SOON after the Central Bureau of the Communist League was transferred to Cologne, Prussian reaction struck a heavy blow at it. In mid-May 1851, the members of the Cologne Central Bureau and a number of League members in other parts of Germany were arrested. The Prussian government’s aim was the complete destruction of the League and the rooting out of the ideas of Marx and Engels in Germany.
The Cologne Trial
On June 3, the Prussian ministry devoted a special sitting to the arrests. A large number of police agents were sent to London to spy on Marx and to turn up “incriminating evidence” for the planned trial of the “Marx Party”. Since there was no evidence to prove a “conspiracy”, but since “Communist plots” had to be brought to light at any cost and the king personally had made such a demand, the police concentrated on the creation of falsified material, the forging of stoolpigeons’ reports and the finding of renegades. They needed one and a half years for this dirty work, so that it was not till October 1852 that the trial could be opened before a Cologne jury.
As soon as the reports of the first arrests reached Marx, he began to do everything he could to lighten the lot of those involved. He had no doubts whatsoever that Prussian reaction intended, with this attack on the Communists, to strike at and destroy the entire democratic movement in Germany. He, therefore, considered it all the more necessary to utilise the trial to pillory the ruling Prussian police regime itself. He worked especially to uncover the infamous black mailing and stoolpigeon methods of Prussian government.
At first, in newspaper articles, he attacked the Prussian justice authorities for their constant delay of the trial. Then, during the whole of the autumn of 1852, he worked tirelessly, with the help of friends, to expose the intrigues of the police, and to make the necessary information available to the legal counsels of the accused through devious routes.
After the exposure of the uncounted and unprecedented police falsifications which were fully supported by the Prussian government, “the jurors were no longer free to find the accused guilty or not guilty”. Marx wrote, “They now had to find the accused guilty—or the government.” In the face of such a decision, most of the jurors, without exception members of the ruling classes-junkers, bourgeois and State officials–showed to be spineless subjects of their royal ruler. They pronounced most of the accused guilty and sentenced them to long terms in prison.
But their decision was a pyrrhic victory for the Prussian State. Thanks to Marx’s tireless work in tracking down and making public their dirty stoolpigeon intrigues, the Cologne Communist trial became a moral defeat for the Prussian police and justice apparatus.
Marx worked up the material he had gathered about the trial into a booklet, Disclosures about the Communist Trial in Cologne. He did not content himself with the exposure of the base falsifications and blackmail of the police and organs of justice. His aim was to show that such infamies were not casual degeneracy, but typical features of the Prussian police and military State, and that the witch-hunt against the Communist was only the signal for a great offensive against all democratic forces.
The pamphlet contains an historical-materialist analysis of the system of the monarchic Prussian State with its punitive apparatus. In opposition to the policy of suppression of the revolutionary movement, Marx set the inspiring ideals of the Communist movement, of the class struggle of the workers. He stressed that the adventurist conspiratorial tactics which the prosecution imputed to the Communist League were incompatible with the Communists’ historical task of enhancing the class consciousness of the workers and building a mass proletarian Party.
Marx’s pamphlet was printed in Switzerland, but could not be delivered to Germany as all copies were seized and confiscated by the police in a Baden border village. At about the same time, with the help of Marx’s friends, it was published in a German-American newspaper in the United States. Thanks to Engels’ financial support, special issues of the paper were delivered to the Rhine province.
Soon after the Cologne trial, a meeting of the London organisation of the League decided, on Marx’s initiative, to dissolve the local organisation. It was declared that the further functioning of the League on the continent had also become purposeless.
As organisers and leaders of the Communist League, Marx and Engels educated hundreds of devoted Communists who were its members. The League became the forerunner of the First International and the mass proletarian parties that began to spring up in Europe in the 1860s and 1870s.
