Paul Lafargue's testimony on Karl Marx as scientist (for Les Schaffer)

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Wed Aug 20 08:44:56 MDT 2003

"Karl Marx was one of the rare men who could be leaders in science and
public life at the same time: these two aspects were so closely united in
him that one can understand him only by taking into account both the scholar
and the socialist fighter. Marx held the view that science must be pursued
for itself, irrespective of the eventual results of research, but at the
same time that a scientist could only debase himself by giving up active
participation in public life or shutting himself up in his study or
laboratory like a maggot in cheese and holding aloof from the life and
political struggle of his contemporaries.

"Science must not he a selfish pleasure," he used to say. "Those who have
the good fortune to be able to devote themselves to scientific pursuits must
be the first to place their knowledge at the service of humanity." One of
his favourite sayings was: "Work for humanity." Although Marx sympathised
profoundly with the sufferings of the working classes, it was not
sentimental considerations but the study of history and political economy
that led him to communist views. He maintained that any unbiased man, free
from the influence of private interests and not blinded by class prejudices,
must necessarily come to the same conclusions.

Yet while studying the economic and political development of human society
without any preconceived opinion, Marx wrote with no other intention than to
propagate the results of his research and with a determined will to provide
a scientific basis for the socialist movement, which had so far been lost in
the clouds of utopianism. He gave publicity to his views only to promote the
triumph of the working class, whose historic mission is to establish
communism as soon as it has achieved political and economic leadership of

Marx did not confine his activity to the country he was born in. "I am a
citizen of the world," he used to say; "I am active wherever I am." And in
fact, no matter what country events and political persecution drove him to
France, Belgium, England--he took a prominent part in the revolutionary
movements which developed there. However, it was not the untiring and
incomparable socialist agitator but rather the scientist that I first saw in
his study in Maitland Park Road. That study was the centre to which Party
comrades came from all parts of the civilised world to find out the opinion
or the master of socialist thought. One must know that historic room before
one can penetrate into the intimacy of Marx's spiritual life. (...)

Besides the poets and novelists, Marx had another remarkable way of relaxing
intellectually--mathematics, for which he had a special liking. Algebra even
brought him moral consolation and he took refuge in the most distressing
moments of his eventful life. During his wife's last illness he was unable
to devote himself to his usual scientific work and the only way in which he
could shake off the oppression caused by her sufferings was to plunge into
mathematics. During that time of moral suffering he wrote a work on
infinitesimal calculus which, according to the opinion of experts, is of
great scientific value and will be published in his collected works. He saw
in higher mathematics the most logical and at the same time the simplest
form of dialectical movement. He held the view that science is not really
developed until it has learned to make use of mathematics.

Although Marx's library contained over a thousand volumes carefully
collected during his lifelong research work, it was not enough for him, and
for years he regularly attended the British Museum, whose catalogue he
appreciated very highly. Even Marx's opponents were forced to acknowledge
his extensive and profound erudition, not only in his own
specialty--political economy--but in history, philosophy and the literature
of all countries. (...) For many years I went with him on his evening walks
on Hampstead Heath and it was while strolling over the meadows with him that
I got my education in economics. Without noticing it he expounded to me the
whole contents of the first book of Capital as he wrote it. On my return
home I always noted as well as I could all I had heard. At first it was
difficult for me to follow Marx's profound and complicated reasoning.
Unfortunately I have lost those precious notes, for after the Commune the
police ransacked and burned my papers in Paris and Bordeaux.

What I regret most is the loss of the notes I took on the evening when Marx,
with the abundance of proof and considerations which was typical of him,
expounded his brilliant theory of the development of human society. It was
as if scales fell from my eyes. For the first time I saw clearly the logic
of world history and could trace the apparently so contradictory phenomena
of the development of society and ideas to their material origins. I felt
dazzled, and the impression remained for years.

The Madrid socialists had the same impression when I developed to them as
well as my feeble powers would allow that most magnificent of Marx's
theories, which is beyond doubt one of the greatest ever elaborated by the
human brain. Marx's brain was armed with an unbelievable stock of facts from
history and natural science and philosophical theories. He was remarkably
skilled in making use of the knowledge and observations accumulated during
years of intellectual work. You could question him at any time on any
subject and get the most detailed answer you could wish for, always
accompanied by philosophical reflexions of general application. His brain
was like a man-of-war in port under steam, ready to launch into any sphere
of thought.

There is no doubt that Capital reveals to us a mind of astonishing vigour
and superior knowledge. But for me, as for all those who knew Marx
intimately, neither Capital nor any other of his works shows all the
magnitude of his genius or the extent of his knowledge. He was highly
superior to his own works. I worked with Marx; I was only the scribe to whom
he dictated, but that gave me the opportunity of observing his manner of
thinking and writing. Work was easy for him, and at the same time difficult.
Easy because his mind found no difficulty in embracing the relevant facts
and considerations in their completeness. But that very completeness made
the exposition of his ideas a matter of long and arduous work. ...

