An Interview with Jim Ledbetter
by Steven Sherman
Jim Ledbetter recently edited a volume of Marx's journalism entitled Dispatches
for the New York Tribune (published in Britain last year and available in
February in the US ). I interviewed Jim via email about the content and
significance of these writings.
Q: Perhaps the most surprising thing about these writings is that Marx was
published in a US newspaper. How did Marx come into his journalism phase?
A: Marx was a journalist more or less all of his adult life. He started
writing for the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842, and founded his own paper in 1848.
His work for the Tribune came about because he'd met an American newspaper
editor, Charles Dana (who would later go on to edit the New York Sun) in
Cologne in 1848, and a few years later Dana asked Marx to contribute some
articles to the New York Tribune on the situation in Germany. I think that
Marx and Engels viewed the Tribune as a way to publicize their views and to
influence debate with a large number of readers; it must also be said that Marx
needed the money. The payments from the Tribune articles were the steadiest
form of income Marx ever earned (if you don't count the constant "loans" from
Q: Can you describe the paper he was published in, the New York Tribune?
A: The New York Tribune was founded in 1841 by Horace Greeley, and it quickly
became both the largest newspaper in the world (a circulation of over 200,000
during the time that Marx was contributing) as well as the foremost
anti-slavery organ in the United States . It featured a number of innovations,
including the first regular section of literary reviews, as well as numerous
foreign correspondents, including Marx. The paper hit some difficult financial
times in the late 1850s, and when the Civil War broke out there was great
dissent among its principals about supporting the war and supporting Lincoln
(Marx's editor Dana left during this time).
Q: Since Marx was based in London , why didn't he write for a British paper?
A: He did write somewhat regularly for the British newspaper affiliated with
the Chartist movement, The People's Paper, although as often as not those
pieces were adapted versions of material he'd published elsewhere, such as the
Tribune. As for the establishment British papers, I don't think they had much
interest in him as a contributor.
Q: Was Marx's status as the author of the Communist Manifesto well known at the
time? Do you have any sense of how his writings were received in the US ?
A: This is a crucial point. For all intents and purposes, there was no English
translation of the Manifesto published before 1888, five years after Marx died.
(An obscure British journal published a translation prior to that, but I can't
imagine that more than a handful of Americans ever saw it.) This translation
lag also existed for the vast majority of Marx's book-length writing. A few
American readers who read German would conceivably have known of the Manifesto
and Marx's earlier writing on philosophy, but again, their number would have
been very small. Hence, the Karl Marx that most Tribune readers saw had no
other reputation to precede him.
Q: Can you talk a little about Marx's approach to journalism?
A: The dispatches that Marx published don't greatly resemble most of what gets
published as journalism today, and in many respects they don't greatly resemble
what was published as Anglo-American journalism in the 19th century, either.
That is to say: they contain essentially nothing that would today be called"reporting": no first-hand accounts of events, large or small; no interviews
with sources, official or otherwise. They are critical essays constructed, as
so much of Marx's work was, out of the research materials available to him in
the British Library.
This isn't to say that Marx's dispatches were not timely. Indeed, he was quite
fastidious about making his pieces as up-to-date as possible, including
last-minute tidbits he got from personal correspondence or that day's newspaper
(which seems quaintly ironic today, given that the articles traveled by
steamship to New York , and thus would typically be published some 10-15 days
after they were written).
But the basic Marx approach to his New York Tribune column was to take an event
that was in the news -- an election, an uprising, the second Opium War, the
outbreak of the American Civil War -- and sift through it until he could boil
it down to some fundamental questions of politics or economics. And then on
those questions he would make his judgment. In this sense, Marx's journalism
does resemble some of the writing that is published today in journals of
opinion, and it's not hard to see a direct line between Marx's journalistic
writing and the kind of tendentious writing on public affairs that
characterized much political journalism (especially in Europe) in the twentieth
Q: A number of the issues covered in the writings collected in the book
resonate with those of the contemporary world -- questions of free trade,
justifications for war, the impact of colonialism. Some of the media outlets
mentioned, such as The Economist, are even the same. Furthermore, since Marx of Marxist political movements, one might also say
that the political landscape in some ways resembles that of the present, i.e.
many spots of unrest and conflict, rather than a disciplined, readily
identifiable movement marching forward or retreating. Can you talk a little
about how he saw the free trade question? Britain 's wars with China ? Unrest
in Europe ? The impact of colonialism and resistance in India ?
A: "Free trade" was arguably the most dominant economic ideology in Europe in
the first half of the 19th century, as Adam Smith's writing was translated into
various languages; as governments began experimenting with tariff reductions;
and as a rising bourgeois class asserted its influence economically and
politically. Much of Marx's economic writing during this time was devoted to
exposing what he saw as the fallacies of free trade thinking, some of them
obvious and some of them hidden. In Marx's view, capitalism as a whole was
destined to fail, and thus the redistribution of wealth created by the adoption
of free-trade policies was at best a temporary phenomenon, and at worst widened
and deepened the effects of poverty in countries and population segments on the
losing end of the free trade equation.
