Socialist Classics: Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’

In Issue 27 in March 2007, Colm Breathnach discussed the relevance of one of Marx’s key works.

On rereading The Eighteenth Brumaire, what is most striking is that it is packed with insights that are relevant to contemporary struggles. The pamphlet describes and analyses the events spanning the period from the overthrow of France’s Orleanist monarchy in February 1848 to the coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, in December 1851. What is there to learn from a study of such a distant historical period, one might ask. The American socialist Hal Draper wrote of The Eighteenth Brumaire that “an outstanding characteristic is its painstaking dissection of the complexity of the historical situation”, and it certainly reveals Marx at his best, teasing out the intricate interaction of the individuals, parties, classes and class fractions operating within the overall socio-economic context of a capitalist society.

In fact Marx sees politics as complicated and constantly changing in its relationship with the economic base. As Draper noted, he pays particular attention to the state, never abstracting it from its roots in the socio-economic structure of society but recog­nising that it can have a certain degree of autonomy, a certain dynamism that cannot be reduced solely to bending to the will of one class or another. Marx realised that this was a complex relation­ship, and rather than hide behind simplifications, he attempted to tackle this complexity.

So he grapples with the question of the state, for example locating the origin of the centralised and bureaucratic structures of the French state, what he calls “this appalling parasitic body”, in the development of absolutism and the original French Revolution. In relation to the state bureaucracy, Marx implies on the one hand that this is an outgrowth of the bourgeoisie, a means to absorb its surplus members and to line its pockets with state salaries: an explanation that might well account for the senior ranks of the bureaucracy but not the vast army of petty officials and clerical workers that staff most states’ civil service. On the other hand, in a later reference to the bureaucracy under the second Bonaparte, he seems to suggest differently, seeing it as an “artificial caste” conjured up to maintain the Imperial regime, formed alongside the ‘normal’ class structure, arising out of a preponderance of small property owners and a surplus population of unemployed. In a similar vein, the question of the army acting autonomously of the ruling class is considered, and Marx comes to the conclusion that “barracks and bivouac” some­times tire of rescuing the bourgeoisie and suppressing popular revolt, and decide to “play state of siege in their own interest and for their own benefit and at the same time besiege the citizens’ purses”. It’s obvious that Marx is not proposing total autonomy for the state apparatus, but that he is of the opinion that, although these institutions generally serve the interests of the current ruling class, there are complicating factors which tug at that connection and sometimes sever it, if only temporarily.

There have always been two Marxisms: Marxism as faith, and Marxism as method of analysis. Marxism as faith is more Marxist than the man himself, because it allows for no flaws or weaknesses in his writings and thought. Marx, like all humans, was fallible, and while the thrust of his analysis and methodology are an invaluable starting point, there are some points on which he got things wrong. One of these was an occasional lapse into determinism (along the lines of “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the prole­tariat”), evident here in the expect­ation that the replacement of the polit­ical rule of the bourgeoisie by an authoritar­ian regime would inevitably clear the way for a successful prole­tarian revolu­tion. Yet before we get carried away with the idea that Marx saw his­tory as a gigantic conveyor belt leading in one direction, let us pause to look at what he actually writes.

When describing proletarian revo­lution, Marx makes it clear that it is not a linear process always heading on­wards and upwards, but one that often faces setbacks and forced retreats as the workers ”throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again”. Now he does conclude that this erratic path to victory continues “until a sit­uation has been created which makes all turning back impossible”, but this is not the same as saying ‘when a situation has been created’. In other words, the final destination is left somewhat open. Marx acknowledges the possibil­ity of defeat, and even gets around to discussing what happens to the workers’ movement in those circumstances: “In part it throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations… and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited circumstances, and hence necess­arily suffers shipwreck.” How reminiscent of the many private sal­vations, including the ‘community development’ sector, the ‘alternative lifestyle’ scene etc., on which many a good activist has ended up shipwrecked!

