Revolutionary Lives: Karl Marx (part three)

Following on from part one and part two, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh concluded his look at Marx in Issue 14 (November 2002).

“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.


  1. 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.
  2. Letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath, 29 February 1860: Werke (Dietz, Berlin 1956-62) volume 30, pp 490, 495.
  3. ‘The Chartists’: Surveys from Exile (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1973) pp 263-4. See also ‘The British Constitution’: ibid, p 282.
  4. Letter to Engels, 8 October 1858: Marx, Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress, Moscow 1975) p 104.
  5. ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’: Surveys from Exile, p 324.
  6. ‘The British Rule in India’: ibid, p 306-7.
  7. ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’, p 323.
  8. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Penguin 1973) p 83.
  9. ‘Preface (to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy)’: Early Writings (Penguin 1975) p 425.
  10. ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’: Surveys from Exile, p 146.
  11. Ibid, pp 173-4.
  12. Ibid, pp 176-7.
  13. ‘Preface (to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy)’, p 425-6.
  14. ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, p 150.
  15. Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 5 March 1852: Selected Correspondence, p 64.
  16. Grundrisse, pp 708, 488.
  17. 4 November 1864: Selected Correspondence, pp 139-40.
  18. Letter to Johann von Schweitzer, 13 October 1868: Karl Marx, The First International and After (Penguin 1974) p 155.
  19. Karl Marx, Wages, Price and Profit (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1975) pp 67, 77-9.
  20. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One (Penguin 1976) pp 449, 779, 799, 637-8.
  21. Ibid, p 929.
  22. ‘Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association’: The First International and After, p 81.
  23. ‘Provisional Rules’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 82.
  24. ‘The Civil War in France’: ibid, p 207.
  25. ‘Speech on the Hague Congress’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 324.
  26. ‘Speech on the Seventh Anniversary of the International’: ibid, p 272.
  27. ‘The Civil War in France’, pp 206, 210, 212.
  28. Capital, Volume One, p 739.
  29. Ibid, p 414.
  30. Letter to Engels, 14 December 1867: Marx, Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question (Progress 1978) p 159.
  31. Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869: The First International and After, p 166.
  32. Letter to Siegfried Meyer and August Vogt, 9 April 1870: ibid, p 169.
  33. ‘The General Council to the Federal Council of French Switzerland’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 118.
  34. Letter to Paul and Laura Lafargue, 5 March 1870: Ireland and the Irish Question, p 404.
  35. 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.”
  36. Letter to Meyer and Vogt, p 170.
  37. ‘Postface to the Second Edition’: Capital, Volume One, p 103.
  38. ‘Political Indifferentism’: The First International and After, p 328.
  39. ‘Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy’: ibid, pp 333, 337, 335.
  40. Ibid, p 334.
  41. ‘Introduction to the Programme of the French Workers’ Party’: ibid, p 376.
  42. ‘Letter on the Russian Village Community (1881)’: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Russian Menace to Europe (Allen and Unwin, London 1953) p 221.
  43. ‘The Communist Manifesto in Russian (1882)’: ibid, p 228. This preface to a Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto was written together with Engels.
  44. Letter to Otechestvenniye Zapiski, November 1877: Selected Correspondence, p 294.
  45. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume Three (Penguin 1981) p 959.
  46. ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’: The First International and After, p 347.
  47. Capital, Volume Three, p 959.

Revolutionary Lives: Karl Marx (part two)

Following on from part one, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh continued his examination of Marx in Issue 13 (July 2002).

“the proletariat as the decisive revolutionary force”

Revolution broke out in France in February 1848: the king was removed and a republic proclaimed. The new government informed Marx that his deporta­tion order no longer held and he was free to return to France. The same day, the Belgian government issued him with a deportation of their own and arrested him just to be on the safe side. He moved to Paris but, in March, revolution reached Germany too, where the monarchy was forced to concede civil rights and a national assembly. Marx hastened home to join in.

He saw the task of the working class as, above all else, completing the democratic revolution and finally ending feudal rule. To workers who felt there was nothing for them in this, he said: “it is better to suffer in the con­temporary bourgeois society, whose industry creates the means for the foundation of a new society, that will liberate you all, than to revert to a bygone society”.1 The League of Communists, an organisation Marx had taken a leading part in since 1847, was allowed to go under, and Marx opposed standing workers’ candidates against middle-class democrats: “the proletariat has not the right to isolate itself; however hard it may seem, it must reject anything that could separate it from its allies”.2

But he came to doubt whether the capitalist class would really fight against the old regime: “In the whole of history there is no more ignominious example of abjectness than that provided by the German bourgeoisie.”3 It had developed so late and so slowly “that it saw itself threateningly confronted by the proletariat, and all those sections of the urban population related to the proletariat in interests and ideas, at the very moment of its own threatening confrontation with feudalism and absolutism”. And so, “grumbling at those above, trembling before those below”, it preferred to stick with the devil it knew than risk a social upheaval. Marx gave up on them:

The history of the Prussian bourgeoisie demonstrates, as indeed does that of the whole German bourgeoisie from March to December, that a purely bourgeois revolution, along with the establishment of bourgeois hege­mony in the form of a constitutional monarchy, is impossible in Germany. What is possible is either the feudal and absolutist counter-revolution or the social-republican revolution.4

He eventually concluded that “every revolutionary upheaval, however remote from the class struggle its goal may appear to be, must fail until the revolu­tionary working class is victorious”.5

In the spring of 1849 Marx resigned from the broad association of demo­crats he had been active in, announcing that he would act within the workers’ organisations from now on. He also wrote a series of articles examining the capitalist’s exploitation of the worker:

his life-activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist. He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labour as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.… life begins for him where this activity ceases, at table, in the tavern, in bed. The twelve hours’ labour, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, drilling, etc., but as earnings, which bring him to the table, to the tavern, into bed.

When capital is growing, the worker’s wage may well go up, but the capi­talist’s profit will go up even more:

The share of capital relative to the share of labour has risen. The division of social wealth between capital and labour has become still more un­equal.… The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position. The social gulf that divides him from the capitalist has widened.

So, in times of boom as well as times of slump, “the interests of capital and the interests of wage labour are diametrically opposed”.6

But the German revolution soon breathed its last and the authorities re­gained the upper hand. The newspaper Marx was editing was banned, and he was officially notified that he had outstayed his welcome in Germany. After being arrested while trying to organise last-ditch resistance, he went back to France. But the counter-revolution was taking control there too, and he was given 24 hours to leave Paris. In August 1849 he settled in London.

He took advantage of what he believed would be only a temporary exile to retrace the progress of the 1848 revolution in France, its cockpit. The working class were a small minority in the country, he wrote, and had to win over small farmers, small business people, and other classes who were beaten down by capitalism: “The French workers could not move a step forward, nor cause the slightest disruption in the bourgeois order, until the course of the revolution had aroused the mass of the nation, the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie, located between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, against this order, against the rule of capital, and until it had forced them to join forces with their protagonists, the proletarians.” It was in the natural interest of the small farmers to join with the working class:

It is evident that their exploitation differs only in form from that of the industrial proletariat. The exploiter is the same: capital.… The peasant’s claim to property is the talisman with which capital has hitherto held him under its spell, the pretext on which it set him against the industrial proletariat. Only the fall of capital can raise the peasant, only an anti-capitalist, proletarian government can break his economic poverty and his social degradation.

And this was beginning to happen, wrote Marx: these in-between classes were “regrouping around the proletariat as the decisive revolutionary force”.7

The French workers also needed to internationalise their struggle. The liberation of their class, Marx wrote, “will not be accomplished within any national walls”. A workers’ France would have to face down its capitalist neighbours, a process that would only be victorious when it “carries the proletariat to the fore in the nation that dominates the world market, i.e. England”. While socialist revolution would be most difficult in England, and therefore unlikely to start there, it wouldn’t succeed until it finished there:

These violent convulsions must necessarily occur at the extremities of the bourgeois organism rather than at its heart, where the possibility of re­storing the balance is greater. On the other hand, the degree to which the continental revolutions have repercussions on England is also the ther­mometer by which one can measure how far they really challenge bour­geois conditions of life, rather than affecting only its political formations.8

In London, Marx and other German exiles revived the League of Communists. In a message from the central board to the members, himself and Engels reproached those who thought there was no need for the League during the revolution (omitting to mention that this most notably included themselves!). This lack of organisation had left the working class under the leadership of the middle-class democrats, and this had to end: “the independ­ence of the workers must be restored… the workers’ party must go into battle with the maximum degree of organization, unity and independence, so that it is not exploited and taken in tow by the bourgeoisie as in 1848”.9

The relationship of the working class to the middle-class democrats should be such that “it cooperates with them against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own posi­tion”. After all, the two classes had very different objects:

While the democratic petty bourgeoisie want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible… it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power… Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.

Rather than be lulled by calls for an all-embracing opposition party, the workers should organise a party of their own, forcing the middle class to its political limits and beyond. When they formed new governments, the working class “must simultaneously establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments” to put the new rulers under pressure from day one. Even where they have no chance of winning, workers’ candidates should stand in elections “to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention”. The working class must at all times understand and put forward their own interests, without being misled by the middle class. “Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.”10

But Marx’s observations from the vantage point of London soon led him to conclude that revolution was far from imminent, due to the sustained growth capitalism was undergoing: “While this general prosperity lasts… there can be no question of a real revolution.”11 It was not a popular opinion with some of his comrades, who still saw it as a question of now or never—“We must come to power immediately or we might as well go to sleep” was how Marx characterised them. He foresaw a prolonged period of patient preparation before socialist revolution would be on again:

We tell the workers: If you want to change conditions and make your­selves capable of government, you will have to undergo fifteen, twenty or fifty years of civil war.… We are devoted to a party which would do best not to assume power just now.… Our party can only become the govern­ment when conditions allow its views to be put into practice.12

The League of Communists was wound down and soon disappeared alto­gether. But however long the night might be, Marx insisted that the dawn would come too: “A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself.13

Marx’s activity in the German revolution was initially constrained by his abandoning in practice of the strategy he had previously advanced: fighting feudalism alongside the capitalist class while holding to a working-class position within the fight. He eventually realised that the capitalists weren’t about to put up any real fight, and returned to the need for independent workers’ action, winning the support of other oppressed groups and engaging in permanent revolution that would defeat feudal rule on the way to socialist transformation. The international nature of the revolutionary process also became clearer to him. But when he saw that revolution had fallen off the agenda for the time being, he had the courage to say so, without attempting to keep empty political vessels afloat. In a revolutionary career of some forty years, Marx spent a total of five as a member of a revolutionary party—and allowed his membership to lapse during a revolution! So much for those who see Marxism as being all about party building.

The following years were to be years of exile, bitterness and political frustration for Marx: surviving them would require real revolutionary commitment.

This article will be continued in the next issue of Red Banner.


  1. ‘Montesquieu LVI’: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung 1848-49 (Progress, Moscow 1972) pp 227-8.
  2. Quoted in David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (Macmillan, London 1973) p 202.
  3. ‘The Victory of the Counter-Revolution in Vienna’: The Revolutions of 1848 (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1973) p 174.
  4. ‘The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution’: ibid, pp 193-4, 212.
  5. Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1978), p 16.
  6. Ibid, pp 19-20, 38, 40-1. Ó Cathasaigh, ‘Marx agus roinnt an bhodaigh’, Red Banner 5, discusses further Marx’s idea of the relative worsening of the workers’ position, illustrating the process in late twentieth-century Ireland.
  7. ‘The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850’: Karl Marx, Surveys from Exile (Penguin 1973) pp 46-7, 117, 121.
  8. Ibid, pp 112, 131.
  9. ‘Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850)’: The Revolutions of 1848, p 320.
  10. Ibid, pp 322-4, 326-7, 330.
  11. ‘The Class Struggles in France’, p 131.
  12. ‘Minutes of the Central Committee Meeting of 15 September 1850’: The Revolu­tions of 1848, pp 341, 343.
  13. ‘The Class Struggles in France’, p 131.

Revolutionary Lives: Karl Marx (part one)

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh started an examination of Marx’s work in Issue 12 in March 2002.

“This much is certain: I am no Marxist.” This much-quoted remark of Marx himself, often treated as a piece of throwaway irony, actually addresses something wrong with the political theory shaped under his name. All too often, the gap between this ‘Marxism’ and the theory and practice of Karl Marx himself has gaped wide, sometimes reaching frightening proportions. Now, as new chapters of revolutionary activity are being written, is the time to reclaim Marx’s own thought in all its creativity and richness.

“the complete restoration of humanity to itself”

On the morning of 5 May 1818 in Trier, western Germany, Karl Heinrich Marx was born, son of a lawyer with liberal sympathies. Karl’s years in college saw him get involved in the philosophical controversies of the day, but his hopes for an academic career were dashed when the government cracked down on radical professors. He turned to journalism, becoming editor of a liberal newspaper whose criticism of the government led to its suppression. Its crime was to have exposed poverty and championed the rights of the poor. Far from preaching socialist revolution, Marx had stubbornly refused to print left-wing propaganda, maintaining that commu­nism was only a meaningless dogma until it was studied properly.

Marx’s approach to changing things was different: “we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old”. This meant taking part in political battles, but

This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctri­naire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with the true campaign-slogans. Instead we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not.

Far from dictating what to do and how to do it, Marx saw himself as merely helping the fighters to understand the nature of their fight: “the self-clarifi­cation (critical philosophy) of the struggles and wishes of the age”.1 This theoretical understanding was as necessary for these struggles as practical combat: “material force must be overthrown by material force. But theory becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses.”2

In contemporary Germany, wrote Marx, all classes of the population lacked the political courage to properly challenge the autocratic govern­ment, and so “It is not radical revolution or universal human emancipation which is a utopian dream for Germany; it is the partial, merely political revolution, the revolution which leaves the pillars of the building standing.” Such a radical revolution could only be carried through by

a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere which has a universal character because of its universal suffering and which lays claim to no particular right because the wrong it suffers is not a particular wrong but wrong in general; a sphere of society which can no longer lay claim to a historical title, but merely to a human one, which does not stand in one-sided opposition to the consequences but in all-sided opposition to the premises of the German political system; and finally a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from—and thereby emancipating—all the other spheres of society, which is, in a word, the total loss of humanity and which can therefore redeem itself only through the total redemption of humanity. This dis­solution of society as a particular class is the proletariat.3

Marx had come to the realisation that the working class had the potential to end human oppression. But the role he saw for that class was, to some extent, still a passive one, providing the brawn of the revolution rather than the brain: “philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat… The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat.”4 The German working class was tiny, and only just taking its first political steps, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that Marx failed at first to grasp its full possibilities. But this was to change. Marx had by now moved to Paris, exchanging a stifling political atmosphere for the centre of working-class socialism. He was greatly impressed by the Parisian workers he met at socialist meetings, and he now got down to studying the relationship of workers to capitalism at its heart.

