“public, authentic isolation”
Their first years in England were extremely tough for the Marx family: the squalor of a London slum claimed the lives of three of their children. Politically, Marx had little support either but, as he wrote to Engels, this didn’t bother him too much:
I very much like the public, authentic isolation in which we two, you and I, now find ourselves. It is precisely in line with our position and our principles. The system of mutual concessions, of half-measures tolerated for propriety’s sake, and the obligation publicly to accept one’s share of ridicule in the same party as all those asses—that’s over now.1
The idea of the party was bigger than any organisation, as far as he was concerned: at most, an organisation could embody that idea in a certain time and place. The defunct League of Communists, for instance, “like a hundred other societies, was only an episode in the history of the party, that naturally arises from the ground of modern society everywhere.… By party I mean the party in the great historical sense.”2
Marx was fascinated by the political system of his adopted country. Although Britain’s industrialists held sway economically, they seemed happy to leave the business of government in the hands of aristocrats. Why did they not attempt to overthrow the rule of the lords and ladies?
Because in every violent movement they are obliged to appeal to the working class. And if the aristocracy is their vanishing opponent, the working class is their arising enemy. They prefer to compromise with the vanishing opponent than to strengthen the arising enemy, to whom the future belongs…3
But while capitalism in Europe was becoming rotten, in the rest of the world it was advancing in leaps and bounds. This left Marx with what he himself called a “difficult question”: was a European socialist revolution “not bound to be crushed in this little corner, considering that in a far greater territory the movement of bourgeois society is still in the ascendant?”4 Marx’s interest widened, especially to India and British imperialism’s role there, where “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”5
Asia’s economic history had developed quite differently to Europe’s, leaving the continent vulnerable to invasion and plunder. Britain had destroyed India’s ancient civilisation, but many aspects of that civilisation, with its caste system and its stifling superstition, were far from idyllic.
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was activated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.6
Capitalism’s intervention in India would not improve the condition of the people, but it had laid down the economic foundation for their liberation. “Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?” The Indian people could only reap the rewards when the working class came to power in England, or when they themselves “shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke”.7
This all fitted into Marx’s understanding of how history works. “Individuals producing in society—hence socially determined individual production—is, of course, the point of departure”, he wrote.8 As people produce to meet their needs, they establish certain economic relations, which depend on how developed their economic resources are.
The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not people’s consciousness that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.9
The activity of human beings always takes place within a certain social and economic situation: “People make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances”.10
Marx traced the historical dispute between two claimants to the French throne to a difference in property relations: one represented the landowners’ interest, the other that of the big capitalists. But he didn’t deny that “old memories, personal enmities, fears and hopes, prejudices and illusions, sympathies and antipathies, convictions, articles of faith and principles” came into it too:
A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives these feelings, etc. through tradition and upbringing, may well imagine that they form the real determinants and the starting-point of his activity.
But just as we distinguish “between what a person thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does”, a similar distinction has to be made regarding people and parties in history, “between their conception of themselves and what they really are”.11
Dealing with France’s small business class, Marx insisted that it would be wrong to believe that it “explicitly sets out to assert its egoistic class interests. It rather believes that the particular conditions of its liberation are the only general conditions within which modern society can be saved”. Nor were its political representatives necessarily all small businessmen themselves:
They may well be poles apart from them in their education and their individual situation. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that their minds are restricted by the same barriers which the petty bourgeoisie fails to overcome in real life, and that they are therefore driven in theory to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social situation drive the latter in practice. This is the general relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class which they represent.12
When economic resources outgrow the relations in which people utilise them, wrote Marx, “Then begins an era of social revolution”, as people fight to establish a new social formation which will allow them to advance further. Getting rid of the capitalist formation would bring “The prehistory of human society” to an end.13 But then real human history would only just begin: “Proletarian revolutions… constantly engage in self-criticism”, always questioning and outstripping what they have achieved.14 The workers taking undisputed political power, “the dictatorship of the proletariat… itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society”.15 Such a society would put “the needs of the social individual” first: “disposable time will grow for all”, allowing people to fully develop their abilities. In a society like this,
what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities…? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?16
As Marx envisaged the potentialities open to a socialist society, he refused to narrow socialist politics down to organisational architecture. He further developed his view of history in this period, working out an understanding far more subtle than he is usually given credit for. He was prepared to accept variant versions of history, too: England’s peculiar political culture, Asia’s somewhat different historical trajectory, the contradiction between European stagnation and rising capitalism elsewhere. While correctly insisting on the double-edged nature of capitalism—destroying people’s lives but at the same time creating possibilities of a new life—Marx didn’t really allow for the way imperialism also held countries back economically; and the fight of the peoples of these countries against that seemed to come a poor second to the struggle of European workers with him.