“Men make their own history,” Marx writes, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encounter­ed, given and transmitted from the past.” Yet generations of both fans and critics have simply ignored the first five words of that statement, inventing a pseudo-Marx who sees humans as puppets dangling on the strings of structure. What he’s actually saying is just common sense: that we have some room for manoeuvre in our lives but that this room is constrained by the structures of the society we exist in. Indeed, few could doubt that this was Marx’s approach after reading this account of the rise of the arch-opportunist Louis Bonaparte, manoeuvring his way through the structures of French society until he stood at its head—for here, if ever, was a man making his own history, but not exactly as he pleased.

If The Eighteenth Brumaire is about the relationship between state and class, it also has a lot to say about the related matter of party and class. Obviously, political parties are not what we are taught to believe in our civics classes, that is, simply free-floating associations of people joined together on the basis of adherence to a common ideology or policies. Even bourgeois political scientists will acknow­ledge that parties represent different interests than just their mem­bership or voters. Marxists on the other hand try to look deeper: What class, classes or class fraction does a party represent? Does its voting base or membership reflect its class orientation? How do other factors, such as the individual party leaders, gender, ethnicity or relationship with the state, interact with this class orientation and base? Marx’s portrayal of political parties (in the looser nineteenth century sense of the word) in the pamphlet is certainly centred on their location in the class structure, but it does not follow that he reduces everything to a simple formula of Party A = Class B, though that may sometimes be the case.

Indeed, he posits the general theory that, far from always belonging to the class they represent, politicians “according to their education and their individual position may be as far apart as heaven from earth” from that class. “What makes them repre­sentatives…” Marx tells us, “is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter [class] do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically.” Sometimes it is even the politics that loops back and influences the class: “instead of gaining an accession of strength from it, the democratic party had infected the proletariat with its own weakness”. Yet he also reiterates (when explaining the division of monarchists into two factions) that there really is a binding and ever-present relation between politics and class:

That at the same time old memories, personal enmities, fears and hopes, prejudices and illusions, sympathies and antipathies, convictions, articles of faith and principles bound them to one or the other royal house, who denies this? Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed senti­ments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundation and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity.

Once again, we come across men and women making their own history but not as individuals floating free of the ties of class.

It is especially in describing the Party of Order, that conglomer­ation of monarchist politicians who attempted to rule France between the end of the revolutionary period of 1848 and the victory of Bonaparte, that Marx explores the complicated class/party relationship. He draws a picture of dissonance, of representatives being out of synch with those they represent, of various fractions of the bourgeoisie turning away from their political leaders, for very different reasons, to look to Bonaparte as their saviour. These reasons include the specific material interests of the various parts of the bourgeoisie, but also a plethora of inter-related factors, as is obvious from the depiction of the defection of a chunk of the conservative/monarchist majority in parliament to Bonaparte’s camp in early 1851. They deserted “out of fanaticism for conciliation, out of fear of the struggle, out of lassitude, out of family regard for the state salaries so near and dear to them, out of speculation on ministerial posts become vacant… out of sheer egoism, which makes the ordinary bourgeois always inclined to sacrifice the general interest of his class for this or that private motive”. The point here is not that Marx is saying that class isn’t the major factor in party politics, but that it plays itself out in a variety of ways, some of which are quite unpredictable. At the same time he is anxious to strip away the ideological veils that hide raw class struggle behind them, and he makes no bones about it that the great currents swirling under the surface of party politics are those of class struggle. What should not surprise anyone familiar with Marx’s writings is that he can see both the wood and the trees.

