The Sovietesque image of Marx and Engels chiseling themselves out of granite as they set about creating the edifice of ‘scientific socialism’ was always grotesque. And not even a caricature of reality. In truth, they loved nothing more than a good party; an evening with family, friends and comrades around a table of shared joys telling stories, singing and all night conversation. While Engels has the reputation as the bon vivant, it is clear that Marx was no slouch when it came to the occasional tipple, nor his wife, children and the ‘housekeeper’ Lenchen. When Karl and Fred were together, sometimes locked in conversation for days, the booze invariably flowed freely. Their letters are replete with hints of youthful, drunken escapades (and not so youthful), with odes to special vintages, appeals for port, with complaints about the claret, the planning for parties, with head-holding hangovers and toasts to life’s victories and defeats.
A visit to Marx in England by comrades from the continent was often the stage for a night out. Wilhelm Liebknecht tells a now famous story of a ‘beer trip’ with Marx where the aim was to visit every pub along a road in London. At the end of the line the night was definitely getting late and an argument started between the German party and the local English pub-goers. Liebknecht picks up the story…
The brows of our hosts began to cloud […]; and when Edgar Bauer brought up still heavier guns and began to allude to the English cant, then a low “damned foreigners!” issued from the company, soon followed by louder repetitions. Threatening words were spoken, the brains began to be heated, fists were brandished in the air and – we were sensible enough to choose the better part of valor and managed to effect, not wholly without difficulty, a passably dignified retreat. Now we had enough of our “beer trip” for the time being, and in order to cool our heated blood, we started on a double quick march, until Edgar Bauer stumbled over some paving stones. “Hurrah, an idea!” And in memory of mad student pranks he picked up a stone, and Clash! Clatter! a gas lantern went flying into splinters. Nonsense is contagious – Marx and I did not stay behind, and we broke four or five street lamps – it was, perhaps, 2 o’clock in the morning and the streets were deserted in consequence. But the noise nevertheless attracted the attention of a policeman who with quick resolution gave the signal to his colleagues on the same beat. And immediately countersignals were given. The position became critical. Happily we took in the situation at a glance; and happily we knew the locality. We raced ahead, three or four policemen some distance behind us. Marx showed an activity that I should not have attributed to him.
Marx was into his forties at the time of this anecdote.
The entire Marx-Engels social circle, with routine Sunday evening dinners and drinks late into the night, enjoyed a life’s pleasures as they suffered a life’s pains. It should be noted that women dominated this social scene and the festivities and outings were marked by their impression. Lenchen, the keeper of the Marx house, was also in attendance and, by accounts, was the heartiest imbiber of them all. Through all of the years of grinding poverty and personal tragedy the Marx family lived through in their London exile it was Engels, in his humble, gracious gallantry, who kept the wolf from the door (or at least from entering). Part of the stipend Engels provided the Marx family in those lean years was a healthy ration of wine; it wasn’t good enough for Engels to help make ends meet, it was necessary to provide joys as well. Life without the simple pleasures of a good meal and glass(es) of wine with friends were, to Engels and to Marx, not a life worth living.
The General (as with all of the extended Marx family Engels was referred to by his nickname, except by Marx’s wife Jenny who, though on close, personal terms with him kept propriety and addressed him as Mr. Engels) continued the Sunday dinner party tradition in the years after Marx’s death and all the way until his own. He had a mighty constitution, even in his old age (see a previous post Engels In America: The 11 AM Tipple), and would often be the last one standing early Monday morning. I’m not sure, given the possibility of time travel, I would rather journey anywhere else in the past than the Regent’s Park parlor of Fred Engels for a Sunday evening soiree in the 1880s.
Below is just the barest sampling of reference in the letters of the Marx circle to inebriants. It can’t all be at the coal face (or writing Capital), comrades.
Red Jenny to the General
….7 January 1852
Dear Mr Engels,
How can you imagine that I would have been angry with you over that little drinking spree? I was very sorry not to have seen you again before you left, for that would have enabled you to see for yourself that I was only somewhat sulky in respect of my liege lord. Besides, such interludes often have quite salutory effects, but this time père Marx must have caught a bad chill during his nocturnal philosophic excursion with ‘the archbishop’s nephew’ [i.e. Engels], for he fell seriously ill and has up till now stayed quietly in bed.
….31 July 1857
Dear Mr Engels,
The wine has just arrived. The children’s exultation knew no end. The girls examined the bottles very closely and found the sherry settled in green and the port in pale lilac. The Bordeaux cheers us with its red smile. Tussy [Eleanor] set to work at once on the hamper and now she is sitting in it as in a little hut packed in straw and hay. Let me convey to you, dear Mr Engels, our warmest thanks for your great kindness. I am so weak and wasted. The wine will do me a world of good.
….14 August 1857
The wine suits me splendidly. The sherry is truly excellent. The port seems not quite so good, but I like it particularly on account of its sweetness. It will put me to rights again.
With warm regards, Jenny Marx
….23 or 24 December 1859
My dear Mr Engels,
My most heartfelt thanks for the Christmas hamper. The champagne will be a tremendous help in tiding us over the otherwise gloomy holiday, and will ensure a merry Christmas Eve. The sparkling bubbles of the champagne will make the dear children forget the lack of a little Christmas tree this year, and be happy and jolly for all that.
….24 December 1866
My dear Mr Engels,
The hamper has just arrived, and the bottles have been put on parade, with the Rhenish to the fore! How can we thank you for all your friendship! The £10 which arrived on Saturday will avert the harshest storms of Christmastide and enable us to celebrate a Merry Christmas. The wine was particularly welcome this year, as with the young Frenchman [Paul Lafargue] in the house we like to keep up appearances.
