Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1398, (21 - 27 June 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1398, (21 - 27 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Marx in Algiers

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx is being celebrated worldwide this year, an opportunity to remember his only journey outside Europe, writes David Tresilian

Despite his interest in the global economy, the 19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx only left his native Europe once when he visited the Algerian capital Algiers towards the end of his life in 1882.

Occupied by the French since 1830, by the 1880s Algiers was becoming a resort for European visitors, and Marx visited the city not for evidence of the development of global capitalism, as might have been expected, but for the kind of warm and dry climate that it was hoped would help him recover from a series of debilitating illnesses.

Unfortunately, the weather in Algiers was not kind to Marx (it rained), and he did not really recover from the health problems that had been plaguing him and that would eventually lead to his death one year later. However, perhaps in part because of the bad Algerian weather, which kept him in his hotel bedroom, as well as his habit of keeping up an extensive correspondence, some at least of his impressions of the Algerian capital under French colonial rule can be reconstructed.

While Marx threw out tantalising comments on the European imperialism of his time in many of his published works, he did not actually visit any of the places he discussed even if he gave hints that were later worked up by one or other branch of Marxism. The exception was Algeria, where Marx settled down for a rest cure between February and April 1882 before travelling back to London via the south of France with an extended stop with his daughter Laura and her husband the French socialist Paul Lafargue near Paris.

Arriving in Algiers on 20 February 1882 by ferry from the southern French port city of Marseilles, a journey which will still be familiar to many people today, Marx settled down in the Hotel Pension Victoria, telling his life-time collaborator Friedrich Engels by letter that Algiers was infested with British tourists, forcing him to leave the first hotel he had stayed in.

“I had already spied out the Hotel Pension Victoria on the day of my arrival,” he wrote. It is a “magnificent position here, from my chambre [bedroom], the bay of the Mediterranean, the port of Algiers, villas climbing up the collines [hills] as in an amphitheatre… At 8 o’clock in the morning there is nothing more magical than the panorama, the air, the vegetation, a wonderful mélange of Europe and Africa.”

However, the unusually bad weather forced thoughts of departure, since Marx, “frozen to the marrow”, was suffering from a cough that was getting “worse from day to day [and] a certain nasty feeling in my left side”. He thought about going to the southern Algerian oasis of Biskra, being developed at the time for tourism, but in the end stayed on in Algiers to be attended by “Dr Stephann (best Algiers doctor),” who ordered him “to keep within very moderate limits and no real intellectual work.”

Later letters to his daughter and son-in-law indicate that Marx did not entirely follow his doctor’s instructions, since he seems to have walked around Algiers enough to note the new construction and the mixed character of the city’s inhabitants. He also seems to have discussed the workings of the French colonial regime with some of its functionaries, though apparently not with any native Algerians.

He told Engels, for example, of a conversation he had had with a French judge describing the workings of the colonial justice system, in which “a form of torture has been used (and this happens ‘regularly’) to extract confessions from the Arabs; naturally it is done (like the English in India) by the ‘police’; the judge is supposed to know nothing at all about it.”

He was also struck by the arrogance of many of the European residents of Algiers. “We are aware that when a European colonist dwells among the ‘lesser breeds,’ either as a settler or even on business, he generally regards himself as even more inviolable than handsome William I [a Prussian king],” he wrote. “Still, when it comes to bare-faced arrogance and presumptuousness vis-à-vis the ‘lesser breeds,’ the British and Dutch outdo the French.”

Marx was on a strict regime of reading material, telling Lafargue that “I don’t even read the few newspapers which the other hotel residents in the Victoria receive from Paris; my political reading is entirely limited to the telegraphic announcements in the Petit Colon (a small Algerian paper).” This was probably an exaggeration, but it is true that there is not much evidence of reading, even less of writing, among Marx’s letters of this period. However, there is much about the beauty of the environment (he enjoyed the Algiers Botanical Gardens), interspersed with comments on his medical treatment.

Writing to his daughter Laura in April 1882, Marx tried to imagine, not altogether seriously, how the situation might look “from a higher historical perspective”.

