A comrade recently arrived at my house from out east with a 500 page Soviet-produced pictorial biography of Frederick Engels as a gift (this comrade knows me well). Along with cartoons drawn by a young Engels, facsimiles of old newspapers and photos of the General are numerous small portraits of nineteenth century fellow travelers, many of them totally unknown to me. This year, 2011, has been compared to 1848 (comparisons are fine, as an analogy I think its doesn’t work). Countless thousands of revolutionaries have made their mark on the history of this planet since the revolutions of 1848 (a pretty good, if insufficient, marker denoting the modern revolutionary world). A few, very few, have names that are familiar to us revolutionaries today, most do not.
As an avid reader of the letters of Marx and Engels (those volumes of the Werks being my choice company on the proverbial desert island), I am constantly coming across the names of folks now forgotten, but who deserve to be remembered. Some of them are the target of a rebuke, private or public, from Marx or Engels. Many of them are held in esteem for past revolutionary activities. All of them played some role in the founding modern movements of our struggle and our tradition. One of the joys of the Marx/Engels Collected Works are the footnotes and biographical appendices. One can begin reading a particular letter, say on German exile politics in the United States, only to find oneself knee-deep in the story of Arab mathematics or theories of rent or exile gossip or the latest scientific discovery or Greek history or the poems of Heinrich Heine. Wherever the words take you vistas not seen before await.
A little imagination and you’re back to September, 1864 in St. Martin’s Hall and trying to pick out the founding delegates of the International as they walk through the door or at an early meeting of the Communist League sitting through an August Willich harangue. For anyone who has spent time in the left these characters will be recognizable in one way or another; the revolutionary temperament common to many eras and epochs. The life struggles of individuals as common then as now; some were heroic, some fumbled around in confusion, some heroically fumbled. Some were inconsistent as revolutionaries through life, some lost or found their consistency along the way. All played a part.
Here then are just a few half-forgotten names, but giants of their times. German revolutionaries, internationalists, Red Forty-Eighters, friends and confidants to Marx and Engels who shared their most formative years with them.
Georg Weerth (1822-1856):
Weerth was described by Engels as: ‘the German proletariat’s first and most important poet.’ After Weerth’s death, Marx and Engels collected his literary works, later Engels championed Weerth’s poems promoting them in the German Social-Democratic press for a new generation in the 1880s and 90s. Nearly lost to history now, his poems, journalism and satire were extremely important to the generation of ’48. Said by some to presage Brecht, he went to school with Christian Dietrich Grabbe and Ferdinand Freiligrath, two other important poets of the period.
Engels again: ‘Weerth, the son of Rhineland parents, was born in Detmold, where his father was church superintendent. In 1843, when I was in Manchester, Weerth came to Bradford as an agent for his German firm, and we spent many a pleasant Sunday together. In 1845, when Marx and I lived in Brussels, Weerth took over the continental agency for his firm and arranged things so that he, too, could make Brussels his headquarters. After the revolution of March 1848, we all met up in Cologne to found the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Weerth took on the feuilleton [culture pages], and I don’t think any other paper ever had one as hard-hitting and funny…’
After Weerth did three months time and lost his citizenship for five years for ‘denigrating the dead’ in a poem he traveled to West Indies which he would come to love. Marx to Lasalle in 1855: ‘Weerth is now back in Manchester after a lengthy journey via the Continent (he returned from the West Indies at the end of July). In a week’s time he will be off to the tropics again. It’s very amusing to hear him talk. He has seen, experienced and observed much. Ranged over the better part of South, West and Central America. Crossed the Pampas on horseback. Climbed Chimborazo. Likewise stayed in California. If he no longer writes feuilletons, he makes up for it by recounting them, and his audience has the benefit of vivacious gesture, mime and waggish laughter. He is, by the by, full of enthusiasm for life in the West Indies and hasn’t a good word to say for the human riff-raff and the weather of this northern clime.’
