Lessons in outreach from a funeral?

What can the funeral of one of the founders of scientific socialism tell us about an approach to present day realities? If ever there was a time for the broadest political outreach of our lives, this has to be it. The Bush administration’s attack on working people — in the form of health care cuts, gutting affirmative action, and preemptive wars — demands it.

The history of working-class movements gives many examples of broad outreach and of developing mutual respect among groups and individuals with different political outlooks. One example is the collaboration of the labor and environmental movements in the 1960s to push for establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA). The developing unity between labor and environmental activists in opposition to the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a more recent example.

There are other, more subtle examples of outreach. One can be found, of all places, at the funeral of Karl Marx.

On March 17, 1883, at Highgate Cemetery, London, the family and friends of Karl Marx gathered around his gravesite. Joining lifelong friend Frederick Engels were the likes of Wilhelm Liebknecht, a leader of the German Social-Democratic Party, French Socialist Paul LaFargue, who was also Marx’s son-in-law, and others of similar political persuasion. One of the mourners was the biologist Edwin Ray Lankester, who had no known working-class affiliations. Some would say that Lankester’s presence was odd. But was it?

A hint to the answer can be found in one of Engels’ graveside remarks: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.”

Edwin Ray Lankester was an ardent defender of Charles Darwin and Darwin’s theories of evolution. Marx admired Darwin’s work as well. In a classic example of outreach and respect, Marx sent Darwin a copy of his book, “Capital,” in 1873. In his famous response to Marx, Darwin concludes, “I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge, and that this is in the long run sure to add to the happiness of mankind.”

While this is a glowing example of mutual respect, there was no further contact between these two 19th-century giants, who lived only some 20 miles apart in England.

So there is an ideological connection. But the question remains, how does the young Lankester appear on the scene?

The go-between may have been another young scientist, Charles Waldstein. He knew both Lankester and Marx. When Marx’s wife was dying of breast cancer, he turned to Lankester for medical references. Further contact ensued.

An 1880 letter from Lankester to Marx reads, “I shall be very glad to see you … I have been intending to return to you the book you kindly lent to me.” Marx loved to meet and discuss ideas with young people. And, as the above quote testifies, he was also eager to share literature from his substantial library.

Further evidence of Marx’s dedication to outreach is his interaction with the even younger Waldstein. Waldstein wrote, “I learnt to hold him [Marx] in high respect and to love the purity, gentleness and refinement of his big heart. He seemed to find so much pleasure in the mere freshness of my youthful enthusiasm and took so great an interest in my own life and welfare.”

Neither Lankester, Darwin or Waldstein were political radicals. But that did not stop Karl Marx from taking the time to share interests and ideas, including literature.

Five days after Marx’s burial, a written report of the funeral by Engels included the following statement: “The natural sciences were represented by two celebrities of the first rank, the zoology professor Ray Lankester and the chemistry professor Schorlemmer, both members of the Royal Society in London.” Schorlemmer was a participant in the 1848 uprisings in Europe and was a communist. Lankester had no such political credentials. Was Lankester at Marx’s funeral as an individual admirer? Or was he representing the scientific community, particularly the life sciences? The answer demands more research.

Nevertheless, there is one lesson that we can take from this for the present. To defeat Bush and company, think broadly about outreach and take it one human being at a time.

Nick Bart is an environmental activist in Connecticut. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.