Pavel Annenkov
Translation: Irwin R. Titunik

Marx Meets Weitling (1880)

25 minutes | English | Marx & Engels

This is an excerpt from Chapter XXXI of Pavel V. Annenkov’s memoirs The Extraordinary Decade (1880), republished by the University of Michigan in 1968.

Annenkov (b. 1817-1883) was a Russian liberal renowned for his literary work, and his memoirs are basically a literary retelling of journal entries. The reason why the following episode is interesting isn’t only because of Annenkov’s first-hand impressions of a young, pre-Manifesto Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their social milieu, but also because this encounter had Annenkov bearing witness to an 1846 clash between Karl Marx and another important figure: Wilhelm Weitling (b. 1808-1871), a radical political activist who had ascended from dire poverty to become a rising star in the labour movement in Europe rhetorically wielding a combination of socialism and Christianity. This strategy is precisely what Marx would seize upon as subject of critique.

The incident went on to form a part of the narrative of Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx [1] and was dramatized in Raoul Peck’s 2018 biopic The Young Karl Marx [2] and in episode 4 of the Karl Marx animated series produced in collaboration between the Inner Mongolia Film Group and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. [3]

I arrived in Paris at the end of spring 1846, and found a whole Russian colony already established there, its chief and outstanding members being Bakunin and Sazonov, and busy with incessant pursuit and discussion of practical, historical, philosophical, and other issues such as the social life of Paris under the liberal King Louis Philippe continually aroused. However, for the while there was no other term by which to call this type of concern with European issues such as existed then among Russians than — an amusement.

The matter at stake was primarily one of satisfying a curiosity unceasingly aroused by the events of each passing day, of doing the duty of standing on the alert for every significant and insignificant happening in the city and of procuring material for analysis, for the exercise of critical faculties and, lastly but most importantly, for the manufacture of the endless, variegated, gold-embroidered fabric of conversations, arguments, conclusions, propositions, and counter-propositions. In this no one had any notion yet of a responsibility to one’s own conscience or of some mandatory precept for the management of one’s personal life and behavior. Nor was the necessity of some sort of self-discipline in the future foreseen.

No such thing as a Russian political emigration was even thought of yet; it came about only when the thunder of the 1848 Revolution resounded and forced many people to turn to their past, to tally it up and to take some clear and definite stand both on the menace that had suddenly burst out over Europe and on the governments that were alarmed by it. True, from time to time reminders about demands for a different order of life than the one they were enjoying made their way into the midst of our people amusing themselves with Paris. Such was the case with the well-known Golovin, who had received an official recall to Russia because of a trifling little book which he had had published in French in Paris without permission. The book, an essay in political economy, was something even less than a text-book — it was a simple set of extracts from student notebooks, and not altogether coherent extracts at that, but in any case quite innocuous. I would venture to say that I have never in my life met a writer less worthy of attention than this Golovin, who at one time played the stock market and a role in the opposition, wormed his way into the Jockey Club, into the world of libertines, and into democratic consiliabula — a brazen and childishly craven man. Despite the recall, he remained in Paris and became, before anybody else, a Russian political émigré and, at that, on a very special principle, out of fear: he was haunted by terrors of all possible kinds, which were simply unthinkable in connection with him. After reminders of the sort Golovin had received, the circle of our dilettante politicians and socialists deliberated over the fact from various points of view and then once again lapsed into the enthralling flow of their occupations and their impassioned, though amateur, involvement in the private affairs of the French nation.

One should not suppose that this game of chance with the whole content of Paris was carried on solely by people well-versed in literary and political matters: persons with quite different aims in life, not cultural ones, often became involved in it. For instance, on my way to Europe I received a letter of introduction to the famous Marx from a certain steppe landowner of ours, also well-known in his own circle as a fine singer of gypsy songs, a skillful gambler, and experienced hunter. As it turned out, he was on the friendliest of terms with Lassalle’s teacher and the future head of the International; he had assured Marx that, as a person dedicated heart and soul to his glowing creed and to the cause of establishing economic order in Europe, he was returning to Russia with the intention of selling his entire estate and casting himself and all his capital into the chute of the oncoming revolution. No obsession could have gone any further than that, but I am convinced that the spirited landowner was being sincere at the moment he made all those promises. After returning home, first to his estate and later to Moscow, he did not give so much as a thought to those fervid words of his that once had rung out with such effect in the presence of the astonished Marx, and died, not too long ago, a very old, but nonetheless jaunty, bachelor in Moscow. It is not hard to understand, however, that after such goings on, both Marx and many others became, and for a long time remained, convinced that any Russian who came to them should be looked upon first of all as someone sent to spy on them or as some conscienceless deceiver. Actually, a far simpler explanation can be given this matter, though without making it any the less reprehensible.

