Karl Marx: Of Obituaries, Epitaphs and Sundry Mix-Ups

In its time, Marx’s life hardly looked like the watershed in the history of the modern world it has proved to be since his death.

On September 6, 1871, the New York Times ran an obituary of Karl Marx, “the ostensible leader of the famous International Society in Europe”.

“The celebrity of Dr Marx”, the notice observed, “is only of recent date, though his life was full of adventure, like all other political conspirators…”

That the Times was not inordinately fond of ‘Dr Marx’ is brought home by sundry other comments studding the article as well: that “he frequently rendered himself obnoxious to those who happened to differ with him”; and that “it was only a short time since he threatened to shoot the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette for a criticism deemed by him offensive”.

One can almost hear “Good riddance!” breathing through the lines here.

The premature obituary. Photo: NYT archives

Is it any surprise then that the Times never seems to have run a correction, let alone an apology, for this premature obit?

What this goof-up did, however, was that it obliged the newspaper to tread more carefully when, on March 16, 1883, it reported on Marx’s death once again, captioning the report, quite extraordinarily, as ‘Reported death of Karl Marx’.

‘Reported death of Karl Marx, March 16, 1883. Photo: NYT archives

And then, once it became clear that this time the report had not been a howler, it came out on the following day with a more self-assured obit titled ‘The death of Karl Marx‘ in which the newspaper made an effort to be more even-handed in its judgement of the dead man.

For example, it mentions that “Herr Marx…always avoided a demonstration”, which is why the family had “decided that the funeral shall be private”. However, it insisted on calling the dead man’s ‘intimate friend’ Dr Friedrich ‘Engel’, presumably taking the ‘s’ in the friend’s last  name for a superfluity. Also, it couldn’t still get its timelines right. Thus the year Herr Marx’s book Das Kapital was first published is given out as 1864, instead of 1867. The saving grace though was that this time, Karl Marx stayed dead.

Also read: What Can Karl Marx Offer to the 21st Century?

While the New York Times fumbled and stumbled, British and Continental press did a better job overall of reporting Marx’s passing. Indeed, the Manchester Courier even quoted from Engels’s moving speech at his friend’s grave-side: that “(t)he best hated and worst calumniated man in Europe, he had lived, although his work was not finished, to see his views embraced by millions of both hemispheres”.

The Morning Post of March 17, basing its despatch apparently on a ‘Reuter’s Telegram’, filed a more formal report and got almost all its facts correct, but somehow datelined the news ‘Paris, March 16, Evening’. This was a curious mix-up, because to many readers this seemed to suggest that Marx had died in Paris, and not in London. There were, in fact, a few irate London readers of the newspaper who later complained that, but for the misleading dateline, they would have joined the funeral.

Be that as it may, it is noteworthy that while conservative newspapers like the Courier and the Post presented the news with care, the liberal New York Times came across as slipshod. And Marx’s was not an unfamiliar name in New York by any means. For nearly ten years between 1852 and 1861, Marx wrote a regular column for the New York Daily Tribune which was widely and approvingly read by American liberals. Besides, at least one of his monographs – ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’ – made its first appearance in another New York journal, albeit a German one, Die Revolucion.

We have not been able to retrieve the obit inserted by The Daily News of London, the liberal newspaper founded by Charles Dickens. But the Moscow editorial office of the paper came in with a different kind of message, a telegram for Eleanor Marx, Marx’s youngest daughter, received on 20 March, 1883, which read as follows:

Please be so kind as to convey to Mr Engels, author of ‘The (Condition of the) Working-Class in England’ and intimate friend of the late Karl Marx, our request that he lay a wreath on the coffin of the unforgettable author of ‘Capital’ bearing the following inscription:

“In memory of the defender of workers’ rights in theory and their implementation in practice.

The students of the Petrovsky Agricultural Academy, Moscow.”

The fact that the newspaper agreed to facilitate this message from Russian students in Moscow suggests that it was not unsympathetic to the causes that Marx was identified with.

