Ghosting Karl Marx. Hidden Agendas of a Muzio Gambit

Karl Marx's grave, Highgate, London
Karl Marx's grave, Highgate, London

by Dr. Bernd-Peter Lange

The Marx that nobody Read

In a recent film directed by the Haitian director Raoul Peck, The Young Karl Marx, the eponymous hero appears as, among other better known pursuits, a genius on the chess board. In two of the scenes set in pubs he triumphantly checkmates Friedrich Engels and clinches a victory over his political rival, the Anarchist Bakunin by decisively pinning one of his opponent´s pieces.

Neither of these games in the film relies on documentary evidence. However, there are two notations of chess notations that Marx has been credited with for a long time, one an impressive win in a Muzio gambit against the contemporary problemist Heinrich Meyer, the other one a mating attack against the famous Prussian master Gustav Neumann, both around 1870. The notations of these games have been republished frequently in Russian journals from 1926 and 1938, respectively, but also in other countries, even though doubts on their authenticity have accompanied their publication throughout. In recent articles in chess journals, these doubts have peaked in definitive refutations of the involvement of Marx in the two games he has been credited with, albeit without much of an impact on the conservation of the view of the philosopher as chess prodigy.

In the debate about the Muzio gambit, two competing discourses have been in operation. One of them, based on the attribution of the game to Marx since some early Soviet publications, had a distinctly hagiographic function, especially in the Stalinist period of the USSR and later in Communist countries. The later critical line attacks Marx´s iconic status in chess, often also his general reputation in a rhetorical residue of the Cold War. What, strangely, both discursive lines have in common, is the absence of any precise reference to the original source of the Muzio gambit between Marks [Marx?] and Meyer. The notation they both obviously rely on is the one in Tassilo Heydebrand von der Lasa´s fifth edition of the famous and universally influential Handbuch des Schachspiels (1874).[1] There it is listed as one of four thematic notations of that classical opening.

Neither the Russian quotations of the Muzio notation nor the refutations of Marx´s role in that game succeed in delving back to von der Lasa´s own source in the 1871 edition of the London Gentleman´s Journal.[2] In that journal - a nightmare to locate precisely for librarians - it is easy to see that in reality it was M[ark] Marks, and not Karl Marx, who played the famous Muzio gambit (and a few much less brilliant ones) against Meyer in one of two thematic series devoted to that opening. If the opposed traditions of dealing with the 1871 Muzio gambit, and also of the notable mating position in the position reached in the other game against Neumann, could so consistently dispense with finding the root source of their controversy, other issues beyond chess seem to be involved in the debate. Otherwise the matter would be of very limited chess interest. It looks as if Marx were a revenant of a brilliant chess player after the errors of any practical proof of his record had been demonstrated. As Derrida has it, revenants are a common spectral species.[3] So perhaps is Marx in his various revivals at different times of his posthumous impact.

The game attributed to Marx for such a long time was the result of a highly selective reception. It is the third game in a small series of three Muzio gambits played by Heinrich Meyer (from Hanover), the editor of the chess section of the Gentleman´s Journal, against an opponent whose name is given as “Mr. M. Marks”.[4] Earlier in another monthly issue of the same publication, Marks is represented for February 1871 with another Muzio gambit sequence against a Mr. Riola, and others of his games are recorded around this period.[5] For the preceding decade, there are records of the same gambit in similar series of games between more elevated masters like Anderssen playing Zukertort at Wrocław in 1865. It was one of Meyer´s initiatives to sustain chess interest among the readers of the Gentleman´s Journal.[6] The magazine´s publication run seems to have been small anyway, which might account for its rare complete presence in today´s libraries and its limited digital versions.

The choice of the Mr. M. Marks vs. Meyer game in chess journalism around Karl Marx was definitely a choice of the only game amenable for any eulogistic purpose. In the first game of the Muzio gambit series whose last game ends with the famous win ascribed to the philosopher, played in London on 31st May, 1871,[7] Mr. Marks opening with the white pieces loses quickly after choosing Bc3 on his tenth move:


In the second game of the series, Marks changed the 10th move to Nf3 and eventually manages to draw in a game devoid of any distinction. This build-up he repeated in the only game of the series he won:


The Muzio gambit itself was a kind of revenant in its 19th century revival. Its first appearance in the early 17th century and its scarcely justified name were based on one Muzio d´ Alessandro telling the chess analyst Salvio he had seen it played by one master Geronimo Cascio.viii Earlier on it had been mentioned in Polerio´s manuscripts after whom some modern writers are still naming it.[9] Sarratt´s A New Treatise on the Game of Chess in 1821, following his teacher Verdoni (who also claimed it for his own name) analysed it at length and made it known once again so it came to be employed as one of the favourite variants of King´s gambits in the developing international chess scene.[10] Its probable origin in a later misunderstanding of its sources from which its name is derived gave it an arbitrary foundation focused on the repetition of a few opening moves involving the sacrifice of the king´s knight.