In the autumn of 1850, when Marx opposed the adventurist incitement of Willich and other League members he did so from the standpoint that the new stage, in which the revolution did not stand immediately on the agenda, demanded a new tactic on the part of the Communists. It was necessary to root out idle, utopian plans of conquest, but equally necessary, at the same time, to forge weapons for the new revolutionary crisis that had to be expected in time. The new revolution, as demonstrated by the bitter lessons of 1848-49, would have to find a trained proletarian party in readiness, equipped with a knowledge of the laws of development of society.
Marx transformed this view into action in a drastic manner, despite the fact that it drew on him the hostility of revolutionary phrase-mongers. His “battle-field” now became the reading room of the British Museum which then had the greatest and best library in the world. Here, when not interrupted by sickness in the family or consultations with friends, he sat daily from nine in the morning till seven in the evening, bowed over books.
Marx threw himself into the study of the history of politics and culture, of the natural sciences and technology, of diplomacy and other sciences. He spared neither time nor energy to fill in the gaps in his knowledge. But at the centre of his research now stood political economy. Till 1848, he had devoted himself primarily to laying the philosophical foundation of scientific Communism and the study of history; in the revolutionary years he had concentrated on the development of his political ideas; now in the 1850s and 60s he concerned himself primarily with political economy.
He and Engels, in their previous works, had shown that the mode of production of material life is the foundation and point of departure for the social, political and intellectual life of society. Now the point was to deepen the theory on the basis of laying bare the laws leading to the emergence, the development and the decline of capitalism. That required a critical stock-taking and mastering of the entire body of previous economic theories about the capitalist mode of production. From 1850 on, Marx dedicated all his energies to this task.
At the beginning he hoped to be able to complete his planned work on the economy of capitalism in a few months. But time and again new questions arose which had to be studied and cleared up. “The democratic simpletons for whom enlightenment comes ‘from above’, naturally, don’t find such exertions necessary”, Marx said sarcastically. “Why should they plague themselves with economic and historical material, these ‘Sunday Children’”? Everything is really so simple, the brave Willich used to tell me. Everything so simple! In their empty heads. Remarkably simple fellows!”
Marx’s example inspired others. His pupils and comrades also used every free minute left to them from the hard struggle for bread for study. They were a small group but there were people among them who were to contribute greatly in the following decades to the German and international workers’ movement—Wilhelm Liebknecht and Friedrich Lessner John George Eccarius and George Lochner. Forty year later, Liebknecht still reminisced about Marx’s stubborn insistence: “To learn! To learn! That was the categorical imperative that he often enough threw at us, but which already confronted us in his example, yes, in the mere look of this always powerfully working spirit.”
Thus the intellectual weapons for the later battles of the German and international working class were forged in London at precisely the time when reaction believed it had triumphed forever in Germany.
How Marx proceeded with his studies, he himself described in 1859. “The enormous material of the history of political economy that is piled up in the British Museum, the favourable vantage point London offers for the observing of bourgeois society, finally, the new stage of development which seemed to have opened up with the discovery of Californain and Australian gold – all this decided me to go back to the beginning again and to work my way critically through the new material. These researches led partly in themselves, to seemingly quite separate disciplines, in which I had to remain for a longer or shorter time. However, the time available to me was reduced by the urgent necessity of working for a living”.
Earning a Living
This opportunity of earning a living Marx finally found as a contributor to the New York Daily Tribune. At a time when the worker’s Press was fully suppressed on the continent, when the bourgeois democratic Press had also disappeared, and the big bourgeois-liberal Press had sunk to the level of being mere servile organs of feudal reaction, the New York Daily Tribune, with 200,000 subscribers, represented progressive bourgeois tendencies in America. It came out against the slave trade in the Southern States of the USA and sometimes even flirted with Socialist ideas. Marx had come to know the editor, Charles Dana, in Cologne, in 1848. Now Dana proposed that he write a weekly article for the paper.
Marx agreed. At last, an opportunity to earn something! But how could this journalistic wage-labour for a bourgeois newspaper square with the political principles of a Communist?