Engels again: ‘Where Weerth was master, where he surpassed Heine (because he was healthier and more genuine) and where he is second only to Goethe in German, is in his expression of natural robust sensuousness and physical lust. Many a reader of the Sozial-demokrat would be appalled, were I to reprint some of the feuilletons from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. I would not dream of doing this, but I cannot hold back the comment that the moment must also come for the German Socialists openly to cast aside this last German philistine prejudice. This hypocritical petty-bourgeois prudery is, in any case, no more than a cover for furtive whoring. Reading Freiligrath’s poems, for instance, one might well believe that people simply have no sex organs. Yet no one got more pleasure from a dirty joke on the quiet than this same Freiligrath, who was so ultra-proper in his poetry. It is really time for the German workers, at least, to get used to speaking of things that they do daily or nightly, of natural, indispensable and exceptionally enjoyable things, as frankly as the Romance people do, as Homer did, and Plato, Horace and Juvenal, the Old Testament and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.’
At the time when the cherries blossomed,
In Frankfurt we did stay.
At the time when the cherries blossomed,
In that city we did stay.
Up spake mine host, the landlord:
“Your coats are frayed and worn.”
“Look here, you lousy landlord,
That’s none of your concern.
“Now give us of your wine,
And give us of your beer,
And with the beer and wine,
Bring us a roast in here.”
The cock crows in the cock-stop,
Out comes a goodly flow,
And in our mouths it tastes
And then he brought a hare
In parsley leaves bedight,
And at this poor dead hare
We all of us took fright.
And when we were in bed,
Our nightly prayers reciting,
Early and late in bed
The bed-bugs kept on biting.
It happened once in Frankfurt,
That town so fine and fair,
That knows who did once dwell
And who did suffer there.
Weerth’s writing lapsed with his exile and the retreat of revolution in the early 1850s. He wrote to Marx thus: ‘I must admit that, just as I regret that I have lost the last three years for nothing, surely for nothing, it delights me when I remember our life in Cologne. We did not compromise ourselves! That is the most important thing.‘ He died in Havana about which he wrote to fellow poet Heinrich Heine that Cuba ‘would be the field where the great conflicts of the new world would be fought out first.’ Over a century later, and after the Cuban revolution, a plaque was laid in Havana to celebrate Weerth’s life.
Karl Schapper (1812-1870):
Karl Schapper was an instrumental actor in the forerunners of the Communist League. Born to a member of the clergy Schapper would go on to participate in all of the upheavals of his day including the Frankfurter Landsturm of 1832, Mazzini’s “Young Italy” invasion of the Savoy in 1834, the founding of the League of the Just, the 1839 Paris insurrection, the Chartist movement in England, the founding of the Communist League, the German Revolutions of 1848, a bitter split and then reconciliation with Marx and then the founding of the First International where he was elected to the General Council.
Engels: ‘Schapper came from Weilburg in Nassau and while a student of forestry at Giessen in 1832 was a member of the conspiracy organized by Georg Buchner; he took part in the storming of the Frankfort constable station on April 3, 1833, escaped abroad and in February 1834 joined Mazzini’s march on Savoy. Of gigantic stature, resolute and energetic, always ready to risk civil existence and life, he was a model of the professional revolutionist that played an important role in the thirties. In spite of a certain sluggishness of thought, he was by no means incapable of profound theoretical understanding, as is proved by his development from “demagogue” to Communist, and he held then all the more rigidly to what he had once come to recognize. Precisely on that account his revolutionary passion sometimes got the better of understanding, but he always afterwards realized his mistake and openly acknowledged it. He was fully a man and what he did for the founding of the German workers’ movement will not be forgotten.’
Joseph Moll (1818-1849):
Born into an impoverished family in Cologne, Moll trained to be a watchmaker. Traveling for his trade he joined the ‘Young Germany’ society of exiles in Switzerland in 1834, soon expelled he found himself in Paris where he joined the League of the Just and participated in the 1839 Blaquist ‘Society of Seasons’ insurrection. After that failed uprising Moll fled to London (the refuge of so many continental revolutionaries) where he helped found the German Workers Educational Society. He would go on to become a leading member of the League of the Just under the leadership of Wilhelm Weitling and as it was reorganized into the Communist League under the leadership of Karl Marx. Joseph returned to Germany with the outbreak of revolution in 1848 where he became president of the Workers’ Society and an early propagator of scientific socialism, of ‘Marxism’. Fleeing from arrest he returned to London only to find himself once again in Germany where he fought in the Baden uprising (as did Engels).
