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New International, December 1949


Sir Grant-Duff Meets Karl Marx

A British Diplomat Writes About the Founder of Modern Socialism

(February 1879)


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 8, December 1949, pp. 254–256.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This highly interesting letter by a British diplomat about his meeting with Karl Marx is printed in this country for the first time, exactly as it was reproduced in a recent issue of the Times of London. It was communicated to the Times by Andrew Rothstein, whose introductory note, explaining all the circumstances attendant upon the letter and its late discovery, is also reprinted in full. – Ed.


Mr. Andrew Rothstein writes:

The description of Karl Marx, and of a conversation with him at the luncheon table, which was given to the Empress Frederick, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, by Sir M.E. Grant Duff, and which is here published in full for the first time, has had a curious history.

Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff – Balliol man, Liberal MP for Elgin Burghs from 1857 to 1881, and with a term of ministerial office (as Under-Secretary for India in Gladstone’s first administration) already behind him when the letter was written – had a very wide range of acquaintance in the cultivated society of his day. His personal inclinations led him into the fields of history, geography and literature, while his active part in polities assured him of interesting conversation wherever he went. Much of it is recorded in the numerous volumes which he published at intervals, under the general title of Notes from a Diary, usually some twenty years after the encounters of which he wrote.

In 1898 the third series of the Notes appeared, covering the years 1873 to 1881. The second volume (pp. 103–106) had an entry under January 31, beginning:

Lunched at the Devonshire Club with Leonard Montefiore, to meet Karl Marx. I embodied my impressions of him in a letter to a friend on the Continent, which I subjoin with some omissions.

Then followed that section of the letter here presented which begins at the third paragraph and ends with the paragraph in which the Revolution of 1688 is mentioned. Nothing was in fact omitted from this passage: but the preliminary description of Marx himself, Grant Duff’s comments on his views, and all the later account of the conversation remained unpublished – together with other matters in the letter which might have established the identity of Grant Duff’s royal correspondent.

All the biographers of Marx and collectors of Marxiana – including Mehring, Ryazanov, and the compilers of the K. Marx: Chronik Seines Leben (Moscow 1934) – seem to have been unaware of this record of the meeting between Marx and a British Liberal aristocrat. Nor does Marx himself appear to have mentioned it in any of his extant letters.

The meeting evidently made a certain impression on the diarist himself. In a later installment of Notes from a Diary, under the date of June 27, 1889, we find him writing:

Dined with the Frederick Farrers, meeting amongst others a German who said to me, “Die Truppe schiesst noch,” but there is great uneasiness among the officers at the constant influx of Socialists into the ranks. The time will come, say many of them, when “Die Truppe schiesst nicht mehr.” My conversation with Karl Marx ten years ago (see these Notes for 1879) came back to my mind.

This, too, remained unnoticed by the biographers.

In 1945 the librarian at Windsor Castle, Sir Owen Morshead, brought back from Germany, with other historical material committed to the British Royal Archives by its owner, the Landgravine of Hesse, the original letter from Sir M.E. Grant Duff to her mother, the Empress Frederick. A chance paragraph in a newspaper led to inquiries by the Marx Memorial Library in London, and these to further exchanges, in the course of which His Majesty the King gave his most kind consent, with the full concurrence of the Landgravine of Hesse, to the publication of the letter. I am desired by the librarian and the Executive Committee of the Marx Memorial Library, in expressing their gratitude for permission to publish this most interesting addition to existing literature on the founder of Marxism, to pay a cordial tribute also to the great help received in the matter from Sir Owen Morshead.

It remains only to note that the spelling and punctuation, in the text here presented, are those of the original.


The Letter

Febr. 1, 1879


Your Imperial Highness, when I last had the honor of seeing you, chanced to express some curiosity about Carl Marx and to ask me if I knew him. I resolved accordingly to take the first opportunity of making his acquaintance, but that opportunity did not arise till yesterday when I met him at luncheon and spent three hours in his company.

He is a short, rather small man with grey hair and beard which contrasts strangely with a still dark moustache. The face is somewhat round; the forehead well shaped and filled up – the eye rather hard but the whole expression rather pleasant than not, by no means that of a gentleman who is in the habit of eating babies in their cradles – which is I daresay the view which the Police takes of him.

His talk was that of a well-informed, nay learned man – much interested in Comparative Grammar which had led him into the Old Slavonic and other out-of-the-way studies and was varied by many quaint turns and little bits of dry humour, as when speaking of Hezechiell’s Life of Prince Bismarck, he always referred to it, by way of contrast to Dr. Busch’s book, as the Old Testament.