In any case, I took advantage of the letter from my jaunty land-owner, who, at the time he handed it over to me, was still in an enthusiastic frame of mind, and met with a very friendly reception from Marx in Brussels. Marx was under the influence of his recollection of the sample of expansive Russian nature that he had so accidentally come across and spoke of it with appreciation, detecting in this new phenomenon for him, as it seemed to me, signs of genuine power in the Russian national element in general. Marx himself was a man of the type made up of energy, will power, and invincible conviction — a type of man extremely remarkable also in outward appearance. With a thick mop of black hair on his head, his hairy hands, dressed in a coat buttoned diagonally across his chest, he maintained the appearance of a man with the right and authority to command respect, whatever guise he took and whatever he did. All his motions were awkward but vigorous and self-confident, all his manners ran athwart conventional usages in social intercourse but were proud and somehow guarded, and his shrill voice with its metallic ring marvelously suited the radical pronouncements over things and people which he uttered. Marx was now in the habit of speaking no other way than in such categorical pronouncements over which still reigned, it should be added, a certain shrill note superimposed on everything he said. This note expressed his firm conviction that it was his mission to control minds, to legislate over them and to lead them in his train. Before me stood the figure of the democratic dictator incarnate, just as it might be pictured in one’s imagination during times devoted to fantasy. The contrast with the types of people I had left behind in Russia was of the most emphatic kind.

On my first meeting with Marx, he invited me to attend a conference scheduled for the following evening with the tailor Weitling who had a rather large following of workers back in Germany. The conference was being called in order to determine, insofar as possible, the overall mode of operation among the leaders of the workers’ movement. I unhesitatingly accepted the invitation and came to the meeting.

The tailor-agitator Weitling turned out to be a fair-haired, handsome young man, wearing an elegant style of surtout and a coquettishly close-cropped beard, looking more like a traveling salesman than the stern and wrathful zealot I had presumed I would meet. Quickly exchanging greetings, with an added touch of exquisite politeness on Weitling’s part, we sat down at a small green table at one narrow end of which Marx placed himself, pencil in hand and his leonine head bent over a sheet of paper. His inseparable companion and colleague in propaganda, the tall and erect Engels, with his British air of dignity and gravity, opened the meeting with a speech. In it he spoke of the necessity for people dedicated to the cause of transforming labor to expound their common views and establish one overall doctrine which would serve as the standard for all their followers who had neither the time nor the opportunity to concern themselves with theoretical issues. Engels had not yet concluded his speech when Marx looked up and addressed a question directly to Weitling: “Tell us, Weitling, you people who have made such a rumpus in Germany with your communist preachings and have won over so many workers, causing them to lose their jobs and their crust of bread, with what fundamental principles do you justify your revolutionary and social activity and on what basis do you intend affirming it in the future?” I remember the actual form of this trenchant question very well because it began a very heated debate among the conference participants which lasted, however, as will be shown, but a very short time.

