Marx Myths and Legends. Francis Wheen

Marx and the Working Class

Source: “Karl Marx,” © Francis Wheen 1999, pp 276-292. Used with permission of the author.

According to the legend tirelessly peddled by his critics, Marx was an incorrigible snob who despised working-class socialists, regarding them as dolts and asses who had acquired ideas above their station. The biographer Robert Payne, for example, refers to ‘Marx’s contempt for humanity and especially for that section of it which he called the proletariat’. Even a sophisticated Marxologist such as Professor Shlomo Avineri can write that ‘Marx’s sceptical view of the proletariat’s ability to conceive its own goals and realise them without outside intellectual help has often been documented. It suits his remark that revolutions never start with the “masses” but originate in élite groups.’ Where have these views and remarks been documented? You will search the works of Marx – and indeed the footnotes of Avineri – in vain. Avineri mentions the ‘snubbing’ of Wilhelm Weitling: however, Marx was in fact remarkably generous to Weitling, arguing that one shouldn’t be too beastly to a poor tailor who had genuinely suffered for his beliefs, and what caused their eventual rift was not lordly disdain for the underclass but terminal exasperation at the political and religious delusions of an insufferable egomaniac. Had Weitling been a middle-class intellectual, Marx would have treated him far more savagely.

Which brings us to Avineri’s second exhibit. ‘Even one of his most loyal followers, George Eccarius, also a tailor by trade, came in for a generous measure of unearned contempt from his master and teacher.’ Once again no sources are cited: clearly Marx’s lofty scorn for tailors, cobblers and other pond-life is so universally accepted as to need no verification.

This is the exact opposite of the truth. It was Marx who gave Eccarius his first break by publishing his study of ‘Tailoring in London’ in the short-lived London journal, NRZ Revue. ‘The author of this article,’ Marx informed readers, ‘is himself a worker in one of London’s tailoring shops. We ask the German bourgeoisie how many authors it numbers capable of grasping the real movement in a similar manner? ... The reader will note how here, instead of the sentimental, moral and psychological criticism employed against existing conditions by Weitling and other workers who engage in authorship, a purely materialist understanding and a freer one, unspoilt by sentimental whims, confronts bourgeois society and its movement.’

No sign there of contempt, unearned or otherwise. Throughout the darkest days of the 1850s Marx remained attentive and sympathetic, helping Eccarius place articles in German-language newspapers abroad in the hope of rescuing him from the treadmill of tailoring from five in the morning until eight in the evening. ‘If any money is forthcoming, I would suggest that Eccarius get some first so that he doesn’t have to spend all day tailoring,’ he advised a journalistic comrade in Washington. ‘Do try and see that he gets something, if at all possible.’ However dire his own financial straits might be, he insisted that Eccarius’s needs should take priority.

When Eccarius went down with consumption, in February 1859, Marx described it as ‘the most tragic thing I have yet experienced here in London’. A few months later he noted sadly that Eccarius ‘is again going to pieces in his sweatshop’, and asked if Engels could send the poor chap a few bottles of port to sustain him. In 1860, forced by ill health to give up tailoring for a while, Eccarius was installed in lodgings rented at Marx’s own expense and fixed up with regular work for the American press at $3 an article. When three of Eccarius’s children died during the scarlet-fever epidemic of 1862, it was the poverty-stricken Marx who organised an appeal fund to cover the funeral expenses. Finally, when invited to nominate a speaker for the historic public meeting in September 1864, he again pressed the claims of his old friend. Eccarius put on a ‘splendid performance’, Marx reported to Engels afterwards, adding that he himself had been happy to remain mute on the platform. And yet, even now, many authors continue to repeat the old nonsense about Marx’s mean-spirited and snooty disdain for mere tailors.