It has been suggested that the substitution of Marx´s name for Marks´s was caused by the linguistic option of equating the German letter x with the Cyrillic letters kc.[11] In this reading the choice of Marx for the only game of the sequence where “Mr. M. Masks” is indicated as playing the white pieces, leaves little doubt about the deliberation in the choice of the third, and only won game of the series, as signifying Marx´s excellence at chess. While there has never been any problem with identifying the player of the black pieces as Heinrich Meyer, the printed source of the Muzio notation lends definite weight to the attribution of the other role to Mark Marks. He was a London chess player who in 1873 was appointed Secretary to the (London) Athenaeum Chess Club is still in existence. In the other supposedly game won by Karl Marx, Mark Marks checkmated Neumann in a game for which he had accepted a knight´s handicap.[12]

Marx as real and virtual chess player

Wilhelm Liebknecht
Wilhelm Liebknecht

In the European Socialist tradition, Marx posthumously soon grew into an icon for Socialist and working-class political self-assertion. From the central area of politics and political economy, this incipient sanctification spread into marginal regions of the icon´s life. In chess and other items of biographical memory, Wilhelm Liebknecht´s sketches of his friend and mentor (1896) turned into a key text.[13] It dwelt on the period of Liebknecht´s own exile in England after 1850. Before this date, there is no evidence for Marx´s relationship, in his student days in Berlin, with the upsurge of chess due to the exclusive circle around Bilguer, Bledow and von der Lasa.[14] There was a big social chasm between the radical circles the young Marx frequented in Berlin pubs and coffee-houses and the sites of the local elite Schachgesellschaft.

In Liebknecht´s book Karl Marx zum Gedächtnis there is a colourful chapter on his short-lived chess encounter with his companion. The report on the meetings across the chess-board with Marx has come to be taken as confirming both later contradictory views of Marx´s proficiency at the game. It therefore repays a look at its main themes and details, especially since it neither offers plain hero-worship nor its opposite. It was often quoted in the rising working-class chess magazines in Germany between their start in 1909 and their demise under Nazi suppression, and also in post-revolutionary Russian publications from 1926 onwards.

Liebknecht´s memories of playing chess with Marx go back to the early days of his London exile when he stayed in close proximity to Marx´s Soho flat in a model lodging-house in Old Compton Street, in a community with many German fellow-refugees.[15] Like other buildings of this type, it had a smoking-room where chess and draughts could be played. Here Liebknecht could use this period of enforced unemployment and leisure to learn to play chess. His view at Marx´s competence at the game is mixed: he contrasts Marx´s keen delight in chess with his limited skill in it, only offset by an attacking style apt to overpower his opponents. In difficulties Marx apparently grew angry and positively furious on losing. His aggressive style was quite in tune with trends in the current chess scene in which, soon after Marx and Liebknecht were crossing swords, Adolf Anderssen crowned combinative (“Romantic”) chess with winning the first great international tournament in 1851. In this period various adventurous kinds of King´s gambits were included in standard openings among top players.

One episode in Liebknecht´s narrative of his Marx at this stage hints at the domineering hold of the master over his slightly younger compatriots in exile: “One day Marx announced triumphantly that he had discovered a new move with which he could beat us all.” (There is no exact English equivalent for this still current colloquial German phrase, literally: to knock us all in the frying-pan, i.e. like breaking eggs.) Structurally, this announcement has to be premised on a previous consent on fixed roles in a selected opening for which Marx could lay down the law. This also ties in with many such agreements in thematically agreed openings such as the Muzio gambit and many others fashionable in Victorian chess venues and journals. In this case such an agreement also carried over into Marx´s private space where Liebknecht was told to turn up for a return match the morning after he had angered Marx by check-mating him.

