Karl Marx’s Dispatches For The New York Tribune

Dispatches for the New York TribuneFew historical and political figures inspire ire and admiration quite like Karl Marx. While he lived, he was a tireless social critic, exposing the hypocrisies of governments and ministers and shining a light on the glaring social injustices of his day, including the conditions of factory workers in Britain, the colonial abuses in India and China, and slavery in America. He was, as his biographers never tire of pointing out, an autodidact of the highest caliber. Not content with received information, he read primary sources when available, and taught himself what languages he needed to adequately do his job. In his coverage of the civil war in Spain, for example, he taught himself to read Spanish in under a month, and absorbed enough Spanish history to understand the currents of that conflict better than most of the native correspondents. And yet his economic and political theories, and his faith in a future conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, animated some of the 20th century’s most egomaniacal monsters. The distinctly Marxist utopian fantasies of Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China were used to justify the most hideous abuses of power. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, it is one of history’s great ironies that the country that Marx most admired, America, came to deplore Marx, and the country Marx thought most backward, Russia, adopted him as a savior.

To this day, the Marxist notion of history being a struggle for power remains the underlying theory of sociology courses the world over (modern day feminism, for example, is entirely enthralled to a Marxian worldview, though the masses of its adherents are unaware of the fact). It is an immensely appealing idea, clearly delineating right from wrong, good from bad (proletariat from bourgeoisie, progressives from patriarchs), offering simple solutions to complex, multilayered problems. But I wish not to dwell on the theories and to focus instead on the man. You need only read a handful of his articles to know that he would never have sanctioned even the smallest of abuses committed in his name, and that the entire legacy of Marxism, though an excellent condemnation of his economic and political philosophy, does not in the least impeach his character.

Marx was born in Prussia but began his journalistic career in Cologne, where his very first publications drew the attentions of local authorities who were quick to shut him down. Seeking asylum in France, he continued to agitate for the socialist cause, with the predictable result that he was exiled from France in 1845. It was at this point that Marx moved to London, where he spent the majority of the remainder of his days, and began writing for the New York Daily Tribune, an inexpensive, abolitionist paper with a peerless national circulation. He taught himself English (I defy you to find a single piece that reads as if it was written by a non-native speaker) and began work as the paper’s foreign correspondent. Although the Tribune was a “bourgeois” paper (that is, not an organ for socialist propaganda), and despite the apparent ideological impasse between Marx and his publishers there, he favored it for its strong anti-slavery stance and because, unlike a great deal of the work he did, he received compensation for his Tribune articles.

My particular edition (The Penguin Classics one shown in the above image) offers a small but representative sampling of his total output for the Tribune, and is arranged around the major topics of his day: British imperialism, the Opium Wars, the slave trade, labor conditions in Britain and civil war in Spain, to name just a few. Every single piece is marked by a righteous indignation at the injustices of the world coupled with a rigorous investigation into their causes and natures. Marx was not content to blindly criticize, and thus every essay is supported by tables of research, first hand source material (at one moving moment, he contrasts the official reportage of British imperialists in India with the letters of British soldiers to demonstrate that, contrary to the official documents, torture and physical abuse were widely resorted to) and other journalistic sources necessary to make his case.

Marx’s writings are also frighteningly relevant. We like to pretend that the world has changed a great deal since the 19th century, and dwell upon the advancements we have made, but today’s headlines (agitation and religious strife in the Middle East, trade problems with China, an intelligentsia fattening itself off the labor of a hapless lower class and exploiting political influence to do so) are little different than Marx’s.

What shall be Marx’s fate in our century? Is he to be again sullied by egomaniacs puffed up, and made dangerous by, blind conviction, or will he be ignored as a relic of a failed paradigm, his name forever tarnished by association? I sincerely hope neither, for the Marx revealed to me in these pages is as admirable a moral voice as I have ever heard.