In fact, it was the presence of so many genuine workers – and the refreshing lack of preening middle-class dilettantes – that attracted him to the International’s inaugural rally, persuading him ‘to waive my usual standing rule to decline any such invitations’. Although he came to St Martin’s Hall only as a silent observer, by the end of the evening he had been co-opted on to the General Council.

Now there seems to be a slight paradox here. Marx himself was indisputably a bourgeois intellectual. By joining the Council was he not in danger of diluting the proletarian purity which he so admired? To answer the question we need to look more closely at the composition of the International. The General Council consisted of two Germans (Marx and Eccarius), two Italians, three Frenchmen and twenty-seven Englishmen – almost all of them working class. It was a muddled mélange: English trade unionists who cared passionately about the right to free collective bargaining but had no interest in socialist revolution; French Proudhonists who dreamed of utopia but disliked trade unions; plus a few republicans, disciples of Mazzini and campaigners for Polish freedom. They disagreed about almost everything – and particularly about what role, if any, the enlightened middle classes should be allowed to play in the International. In a letter to Engels two years after its foundation, Marx reported an all-too-typical contretemps:

By way of demonstration against the French monsieurs – who wanted to exclude everyone except ‘travailleurs manuels’, in the first instance from membership of the International Association, or at least from eligibility for election as delegate to the congress – the English yesterday proposed me as President of the General Council. I declared that under no circumstances could I accept such a thing, and proposed Odger [the English trade union leader] in my turn, who was then in fact re-elected, although some people voted for me despite my declaration.

The minute-book for this meeting records that Marx ‘thought himself incapacitated because he was a head worker and not a hand worker’, but it is not quite as simple as that. (His desire to get on with writing Capital may have exerted a stronger tug at the sleeve.) A few years later, when a doctor called Sexton was proposed for membership, there were the usual mutterings about ‘whether it was desirable to add professional men to the Council’; according to the minutes, however, ‘Citizen Marx did not think there was anything to fear from the admission of professional men while the great majority of the Council was composed of workers.’ In 1872, when there were problems with various crackpot American sects infiltrating the International, it was Marx himself who proposed – successfully – that no new section should be allowed to affiliate unless at least two-thirds of its members were wage labourers.

In short, while accepting that most office-holders and members must be working class, Marx was unembarrassed by his own lack of proletarian credentials: men such as himself still had much to offer the association as long as they didn’t pull rank or hog the limelight. Engels followed this example, though as an affluent capitalist he was understandably more reluctant to impose himself. After selling his stake in the family firm and moving down to London in 1870, he accepted a seat on the General Council almost at once but declined the office of treasurer. ‘Citizen Engels objected that none but working men ought to be appointed to have anything to do [with] the finances,’ the minutes record. ‘Citizen Marx did not consider the objection tenable: an ex-commercial man was the best for the office.’ Engels persisted with his refusal – and was probably right to do so. As the Marxian scholar Hal Draper has pointed out, handling money was the touchiest job in a workers’ association, for charges of financial irregularity were routine ploys whenever political conflict started; and a Johnny-come-lately businessman from Manchester would have been an obvious target for any ‘French monsieurs’ who wanted to stir up trouble.

Marx may have preferred to work behind the scenes, but he worked exceptionally hard all the same: without his efforts the International would probably have disintegrated within a year. The Council met every Tuesday at its shabby HQ in Greek Street, Soho – on the site which, almost exactly a century later, was to become the Establishment night-club, where satirists such as Lenny Bruce and Peter Cook used rather different techniques to undermine prevailing orthodoxy. The minute-books show that he was happy to take on his share of the donkey-work. (‘Citizens Fox, Marx and Cremer were deputed to attend the Compositors’ Society ... Citizen Marx proposed, Citizen Cremer seconded, that the Central Council thank Citizen Cottam for his generous gift ... Citizen Marx stated that societies in Basle and Zurich had joined the Association ... Citizen Marx reported that he had received £3 from Germany for members’ cards, which he paid to the Financial Secretary...’) His influence was apparent from the outset. The initial item of business at the Council’s very first meeting, on 5 October 1864, was a proposal by Marx that William Randal Cremer of the London Trades Council should be appointed secretary. (‘Mr Cremer was unanimously elected.’) Later that evening Marx was elected to a subcommittee whose task was to draw up rules and principles of the new Association.

