Life and Work of Karl Marx – X: Founding of a New Paper

COLOGNE, where Marx and Engels arrived on April 11, 1848, was not an accidental choice. The capital of the industrially most advanced Rhine Province had also become a centre of the young working class movement. Here there was a strong organisation of the Communist League. Marx had already worked in Cologne as the Editor-in-chief of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842-43 and could count on many friends and comrades who shared his views.

The new Prussian government, under the pressure of the popular revolutionary movement, had to set aside the decree on the hounding and arrest of German patriots. The Cologne City Council, whether it liked it or not, approved Marx’s application for permission to settle in the city. But his application to have Prussian citizenship restored to him was dragged out by government officials with time-honoured bureaucratic chicanery.

Soon Jenny and their three small children joined Marx. Although life on the “front line” of the revolution was dangerous and hard, Marx’s family preferred to remain with him and share all the difficulties of a revolutionary’s life.

“Marx was before all else a revolutionist,” Engels, wrote about his friend. “His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the State institutions which it brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, tenacity and a success such as few could rival.” These qualities of Marx as a revolutionary leader and organiser of the masses were fully displayed during the revolution of 1848-49.

On arrival in Cologne, Marx tried to form an all-German working class party. On his advice, members of the Communist League were dispatched to various cities of Germany to secure the support of the local League communities, step up their activity and organise the direction of workers’ organisations and clubs. With this method, and utilising the democratic freedoms that had been won, Marx sought to unite all the numerous local workers’ associations into one all-German political organisation. Such an independent workers’ organisation could, in alliance with the petty-bourgeoisie, provide leadership to the general democratic movement in carrying out the tasks of the revolution.

The letters that came in, and the reports of the friends who returned, soon led Marx to recognise that these hopes could not be fulfilled. The few hundred League members were lost in the great churning sea of the popular masses. The workers of the League in almost all parts of Germany worked energetically in the democratic movement, but the great majority of the German proletarians, most of whom were still artisans, did not yet have sufficient political consciousness, and were still too inexperienced and unorganised, to recognise the necessity of having their own class organisation, independent of bourgeois influences. The self-sacrificing work of the few Communists, therefore, could not in such a short time prepare the basis for a workers’ organisation stretching across all of Germany.

Only one alternative was left if the League was not to isolate itself from the working class and fall apart in sectarianism, and that was to join the existing democratic movement and its organisations as their clearly delineated Left wing. Only in this manner would it be possible to gain “the ear of the working class”, of which the great majority was still completely under the influence of the petty-bourgeois democrats. Only in this manner would it also be possible to build a united front of all the anti-feudal forces against the counter-revolution.

By April 1848, the unification of many workers’ organisations in Cologne into a Workers’ League had been achieved. From the very outset, the head of the League, Andreas Gottschalk, a physician, adopted a very sectarian, ultra-revolutionary policy, threatening the urgently needed unity in action of all democratic groups. Gottschalk put forward the slogan that the workers must boycott the May elections to the German National Assembly and the Berlin Constituent Assembly, because these were being carried out under an undemocratic, indirect voting system.

The communists, of course, were also opposed to the indirect voting system but they recognised that under no circumstances should the field be left alone to the reactionaries since that would hold the workers back from the political struggle and strengthen the hands of the reactionaries. In accordance with their programme, the Communists called for participation in the voting and the election of democratic candidates, because that would strengthen the general democratic movement. The result was that many workers, despite the undemocratic and restricted voting procedure, did not allow themselves to be diverted from taking part in the election and from giving their votes to the democratic candidates.

Marx recognised that the Central Committee of the League could not possibly give proper leadership to the Communists working in the separate parts of Germany with the methods used till then, the methods of secret correspondence and individual emissaries. This strengthened his view that the planned newspaper should be brought out as quickly as possible. The paper was to have the task of helping the fight of all the democratic forces for the completion of the revolution and to give leadership to the Communist League members working in various areas under completely different conditions.

Marx did not underestimate the difficulties involved in founding a paper. Funds were needed but neither the Communist League’s Central Committee nor the workers could provide them. At least 30,000 talers were needed to start a newspaper, but by the end of May only 13,000 talers had been collected by subscription. The liberal bourgeoisie which in 1842 had given financial support to the Rheinische Zeitung, now flatly refused to help. Engels wrote from his native Barmen, “Even these radical bourgeoisie in Barmen regard us as their main future enemies and do not wish to give us any weapons that we might very soon turn against them.” He also reported, “It is also absolutely impossible to get anything from my old man…and instead of shelling out 1000 talers, he would much rather fire 1000 cases hot shells at us.” In the end, Marx had to contribute a large sum once again from his patrimony.

In the evening of May 31, the news-dealers of Cologne received the first number of Neue Rheinische Zeitung – an Organ of Democracy, dated June 1, 1848, and hurried with it into the city. Marx could breathe more freely.

Marx who headed the editorial staff of Neue Rheinische Zeitung, enlisted gifted Communist spokesmen of the working class movement to write for the paper. Marx’s right-hand man, Engels, not only wrote many articles for the paper, but also carried out numerous organisational tasks. “He is a real encyclopedia,” Marx wrote of his friend admiringly, “able to work, merry and sober, at any hour of the day or night; he is as quick as the devil at writing and thinking.”

While the paper was a creation of the revolutionary proletariat in the broad sense of the word, it was also Marx’s creation, in the direct sense of the word. He organised the publication of the paper, selected its correspondents, determined the paper’s policies and decided on its contents.
“The editorial constitution was simply the dictatorship of Marx,” Engels recalled later. “A big daily paper which has to be ready at a definite hour, cannot observe a consistent policy with any other constitution. Moreover, Marx’s dictatorship was a matter of course here, was undisputed and willingly recognised by all of us. It was primarily his clear vision and firm attitude that made this publication the most famous German newspaper of the years of revolution.”

Thanks to Marx’s genius as a theoretician and his qualities as a revolutionary publicist, fighter and organiser of struggle, Neue Rheinische Zeitung became the most influential printed organ of the proletariat. The paper became a kind of headquarters of the revolutionary movement. “Those were revolutionary times,” Engels wrote, “and at such times it is a pleasure to work in the daily press. One sees for oneself the effect of every word, one sees one’s articles strike like hand-grenades and explode like fired shells.”

(To be continued)

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