by Bruce Oatman
Those of us who know of no other remark by Henry George about Karl Marx than his description of him as “the Prince of Muddleheads,” will be surprised to learn that an earlier commentary by George has come to our attention in the form of a letter that was read at a memorial service for Marx at New York’s Cooper Union on March 20, 1883. The historian Phillip S. Foner reports: “The meeting brought together for the first time members of socialist and anarchist groups, members of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, single-taxers and socialists, and workers of different nationalities and languages.”
I was led to the letter by a chance conversation with Liz Mestres, the director of the Brecht Forum in New York. She remembered having read George’s tribute to Marx years before. After some digging, she found it in a compendium of comments at the time of Marx’ death, Karl Marx Remembered, P.S. Foner, editor, published in 1983 by Synthesis Publications, San Francisco. The editor found the letter in the March 25, 1883 issue of a labor newspaper, Voice of the People, an organ of the group that sponsored the meeting.
The New York Times set the scene in its article on March 21, 1883:
A very large mass-meeting of Socialists, Communists, and working men, to do honor to the memory of Karl Marx, was held last evening at the Cooper Institute. A large portrait of the German Socialist was hung over the stage, and above it was the inscription, “Vive l’Internationale,” while round both were placed the blood-red banners of the Communists and Socialistic labor clubs. P.J. McGuire called the meeting to order. Victor Drury, the first speaker, said that Karl Marx was upbraided and derided, as were all the others who founded and supported the International. The capitalists and powers that be in Europe dreaded the International because it advocated the abolition of standing armies and the effacement of State boundaries. The speaker then made a general attack on all capitalists, aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, Professsors, scholars, and all other classes who do not to manual labor in the workshop….
Henry George’s Letter
I am unable to accept the invitation of our committee to address the meeting at Cooper Institute, but I desire to express my deep respect for a man whose life was devoted to efforts for the improvement of social conditions.
I never had the good fortune to meet Karl Marx, nor have I been able to read his works, which are untranslated into English. I am consequently incompetent to speak with precision of his views. As I understand them, there are several important points on which I differ from them. But no difference of opinion can lessen the esteem which I feel for the man who so steadfastly, so patiently, and so self-sacrificingly labored for the freedom of the oppressed and the elevation of the downtrodden.
In the life and in the teachings of Karl Marx there were the recognition of two profound truths, for which his memory deserves to be held in special honor.
He was the founder of the International — the first attempt to unite in a “holy alliance of the people” the workingmen of all countries; he taught the solidarity of labor, the brotherhood of man, and wherever his influence has reached it has tended to destroy those prejudices of nation and race which have been in all ages the most efficient means by which tyranny has been established and maintained. For this I honor Karl Marx.
And I honor Karl Marx because he saw and taught that the road to social regeneration lies not through destruction and anarchy, but through the promulgation of ideas and the education of the people. He realized that the enslavement of the masses is everywhere due to their ignorance, and realizing this, he set himself to work to master and to point out the social economic laws without the recognition of which all effort for social improvement is but a blind and fruitless struggle.
Karl Marx has gone, but the work he has done remains; whatever may have been in it of that error inseparable from all human endeavor will in turn be eliminated, but the good will perpetuate itself. And his memory will be cherished as one who saw and struggled for that reign of justice in which armies shall be disbanded and poverty shall be unknown and government shall become co-operation, that golden age of peace and plenty, the possibility of which is beginning even now to be recognized among the masses all over the civilized world.
I join with you in paying to such a man the tribute of brotherly regard.