On this occasion, a definite order was pre-imposed that allowed Marx to introduce “an improvement of his move” in which he initially got the better of Liebknecht to his great exultation, but soon suffered an occasional defeat. Emotions ran so high in this match that soon Helene Demuth, Marx´s housekeeper in consort with his wife in the background, peremptorily demanded an end to the evening´s play and, soon after, of any such encounters at home where Marx apparently turned insufferable after losing a game. This also spelled the end for Liebknecht´s active career in chess, although the assumption is mistaken that it was the same for Marx. In fact, the very woman calling an end to the Liebknecht match later turned into a regular partner at the game for Marx, sometimes even beating him at it, as Paul Lafargue later remembered.[16] That chess was a household pastime, as in many middle-class Victorian families, is also implied by Marx´s remarks about games with his daughter Eleanor while taking he waters at Harrogate in 1873.[17]

Eleanor Marx Aveling, (nickname Tussy) daughter of Karl Marx
Eleanor Marx Aveling, (nickname Tussy) daughter of Karl Marx

Marx´s household was much more conventional than his friend´s Engels´s in Manchester. But in both social settings chess facilities were present, in the elite clubs like the Albert and the Brazenose and the Schiller Society for German traders Engels belonged to in Manchester or in his Cheshire Hunt´s fellowship member´s homes.[18] In Francis Wheen´s biography of Marx the postscript giving the notation of the Muzio gambit is perhaps aptly entitled “Regicide” in view of Marx´s aggressive style and his intellectual propensities,[19] but it was not a political gambit in a later sense of working-class or Socialist empowerment. It was a means of personal resilience, no matter that Liebknecht in his memoir called it a popular pastime among the English working-class. (In an address before the Vienna Worker´s Chess Club in 1913 the World Chess Champion Emanuel Lasker would argue that because of its intellectual properties (logical thinking, stamina and determination) chess should be encouraged to help the working-class in its fight for social improvement.[20])

The analogies between technological advances in the process of industrialisation and chess found expression in various pseudo-machines playing chess, but in most biographies the relevance of the game for Marx is suggested more in terms of his particular mind-set. Jonathan Sperber, for example, points out that because of its intellectual appeal chess was Marx´s only worthwhile leisure occupation.[21] He stresses Marx´s high concentration and passionate obsession with it, quoting a foreign observer like Annenkov to support this view.[22] This view is confirmed by Lafargue´s personal memoirs with its a felicitous image for Marx´s mental capacities: “His brain resembled a man of war under steam in the harbour; it was always ready to depart in all directions of thinking.”[23] One direction this was taking lay in a high regard for technical innovation.

One place that Marx visited frequently, as it happens, was a site where chess and technological inventions met in 1851. On the ground floor of the Royal Polytechnic Institution at the intersection of Cavendish Square and Regent Street in London there was an exhibition of technological innovations competing at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. One patent Marx noticed and commented on was the exhibit of the Danish inventor Sören Hjorth´s electromagnetic machine that equalled in strength steam engines and could be used for a railway train.[24] It won a medal at the Great Exhibition. Marx in a letter saw in this machine the harbinger of future revolutions by triggering political developments. At the same time, the International Chess Tournament was organized on the upper floors of the same building of the Royal Polytechnic Institution.

The Royal Polytechnic Institution
The Royal Polytechnic Institution

The exclusive arrangement of membership of the St. George´s Chess Club organizing the chess meeting, as evidenced by its list of aristocratic, military and upper-class members, would never have tolerated Marx´s attendance as yet another undesirable.[25] However, he would have noticed the big event taking place, perhaps even the Prussian tournament winner Anderssen´s later “Immortal Game” against Kieseritsky in the same building.

Marx´s connection with chess stayed a private affair after the early experience in the circle of fellow-refugees from the Continent. His letter from Harrogate to Engels in November 1873 that mentions playing chess with his daughter Eleanor is completely contained by private motives quite beyond winning or losing at the game. It is concerned with chess as an antidote to suffering the noises of a honeymooning couple in an adjoining apartment of the hotel he stayed in: “Tussy [i.e. Eleanor Marx] and I took refuge in chess yesterday evening.” The function of the game here seems to be the individual resilience of father and precocious daughter who, on this as on other occasions, was kept away from her fiancé Lissagaray. Chess seems to have turned from the semi-public area of the early London period into an exclusively domestic terrain. Nowhere in Marx´s published writings have I come across any remarks about chess in the Victorian public areas of pubs, cigar divans or restaurants.

