Karl Marx’s Life in London and Entry Into Active Politics

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

After the revolutions of 1848 failed to have the impact Marx had hoped for, and the earlier figures of authority regained their power, Marx had to leave his home country of Germany. He moved to London and lived there for the rest of his life. What was his life like during this period of extended exile? At the same time, he entered active politics for the first time. What were the ramifications?

Aerial view of the British Museum in London
For 34 years, after moving to London, Karl Marx would go to the library of the British Museum to work at one of the desks, which included writing the first volume of Das Kapital. (Image: Luke Massey and the Greater London National Park City Initiative/CC BY 2.0/Public domain)

When the revolutions across Europe began in 1848, Marx threw himself into politics. Soon after The Communist Manifesto was published, revolution broke out in Germany, and Marx went back, returning to the Rhineland.

There he edited a newly established radical newspaper in Cologne, urging revolution in Germany and war against Russia as the policeman of Europe. When the revolution sputtered out in humiliating failure by 1849, Marx was ordered to leave the country. He published one last issue of his newspaper on bright red paper, and then he left.

Learn more about Marxism after Marx.

Marx’s Life in London

In August 1849, Marx moved to London, and he would live in London until his death in 1883. For 34 years, Marx worked in the library of the British Museum, scribbling away at his desk. He only published one volume of his vast work, Das Kapital, in 1867. And that single volume appeared only because Engels begged him to stop revising and rewriting. Marx left the other two volumes to be completed from notes by Engels after his death.

Marx and his family had a series of bad rented apartments around London, in areas like Soho. They lived in precarious circumstances. The kids had to learn to lie about their father’s whereabouts when debt‐collectors came around.

Several children of the family died in their penurious conditions: of seven, only three survived to adulthood. Once, Mrs. Marx had to borrow money for a coffin for her daughter. Another time they were evicted. Mrs. Marx’s health deteriorated, and she had breakdowns, which seems unsurprising.

Marx only once actively sought a job but was turned down because of his terrible handwriting. He did do some journalism for an American newspaper in New York.

In many cases, Engels would write the articles and they appeared under Marx’s name. When the first volume of Das Kapital appeared, Engels wrote reviews praising it, without revealing that he was the author’s intellectual partner.

In essence, the Marx family depended on money from Engels, who even went back to work in the family factory, work that he hated, in order to fund the Marxes over some 30 years.

Marx Tried to Decipher the Failure of the Revolutions

In London, Marx had the chance to try to figure out what had gone wrong in France in 1848. He explained the failure in his work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by claiming it was the Lumpenproletariat who helped Napoleon III to power, as he is one of them, the scum of the earth. Also, Marx stressed that on occasion, the state might actually take an autonomous role in making history.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

In general, Marx’s conclusion was that the middle classes could not be trusted even to play their own historical role and that workers should have parallel organizations to keep pressing the revolution forward. So, now Marx was waiting for the next wave of turmoil.

Learn more about the revolutionary Russias.

Marx and Engels’ Hatred of Russia

One other core notion of Marx and Engels in this period had to do with the role of Russia. They hated its conservative imperial system (which, after all, had propped up monarchies in 1848), and they despised its overwhelming agrarian backwardness. Yet, by a paradox that we shall later explore fully, it would be in Russia that a Marxist party first came to power in 1917.

Marx and Engels, as educated Germans, saw Slavic peoples as less civilized. Smaller nations would have to fuse with larger ones in the interest of progress, and war with Russia would be progressive.

Engels wrote in 1849: ‘The universal war which is coming will crush the Slav alliance and will wipe out completely those obstinate peoples so that their very name will be forgotten… The next world war will wipe out not only reactionary classes and dynasties, but it will also destroy those utterly reactionary races… And that will be a real step forward’. Such so‐called reactionary races were ‘people without history’, Engels also wrote.

There is no country in Europe which does not contain in some corner one or several ruins of people, leftovers of earlier inhabitants, pushed back and made subject to the nation which later became the carrier of historical development.

