The posting of this article is dedicated to my dear brother, Matthew Rector.
Dr. Charles Blitzer's Introduction to The American Journalism of Marx and Engels
, a 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 the 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 descendents 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 this plain, 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 Newspaper 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 never succeeded in trivializing. Greeley had his side; he was also cutting his own wage and Dana's, because early in the 1850's there had begun the process by which the Times
slowly ground down the Tribune.
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 incurious 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 Lichteim has found in Marx and Engels is their vivid conjuration of the immense shift that would come in the locus and proportion 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 place 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 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
might be just as unique a piece of historical specification if Marx had got it up from nothing except the files of the Moniteur
. The problem with any surmise is that the Moniteur
, superior though it might otherwise be to the run of Parisian press, was inadequately stocked with the raw material of fact upon which the historical imagination depends for stimulus. 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 1850's. Periodicals embodying a special national idiocy can be found anywhere of course; but 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 staticians in Europe, which meant that they counted their sins along with everything else; Great Britain was the only European nation that bothered to compute its deaths during the 1848 epidemic. This material, primitive as it was, was all Marx needed; what is embarrassing, one hundred years and megatons of documentation later, is how much more he did with such treasures then than our journalism does now.
There were no limits of time and distance to the range of his mind. The house of Commmons 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 that appear to have escaped all public debaters, whatever their side; he even wonders -- as no mere ideologue could have -- whether India has not cost Britain more than it has been worth to her. Most of all, he is unchained from any 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 blue book that 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 find the seat that affords the clearest point of view.
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. (...)
Of all the illusions we bring young 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 Lippman 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 temptation nor opportunity of access; even so, his judgement 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 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 (1). His intimacy with persons never seen extend 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; (...)
To read Marx is to commence 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 had 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 for 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 simpleminded: 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 from which we suffer still. Its 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. England's lasting educational impress on the Indian subcontinent was not the railroad from which Marx expected so much, nor the English verse from which Macaulay hoped for so much. It was instead the mummery that has produced the Pakistan whose official lies are so like Sir Douglas Haig's and the India that lies in the cadences of the New Statesman
. The post-Marxian world is an international of the insular.
Still one arises from this hack work of Marx's 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 less important of the two vocations that have forgotten his example of how a job of work should be done.
JUNE 15, 1967.