The basis of work under capitalism, he concluded, was

that the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer.… The exter­nalization of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

In the nature of human beings, our work is the way we express ourselves, an activity that affirms our humanity. But capitalist labour is the reverse of that, a process that alienates us from our work, making it a hateful thing forced upon us to survive, that ultimately cheapens rather than enriches us, that underlies a servile relationship to a master: “Life itself appears only as a means of life.”5

The alienation of labour confirmed for Marx the role of the working class in ending oppression:

It further follows from the relation of estranged labour to private prop­erty that the emancipation of society from private property, etc., from servitude, is expressed in the political form of the emancipation of the workers. This is not because it is a question only of their emancipation, but because in their emancipation is contained universal human emanci­pation. The reason for this universality is that the whole of human ser­vitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production…

Any socialist proposal that failed to remove this servitude was no good as far as Marx was concerned. A general wage rise for all workers, for instance, would mean “nothing more than better pay for slaves and would not mean an increase in human significance or dignity for either the worker or the labour”. Even paying the same wage to everyone would just drag everyone down to the worker’s level, meaning that “the category of worker is not abolished but extended to all”, with “the community as universal capitalist”. The kind of communism Marx envisaged went much deeper: “the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for people; it is the complete restoration of humanity to itself as a social, i.e. human, being” And even this was only a means to a higher end: “Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism is not as such the goal of human development”.6

By far the most important political contact Marx made in Paris was Friedrich Engels, another German socialist. From 1844 on, the two men formed a steadfast comradeship that lasted through all the ups and downs of Marx’s life.7 Marx’s political activity proved too much for the French government, which deported him in 1845. An arrest warrant awaited him back in Germany, so he settled in Brussels, working mostly among the German emigrants in Belgium.

By bringing the modern working class into existence, Marx wrote, capitalism had created “its own grave-diggers”, the class with the power to overthrow it.8 Socialists saw the working class playing this part “not at all… because they regard the proletarians as gods”, but because they couldn’t put an end to their own suffering without ending the suffering of society as a whole—even if most workers had not yet realised that fact:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will histori­cally be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today. There is no need to explain here that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task…9

Far from being gods, the working class would have to prove itself capable of fulfilling its task by undergoing a revolution:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist conscious­ness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of people on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

Such a revolution would have to be international—“communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and simulta­neously”—and based on economic abundance, otherwise only generalised poverty would result, “and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old shit would necessarily be restored”.10

The first step of the socialist revolution, wrote Marx, would “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class”,11 but “it is victorious only by abolishing itself”,12 by rapidly creating the conditions where no class rules because no class exists: “The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of all classes”.13 Communist society would then take shape, “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”,14 where a person would not be boxed into a single form of alienated labour for life, but would be enabled “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, with­out ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic”.15

Socialists should never, wrote Marx, “set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement”,16 because “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be estab­lished, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself”, but “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.17 Instead of invent­ing systems for running the world, socialists had essentially “only to take note of what is happening before their eyes and to become its mouth­piece”.18 The only difference between socialists and the rest of the working class was that socialists

always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advan­tage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.… The Commu­nists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.19

While the point was always to change the world rather than just interpret it,20 to lead people into battle without a solid theoretical understanding of things was dishonest: “Ignorance never yet helped anybody!”21

At the basis of Marx’s theory was an understanding of how history proceeds. As people produce, he argued, they create certain relations with each other, but these relations are limited by the productive capacities available to them. In modern society, certain classes own the means of producing things, and other classes don’t. This class structure in the econ­omy is reflected in the legal and political systems, and in the various ideo­logies that exist. When the means of producing outgrow the limits of the prevailing class structure, the contradiction leads to a period of revolution in which new economic and social relations can be established.

But Marx never saw successful revolution as a guaranteed outcome of such periods: the class struggle could result “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”.22 While “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”, they don’t go unchallenged: “The existence of revolutionary ideas in a particular period presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class”. Far from denying that people think for themselves, Marx was concerned to situate their thinking in social reality: “People are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc., that is, real, active people, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these”.23

Marx deliberately distanced himself from traditional materialist philo­sophy because it saw the world only in terms of things, “not as sensuous human activity, practice”, and failed to “grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity”. It was so busy insisting that people are defined by their social circumstances that it forgot “that circumstances are changed by people” as well: the only way to understand this was “as revolutionary practice”.24 People act within a certain mode of producing, but “the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself”. People were therefore “the authors and actors of their own drama”.25

He was not at all dismissive of the fight to end feudal rule in Germany and establish parliamentary democracy. Indeed he explicitly stated that the working class had to “fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way” against landlordism.26 But the matter wouldn’t end there: “They can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a condition of the workers’ revolution. But they cannot for a moment regard it as their final aim.”27 So socialists should

never cease, for a single moment, to instil into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bour­geoisie and proletariat, in order that the German workers may straight­way use, as so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, the social and political conditions that the bourgeoisie must necessarily introduce along with its supremacy, and in order that, after the fall of the reactionary classes in Germany, the fight against the bourgeoisie itself may immediately begin.

Numerically small as the German working class was, the influence of international commerce had given it a greater weight in society, and so, Marx believed, “the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”.28

What drove Marx politically from the very first was a commitment to the total emancipation of human beings, to a society where people could live and work together in freedom. Versions of socialism which imagined handing the workers their freedom from the heights of the state, or crafting a more ‘humane’ version of capitalism, held no attraction for him. Far from the caricature usually made of it by friend and foe alike, his view of history was all about comprehending and promoting the conscious activity of people changing their world. He became a partisan of the class struggle of the workers, not through some romantic idealisation of the proletariat, but because that struggle held the key to liberating humanity. Socialist revolu­tion was necessary but not inevitable, and he saw the possibility of it failing through international isolation or inadequate material foundation. The role of socialists was a modest, even humble, one for Marx, suggesting clarifi­cation rather than lecturing, being involved in struggles rather than deriding them from outside.

Where a small working class existed, but capitalism had not won full political supremacy, Marx envisioned the workers pushing the capitalist revolution forward, and then pushing immediately to a revolution of their own. 1848 brought the opportunity to put this concept to the test in Germany.

Part two >


  1. ‘Letters from the Franco-German Yearbooks’: Karl Marx, Early Writings (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1975) pp 207-9.
  2. ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’: ibid, p 251.
  3. Ibid, pp 253, 256.
  4. Ibid, p 257.
  5. ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’: ibid, pp 324, 328.
  6. Ibid, pp 332-3, 346-8, 358. Here and elsewhere the translation has been modified where the word Mensch (person) has been translated as “man”.
  7. For an account and assessment of Engels’s politics and his political relationship with Marx, see Joe Conroy, ‘Revolutionary Lives: Friedrich Engels’, Red Banner 3-4.
  8. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’: Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848 (Penguin 1973) p 79. The Manifesto was, of course, a joint effort with Engels, although Marx composed the final text. Ó Cathasaigh, ‘The Communist Mani­festo: Birthday honours’, Red Banner 3, discusses the Manifesto more fully.
  9. Marx, Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (Progress, Moscow 1975) pp 44-5. This particular section of the book was written by Marx.
  10. Marx, Engels, The German Ideology (Progress 1976) pp 60, 57, 54. This work was written jointly by Marx and Engels. The translation has been modified here: you don’t need to be a German scholar to know that Scheiße does not mean “filthy business”!
  11. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 86.
  12. The Holy Family, p 44.
  13. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1978) p 169.
  14. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 87.
  15. The German Ideology, p 53.
  16. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 79.
  17. The German Ideology, p 57.
  18. The Poverty of Philosophy, p 120.
  19. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, pp 79-80, 97.
  20. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” ‘Concerning Feuerbach’: Early Writings, p 423.
  21. Marx’s parting shot in an argument with the German socialist Wilhelm Weitling, who thought his hundreds of loyal followers counted for more than “criticism and armchair analysis”: quoted in David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (Macmillan, London 1973) p 157.
  22. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 68.
  23. The German Ideology, pp 67-8, 42.
  24. ‘Concerning Feuerbach’, pp 421-2.
  25. The Poverty of Philosophy, pp 169, 109.
  26. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, pp 97-8.
  27. ‘Die moralisierende Kritik und die kritisierende Moral’: Marx, Engels, Werke (Dietz, Berlin 1956-64) volume 4, p 352.
  28. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 98. See also The German Ideology, p 83.

Whatever happened to the end of history?

In Issue 11 (November 2001) Kevin Higgins discussed the growing movement against capitalist globalisation.

When an important meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle was seriously disrupted by a couple of hundred thousand anti-capitalist demon­strators in December 1999, it came as a big surprise to almost everyone. But as the year 2000 unfolded, and similar demonstrations turned meetings of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union into platforms for the ‘anti-capitalists’, it became perfectly clear that Seattle was anything but a flash in the pan. Be it Prague, Melbourne or Washington DC, wherever the decision-makers of the ruling global elite went, the ‘anti-capitalists’ followed them. And this wasn’t how the script was supposed to go at all. Politics of this sort was supposed to be a thing of the past.

The ‘anti-capitalism’ born in Seattle represents a radical departure from the sort of polite, middle class environmentalism we had grown used to during the apathetic 1990s. Indeed one of the most significant things about the Seattle demonstration was that it attracted support not only from envi­ronmentalists (and large groups of anarchists) but also from both Mexican workers and American trade unions (such as the Teamsters) protesting against the detrimental effects of Bill Clinton’s great free-market ‘achieve­ment’, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

While this movement is still very much in its infancy, it represents a significant step forward if we place it in the context of the political malaise of the past twenty years or so. The 1980s and early 90s were years of almost unrivalled capitalist triumphalism. Organised labour was everywhere on the retreat as the labour market was ‘deregulated’. Reagan broke the air-traffic controllers’ strike of 1981 and, in the process, destroyed their union PATCO, while his ideological twin Thatcher made an example of the miners during their year long strike in 1984/85. And then came the collapse of ‘Communism’. This gave capitalism a powerful ideological weapon which its propagandists used to paint all versions of Marxism and socialism as offshoots of the same failed, totalitarian system. It was all one way traffic. Capitalism had never had it so easy.

During the years that followed, apathy towards politics grew until, by the late 90s, it was overwhelming. Many left-wing activists, myself included, simply gave up the struggle and immersed themselves in private life or the arts or whatever took our fancy. It was less a case of ‘selling out’ than of having grown rather tired. Most of us stuck to the fundamental belief that socialism still represented a far saner, more rational way of organising things than chaotic, profit-driven capitalism ever could but, in the hostile climate of the 1990s, we could see no meaningful way of advancing this cause.And all around us were the false prophets of the New World Order. In his book The Last Man and The End of History (1990), American academic Francis Fukuyama argued that history was now “over” and that “liberal capitalism” had “triumphed”. Wall Street would rule the world for a thousand years. For us this amounted to something more awful than even our worst nightmare. All we could do was seethe, while Euro­Disney tried to buy Lenin’s body.Of course, in the years 1991-99, people did still protest, go on strike etc. But it was as if the socialist movement, the labour movement had been castrated. After all, if everyone accepts the ‘free’ market, then the scope for real political change is very limited indeed.

Some of my more politically ‘sensible’ friends will undoubtedly protest that the picture I am painting here is just a little too black. Weren’t the 1990s a time of some, albeit modest, political progress, with a Labour government in Britain, and a ‘liberal’ Democrat in the White House? But if we look beyond the slick phrases of the spin-doctors and examine the reality we find that, on every single important issue, Blair and Clinton continued the policies of their Republican and Tory predecessors. On welfare, Clinton continued, indeed accelerated, the cutbacks started by Reagan and George Bush Senior. On the death penalty, Clinton was the first Democrat in a long while to so enthusiastically support it, even taking time out from campaigning in New Hampshire in 1992 to go back to Arkansas and sign a death warrant for a mentally retarded black man, Rickey Ray Rector.Clinton’s one liberal promise—on health care—very quickly came to nothing. Tony Blair is, if anything, a little further to the right than ‘Slick Willy’. One of his government’s first acts was to cut social security pay­ments to single mothers. Since then his ‘Labour’ government has taken the ‘radical’ step of ending free third level education, something even Thatcher never dared to do. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Of course, both of these gentlemen have been strong advocates of ‘eco­nomic globalisation’. However the ‘globalisation’ they have supported is ‘global’ only as long as that serves the interests of the economic elite. Microsoft et al can move their operations with impunity to wherever labour is most ‘competitively priced’. If American workers demand higher wages, they can always move, for example, to Ireland, and if the Irish start getting a bit uppity, there’s always Eastern Europe. Under NAFTA, American companies have unrestricted access to a large supply of cheap labour in Mexico, and yet the US/Mexican border remains one of the most patrolled borders in the world. Illegal immigrants are hunted down. And, a little closer to home, a crooked Irish politician such as Liam Lawlor can invest his dodgy money in Czech banks, but an ordinary Czech person cannot, as things currently stand, come and live in Ireland. Western companies make easy money in Eastern Europe but the EU’s ‘Fortress Europe’ anti-immigration policy means that immigrants coming in the opposite direction will, most likely, be stopped by the police and held in detention centres. These are the stark realities of capitalist ‘globalisation’. But since Seattle these policies are, at long last, facing some serious opposition.

The Economist magazine recently commented:

Many business people dismiss these [anti-capitalist] protests as nothing more than a distraction. They argue that globalisation is being driven by technology and that there is nothing that anybody, including Molotov-cocktail throwing demonstrators, can do to put the genie back in the bottle. This is profoundly wrong… Activists have already seized the initiative on global trade… Many companies [have been] lulled into a false sense of security by years of pro-market reforms…

This is not to say that capitalism is about to be overthrown by a rag-tag movement whose calling card to date has been to try and burn down at least one branch of McDonald’s in every city where leaders of the World Bank, the EU or the IMF happen to be meeting. If only it were that simple. But those who engage in such naive forms of ‘direct action’ are at least groping in the right direction. And while reserving the right to offer constructive criticism, we should at the same time recognise the fact that this movement has succeeded in raising the banner of anti-capitalism for all to see once again, just when many on the left had given up hope altogether.