So far so good. But then Marx fell ill, thus missing the next two meetings. He was roused from his sick-bed on 18 October by an urgent letter from Eccarius, who warned that if he didn’t come to the General Council that evening a hopelessly insipid and confused statement of aims would be adopted in his absence. Marx staggered down to Greek Street and listened aghast as the worthy Le Lubez read out ‘a fearfully cliché-ridden, badly written and totally unpolished preamble pretending to be a declaration of principles, with Mazzini showing through the whole thing from beneath a crust of the most insubstantial scraps of French socialism’. After long debate, Eccarius proposed that this unappetising menu be sent back to the subcommittee for further editing, cunningly forestalling any suspicion of a coup by promising that its ‘sentiments’ would remain unchanged.

This was the opportunity Marx needed. Putting on his most innocent expression, he suggested that the subcommittee meet two days later at his house, which offered rather more comfort (and a better stocked cellar) than the poky little room in Greek Street. When the team assembled chez Marx, he then spun out a discussion about the rules at such interminable length that by one in the morning they had still not even begun their ‘editing’ of the preamble. How were they to have it ready in time for the next gathering of the General Council five days later? His weary colleagues, yawning fit to bust, gratefully accepted Marx’s suggestion that he should try to cobble something together himself. All the draft papers were left in his hands, and they departed to their beds.

‘I could see that it was impossible to make anything out of the stuff,’ he told Engels. ‘In order to justify the extremely peculiar way in which I intended to edit the sentiments that had already been “carried,” I wrote An Address to the Working Classes (which was not in the original plan: a sort of review of the adventures of the working class since 1845); on the pretext that all the necessary facts were contained in this “Address” and that we ought not to repeat the same things three times over, I altered the whole preamble, threw out the déclaration des principes and finally replaced the forty rules by ten.’ As a sop to the more pious and less revolutionary members, he threw in a few references to truth, morality, duty and justice, and avoided the belligerent rhetorical flourishes that had so enlivened the Communist Manifesto. As he explained to Engels, ‘It will take time before the revival of the movement allows the old boldness of language to be used. We must be fortiter in re, suaviter in modo.’ Which, being translated from the Latin, essentially means: speak softly and carry a big stick.

Despite the years of seclusion, Marx had lost none of his old procedural guile. At its meeting of 1 November, partly at his suggestion, the General Council co-opted several new members. They included Karl Pfänder, the Communist League veteran who had once examined Wilhelm Liebknecht’s skull; Hermann Jung, a Swiss watchmaker; Eugène Dupont, a French musical-instrument maker; and Friedrich Lessner, the tailor who had rushed the manuscript of the Communist Manifesto to the printers in 1848. All were stalwart supporters of Marx – and he needed all the support he could get, since some of the English members were none too happy with his new text. One of the milder suggestions, as the minutes record, was that ‘some explanation should be given (in the form of a footnote) of the terms “nitrogen” and “carbon"’. (Marx thought this quite unnecessary. ‘We need hardly remind the reader,’ he commented wearily in the footnote, ‘that, apart from the elements of water and certain inorganic substances, carbon and nitrogen form the raw materials of human food.’) A more hostile complaint came from a printer, William Worley, who had made his opinions clear at the previous meeting by objecting to the statement that ‘the capitalist was opposed to the labourer’. This time, his reformist conscience was outraged by Marx’s description of capitalists as ‘profitmongers’. By eleven votes to ten, the council agreed that the inflammatory word be erased. The address was then passed nem. con.