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the
constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of
those parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went on from
the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the
other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and
revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects.
He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its
surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.

His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and
continually varying action and reaction. Men of letters of Flaubert's and
the Goncourts' school complain that it is so difficult to render exactly
what one sees; yet all they wish to render is the surface, the impression
that they get. Their literary work is child's play in comparison with
Marx's: it required extraordinary vigour of thought to grasp reality and
render what he saw and wanted to make others see. Marx was never satisfied
with his work--he was always making some improvements and he always found
his rendering inferior to the idea he wished to convey....

Marx had the two qualities of a genius: he had an incomparable talent for
dissecting a thing into its constituent parts, and he was past master at
reconstituting the dissected object out of its parts, with all its different
forms of development, and discovering their mutual inner relations. His
demonstrations were not abstractions--which was the reproach made to him by
economists who were themselves incapable of thinking; his method was not
that of the geometrician who takes his definitions from the world around him
but completely disregards reality in drawing his conclusions. Capital does
not give isolated definitions or isolated formulas; it gives a series of
most searching analyses which bring out the most evasive shades and the most
elusive gradations. (...)

Marx was always extremely conscientious about his work: he never gave a fact
or figure that was not borne out by the best authorities. He was never
satisfied with secondhand information, he always went to the source itself,
no matter how tedious the process. To make sure of a minor fact he would go
to the British Museum and consult books there. His critics were never able
to prove that he was negligent or that he based his arguments on facts which
did not bear strict checking.

His habit of always going to the very source made him read authors who were
very little known and whom he was the only one to quote. Capital contains so
many quotations from little-known authors that one might think Marx wanted
to show off how well read he was. He had no intention of the sort. "I
administer historical justice," he said. "I give each one his due." He
considered himself obliged to name the author who had first expressed an
idea or formulated it most correctly, no matter how insignificant and little
known he was.

Marx was just as conscientious from the literary as from the scientific
point of view. Not only would he never base himself on a fact he was not
absolutely sure of, he never allowed himself to talk of a thing before he
had studied it thoroughly. He did not publish a single work without
repeatedly revising it until he had found the most appropriate form. He
could not bear to appear in public without thorough preparation. It would
have been a torture for him to show his manuscripts before giving them the
finishing touch. He felt so strongly about this that he told me one day that
he would rather burn his manuscripts than leave them unfinished.

His method of working often imposed upon him tasks the magnitude of which
the reader can hardly imagine. Thus, in order to write the twenty pages or
so on English factory legislation in Capital he went through a whole library
of Blue Books containing reports of commissions and factory Inspectors in
England and Scotland. He read them from cover to cover, as can be seen from
the pencil marks in them. He considered those reports as the most important
and weighty documents for the study of the capitalist mode of production. He
had such a high opinion of those in charge of them that he doubted the
possibility of finding in another country in Europe "men as competent, as
free from partisanship and respect of persons as are the English factory
inspectors". He paid them this brilliant tribute in the Preface to Capital.

>From these Blue Books Marx drew a wealth of factual information. Many
members of Parliament to whom they are distributed use them only as shooting
targets, judging the striking power of the gun by the number of pages
pierced. Others sell them by the pound, which is the most reasonable thing
they can do, for this enabled Marx to buy them cheap from the old paper
dealers in Long Acre whom he used to visit to look through their old books
and papers. Professor Beesley said that Marx was the man who made the
greatest use of English official inquiries and brought them to the knowledge
of the world. He did not know that before 1845 Engels took numerous
documents from the Blue Books in writing his book on the condition of the
working class in England. (...)

Marx had such respect for the intelligence and critical sense of his wife
that he showed her all his manuscripts and set great store by her opinion,
as he himself told me in 1866. Mrs. Marx copied out her husband's
manuscripts before they were sent to the print-shop. (...)

....after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution Engels had to go to Manchester,
while Marx was obliged to remain in London. Even so, they continued their
common intellectual life by writing to each other almost daily, giving their
views on political and scientific events and their work. (...) Marx
appreciated Engels' opinion more than anybody else's, for Engels was the man
he considered capable of being his collaborator. For him Engels was a whole
audience. No effort could have been too great for Marx to convince Engels
and win him over to his ideas. For instance, I have seen him read whole
volumes over and over to find the fact he needed to change Engels' opinion
on some secondary point that I do not remember concerning the political and
religious wars of the Albigenses. It was a triumph for Marx to bring Engels
round to his opinion. (...)

Complete article at

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