It has also put its finger firmly on the fundamental reality that, since capitalism has gone global, the opposition to it should similarly be organ­ised across national boundaries. The official labour and trade union move­ment has been paying lip-service to this idea for decades now, but the anti-capitalists have found new imaginative ways of actually putting it into practice, and in the space of a few months, have succeeded in putting more pressure on organisations such as the IMF than a hundred years of whiny speeches by the likes of Bono ever possibly could. During the 1990s many on the left were hypnotised into a state of almost unrelieved gloom by the seemingly endless mantra about the End of History. But when such an august bourgeois publication as The Economist is prepared to recognise the reality that the ladies and gentlemen who sit in the boardrooms of the global corporations can no longer expect to have everything their own way as easily as they did in the 80s and 90s, it must surely be time even the left’s most ardent pessimists allowed something approaching a smile to flicker across their faces.

Revolutionary Lives: György Lukács

The work of the Hungarian socialist thinker was examined by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh in Issue 10 (July 2001).

Few socialist revolutionaries have had to traverse such a social distance to the working class as György Lukács. He was born in Budapest on 13 April 1885, the son of one of Hungary’s most influential bankers who became a nobleman and advisor to the prime minister. But this was a class “whose life and values I have disliked since childhood”, Lukács later reflected. “From early on, I harboured radical feelings about the whole of official Hungary.” His early work in philosophy and literary criticism shows a determined opposition to capitalist civilisation, but no prospect of any alternative. The Russian revolution opened up such an alternative in 1917, but Lukács’s conversion wasn’t immediate, as he wrestled with the moral problems that socialist revolution entailed.

He took the leap in December 1918, joining the newly-formed Hungarian Communist Party. He soon became an editor of the party paper, and two months later found himself on the central committee following the arrest of the previous leadership. In March 1919 the government collapsed, however: the Communists formed a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party, and Hungary was proclaimed a Soviet Republic. Lukács was appointed deputy commissar for education and culture, and served with the revolutionary army that defended the new republic against imperialist attack.

But the Hungarian revolution was an artificial one. It was less a case of the working class consciously taking over than of a short-term power vacuum being filled by a hasty political compromise. The republic offered no solution to the country’s land problem and so failed to win over the farmers, while its support among urban workers was to some extent passive. After five months it was crushed, and an authoritarian right wing regime took power. Lukács stayed on, trying to organise the now clandestine Communist Party, but in September 1919 had to flee to Austria. During his exile he continued his political activity and tried to deepen and develop the Marxist understanding of the world.

Class consciousness

“Ethical idealism is a permanent revolution against what exists”, Lukács had written before committing himself to socialism, and this was a per­spective he held to. Socialist revolution posed undoubted moral dilemmas which everyone had to confront for themselves:

Everyone who at the present time opts for communism is therefore obliged to bear the same individual responsibility for each and every human being who dies for him in the struggle, as if he himself had killed them all. But all those who ally themselves to the other side, the defence of capitalism, must bear the same individual responsibility for the destruction entailed in the new imperialist wars of revenge which are surely imminent, and for the future oppression of the nationalities and classes.

Socialism meant “not merely an economic and institutional, but also and at the same time a moral transformation”. This applied not least to socialists themselves, whose faults sprang from their “inadequate inner transform­ation”, their failure to “have cleansed themselves of all the dross of capitalist, social-democratic party life, such as bureaucracy, intrigues, social climbing etc.”

The working class as a whole, wrote Lukács, would have to bring themselves to an understanding of their interests as a class before they could make socialism a reality: “the revolution itself can only be accomplished by people; by people who have become intellectually and emotionally emanc­ipated from the existing system”. So the fight for socialism

is not just a battle waged against an external enemy, the bourgeoisie. It is equally the struggle of the proletariat against itself: against the devastating and degrading effects of the capitalist system upon its class consciousness. The proletariat will only have won the real victory when it has overcome these effects within itself.

Because socialism means abolishing every kind of oppression as well as that suffered by workers themselves, the working class have to abandon all and any prejudices—national, sexual, racial or whatever: “Overcoming its own limitations, the proletariat must rise to the leadership of all the oppressed.” Fighting for their own interests, they would end all exploitation, and deal with the democratic unfinished business abandoned by the capitalists:

From now on the proletariat is the only class capable of taking the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion. In other words, the remaining relevant demands of the bourgeois revolution can only be realised within the framework of the proletarian revolution, and the consistent realisation of these demands necessarily leads to a prole­tarian revolution. Thus, the proletarian revolution now means at one and the same time the realisation and the supersession of the bourgeois revolution.

Lukács understood that socialism would never come about as an automatic result of capitalist crisis. The capitalist class would always come up with methods of maintaining its grip, but “Whether they can be put into practice depends, however, on the proletariat.” Only the thought and activ­ity of the working class would determine whether socialism or barbarism would prevail: “the fate of the revolution (and with it the fate of mankind) will depend on the ideological maturity of the proletariat, i.e., on its class consciousness”.

History is at its least automatic when it is the consciousness of the proletariat that is at issue.… it can be transformed and liberated only by its own actions… the objective evolution could only give the proletariat the opportunity and the necessity to change society. Any transformation can only come about as the product of the—free—action of the proletariat itself.


For Lukács, Marxism never meant subscribing to every word that fell from the mouths of Marx and Engels. Indeed, he hypothesised, if every one of Marx’s conclusions were to be refuted tomorrow, Marxism would still stand:

Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.

The hallmark that distinguished the Marxist method was not its insistence on the role of economic relations in history but “the point of view of totality… the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts”.

Understanding the totality of the working-class struggle meant grasping “the intimate, visible and momentous connexion between individual actions and general destiny—the revolutionary destiny of the whole working class”. It meant “understanding above and beyond direct class consciousness, above and beyond the immediate conflicts of class interests—that world-historical process which leads through these class interests and class struggles to the final goal: the classless society”. Such an understanding put a whole new complexion on things:

Every moment of the normal working-class movement, every wage increase, every reduction in working hours, etc., is therefore a revo­lutionary act: together they make up that process which at a certain point suddenly changes into something qualitatively new.… When every single moment of the movement is considered consciously from the standpoint of the totality, when every single moment is brought to effect consciously as a revolutionary deed—then and only then will the movement overcome its helplessness in the face of the reality of revo­lution.… instead, it will come as the fulfilment of its hopes, for which it was both inwardly and outwardly prepared…

In this light, everyday socialist activity can be seen as part of a greater whole: “Only when the immediate interests are integrated into a total view and related to the final goal of the process do they become revolutionary, pointing concretely and consciously beyond the confines of capitalist society.” So it was never a question of either reforms or revolution—socialists must fuse the two:

On the one hand, they must never lose sight of the oneness and the totality of the revolutionary process. On the other hand, however, they must always view this same totality from the standpoint of the ‘demands of the day’. They must at all times constitute revolutionary realist politics, which means that each of the two concepts on which they are based must remain equally important.… every activity, how­ever (seemingly) petty, however directly geared to everyday demands, must be imbued with revolutionary spirit.

Spontaneity and organisation

Socialists would never get anywhere, Lukács argued, unless they set out from the present attitudes and activities of the working class, convinced that socialism makes sense in the context of working-class reality:

Every action, however straightforward and practical its slogans might otherwise be, is doomed to operate in a void unless it takes as its starting-point the spontaneity of the masses, unless its objective is to make conscious those unconscious demands which have given rise to that spontaneity, unless it attempts to lead that spontaneity in the right direction, in the direction of the totality of the revolutionary process. Every worker is an orthodox Marxist—however unconscious of the fact he himself is initially: this is the unspoken premiss of communist activity. He is so by virtue of his class situation, which necessarily places him at the centre of the revolutionary process.

Revolutionary parties could not presume to dictate how the struggle would go, and would have to learn as much as they taught: “organisation is not the prerequisite of action, but rather a constant interplay of prerequisite and consequence evolving during action. Indeed, if either of these aspects has to preponderate, then it must be the conception of organisation as con­sequence rather than as prerequisite.” Lukács pointed out that “the exig­encies of revolution involve great flexibility in organisational matters.… every organisational form is nothing but a tool of struggle”. Revolution was not a question of workers becoming party members, but of the party fitting itself to embody the workers’ revolutionary consciousness:

The true strength of the party is moral: it is fed by the trust of the spontaneously revolutionary masses… by the feeling that the party is the objectification of their own will (obscure though this may be to themselves), that it is the visible and organised incarnation of their class consciousness. Only when the party has fought for this trust and earned it can it become the leader of the revolution. For only then will the masses spontaneously and instinctively press forward with all their energies towards the party and towards their own class consciousness.

Lukács was more than once guilty of not acting accordingly, however, of substituting the consciousness of the revolutionaries for that of the working class. He argued against standing in elections that such activity was an “admission that revolution is unthinkable in the foreseeable future”, and almost inevitably would lead socialists to compromise themselves. This attitude missed the possibility of using election platforms and parliamentary chambers to convince non-socialist workers that revolution was thinkable, and sidestepped the challenges that would involve. When the Communist Party of Germany launched a disastrous insurrection in 1921 without mass support, Lukács praised the action as “rousing the proletarian masses from their lethargy through independent party action… severing the knot of the ideological crisis of the proletariat with the sword of action”. It was only later he came to realise that “This crisis can be resolved only by the free action of the proletariat.

From reification to freedom

Not least of Lukács’s theoretical achievements was his rediscovery of a forgotten element of Marx’s critique of capitalism, one that only became widely known in later decades with the publication of Marx’s early writings: alienation. In capitalist society the products of human activity assume power over human beings; human relations are “reified”, to use Lukács’s term, turned into things: “a man’s own activity, his own labour, becomes something objective and independent of him, something that controls him by virtue of an autonomy alien to man”.

Socialist revolution was all about putting an end to this state of affairs:

It means above all the end of the domination of the economy over the totality of life. It thereby means an end to the impossible and discordant relation between man and his labour, in which man is subjugated to the means of production and not the other way around. In the last analysis the communist social order means the overcoming of the economy as an end in itself.

Socialism would “make the economy, production, serve the needs of man­kind, humanitarian ideas and culture”.

Although officially deputy commissar, Lukács effectively controlled the cultural policy of Hungary’s ephemeral Soviet Republic. He opened up the theatres and galleries to the workers, introduced comprehensive sex education, and encouraged the rebellion of women against sexism. His mission statement sets out an admirable socialist policy towards the arts:

The People’s Commissariat for Education will not accord official support to the literature of any particular current or party. The cultural programme of the communists distinguishes only between good and bad literature, and refuses to spurn Shakespeare or Goethe on the grounds that they were not socialist writers.… The cultural programme of the communists is to offer the proletariat the purest and most elev­ated art; we shall not allow its taste to be corrupted by slogan-poetry debased to the level of a political instrument. Politics is only a means; culture is the goal.
Whatever its origin, anything with real literary value will find the support of the People’s Commissar; naturally enough, he will above all support art which grows on proletarian soil, to the extent that it really is art.
The programme of the People’s Commissariat for Education is to put the fate of literature back into the hands of writers.
The Commissariat does not want an official art, and nor does it seek party dictatorship in the arts.

A society based on the free activity of free human beings was the ultimate object:

When all economic misery and pain has vanished, labouring humanity has not yet reached its goal: it has only created the possibility of beginning to move toward its real goals with renewed vigour.… Every transformation of society is therefore only the framework, only the possibility of free human self-management and spontaneous creativity.


The best of Lukács’s theoretical insights were contained in his ground-breaking book History and Class Consciousness. But not long after its pub­lication in 1923, it came under sustained attack from the leaders of the Communist movement. This same movement was rapidly congealing into an international prop for the dictatorship that was coming to power in Russia after the revolution had failed to spread internationally. Apart from the odd lapse—his outrageous statement, for instance, that “Freedom must serve the rule of the proletariat, not the other way round”—Lukács’s work pulled against the mummified version of Marxism that the Communist International now espoused.

Lukács accepted the basic premise of Stalinism, that ‘socialism in one country’ was possible, that defending the Russian state took priority over everything. However, he did oppose the more extreme manifestations of Stalinism, such as the idea that the Labour parties were only ‘social fascists’, little better than the fascists themselves. As a result, he was removed from the leadership of the exiled Hungarian Communist Party. But he was convinced that outside the Party there was no salvation, that he had to remain in the Communist movement. The price for this was renouncing his views, and it was a price he was prepared to pay. He recanted his views and, like Peter in the Bible, denied History and Class Consciousness three times, apologising for “not only the theoretical falsity but also the practical danger of the book”. While some of his self-criticism was a sincere rethink of his position, his motivation was primarily tactical.

He withdrew from political activity and concentrated on philosophical and literary studies. Living in Russia from 1933 to 1945, he attempted to oppose the worst excesses of the official line on literature, while outwardly toeing the line. His own views, however, were not that far from the prevailing literary Stalinism: he favoured the classical technique of nineteenth-century realism, and fought a conservative battle against “decadent” and “formalist” modern literature. As in politics, so in literature he stood for a more liberal version of Stalinist policy. Although a manuscript of his was confiscated by the secret police and he was imprisoned for two months, Lukács came through Stalin’s terror.

Returning to Hungary after the second world war, he soon found himself in a similar position in regard to the new Stalinist government there. Workers’ revolt forced the system to concede reforms in 1956, however, and Lukács served for a short time as culture minister in a reforming Communist government. When Russian tanks invaded to restore the status quo, he was arrested and detained for six months. Up until his death on 4 June 1971 he continued to advocate liberalisation of the Communist system. In view of all this, there is room to doubt whether the life of György Lukács was a revolutionary one at all. But in his first years as a Marxist he did produce a significant and powerful contribution to Marxist theory. The tragedy of Lukács is that this contribution was smothered by Stalinist counter-revolution, and that he went along with the process. Today’s socialists should know better, and be able to put that contribution to good use in future struggles.

United we stand?

Maeve Connaughton reflected on moves towards left unity in Issue 9 in March 2001.