The unanimous acceptance of this ‘review of the adventures of the working class’ is a tribute to Marx’s skill in judging how far he could go. There were no revolutionary predictions, no spectres or hobgoblins stalking Europe – though he did his best to make the reader’s flesh creep with a description of British industry as a vampire which could survive only by sucking the blood of children. Mostly, he allowed the facts to speak for themselves, larding the document with official statistics plagiarised from his own work in progress, Capital, to justify his claim that ‘the misery of the working masses has not diminished from 1848 to 1864’. But, as ever, his attempt to imagine an alternative was as formless if sweet as a bowl of blancmange: ‘Like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind and a joyous heart.’

The address ended with the words ‘Proletarians of all countries, Unite!’; the equally familiar phrase encouraging them to throw off their chains was tactfully omitted. Even so, one can’t help wondering how closely his colleagues scrutinised the text before approving it. ‘The lords of land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defence and perpetuation of their economical monopolies,’ he announced in the final pages. ‘To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.’ Such a notion was anathema to many of the English representatives on the General Council, who thought that the great duty of the working classes was to form trade unions which could bargain for better pay and conditions, while leaving politics to Members of Parliament. This was certainly the view of the impeccably moderate general secretary, William Randal Cremer, who later became a Liberal MP and ended his career as a knight of the realm. The fact that even he voted for the address tells us much about Marx’s powers of persuasion. As old Communist Leaguers such as Pfänder and Lessner knew, Marx’s intimidating presence – his dark eyes, his slashing wit, his formidable analytical brain – would always dominate any committee. Scarcely a month after sitting silently on the stage at St Martin’s Hall, he was already taking charge.

But mere force of personality was not enough to quell the feuds and animosities that inevitably characterised such an incongruous hybrid as the International. Even the small French contingent on the General Council was itself split into two irreconcilable factions of republicans and Proudhonists. The republicans, represented by Le Lubez, were essentially middle-class radicals – red hot for Liberté, égalité and fraternité but rather less excited by arguments about industry or property. Proudhon’s earnest disciples, led by the engraver Henri Louis Tolain, regarded republics and governments as centralised tyrannies that were inimical to the interests of the small shopkeepers and artisans whose cause they championed; all they wanted was a network of mutual-credit societies and small-scale co-operatives. Another Proudhonist, who joined the General Council in 1866, was the young medical student Paul Lafargue, later to become the husband of Laura Marx. His first encounters with his future father-in-law were unpromising. ‘That damned boy Lafargue pesters me with his Proudhonism,’ Karl complained to Laura, ‘and will not rest, it seems, until I have administered to him a sound cudgelling.’ After one of Lafargue’s many speeches declaring nations and nationalities to be the purest moonshine, Marx raised a laugh among his English colleagues by pointing out that ‘our friend Lafargue, and others who had abolished nationalities, had addressed us in “French,” i.e. in a language which nine-tenths of the audience did not understand’. He added mischievously that by denying the existence of nationalities the young zealot ‘seemed quite unconsciously to imply their absorption by the model French nation’.

If the doughty English trade unionists were incredulously amused by these Gallic squabbles, they were downright astonished to learn that the great Mazzini – a heroic figure in London – was regarded by the Germans and French as a posturing ninny whose passion for national liberation had quite eclipsed any awareness of the central importance of class. ‘The position is difficult now,’ Marx admitted after another bruising session at Greek Street, ‘because one must oppose the silly Italianism of the English, on the one hand, and the mistaken polemic of the French, on the other.’

It was a time-consuming business. In a letter to Engels of March 1865 he described a fairly typical week’s work. Tuesday evening was given over to the General Council, at which Tolain and Le Lubez bickered until midnight, after which he had to adjourn to a nearby pub and sign 200 membership cards. The next day he attended a meeting at St Martin’s Hall to mark the anniversary of the Polish insurrection. On Saturday and Monday there were subcommittee meetings devoted to ‘the French question’, both of which raged on until one in the morning. And so to Tuesday, when another stormy session of the General Council ‘left the English in particular with the impression that the Frenchmen stand really in need of a Bonaparte!’ In between all these meetings, there were ‘people dashing this way and that to see me’ in connection with a conference on household suffrage which was to be held the following weekend. ‘What a waste of time!’ he groaned.