The association between chess and technological advance falls short of any claim for the quality of Marx´s chess. To play on the level of beginners at chess like Wilhelm Liebknecht[26] and, presumably, Helene Demuth, would have precluded joining the ranks of Victorian professional or elite amateur chess players. If a category for Marx as a chess-player were needed, a slightly later period would have placed him in the category of social chess. To see in him a brilliant practitioner at the game, as was done posthumously, requires some strong extraneous incentive.

If any proof were needed that the “M. Marks” playing Meyer at the Muzio gambit in late May and early June, 1871, was definitely not Karl Marx, one would have to consider Marx´s activities at this fraught juncture. Early in May he had to leave London for health reasons, therefore missing the First International´s council meetings on 2 and 16 May. When he reappeared in London for the meeting on 23 May he continued writing, under great pressure, the Address on the Civil War in France.[27] This pamphlet he completed just before the Council meeting on 30th May when he read it out. By then the Commune had been defeated, and as its major supporter Marx was turning famous, being occupied turning out three editions of his pamphlet in two months, also communicating with and hosting refugee Commune survivors. As he wrote to Kugelmann on 18 June: “The Address is making the devil of a noise and I have the honour to be at this moment the best calumniated and the most menaced man of London.” The “MONSTER” that Marx saw in his public reflection at this time would have had to be transformed into some ghostly persona to emerge as a victorious Muzio gambit specialist.[28] To even imagine that Marx was playing Meyer on 31 May in two games opened with the Muzio, one of them a lengthily drawn out one, and in June the one attributed to him posthumously, would defy anyone´s imagination even without the player´s name being rendered as Mr. M. Marks.

The Rise and Fall of a Chess Master

Gareth Stedman Jones´s magisterial biography summarises the posthumous fate of its subject as “The Making of an Icon, 1883-1920”.[29] In an “increasingly monumental mythology” preceding the Soviet revolution there was an urgent pressure on the growing Communist movement to defend and add to Marx´s reputation by making expansive claims about his achievements. All areas of his writings and activities were required to buttress the mythical stature of this icon. Liebknecht´s notes on Marx as chess player continued to be the focal point of the new Socialist and working-class topical publications. But even in the different articles on Marx´s chess in the German Arbeiter-Schachzeitung from 1909 to 1933, there was never a quotation of the Muzio gambit from 1871.

In spite of Aljekhines´s low expectations for chess after the October Revolution in his country,[30] the game came to rank high under the new regime. Thus it was in publications in Russian after the October Revolution that for the first time the game Marks vs. Meyer was ascribed to Karl Marx. The title of the short essay “Shakhmatjana Partija Karla Marxa” in one of the first new Russian chess magazines, more than the actual text about it, laid the grounds for the later hagiographic uses of the Muzio gambit. A copy of that essay from the journal at the State Library Moscow is as difficult to access as the original entry of the Muzio gambit in the Gentleman´s Journal.[31] The comments on that game were in fact far from complimentary for Marx. The focus in the article, based on a slightly inaccurate rendition of Liebknecht´s narrative, was on Lenin rather than on Marx himself. Lenin had long been associated with his love of chess, and in the aftermath of his death in 1924 his chess history was often visualised.

Alexander Bogdanov and Vladimir Lenin playing chess during a visit to Maxim Gorky in Capri, Italy (1908)
Alexander Bogdanov and Vladimir Lenin playing chess during a visit to Maxim Gorky in Capri, Italy (1908)

The writer of the 1926 essay (V.P.) contrasts both proletarian leaders in a way favouring Lenin´s ability to absorb losses with equanimity. Lenin, it is averred, played chess with intense concentration as if he were looking for a solution for serious problems. Marx, however, as a mediocre chess player blundering often, turned furious when in dire straits and was given to verbal attacks on his opponents. This critical take on Marx as a less than perfect chess player is repeated before the concluding notation of the Muzio gambit´s notation (cited as “Marx versus Mayer”). A footnote warns readers that the journal´s editors cannot be held responsible for the notation´s authenticity. Of the four short comments on the Muzio gambit´s moves, two are critical of Meyer´s moves. The first one suggests castling as an alternative for Black´s tenth move, the other one repeats von der Lasa´s preference of Rf8 instead of Rg8 for Black´s 13th move. This is an indication of the Handbuch des Schachspiels from 1874 as the source of this “single extant notation” of one of Marx´s chess games. (From later editions of the handbook since 1891 the game was dropped).