Sometimes, the argument for unity among socialists seems so blindingly obvious that you feel a bit silly articulating it. For all our differences, all socialists have a common enemy, and agree on an infinitely wider range of questions than we disagree on. If we could work and fight together, shoul­der to shoulder, we would be far stronger and much better placed to con­front capitalism. That’s probably why Karl Marx never wrote “Workers of all countries, divide!”, and why you don’t see “Unity is weakness” embla­zoned on trade union banners. After all, is it not one of the fundamental philosophical premisses of socialism that human beings achieve more by co-operating with each other than by fencing ourselves off from one another?

Indeed, the argument for socialist unity is so straightforward and self-evident that its rejection usually comes wrapped up in acceptance. Of course we are in favour of unity, as much as you like—only not right here, and not right now. Maybe in a few years’ time, or out in the tropics, but present conditions are not favourable to real unity. Therefore, any unity which does come about is only pretend unity, a distraction from the real struggle, got up by mischievous blackguards.

The left is obviously not without a few Cardinal Ratzingers of its own, stubbornly maintaining that the rest of us aren’t true believers at all, just a shower of heretics who are damned until such a time as we see the light. Because this is the logical conclusion for those rejecting unity: that the instrument for proletarian emancipation is already to hand—in the form of their own organisation, it just so happens. It is only a matter of us sinners, and the rest of the working class, waking up to the fact and hastening to take up our pre-ordained stations behind their banner.

If only it were that simple! A bit of humility wouldn’t go amiss here: the forces of revolutionary socialism are extremely weak, without excep­tion. Whatever successes individuals and groups can claim—and there are such successes, of course—we have to face the fact that we are nowhere near strong enough to defeat capitalism’s attacks on our class, never mind inflict serious blows of our own. When groups of workers are victorious, we can hardly claim with our hands on our hearts that we play much more than a bit part, a cameo, a minor supporting role rather than a major pro­tagonist on the stage. To break out beyond this position requires a new approach rather than more of the same; instead of insisting on returning to Portadown by the traditional route, it’s about time we marched to a different tune.

The fact that socialists elsewhere have forged alliances should prove helpful. This doesn’t mean that the Irish left should ape the detail of these initiatives. Suggesting that moves towards unity are an attempt by Johnny Foreigner to impose his alien ways on the Land of Saints and Scholars is a complete red herring. Of course it is true that just because birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, that doesn’t mean that we have to jump on the bandwagon. If left unity is to happen in Ireland, it has to emerge from the necessities of the struggle here. But the struggle here is not isolated from what happens internationally, and the impulses at work elsewhere are at work in Ireland as well. Experience abroad doesn’t create the justifica­tion for unity, but it does reinforce it.

The sudden willingness of many on the left to embrace the idea of unity, after years of rejecting it, has come as a pleasant surprise to many. But a health warning should be attached, because this offer is like those incredi­ble adverts that promise 99% off, 3 for the price of 1, and five years to pay… only to hastily conclude with the fateful words “Terms and condi­tions apply”. The devil is in the detail when people advocate a limited kind of unity, for limited purposes and a limited period only.

For instance, the proviso that any socialist alliance should be primarily electoral. Christmas 1914 in the battlefields springs to mind, when the British and German soldiers stopped fighting and played a game of football in no man’s land… and then, a couple of days later, carried on killing one another. In the same way, we are asked to envisage socialists playing nicely at election time for a couple of weeks, and then returning to their trenches to snipe away as before, business as usual.

Socialists should unite at elections, of course. The spectacle of organi­sations whose names are virtually anagrams of each other once again standing against one another is too pathetic to contemplate. But an elec­toral flag of convenience is not the same as socialist unity. For a start, while elections and parliaments can serve as a platform for winning people over to socialism, they are nowhere near as significant as the actual collec­tive struggles of workers. It is more important to unite on the picket lines and the streets than on the ballot paper. On top of that, the Irish left’s electoral interventions are characterised by a severe case of uneven devel­opment: some have taken elections more seriously than others. The upshot is that the fruits of unity are less likely to ripen in this field than they are in grassroots struggles.

To adapt the words on Parnell’s statue: no one has a right to fix a boundary to the march of socialist unity; no one has a right to say “Thus far shalt thou go, and no further”. If we sincerely believe in unity, we should be prepared to go all the way with it—even if it leads to socialists of various trends uniting in a single organisation, as has happened in Scot­land. The train won’t get anywhere if half the passengers are already pre­paring to jump off before it has even left the station.

The desire to whittle unity down to electoral collaboration, first and foremost, probably lies behind the precipitate calls for unity now or never. No match will get made with people demanding a shotgun wedding. More haste and less speed is needed here. Acres of virgin soil have to be ploughed before things start to grow. Years of mistrust and suspicion have to be overcome, and that will only happen through the patient experience of common work over time, not by the guillotine of a returning officer’s deadline.

It is only natural that this mistrust and suspicion should surface when we see past masters of sectarianism emitting sweetness and light all of a sudden. Have they truly seen the error of their ways, or is this apparent Pauline conversion simply a tactical manoeuvre? The sceptic within each of us will note the persistence of old-fashioned sectarian behaviour, and the reluctance to openly make amends for past errors. Our charitable side will admit that expecting public atonement is a bit utopian, and will welcome any move towards a thaw, giving it the benefit of the doubt.

The jury is still out as to whether the leopard has changed its spots, but the question is, to some extent, academic. If people are indeed acting the maggot, does that mean they’ll get away with it? If people intend to do an about-face somewhere down the line, is that to say that they’ll succeed in forcing the genie back into the bottle? You can only find out if someone is bluffing by sitting at the table and calling them, not by throwing in your hand and walking away.

Far too few people appreciate just what we are dealing with: not just a reshuffling of the pack, but a root-and branch reconstruction of the left. Not the actually existing socialist organisations being nice to each other, but knocking down the walls that unnecessarily divide socialists. Instead of accounting to ourselves alone and bouncing the same ideas off the same four walls, becoming part of a qualitatively different socialist movement with its own irresistable dynamic. A movement of people who are socialists as such, rather than members of this or that gang.

It stands to reason that socialists who stand apart from the present or­ganisational set-ups have a disproportionate role to play in such a process. A larger and more confident layer of independent socialists is a vital neces­sity. It is on these that much of the responsibility will fall of ensuring that any formation that emerges is fully democratic, drawing life from the open competition of ideas, without dissent being elbowed out. Not that this would be one big happy non-sectarian love-in: hard argument will be needed, tested through activism and critical practice. But if all we achieve is uniting the socialists of yesterday, we will have failed. After our meagre achievements, us twentieth-century socialists can claim no prerogative to lead the struggles of the twenty-first century. As they fight their own battles, a new generation of socialists will learn new things, and will learn the old things in new ways. Much of what we have done, they will justifiably reject. If we can put meaningless divisions among socialists out with the rubbish, however, we will have done them a favour, and may earn ourselves the right to play some part in their move­ment. As Marx put it, the socialist revolution can only draw its poetry from the future, not the past.

Revolutionary Lives: William Morris

This remarkable English socialist was discussed by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh in Issue 8 (November 2000).

For almost fifty years, the life of William Morris was not a revolutionary one, but when his conversion to socialism came, it made sense in the light of what went before. Born outside London in 1834 to a well-off family, his poetry and designs made him one of the most respected artists of mid-Victorian Britain. But his work was always motivated by a hatred for the way industrialism had debased craftsmanship, and he wasn’t long in con­cluding “that art cannot have a real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering”.

His first foray into politics came in 1876 when he got involved in a campaign to prevent the British government intervening in an imperialist war between Russia and Turkey. His involvement not only confirmed his loathing for imperialism, but revealed to him the intrigue and treachery of parliamentary politics. His political and artistic concerns then met as he fought a campaign to prevent ancient buildings being ‘restored’ out of existence.

His unease led him to question the fate of his own work. For all his railing against the evils of the upper classes, it was from those same classes that his enthusiastic customers came. “I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”, he complained. He felt a deep desire to fight against the world he had grown to hate: “To do nothing but grumble and not to act—that is throwing away one’s life”. But in the absence of an alternative, he seemed doomed to vainly tilting against the windmills of nineteenth-century capitalism.

“So there I was in for a fine pessimistic end of life,” he later reflected, “if it had not somehow dawned on me that amidst all this filth of civiliza­tion the seeds of a great change, what we others call Social-Revolution, were beginning to germinate. The whole face of things was changed to me by that discovery…” For the first time in a generation and more, efforts were underway to get a socialist movement going in Britain. In 1883 Morris took sides, and joined:

Here are two classes, face to face with each other… No man can exist in society and be neutral, no-body can be a mere looker-on: one camp or another you have got to join: you must either be a reactionary and be crushed by the progress of the race, and help it that way: or you must join in the march of progress, trample down all opposition, and help it that way.

Revolution and class war

Morris’s socialism was never anything other than revolutionary. It had to be, because socialism could only come about through revolution:

The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people’s ears, even when we have ex­plained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accom­pa­nied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment.… people are scared at the idea of such a vast change, and beg that you will speak of reform and not revolution. As, however, we Socialists do not at all mean by our word revolution what these worthy people mean by their word reform, I can’t help thinking that it would be a mistake to use it… So we will stick to our word, which means a change of the basis of society…

Morris was therefore unapologetic about waging a class struggle:

It is most important that young Socialists should have this fact of the class-war always before them. It explains past history, and in the present gives us the only solid hope for the future. And it must be understood that it is only by the due working out of this class-war to its end, the abolition of classes, that Socialism can come about… The middle-class semi-Socialists, driven by class instinct, preach revolution without the class struggle; which is an absurdity and an impossibility.

While “here and there a few men of the upper and middle classes, moved by their conscience and insight, may and doubtless will throw in their lot with the working classes”, it was the working class itself that would de­stroy capitalism: “there is no other force which can do so”. The workers wouldn’t improve their condition through reformist schemes—such as profit sharing, which was only “feeding the dog with his own tail”—but “by the efforts of the workers themselves. ‘By us, and not for us’, must be their motto.”

The chief accusation

Morris said that “the chief accusation I have to bring against the modern state of society is that it is founded on the art-lacking or unhappy labour of the greater part of men”. Everyone, he claimed, should have work to do that is useful, pleasant and not exhausting. And yet, “Simple as that proposition is, and obviously right as I am sure it must seem to you, you will find, when you come to consider the matter, that it is a direct chal­lenge to the death to the present system of labour”. Socialism was all about liberating human labour, creating a world where people could work in a fulfilling way.

When a socialist revolution has swept away capitalism, he said, “the first use we ought to make of that wealth, of that freedom, should be to make all our labour, even the commonest and most necessary, pleasant to everybody”. Everyone should do a variety of work: “To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison-torment.” The citizens of a socialist society should be prepared to sacrifice industrial efficiency and luxury if it could only be obtained by back-breaking, soul-destroying labour: otherwise “our new-won freedom of condition would leave us listless and wretched, if not anxious, as we are now”.

Socialism would halt and reverse the mad urbanisation brought by capitalism:

For all our crowded towns and bewildering factories are simply the out­come of the profit system.… There is no other necessity for all this, save the necessity for grinding profits out of men’s lives, and of pro­ducing cheap goods for the use (and subjection) of the slaves who grind.… People engaged in all such labour need by no means be com­pelled to pig together in close city quarters. There is no reason why they should not follow their occupations in quiet country homes, in indus­trial colleges, in small towns, or, in short, where they find it happiest for them to live.

In his visionary novel News from Nowhere Morris depicts a socialist society where co-operation and solidarity are taken for granted, where people enjoy their relationships with each other and with nature, the old hatreds and habits of class society no more than a distant bad memory. But his intention was never to prescribe plans for socialism, only to envisage the possibilities of human freedom:

Do you think by chance that I mean a row of yellow-brick, blue-slated houses, or a phalangstère like an improved Peabody lodging-house; and the dinner-bell ringing one into a row of white basins of broth with a piece of bread cut nice and square by each, with boiler-made tea and ill boiled rice-pudding to follow? No; that’s the philanthropist’s ideal, not mine… No, I say; find out what you yourselves find pleasant, and do it. You won’t be alone in your desires; you will get plenty to help you in carrying them out, and you will develop social life in developing your own special tendencies.

“Variety of life is as much an aim of true Communism as equality of con­dition”, he said: “nothing but an union of these two will bring about real freedom”.

A religion of socialism?

Morris always had a passion about his socialism, a driving commitment to the cause, that he tried to awaken in others too. His conversion was a heartfelt one, and he was soon writing that “the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion”. Part of this was the healthy zeal of a convert, but another part was a dose of the purism and sectarianism that bedevilled British socialism then, and has done ever since.

He repeated again and again that the first duty was to make socialists, to spread the principles of socialism and convince as many as possible of their truth. There was nothing wrong with this; on the contrary, this is absolutely necessary if a socialist movement is to be more than a collection of transient activists without political understanding. But to Morris, this process became one of virtually building up an elect, ready to leap into the breach when the great day dawned. The Socialist League, he wrote in its founding manifesto, “will do all in its power towards the education of the people in the principles of this great cause, and will strive to organise those who will accept this education, so that when the crisis comes, which the march of events is preparing, there may be a body of men ready to step into their due places and deal with and direct the irresistable movement”.

The truth that socialists aren’t entitled to lead the workers’ movement, but have to win such respect through long and hard involvement in the everyday struggles of the working class, escaped Morris. He welcomed strikes as an expression of revolt against the system, but saw them as something of a diversion from the work of socialist propaganda. “We must be no mere debating club, or philosophical society;” he wrote, “we must take part in all really popular movements”—but this participation was more in the way of finding new people to preach to, rather than taking part in the movements as such. After a visit to Dublin he delivered himself of the following sermon: “To the Irish as to all other nations, whatever their name and race, we Socialists say, Your revolutionary struggles will be abortive or lead to mere disappointment unless you accept as your watch­word, WAGE-WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!” All well and good, but it provided little guidance beyond the slogan itself.

The rising movement of the British working class in the 1880s led to a move to break from dependence on the capitalist parties, and establish an independent party to express workers’ interests in parliament. Morris stood aloof from the whole thing. “DO NOT VOTE AT ALL!” advised an elec­tion leaflet of his: “When those who govern you see the number of votes cast at each election growing less and less… terror will fill their souls”, and eventually the workers would “step in and claim your place, and become the new-born Society of the world”. While other socialists tried to use the election to present socialist arguments to a wider audience of work­ers, Morris recoiled in horror from sullying his hands with parliament.

