Saturday, September 5, 2015

Karl Marx’s Night Out on London Town

This is for pure amusement and from Wilhelm Liebknecht’s fascinating book Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs (1901).

The context is that Marx and various friends were drunk and out on the town in London in the 1850s:
“One evening Edgar Bauer, acquainted with Marx from their Berlin time and then not yet his personal enemy in spite of the ‘Holy Family,’ had come to town from his hermitage in Highgate for the purpose of ‘making a beer trip.’ The problem was to ‘take something’ in every saloon between Oxford street and Hampstead Road—making the ‘something’ a very difficult task, even by confining yourself to a minimum, considering the enormous number of saloons in that part of the city. But we went to work undaunted and managed to reach the end of Tottenham Court Road without accident. There loud singing issued from a public house; we entered and learned that a club of Odd Fellows were celebrating a festival. We met some of the men belonging to the ‘party,’ and they at once invited us ‘foreigners’ with truly English hospitality to go with them into one of the rooms. We followed them in the best of spirits, and the conversation naturally turned to politics—we had been easily recognized as German fugitives; and the Englishmen, good old-fashioned people, who wanted to amuse us a little, considered it their duty to revile thoroughly the German princes and the Russian nobles. ….

And now in London, in the company of the kind old Odd Fellows, I together with my two companions ‘without a country’ came into a quite similar position. Edgar Bauer, hurt by some chance remark, turned the tables and ridiculed the English snobs. Marx launched an enthusiastic eulogy on German science and music—no other country, he said, would have been capable of producing such masters of music as Beethoven, Mozart, Haendel and Haydn, and the Englishmen who had no music were in reality far below the Germans who had been prevented hitherto only by the miserable political and economical conditions from accomplishing any great practical work, but who would yet outclass all other nations. So fluently I have never heard him speaking English. For my part, I demonstrated in drastic words that the political conditions in England were not a bit better than in Germany (here Urquhart's pet phrases came in very handy), the only difference being that we Germans knew our public affairs were miserable, while the Englishmen did not know it, whence it were apparent that we surpassed the Englishmen in political intelligence.

The brows of our hosts began to cloud, similarly as formerly in the ‘Haefelei’; and when Edgar Bauer brought up still heavier guns and began to allude to the English cant, then a low ‘damned foreigners!’ issued from the company, soon followed by louder repetitions. Threatening words were spoken, the brains began to be heated, fists were brandished in the air and—we were sensible enough to choose the better part of valor and managed to effect, not wholly without difficulty, a passably dignified retreat.

Now we had enough of our ‘beer trip’ for the time being, and in order to cool our heated blood, we started on a double quick march, until Edgar Bauer stumbled over a heap of paving stones. ‘Hurrah, an idea!’ And in memory of mad student's pranks he picked up a stone, and Clash! Clatter! a gas lantern went flying into splinters. Nonsense is contagious—Marx and I did not stay behind, and we broke four or five street lamps—it was, perhaps, 2 o’clock in the morning and the streets were deserted in consequence. But the noise nevertheless attracted the attention of a policeman who with quick resolution gave the signal to his colleagues on the same beat and immediately countersignals were given. The position became critical. Happily we took in the situation at a glance; and happily we knew the locality. We raced ahead, three or four policemen some distance behind us. Marx showed an activity that I should not have attributed to him. And after the wild chase had lasted some minutes, we succeeded in turning into a side street and there running through an alley—a back yard between two streets—whence we came behind the policemen who lost the trail. Now we were safe. They did not have our description and we arrived at our homes without further adventures.” (Liebknecht 1901: 146–151).
The image of Marx as the violent, drunken Communist lout on a pub crawl, smashing public property and in trouble with the police is a far cry from the traditional image of him as the sober scholar spending endless nights at the British museum library.

Liebknecht, Wilhelm. 1901. Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs. C. H. Kerr & Co., Chicago.


  1. I'm not sure how traditional the image of Marx as a sober scholar is - to many contemporaries at least he was very much a good-for-nothing communist revolutionary and 'lout'. Still, one should not read too much in a drunken incident that happened when Marx was still relatively young - in his mid-thirties. God knows that, even today, many outwardly respectable Englishmen might find themselves in such a situation.

    By the way, the whole English text of Liebknecht's book is here:

    Another incident that I find funny from this book is the following: "Karl Pfaender, [was] one of the “oldest,” who helped to found the Communist Alliance, and was present in that memorable council to which the Communist Manifesto was submitted, and by whom it was discussed and accepted in due form. On this occasion a comic incident happened. One of the “old ones” of the Communist Labourers’ Educational Club was very enthusiastic over the manifesto that was read by Marx with passionate emotion – perhaps similarly as the “Robbers” once upon a time by Schiller – was quite beyond himself, like all others, applauded and shouted “Bravo” as loud as he could; but his pensive mien gave evidence that some dark point occupied his mind. On leaving he finally called Pfaender aside: “That was magnificent, but one word I did not understand – what does Marx mean by achtblaettler (plant with eight leaves)?” “Achtblaettler, achtblaettler – I have heard of plants, of clover, with four leaves, but Achtblaettler?” Pfaender was puzzled. At last the riddle was solved. Marx had a little lisp in his youth and at that time still spoke the unadulterated Rhenish dialect; the mysterious achtblaettler, behind which the old Cabetist had scented a magic formula, were simple and honest arbeiter (workingmen). We laughed many a time over this misunderstanding which, however, was beneficial to Marx in that henceforth he strove to clip the wings of his Rhenish dialect."

    In standard German it is difficult to see how "arbeiter" (worker) can turn into "achtblättler". But Marx was from Trier, grew up there and, presumably, spoke the local dialect which is very near Luxembourgish, which I speak. And in L. 'worker" is "arbechter". If you take into account Marx's alleged lisp, you can see where "achtblättler" came from! Makes him, somehow, seem much more real. But speaking of "Rhenish" dialect is probably wrong, Trier is on the Moselle, a tributary of the Rhine, not on the Rhine itself and the local dialect belongs to a group called "Moselfränkisch". After leaving Trier Marx did spend considerable time in Colognewhich is on the Rhine, it seems most reasonable to presume he spoke his local dialect, rather than the Cologne one (known as Kölsch). In any case, the two dialects are not very far apart.

  2. Um, it seems to kind of humanise the guy and it's certainly in keeping with much of the rest of his character. You'll find very similar biographical features to many national heroes and revolutionaries -- Michael Collins comes to mind immediately. These people tend NOT to be ivory tower types at all. In fact, it's the ivory tower types who rarely have political impact.

  3. "The image of Marx as the violent, drunken Communist lout on a pub crawl, smashing public property and in trouble with the police is a far cry from the traditional image of him as the sober scholar spending endless nights at the British museum library."

    Marx was a pretty dysfunctional man in real life, so it isn't totally surprising.

    It's also not surprising that he was terrible with money as well, especially other people's money, but that's the legacy of communism really isn't it.