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Revolution in a Glass: Marx, Engels and Wine

Far from seeing wine as a luxury commodity for the elite, Karl Marx was a lifelong lover of the grape, a passion he shared with his comrade and collaborator Friedrich Engels. Elin McCoy traces the drinking lives of the original Champagne socialists and finds that their thinking on capital, labor and alienation still exerts a powerful hold on many wine consumers and producers today

“Be careful of trusting a person who does not like wine.” So said Karl Marx, the great social philosopher and revolutionary whose theories dramatically changed the world. He turns out to have much closer ties to wine than you might suspect. Ditto his closest friend and lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels.

Today, it may seem a contradiction - or at least surprising - that these revolutionaries embraced what we now regard as a luxury product. But neither of them saw their love of wine that way. Instead, both believed the pleasures of life should be open to all classes. (That’s certainly my concept of social justice.) From birth, Marx had a built-in personal relationship with wine that influenced him the rest of his life. He was born on May 5, 1818, in Trier, Germany, considered the cradle of the country’s wine culture. This ancient Roman capital on the scenic banks of the Mosel River now boasts a wine museum and one dedicated to Marx’s life (Karl-Marx- Haus), both on today’s tourist route.

As you drive into the city, you see steep, terraced, seemingly vertical vineyards overlooking the river, just as Marx did nearly two centuries ago. At the time, wine was “the region’s most important single economic enterprise, both for the growers and the townspeople,” according to one Marx biographer, Saul Padover. It had been, and still is, classic Riesling territory.

Marx’s father Heinrich, a lawyer, was deeply influenced by French culture and owned two small vineyards, as did many local bourgeois families. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the French army, then Napoleon, occupied Trier, until the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when the Rhineland came under the control of the kingdom of Prussia. The Marx family vines along the Ruwer in Mertesdorf were not far from the Grünhaus—now the esteemed Maximin Grünhaus estate of Carl von Schubert.

Growing up, Marx was surrounded by wine and winemaking and would frequently have seen wagons loaded with grapes, barrels, and bottles rumbling through the city. Later, as a student in Bonn, he drank not just beer but plenty of Riesling and doubtless Spätburgunder, too. As Mary Gabriel bluntly puts it in her book Love and Capital, “Marx’s first year at university was drowned in alcohol.” He skipped lectures for his role as co-president of the Trier Tavern Club, and two of his favourite activities at university in Bonn and, later, at university in Berlin, where he worked on his PhD, were philosophical debates and getting drunk. With philosopher and historian Bruno Bauer, he liked to ride donkeys through villages while inebriated.

Imbibing continued to be a key pleasure throughout his life. He drank wine whenever he could afford it or could get someone else - like his friend Engels - to pay for it.


Karl Marx.jpg

Lifelong lover of the grape, Karl Marx.

Fast-forward to Marx’s return to Rhineland wine country after he left university, and his work as a fledgling journalist. He began writing for the new liberal Cologne newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, and after he became its editor-in-chief in the fall of 1842 at the age of 24, he turned it into a lively, scrappy, polemical publication. His early articles and political ideas were bound up with the geopolitical context in which he was raised, especially the wine business.

The Rhineland was deeply and adversely affected by Prussian rule. The desperate poverty and miserable conditions of the Mosel wine growers under it inspired two articles Marx wrote for the paper, part of his investigations into “practical questions.” He blamed Prussian policies of heavy taxation and a shift to free trade after a period of protectionism for their plight. According to Marx himself, this was one of the issues that led him from politics pure and simple to economic relationships, and so to socialism. Unfortunately for the local wine growers, the authorities banned the paper, and Marx headed for Paris.

Any image you might have of Marx and Engels as abstemious revolutionaries obsessed only with politics and class struggle vanishes when you read their letters to one another.

Any image you might have of Marx and Engels as abstemious revolutionaries obsessed only with politics and class struggle vanishes when you read their letters to one another.

Their rich social lives and frequent partying when Marx was in exile in Paris and later settled in London were fuelled with wine, beer, and just about anything alcoholic that happened to be around. Detailed accounts of meetings include dozens of references to a love of boozing while arguing about the merits of revolution and the nature of society.

In Paris, Marx held discussions with poet Heinrich Heine and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin over wine and beer in cafés, in wine merchants’ shops, and in wine cellars, and he first met Engels at the Café de la Régence, a bar that had once served Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire. The two spent ten beer-soaked days cementing their friendship, according to Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. This period is often regarded as the way The Communist Manifesto began.