“I do not mean that at some time or other it might not be necessary for Socialists to go into Parliament”, he grudgingly admitted, but this would only come “on the verge of a revolution”, with the intention of breaking parliament up. For the present, the idea was unthinkable: “I really feel sickened at the idea of all the intrigue and degradation of concession which would be necessary to us as a parliamentary party, nor do I see any neces­sity for a revolutionary party doing any ‘dirty work’ at all, or soiling our­selves with anything that would unfit us for being due citizens of the new order of things.” So the prospect of utilising parliament as a platform for socialist ideas, instead of backstairs compromise, was abandoned; and the idea of keeping socialist MPs under strict discipline, and subordinate to struggles in the real world outside parliament, never occurred to Morris. Indeed, his thoughts went the other way: “I think it will be necessary always to keep alive a body of Socialists of principle who will refuse responsibility for the action of the parliamentary portion of the party”.

Standing apart from the working class as it was on the move, making abstract observations, left Morris and the Socialist League on the sidelines, as he was forced to admit himself: “Socialism is spreading, I suppose on the only lines on which it could spread, and the League is moribund simply because we are outside those lines, as I for one must always be… you cannot keep a body together without giving it something to do in the present”. But his only solution was “to put forward the simple principles of Socialism regardless of the policy of the passing hour.… make Socialists. We Socialists can do nothing else that is useful”. When enough people were converted to socialism, “they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice”.

Intelligence, courage and power

The Socialist League fell apart under the pressure. Not least among the reasons was that, while Morris found himself on the same side as the anar­chist members when it came to parliament, he could not bring himself to agree with their fundamental political position. He had no time at all for the methods advocated by some of them:

It is difficult to express in words strong enough the perversity of the idea that it is possible for a minority to carry on a war of violence against an overwhelming majority without being utterly crushed. There is no royal road to revolution or the change in the basis of society. To make the workers conscious of the disabilities which beset them; to make them conscious of the dormant power in them for the removal of these disabilities, to give them hope and an aim and organization to carry out their aspirations. Here is work enough for the most energetic; it is the work of patience, but nothing can take the place of it.

In his final years Morris moved away very clearly from the sectarian attitudes he previously held. On the question of fighting for reforms, he recognised that many of them were undoubtedly beneficial to workers—but their ultimate benefit depended “on how such reforms were done; in what spirit; or rather what else was being done, while these were going on”. These reforms did attack the rights and privileges of the capitalist class, and if they gave the working class “intelligence enough to conceive of a life of equality and co-operation; courage enough to accept it and to bring the necessary skill to bear on working it; and power enough to force its acceptance on the stupid and the interested”, then they could help the class struggle. By increasing the capacities and confidence of the workers, they could be of service to the fight for socialism. There still remained, of course, “a danger that they will be looked upon as ends in themselves”, as those sponsoring them hoped; but socialists had to see to it that they became a beginning rather than an end.

Realising the socialist commonwealth

Morris’s death in 1896 dealt the British socialist movement a deeply-felt blow. The cause of death given by his doctor wasn’t far off the mark: “he died a victim of his enthusiasm for spreading the principles of Socialism”. A couple of years earlier he had been asked to define his socialism:

Well, what I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.
Now this view of Socialism which I hold to-day, and hope to die holding, is what I began with…

So many have attempted to pervert socialism into a grubby scramble for scraps from the capitalist table. Morris reasserts for us the truth that soc­ial­ism comes through class war and revolution or not at all. So many still conceive of socialism as just a matter of redistributing wealth, or redefining property rights. Morris corrects them for us: socialism is about creating a new world where human beings live and work together in freedom and solidarity, realising their own and each other’s potential. His never-failing emphasis on how the capitalist labour process distorts us, and how social­ism would mean working in a truly human way, is something today’s soc­ialists need to rediscover. Even Morris’s mistakes can teach us, in so far as he overcame them. The difficulty of fighting for revolution without iso­lating ourselves, of fighting everyday battles without losing sight of the goal, is one that socialists will always face; and Morris’s attempts to grapple with it in the past can help us grapple with it in the future. William Morris is not some historical curiosity, a name to be added to the socialist pantheon: he is a socialist we should be learning from.

Orwell and the working class

In July 2000 Maeve Connaughton contributed this article on George Orwell to Issue 7.

Socialism didn’t come naturally to George Orwell. As he famously described it, he came from “the lower-upper-middle class”, a “shabby-genteel family” concerned above all with “keeping up appearances”. As a boy he was warned off playing with working-class children and taught that “The lower classes smell”. “So, very early, the working class ceased to be a race of friendly and wonderful beings and became a race of enemies.” (RWP 113-19.) Even when he affected a socialist attitude in his teenage years this outlook endured:

I was both a snob and a revolutionary.… I loosely described myself as a Socialist. But I had not much grasp of what Socialism meant, and no notion that the working class were human beings. At a distance, I could agonise over their sufferings, but I still hated them and despised them when I came anywhere near them.… I seem to have spent half the time in denouncing the capitalist system and the other half in raging over the insolence of bus-conductors.

RWP 130-32

The five years he spent as an imperial policeman in Burma gave him a real hatred of oppression. He left the job, but felt the need for a fuller escape: “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants.” The working class began to enter his consciousness, but only, he admitted, as “the symbolic victims of injustice”. His ignorance meant that he turned, not towards industrial workers, but towards “tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes.… ‘the lowest of the low’”: by living as one of them, he thought, “I should have touched bottom, and part of my guilt would drop from me”. During his time as a tramp—described in his first book Down and Out in Paris and London—he was accepted for the first time by people of another class; but he soon realised that this was not the typical life of the working class: “unfortunately you do not solve the class problem by making friends with tramps” (RWP 138-43).

Orwell’s political position was frankly confused, then, as he struggled in his early thirties to make a living as a writer. He hated exploitation, felt guilty about the part he had personally played in it, and yearned for some way of ending it. Barriers of class, prejudice, ignorance and mis­understanding stood in the way of throwing in his lot with the working class. So when his publisher commissioned him in early 1936 to write a book on poverty in the industrial north of England, it could hardly have come at a better time. As well as seeing and exposing the reality of mass unemployment, it would allow him “to see the most typical section of the English working class at close quarters. This was necessary to me as part of my approach to Socialism.” (RWP 113.)

A sort of honorary proletarian

The months Orwell spent in working-class areas of northern England left him with profound admiration and respect for the workers he met and lived with. “I have seen just enough of the working class to avoid idealising them”, he wrote, but he came away thinking their lifestyle superior to his own:

There is much in middle-class life that looks sickly and debilitating when you see it from a working-class angle.
In a working-class home—I am not thinking at the moment of the unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes—you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which it is not easy to find elsewhere. I should say that a manual worker, if he is in steady work and drawing good wages—an ‘if’ which gets bigger and bigger—has a better chance of being happy than an ‘educated’ man.

A working-class home “is a good place to be in, provided that you can be not only in it but sufficiently of it to be taken for granted” (RWP 106-8).

This was where Orwell had a problem. For all the help and kindness he received, he told his diary, “I cannot get them to treat me precisely as an equal” (CEJL I 199).

For some months I lived entirely in coal-miners’ houses. I ate my meals with the family, I washed at the kitchen sink, I shared bedrooms with miners, drank beer with them, played darts with them, talked to them by the hour together. But though I was among them, and I hope and trust I was not a nuisance, I was not one of them, and they knew it even better than I did. However much you like them, however interesting you find their conversation, there is always that accursed itch of class-difference, like the pea under the princess’s mattress.

RWP 145

The differences between him and the workers he met were real, and couldn’t be wished away: “it is no use clapping a proletarian on the back and telling him that he is as good a man as I am”; what was needed was “a complete abandonment of the upper-class and middle-class attitude to life” (RWP 150).

Orwell had abandoned the position of his own class and was committing to the position of the working class. He was too brutally honest to pretend that this transition would be painless. Most people who would have counted for middle-class back then have since been swept into the working class, and habits and lifestyles have converged to a large extent across the broad span of working people. But in the 1930s there was a huge gulf between industrial workers and the likes of Orwell. His journey to the working class was a real leap, and he was under no illusion that that leap could be avoided by a bit of slumming, or by letting on that there was no leap to be made.

At the same time, he did make too much of the difference. True, the snobbery he was reared with had to be eradicated, he had to see and treat workers as equals. But there was no need to abandon the harmless aspects of his middle-class heritage. To understand the world from a working-class point of view and to fight accordingly—this was essential. But drinking tea from a saucer or eating peas with a knife had nothing to do with the essence of the working-class struggle. The unemployed miner who showed him round Sheffield, who accepted him in spite of his background, had a sounder attitude: “he told me at the very start I was a bourgeois and remarked on my ‘public school twang’. However, I think he was disposed to treat me as a sort of honorary proletarian” (CEJL I 221).

Middle-class versus working-class socialism

Orwell’s agonising over the issue was not entirely personal. Many socialists of a similar background to his own, he felt, only stood with the working class in the abstract: “most middle-class Socialists, while theoretically pining for a classless society, cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige”. Their adherence to socialism didn’t stop them preferring the company and manners of their own class to that of the workers. At the root of this was their conception of socialism itself: “The truth is that to many people, calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders.” (RWP 162, 167.)

Orwell’s attack on middle-class socialists in The Road to Wigan Pier, where he damned them all as cranks, went way over the top. And anyway, the lessening of the gap in the meantime has left elitist left-wingers with less of a height from which to look down their nose. But such creatures do exist: the ‘socialist’ whose contribution to the cause is attending a fundraising cocktail party for Ruairí Quinn; who counts the silver after the man has come to fix the washing machine; who wants to bestow blessings from on high upon an ignorant proletariat. Even on the real left, a far more benign version of the problem sometimes manifests itself. Differences of income, education, status lead to differences of attitude which are no less real for being unconscious. Who can deny the persistence of the type of thing Orwell heard from participants at a socialist summer school: “working-class people were annoyed by patronizing airs put on by some of the others” (CEJL I 244)?

However, Orwell didn’t hold out much of a prospect for working-class socialism either. While he wrote that the working-class socialist “is one of the finest types of man we have” (RWP 152), he was none too impressed with the “sheeplike crowd” at a left-wing social: “I suppose these people represented a fair cross-section of the more revolutionary element in Wigan. If so, God help us.” (CEJL I 207.) Socialist theory meant nothing to the workers:

Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class.… a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist in the complete, logically consistent sense.… To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.… no genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of Socialism.

A working-class socialist, like a working-class Catholic, had no under­standing of the doctrine, “but he has the heart of the matter in him” (RWP 161-4, 206).

All this was meant as a compliment. For the intellectual, Orwell is saying, socialism is only a theoretical proposition for a rational re­arrangement of society; for the worker, it is a heartfelt commitment to justice and freedom. But what about the workers who believed in socialism heart and soul, but also had a theoretical foundation to underpin it? Most of the workers who showed Orwell round were socialist activists, who took a conscious part in trying to change their conditions, and had read their Marx and other left-wing literature. Orwell wrote that he was “surprised by the amount of Communist feeling here” (CEJL I 201), which can only be put down to a mixture of ignorance and preconception. And so he was left with a dichotomy between “the warm-hearted unthinking Socialist, the typical working-class Socialist” on the one hand, and “the intellectual, book-trained Socialist” on the other (RWP 169). The warm-hearted, thinking working-class socialist doesn’t appear to have existed for him.

Working-class suffering and working-class consciousness do meet up, however, at one point in Orwell’s journey. He sees a young woman trying to unblock a drainpipe, a woman whose face has

the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum back­yard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

RWP 15

The us and them of this passage are coming together: the socialist from a middle-class background looks at a worker contending with poverty, and realises that the two of them are at one on the matter. Orwell saw this incident while walking along a back alley near the beginning of his stay in the north, but in The Road to Wigan Pier he sets a different scene: he sees the woman from the train as he is returning south. What he takes away with him is the potential of an alliance with the working class, but also a mindfulness of his status as an outsider.

The air of equality

That alliance was finally forged—albeit temporarily—in Spain, where Orwell went at the end of 1936 to fight Franco. His description of revolu­tionary Barcelona is justly celebrated: “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.” People treated each other as equals, as comrades, and the ruling class seemed to have disappeared. The situation was “queer and moving” to Orwell: “There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” (HC 2‑3.)

As a soldier in a revolutionary militia he was on terms of equality with workers, living, working and fighting together with them in a way that prefigured a socialist community:

one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism. One had breathed the air of equality.… For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like.

HC 83-4

The personal comradeship he established with workers broke down the old barriers that had haunted him. He paid tribute to the “essential decency” of the Catalan working class, “their straightforwardness and generosity”. Amid the confusing infighting on the anti-fascist side, a new-found instinct led him in the right direction: “I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.” (HC 10, 104.)

He came back a different person, confirmed in his socialism. “I have seen wonderful things”, he told a friend, “& at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.” (CEJL I 301.) The experience made “my desire to see Socialism established much more actual” (HC 84). Orwell finally believed in socialism fully when he finally became a part of the working class in revolution.

Workers and theorists

It would be fair to describe Orwell’s politics in this period as revolutionary socialist. Although this was no longer the case a couple of years later, he retained a resolute opposition to the Stalinist perversion of socialism, and clung to the idea that socialism was about freedom for the working class. He traced these two divergent conceptions of socialism to two divergent elements of the socialist movement: “the word ‘Socialism’ means some­thing quite different to a working man from what it means to a middle-class Marxist” (CEJL I 371).

He saw this distinction in the membership of the British Communist Party. The socialism of its middle-class leadership “amounts simply to nationalism and leader-worship in their most vulgar forms, transferred to the U.S.S.R.” Stalinism provided them with a religion to believe in after their traditional middle-class values had disintegrated. On the other hand, “it is possible to respect” the working-class Communists, who “cannot always be rigidly faithful to the ‘line’” (CEJL II 175). These rank-and-file members supported the party “without necessarily understanding its policies” (CEJL I 563).

