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 collectivist progress, the journalism of accommodation had arrived.
“I HAVE WRITTEN nothing for Dana because I’ve not had the money to buy newspapers,” Marx wrote Engels that same year. That remark is instructive, not for what it says about Marx’s poverty but for what it tells us about his method. He was the journalist of the most despised credentials, the one who does not have access. Circumstance condemned him, of course, to be an outsider; but one comes to doubt that easier circumstance would have altered the method. Marx seems to have been in-curious even about what was convenient to hand.
Did he ever visit the Crystal Palace? If he did, there is no evidence that this visual experience worked in any way upon his imagination. The most “unabashed hymn to industrial progress under capitalism” George Lichtheim has found in Marx and Engels is their vivid conjuration of the immense shift that would come in the locus and proportions of commercial power with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.
Marx had no use for the tactile and no infirmity of distraction by it. At the center of his imagination was the document from whose pages the historical moment jumped only for him. The successive lodgings in Soho, the British Museum, and Hampstead Heath are the only London places where Mehring sets him. It cannot be argued that direct observation would have been of no use to him whatever. If The Eighteenth Brumaire remains on a plane above even the best of this work, the difference, along with its higher passion, must be his direct experience with its events; he was acquainted with some of its personages and had at least seen many of the others. Even so, intimacy could never have been so important as the method itself. The Eighteenth Brumaire would likely be just as unique a piece of historical specification if Marx had got it up from nothing except the files of the Moniteur. Perhaps he could not have done so. A journalist whose needs and disposition confined him to the study of paper could hardly have worked. however uncommon his genius, anywhere except in the London of the 1850s. Periodicals embodying a special national idiocy can be found anywhere of course; the British had those and something more. Their journalism was free and lively enough to provide a rich ration of revelatory anecdote. And what was more consequential, the British were the only social statisticians in Europe, which meant that they counted their sins along with everything else; Great Britain was the only European nation which bothered to count its deaths during the 1848 epidemic. This material, primitive as it was, was all Marx needed; what is embarassing, one hundred years and megatons of documentation later, is how much less our journalism does with this sort of thing than he did.
There were no limits of time and distance to the range of his mind. The House of Commons debates the British rule of India, “in the usual dull manner,” and Marx is off on an examination of the question, impossible of course without a long consideration of the origins and the destruction of the Indian village system. The Duchess of Sutherland attacks slavery in America; and Marx notes the event as a definition of the “class of British philanthropy which chooses its subjects as far distant from home as possible and rather on that than on this side of the ocean.” The definition would not, of course, be complete without a full account of the rapacities of the Staffords in Scotland since the end of the seventeenth century.
He notices points which seem to have escaped all public debaters, whatever their side; he even wonders—as no mere ideologue could have done—whether India has not cost Britain more than it has been worth to her. Most of all, he is entirely unchained by a notion of fixed place; he sits in his imagination wherever it would be most illuminating to sit. When he writes of the opium war, it is as though he were Chinese watching the barbarian ships come up the river; when he unearths the bluebook which describes revenue methods in India, he is the Brahman being tortured for his taxes. Sympathy does not take him there; sympathy was not one of Marx’s weaknesses; he is simply impelled to take the seat from which the most useful point of view is possible.
There are none of the rewards of access in these dispatches. They are faintly suggested only by Engels in his sketch of Lord John Russell, where there is some of the small change of gossip we have got used to in journalism. But a man who rode the hunts might have picked that up, from the tone horsemen have always used about any Bedford, whether he was Tory, Whig, or philosopher. Engels does Palmerston from Hansard and the Foreign Office blue books, the documents in this case being quite enough even for lesser men. For Palmerston is one of those parliamentary men who leap up at us, dancing and dodging, from the official page:
If not a good statesman of all work, he is a good actor of all work. He succeeds in the comic as in the heroic, in pathos as in familiarity, in tragedy as in farce, although the latter may be more congenial to his feelings…. Being an exceedingly happy joker, he ingratiates himself with everybody. Never losing his temper, he imposes on passionate antagonists. If unable to master a subject, he knows how to play with it.
Of all the illusions one brought to journalism, the one most useful to lose is the illusion of access to sources. To take two cases, I.F. Stone gets along splendidly by avoiding it, and Walter Lippmann gets on no less splendidly by having it and throwing it away before settling down to make up his mind. Persons privy to events either do not know what is important about them or, when they do, generally lie, as even Lincoln lied to Greeley for purposes of seduction. Marx had neither the temptation nor the opportunity of access; even so, his judgment again and again fits very closely the private observations of those persons safe inside the closed society that he speculated upon from across the moat.
By 1852, he had barely learned enough English to do the Tribune chores which Engels had, until then, been composing under his name; yet he was already able to dismiss that summer’s parliamentary elections:
The bribery and intimidation practiced by the Tories were, then, merely violent experiments for bringing back to life dying electoral bodies which have been incapable of production, and which can no longer achieve decisive electoral results and really national Parliaments. And the results? The old Parliament was dissolved, because at the end it had dissolved into sections which brought each other to a complete standstill. The new Parliament began where the old one ended; it is paralytic from the hour of its birth.
In that same month, James Graham was writing Gladstone: “It will be an impossible Parliament. Parties will be found too nicely balanced to render a new line of policy practicable without a fresh appeal to the electors.” In 1855, even Disraeli, in a letter to a friend, embroidered for Palmerston a metaphor very like Engels’s, seeing the Prime Minister-designate as “utterly exhausted…and now an old pantaloon, very deaf, very blind and with false teeth, which would fall out of his mouth when speaking, if he did not hesitate so in his talk.”