The 1926 article on Marx´s chess is far from any attempt at manipulating the evidence so as to turn Marx into an icon by means of his chess. Its characterological emphasis is far removed from Rjazanov´s reconstruction of a classical version of Marx´s historical materialism under way at this period. Comparing Marx´s personal characteristics as a player unfavourably with Lenin´s, casting doubt on his opponent “Mayer”´s [sic] performance as well as on the notation´s authenticity does not allow for praise, let alone hagiography. Awareness of the pitfalls of any easy equation of politics with moments in the cultural history of chess still does not preclude to see in the playing off of Lenin against Marx in chess matters a trace of the New Economic Policy as the offshoot of Stalin´s concept of “Socialism in one country” as vindicated on the 14th CPSU Congress in December 1925.

It was only on the dismantling of the critical scaffolding around the Muzio gambit, as supposedly played by Marx, that the secular sanctification of the figure of Marx the chess master was becoming possible. This persisted in combination with the figure of Lenin as a chess player in the Stalinist empire, the coupling of the two dominating classics becoming commonplace in Soviet writing.[32] While in a chess lexicon from 1929, Slovar shakhmatista,[33] Marx´s keen chess interest was mentioned in a neutral note, an article in the popular chess journal “64” added to Marx´s status by giving the final position of a second game ascribed to Marx, the one reached by Mark Marks against Neumann, well-known from European publications since 1869.[34] This positive consolidation of Marx´s chess fame rested on the glorification of both classical figures as “our great leaders” in a long article in Pravda after Botwinnik´s triumph at Nottingham in 1936, Botwinnik giving similar praise to his “teachers and leaders” in the same paper.

This idealised picture of Marx´s chess fed into the consolidated hagiography expressed in yet another eulogy of the Muzio gambit in the chess magazine Shakmaty v USSR in 1957, in spite of some doubts about the dating of the two games ascribed to Marx.[35] Two years later, the chess master and journalist M. Judovich put both games into another synthesis between Marx and Lenin as “great geniuses of mankind” contributing to the “eternal pride of the game of chess”.[36] The critical notes on the 1871 Muzio gambit introduce the motif of White continuing from his move 13. Qe2, Black replying Re8. This is known as the McLean attack discussed by Chigorin in a note in Nowoje Wremja in 1904 and later regarded as a contribution to a Russian tradition in the game based on “our great teachers Marx and Lenin”.[37] Thus, a nationalistic note was introduced that Scosko-Borowski soon played down.[38]

In the thaw period after the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1957, a gradual decline of the chess hagiography around Marx set in. In 1964, N. Sakharov, in the Bulletin of the Central USSR Chess Club, looked critically at the Soviet historiographic line and expressed some scepticism about the authenticity of the two “Marx” games.[39] This was quoted in 1983 in the “64” journal, reaching a publication run over 100.000 in the late 1960s, by the chess historian Isaak Linder, deepening the scepticism on the same score.[40] Eventually, after the disintegration of the Soviet block the deconstruction of the “Karl-Marx-myth” in chess matters called in question the entire hagiographic Soviet past,[41] demythification also threatening Lenin´s chess profile.

At the time when the hardly ever monolithic enthusiastic view of Marx´s chess skills as evidenced in his treatment of the Muzio gambit went into decline, its central elements were reassembled, like Minerva´s owl flying backwards into the dark. In the official journal of the GDR chess Association, Schach, the prolific chess historian Joachim Petzold put them once again to a celebratory function in a comprehensive article on “Karl Marx as a Chess player”.[42] He added hypothetic details not published before. In his view Marx not only possessed a knowledge of chess opening theory but, misreading Liebknecht´s reference to “Red Wolff” (Ferdinand Wolff) as pertaining to Marx himself, credited the philosopher with learning chess from the great contemporary masters in his Paris exile. Commenting on the Muzio notation, shifted to 1867, he sees it as evidence for Marx´s intimate knowledge of the theoretical discussion on the Muzio gambit in the mid-1860s and uses the other game (Marks vs.Neumann) to prove Marx “a splendid practitioner at chess.” The author employs this derivative and partly imaginary reading to shore up an idealised picture of his subject, shirking most of the critical discussion.