Marx’s cutting descriptions of Bonaparte and his populist antics may seem like some comic farce, but they show a solid grasp of the phenomena of authoritarian populism. Rereading these sections with an eye on modern Ireland, the late Charlie Haughey comes to mind again and again. Indeed, Haughey and Bonaparte had much in common as political outsiders who clawed their way to the centre of power, posing as men of the people but always intent on living the high life, courtesy of the state: “And in Bonaparte the imperial pretender was so intimately bound up with the adventurer down on his luck that the one great idea, that he was called to restore the empire, was always supplemented by the other, that it was the mission of the French people to pay his debts.” Marx’s character­isation of Bonaparte’s proposal to set up an ‘honour system loan bank’ for workers brings today’s SSIAs to mind: “Money as a gift and money as a loan, it was with prospects such as these that he hoped to allure the masses.” This type of populist mass bribery was Bonaparte’s speciality, something that obviously tickled Marx, as can be seen in this reference to the president (soon to be emperor) plying the troops with goodies: “As a fatalist, he lives in the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage.” Like Haughey, Bonaparte wanted to be seen as the “patriarchal benefactor of all classes”, but just like Haughey, he could not “give to one class without taking from another”.

In a passage at the end of the book Marx details the complicated relationship between Bonaparte and the various classes: he has broken the political power of the middle class, but he protects its material power. Yet, given his support base amongst the peasantry, he wants to, and needs to “make the lower classes of the people happy within the frame of bourgeois society”, but in the final analysis his true loyalty lies with himself, his clique and the army who keep him in power. Such is the shifting sand upon which populism bases itself and these glaring contradictions are its fatal weakness.

In chapter VII, Marx attempts to define class, not in an abstract way but in reference to the situation of the French peasantry. Although his entire works are imbued with the concept, he rarely gets as close to a precise definition of class as he does here:

In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among the small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no commun­ity, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.

Now most socialists will be familiar with the idea of a ‘class in itself’ versus a ‘class for itself’, with the implied importance of class-consciousness arising out of struggle as the key element of the transition from the former to the latter. Marx clearly had this idea in mind, since he goes on to state that, because of the lack of class consciousness and organisation, the peasants saw the “unlimited governmental power” imposed by Louis Bonaparte as their repre­sentative and saviour. But a closer glance will reveal a more layered view of class. Note that while class is firmly grounded in the economic base, what glues people together as a class, in the objective sense, is not only their relationship to the means of production but cultural factors that arise from the mode of production and the opposing interests of other classes. Marx rarely misses a chance to tease out the contradictions, to spell out the dialectic: it is not that classes are like popcorn lying inert in their kernels waiting to be popped by the heat of the struggle (or the all-knowing vanguard!) but that they exist and do not exist at the same time. What is stunting the maturity of the class, Marx contends, is a lack of awareness of a broader, as opposed to a local, commonality with people of the same class. They may well be an ‘identity of interests’ but it has not resulted in a sense of being part of a wider class community. Political organisation is clearly seen as an important factor in the emergence of a class, though not the sole one.

Traditional far-left organisations are notorious for the ‘education’ they force-feed their new members: usually a few un­appetising morsels of Lenin and Trotsky taken with a large dollop of the truth according to the guru. They rarely prescribe raw Marx, as opposed to their authorised summaries. Derivative of Marx these tracts may be, but they bear little relation to the depth and breadth, the clarity and the contradictions, the incisiveness and complexity of the man’s work. Reading Marx is incompatible with the dictatorship of the leading few, because the ideas swirl round, the interpretations are manifold, the lessons varied, the party line missing, and most of all, the Holy Book dissolves into the grand messy multiple thought of a real human being, brilliant, flawed and committed as he was. Marx is still essential reading for serious socialists, and for those approaching his work for the first time, where better to start than with The Eighteenth Brumaire?

The Communist Manifesto: Birthday honours

On its 150th anniversary, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh discussed the Communist Manifesto in Issue 3 (November 1998).

The Communist Manifesto is 150 years old already, but the celebrations have been nothing to write home about. Magazines and papers, television and radio programmes have been beating the bushes all year for anyone who’ll answer to the name of communist and subjecting them to the full rigours of whatever facile question comes into their researchers’ heads, before presenting their own ignorance as the last word on the subject. If this is the Manifesto’s birth­day party, Harold Pinter could have thrown a better one. This article is for everyone who has found themselves rolling their eyes at what’s passed for serious consideration of the Communist Manifesto.