 “Our nomadic Arabs (who have, in many respects, gone very much to seed while retaining, as a result of their struggle for existence, a number of sterling qualities) have memories of having once produced great philosophers, scholars, etc., which, they think, is why the Europeans now despise them for their present ignorance. Hence the following little fable, typical of Arab folklore.

A ferryman is ready and waiting, with his small boat, on the tempestuous waters of a river. A philosopher, wishing to get to the other side, climbs aboard. There ensues the following dialogue:

Philosopher: Do you know anything of history, ferryman?

Ferryman: No!

Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted half your life!

And again: The Philosopher: Have you studied mathematics?

Ferryman: No!

Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted more than half your life.

Hardly were these words out of the philosopher’s mouth when the wind capsized the boat, precipitating both ferryman and philosopher into the water. Whereupon,

Ferryman shouts: Can you swim?

Philosopher: No!

Ferryman: Then you’ve wasted your whole life.

That will tickle your appetite for things Arabic.”


In his last letter to Engels from Algiers on 28 April 1882, Marx wrote that “because of the sun, I have done away with my prophet’s beard and my crowning glory but (in deference to my daughters) had myself photographed before offering up my hair on the altar of an Algerian barber.”

These were the last photographs that Marx is known to have had taken, and they still show him with the resplendent beard that has figured so prominently in subsequent iconography.


EUROPEAN COLONIALISM: Much of Marx’s earlier writing on the European colonialism of his time is commentary on British actions in India and China. He thought that while the British had destroyed the nascent Indian industrial base, creating a captive market for British manufactures and a shipping-off point for raw materials, they had also introduced an economic system that was revolutionising the Indian economy.

“There cannot remain any doubt but that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan [India] is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before,” Marx told readers of the New York Tribune in June 1853. “England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing.”

However, “sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organisations [in India] disorganised and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilisation and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition,” he wrote.

Marx’s letters from Algiers are in volume 46 of his collected works, together with those of Engels, and on the whole they confirm the impression that Marx’s most intellectually productive years were by then behind him, possibly not only because of illness.

His international reputation had grown in the 1870s after the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867, but though his Civil War in France, an essay on the Paris Commune, had sold better than his other books, he was no longer publishing newspaper articles. He also seems to have been having difficulties bringing his theoretical work into line with the political and economic developments of the time.

Engels was famously shocked to find, when he went through Marx’s manuscripts after his death in 1883, that the mass of material that he later published as volumes two and three of Capital (in 1885 and 1894) had not really been touched since the 1860s. According to British academic Gareth Stedman Jones, Marx’s most recent full-scale biographer, in the 1870s “Marx no longer talked much about his work to Engels,” possibly because of growing intellectual divergences between the two and doubts entertained by Marx, but apparently not by Engels, of the dogmatic character of “Marxism”.

What was appearing under that name in France in the 1880s, “a mixture of left-bank anti-religious materialism, the Communist Manifesto, and Engels’s Anti-Dührung [a polemic against a German writer], was only nominally similar to Karl’s approach,” Stedman Jones writes. “It was in this context that Karl had once said, ‘if anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist. ’”

  Reading the letters from Algiers today, it is striking how engaged Engels is in creating what later became known as Marxism, firing off lengthy letters to correspondents worldwide, and how apparently disengaged is Marx, whose letters, when they are not taken up with his travel and other arrangements, are mostly about his illnesses.

The Marx of the 1850s, providing readers of the New York Tribune with waspish commentary on contemporary events, would also not have failed to follow closely events in Egypt in the early 1880s, culminating in the British invasion in summer 1882.

However, in the letters from the end of his life it is only Engels who comments (sceptically) on events in Egypt, even as Marx, in Stedman Jones’s words, was revising his earlier views on the long-term effects of European colonialism and arguing that “primitive communal structures,” when left to themselves, “in favourable political conditions could develop” without the need for proletarian revolution.

“Music, the greatest good that mortals know/  And all of heaven we have below.”
Joseph Addison (1672- 1719)  

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