Keith Flett considers the various references to the role beer played in the lives of Marx and Engels.
There have been many and varied attempts over the years to paint Karl Marx in particular as a disreputable character whose ideas on capitalism should therefore not be taken seriously.
In that context the story that he was more or less permanently drunk has a fairly minor place. One would not need a great deal of knowledge of Marx’s life to grasp that, certainly once he came to London, he rarely had sufficient money to fund a lifestyle of drinking.
Jenny Marx noted of Engels that when he retired to London in the 1870s that he was keen on beer, particularly the Viennese variety. How easy it was to obtain such a style in London at the time is less clear, but the authoritative beer writers Boak and Bailey suggest that Vienna lager was available in the Capital in the 1860s and 1870s and indeed was regarded as a premium ‘craft’ drink.
The episode which feeds the Marx as a drunk caricature is the well-known pub crawl up Tottenham Court Rd in central London that ended with them being pursued by police. There are not that many pubs on the road today but there were considerably more 150 years ago.
It is to be found in a memoir of Marx written by the German socialist Liebknecht in 1896 around 40 years after the event itself.
His account begins
One evening, Edgar Bauer, acquainted with Marx from their Berlin time and then not yet his personal enemy […], had come to town from his hermitage in Highgate for the purpose of “making a beer trip.” The problem was to “take something” in every saloon between Oxford Street and Hampstead Road – making the something a very difficult task, even by confining yourself to a minimum, considering the enormous number of saloons in that part of the city. But we went to work undaunted and managed to reach the end of Tottenham Court Road without accident.
In due course the drinking party Marx included got involved in a political discussion in the back room of a pub. Liebknecht recalls
The brows of our hosts began to cloud […]; and when Edgar Bauer brought up still heavier guns and began to allude to the English cant, then a low “damned foreigners!” issued from the company, soon followed by louder repetitions. Threatening words were spoken, the brains began to be heated, fists were brandished in the air and – we were sensible enough to choose the better part of valour and managed to effect, not wholly without difficulty, a passably dignified retreat.
Now we had enough of our “beer trip” for the time being, and in order to cool our heated blood, we started on a double quick march, until Edgar Bauer stumbled over some paving stones. “Hurrah, an idea!” And in memory of mad student pranks he picked up a stone, and Clash! Clatter! a gas lantern went flying into splinters. Nonsense is contagious – Marx and I did not stay behind, and we broke four or five street lamps – it was, perhaps, 2 o'clock in the morning and the streets were deserted in consequence. But the noise nevertheless attracted the attention of a policeman who with quick resolution gave the signal to his colleagues on the same beat. And immediately countersignals were given. The position became critical.
Happily we took in the situation at a glance; and happily we knew the locality. We raced ahead, three or four policemen some distance behind us. Marx showed an activity that I should not have attributed to him. And after the wild chase had lasted some minutes, we succeeded in turning into a side street and there running through an alley – a back yard between two streets – whence we came behind the policemen who lost the trail. Now we were safe. They did not have our description and we arrived at our homes without further adventures.
It is an entertaining story but not one can find repeated, meaning it was almost certainly an exceptional occasion.
Engels in his younger days was hardly exempt either from occasional beer influenced activities. He wrote on 1st September 1838:
Excuse me for writing so badly, I have three bottles of beer under my belt, hurrah, and I cannot write much more because this must go to the post at once. It is already striking half-past three and letters must be there by four o'clock. Good gracious, thunder and lightning’ you can see that I've got some beer inside me. [... ]
However there is a more serious and political side to Marx’s views on beer both in terms of practical political campaigning and in respect of theory.
Marx wrote in support of an 1855 demonstration organised by the Chartists in Hyde Park in what had become known as the ‘Beer Bill’:
The first measure of Religious coercion was the Beer Bill, which shut down all places of public entertainment on Sundays, except between 6 and 10 p. m. This bill was smuggled through the House at the end of a sparsely attended sitting, after the pietists had bought the support of the big public-house owners of London by guaranteeing them that the license system would continue, that is, that big capital would retain its monopoly.
Marx was here defending the right of working people to enjoy a beer on the one official day of the week they didn’t work, against what he terms ‘religious coercion’. Marx associated a Chartist leaflet for the protest which made the point that the aristocracy who of course enjoyed their drinks elsewhere than pubs could continue as normal.
Marx also defended the right of working people to enjoy beer in a more theoretical context, In Capital Volume One, chapter 24 he noted the tendency of capitalists to force down the wages of workers. He quotes an eighteenth-century author who complained that workers indulged in such things as drink:
“But if our poor” (technical term for labourers) “will live luxuriously ... then labour must, of course, be dear ... When it is considered what luxuries the manufacturing populace consume, such as brandy, gin, tea, sugar, foreign fruit, strong beer, printed linens, snuff, tobacco, &C.”
In terms of 2018 it is perhaps interesting to speculate whether Marx would have been a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. He was clearly interested in defending the right of ordinary people to drink beer and was keen on drinking beer himself, at least on occasion. He would certainly have been much less keen, and more critical than CAMRA sometimes is, of the activities of brewers and he would have the theory to back the point up.
One can see Marx, a lifelong activist, being in CAMRA, enjoying his beer, but organising to keep its focus firmly on pubs and beer while maintaining criticism of what is known as ‘big beer’, the worldwide beer companies such as ABInBev.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.