Engels, an exuberant bon vivant despite his Calvinist upbringing, had more money to spend than Marx and was a dedicated wine connoisseur. Hunt points out that his political ideology was “an almost Rabelaisian belief in the capacity of socialism to fulfil human pleasure.” While still a teenager, Engels had published romantic odes to wine, with lines like:

New wine shall fill your glasses to the brim, Pure Freedom wine’s intoxicating brew

Marx’s and Engels’s drinking was hardly unusual, however. During the mid-19th century, wine and beer were ubiquitous. As Rod Phillips’s book French Wine: A History makes clear, “wine was part of the daily diet of the mass of French workers, both urban and rural.” And the burgeoning middle class in France and elsewhere was beginning to appreciate high quality wines, especially those from Champagne and Bordeaux, as a mark of sophistication. Wine quality was improving, and the rise of restaurants exposed drinkers to new wines.

At the same time, wine production was on the increase. “Rivers of inexpensive wine” flowed from the Languedoc - Roussillon to the cities of northern France, according to Phillips. Bordeaux was in a golden age, sending casks of red wine to England and soon to rank the best wines in the 1855 Classification.

Meanwhile, the dozens of workers’ revolts and riots all over Europe - the chaotic backdrop of Marx’s writing - culminated in the revolutions of 1848, not long after The Communist Manifesto was published. Marx had already been thrown out of Paris and Brussels and had moved on to Cologne. Engels, forced to flee, embarked on a walking tour through Burgundy and the Loire, taking a break from revolution.

He chronicled his observations on wine (“With a bottle of Champagne one can again drift into the merriest carnival mood in the world!”) and the quality of the 1848 harvest (“better than ’46, perhaps even better than ’34”) in a journal titled From Paris to Berne, which reads a bit like a tour brochure.

After Marx moved to London in 1849, visits from comrades were an excuse for drinking sprees to accompany noisy all-night discussions. One famous tale, recounted by German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht in his Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs, was of a drunken evening in London, when he and Marx and Edgar Bauer went on a pub crawl, taking a drink “in every saloon between Oxford Street and Hampstead Road.” They ended up smashing several street lamps and barely escaped the police. At the time, Marx was in his 40s.

Engels, on the other hand, went to work in his father’s factory in Manchester in order to support Marx’s writing and philosophizing—and drinking. He regularly shipped cases of claret to the Marxes along with significant dollops of cash, as the family was in a constant state of financial free fall.


What were they pouring? Most of the bottles Engels sent Marx were Bordeaux, Rhine wine, Champagne, or Port, but we know only a few specific names of those wines. In 1857, the year of a European financial crisis, one of them was Château Cos d’Estournel.

A surprising number of letters from Engels to Marx and his wife Jenny mention wine shipments; theirs to him contain thanks and requests for more. In July 1857, for example, Jenny Marx wrote, “The wine has just arrived. The children’s exultation knew no end. The girls examined the bottles very closely and found the Sherry settled in green and the Port in pale lilac. The Bordeaux cheers us with its red smile.”

In December 1859, her note read, “The Champagne will be a tremendous help in tiding us over the otherwise gloomy holiday and will ensure a merry Christmas Eve. The sparkling bubbles of the Champagne will make the dear children forget the lack of a little Christmas tree this year.”

Engels frequently alluded to an upcoming wine shipment in long political letters to Marx. In 1862, while commenting on the American elections, he included this: “I am sending you a hamper of wine per Chaplin and Horne, containing about one dozen claret and 2 bottles of old 1846 hock for little Jenny [Marx’s ailing daughter], the rest being made up of 1857 hock, 24 bottles in all.”

In another missive, he specified he was sending bottles of 1846 Hochheimer and 1857 Rudesheimer.

Marx personally sent his thanks, often for both books and wine, as well as continuing requests for more of the latter, mostly “rhenish,” claret, and Champagne, to replenish his “wine cellar.” He noted in one 1861 letter that his children “seem to have inherited their father’s fondness for the bottle.”