Weitling apparently wanted to confine the conference to the platitudes of liberal colloquy. With an expression on his face suggesting earnestness and anxiety, he began to explain that his aim was not to create new economic theories but to make use of those that were best able, as experience in France had shown, to open the workers’ eyes to the horror of their situation and all the injustices that had, with regard to them, become the bywords of governments and societies, to teach them not to put trust any longer in promises on the part of the latter and to rely only on themselves, organizing into democratic and communist communes. He spoke at length but, to my surprise and in contrast with Engels’ speech, diffusely, not altogether literately, repeating his words and often correcting them, and experiencing difficulty in coming to conclusions which either were made belatedly or came ahead of the arguments for them. He had a far different audience now than the one that usually crowded around his work bench or read his newspapers and printed pamphlets on contemporary economic practices, and, in consequence, he had lost the facility of both his thought and his tongue. Weitling likely would have talked even longer, if Marx, his brows angrily knit, had not interrupted him and begun to voice his objection. The gist of his sarcastic speech was that to arouse the population without giving it firm and thoroughly reasoned out bases for its actions meant simply to deceive it. The stimulation of fantastic hopes that had just been mentioned — Marx observed further on — led only to the ultimate ruin, and not the salvation, of the oppressed. Especially in Germany, to appeal to the workers without a rigorous scientific idea and without a positive doctrine had the same value as an empty and dishonest game at playing preacher, with someone supposed to be an inspired prophet on the one side and only asses listening to him with mouths agape allowed on the other. “Look here,” he added, suddenly jerking out his hand and pointing at me, “we have a Russian with us. In his country, Weitling, your role might be suitable: there, indeed, associations of nonsensical prophets and nonsensical followers are the only things that can be put together and made to work successfully.” In a civilized country like Germany, Marx continued, developing his idea, people could do nothing without a positive doctrine and, in fact, had done nothing up to now except to make noise, cause harmful outbreaks, and ruin the very cause they had espoused. The color rose in Weitling’s pale cheeks and he recovered his genuine, fluent speech. In a voice quivering with emotion he began to argue that a man who had gathered hundreds of people together in the name of the idea of justice, solidarity, and brotherly mutual aid under one banner could not be called a vain and worthless person, that he, Weitling, consoled himself in the face of the day’s attacks with the recollection of the hundreds of letters and expressions of gratitude he had received from every corner of his fatherland, and that his modest, preparatory work was, perhaps, more important for the general cause than criticism and closet analyses of doctrines in seclusion from the suffering world and the miseries of the people. On hearing these last words, Marx, at the height of fury, slammed his fist down on the table so hard that the lamp on the table reverberated and tottered, and jumping up from his place, said at the same time: “Ignorance has never yet helped anybody.” We all followed his example and also got up from the table. The meeting had ended. While Marx paced the room back and forth in extreme anger and irritation, I hastily bid him and his companions good-bye and went home, astounded by everything I had seen and heard.

My relations with Marx did not end even after my departure from Brussels. I met him again, in company with Engels, in 1848 in Paris where they had both come immediately after the February Revolution, intending to make a study of the French socialist movement, which now found itself at large. They soon relinquished this intention because French socialism was completely dominated by purely local political issues and already had a program from which it had no desire to be distracted, a program aimed at attaining, with weapons in hand, a controlling position in the state for the workers. But even before that period there were instances when I was in contact with Marx by correspondence, and these were of particular interest for me. I was treated to one such instance in 1846 when Marx wrote me a long letter in French in connection with Proudhon’s well known book Systême des contradictions économiques, and expounded his view on Proudhon’s theory. The letter was remarkable in the extreme; with respect to two of its features, it was in advance of the time when it was written — its criticism of Proudhon’s postulates, which anticipated in their entirety all the objections subsequently raised against them, and also the novelty of its view on the significance of the economic history of nations. Marx was one of the first to say that forms of government and also the whole social life of nations with their morality, philosophy, art, and science are only the direct results of the economic relations among people, and that with a change in those relations they, too, are changed or even completely abolished. The whole matter consisted in discovering and defining the laws that caused the changes in people’s economic relations which had such momentous consequences. In Proudhon’s antinomies, however, in his opposing certain economic phenomena to certain others arbitrarily associated with one another and, on historical evidence, not in the slightest derived from one another, Marx discerned only the author’s tendency to assuage the conscience of the bourgeoisie by casting the facts of contemporary economic practices unpleasant for it into laws supposedly belonging to the very nature of things. It was on this basis that he denounced Proudhon as a theologian of socialism and as a petty bourgeois from head to toe. I quote the last part of this letter in literal translation since it can serve as a good commentary to the scene related above and gives the key for understanding it.

