“I’m going to drink a pint in every pub on Tottenham Court Road,” said Karl Marx, eyeing up the 18 establishments he would visit on his night out. With his friend and double act Friedrich Engels, they got blindingly drunk, stealing a gate from a local church and getting caught by the police for urinating against a wall.
The trouble is 32-year-old Marx couldn’t afford the price of a pint of beer, let alone pay his rent. He had big ideas for reforming society, but he lived a precarious, penniless life in Dean Street, Soho. Marx’s family lost their furniture to the bailiffs, so their flat was bare, yet the man of the house was living a life binge drinking and rising from his bed late in the day.
But as the story unfolds over the course of 48 hours in 1850 in Young Marx – a new hilarious play by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman currently showing at the Bridge Theatre – he finally puts pen to paper and Das Kapital, one of history’s best known written works, starts to take shape.
It is a (mostly true) snapshot of the quick-witted, radical dreamer that hasn’t been given much airtime as young man in the past. Chased by police and creditors – quite literally over the rooftops of London – we meet someone who rarely changed his underpants, spent his time drinking and duelling, and managed to get the house maid pregnant. And from this, the communist world was truly born.
Number 28 Dean Street in Soho is today occupied by the restaurant Quo Verdis, but it was here from 1850 to 1856 that Marx and his aristocratic wife Jenny lived with their maid and four children in a cramped second floor, two room flat. They survived in dirty conditions, with no inside toilet nor running water. It was a place that had sad connotations for Marx given that three of his children died while living in Dean Street (his daughter Eleanor did however survive, becoming a socialist campaigner and writer).
Marx had arrived in Britain in 1849 – the play Young Marx is set the following year – having been expelled from France, Belgium and his native Prussia and found himself under surveillance from the German secret police. “Really, Sir, we should never have thought that there existed in this country so many police spies as we have had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of in the short space of a week,” he wrote in a letter to the Spectator.
Soho in 1850 was buzzing with foreign political exiles, many of whom had fled to the capital after the failed 1848 violent revolutions that swept through Europe. While on the continent people had taken to the streets to protest, “in Britain political reform would be won by votes within parliament, supported by trade union activism, public meetings, and a thriving radical newspaper industry, rather than by violent revolution,” wrote historian Rosemary Ashton in a piece for the Young Marx programme.
Just a few minutes walk from Marx’s Dean Street apartment was the Red Lion (today Be At One) in Great Windmill Street which in the 1850s was where the German Workers Education Society met. It was at this pub in 1847 that Marx and Engels brought a meeting of the Communist League an outline of the document that was published the following year as the historic Manifesto of the Communist Party.
After arriving in London in 1849, Marx spent the time he wasn’t drinking or dealing with disputes at home, in the reading room at the British Museum working on Das Kapital. When the first volume was finally published in 1867, it was seen as a major achievement, but it couldn’t have come about without the vital support from Engels.
Marx and Engels first met in Paris in 1844, the year before the latter published The Condition of the Working Class in England on account of the evils of industrial capitalism in Manchester. “I once went went into Manchester with a bourgeois, and spoke to him of…. the frightful condition of the working people’s quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city,” said its author. “The Man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: ‘And yet there is a great deal of money made here; good morning, sir.'”
Both men were born into middle-class families in the Rhineland in the 1820s and they had a shared interest in socialism, but Engels acquired first-hand experience of the impact that capitalism was having on ordinary people as a result of being dispatched to his family’s mill in Manchester (I traced Engels’s life in Manchester in a previous post). In the years that followed he lived a double life; attending concerts, dinners and other events with the bourgeoisie, but also chronicling workers’ struggles and attending revolutionary communist meetings.
Engels provided Marx with vital financial support (over half his annual income between 1850 to 1870) to continue his work, but their partnership went deeper than that. “Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented,” he said in admiration of his friend. While Engels provided first-hand accounts of capitalist life and data from the lucrative Manchester cotton trade it was Marx’s intellect that actually enabled Das Kapital to be brought together. It was a powerful partnership.
“Money, knowledge – everything was in common between them… Engels extended his friendship to the whole of Marx’s family: Marx’s daughters were as children to him, they called him their second father,” according to Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law.
After Marx died in 1883, he was originally buried in his wife’s grave at Highgate Cemetery. But in 1956 a new elaborate monument, paid for by the Marx Memorial Fund (which was set up by the Communist Party), was unveiled in a more prominent position at the site. “Workers of all lands unite,” reads the writing on the stonework.
The white-bearded gigantic bust above the grave at Highgate, made by the socialist sculptor Laurence Bradshaw, depicts the wise image of Marx that is now seen the world over. Young Marx, the play, helps us look beyond that aged persona and remember the man at the time when – in between being chased by police and drinking heavily – he was formulating some of his best ideas.
Marx thought capitalism would fail through a collapse of the economic system – he didn’t advocate violence. But the world of communism he is seen as the father of ultimately brought about that the deaths of millions, something that is currently very much at the forefront of minds given the marking of the Russian Revolution’s centenary. And as Young Marx reminds London had its role to play in this important period of history.