Again, Orwell is with the real socialism of the workers against the fake socialism of the intellectuals, but this working-class socialism is premised on political ignorance. He is prepared to welcome workers’ rule, but sees such rule being based on morality instead of political analysis:

My chief hope for the future is that the common people have never parted company with their moral code. I have never met a genuine working man who accepted Marxism, for instance. I have never had the slightest fear of a dictatorship of the proletariat, if it could happen, and certain things I saw in the Spanish war confirmed me in this. But I admit to having a perfect horror of a dictatorship of theorists, as in Russia or Germany.

CEJL I 583

While placing his hope in the workers, he sees their fight as an un­conscious one. “The struggle of the working class is like the growth of a plant”, he wrote: “The plant is blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing upwards towards the light” (CEJL II 299).

Spain had brought Orwell face to face with even more politically-conscious workers. He had no excuse for denying that working-class socialists and socialist theory could go together. But the heated political arguments in the trenches appear to be the one aspect of the Spanish revolution that left him cold—until Stalinist repression left him with no choice but to come to grips with them. Orwell was never one for the theory of socialism: it was good enough for him that the world was wrong, and that socialism could put it right. The argument that theoretical work was needed to achieve that didn’t convince him—perhaps because it often came from those who had abandoned that necessary commitment to justice. When he adopted a faith in socialism, and in the capacity of the working class to achieve it, he seems to have transposed his own anti-theoretical, ethical approach to them.

Some animals are more equal than others?

Orwell’s classic fable Animal Farm (1945) is relevant here, as it is essen­tially the story of a workers’ revolution betrayed by its leaders. Why, exactly, are the leaders, the pigs, able to subvert the animals’ revolution, setting up a tyranny of their own in place of the old tyranny of the humans? T S Eliot gave one answer when rejecting the book on behalf of his publishers, an answer that enjoys some currency much further to his left: “Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm.”, he wrote. “What was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.” (Shelden 403.)

At first sight this reading seems plausible. After all, right from the beginning, even before the revolution, “The work of teaching and organising the others fell naturally upon the pigs, who were generally recognised as being the cleverest of the animals.” The faithful horses “had great difficulty in thinking anything out for themselves, but having once accepted the pigs as their teachers they absorbed everything that they were told, and passed it on to the other animals by simple arguments” (AF 9-11). So, on the face of it, the educated leaders have to do the thinking on behalf of their stupid followers.

But before leaping to denounce a libel on the working class, readers would do well to remind themselves that Orwell is writing a satire. He tells the tale in a deliberate tone of naive, deadpan innocence: every betrayal of the pigs is related as they themselves would relate it, in a sort of official report. When the pigs keep the milk to themselves, when they drive out Snowball, when they start to trade with humans, the book tells us that the animals at first thought something was up, but soon saw that such measures were of course necessary. To claim that this pig’s-eye view is Orwell’s view—that to him some animals are indeed more equal than others—is like reading A Modest Proposal and concluding that Jonathan Swift favoured the eating of children.

This is clear, for instance, from the matter of animal literacy. The pigs learned to read and write perfectly before the revolution; the horses managed a few letters of the alphabet, but couldn’t form words; and most of the animals couldn’t get beyond the letter A. This is not because the pigs are naturally gifted and the other animals (by implication, the working class) naturally thick. Socialists shouldn’t need telling that illiteracy results from a deficient educational system, not a lack of intelligence. That the pigs cultivated the ignorance of the other animals can be seen from the ironical observation that, despite their illiteracy, “The reading and writing classes, however, were a great success.” (AF 20.)

The revolution that fails in Animal Farm is not actually a revolution of the working class for freedom, the thing Orwell hoped for, but the thing Orwell feared: a revolution of leaders who care nothing for justice, and use the workers to bring themselves to power. From the word go, the pigs are in the driving seat:

The pigs did not actually work, but directed and supervised the others. With their superior knowledge it was natural that they should assume the leadership.… It was always the pigs who put forward the resolu­tions.… It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy.

AF 17, 19, 31

The other animals had accepted the pigs as their natural superiors, and that was their undoing. In the same way, Orwell is saying, the workers should rely on themselves and be wary of all leaders. He even spelt it out:

I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improve­ment when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.… What I was trying to say was, ‘You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.’

Shelden 407

However, the chances of a revolution made by the masses themselves is lessened by a belief, such as Orwell’s, that it would be based on morality without theory. Repeatedly, the animals twig that things have gone wrong; what they lack is the framework to conceptualise their feelings:

Several of them would have protested if they could have found the right arguments.… Once again the animals were conscious of a vague un­easiness.… If she [Clover, the horse] could have spoken her thoughts, it would have been to say that this was not what they had aimed at when they had set themselves years ago to work for the overthrow of the human race.… Such were her thoughts, though she lacked the words to express them.

AF 36, 43, 58-9

This lack of theory leaves a vacuum that treacherous leaders can fill; the way to stop them is for the workers to fill it themselves.

Hope in the proles?

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is also the story of a failed rebellion, Winston Smith’s rebellion against Big Brother and the Party. He seems to put his trust in the working class. “If there is hope,” he says several times, “it lies in the proles.” (NEF 72.) But the proles, to him, are a herd of unthinking animals:

They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies.… people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. If there was hope, it lay in the proles!… Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come.

NEF 73, 229-30

He sees the proles as rebellion-fodder, not human beings, as explosive material to blow up the system, suppliers of brawn not brain.

Winston’s own contact with the proles is non-existent, unless we count his distasteful encounter with a prostitute. When he hears an argument in the street, he imagines the revolution dawning, only to dismiss it as a meaningless row over a shortage of pots. He goes on what is virtually an anthropological field trip to the prole part of town, and gets talking to an old man. The man remembers the things that interest him—including a socialist meeting, and his anger at upper-class arrogance—but Winston is disappointed, because the man has failed to fill in his preconceived verbal questionnaire for him.

Winston never understands that dissatisfaction over shortages could lead on to something bigger, or that the reminiscences of the old man might contain germs of class-consciousness.

even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances. The larger evils in­variably escaped their notice.… They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.

NEF 75, 96-7

Instead of taking the present position and attitude of the proles as his starting point, he demands that they should adopt his own starting point— and dismisses them when they don’t. His belief in them is only theoretical: “if there was hope, it lay in the proles.… When you put it in words it sounded reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith.” (NEF 89.)

A facile but stubborn trend in Orwell criticism insists on identifying the author with his central characters. Not only does this overlook the fact that Orwell was a writer; in the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four it stands in the way of understanding his politics. Orwell’s scepticism over the theoretical potential of the working class is an awful long way away from Winston’s patronising view of the proles as noble savages. His attitude is that of the type of middle-class intellectual Orwell had been criticising for years: “Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snob­bishness” (CEJL III 424). For one brief moment it occurs to Winston that the proles are human beings, but—a bit like Orwell as a teenager—his feeling for them never gets the better of his contempt for them. Because hope really does lie in the proles themselves, and not in those who would lead them by the nose, it is little wonder that he ends up loving Big Brother.

Worth fighting for

The underlying feature of Orwell’s socialism—both its good and its bad sides—is that he understood the indissoluble link between socialism and the working class. For him, socialism was a movement of the workers to create a decent and free life for themselves, or it was nothing. This is why he saw his own journey to socialism as a journey to the working class, why he was determined to get to know them and their lives, why he un­necessarily agonised over the barriers between him and them. This is why his involvement in the Spanish revolution, when the workers were briefly in the saddle, influenced him so profoundly. This is why he fought with all his might against those who saw socialism as something other than the liberation of the working class.

The big shortcoming of Orwell’s socialism is his opposition to theory. His unwillingness to see socialist theory among workers had nothing to do with underestimating the mental capacities of the working class, and everything to do with underestimating the need for theory in the fight for socialism. He had seen and heard so many on the left propounding socialist theory in opposition to the ideas of justice and equality, that it never occurred to him that a socialist theory could support the ideas of justice and equality. Without such a theory, his socialism could only be revolu­tionary as long as revolution seemed an immediate prospect. When revolution did present itself, as it did in Spain, he embraced it with open arms. For those working to elaborate and spread a theory of workers’ revolution fifty years after his death, Orwell’s reaction to Barcelona can apply to our opinion of his socialism. There is much in it we cannot understand, in some ways we cannot even like it, but we should recognise it immediately as a kind of socialism worth fighting for.

AF             George Orwell, Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (Penguin 1989)
CEJL         The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, four volumes (Penguin 1970)
HC             George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Penguin 1989)
NEF           George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin 1989)
RWP          George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (Penguin 1989)
Shelden   Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorised Biography (Heinemann 1991)

Embracing the butcher? Brecht and Stalinism

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh looked at German writer Bertolt Brecht and his unhappy relationship with Stalinism in Issue 6 (March 2000).

When Bertolt Brecht became a Marxist in the late 1920s, he was already an established artist. The fact that he embraced Marxism helped cut off what seemed like a certain route to popular acclaim and financial success. But more importantly it helped him to an understanding of the world people lived in, and to show them, on the stage and in his poems, how they lived and how they could live.

But Brecht’s political involvement was complicated by the fact that his commitment to Marxism took the form—not surprisingly—of an adher­ence to the politics of the Communist Party. By sheer coincidence, this adherence commenced as Stalin finally consolidated his counter-revolution in Russia, and ended with his death just as Stalin’s heirs were repudiating his worst excesses. His support was never unqualified, however: Brecht’s relationship with Stalinism was destined to be a rocky one.

Unlike many a middle-class intellectual who fellow-travelled with the Communists at the time, Brecht didn’t suddenly see the light and, falling over with admiration for the way the trains ran on time in Moscow, rush to burn incense at the altar of Uncle Joe. As he later commented, he took something of a “cold route” to Communism. He made a serious independ­ent study of Marxism before committing to it.

In 1926, wanting to understand the workings of international commerce for a play he was writing, he went straight to the source: he took Book One of Capital on holiday to study. He read all the Marxist literature he could lay his hands on over the next couple of years, and attended lectures by the independent Marxist sociologist Fritz Sternberg.

He dipped his toe in the water with contributions to a Communist satirical paper, but didn’t commit himself to the Party until 1929, after witnessing the police open fire on a banned May Day demonstration. Even then he didn’t actually join the KPD (Communist Party of Germany). This could be down to the party’s belief that they could get more capital out of intellectuals if they remained formally outside, as sympathisers; or Brecht may just have declined to join. But the result was that he became a Communist to all intents and purposes, but could maintain something of a distance from Party policy when it suited.

Brecht’s first avowedly Communist play is The Measure (1930, written with Elisabeth Hauptmann). Four Party members come from Moscow to China, where they efface their individual features in order to become anonymous agitators, prepared to do whatever is necessary:

He who fights for Communism
Has of all virtues only one:
That he fights for Communism.

The youngest of them works with a group of coolies, and encourages them to demand better working conditions. But he is caught, and the agita­tors are run out of town. When he asks is it not right to help the oppressed, he is told that he shouldn’t have jeopardised the party’s propaganda work. He is instructed to form an alliance with a merchant against the English imperialists, to get arms. But he is disgusted by the merchant’s contempt for his coolies and walks out without arms. Again he is berated by his comrades:

What baseness would you not commit, to
Wipe out baseness?…
Who are you?
Sink in filth
Embrace the butcher…

Working amongst the unemployed, the young agitator cannot fulfil the Party policy of holding back their demonstrations: “I can see with my two eyes that misery cannot wait.” He is told that it is the Party’s eyes that matter, not his:

The individual can be annihilated
But the Party cannot be annihilated

“I see oppression”, he protests. “I’m for the cause of freedom!” “Silence!” his comrades reply: “This is treason!” The agitators are exposed and have to flee the country.

They decide that they can neither bring their young comrade with them, nor leave him behind to get caught. The only solution is to shoot him and throw his body into a lime pit. The errant agitator consents to his execu­tion, “In the interests of Communism”. The Control Chorus, to whom the story is related, approve of their action.

It is no accident that Brecht wrote a play on the theme of Communist Party discipline just after accepting that discipline (albeit with reserva­tions) himself. Like anyone who thinks before throwing in their lot with a political organisation, he had his doubts about the restrictions this would impose on him. His reaction in The Measure seems to be a casting aside of these doubts, however, rather than a resolution of them.

He was concerned that unpleasant things would have to be done to change the world, that bitter pills would have to be swallowed. Of course, they do: the only thing is to maintain a healthy individual scepticism, to judge each unpleasantness on its own merits, to read the label before swallowing the pill. Instead, Brecht’s attitude here is to dismiss such scepticism as a bourgeois prejudice, to abdicate individual conscience to the Party conscience, to do as you’re told.

Communist Party reaction to The Measure was unfavourable. It was pointed out, quite rightly, that Lenin never believed in holding aloof from premature, spontaneous struggles, but in playing a part in them. One KPD theoretician wisely noted that “The conflict between reason and emotion is a basic experience of the bourgeois intellectual who is about to join the revolutionary proletariat.” They were most concerned, however, to make clear that those who strayed from the party line were not killed, but expelled (which was a fate worse than death anyhow). It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that Brecht had let their cat out of the bag, had put his finger on an almost masochistic mind-set existing on the left. In the light of the Moscow show trials a few years later, when leading Communists would confess all sorts of guilt and plead for the sternest punishments, The Measure can be seen as one of the first theatrical tragedies to deal with the political tragedy that was Stalinism.

The Party was happier with his 1932 adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s novel The Mother. A similar problem is presented in a less austere way when a sympathiser complains to the central character: “I heard your aim was to fight for freedom, but in the process you set up in your party the very worst kind of slavery. Some freedom! Nothing but orders and com­pulsion!” She replies:

It’s the same with freedom as it is with your money, Nikolai Ivanovitch. Since I’ve only been giving you a little pocket money, you’re able to buy a lot more. By spending less money for a while, you can then spend more money. You can’t argue with that.

But of course you can argue with that. Thinking for yourself is one of those precious commodities that can only be preserved by not rationing it. This conception—that socialists wait to be given the right to think every now and again, as a treat, and that the paternal dispensers of freedom are only doing this for their own good—fits in well with the Stalinist under­standing of political organisation, because freedom isn’t the aim of such organisation. The sympathiser throws in the towel: “I shall give up arguing with you. You’re a terrible tyrant.” “Yes, well,” she replies, “we have to be, don’t we.”