Engels thought so too. After Marx’s death he said that ‘Moor’s life without the International would be a diamond ring with the diamond broken out’, but at first he simply couldn’t understand why his friend wished to spend hours suffering in dingy Soho back rooms when he could be at his desk in Hampstead writing Capital. ‘I have always half-expected that the naïve fraternité in the International Association would not last long,’ he commented smugly in 1865, after another bout of internecine squabbling among the French. ‘It will pass through a lot more such phases and will take up a great deal of your time.’ Until he retired to London in 1870 Engels played no part in the association.

By 1865 Marx was the de facto leader of the International, though his official title was ‘corresponding secretary for Germany’. Even this was a misnomer: the death of Lassalle left him with only a couple of friends in the whole of Germany – Wilhelm Liebknecht and the gynaecologist Ludwig Kugelmann – and most of his ‘corresponding’ took the form of sniggers about the alleged homosexuality of Lassalle’s successor, Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, plus a few dismissive remarks about the appalling political backwardness of the Teutonic race. ‘There is nothing I can do in Prussia at the moment,’ he wrote to Dr Kugelmann. ‘I prefer my agitation here through the “International Association” a hundred times. The effect on the English proletariat is direct and of the greatest importance. We are now stirring the General Suffrage Question here, which is, naturally, of quite different significance here than in Prussia.’

Extending the franchise was the dominant parliamentary issue of the moment – though it should be added that the various proposals for reform put forward by Tories and Whigs in the mid-1860s owed less to high principle than to the jostle for party advantage. There were debates galore, which today seem as remote and incomprehensible as the Schleswig-Holstein question, about the voting rights of ‘copyholders’, ‘£6 ratepayers’ and ‘£50 tenants-at-will’. But amid all the arcane arguments over fancy franchises and plural voting, one point was accepted by all peers and MPs: there must be some sort of property qualification to prevent the great unwashed from having any say in the nation’s affairs. ‘What I fear,’ Walter Bagehot wrote in his English Constitution, ‘is that both our political parties will bid for the support of the working man; that both of them will promise to do as he likes...’ Even the National Reform Union, a supposedly radical pressure group, desired only the enfranchisement of householders and rate-paying lodgers.

In the spring of 1865, after a packed meeting at St Martin’s Hall, a Reform League was founded to campaign for universal manhood suffrage. (The possibility that women might be either willing or able to vote was, apparently, too far-fetched to merit consideration.) Marx and his colleagues from the International took charge: ‘The whole leadership is in our hands,’ he revealed triumphantly to Engels. For the next year or so he threw himself into the crusade with gusto while also attending to the International, the manuscript of Capital, the demands of his family and creditors – and, of course, those blossoming boils on his bum, which were more prolific than ever. He hacked away at them with a cut-throat razor, watching with vicious satisfaction as the bad blood spurted over the carpet. Sometimes, having staggered to bed at 4 a.m. several nights running, he felt ‘infernally harassed’ and wished he had never emerged from hibernation.

Was the game worth so many late-night candles? He convinced himself that it was. ‘If we succeed in re-electrifying the political movement of the English working class,’ he wrote after launching the Reform League, ‘our Association will already have done more for the European working class, without making any fuss, than was possible in any other way. And there is every prospect of success.’ Not so. Reformist trade union leaders such as Cremer and Odger soon made concessions, deciding that they would be quite content with household suffrage rather than one man one vote. And that, more or less, is what they got. In the summer of 1867, Parliament approved Disraeli’s Reform Bill, which lowered the property qualification for county voters and extended the franchise to all urban householders – thus doubling the size of the electorate. But the vast majority of the working population remained as voteless as ever.

