Karl Marx: a Life in Service of the Working Class


Today, Marx is portrayed in most books, articles and documentaries as an intellectual who sought to teach lessons to the working class from the outside. Lessons drawn due to his brilliant mind. Some elements of his thoughts are studied in university classes and his name is always present in social science literature: history, economics, sociology and so on. 200 years from his birth, many raise to salute or criticize his name in traditional politics, universities or communication means.
By Gustavo Machado.
If, for some reason, a well-educated individual of over 100 years ago travelled in time, he would be shocked with Marx’s audience amongst these means today. In early XX century, many years after his death, his thought was not studied in universities, neither was it approached by the economist and philosophers of the time. Almost all of Marx’s audience was found within worker and socialist European organizations, mainly German Social Democracy and the other parties of the Socialist International. His name was already known, but it was always associated to the worker, socialist and radical movement. His theory, on the other hand, was little studied outside these circles.
Two moments made Marx known and famous. Interestingly enough, they were two revolutions, not the publishing of The Capital or any of his works. The first was the Paris Commune. Although at the time, Marx was in England with serious health problems, most of the world associated the French uprising to his name. This was not by chance. In fact, since its beginning, Marx organized and pushed the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which fulfilled a significant role in the Commune. The IWA requested from him a statement on the Commune, entitled Civil War in France. This was Marx’s first text with great repercussion, selling over 18,000 copies in three months and translated to most European languages. The second moment that took Marx’s name to international arena was the Russian Revolution. Only then, his name entered all grounds. As we will see, this process was not by chance.
Born in a middle class family and son of a lawyer employed by state bureaucracy of what became Germany, Marx entered the German university system and studied in the main university: the University of Berlin. Two years earlier, Hegel, one of the most brilliant German philosophers, studied there. Marx’s PhD thesis was on Greek materialist philosophers and he attempted an academic carrier, which proved impossible with the reaction in his country in 1842. Since, Marx worked as a journalist. An activity that changed his destiny forever.
Since then, Marx contacted the weaver uprising in Silesia, the French worker movement and the German and Paris Communist movement. Based on these experiences, and many others, Marx broke with his previous conception of left-wing democracy, and stood by the link between the Communist movement and the working class. He understood that socialism could only be carried out if it were linked to the most genuine product of capitalist society: the proletariat. It was not the result of a genial theoretician alien to this. As he said at the time, “Theory becomes a material force when it takes over the masses.” All of Marx’s activity since was oriented to the organization of the working class, not just his intellectual activity, but his personal relations, his practice and organizational activity. As he said in his writing Herr Vogt (1860), “always freely and sacrificing our individual interests, we represent the interests of the working class” (MARX, 1976, p. 71; our translation).

Work oriented towards the Working Class

With this new orientation, all Marx’s following works were mainly directed towards the working class and its leaders, mainly in his written texts for publishing like books and articles. We may name countless examples. One of his first texts on the functioning of capitalist society, Wage Labour and Capital, was a series of conferences presented to the German Workingmen’s Club of Brussels reproduced afterwards in the Workers’ Association of Cologne. Another title published at the time, The Poverty of Philosophy, was a critique to the most influential theoretician of the Communist movement and a French worker: Proudhon. The Communist Manifesto was the program of the organization Marx had just entered: the League of Communists. On this classic writing, Marx said in Herr Vogt, “in the Manifesto, directly destined to workers, I threw out the window all the systems, substituting them by the critical intelligence of the conditions of the path and the general results of the true social movement.” (MARX, 1976, p. 101; Our translation).
Shortly after The Manifesto, Marx spent most of his wealth financing the New Rhenish Newspaper: Organ of Democracy during the revolutionary days of 1848-1849. This newspaper achieved the greatest circulation during the revolutionary period, until it was forbidden and Marx was expelled from Cologne. The headquarter of the newspaper was a sort of armed headquarter.
“Our editorial office”, said Engels later, “had eight rifles with bayonets and 250 shells”, it was “considered by officers as a fortress that could not be conquered with a single hand blow”. This newspaper reached 6,000 subscriptions, while the main newspaper of Cologne, The Cologne Gazette, did not have over 9,000 subscriptions. Still, according to Engels, “A German journal never had, before or after, the strength and influence of the New Rhenish Newspaper, or knew how to galvanize the proletarian masses as it did.” (ENGELS, 1976, pp.171-178; our translation). In one of the last farewell articles, after censorship, it reads, “The editors of the New Rhenish Newspaper thank you, in the farewell, for the sympathy demonstrated. Our last word everywhere will always be: Emancipation of the working class!” (MARX, 2010, P. 581; our translation).
This journal, for decades served as a model and reference for the workers’ movement in all Europe. Forgetting it is the most overwhelming proof of the attempt to tame Marx’s work to institutional apparatuses. To the point that the New Rhenish Gazette is usually confused with the Rhenish Gazette, the newspaper edited by Marx six years earlier, when he was still a kind of left wing democrat. To have an idea of the repercussion of the New Rhenish Gazette over the workers’ moment, Trotsky, referring to the success of the Natchalo journal, which he edited in Russia, said, “I understand that no other newspaper of the last half century approached as ours did to the classic model, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish Gazette) of Marx (1848)” (bold ours) (TROTSKY; 1978, p. 159; our translation).
Also, based on the reading of the New Rhenish Gazette and Marx’s analyses on the German revolution expressed in the newspaper, Trotsky developed his Theory of the Permanent Revolution, and Lenin his theory of the Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry. Therefore, this material directly influenced the Russian Revolution, almost 70 years after having been published.