At the same time, however, Brecht continued to take his own counsel. He progressed from one non-Stalinist Marxist, Sternberg, to an even better one. Karl Korsch had been expelled from the KPD (although not thrown in a lime pit) in 1926, but had continued to work on rediscovering and develop­ing the critical heart of Marxist theory. Brecht attended his lectures and engaged in lengthy private discussion with him. They agreed to disagree on Stalinism, but Brecht later told his friend, “I regard you as my teacher”.

Brecht also took great pleasure in puncturing the arrogance of the KPD. In one of his cryptic Keuner Stories, for instance: “‘I have noticed,’ said Herr K, ‘that we have scared many people away from our teachings by the fact that we know all the answers. Could we not, in the interests of propa­ganda, draw up a list of questions which we see as completely unsolved?’”

Brecht managed to escape Germany the day after the Reichstag fire con­solidated the Nazis’ rule. Exile was never going to go down well with an artist whose work had always been completely collaborative. But the politi­cal moorings that should have helped sustain him weren’t as strong as they could have been. Two months into his exile, he writes: “up until now the existence of the party seems to have impaired rather than fostered cohesion among the refugees; they’re waiting for directives, party lines, arbitrations etc”.

He did his fair share of work with anti-fascist committees, congresses, and appeals. But when he told a writers’ congress in Paris in 1935 that fascism could only be effectively fought by fighting capitalism, his speech went unreported in the Communist press: the line had changed, and talk of socialism was now to be toned down to attract the middle class into a popular front.

His cultural activity with the Communists fared no better. He was nominal editor of a literary journal published in Moscow from 1936; but his attempts to develop unorthodox artistic approaches against the Stalinist prescription of ‘socialist realism’ came up against a brick wall. A Communist agitprop company staged The Mother in New York, but insisted on adapting it politically and theatrically to the party line.

Brecht lived in Switzerland, then Scandinavia, and finally the United States. Spending his exile in Russia never seemed an option. He visited the country in 1935, but when asked why he didn’t settle there, smiled and said, “I couldn’t get enough sugar for my tea and coffee.” It was just as well: many of his friends who had moved to Russia found themselves marginalised artistically and politically, and eventually ‘disappeared’ in the purges. In his journal he reflected on the fate of his friends, and of Russian society: “literature and art seem to be in the shit, political theory to have gone to the dogs, there’s a kind of bureaucratically favoured thin bloodless proletarian humanism”.

In a work that remained unpublished during his lifetime, he criticised “The absence of freedom of thought and freedom of combination, the false professions, the arbitrary administrative measures… it was not the members who elected the secretaries but the secretaries who elected the members… When mistakes were made the people who criticised them were punished”. Revolutionary leadership shouldn’t be administrative, should have an ethical dimension, and demand proof instead of faith.

He confided his doubts to his friend Walter Benjamin (another un­orthodox Marxist) during 1938. “Personal government rules in Russia”, he told him. “Only blockheads can deny that, of course.… In Russia a dictatorship over the proletariat rules.” The reason was that “You can’t have a socialist economy in one country.” This had its cultural reflection: “It’s interpreted as malice if Stalin’s name doesn’t turn up in a poem.” “He is following the Russian developments”, wrote Benjamin in his diary,

and also Trotsky’s writings. They prove that there exists a suspicion; a justified suspicion that promotes a sceptical view of Russian affairs. Such scepticism is in the spirit of the [Marxist] classics. Should it prove correct one day, then the regime will have to be fought—and openly, indeed. But “unfortunately or thank God, whichever you prefer”, this suspicion is not yet certain.

Brecht still saw Russia as more progressive than the West, as a political entity that should be defended—especially with war around the corner. So while he privately criticised Stalinism in his journal, in his poems, in conversation with his closest friends, publicly he came out in support of it. He even made a statement in support of the Moscow trials (while refusing to join in the more slavish eulogies).

In Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechwan (written in the late thirties) the good Shen Te can only survive in this world by adopting the mean, calculating persona of Shui Ta now and again. All of us, at one time or another, have had to keep quiet, bite our lip, go along with things to avoid the wrath of the boss, the union bureaucrat, the party hack, or what­ever. There are times when you have to bend rather than break. But for Brecht to come out in support of Stalin’s Russia—particularly when he was well aware of the sort of crimes it was committing—went beyond the limits of compromise.

Brecht’s attempts to gain a foothold in the US film and theatre world proved unsuccessful, and the rise of McCarthyism would have put paid to his American career, such as it was. So Brecht returned to Europe, as half of the continent and half of his own land came into Stalin’s orbit.

But he was in no hurry to take up residence in the Russian-controlled sector of Germany, where socialism was busy being constructed, according to its rulers. He moved to Switzerland and stayed there a year before going to East Berlin. A journalist who asked for his impressions of the city after fifteen years received the cautious reply: “Before I say anything, I want to see what it is like”. The bosses of the East German Communist party (the Socialist Unity Party, or SED) threw an official reception in his honour: he sat through the speeches and when it came his turn to reply he stood up, looked around, shook hands with the officials on either side of him, sat down again, and started eating his soup.

He hedged his bets as far as he could. He gave the copyright on his works to a West German publisher, giving him some financial and pro­fessional independence from the East. Physical independence he gained by applying for an Austrian passport and thus freedom to travel outside the Eastern bloc.

The East German authorities were keen to show off their cultural acquisition: Bertolt Brecht, the famous playwright, had sided with them. And they were prepared to give him certain privileges in return: a country house, for example, the offer of an official car. He took the house, but preferred to stay in the gardener’s cottage. The car he turned down for an old banger he bought himself; and any porters who opened the car door for him were bemused to see him stubbornly get out the passenger side. But above all he was given the opportunity to establish the Berliner Ensemble, a company with which he could put on plays in his own way.

It was a far cry from the frustrating life of an émigré playwright without actors, the life he had known since Hitler came to power. Another of the Keuner Stories says a lot: “Herr K preferred city B to city A. ‘…In city A I was asked to the table; but in city B I was asked into the kitchen.’”

But he still had no control over the menu. In 1951 the authorities tried to stop a production of his The Trial of Lucullus (1939): an anti-war play was not appropriate while their allies were in the middle of the Korean war. They managed to limit the audience to SED members, but many of these had no interest and sold their tickets, often to West Berliners. The audience applauded, but the Communist papers condemned. Brecht was summoned to an eight-hour audience with Party chiefs, after which he enquired (tongue ever so slightly in cheek): “Where else in the world can you find a government that shows such interest in, and pays such attention to, artists?” He made a few changes which amounted to little, and stayed away from the premiere of the new version. Then he published the original version and gave permission for it to be performed in West Germany.

To keep the government happy, he wrote Herrnburg Report, a poor propaganda piece condemning the Bonn government’s arrest of West German Communists crossing to a youth festival in the East. The Party was happy enough, but curtailed the play’s run: it wasn’t long before they were introducing far more draconian travel restrictions of their own. No wonder his play The Days of the Commune (1948) was banned until after his death: even a fictionalised version of the workers of Paris taking power eighty years earlier frightened the Stalinists. Brecht wrote few plays after returning to Germany, concentrating instead on producing his earlier work or that of other playwrights.

The tensions inherent in Brecht’s stand were stretched to breaking point by the events of 1953. March brought the good news of Stalin’s death, and paeans of praise from everyone who was anyone in the Stalinist world. But Brecht’s ‘tribute’ was cleverly ambiguous: “When they heard that Stalin was dead, it must have stopped the heartbeats of the oppressed in five continents… But the intellectual and material weapons he created are still there, and there is the teaching to create anew.”

He tried to take advantage of the slight thaw that followed, and his own reputation in the West as something of a dissident, to get a permanent theatre for his company. “You have probably heard that the wildest rumours have been circulating in West Germany about friction between the government of the German Democratic Republic and myself”, he wrote teasingly to an SED leader. “If the Berliner Ensemble, which is known far beyond the borders of Germany, were to take over the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, my solidarity with our republic would be evident to all.”

This letter was written on 15 June, as a building workers’ strike was causing big trouble for the government. Two days later, it had grown into a general strike across the cities of East Germany, demanding not only the withdrawal of plans for increased productivity, but free elections and democracy. For a short time the regime tottered, before Russian tanks crushed the revolt. The government was forced to roll back on the worst aspects of the productivity plan.

The uprising left Brecht with a stark choice: to side with the Communist party, or with the workers. He wrote to the party secretary:

History will pay its respects to the patience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
The great debate with the masses about the tempo of socialist con­struction will have the effect of testing and safeguarding the achieve­ments of socialism.
At this moment I feel it necessary to assure you of my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

This was calculated to be another delicate piece of fence-sitting: history might pay its respects to the SED, but he refrained from paying his own; popular involvement in economic planning was needed; and his expression of solidarity was a formal and bare one. But for once the Party was cleverer than Brecht: only the final sentence was published, without Brecht’s quali­fications. Brecht carried a copy of the full letter around with him, helplessly showing it to anyone who would look, but the damage was done: he was portrayed as an uncritical supporter of Stalinism against popular revolt.

This portrayal was not an altogether unjust one. For all its reservations, his message did come down clearly on the side of the government. And he did accept and repeat the official lies about the rising—that legitimate grievances were exploited by fascist elements and Western governments. He believed that the German people were still fascist at heart, and that free elections would only result in Nazis getting in.

But as usual he expressed private misgivings. A poem that he circulated amongst friends commented on the remark of a Communist hack during the rioting that the people had lost the government’s confidence:

…Would it not be
Simpler, then, for the government to
Dissolve the people and
Elect another?

He wrote nothing in his diary for months, before admitting there that “the 17 June has alienated the whole of existence”. Another poem was stronger still:

Last night in a dream I saw fingers, pointing at me
As at a leper. They were toil-worn and
They were broken.

You don’t know! I cried

The Berliner Ensemble got its theatre. The gap opened by 17 June was widened by artists, including Brecht. The state, he wrote, should “refrain from administrative interference in matters of artistic production and style. Criticism should be left to the public.” He led the attack on the State Arts Commission, a bastion of Stalinist philistinism, and got it abolished. He played a part in winning greater freedom—on the back of a revolt he had opposed.

He continued to harbour private opposition to Stalinism. One poem referred to Stalin as “Honoured Murderer of the People”. He sympathised with those trying to reform the SED, and was under constant surveillance by the secret police. But publicly he remained, as always, loyal but awkward—right up to his death in 1956. The bureaucracy were preparing for a pompous funeral with plenty of speechifying opportunities, but Brecht, it turned out, had specified a quiet funeral: no speeches, no lying in state. He had told a friend to write him an honest obituary: “Don’t write that you admire me! Write that I was an uncomfortable person, and that I intend to remain so after my death. Even then there are certain possibilities.”

One of Brecht’s greatest plays is Life of Galilei, written in 1938-9, revised in 1947 and again in 1954. Galileo, on the verge of proving that the earth moves round the sun, moves to Florence to become court mathematician. The court is run by obscurantist monks, but he will at least have the oppor­tunity to pursue his researches. He writes to the grand duke that he longs to be “closer to you, the rising sun that will illuminate this epoch”, but wonders if his letter is grovelling enough: “A man like me can only get a halfway decent job by crawling on his belly.”

Galileo’s further discoveries come up against the Vatican’s ban. “The whole of Europe wants to know your opinion”, his pupil Andrea Sarti tells him; “your reputation is so wide, you can’t just keep silent.” “Rome has allowed me to get a wide reputation because I’ve kept silent”, he replies. He later writes to the cardinal to approve of his condemnation of Venice’s rebellious ropemakers. “By the depth of my repentance”, he tells Andrea, “I have earned enough goodwill from my superiors to enable me to engage in scientific studies to a modest extent under clerical supervision.”

Galileo manages to write his Discorsi, the work that will revolutionise science, and Andrea smuggles it abroad. He had thought that Galileo betrayed science to save his own skin—but now he realises that he was surrendering so that he could carry on his research, the work that no one else could do. Scientific progress is more important to humanity than individual martyrdom.

Did Brecht do the same? Did he accept Stalinism, work for it, support it even as it suppressed workers fighting for freedom, all so that he could continue to work, to provide humanity with the art that no one else would have produced?

In the play Brecht makes Galileo disagree with Andrea:

I had as a scientist an unparalleled chance. In my day astronomy reached the marketplace. In these circumstances the steadfastness of one man could have made a big impact. If I had resisted, the natural scientists could have developed something like the doctors’ Hippocratic oath, the pledge to use their knowledge only for the good of humanity! As it is the best we can hope for is a race of ingenious dwarves that can be hired for anything. Besides, I have come to the conclusion, Sarti, that I was never in any real danger. For a couple of years I was as strong as the authorities. And I handed over my knowledge to the powerful to use, to not use, to misuse, whatever suited their purposes.

Brecht could not but have thought long and hard on these words as the play was being presented by the Berliner Ensemble the year before his death. After all, he had sold himself too cheaply. As a director he had the opportunity to produce his best work in East Germany; but he had proved in exile that he could write outstanding plays and poems without state patronage—something that proved difficult when he eventually received such patronage. His Marxism had helped him produce some of the century’s most insightful art; but his commitment to Stalinism, lukewarm and all as it was, obscured that vision. He had spent the best half of his life on the side of the oppressed; but in 1953 had stained that record by turning his back on them. When Galileo recants before the Inquisition his pupil Andrea laments: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” “No,” replies Galileo. “Unhappy the land that has need of heroes.”

The Hidden Connolly 5

The following articles by James Connolly appeared for the first time since his execution in Issue 5 in November 1999.

Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union

[Irish Worker, 13 December 1913]


Once again the Employers of Dublin have received an offer, the accep­tance of which would have enabled them to restore themselves in the esti­mation of the civilised world and to appear as normal human beings with human hearts and consciences. And once again they have refused to respond and to recognise the common humanity of the work people.

On Sunday morning, December 7th, the representatives of Labour met in Conference with the Masters in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, and after agreeing upon a proposal to set up a Conciliation Board to be established by 7th March, 1914, and to suspend all strikes and sympathetic strikes until that date, the following proposal was laid before the masters, it being explained that its acceptance by the employers was a necessary condition of our final acceptance of the proposal just set forth:—

The employers undertake that there will be no victimisation, and that employment will be found for all workers within a period of one month from the date of settlement.

This Clause in the proposed settlement was drafted by Mr Arthur Henderson, MP, and agreed to by the representatives of the Joint Labour Board from Great Britain along with delegates of the local Lock-out Committee, but was absolutely rejected by the employers. In its place they offered a clause in which they stated that “they will take on as many of their former employees as they can find room for,” and “will make a bona­fide effort to find employment for as many as possible.”