The development of the Soviet and Russian and other hagiography around Marx´s chess games was not the only avenue of an iconic status. In other countries the attribution of that notation came to be equally easily accepted. One well-known example is Andrew Soltis´s essay “Karl Marx plays chess” (1980).[43] In other publications there was often some measure of doubt. The digital YouTube representations of the Muzio gambit keep ploughing the familiar ground of the 19th century notation. The most popular recent British biography of Marx by Francis Wheen even provides a fictional setting for the (misdated) game between Marx and Meyer, transposed to the weeks of Marx´s proofreading Capital I in Hanover:

During his visit to Germany in 1867, while waiting for the proof-sheets of Capital, Karl Marx attended a party given by the chess master Gustav R.L. Neumann. A record survives of one game he played that night, against a man called Meyer.

This passage, reading like an extract from a piece of historical fiction, seems to owe its existence to information culled from an exhibition at the Marx Museum in Trier around the time of the biography´s publication, but its origin cannot be traced with any certainty.[44]

Recently the major visual media have not been influenced by doubts about the authenticity of Marx´s chess record and the assumption of his brilliant performance at the game. In Raoul Peck´s film The Young Karl Marx the scenes of Marx beating Engels and Bakunin at the chess board in striking encounters amount to an updated glorification of Marx as an intellectual at board games, reemploying the visual cliché of competence at chess as an indicator of general excellence. In both the chess episodes in the film, however, there is no attempt at drawing on positions from the Muzio gambit.

Sceptical irony and Cold-War Marx-bashing

Even without the ideological impetus informing the iconic status of Karl Marx in chess within Socialist countries in the Stalinist period and in an increasingly doubtful way after the thaw in the late 1950s, there was no iconoclastic turn. On the Western side of the Cold War, there were more urgent political concerns than questioning marginal cultural fields such as board games. Surprisingly, though, there was some kind of continuity in the few published views of Marx´s chess so that the hagiographic picture prevalent in the Eastern block was not radically questioned but could remain alive into today´s visual und digital media. The distance separating the Cold War divide was not a programmatic one. If there was doubt about the ascription of the 1871 Muzio gambit to Marx´s agency, it came across in a gently humorous irony that refrains from getting to the roots of the matter.

The finest example of this sceptical treatment of the game was perhaps the column from the British weekly The New Statesman contributed by its long-term chess expert Assiac (i.e. the German refugee from Nazi persecution Heinrich Fränkel). This polyglot author was among the few chess writers who could mediate Russian texts for an Anglophone readership. Taking the notation of the Marks vs. Meyer Muzio gambit from Shakmaty, Assiac voiced an ambivalent scepticism about the authenticity of the Muzio gambit and Marx´s role in it. In an essay entitled “Is this proper Marxism?” that was later included in his collection of chess writing The Delights of Chess (1961),[45] Assiac started from the less than serious question: “Is the Muzio Gambit compatible with the materialist concept of history?” as if such close fit between philosophy and chess opening theory were meaningful. But this is obviously a parody of a mechanistic version of Hegelian dialects projected on Marx. Slightly less facile is the context for Marx´s chess praxis that follows this introduction. “Dr. Marx…a bearded foreigner who used to take some time off his research work ar the British Museum, strolling over to the Gordon Hotel in Covent Garden for some lunchtime chess; alternatively, he used to go to the Inns of court in Holborn.” It is a parody of chess research put at the service of intelligent entertainment whose only relationship to the actual conditions of the game discussed is an awareness of London local scenery, bridging past and present.

That Assiac did not follow the discussion in the chess research closely is proved by the fact that in the second edition of the same chess collection in 1974, the author ignores the Russian articles and their growing doubts about Marx playing the Muzio Gambit, while updating many other essays. So without any other point being raised, the essay gives the Russian notation of the games, adding only two question marks against later moves and suggesting alternatives. Equally ambivalent is the scepticism expressed about Marx´s role when Assiac puts the Muzio into a line of games ascribed to other, respectable, celebrities such as Napoleon, Tolstoy and Rousseau. Altogether, the essay on the game attributed to Marx leaves the author sitting on the fence between anti-communist fun and liberal scepticism, without any conclusive opinion on the Muzio game´s authenticity.