He was killed June 28, 1849 in the fighting at Rotenfels bridge, near Murg according to Engels ‘after he had accomplished a series of most dangerous missions and agitational journeys — in the end he recruited mounted gunners for the Palatinate artillery right in the midst of the Prussian army in the Rhine Province — [Moll] joined the Besancon workers’ company of Willich’s corps and was killed by a shot in the head during the encounter at the Murg in front of the Rotenfels Bridge.’ Engels described Moll as ‘a watchmaker from Cologne, a medium-sized Hercules — how often did Schapper and he victoriously defend the entrance to a hall against hundreds of onrushing opponents! — a man who was at least the equal of his two comrades [Karl Schapper and Heinrich Bauer] and in energy and determination, and intellectually superior to both of them. Not only was he a born diplomat, as the success of his numerous trips on various mission proved; he was also more capable of theoretical insight. I came to know all three of them in London in 1843. They were the first revolutionary proletarians whom I met, and however far apart our views were at that time — for I still owned, as against their narrow-minded equalitarian Communism a goodly does of just as narrow-minded philosophical arrogance — I shall never forget the deep impression that these three real men made upon me, who was then still only wanting to become a man.’
Johann Philip Becker (1809-1886):
Born to a family of carpenters in in 1809, Johann trained to be a brushmaker and became involved in the revolutionary movement in the early 1830s; suffering prison, organizing jail breaks, armed actions and revolutionary propaganda. Exiled in Switzerland he became a cigar-maker and took part in the Swiss Civil War of 1847. Becker would play a leading role in the revolutions in Germany in 1848-9, becoming Commander in Chief of the Baden People’s Army. He would go on to be a leading socialist in the Switzerland of his exile, organizing for a republican invasion of Italy in 1860, a founding member of the First International where he became President of the German speaking sections, founder of the Swiss Workers Party and the German Social Democrats and publisher of a number of important socialist journals. His entire life was served as a militant partisan of the working class.
Johann was a close personal friend to the Marx/Engels clan (Marx’s wife Jenny was particularly fond of him and kept up a life-long correspondence) and held their affection and esteem until the last. Some of the most moving letters of Engels are those to Becker reassuring him and offering assistance (that Becker was to proud to ask for) as Becker struggled late in life. Becker visited Engels in London in 1886 for whence Engels wrote to Bebel: ‘Johann Philipp Becker, who stayed with me here for ten days…I was very pleased to see the old giant again; although he has aged physically, he is still cheerful and in good fighting spirit. He is a figure out of our Rhine-Frankish saga personified in the Nibelungenlied-Volker the Fiddler, his very self.’
Engels again: ‘Becker was a man of rare character. A single word gives a complete description of him; that word is healthy: he was healthy in both body and mind to the very last. A handsome man of powerful build and tremendous physical strength, thanks to his happy disposition and healthy activity he developed his unschooled but in no way uncultured mind just as harmoniously as his body. He was one of the few men who need only follow their own natural instincts to go the right way. This is why it was so easy for him to keep step with each development of the revolutionary movement and to stand just as keenly in the front ranks in his seventy-eighth year as in his eighteenth. The boy who in 1814 played with the Cossacks passing through his country and in 1820 saw the execution of Sand, Kotzebue’s assassin, developed ever further from the indefinite oppositionist of the twenties and was still at the peak of the movement in 1886. Nor was he a gloomy, high-principled ignoramus like the majority of “serious” republicans of 1848, but a true son of the cheerful Pfalz, a man with a zest for life who loved wine, women and song like anyone. Having grown up in the country of the Nibelungenlied near Worms, he appeared even in his latter years like a character from our old epic poem: cheerfully and mockingly hailing the enemy between sword thrusts and composing folk songs when there was nothing to hit — thus and only thus must he have appeared, Volker the Fiddler!’