But since this message reached Eleanor/Engels a full three days after the funeral, the wreath could go on Marx’s grave only in the first week of May – after the necessary inscriptions were ready – along with a few other offerings from different places in Western Europe and Russia, for example, Paris, Solingen, Erfurt, Zurich, St Petersburg and Odessa.

Also read: Karl Marx: Flawed, Manic, and One of Us

Understandably, many more messages reached Engels over the weeks following the funeral, and he scrupulously mentioned them in a couple of issues of May, 1881 of Der Sozialdemokrat, the German socialist fortnightly published from Zurich. Most were condolences, or messages of respect for the departed leader. But there were a couple whose point of interest was of a somewhat different kind. Some tended to show, as Engels was to mention in the May 17 number of the paper, that “(t)he death of a great man provides a first-rate opportunity for small people to make political, literary and actual capital out of it”. Thus, in a letter dated 2 April, 1881, Philipp van Patten, Secretary of the Central Labour Union in New York, wrote to Engels that

In connection with the recent demonstration in honour of the memory of Karl Marx, when…. all factions united in testifying their regard for the deceased philosopher, there were very loud statements made by John Most and his friends that he, Most, was upon intimate terms with Karl Marx, that he had made his work ‘Das Kapital’ popular in Germany and that Marx was in accord with the propaganda conducted by him.

The man Van Patten was referring to was Johan (not John) Most, a German Anarchist loudmouth who had made himself a nuisance to trade union activists by his disruptive activities with regard to organised factory labour.

“Too much mischief has already been done here,” Patten wrote, “by the untimely and imprudent talk of Most and it is rather disagreeable for us to learn that so high an authority as Marx endorsed such tactics”. With alacrity, Engels got down to clearing Marx’s name of his alleged proximity to and encouragement of Most & Co. After stating the nature of Marx’s past association with Most before the latter embraced Anarchism, Engels proceeded to refute in detail Most’s claim that he enjoyed Marx’s confidence or support. Only ‘a dupe or a deliberate liar’ could make such a claim, Engels asserted.

In much the same vein, but at greater length, Engels disposed of another upstart, the Italian Achille Loria, who claimed that he had found out quite many ‘flaws’ in Marx’s work on Surplus Value and that he had not only pointed these out to Marx but that Marx had pretty much conceded the truth in his ‘observations’. Also that Marx’s major work was all dominated by ‘a conscious sophism’.

Engels was quite devastating in his reply to Loria which he also published in the following issue of  Sozialdemokrat . Loria’s claims, he said,  were “pure fantasy” which, of course Loria was free to pursue. “However, what you are not at liberty to do, and it is a privilege I shall never grant to anybody, is to slander the character of my late friend.”

Also read: Can the 21st Century Reader Read Karl Marx in the Original?

While Engels made a meticulous inventory of the many messages he received, as well as of the requests for wreaths to be placed on Marx’s grave, his exasperation showed in the references he makes in the despatch dated May 3 to sundry desecrators of the tomb. He notes how ‘the long ends of the red silk bows’ on some of the wreaths had been cut off and stolen on more than one occasion.

“Complaining to the trustees”, he notes, “was to no avail, but will no doubt mean that the grave will be protected in future”. Alas!, he was mistaken in his hope. For, in his report of May 17 he once again remarks on how ‘the red silk ribbons of the Solingen wreath had again been stolen’. To stop such pilferage, ‘we were obliged to make it impossible for them to be used again by making little incisions on the edges’. And the next time he visited the grave, he observes wryly, “(a) shower of rain had so affected the ribbon on the Erfurt wreath that it could not be used for anything else, and thus escaped being stolen”.

Marx would have been amused that his long-time friend and comrade was thus obliged to mount guard not only on his legacy, but on the wreaths at his grave as well. But what all this also proves is that the ‘bravehearts’ who deface and defile Marx’s grave with unfailing regularity well into the 21st century can claim a proud and long ancestry – to thieves of the night from 19th century England.

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, commentator and translator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com