After sending this outrageous proposal back to them twice with a decla­ration that we still stood by the proposal drafted by Mr Henderson, MP, the Conference finally broke up on that point.

While there may be guileless people in this world who do not know the evil meaning of the threat conveyed in the Employers’ Proposal, we are certain that in the ranks of the working class there are none so simple as not to know what these gentry mean when they tell us that “they will take on as many of their former employees as they can find room for.” They were always of that mind, and we know that since the very beginning of this fight they were willing to take on as many as they could find room for, but that they had no room for members of the Irish Transport Workers’ Union.

That condition remains unaltered. We had heard outside that the ban upon our Union—the Employers’ Agreement—had to be withdrawn, but neither in their presence by word of mouth, nor in Conference by type­written or other document, was any such assurance given us. As far as we have any knowledge, that document still remains.

Remember that the Employers’ Agreement is denounced by every en­lightened public opinion in these islands; that it is denounced by the whole trade union world; by the public of Dublin; by the Press of Great Britain; by the report of Sir George Askwith; by the verdict of the Industrial Peace Committee;1 and remember that the men, women, and girls locked-out are idle because they nobly refused to sign this degrading document, and then ask yourselves could we consent to abandon those heroic workers to the tender mercies of the men who had planned their degradation?

Could we consent to the victimisation of workers who refused to sign a document which everybody of common sense denounces as iniquitous? We could not!

There may be somewhere trade union leaders who can regard with calmness the certain victimisation of a number of their rank and file, but, thank God, we are not of their number. We regard the rank and file fight­ers as the real heroes of this struggle, and we will never consent to their being sacrificed, not while there is a shot in our locker or a shred of our organisation together.

We have no fear or doubt of our ultimate success in this fight, but if we had we would not consent to the sacrifice of those who had trusted us and honoured us by their trust. We would rather go down nobly fighting for our noble comrades than survive ignobly by consenting to their victimisation.

Brothers and sisters, the fight must go on. And be it long or short the victory will be the victory of the rank and file.


Acting General Sec.,
Liberty Hall.

Mr Murphy’s Great New Year Speech
(Exclusive to the Irish Worker.)

[Irish Worker, 3 January 1914]

We are informed that on Wednesday, December 31st (New Year’s Eve), a special meeting of the Employers’ Association was held in the Antient Concert Rooms to hear an address by Mr William Martin Murphy. The meeting was called at the personal request of that gentleman, and was the most remarkable gathering that has been held since the beginning of the dispute. The great hall was taxed to its utmost, and the remarkable address was listened to in absolute silence, in fact with a feeling almost of awe-struck wonderment. We dare not speculate upon the possible results of this unique pronouncement.

Mr Murphy said: “Gentlemen, I have called you together on the eve of the New Year, 1914, because I have something to tell you that I feel can better be told upon such an occasion than upon any other. It has long been the custom amongst Christian nations to make the closing of the old year and the opening of the book of the new an occasion for the promulgation of new policies, and for the renunciation of old sins. Such of us as feel wear­ied and worn out with old forms of iniquity and desirous of aspiring after a newer life in which to qualify for a greater righteousness naturally choose that period in which the thoughts of men turn to change as the period best suited to mark their change of heart. For that reason I have fixed upon this evening as the most auspicious occasion, and the one most calculated to awaken in your breasts a responsive throb for the review of the past and the announcement of the change of policy I intend to follow upon my change of heart (sensation). Yes, gentlemen, I intend to embark upon a new line of policy—a policy that I hope will reconcile me at last to the great heart of the Dublin public, of the generous Irish public from whom I have been so long estranged.

“For years I have followed in Ireland a policy which set my own inter­ests above and before everything else. I have schemed and contrived by every means to obtain control of every kind of business, even if in doing so I had to destroy the business and wreck the prospects of helpless orphans. I have never followed any policy of Christian charity, of humane pity, even of common decency, to restrain me when engaged trying to obtain posses­sion of the business interests of those whom I considered as business rivals. I have made a fine art, or perhaps I should say a scientific business of the accumulation in my own hands of the fortunes and control of destinies of others. My path through the business world has been marked by the ruin of others, and all over Dublin and the other scenes of my activities can be traced the sufferers—suffering in silence for the most part, as I have suc­cessfully manipulated into silence every avenue of publicity by means of which they could make themselves heard.

“What I have done to the business people in this business world I have done even more ruthlessly and unscrupulously to those members of the working class who dared to cross my path. You all know the tale of the West Clare Railway. How I terrorised the whole countryside into accep­tance of my terms, how I evicted poor Irish labourers for daring to ask as a weekly wage a sum not sufficient to pay for a box at the Opera for one of my guests at Dartry Hall, how I secured that this eviction should pass and win the approval of a venal Home Rule Press which had grown into popu­larity by the denunciation of evictions not one half as cold-blooded and merciless, and how in spite of this eviction of my poor countrymen and women I still managed to pose before the public as a pure-souled patriot and lover of my kind. All this you know, gentlemen! You also know—for you have been participating in my crime—how I managed our latest attempt to reduce to soulless slavery the gallant workers of Dublin. You know how I managed to secure a sufficient number of slaves prepared to sell their manhood for a chance to earn a few miserable shillings; how I used those slaves, and when I was sure of their slavishness proceeded to goad the more manly workers into revolt, and then supplanted them by the help of those Judases. How I had prepared my plans so that the Judge who tried the strikers, arrested by a police force drunken with rural hatred of the city, should feel that his own right to dividends was on trial when con­fronted by a working class prisoner, and should hit out vindictively with fiendish sentences accordingly. You also know, none better, how we had our secret agents in every club, society and gathering place in the city. How we encouraged them to play upon the most sacred offices and the most hallowed institutions and to divert them to our uses. How we made priests of the Most High imagine they were obeying the call of God when in real­ity they were only being galled by our carefully poisoned suggestions— made them mistake the insinuations of the devil for the inspirations of God. How we secured that through the influence of some of our lady share­holders the uniformed ruffians of the police should be let loose to insult with foul-mouthed indecencies the brave girls who dared to strike against the unbearable conditions you imposed upon them, and when in the pride of their outraged purity they resented the insults the same police bullies beat them, arrested them, and perjured themselves to swear their liberties away. All this you know, gentlemen! You also know how we made the streets of Dublin a place of terror for every worker not prepared to sell his class; how our uniformed brutes (whom I despised even whilst using them) batoned, kicked and maimed all and sundry; how we murdered two men in Dublin and left another widow and six orphans in Kingstown;2 how we armed scabs to shoot at will, and how, in short, we have made of the Capi­tal City of our country a place of slaughter, of misery, and a byword amongst the nations.

“Well, gentlemen, what has it all profited us? At the end of it all we find that the workers of Dublin are still unsubdued, and I now believe are unsubduable and unconquerable. You can extract what comfort you may from that fact. For myself now at the opening of the New Year I am de­termined to do what I can in the few years left me to try and make amends for all the long array of crimes against my kind of which I have been guilty. I, at least, will no longer make war upon the liberties of my poorer brothers and sisters, or use my ill-gotten wealth to exploit others. What I have done I cannot restore, but I can restore to the working class the rights of which I used my wealth to deprive them. From this night, gentlemen, I cease to hold the pistol of starvation at the heads of the poor to make them surrender their souls and liberties. I propose to go down to the Tramway Depots and hunt away the foul vermin who now pollute the cars by their presence. I propose to open the dispatch business of the Independent and Herald with Transport Union members, and if they will permit me I will grasp the hand of each and beg their pardon for my crimes against their manhood. These will be but the beginning.

“From this day forward I am at the service of every honest cause, and I trust that the closing years of a life spent in unscrupulous acquisition of gold may be worthy of some honour when spent as they will be spent in trying to win instead the esteem of my fellows.

“To-day I am sending to Jim Larkin, whom I have grown to esteem and value as a worthy citizen, an invitation to do me the honour of consenting to dine with me on New Year’s Day at the Imperial Hotel. There on the spot made historic by Larkin,3 I propose that he and I shall make a pact of friendship, and trust that united our efforts will succeed in purging Dublin and Ireland of much of its squalor and misery, and set its feet upon the up­ward path that leads towards righteousness.”

 (NOTE.—Up to the present the invitation has not arrived, and we are wondering whether our reporter invented the speech of Mr Murphy, as Murphy’s supporters have hitherto invented so many speeches attributed to Mr Larkin.)


The Outrages at Jacob’s

[Irish Worker, 14 March 1914]

In the course of the abortive Board of Trade Inquiry into the Labour situa­tion in Dublin, Mr Tim Healy, acting as Counsel for the employers, waxed eloquent upon the high esteem in which the people of Ireland held the Quakers owing to the exceedingly charitable work performed by members of that religion during the years of the great Irish famine. As a piece of his­torical information it was based upon facts; as what it was intended to be, a justification of the industrial practices of Messrs Jacob’s, it was a senseless pandering to a foolish sentiment. Foolish, because as no sect or party can be held responsible for the acts of individuals acting as individuals, neither can individuals shelter themselves behind the record of their sect or party in matters foreign to their own conduct as individuals. That the Quakers organised charitable relief to the Irish victims of an absurd and aggressive social system does not justify the Quakers of another generation seeking to mercilessly crush the Irish victims of that system in their day. The differ­ence of method employed does not materially alter the fact of the aggres­sion. A work girl, sweated in a biscuit factory, is, or should be, as sacred in the eyes of humanity as a tenant farmer, rackrented and starving on an Irish farm.

Especially does this show true when dealing with practices by members of a sect, which are totally antagonistic to the principles of that sect, which in another and stricter day would have led to expulsion from that sect as the acts of unworthy members.

And this is especially and emphatically the record of Jacob’s. If Quaker­ism—the principles of the Society of Friends—claims to be the em­bodiment of the most rigid application of the higher moral teachings of Christianity, it must be conceded that the commercial principles which in Messrs Jacob’s are practised in their crudest, most shameless form, are the negation or denial of those principles—are, in fact, the very essence of dia­bolical cruelty.

Let us be a little more explicit. At the calling off of the strike in Dublin4 it was understood that since the workers were willing to handle all goods, the employers’ lock-out would also be called off. Especially was this believed as the employers had been declaring their desire for peace and re­storing harmonious relations with their employees, and as at each confer­ence they had been vehement in their repudiations of any intention to victimise.

Furthermore it must be conceded that the great majority of the employ­ers have so acted as to justify their claims. Among those who have refused to fall in line with the effort to restore harmony in Dublin, and whose mean and petty souls saw only in the occasion an opportunity to wreak veng­eance, the employers of women labour are the worst offenders, and the worst among the worst are the firms of Paterson’s, Match Makers, and G Jacob’s, Biscuit Manufacturers. Paterson’s we will deal with another time; at present Messrs Jacob’s deserve our attention as exhibiting the basest characteristics, and the most cowardly swinishness in dealing with its former employees. It is difficult to believe that in Ireland there could be found any man capable of giving vent to passions as low and bestial as must have filled the man whose actions we are about to describe.

Messrs Jacob’s have recently been luxuriating in a crop of threats of actions for libel against journalists who dared to mention the conditions under which their slaves have toiled in the past. We propose to give them in this article a few grounds for action against us, and we cheerfully invite them to go ahead with their action and give us the greater audience before which we may expose the scoundrelly and blackguardly conduct of their Manager, Mr Dawson, to the girls who have applied to him for re-employment.

Let it be remembered that in Jacob’s case the girls were locked out because they refused to surrender their right to wear a Union Badge, or be false to the Irish Women Workers’ Union.

We have been told that when the girls apply for re-employment this manager, after brutally insulting them before the scabs whom he brings in, in order that he may parade the applicants before them, compels them to submit to his examination of their clothes, their hats, skirts and blouses, to submit while he pinches their arms, and examines their physical condition, and that all through this degrading examination he keeps up a running fire of insulting remarks of which the following are a fair sample:—

“So you had to come back when you got hungry, had you?”

“You have bad teeth, that is with eating the rotten English food, from the food ships.”

“Did you get that coat from Larkin?”

“It is a wonder that the Englishmen did not give you a better pair of boots.”

“Why did you not go to the Liberty Hall kitchen instead of coming here? Oh, I forgot, this kitchen is closed, and you are coming here for us to feed you now.”5

“So you are one of Larkin’s girls? It’s a wonder he didn’t feed you better.”

“Is this one of the Liberty Hall blouses you have on?”

“Where did you get that skirt? Did you get it from Larkin?”

But why go on sullying our paper with further quotations from the lan­guage of this brute, especially when we know that no quotation in print can convey the vile nature of the insults heaped upon girls whose boots he is not worthy to clean.

In addition to this the girls have to strip to the waist, take off boots and stockings, and then in a semi-nude state go before a doctor to be examined. After submitting to all this they receive the final verdict from the manager. Usually that verdict is a refusal to re-employ—a refusal that was deter­mined on before the ordeal, and was only delayed in order to give this vile brute of a manager an opportunity to gloat over the sufferings of the girls.

In the re-employment that has taken place the higher-paid girls have been usually refused, and only the lower-paid get a ghost of a chance. And boys or girls who get maimed in this service have absolutely no chance of re-employment. The firm seizes gloatingly upon the opportunity to victim­ise them.

That such things should be possible and provoke no protest from those who are eternally preaching to Labour upon its immoral conduct and lack of true Christian charity. Could the records of all the Labour Unions com­bined exhibit any vileness to equal this gloating over poor girls whose one fault it was to be beaten in a struggle to maintain their rights as workers to organise in the manner they thought best?

As we have said before, the brute capable of such conduct is not morally fit to blacken the shoes of those girls—our sisters.

Now, bring on your libel action!



1    Askwith headed the Board of Trade inquiry into the lockout. Set up to promote a compromise in the lockout, the Industrial Peace Committee had dissolved it­self in November, the majority forming a Civic League to support the workers.

2    James Nolan and James Byrne were killed by a police baton charge, and another James Byrne died on hunger strike in prison.

3    It was from a balcony of the Imperial Hotel that Larkin spoke on Bloody Sunday.

4    The workers returned to work in early 1914.

5    Strikers and their families received food and clothing at Liberty Hall during the lockout, much of it sent by workers in Britain.