The first extended historical reconstruction of the discussion about Marx´s chess was published in one of many short-lived chess magazines, Kaissiber, in 2000. Several minor inaccuracies in this detailed deconstruction of the Marx attribution notwithstanding, Stefan Bücker in his article entitled “Der Murks mit Marx”[46] (the mess with Marx), without access to the original source of the game´s notation, exposed many of the errors and lacunae in the preceding contributions on the issue. The title of his article was later readopted in a humorous after-dinner address in the 2015 meeting of the German Chess Collector´s group by the German Chess Federation´s chess historical expert. In that address available on the internet the iconoclastic charge of such deconstruction is emphasized by turning the mistaken attribution of the Muzio gambit to Marx in the GDR contribution against its eulogy of Marx as “a giant in brain power and perspicacity.”[47] The use of the Murks-metaphor in argument draws on a strong tradition in German political scene from the height of the Cold War when it was widely associated with the GDR`s botched-up attempt at a Socialist society. The punning alliteration “Murks mit Marks” Western propaganda drew on heavily but, in more muted form, also on some occasional political satire in the GDR itself on failures of the planned economy. It transformed, over time, into a liberal routine that survived the collapse of the Eastern block, supporting, as Zizek explains, “the neo-liberal claim that any radical emancipatory political project necessarily ends up in some version of totalitarian domination and control.” [48]

When the Murks- metaphor is employed in chess historical argument, it may lose any obvious trace of the familiar Cold War Marx-bashing, where the philosopher was blamed for Stalinist terror. The ghost of that rhetoric may survive in routine sneers at the supposed fall from grace of the Communist pre-thinker. In this way the criticism of the old eulogies of the past icon turns into a perpetuation of liberal ideology. Thus targeting marginal fields of activity of the philosopher often means kicking the dog for the master. There is a limited boundary around this rhetoric. It is strangely helpless against the ongoing reemployment of the hagiographic construction of Marx beyond his present apparition as a revenant in economics and politics, even in chess as a widely spread symbol of intellectual brilliance.