The International, too, never quite lived up to Marx’s hyperbole. There were some early successes, notably in sabotaging attempts by English employers to recruit foreign workers as strikebreakers, and the ensuing notoriety persuaded several small craft societies to affiliate – among them such exotic bodies as the Amalgamated Cordwainers of Darlington, the Hand-in-Hand Society of Coopers, the West-End Cabinet Makers, the Day-Working Bookbinders, the English journeymen Hairdressers, the Elastic Web Weavers’ Society and the Cigar Makers. But the big industrial unions stayed aloof. William Allen, general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, refused even to meet a deputation from the International. More galling still was the failure to enrol the London Trades Council, even though its secretary, George Odger, was also president of the International. By the time of the Association’s first pan-European Congress, held in Geneva during the summer of 1866, the total number of members in affiliated societies was 25,173 – by no means negligible, but hardly proof that the English proletariat had been ‘re-electrified’. If the International was to expand any further it would have to live up to its name and broaden its horizons far beyond the Cordwainers of Darlington.

Marx himself missed the Geneva Congress, yet still managed to dominate the proceedings. When the French Proudhonists issued their well-rehearsed protest against middle-class socialists (‘all men who have the duty of representing working-class groups should be workers’), William Randal Cremer defended the record of the few non-manual workers on the General Council. ‘Among those members I will mention one only, Citizen Marx, who has devoted his life to the triumph of the working classes.’ The baton was then taken up by James Carter of the Journeymen Hairdressers:

Citizen Marx has just been mentioned; he has perfectly understood the importance of this first congress, where there should be only working-class delegates; therefore he refused the delegateship he was offered in the General Council. But this is not the reason to prevent him or anyone else from coming into our midst; on the contrary, men who devote themselves completely to the proletarian cause are too rare for us to push them aside. The middle class only triumphed when, rich and powerful as it was in numbers, it allied itself with men of science ...

After this barber-shop testimonial even the leader of the Proudhon faction, Henri Tolain, felt obliged to congratulate the absent hero. ‘As a worker, I thank Citizen Marx for not accepting the delegateship offered him. In doing that, Citizen Marx showed that workers’ congresses should be made up only of manual workers.’ Citizen Marx had not intended to show anything of the kind, and there is no evidence that he stayed away from Geneva to avoid offending proletarian sensibilities. A more likely explanation is that he didn’t wish to endure tedious harangues from the French exclusionists when he could have a few days’ uninterrupted work on Capital.

A year earlier he had told Engels that the draft required only a few ‘finishing touches’, which would be done by September 1865. ‘I am working like a horse at the moment.’ His friends had heard many such hopeful forecasts over the years, but this time he really did seem to be in the final furlongs – even if the spavined old nag was proceeding at a limping trot rather than full gallop. Through the summer of 1865 he was vomiting every day (‘in consequence of the hot weather and related biliousness’), and a sudden influx of house guests provided further unwelcome distraction. Jenny’s buffoonish brother, Edgar von Westphalen, came to stay for six months, drinking the wine cellar dry and ‘pondering the needs of his stomach from morn till night’; other visitors included Marx’s brother-in-law from South Africa, a niece from Maastricht and the Freiligrath family. This was the price he paid for moving to a house with spare rooms, but it was a price he could ill afford. ‘For two months I have been living solely on the pawnshop,’ he fretted. ‘A queue of creditors has been hammering on my door, becoming more and more unendurable every day.’ And yet, at the still point in the centre of this whirlwind, his masterpiece was nearing completion. By the end of 1865 Capital was a manuscript of 1,200 pages, a baroque mess of ink-blots and crossings-out and squiggles. On New Year’s Day 1866 he sat down to make a fair copy and polish the style – ‘licking the infant clean after long birth pangs’. But then the carbuncles returned. On doctor’s orders he was banished to Margate for a month, where he did little except bathe in the sea, swallow arsenic three times a day and feel thoroughly sorry for himself ‘I can sing with the Miller of the Dee: “I care for nobody and nobody cares for me.”’ At the end of his sea cure the carbuncles had gone – only to be replaced by rheumatism and toothache. Then the old liver trouble returned for an encore. Even on days when he was fit to work some new misfortune usually descended, as when his stationer refused to supply any more paper until the last batch had been paid for.