Everyone knows the first sentence, if they know no more: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” But most people have been so bewitched by the metaphor that they’ve missed the point. Read on another few lines and you’ll see that communism itself isn’t the spectre, but the myths and legends about the communist bogeyman coming to gobble up every good bourgeois in his bed. The whole point of the Manifesto is to set the actual principles of communism against “the fairy tale of the spectre of communism”.

“To this end communists of the various nationalities have assembled in London and drawn up the following manifesto”—only they were more or less all Germans, only two of them did the business in the end, and not in London. The conference of the Communist League, an organisation of emigrant German craftsmen, appointed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to write them a manifesto. This point is important politically (and not just historically) because this was the manifesto of an organisation, not the personal opinion of Marx and Engels—who weren’t even identified as the authors for some years. So it may well be that they had to express themselves in a way that would be acceptable to the League, rather than just as they liked, although they were just after winning the League to their way of thinking.

Engels had a bash, coming up with a kind of communist catechism, “in which there will at least be nothing contrary to our views”, he told Marx. But he felt the question-and-answer format wouldn’t do, and hit upon the idea of a manifesto in narrative form. Marx wrote the final text in early 1848 on the basis of Engels’s draft—which goes a long way to explain why the Manifesto is Marx’s most concise and direct piece of writing, free of the tendency to explore every nook and cranny that characterises most of his work, for good and ill.

This is where we get down to business: “The history of every society until now is the history of class struggles.” Engels was right to point out later that this doesn’t go for hunter-gatherer societies, but the proposition that since then the motor of history has been the “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open struggle” between oppressing and oppressed classes is a defining moment. Marx never claimed to have discovered the class struggle (explicitly denied it, in fact), but to trace its development and harness it as the means of achieving the liberation of the working class set Marxism apart, and still sets it apart, from most other versions of socialism knocking about.

Class division gets starker in capitalist society: “The whole society splits more and more into two great opposing camps, into two great classes standing directly against each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.” Before the sociolo­gists get out of their tree and hurl textbooks on stratification theory at us, it should be noted that nowhere is it claimed that this class division is finished, that every mother’s son can fit unproblematically into a box marked Capitalist or a box marked Worker. It expressly describes this division as a tendency, that “more and more” people are being forced into one of the two classes, down the Property in the Means of Production to Declare channel or the Nothing but my Labour Power to Declare channel. Capitalism will always throw up in-between groups, but Bourgeoisie versus Proletariat is the way things are headed.

“The modern state power is only a committee that manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Now there’s a sentence calculated to de­value your politics degree: surely that’s a bit over-simplified, reductionist, verging on conspiracy theory? But have another look at it: if it manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, then obviously different factions with divergent interests exist within the capitalist class, so divergent that they have to delegate a committee to look after the really important things they all agree on. The Manifesto (never mind the rest of Marx’s or Engels’s writings) presents a more sophisticated picture of the capitalist state than you’d think.

If there’s anyone left out there who still thinks that Marx’s writings on alienation were just a folly of youthful idealism that he grew out of, the Mani­festo should make them think again: “The work of the proletarians has, through the spread of machinery and the division of labour, lost all autono­mous character and with it all charm for the worker. He becomes a mere accessory of the machine, which calls for only the simplest, most monotonous, easiest to learn knack from him.”

As a result of this, “The cost of the worker therefore shrinks almost to nothing but the means of existence required for his maintenance and for the propagation of his race”, and so, “The average price of labour is the minimum wage.” Wrong: as Marx later pointed out, the ability to work is different from other commodities in that it happens to be embodied in a human being. Con­sequently, the amount needed to produce this commodity is flexible and depends on historical, social factors—on the going rate of civilisation, if you like. Where workers have managed to win a certain standard of living, the expectation of maintaining this standard (and even improving it a bit) enters into the determination of the value of their labour power. The economic and political struggle of the working class can pull against the capitalists’ struggle to push wages down.

“Differences of sex and age no longer have any social validity for the working class.” But of course (and this goes for national, racial and other prejudices too) just because something has become worthless doesn’t stop people futilely trying to spend it. And the Manifesto is far from painting a rosy picture of the onward-ever-onward march of the proletariat into the revolutionary sunset: “This organisation of the proletarians as a class, and consequently as a political party, is burst apart at every turn by the competi­tion amongst the workers themselves.”

