The American Journalism of Marx and Engels
Dr. Blitzer’s Introduction to this selection of thirty-three of the more than five hundred dispatches which Marx and Engels composed for Greeley and Dana’s New York Daily Tribune is so exemplary a work of information without intrusion that it is embarrassing to begin by finding fault with its conclusion. If Marx seems “less striking and original today” than he must have seemed in the mid-nineteenth century, this is because, Dr. Blitzer says,
the general approach to political history and analysis that he invented has been almost universally adopted in our time. If a preoccupation with the social and economic background of politics, and a determination to uncover the real motives that lie behind the words of politicians and governments are the hallmarks of modern political journalism, then Karl Marx may properly be said to be its father.
But these dispatches are striking and original, it seems to me, just because they have so little to do with most of the journalism I read or, for that matter, construct myself. The best of Marx’s descendants are no closer to him than collateral. There is a puzzle here rather like that which arises when one confronts the early Carlyle: one sees at once that here is the way to get at the thing, and wonders why, with the sign painted so plainly, the road has been so seldom followed.
That Greeley and Dana exploited Marx (and, without knowing it, Engels) is a piece of anecdote so familiar that President Kennedy sought to amuse the American Newspapers Publishers Association with the notion that the revolutionary specter might never have arisen had the Tribune not beggared its correspondents. Marx’s contempt for Greeley had its side of self-disgust for having fallen so low in trade: “grinding bones and making soup of them like the paupers in a workhouse.” “Mere pot boiling,” Engels said long afterward. “It doesn’t matter if they are never read again.” Indeed Marx and Engels were not the unconscious future of daily journalism. They are only a sport in its past; and the conditions which have permitted their interlude were passing even while they grumbled at how trivial was the work which, as serious men, they were never able to make trivial. Greeley had his side; he was also cutting his own wage and Dana’s, because early in the 1850s there had begun the process by which the Times slowly ground down the Tribune. “The Times was crowding us too hard…” Greeley wrote in 1852. “It is conducted with the most policy and the least principle of any paper ever started. It is ever watching for the popular side of any question that turns up, and has made lots of friends by ultra abuse of Abolitionists, Women’s Rights, Spirit Rappers, etc., which I cannot do. Besides it has had the most room for reading matter the past winter…” That great instrument of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.