With exquisitely bad timing, Paul Lafargue chose this unpropitious moment to ask for the hand of the twenty-year-old Laura Marx in marriage. The Creole medical student, having met Marx through the International, had transferred his attention to the old man’s green-eyed daughter and begun wooing her with an enthusiasm which Karl thought most indecorous. Lafargue was suspect anyway, not only for Proudhonist tendencies but also because of his exotic Franco-Spanish-Indian-African ancestry, which to his prospective father-in-law suggested a certain genetic flightiness. As soon as writing paper could be found Marx sent the overzealous suitor a letter of which any Victorian paterfamilias would have been proud.

My dear Lafargue,

Allow me to make the following observations:

1. If you wish to continue your relations with my daughter, you will have to give up your present manner of ‘courting’. You know full well that no engagement has been entered into, that as yet everything is undecided. And even if she were formally betrothed to you, you should not forget that this is a matter of long duration. The practice of excessive intimacy is especially inappropriate since the two lovers will be living at the same place for a necessarily prolonged period of severe testing and purgatory ... To my mind, true love expresses itself in reticence, modesty and even the shyness of the lover towards his object of veneration, and certainly not in giving free rein to one’s passion and in premature demonstrations of familiarity. If you should urge your Creole temperament in your defence, it is my duty to interpose my sound reason between your temperament and my daughter. If in her presence you are incapable of loving her in a manner in keeping with the London latitude, you will have to resign yourself to loving her from a distance.

In fact it was Marx and not Lafargue who attributed this ardour – and almost everything else – to the ‘Creole temperament’. As late as November 1882 he was still going on about it, telling Engels that ‘Lafargue has the blemish customarily found in the negro tribe – no sense of shame, by which I mean shame about making a fool of oneself.’

Before consenting to the marriage, Marx required a full account of the young man’s prospects. ‘You know that I have sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle,’ he wrote to Lafargue. ‘I do not regret it. Quite the contrary. If I had to live my life over again, I would do the same. I would not marry, however. As far as it lies within my power, I wish to save my daughter from the reefs on which her mother’s life was wrecked ... You must have achieved something in life before thinking of marriage, and a long period of testing is required of you and Laura.’ Not that long, as it turned out: Laura Marx’s engagement to Paul Lafargue was announced in September 1866, only a month after Marx dispatched his letter, and they were married in St Pancras register office on 2 April 1868. Her father, rather unromantically, described the union as ‘a great relief for the entire household, since Lafargue is as good as living with us, which perceptibly increases expenses’. At the wedding lunch Engels cracked so many jokes about the bride that she burst into tears.

Lacking the vivacity of Jennychen and Eleanor, Laura never enjoyed being the centre of attention. (‘As I am in the habit of keeping in the background, I am very apt to be overlooked and forgotten.’) Of all the Marx girls she was probably the most like Jenny Marx: while her sisters dreamed of careers on the stage, Laura’s only ambition was to be a good wife. Her first child, Charles Etienne (nicknamed ‘Schnapps’), was born on 1 January 1869, almost exactly nine months after the wedding, followed over the next two years by a daughter and another son. All died in infancy. There was, it seemed, no escaping those reefs on which her mother’s life had been wrecked. ‘In all these struggles we women have the harder part to bear,’ Jenny Marx wrote, mourning the loss of her grandchildren, ‘because it is the lesser one. A man draws strength from his struggle with the world outside, and is invigorated by the sight of the enemy, be their number legion. We remain sitting at home, darning socks.’