This perspective greatly influenced his view on Britain 's actions in China and
India . In Marx's view, the opium trade -- which greatly ballooned at the end
of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century -- was necessary to prop up the
otherwise shaky British economy. Literally, Marx believed that the British
crown (acting with the British East India Company) was forcing the Indians to
grow opium and forcing addiction onto the Chinese -- all in the name of free
As for uprisings . . . you've identified what might charitably be called a
"tension" and less charitably be called a "contradiction" in Marx's writing.
The crushing of the 1848 revolution in France and elsewhere was, I would argue,
the most politically significant event for Marx in his lifetime, certainly
prior to the launch of the First International and the establishment of the
Paris Commune in 1871. After 1848, Marx learned the power of
counter-revolution, and began to believe that existing systems of government
and economy could not be overthrown until a relatively informed and organized
proletariat could be mobilized to do so. As became clear with every passing
year, in many nations such organization was decades away, if it existed at all.
And yet, reading through Marx's Tribune dispatches, you can't help but see an
urgency, an excitement -- almost an impatience -- in his portrayals of some
insurrections and crises in Europe and India. At times he wrote as if this
particular rise in corn prices, or this little dust-up with authorities in
Greece , was going to be THE spark that would ignite revolution. And it's not
as if one can fault Marx for feeling that way; after all, during this period
crowned heads of Europe were toppling and certainly at least liberal
revolutions seemed likely in a number of settings. But there are times when
his discipline of thought appears to leave him, and he is also prone to the
tautology that revolution can only occur when the masses are ready, but we
can't know for certain if the masses are ready until they create a revolution.
Q: You note that Marx's view of the US is somewhat surprising, given the
trajectory of Marxism in the twentieth century. Can you elaborate? What was
his view of the American civil war and the way it was being covered in the
A: I'm not aware that Marx ever wrote a single essay in which he laid out his
complete views of the United States, and so one must infer a bit from the
essays he wrote during the civil war, as well as from certain facts, such as
the fact that he signed a letter from the International Workingmen's
Association to Abraham Lincoln, congratulating him on his re-election in 1864.
It should also be said that Marx never visited the United States .
Nonetheless, it is clear that Marx was attracted to at least two aspects of
American life: its lack of a monarchy, and its lack of an established
aristocracy. Marx keenly followed politics in America , and believed the
founding of the Republican Party and the election of Lincoln to be major,
ground-shifting events in American history. His pronounced attacks on the
British press coverage of the Civil War stemmed from what he saw as rife
hypocrisy on their part. The textile industry was a huge engine of the British
economy (it employed Engels, after all), and it depended on cheap cotton from
the slave-holding American south. And when the British press criticized
Lincoln for either being too radical or not radical enough (a common
observation was that the North was not really seeking to abolish slavery, but
merely to protect the union, which meant protecting slave-holding rights in
those states where they still existed), Marx pounced on the hypocrisy as a mere
cover to keep cheap cotton flowing.
Q: How do you think exposure to these writings might reshape our understanding
A: In a few ways. One is that readers of Marx's economic and philosophical
writings might conclude that Marx was an abstract thinker, concerned primarily
with theory and detached from the immediate issues around him. Of course, Marx
was more abstract than many, but I think these writings demonstrate that Marx
was keenly, passionately engaged in the details -- even the minutiae -- of
public life in the 19th century. Indeed, some contemporary observers now argue
that Marx's engagement in journalistic writing significantly affected his
broader, book-length work, a line of inquiry I think is worth pursuing.
Second: It is common for contemporary Marxists to portray their own line of
thought as objective and scientific, and separate from the sentimental,
moralizing thinking that motivates liberals and others. There's something to
that, and certainly Marx in other contexts portrayed his own work as akin to
scientific method. And yet, if you look through this volume for the most
passionate and persuasive writing, you'll find that it is usually deployed on
behalf of a cause that at least outwardly resembles moral imperatives: ending
slavery; ending the opium trade and its attendant addiction; giving common
people a voice in their governance; and ending poverty. It is not an original
observation regarding Marx to say that there is an apparent contradiction
between portraying history as the inevitable result of conflicting
international forces, and attempting to galvanize people to take history in
their own hands -- what might be called the determinism fallacy. At a minimum,
these writings show Marx was never content to sit back and let history take its
course; he felt compelled to persuade, to use the workings of the news cycle as
bits of evidence that his world view is the most sound.
Which leads to the final point: Marx today is taught as an economic theorist;
as a political thinker; and to some degree as a historian and philosopher.
Each category is valid; each is also incomplete. The historical record,
however, at least suggests another category: that Marx should be thought of as
a professional writer, as a journalist. The Penguin Classics volume I've
edited is but a sample; overall Marx produced, with help from Engels, nearly
500 articles for the Tribune, which together amass nearly seven volumes of the
two men's 50-volume collected works. I think we come closer to understanding
the importance of rhetoric in Marx's work if we think of him as a journalist.
Steven Sherman maintains the website lefteyeonbooks. org.