A life for and amongst the working class

Marx, determined to intervene in the paths of the workers’ movement, went far beyond literature. Among Marx’s collaborators, both in the organizations as the newspapers, we found several workers whose relations he cultivated his entire life. Some examples are the watchmaker Joseph Moll, the typographer Karl Schapper, the shoemaker Heinrich Bauer, the tailor John Eccarius, among many others. Far from a distant and passive relation, these activists were political collaborators and friends of Marx for decades. They wrote several articles published in the New Rhenish Gazette, just as documents and manifestos published in the following years. Among them, Marx shared his life. To mention a single episode by late 1850, Marx pawned his wife Jenny’s last coat, the only one he had not pawned in his house back then, to pay for the treatment of Eccarius’s disease, a worker member of the International Workingmen’s Association and the League of the Communists.
Among intellectuals and liberal professionals who continuously collaborated with Marx, all of them changed their activities and dedicated most of their lives to work within worker associations and the link with their movements and daily struggles. Most of them were tested during the European revolutionary processes of 1848. An exemplary case is Wilhelm Wolff, son of farmers and private math teacher. Wolff disseminated around the German states the repression and the meaning of the weavers’ uprisings in Silesia, the first worker uprising with which Marx had direct contact. He led militias of the 1848 European revolution and later on related to countless activists of the English working class. For this, the work to which Marx dedicated all his life, The Capital, begins with the following words, “Dedicated to my unforgettable friend, the courageous, loyal and noble vanguard of the proletariat: Wilhelm Wolff”.
Therefore, it was not by chance that when Marx’s name disappeared from intellectual European circles, it appeared each time more in the worker circles and organizations. Evidently, this choice had its price. Marx lost his citizenship and was expelled along with his family from one country to another: Belgium, Cologne, twice to France, until he finally spent half his life in England, as a stateless person. He mostly survived in absolute misery, and he was saved several times by his friend Friedrich Engels. In a particularly notorious episode, with all the coats pawned, Marx and his family organized “festivals” of home dance to ease the cold.
This situation did not take place due to lack of work. Besides his voluminous work among manuscripts and books, Marx had continuous journalistic activity, which was the source of his scarce resources. For ten years, he was a permanent collaborator of the North American journal New York Tribune, which reached 200.000 subscriptions. For this journal, he wrote almost 500 articles. Even in these cases that had the main objective of his material survival, Marx never compromised his conceptions. In a letter sent to Marx by the editor in chief of this journal, he said, “I must add that in all your articles that have come into my hands, there was always a live interest for the good of the people and the progress of the working class, and with that objective you have written much”. (MARX, 1976b, p. 2012; our translation).
Co-opting attempts were always present. His geniality was known in high German spheres since his youth. He was contacted for a possible collaboration with the dictatorial Bismarck government in the recently unified Germany. Bismarck wanted “to set his extraordinary talents in service of the German people”. Marx refused all his attempts and publicly denounced them.
All of Marx’s life was therefore oriented to the organization of the working class as the center of the struggle against the capitalist mode of production. With this objective in mind, he wrote his works and established his immediate goals (whether successful or defeated). For this, his wife and militant collaborator, Jenny Marx, frustrated with the initial reception of The Capital, wrote, “If workers knew the sacrifice necessary to complete this work, written solely for them and their interest, maybe they would pay some more attention” (McLELLAN, 1990, p. 376; our translation). Years later, Marx himself stated, “the rapid acceptance of The Capital among broad circles of the German working class is the best reward for my work.” (MARX, 2013, p. 84; our translation).
As one may see, Marx not only carried out all his work for the historic interest of the working class, as he organically linked to it. Not by chance, his name became universally known from class struggle events. Even more so with the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution. Although today many attempt to tame his name and work within official institutional apparatuses – political and academic – he will always be fully related to the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat for its liberation. In Marx’s words, in one of his last fights within German Social Democracy, “the liberation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. Therefore, we cannot march along people who openly state that workers are too uneducated to liberate themselves and great and small benefactors must liberate them from above.” (MARX, 2010, p. 279; our translation).
Translation: Alejandra Ramírez.
Obs.: The present article is part of a series published in the newspaper Opinião Socialista. We present for the blog Teoria&Revolução a longer version with its bibliographic references.

MARX, Karl. Nova Gazeta Renana. São Paulo. Educ, 2010.
MARX, Karl. Senhor Vogt (I) . Lisboa: Iniciativas Editoriais, 1976.
MARX, Karl. Senhor Vogt (II) . Lisboa: Iniciativas Editoriais, 1976b.
MARX, Karl. O Capital – Livro I. Rio de Janeiro: Boitempo Editorial, 2013.
MARX, Karl. Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke, and others; in Marx-Engels ‘Collected Works’, Volume 24, 2010.
MCLELLAN, David. Karl Marx: Vida e pensamento. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1990.
ENGELS, F. “Marx e a Nova Gazeta Renana”, in MARX, K. e ENGELS, F. Textos , vol 2. São Paulo: Alfa-Ômega, 1976.
TROTSKY, León. Minha Vida: Ensaio Autobiográfico. Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra, 2ª Edição, 1978.
Article from Teoria&Revolução, Historia, 5/29/2018.-


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