Wilhelm Wolff (1809-184)
Affectionately called ‘Lupus’ by the Marx/Engels circle, Wolff was born in Silesia in eastern Germany and became active in politics as a student in the early 1830s. He would go on to become a member of Marx’s Brussels based Communist Correspondence Committee as well as the League of the Just. A founding member of the Communist League Wolff would become an editor of Neue Rheinische Zeitung during the German Revolutions of 1848-9 during which he was elected to the Frankfort Assembly. Like so many others, Wolff found himself exiled to England in the reaction following the ebbing of the revolutionary tide, a tide he swam against remaining committed to the working class cause until the end. He found work as a school teacher in Manchester, joining Engels.
Lupus was favorite of the Marx children and the feeling must have been mutual; all of their letters to him were found, carefully kept by him, after his death. At his death, Wolff left the main part of his estate to the Marx family. Marx wrote to his wife Jenny of Wolff’s Funeral: ‘I naturally made a short funeral oration. It was an office by which I was much affected so that once or twice my voice failed me.’ A few year later, in 1867, Marx would dedicate Das Kapital ‘To my unforgettable friend, Wilhelm Wolff. Intrepid, faithful, noble protagonist of the proletariat.’
Writing to their common friend Joseph Weydemeyer, then serving the Union cause in St. Louis, Engels wrote of Wolf: ‘We shall never again find such a steadfast fellow, who knew how to talk to the people and was always there when things were at their most difficult.’ Engels would write a long biography of his friend, whose loss he and Marx felt until they too were consigned to history: ‘If I am not mistaken it was towards the end of April 1846. Marx and I were then living in a Brussels suburb; we were engaged in a joint piece of work [the German Ideology] when we were informed that a gentleman from Germany wished to speak to us. We found a short but very stockily built man; the expression on his face proclaimed both goodwill and quiet determination; the figure of an East German peasant in the traditional clothes of an East German provincial bourgeois. It was Wilhelm Wolff. Persecuted for infringing the press laws, he had been fortunate enough to evade the Prussian prisons. We did not suspect at first sight what a rare man lay concealed under this inconspicuous exterior. A few days were enough to put us on terms of cordial friendship with this new comrade in exile and to convince us that it was no ordinary man we were dealing with. His cultured mind schooled in classical antiquity, his wealth of humor, his clear understanding of difficult theoretical problems, his passionate hatred of all oppressors of the masses, his energetic and yet tranquil nature soon revealed themselves; but it took long years of collaboration and friendly association in struggle, victory and defeat, in good times and bad, to prove the full extent of his unshakable strength of character, his absolute, unquestionable reliability, his steadfast sense of duty equally exacting towards friend, foe and self…With him, Marx and I lost our most faithful friend, and the German revolution a man of irreplaceable worth.’
All of these men (and there are criminally few women of that time known to us) of forty-eight were militants long before the explosions of that tumultuous year and continued being so. In many ways they are very modern revolutionaries; combinations of qualities and activities, animated, international and internationalist, ‘counter-cultural’, practical and prophetic. We have inherited their world, capitalism conquered Europe with Europe conquering the world, and even if we are unaware of it, they are ‘in our genes.’
One who came a generation before (and whose politics showed that generational gap) was Heinrich Heine. Heine would, for a time, be a fellow traveler of the Marx family. His work certainly influenced all of these men, perhaps Marx most of all. A rebellion of weavers in Silesia in 1844 inspired Heine to write this poem. Later translated into English by Engels himself the poem was first published in Marx’s Vorwärts, it captures the moment and speaks to us still.
The Silesian Weavers
Heinrich Heine 1844
In sad eyes there sheds no tear,
They sit at the loom and grind their teeth:
Germany, we weave your shroud;
And into it we weave a threefold curse–
–We weave; we weave.
One curse upon the God to whom we prayed
In Winter’s chill and hunger’s despair;
In vain did we hope and persevere,
He mocked, hoaxed and ridiculed us–
–We weave; we weave.
A curse upon the king, the rich man’s king
Who did naught to soften our misery,
Who pried the last penny from our hands
And had us shot like dogs–
–We weave; we weave.
A curse upon the false fatherland,
Where nothing thrives but disgrace and shame,
Where every flower buckles before its day,
Where rot and mold hasten the worm’s work–
–We weave; we weave.
The shuttle flies, the loom creaks,
Assiduously we weave day and night–
Old Germany, we weave your shroud,
We weave into it a three-fold curse,
–We weave; we weave!