Up to now, Marx’s time in England had been dominated by economic growth, capitalist confidence and a dark period for the workers’ movement. That was about to change, however.
“by the working classes themselves”
The early 1860s saw a revival of the working class movement internationally after a decade of reaction. One of the results was the establishment of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) in London on 28 September 1864. Marx took a leading role in the association from the beginning, although many and varied political tendencies opposed to his own viewpoint were involved. Crucial here was the way Marx argued for his politics without laying down the law. As he wrote to Engels,
It was very difficult to frame the thing so that our view should appear in a form acceptable from the present standpoint of the workers’ movement.… It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old boldness of speech. It will be necessary to be fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [stronger in deed, gentler in style].17
He rejected the sectarian approach which would have stayed aloof from this movement because it failed to measure up to some preconceived yardstick: “The sect seeks its raison d’être and point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the class movement.”18
In the same way, those who dismissed the trade union movement, claiming that its efforts were fruitless and failed to end exploitation, got short shrift from Marx. By resisting the capitalists’ attempts to pay them less for more work, he argued, workers “fulfil only a duty to themselves and their race. They only set limits to the tyrannical usurpations of capital.” Trade union struggles defended the basic humanity of the workers, without which further progress would be impossible: “By cowardly giving way in their every-day conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.” At the same time, the unions should go beyond just negotiating with the bosses:
Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”… They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class…19
His renewed political involvement gave Marx the impetus he needed to round off his economic studies, and he completed the first volume of his classic work Capital in 1867. What all commodities have in common, he wrote, is that they are the products of human labour, and a commodity’s value is determined by the amount of generalised labour-time needed to produce it in a given society. The commodity sold by workers—their ability to work—has the unique quality of producing a value greater than its own, and this surplus-value lawfully belongs to the capitalist who has hired the worker. This unpaid surplus labour of the workers is the source of capitalist profit.
Capitalism’s whole purpose is “the greatest possible production of surplus-value, hence the greatest possible exploitation of labour-power by the capitalist”, a process that draws wealth into fewer and fewer hands, whose “limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company”. Not only does capitalism exploit and degrade the worker, “be his payment high or low”, it also “disturbs the metabolic interaction between humanity and the earth… undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker”.20
However, an inescapable feature of capitalist accumulation is that “with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production”.21 It was this revolt of the workers, “united by combination and led by knowledge”,22 that could put an end to their oppression, not a benevolent attitude on the part of the ruling class: “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.23
This would involve overthrowing the state power, which had assumed “the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism”.24 In certain exceptional situations, Marx believed, “the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means”, but force would be necessary for the most part:25 “The working classes would have to conquer the right to emancipate themselves on the battlefield.”26
When the workers of Paris took power for a few months in 1871, Marx and the IWMA supported them to the full. Their revolution showed, wrote Marx, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. The workers began to dismantle the old state and take direct control of society. “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in parliament”, delegates could be called back by their electors at any time, and would only be paid a worker’s wage. The old army was got rid of, church and state were separated, government was to be decentralised, the support of the small farmers was sought, and the Parisian workers proclaimed solidarity with international struggles for freedom. The working class would have to establish such a power in all countries, “as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule”.27 It was nothing more than a device to clear the way for “a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”.28
An absolutely essential part of the working class struggle was opposition to all types of oppression. Marx encouraged the support of English workers for the anti-slavery forces in the American civil war, hailing it as a recognition that “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.”29 In the same way he supported the renewed movement for Irish independence; but when the Fenians bombed a residential area of London, killing civilians, he had no time for such a “very stupid thing… One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy.”30
Nevertheless, it was “in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class” to support Irish independence.31 Firstly, it would unite the working class, overcoming racist divisions:
All English industrial and commercial centres now possess a working class split into two hostile camps: English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and for this very reason he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland and thus strengthens their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker.… This antagonism is artificially sustained and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret which enables the capitalist class to maintain its power, as this class is perfectly aware.32
As well as dividing the working class, the British ruling class used their occupation of Ireland as an excuse to maintain a large army and an arsenal of repression—which could just as well be used at home: “A people which subjugates another people forges its own chains.”33
Defeating British imperialism in Ireland would be pivotal in the revolutionary process internationally:
