Citizen Marx

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Sam Stark in The Nation:

A New York Times obituary for Karl Marx used verbs like these—born, began, edited (theRheinische Zeitung), suppressed, fled, arrested, sent (across the frontier!), found (refuge!), occurred (revolution!), hastened, revived, remained, expelled, proceeded, supported (himself!), labored (hard!), conceived (the International!)—to show that he had led a life “full of adventure, like all political conspirators.” The paper was impressed by Marx’s productivity as a journalist—Capital hadn’t yet been translated—but it identified him first and foremost as “the ostensible leader of the famous International Society in Europe.” This International Society, it explains, was “originally intended to work for the benefit of working men in general, partially on the trade-union system,” but then “became a purely political organization, which has since grown to formidable dimensions throughout Europe.” What happens when working men meddle in politics? “It is believed by many that the Commune in France was really inspired by the International Society, though the charge has been strenuously denied.”

Although it was erroneously published in 1871, twelve years before Marx died, this obituary already shows the paranoid circumlocution that is still used to implicate him in historical events without clearly defining his role. By the same logic that holds Marx responsible for several twentieth-century revolutions, he appears here as the “ostensible” leader of a shadowy group that meant well but went wrong and inspired some catastrophe. Each step in this argument is speculative and muddled, beginning with the first. Marx was officially a coordinating secretary to the International Workingmen’s Association (1864–1876), a loose-knit network of many different kinds of groups that mostly worked together on labor issues like the organization of strikes and the regulation of the working day. Marx himself staunchly opposed revolutionary conspiracies: “There is no mystery to clear up, dear sir,” he is reported to have told a curious interviewer for the New York World, “except perhaps the mystery of human stupidity in those who perpetually ignore the fact that our Association is a public one, and that the fullest reports of its proceedings are published for all who care to read them.”

More here.