Das cobblers — Marx's lost rant at cost of shoes

  • The Sunday Times
  • 19 May 2014
  • Richard Brooks

Karl Marx spent much of his life railing against capitalism, which he described as the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie". Now the sale of a long-lost notebook by the Prussian-born philosopher, economist and historian is set to make its owners a fortune.

The notebook, on sale for £2m, is one of six Marx wrote in Brussels in 1845 that were the precursors to two of his most famous works, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and Das Kapital.

The book, which runs to 49 pages that were sewn together, was feared lost until last year, when it was bought by Inlibris, an Austrian antique book shop, and Thomas Kotte, a German bookseller, from an American who had owned it for 20 years.

The notebook has been authenticated by MEGA, the official body in Berlin that looks after works by Marx and his fellow academic and friend Friedrich Engels. The manuscript is handwritten in French and German and includes notes about political and economic theory. There are also details of Marx's family finances dating from the early 1850s when he was living in London.

Marx moved to London in May 1849 after being expelled from Paris by the city authorities. While Marx devoted himself to his writing and radical politics, he had little in the way of income and for many years he and his family lived in poverty.

The manuscript provides intriguing glimpses into the harsh reality of Marx's life with pages of notes about his domestic arrangements. They detail his trips to the pawn shop to raise funds and repeated complaints about bills from the butcher, shoemaker and bookbinder and the price of milk, coal, bread, medicine and even vermouth.

In an already published letter to Engels, who provided him with financial support, Marx wrote: "I find myself in a fix as I had £12 to pay out for the household, yet the total received was considerably reduced because of unwritten articles."

In another letter to Engels, Marx wrote: "A week ago I reached the point where I am unable to go out for the want of coats I have in pawn, and can no longer eat meat for want of credit.

"My wife is ill, and little Jenny is ill. I could not call the doctor because I have no money for medicine. For the past eight days to ten, I have been feeding the family solely on bread and potatoes."

On one occasion, Marx was arrested for trying to sell silver that had belonged to the aristocratic family of Jenny von Westphalen, his wife with whom he had seven children. Police did not believe that a German refugee could have acquired the silver lawfully and he spent a night in the cells before being released.

"Marx was completely broke," said Francis Wheen, who wrote a biography of the philosopher in 1999. "If he wasn't in the British Museum reading room, he was in the pawn shop."

Hugo Wetscherek, the owner of Inlibris, said the notebook was the most extensive item written by Marx to go on the market for 80 years.

"The manuscript, all handwritten, includes Marx's own extracts from leading European economists," he added. "Then there are his own notes and comments alongside."

The notebook, which will be on offer at the London Antiquarian Book Fair this week, is likely to prove attractive to Chinese collectors. Their interest in Marx letters and ephemera has seen prices rise five-fold in recent years.

"The Chinese are keen because Marx is a brand name and one of the most important people in the history of ideas," Wetscherek said.

Marx died from bronchitis and pleurisy in March 1883 and was buried at London's Highgate Cemetery, where his tombstone bears the words "Workers of all lands unite", the final line of his 1848 work The Communist Manifesto. His estate of furniture and books was valued at just £250. In his funeral address, Engels said: "On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think."