In only one thing do I concur with Monsieur Proudhon [4] — in his aversion for softhearted socialism (sensiblerie sociale). Before him, I had already brought a pack of enemies on myself by my ridiculing sentimental, Utopian, sheepish socialism (socialisme moutonier). But M. Proudhon makes a curious error when he replaces one kind of sentimentalism with another, I mean — the sentimentalism of the petty bourgeois and his declamations on the sanctity of the domestic hearth, conjugal love, and other, similar things — that sentimentality which, moreover, was even more profoundly expressed by Fourier than in all the self-satisfied banalities of our dear M. Proudhon. What is more, he himself is quite aware of his inability to treat these subjects because, on account of them, he gets himself into an unspeakable rage — irae hominis probi: he foams, swears, denounces, screams shame and plague, beats his breast, and calls men and God to witness that he is not party to the abominations of the socialists. He is concerned not with criticism of their sentimentalism, but, like a true holyman or pope, with excommunicating the wretched sinners while singing the praises of the petty bourgeoisie and its cheap patriarchal prowesses and its exercises in love. And this is not a case of mere accident. M. Proudhon from head to toe is a philosopher and economist of the petty bourgeoisie. What is a petty bourgeois? In a well-developed society he inevitably becomes, owing to his position, an economist on the one side and a socialist on the other: at one and the same he is blinded by the splendors of the bourgeois elite and sympathizes with the people’s sufferings. He is a man of the middle class and of the common people together. Deep in his conscience he praises himself for his impartiality, for the fact that he has found the secret of an equilibrium, which supposedly is not like the juste milieu, the golden mean. A bourgeois of that sort believes in contradictions because he himself is nothing but a social contradiction in action. He represents in practice what is said by theory, and M. Proudhon is deserving of the honor of being the scientific representative of the French petty bourgeoisie. It is his positive service because the petty bourgeoisie will certainly figure as an important integral part in future social upheavals. I very much wanted to send you together with this letter a copy of my book “On Political Economy,” but I have not yet been able to find anyone who would undertake to publish my work and my criticism of the German philosophers and socialists about which I spoke to you in Brussels. You would not believe what difficulties such a publication encounters in Germany from the police, in the first place, and, in the second, from the booksellers themselves, who are the venal representatives of the tendencies I have put under attack. And as for our own party, it, to begin with, is extremely poor and, besides, a good part of it is still extremely vexed with me for my opposition to its declamations and Utopias. [5]

The book “On Political Economy” Marx mentioned in his letter was, I assume, his last work, Capital, which has only recently been issued. I admit that I, as was true of many others, did not believe Marx’s eye-opening letter, taken as I was, in company with the majority of the public, with the élan and dialectical qualities of Proudhon’s opus. With my return to Russia in October 1848, my relations with Marx ceased and never were again resumed. The time of hopes, conjectures, and all manner of aspirations had by then already passed, and the practical activity later chosen by Marx went so far afield of Russian life in general that from the position of the latter it was impossible to follow the former other than at a distance, indirectly and inadequately, by way of newspapers and journals.

The episode with Marx I have recounted here will perhaps not seem irrelevant to my picture of Paris, if I add that precisely the same kind of scenes and on the same issues were taking place in all the big cities in Europe and, of course, in Paris more so than anywhere else: the people changed and the settings changed in accordance with the difference in the development and education of the characters; the essence of the debates and conflicts within the democratic circles remained the same. Everywhere people were in search of integrated doctrines of socialism, of scientific explanations and justifications for the feeling of dissatisfaction out of which socialism arose, of plans for a commune where work and pleasure would go hand in hand. The need to do away with the mass of absurd, immature, and fruitless experiments undertaken for the realization of this ideal by uninitiated, poorly prepared and fantastically inclined minds was felt everywhere. That is what explains the combined efforts of the best of the socialists to find a type of workers commune which would make it possible to prove without a doubt that a man’s every moral and material need could find in it suitable and comfortable accommodation. The movement of minds both in the realm of theories and in the efforts at testing the ground for practical solution of economic difficulties was universal until the point where it came up against the “national workshops” in which it was crushed in order that it might be reengendered on different principles.

[1] Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (2000). [web] 

[2] “The Meeting,” from The Young Karl Marx (2018). [web] 

[3] “Scientific Socialism Shines Brightly,” from The Leader (2019). [web] 

[4] N. B., Marx everywhere wrote “monsieur Pr.” — P. A. 

[5] Karl Marx, “Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov” (1846). [web]