Left on the shelf

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 38

Left on the shelf

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 38

A rare inscribed first edition of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, once owned by the General Secretary of the First International, is to be sold in June. Francis Wheen traces its origins

"See to it that the material you've collected is soon launched into the world," Frederick Engels wrote to Karl Marx in October 1844, shortly after the two men had begun their lifelong friendship. "It's high time, heaven knows!" Three months later he was growing impatient: "Do try and finish your political economy book... try and finish before April, do as I do, set yourself a date by which you will definitely have finished, and make sure it gets into print quickly."

A forlorn hope: more than two decades would pass before the first volume of Das Kapital was at last delivered to Marx's publisher in Hamburg, Otto Meissner. In the meantime Marx was expelled from France, then Belgium, then Germany, then France again before taking refuge in England in 1849.

For most of their first decade in London, Marx and his growing family lived in a two-room garret in Soho above what is now the restaurant, Quo Vadis.

A Prussian police spy who inveigled his way into the apartment was shocked by the revolutionary's lifestyle: "He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual," he wrote. "Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work day and night with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the whole world."

Marx was the kind of author who could never resist a distraction, easily tempted by the immediate gratification of articles and pamphlets, gossip and feuds, beer and games of chess. (If he lived today, he would surely be an unstoppable tweeter.) All too often, instead of applying himself to the magnum opus, he was firing off a 100-page tirade against the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, or an even longer satire on the "more noteworthy jackasses" and "democratic scallywags" of the socialist diaspora, or a book-length assault on a professor of natural science who had dared to call Marx a charlatan and a sponger. "Tit for tat, reprisals make the world go round," he hummed merrily to himself.

Throughout the long gestation of Das Kapital, its writer maintained a pretense of hearty progress. "I have completely demolished the theory of profit as hitherto propounded," he announced jubilantly in January 1858. In truth, all he had to show for his labors by then was a pile of unpublishable notes in his spidery handwriting, mostly transcribed from books that had caught his eye in the British Library reading room.

Domestic turbulence kept blowing him off course. Marx's correspondence with Engels is a ceaseless chronicle of woe: his daughter Eleanor goes down with whooping cough, his wife is "a nervous wreck", the pawnbroker and the tallyman are clamoring for payment. "I don't suppose anyone has ever written about money when so short of the stuff," he grumbled. Beset by liver pains, he found that if he sat and wrote for a couple of hours, "I have to lie quite fallow for a couple of days". Then he would have to rewrite it all anyway, as "the style of everything I wrote seemed tainted with liver trouble".

Throughout the summer of 1865 Marx was vomiting every day ("in consequence of the hot weather and related biliousness") and plagued by carbuncles – and the usual queue of creditors "hammering on my door". Yet, at the still center of the storm, Volume I of Das Kapital at last neared completion. By the end of the year he had a manuscript of 1,200 pages, a mess of crossings-out and indecipherable squiggles. On New Year's Day 1866 he sat down to make a fair copy, "licking the infant clean after long birth pangs".

That took another year. For once, however, even his ill health couldn't stop him: he wrote the last few pages standing at his desk because an eruption of boils on the buttocks made sitting too painful. This gave his prose an even angrier complexion. "I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day," he raged. "What swine they are!"

The boils disappeared as soon as Marx completed the last page. Feeling "as voraciously fit as 500 hogs", he sailed for Hamburg in April 1867 to deliver the manuscript and oversee production of what he felt sure would be instantly acclaimed as a masterwork. "I hope and confidently believe that in the space of a year I shall be made," he predicted.

His friend Johann Georg Eccarius volunteered to find a British publisher; his sales pitch to Messrs Harrison & Co was that "the Prophet himself is just now having the quintessence of all wisdom published". Eccarius was a leading figure in the Communist movement himself. A German tailor exiled for political activism, he helped found and became General Secretary of the International Workingmen's Association, better known as the First International. From 1851 he lived in London, where he worked closely with Marx and Engels. Marx promised to buy Engels' girlfriend Lizzy Burns a new "London dress" when the UK rights were sold. She had a long wait: it was another 20 years before the first English translation appeared in print.

Reaction to the German edition, published in September 1867, was not the thunderous applause Marx had expected. "The silence about my book makes me fidgety," he fretted. Engels tried to stir up publicity and controversy by the ingenious ruse of submitting hostile, pseudonymous reviews to German newspapers and urging other friends of Marx to do likewise. "The main thing is that the book should be discussed," he explained. But it took four years for the 1,000 copies of that first edition to sell out.

After his death in March 1883, the value of Marx's estate was assessed at £250, largely based on books and furniture at his house in north London. As a connoisseur of capitalism's ironies he might have been both amused and appalled to know that almost a century and a half later, on the very day in July 2014 when the Dow Jones index closed at an all-time high, AbeBooks.com would sell an unsigned first edition of Volume I of Das Kapital for $40,000.

Inscribed editions are exceedingly scarce. There is one in the library of Charles Darwin's house, sent by "his sincere admirer Karl Marx", although the great natural scientist seems to have given up on it, since only the first 105 pages of more than 800 have been cut open to read.

This copy offered at Bonhams' Fine Books and Manuscript sale in June is historically exceptionally significant, as it is dedicated by Marx on 18 September 1867 to Eccarius.

In the opening chapter Marx observes that commodities have two properties, use value and exchange value. "A commodity appears at first sight a very obvious, trivial thing," he writes. "But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." And what could be stranger than this? While the usefulness of Das Kapital has always been a matter of fierce disagreement, its exchange value as a commodity now appears to be beyond dispute.

Francis Wheen is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and the author of a biography of Karl Marx.


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