To accelerate the social development in Europe, you must push on the catastrophe of official England. To do so, you must attack her in Ireland. That’s her weakest point. Ireland lost, the British “Empire” is gone, and the class war in England, till now somnolent and chronic, will assume acute forms.34
Marx once believed that Ireland would only be liberated by the working class coming to power in England, but “I have become more and more convinced—and it remains a matter of driving the point home to the English working class—that it can never do anything decisive here in England until it not only makes common cause with the Irish but actually takes the initiative in dissolving the Union”.35 For workers in England, solidarity with the demands of the oppressed Irish “is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation”.36
Marx’s activism in the IWMA was a model of how to stand for principled socialist politics without being in the least sectarian. His aim was to broaden and deepen the actual movement of the working class, rather than substituting for it. His economic researches, laying bear the roots of capitalism, played a great part here. Learning from the revolutionary experience of Paris in 1871, he began to envisage the kind of working-class rule that would be needed to wipe out class society. His solidarity with the fight against slavery in the US, and against colonialism in Ireland, was based on the conviction that the working class can never win its own liberation without fully supporting the struggles of the oppressed.
The IWMA broke up in 1872 amidst internal faction fights, leaving Marx to pull back from the public stage again. But the rest of his life would still be dedicated to the socialist cause.
“the true realm of freedom”
Marx continued his work on Capital, without being able to put the finishing touches to it. His approach, he insisted, “includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction”.37 The unfinished part of Capital looked at this process in the case of the capitalist system.
As it goes on, capitalists invest proportionately more in machinery, technology and raw materials than they do in employing workers. While this increases the rate of surplus-value in their business, by the time their competitors catch up with them the overall return has fallen as a proportion of total investment. This tendency for the rate of profit to fall—which, of course, the capitalists try to counteract by various means—lies behind the periodic failure of large sections of the capitalist class to realise any profit: in other words, the economic crises to which the system is prone.
This didn’t mean that capitalism was going to disappear of its own accord: the working class would have to finish it off. But overthrowing the capitalist governments was not the end of the process. There would be a period of transition from capitalism to a fully socialist society, during which “the workers replace the dictatorship of the bourgeois class with their own revolutionary dictatorship”:38
so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformative process being forcibly hastened.
This rule of the working class would be only temporary, however, a rule that would make itself redundant:
the class rule of the workers over the strata of the old world whom they have been fighting can only exist as long as the economic basis of class existence is not destroyed.… With its complete victory [the working class’s] its own rule thus ends, as its class character has disappeared.39
Wherever a sizeable farming population existed, the working class in power would have to “take measures through which the peasant finds his condition immediately improved, so as to win him for the revolution; measures which will at least provide the possibility of easing the transition from private ownership of land to collective ownership, so that the peasant arrives at this of his own accord”.40 They would need to prove in practice that “the emancipation of the class of producers involves all humankind, without distinction of sex or race”.41
Marx explicitly denied that all societies were fated to travel the exact same path to socialism. In rural Russia, much of the land was still owned in common: would this have to be replaced by capitalist landownership, or could Russia move over directly towards a socialist society? Whether private property got the better of common property or the other way round “all depends on the historical environment in which the community finds itself”, answered Marx.42 If supported by a socialist revolution in western Europe, he believed, common ownership of land “may form a starting-point for a communist course of development” in Russia.43 But above all, each specific society and its historical development had to be studied in itself before its future possibilities could be understood; “but one will never arrive there by using as one’s master key a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being supra-historical”.44
Even when the remnants of capitalism were finally swept away, socialist society would still have challenges to face and overcome: “socialized humanity, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a natural way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature”.45
In a more advanced phase of communist society, when the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labour, and thereby the antithesis between intellectual and physical labour, have disappeared; when labour is no longer just a means of keeping alive but has itself become a vital need; when the all-round development of individuals has also increased their productive powers and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can society wholly cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right and inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!46
When it could be taken for granted that everyone’s basic needs were being satisfied, then “The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself” would unfold.47
Following Marx’s death on 14 March 1883 his comrade Friedrich Engels remarked that “Marx was above all else a revolutionist”. For forty years his life was dedicated to the overthrow of oppression and the liberation of humankind. Even many of Marx’s followers still don’t fully comprehend the thorough-going emancipation that he had as his political goal. It is only natural that generations of working people struggling for their freedom have turned to his ideas as a guide to action, and that the latest generation of revolutionaries is doing likewise. Karl Marx’s work, understood critically and applied in the ongoing fight against capitalism, represents the most powerful theoretical tool available to today’s socialists.