He clearly viewed himself as a knowledgeable wine lover in an 1866 letter to François Lafargue, a Bordeaux merchant who became his daughter’s father-in-law. At the time, Marx was in London, hard at work on Das Kapital. “My sincere thanks for the wine. Being myself from a wine-growing region and former owner of a vineyard, I know a good wine when I come across one. I even incline somewhat to old Luther’s view that a man who does not love wine will never be good for anything. (There are exceptions to every rule.) But one cannot, for example, deny that the political movement in England has been spurred on by the commercial treaty with France and the import of French wines.”

The Marxes saw drinking wine as important not just for pleasure but also for curing their (and their children’s) frequent bouts of ill health. When Marx suffered from boils and carbuncles, his daily diet included three to four glasses of Port, as well as half a bottle of Bordeaux, according to Gabriel.

In 1870, Engels finally retired and moved to London, where he saw Marx every day and opened up his own house to socialists and anarchists for regular Sunday parties filled with wine-fueled discussions and German folk songs. “The house specialty,” writes Hunt, “was a springtime bowl of Maitrank, a May wine flavoured with woodruff.”

Marx spent the last 15 months of his life traveling and taking various “cures” for his many serious ailments. While he was in Switzerland, Engels sent wine advice, recommending Ivorne, a red Neufchatel, and Valtellina, which is, he wrote, “the best wine in Switzerland.” Marx died in 1883.

Engels lived another 12 years. On his first trip to the United States in 1888, he bought bottles of Ohio wine and a California Riesling that he drank “with gusto,” and he celebrated his 70th birthday in 1890 at a party with 16 bottles of Champagne and dozens of oysters.

When he died in 1895, his estate, worth £20,378, included a wine cellar worth £227, the equivalent of about £27,240 today. Twigg and Brett, his Dublin wine merchants, had 142 cases of his wines in their cellars.

It included 77 cases of claret, 48 of Port, and 13 of Champagne. He left money to the Communist Party, urging them to enjoy a glass of wine on him.

What was his idea of happiness? The question was part of the highly popular Victorian parlour game “Confessions.” Engels’s answer, which he wrote in an album belonging to Marx’s daughter Jenny, was Château Margaux 1848.


While the pleasures of wine clearly enhanced Marx’s and Engels’s personal lives, their theories still offer us insights into the wine world today.

Luxury wines have become contemporary commodities and markers of social status that are sold and traded for sometimes staggeringly large sums.

But the part of Marx’s thought that most seems to apply to today’s wine world is his theory of alienation and “estranged labor,” which he wrote about in Paris in 1844 in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

One of its ideas, very  much simplified, is that under capitalism in the industrialized world, workers become alienated from the products they make because they’re not in control of their own labor and how these items are made. Consumers, on the other hand, are alienated from a product because, although people’s labor has created all of the commodities in our lives - food, our cars, and so on - we have no idea who actually made them and have no direct contact with their origins. The “labor” has essentially vanished into the product. So, all these things become mere objects with no real human connection.

But with artisanal, non-industrial wines, hand-made by a particular individual from a specific piece of land, the origin and labor are obvious. Part of the mark of what we call “authentic wine” today is this kind of link between the land and the maker and the drinker.

Jonathan Nossiter’s controversial 2004 documentary film Mondovino critiqued globalization in the wine business by contrasting “corporate” wine with the wine from small, independent producers. As one critic wrote in the Miami Herald, it was an “attempt to rescue winemaking from the hands of profit-mongering capitalists.” In many ways, Robert Parker’s idea of focusing only on the taste of what is in the glass and giving it a “quality” number turns any wine, no matter how much a handmade product, into a tradable commodity. The numbers sell wine but ignore the cultural meaning and suck out its humanity. (The outspoken Cappellano went so far as to banish journalists from his cellar in 1983 unless they agreed to review his wines without scores.)

Recently, I was discussing these themes with Jeremy Parzen, a food and wine historian who writes the fascinating blog DoBianchi.com and is an adjunct professor in the Master in Italian Wine Culture program at Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche in Piemonte. “Think of the movie Sideways,” he said, “and the scene where the character Maya gives her monologue on why she loves wine. She says, ‘I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now.’” We are so enchanted by wine, Parzen suggests, because it comes from the earth, is made by an identifiable person, and drinking it takes us “to the hands of the people.” He sees wine - especially “natural” wine - as the last product that “negates alienation” and lets us look beyond consumerism.

But alas, even the idea of authenticity in wine has often become just another marketing tool of corporate wine. Marx and Engels remain relevant.

This article first appeared in The World of Fine Wine www.worldoffinewine.com