was the only way to
end exploitation, as its beneficiaries had so much to lose. Marx
agreed, writing, “It takes actual communist action to abolish
actual private property.”
As if on cue, such violence occurred. Word arrived of an
uprising in the Prussian region of Silesia, where on June 4,
1844, a group of weavers
marched on the home of Prussian
industrialists. Their demands for higher pay denied, the weavers
stormed the house and destroyed it. The next day, as many as
5,000 weavers and their families burst into homes and factories,
destroyed machines, and looted and ransacked residences and
offices. The industrialists called in the Prussian military,
which fired on the crowd, killing 35.
The revolt was the first of its kind involving industrial
workers in Germany, and though it failed, Marx recognized in
the connection he sought between an impassioned proletariat,
economics and the state. The driving force behind the rebellion
was not an abstraction such as religion or ethnicity or a
throne, as many had been in the past, but something much more
Energized by events at home, exiled Germans, including Marx
and Heinrich Heine, began meeting on Sundays at a Paris wine
merchant’s shop. French police informers reported they discussed
killing kings, oppressing the rich and religious, and other
“words of horror.”
Jenny Marx’s letters to her husband during this period indicated a creeping anxiety about their future. She was evidently struggling to be strong, while raising their daughter at her parents’ house in Trier, as her husband traveled further along a dangerous road. But in the end she seemed resigned that the path Karl had chosen was inevitable and correct. To those who doubted his course, she said, “Can one not see everywhere signs of earthquake and the undermining of the foundations on which society has erected its temples and shops?”
About a month after she wrote those words, a failed
assassination of Friedrich Wilhelm IV raised alarms throughout
the kingdom. In a letter to Karl she wrote: “It was a social
attempt at assassination! If something does break out, it will
start from this direction … the seeds of a social revolution
Marx, who in the summer of 1844 began writing for Vorwarts!
(Forward!), published Jenny’s letter
in the newspaper on Aug.
10, 1844, and signed it “A German Lady.”
Her first piece of published writing appeared three days
after Marx’s own initial contribution to the Paris-based weekly,
which was known as the only uncensored opposition German-
language newspaper in Europe and the most radical. Soon Vowarts!
attracted the attention of the Prussian authorities. The
Prussian government pressured its French counterpart, and the
newspaper’s editor in chief was imprisoned for two months. The
rest of the staff braced for more charges and possible
In that atmosphere Jenny prepared to return to Paris. As
she always would, she rallied to her husband’s side when he was
Within days of receiving her letter, Marx made the
acquaintance of the man who would be his other lifelong
protector, Friedrich Engels.
(Mary Gabriel is the author of the biographies “Notorious
Victoria” and “The Art of Acquiring.” This is the second in a
five-part series excerpted from her new book, “Love and
Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution,”
published in September by Little, Brown & Co.)
To contact the writer of this article:
Mary Gabriel at email@example.com.
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