The General to Moor
….6 June 1853
at worst he [August Willich] will tell the story about Marx and Engels arriving drunk one evening at Great Windmill Street.
….5 May 1862
How is little Jenny [Marx's daughter] placed for wine? Tell me which kinds Allen usually recommends. I can now send you some port as well, old, light, no spirits, which I highly recommend; but only after it has been well filtered, for the crust has loosened.
…23 May 1862
The wine was delayed for the same reason as the letter. In such matters I have to attend to everything myself and, before getting to the stage of buying the hamper, etc., I’m frequently distracted. I have had to dispense with port on this occasion too, since it is at my lodgings and I wasn’t able to get it sent over to the warehouse. The hamper is leaving today. The red wine and 1846 Hochheimer are specially for little Jenny. The 3 bottles with the red seal and no label are 1857 Rüdesheimer (the same as we drank up here); too stimulating for invalids, though excellent for those in good health.
….15 November 1862
You’re right, I am very broke and, like the Prussian government, intensely preoccupied with ‘saving’. In the hope that, by leading a domesticated life in Hyde Road, I shall be able to make good the deficiency, I enclose herewith a five-pound note, O/L 28076, Manchester, 28 Jan. ‘62. At the same time, I am sending you a hamper of wine per Chaplin and Horne, containing about one dozen claret and 2 bottles of old 1846 hock for little Jenny, the rest being made up of 1857 hock. 24 bottles in all.
….21 April 1863
I have no port at present nor is anything good in that line to be had on the spur of the moment. However, I’ll look out for some, and meanwhile go down into the cellar to fetch up some hock and some claret (the former for the healthy, the latter for the invalids). For which reason I shall now close this letter, enclosing a few stamps for little Tussy [Marx's daughter Eleanor].
….7 November 1864
I must close now, as I have to go to a Directors’ meeting of the Schiller Institute, of which I am chairman, as you know, to Mr Borchardt’s annoyance. Happily, beer has been introduced.
….3 March 1865
I have in my hurry not managed to find any decent port, but sent claret yesterday. Will keep looking…
….15 July 1865
how does it [Marx's Capital] stand? The ultimate and final date for completion was 1 September, and the price, you remember, is 12 bottles of wine. [Capital was not completed for another two years]
….7 August 1865
I’m so pleased the book [Capital] is making rapid progress, for I had really begun to suspect from one or two phrases in your last letter that you had again reached an unexpected turning-point which might prolong everything indefinitely. The day that manuscript is sent off, I shall drink myself to kingdom come, that is, unless you come up here the next day so that we can seal it together.
….24 October 1869
My grippe has happily — in the main — been conquered by limiting beer consumption, staying at home in the evening and consuming linseed tea with lemon and honey.
….28 May 1876
It is all very well for you to talk. You can lie warm in bed and study ground rent in general and Russian agrarian conditions in particular with nothing to disturb you — but I am to sit on the hard bench, swill cold wine, suddenly interrupt everything again and get after the blood of the boring Dühring.
Moor to The General
….27 February 1861
Nota bene. I presume you got a letter from my wife (about a week ago) in which she thanked you for the wine? She is a little worried lest it should have fallen into the wrong hands. The children, too, are greatly obliged to you for the wine. They would seem to have inherited their father’s fondness for the bottle.
….9 April 1863
My wife has now been confined to bed for a fortnight and has gone almost completely deaf, heaven knows why. Little Jenny [Marx's daughter] has had another attack of diphtheria of some sort. If you could send me some wine for both of them (Allen wants little Jenny to have port), I’d be most grateful.
….3 June 1864
The books have arrived, ditto the wine, for which many thanks.
….25 February 1865
[After a long complaint, a request to Engels] Some port wine and claret would do me a world of good under present circumstances.
….4 March 1865
Your wine came yesterday; received with thanks.
….20 May 1865
Edgar’s reappearance did, of course, surprise us greatly. Quite the fellow I thought him, and his career quite as I expected it. It is a pity that he could not always have been right-hand to Garibaldi He would have suited him to a tee. But the poor devil is still very weak. He will be staying here for some time, apropos of which you could be doing a good work by contributing to the replenishment of my wine-cellar.
….20 November 1865
Little Jenny [Marx's daughter] is on the mend again now and thanks you very much for the wine.
….2 April 1867
Finally, before I forget, all the money that I could afford to spend on Laura’s [Marx's daughter] champagne-treatment has gone the way of all flesh. She now needs red wine, of better quality than I can command. Voilà la situation.
….22 June 1867
My children are obliged to invite some other girls for dancing on 2 July, as they have been unable to invite anyone for the whole of this year, to respond to invitations, and are therefore about to lose caste. So, hard-pressed though I am at the moment, I had to agree to it and am counting on you for the wine (claret and Rhenish), i.e. on your supplying me with it in the course of next week.
Marx to Francois Lafargue
….12 November 1866
My sincere thanks for the wine. Being myself from a winegrowing region, and former owner of a vineyard, I know a good wine when I come across one. I even incline somewhat to old Luther’s view that a man who does not love wine will never be good for anything. (There are exceptions to every rule.) But one cannot, for example, deny that the political movement in England has been spurred on by the commercial treaty with France and the import of French wines.
Engels to his brother Hermann
…2 November 1864
No joy with the Niersteiner. The wine arrived here with a distinct sourness to it, it does not taste at all as it did at your house, and I shall therefore have to forgo any more orders.
Marx to his daughter Jenny
….17 May 1864
I address these lines to you, because you will probably have to make room for Engels, your room being, I believe, the only disposable one. You don’t want to care about wine which we bring with us, but a dozen bottles of Pale Ale for our Manchester man [Engels] will be welcome.