IN MARX’S JOURNALISM, then, we read dispatches which come as close as contemporary publication ever could to the journals the shrewder members of a ruling caste keep for themselves and the letters they write their friends. There the Outsider meets the Insider: Marx makes himself in his own work the embodiment of the Hegelian principle of the contact of extremes.* His intimacy with persons never seen extends as easily to ground never walked upon. When Marx deals with the Indian village system, there is the impression—he was not above cultivating it—that we look upon the distillation of long years of experience in the East set down by a man whose command of every possible detail of the picturesque is controlled by his determination not to let it distract our attention from his hypothesis. Yet all of it is the work of the historical imagination; it is difficult to think of anyone who approached its achievement except the Burke of Macaulay’s grand compliment:
His knowledge of India was such as few, even of those Europeans who have passed many years in that country, have attained, and such as certainly was never attained by any public man who had not quitted Europe. He had studied the history, the laws, the usages of the East with an industry such as is seldom found united to so much genius and so much sensibility. Others have perhaps been equally laborious, and have collected an equal mass of materials. But the manner in which Burke brought his higher powers of intellect to work on statements of facts, and on tables of figures, was peculiar to himself. In every part of those huge bales of Indian information which repelled almost all other readers, his mind, at once philosophical and poetical, found something to instruct or to delight. His reason analyzed and digested these vast and shapeless masses; his imagination animated and colored them…He had in the highest degree that noble faculty whereby man is able to live in the past and in the future, in the distant and in the unreal….
But, aesthetic homage aside, these dispatches deserve that special praise reserved for works whose rediscovery makes us doubt every succeeding work that has neglected them. After Marx and Engels, even such an excellent model of the energetic and the curious as Asa Briggs seems disturbingly insular. I do not mean just that Briggs is philistine; Marx was pretty philistine himself. It was nearly impossible for a Victorian not to be, and it probably remains unavoidable when one has been long engaged with Victorian studies. But these occasional pieces by Marx and Engels leave you with the feeling that all general histories of the 1850s are incomplete, a feeling which makes dubious Dr. Blitzer’s assertion that the Marxist attack has been almost universally adopted in our time. For there is a sense that Marx’s method is now never put to more than half its use: that Briggs understood the materialism without appreciating the dialectic; and that G.M. Young appreciated the dialectic without understanding the materialism. And so there arises from the works of both a general impression of setbacks being overcome and progress being made, which makes them sound like extensions of Macaulay.
READING MARX, one begins to suspect that a great deal of what was to happen to Great Britain was determined by the forces which developed the nineteenth century’s solutions, and thereby fixed their limitations. It has become, for example, almost automatic for even the soberest historians of the early Victorian period, when they come to the Ten Hours Act, to be carried away by the spectacle of an aroused national conscience. But Marx noticed even then how contained and confined that conscience has always been: the Established Church, having watched the Enclosures without protest, was suddenly aroused at the sufferings of the victims in the cities. The difference in response had an obvious root in Marx: the Church got its living from the landlords; the mills were owned by Dissenters.
We have grown used to dismissing the Marxist assessment of motive as simple-minded; still, if this shot were wide of the mark, would there have been as much cant in the Victorian conscience as there was, could there indeed have been that indifference to all humans who were not Western Europeans? One reads all the way through The Age of Improvement without being reminded that Great Britain and France invaded China for no other reason than to force the opium trade upon her; it is an event described only in histories of China, and in the irony of Marx:
While the semi-barbarian stood on the principle of morality, the civilized opposed to him the principle of self.
For the decay of Britain probably began, not so late as we usually set it, but in the years of Palmerston and Russell, who seemed farsighted when they were only indifferent; the one the most insular of foreign adventurers, the other the reformer who changed almost nothing. Great Britain, more lastingly even than France, established government as the theatrical art which we suffer still. That invention defeated Marx; one of his mistakes was his failure to recognize that no one is a fitter instrument for resisting history than the mime. It was the mummer’s art—not the railroad from which Marx expected so much, nor the English verse which held so much promise for Macaulay—that was England’s chief educational achievement in the Indian sub-continent. So we have Pakistan whose official lies are the same as Sir Douglas Haig’s and India which lies to us as the New Statesman does. The post-Marxian world is an international of the insular.
Still one arises from this hack work of Marx and thinks of him, defeated, in the heroic form Isaiah Berlin evokes during those years in Soho:
The task of preparing the workers for the revolution was for him a scientific task, a routine occupation, something to be performed as solidly and efficiently as possible, and not as a direct means of personal self-expression. The external circumstances of his life are therefore as monotonous as those of any other devoted expert, as those of Darwin or Pasteur, and offer the sharpest possible contrast to the restless, emotionally involved, lives of other revolutionaries of his time.
Journalism is certainly the more trivial of the two vocations which have forgotten his example of how a job of work should be done.
"A most profound yet fantastic speculator on the principles which govern the movements of humanity" Marx begins his dispatch of June 14, 1853. "[Hegel] was wont to extol as one of the ruling secrets of nature what he called the law of contact of extremes. The homely proverb that 'extremes meet' was, in his view, a grand and potent truth in every sphere of life, an axiom with which the philosopher could as little dispense as the astronomer with the laws of Kepler or the great discovery of Newton."↩
“A most profound yet fantastic speculator on the principles which govern the movements of humanity” Marx begins his dispatch of June 14, 1853. “[Hegel] was wont to extol as one of the ruling secrets of nature what he called the law of contact of extremes. The homely proverb that ‘extremes meet’ was, in his view, a grand and potent truth in every sphere of life, an axiom with which the philosopher could as little dispense as the astronomer with the laws of Kepler or the great discovery of Newton.”↩