The Manifesto rightly states that “the proletariat is the only really revolu­tionary class”, but is too one-sided in characterising some of the others. Small farmers, artisans, the lower middle classes are all of them “not revolutionary, but conservative. What’s more, they are reactionary, they try to turn back the wheel of history.” On the off-chance that they do behave in a revolutionary way, it’s only “in view of their impending crossing over to the proletariat” anyway.

This encourages a sort of ‘ourselves alone’ approach, the kind of dismissal of every other class as reactionary that Marx and Engels had to fight against in later years: the workers can just go their own way, and if the others want to join the back of the queue, they know where to find us; if not, sure it’s their own loss. But there are virtually no situations where the working class can’t use allies, and some situations where we can’t begin to manage without them. We have to actively go out and win these other oppressed classes, to rally them behind our banner, not sit back waiting indefinitely for every one of them to become proletarians anyway.

The bourgeoisie itself has created the working class, and here comes another of those classic images the Manifesto is full of: “It produces above all its own gravediggers. Its downfall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” This is hopefully no more than a rhetorical flourish on Marx’s part because, while you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see the inevitability of capitalism collapsing, there’s nothing inevitable about the workers emerging victorious from the ruins. World war, fascism, barba­rism— “the common downfall of the battling classes” is how the Manifesto puts it—awaits if our class doesn’t shape itself to build socialism instead.

Which is where section II of the Manifesto comes in, asking where the com­munists stand in regard to the working class as a whole. The initial answer is worth repeating in full:

The communists aren’t a separate party as against the other workers’ parties.
They have no interests apart from the interests of the whole proletariat.
They set up no separate interests by which they seek to mould the pro­letarian movement.
The communists differ from the rest of the proletarian parties only in as much as, on the one hand, in the various national struggles of the prole­tarians they emphasise and bring to bear the common interests— independently of nationality—of the whole proletariat and, on the other hand, in the various stages of development that the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie pass through they always advocate the interests of the entire movement.
The communists are therefore practically the most resolute part, always driving further forward, of the workers’ parties of all countries; they have theoretically the advantage over the great mass of the proletariat of the insight into the conditions, the course and the general results of the proletarian movement.

Firstly, why is the class-conscious section of the working class referred to as “communists”? Engels later explained that “we could not have called it a Socialist Manifesto”. 150 years ago socialists were those who advocated social reform with the support of middle-class philanthropists; those in the working-class movement who called for the workers to free themselves through social revolution were known as communists. And so, “there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take. Moreover, we have, ever since, been far from repudiating it.” Since then, Stalinism has gone and ruined the word communism on us, and socialism is a much less problematic term, especially now that the labour parties only use it when they lose the run of themselves. But, with a small c and a clear health warning, communism is a grand revo­lutionary name for a grand revolutionary thing, and we shouldn’t go throwing it out altogether.

Secondly, if communists aren’t a separate party, what exactly was this here Communist League up to then? And what was it doing publishing a Manifesto of the Communist Party? The answer requires a look at how politi­cal language has changed. In the mid-nineteenth century the word “party” had a much wider meaning. The ‘Repeal party’ referred to the movement for the repeal of the union with Britain, not just Daniel O’Connell’s clique; the ‘Chartist party’ in Britain meant the movement to enact the People’s Charter, rather than a particular association; the ‘democratic party’ in Europe was those who wanted democracy, instead of any individual organisation. If you read this sentence as meaning that socialists are part of the workers’ move­ment rather than a movement of their own, it makes perfect sense. Whether the work of socialists requires separate organisation at all times is a question the Manifesto doesn’t attempt to answer.