  1. R.v. Bilguer, Handbuch des Schachspiels, 5th ed. by Tassilo Heydebrand von der Lasa. Leipzig: Veit 1874, p. 453.
  2. Gentleman´s Journal and Youth´s Miscellany IV , Monthly Supplement August 1871, Game 27, p. 218.
  3. Jacques Derrida, Marx´ Gespenster. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 2004, p. 26.
  4. Games 24 to 27 in Gentleman´s Journal IV, p.218.
  5. Monthly Supplement to the Gentleman´s Journal April 1871, III, p.90; games 17-19 Gentleman´s Journal June 1871, III, p.154; Meyer beating Marks in a Muzio Gambit in July 1871 Supplement, Gentleman´s Journal III, p. 186.
  6. When that magazine folded in September, 1872, Meyer put in a note to his readers encouraging them to indicate their willingness to subscribe to a new chess magazine. There was apparently no hope to transfer his chess column to the Gentleman´s parent and then parallel publication, the Ladies´ Journal.
  7. This and the next notation in Gentleman´s Journal IV, p. 218.
  8. David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, The Oxford Companion to Chess. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press 1984, p. 219.
  9. Juri Razuvajev and Anatoli Mazukevitch, Gambite-richtig gespielt. Hollfeld: Joachim Beyer 2006, p. 73.
  10. Thomas Stock, „Das Vermächtnis des Kiebitzes“, Kaissiber 13 (2000), p. 22-51.
  11. Stefan Bücker, „Der Murks mir Marx“, Kaissiber 13 (2000), p. 61.
  12. Deutsche Schachzeitung 24 (1869), p.332.
  13. Wilhelm Liebknecht, Karl Marx zum Gedächtnis. Nürnberg: Wörlein & Co. 1896, S. 66-69.
  14. Michael Ehn and Ernst Strouhal, „´Neat in his Dress and Gentlemanly in Demeanour?´ Zum Mythos des elegant Schach-Cafés“´, KARL 3/2003, p. 36-39.
  15. S. Rosemary Ashton, Little Germany. Exile and Asylum in Victorian England, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press 1986, p. 97-112.
  16. Paul Lafargue, „Persönliche Erinnerungen an Karl Marx“, in: Mohr und General. Erinnerungen an Marx und Engels. 2nd ed. Berlin: Dietz 1965, p. 341.
  17. Letter to Friedrich Engels, 30 November 1873, MECW 44, p. 342f.
  18. Tristram Hunt, Friedrich Engels. Der Mann, der den Marxismus erfand. 3rd ed., Berlin: Ullstein 2013, p. 276-281.
  19. Francis Wheen, Karl Marx. London: Fourth Estate 1999, p. 389.
  20. Deutsche Arbeiter-Schachzeitung 1913, p. 183f. ; In a sense limited to the pursuit of the game itself, Alapin, he Russian chess master, even encouraged working-class chess players to emulate their bourgeois betters so as one day to excel Lasker himself. There is no indication in Marx´s writings that he argued for such extensions of the game´s functions.
  21. Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx. Sein Leben und sein Jahrhundert. München: Beck 2013, p. 492.
  22. Quoted in Jones, Karl Marx, p. 224f.
  23. Paul Lafargue, „Persönliche Erinnerungen an Karl Marx“, in: Mohr und General, p. 330.
  24. Wilhelm Liebknecht, Mohr und General, 51.
  25. Cp. Rules of the St. George´s Chess Club. With a List of the Members. London 1865. I owe the member´s list to the courtesy of the Dublin Chess club in whose archives it is placed. About exclusions from the club see also Tim Harding, Eminent Victorian Chess Players. Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland 2012, p. 39.
  26. Wilhelm Liebknecht, „Ein Bild aus dem Londoner Flüchtlingsleben“ (1901), in: Erinnerungen eines Soldaten der Revolution, ed. Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus des ZK der SED, Berlin: Dietz 1976, p. 216.
  27. Jones, Karl Marx, p. 500-510.
  28. Letter to Kugelmann, 27 July, 1871, Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol 44, p. 176.
  29. Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. London: Penguin 2017, p. 1-5.
  30. Alexander von Aljechin, Das Schachleben in Sowjet-Rußland. Berlin: Kagan 192 , V-VII.
  31. Populjarnyj Shakhmato-Shashechnyj Jurnal Shakhmaty I Shakhi v Rabochem Klube 64 22, 30 November 1926, p. 1f. (translated from the copy at Adelaide University Library by Maria Reichwin).
  32. D.J. Richards, Soviet Chess. Oxford: Clarendon Chess 1965, p. 39.
  33. Kogan, Kubbel a.o., Slovar Shakhmatista. Leningrad 1929.
  34. 64, 5 May, 1938.
  35. “Marx i Shakhmaty”, Shakhmaty v SSSR 6, 1957, p. 180. (trans. Maria Reichwin).
  36. M. Yudovich, Rasskasi o Shakhmatakh, Moscow 1959, p. 177ff.
  37. See I.L Maiselis and M.M. Yudovich, Lehrbuch des Schachspiels. Berlin: Sportverlag 1952, p. 21.
  38. E. Snosko-Borovski, Muzio-Gambit. Analytische Untersuchungen über den Lean-Angriff. Leipzig: Veit 1911, p.vf.
  39. N. Sakharov, Bjulletin of the Central Chess Club SSSR 1 (1964).
  40. Isaak Linder, 64, 6 (1983), p. 2-4.
  41. Stanislav Pelevin “The Myth of Karl Marx”, Shakhmatjana pjatnitsa, Vladimirskie vedomosti (Wladimir), 119, 7 May, 2010. I owe this reference, and its translation, to Sabine Kaiser, Staatsbibliothek Berlin, East European Section.
  42. Joachim Petzold, “Karl Marx als Schachspieler”, Schach 37, 3 (1983), p. 100f.
  43. Chess Life 10 (1980), p. 6, repr. in Karl Marx Plays Chess, New York 1991,
  44. Email communication to this writer from Francis Wheen, 27th March, 2017.
  45. Assiac, The Delights of Chess, London: Barnes Co. 1961; 2nd rev. ed. New York: Dover 1974, 238-240.
  46. Stefan Bücker, “Der Murks mit Marx“, Kaissiber 13 (2000), p. 60-62.
  47. Michael Negele, “The Mess with Marx and some other Trier Chess Gossip”, presented on 7 November, 2015, online.
  48. Slavoj Žižek, Did Somebody say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion. London and New York: Verso 2001, p. 5.

First published in the Marx-Engels Yearbook 2017/18

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