- 11 February 1851. Engels replied in kind two days later: “How can people like ourselves, who shun official positions like the plague, fit into a ‘party’?… what use to us is a ‘party’, i.e. a pack of asses who swear by us because they consider us their likes? I assure you we are losing nothing…” The Marx-Engels Correspondence (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1981) pp 24-5.
- Letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath, 29 February 1860: Werke (Dietz, Berlin 1956-62) volume 30, pp 490, 495.
- ‘The Chartists’: Surveys from Exile (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1973) pp 263-4. See also ‘The British Constitution’: ibid, p 282.
- Letter to Engels, 8 October 1858: Marx, Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress, Moscow 1975) p 104.
- ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’: Surveys from Exile, p 324.
- ‘The British Rule in India’: ibid, p 306-7.
- ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’, p 323.
- Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Penguin 1973) p 83.
- ‘Preface (to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy)’: Early Writings (Penguin 1975) p 425.
- ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’: Surveys from Exile, p 146.
- Ibid, pp 173-4.
- Ibid, pp 176-7.
- ‘Preface (to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy)’, p 425-6.
- ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, p 150.
- Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 5 March 1852: Selected Correspondence, p 64.
- Grundrisse, pp 708, 488.
- 4 November 1864: Selected Correspondence, pp 139-40.
- Letter to Johann von Schweitzer, 13 October 1868: Karl Marx, The First International and After (Penguin 1974) p 155.
- Karl Marx, Wages, Price and Profit (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1975) pp 67, 77-9.
- Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One (Penguin 1976) pp 449, 779, 799, 637-8.
- Ibid, p 929.
- ‘Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association’: The First International and After, p 81.
- ‘Provisional Rules’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 82.
- ‘The Civil War in France’: ibid, p 207.
- ‘Speech on the Hague Congress’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 324.
- ‘Speech on the Seventh Anniversary of the International’: ibid, p 272.
- ‘The Civil War in France’, pp 206, 210, 212.
- Capital, Volume One, p 739.
- Ibid, p 414.
- Letter to Engels, 14 December 1867: Marx, Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question (Progress 1978) p 159.
- Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869: The First International and After, p 166.
- Letter to Siegfried Meyer and August Vogt, 9 April 1870: ibid, p 169.
- ‘The General Council to the Federal Council of French Switzerland’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 118.
- Letter to Paul and Laura Lafargue, 5 March 1870: Ireland and the Irish Question, p 404.
- Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 29 November 1869: The First International and After, p 165. See letter to Engels, 10 December 1869, pp 166-7: “The lever must be applied in Ireland.”
- Letter to Meyer and Vogt, p 170.
- ‘Postface to the Second Edition’: Capital, Volume One, p 103.
- ‘Political Indifferentism’: The First International and After, p 328.
- ‘Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy’: ibid, pp 333, 337, 335.
- Ibid, p 334.
- ‘Introduction to the Programme of the French Workers’ Party’: ibid, p 376.
- ‘Letter on the Russian Village Community (1881)’: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Russian Menace to Europe (Allen and Unwin, London 1953) p 221.
- ‘The Communist Manifesto in Russian (1882)’: ibid, p 228. This preface to a Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto was written together with Engels.
- Letter to Otechestvenniye Zapiski, November 1877: Selected Correspondence, p 294.
- Karl Marx, Capital, Volume Three (Penguin 1981) p 959.
- ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’: The First International and After, p 347.
- Capital, Volume Three, p 959.