These remains of nations which have been mercilessly trampled down by the passage of history, as Hegel expressed it, this ethnic trash always becomes and remains until its complete extermination or denationalization, the most fanatic carrier of counterrevolution, since its entire existence is nothing more than a protest against a great historical revolution.

No sympathy for multicultural diversity here. The historian A. J. P. Taylor states of Engels, “His views on the Slavs were indistinguishable from those of Hitler.” Later, such statements that derided the Slavs were edited out by the Soviets—they didn’t look good.

But here we need to add a footnote that shows how Marx’s thought was never fully finished or set in stone. Rather, he was constantly revising.

In 1881, Marx got a letter from a Russian socialist, Vera Zasulich, asking him for advice. She asked in particular whether Russia would have to undergo a complete Industrial Revolution first, before reaching socialism. Marx replied vaguely, but this showed that he was already open to the idea of other paths to socialism.

In fact, it was precisely in Russia that the communist model of the ‘conspiratorial vanguard party’ would be developed, and later perfected by Lenin. Marx was intrigued enough to learn Russian.

Learn more about the rise of communism.

Marx’s Active Political Role in London

Interior of St. Martin's Hall
Marx and Engels helped found the International Workingmen’s Association, in St. Martin’s Hall, London, in 1864. (Image: Numerous Engravings / Public domain)

Apart from writing at his desk in the reading room of the British Museum, Marx took an active political role, as well. He and Engels helped found the International Workingmen’s Association, in St. Martin’s Hall, London. Active from 1864 to 1876, it came to be called the First International, for short, and had representatives from many different countries as organizations and unions joined: it may have had 800,000 members by 1869.

Marx was elected to the General Council and his main business now became violent debates about who should belong and who should be expelled. The historian Robert Service writes that its members ‘disagreed about practically everything’. The movement was intensely factional, as members denounced each other as ‘splitters’ and ‘deviationists’. This intense factionalism would become a tradition of long-standing in the communist movement.

Conferences of the First International were convened in Geneva, Lausanne, and Brussels. In all this activity, Marx battled against his main foe, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin. Bakunin had famously announced in 1842, “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”

In contrast to Marx and Engels, Bakunin saw Slavic people as progressive. For him, the Russian peasant would prove to be a key actor in abolishing the state. He felt it was vital to avoid centralization in the movement and to keep it always spontaneous. Bakunin had declared, “Where the State begins, individual liberty ceases, and vice versa.

Bakunin then warned that Marx’s domination of the movement was a bad sign, suggesting a future distortion of the movement in which intellectuals and Germans would take over. In 1872, Marx and Engels personally attended the Hague conference to fight against Bakunin and were able to get him expelled. That must have afforded Marx great satisfaction.

But even greater was Marx’s excitement in 1871 when it seemed that the end of the established order was at hand. Paris went up in flames yet again, with the Paris Commune. It was also that event, mistakenly attributed to Marx, that would make him one of the most feared and hated men in the world.

Common Questions about Karl Marx’s Life in London and Active Political Role

Q: Where did Karl Marx live in London?

Karl Marx and his family lived in a series of bad rented apartments around London, in areas like Soho. They lived in precarious circumstances.

Q: Why did Karl Marx move to London?

Karl Marx had returned to Germany when the revolutions across Europe began in 1848. There, in Cologne, he edited a radical newspaper, urging revolution in Germany. When the revolution ended in failure, Marx was ordered to leave the country. So, in August 1849, Marx moved to London, and he lived there until his death in 1883.

Q: When was the International Workingmen’s Association established?

In London, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels helped found the International Workingmen’s Association, in 1864. It remained active between 1864 and 1876. It attracted representatives from many different countries as organizations and unions joined and are believed to have had 800,000 members by 1869.

Q: What did Mikhail Bakunin believe?

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, who was contemporary of Karl Marx, believed the Russian peasant would prove to be a key actor in abolishing the state. He felt it was vital to avoid centralization in the movement and to keep it always spontaneous. And Bakunin warned that Marx’s domination of the movement was a bad sign, suggesting a future distortion of the movement in which intellectuals and Germans would take over.

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