It was all very positif, slightly cynical – without any appearance of enthusiasm – interesting and often, as I thought, showing very correct ideas when he was conversing of the past and the present, but vague and unsatisfactory when he turned to the future.

He looks, not unreasonably, for a great and not distant crash in Russia, thinks it will begin by reforms from above which the old bad edifice will not be able to bear and which will lead to its tumbling down altogether. As to what would take its place he had evidently no clear idea, except that for a long time Russia would be unable to exercise any influence in Europe.

Next he thinks that the movement will spread to Germany taking there the form of a revolt against the existing military system.

To my question, “But how can you expect the army to rise against its commanders,” he replied – you forget that in Germany now the army and the Nation are nearly identical. These Socialists you hear about are trained soldiers like anybody else. You must not think of the standing army only. You must think of the Landwehr – and even in the standing army there is much discontent. Never was an army in which the severity of the discipline led to so many suicides. The step from shooting oneself to shooting one’s officer is not long and an example of the kind once set is soon followed.

But supposing I said the rulers of Europe came to an understanding amongst themselves for a reduction of armaments which might greatly relieve that burden on the people, what would become of the Revolution which you expect it one day to bring about?

‘Ah was his answer they can’t do that. All sorts of fears and jealousies will make that impossible. The burden will grow worse and worse as science advances for the improvements in the Art of Destruction will keep pace with its advance and every year more and more will have to be devoted to costly engines of war. It is a vicious circle – there is no escape from it. ‘But’ I said ‘You have never yet had a serious popular rising unless there was really great misery. You have no idea he rejoined how terrible has been the crisis through which Germany has been passing in these last five years.

Well I said supposing that your Revolution has taken place and that you have your Republican form of Government – it is still a long long way to the realization of the special ideas of yourself and your friends. Doubtless he answered but all great movements are slow. It would merely be a step to better things as your Revolution of 1688 was – a mere step on the road.

The above will give Your Imperial Highness a fair idea of the kind of ideas about the near future of Europe which are working in his mind.

They are too dreamy to be dangerous, except just in so far as the situation with its mad expenditure on armaments is obviously and undoubtedly dangerous.

If however within the next decade the rulers of Europe have not found means of dealing with this evil without any warning from attempted revolution I for one shall despair of the future of humanity at least on this continent.

In the course of conversation Carl Marx spoke several times both of Your Imperial Highness and of the Crown Prince and invariably with due respect and propriety. Even in the case of eminent individuals of whom he by no means spoke with respect there was no trace of bitterness or savagery – plenty acrid and dissolvent criticism but nothing of the Marat tone.

Of the horrible things that have been connected with the International he spoke as any respectable man would have done.

One thing which he mentioned showed the dangers to which exiles who have got a revolutionary name are exposed. The wretched man Nobiling, he had learned, had when in England intended to come to see him. ‘If he had done so,’ he said, ‘I should certainly have admitted him for he would have sent in his card as an employé of the Dresden Bureau of Statistics, and as I also employ myself with Statistics, it wd have interested me to talk with him – What a pleasant position I should have been in’ he added ‘if he had come to see me!!’

Altogether my impression of Marx, allowing for his being at the opposite pole of opinion from oneself was not at all unfavourable and I would gladly meet him again. It will not be he, who whether he wishes it or not, will turn the world upside down.

There has been a break-up amongst the English Positivists – the little sect which someone cleverly described as “Three Persons and No God.” Mr. Congreve long their head in this country having wished to dis-connect himself with the body in Paris headed by Laffitte as the representative of the Comte – has been himself abandoned by Mr. Harrison and the other leading members of the congregation. I never met till the other day a lady who belonged to the Positivist sect as distinguished from the Positivist philosophical following, but last Sunday Mrs. Harrison came to stay with us and we found her a very interesting and really distinguished person, full of intelligence and charm.

I daresay your Imperial Highness sometimes reads her husband’s paper in the Fortnightly or 19th Century.

My ‘Miscellanies’ I hope duly reached you and I now send a speech I made in the House of Commons in December, printed as a pamphlet.

I trust your purpose holds to come over in the end of February and that Destiny may make amends by giving you a pleasant and peaceful vent for all the agitations and sorrows of last summer.

I do not think I mentioned to your Imperial Highness that your little god-child was clever enough just as we were coming back from Algiers to break her collar bone in bed. That showed much resource and ability, I think. The accident gave her very little pain and it is thought there will be no bad ultimate results.

I have the honor to remain, Madam, Your Imperial Highness’s most obliged and faithful servant.

M.E. Grant-Duff

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