Thirdly, how many Marxist organisations of the past 150 years can you recognise in the above quotation? On one side, the humility of the Manifesto, modestly pointing out that us communists aren’t all that different from most people after all. On the other, those who define themselves by what separates them from the working class rather than what unites them, who judge the success of a strike by the number of members they’ve recruited, who always manage to conclude that what’s best for them happens to be best for the working class. Wherever these latter get their inspiration from, it isn’t the Communist Manifesto.

In attacking the capitalists’ hypocritical defence of the family, the Mani­festo refers to the “absence of family amongst the proletarians”. In 1848 this was fair enough: capitalism was young and was dragging in anyone and everyone to turn a profit for it, tearing family ties to shreds in the process. It was only later in the century that it began to see the family as a handy institu­tion for rearing the next generation of workers and privatising domestic labour. This is one of the rare occasions on which the Manifesto mistakenly takes a short-term trend for a permanent feature of capitalism.

The communists were accused of wanting to nationalise women. The alle­gation is now more curious than anything else, but the answer shows that sexual politics is nothing new to Marxism:

The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production should be worked in common, and naturally can’t think other than that the fate of being in common lies in store for the wives as well.
Little does he know that it is a question of abolishing the position of wives as mere instruments of production.

“The national separations and antagonisms of the peoples are disappear­ing more and more already with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the corre­sponding conditions of life.” Yes and no: the world market and trade has increased national antagonism, by systematically underdeveloping large regions of the world. But at the same time it has created the foundations for a global community, the potential for a united human race. But like most of capitalism’s possibilities, the capitalist system will have to be abolished inter­nationally before it can be realised.

The first step in socialist revolution is “the elevation of the proletariat to ruling class, the winning of the battle for democracy”. Democracy is here equated with the victory of the working class: socialist revolution is the beginning of democracy. (The standard English translation is unclear here: “to win the battle of democracy”. But “die Erkämpfung der Demokratie” clearly means winning democracy in a battle. Samuel Moore’s translation, edited by Engels, improves upon the original here and there, but sometimes confuses matters. Worst of all, how did Engels allow “proletarians” to be turned into “working men”? This article uses the original text of the Manifesto.)

“If the proletariat in struggle against the bourgeoisie necessarily unites as a class, through a revolution makes itself the ruling class and as ruling class forcibly abolishes the old relations of production, it then abolishes with these relations of production the conditions of existence of class antagonisms, of classes in general, and with that its own rule as a class.” The workers’ use of state power is a minimal one: the only reason they assume political domina­tion as a class is to put an end to political domination and to classes.

The Manifesto outlines ten immediate measures such a revolution would take. Despite Marx and Engels stressing how provisional they were, depend­ent on a particular time and place, too much attention has been focussed on them. Many commentators are surprised at how moderate they are—but, the same as anyone else, the working class will have to walk before we can run, and the important thing is to get things underway; building a socialist society will be a continuous job, constantly outstripping itself.

The big mistake is measure number three: “Abolition of inheritance”—a step guaranteed to drive the small farmers of Europe into the arms of reaction. Engels’s draft called for the restriction of inheritance rather than its abolition, and even for the right of children born outside marriage to inherit. When the Communist League drew up a list of demands on the outbreak of revolution in Germany a month or two later, Engels’s approach prevailed. And in later decades Marx found himself arguing that the workers’ state wouldn’t take land from small farmers’ children.

The third section is notable for being a fine example of Marx keeping his satiric powers under control. Too often he would fill pages with minute critique of whatever counterfeit version of socialism he was faced with, ten times more than it deserved. That he succeeded in keeping it snappy here is probably a tribute to the influence of Engels’s draft. And he had so much to play with—it seems every world-reformer going back then called themselves a socialist.

The section on petty-bourgeois socialism interestingly sees its origin in the way that “a new petty bourgeoisie has been formed, that hovers between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and is continually formed anew as a supple­mentary part of bourgeois society”. So the tendency of capitalist society to split up into a capitalist class and a working class is modified by another ten­dency, to create a new middle class. But this tendency is a subordinate one, and these petty bourgeois are constantly pushed up or (more usually) down into one of the two great camps.

For all its criticism of the various socialist schools, the Manifesto does give credit where it’s due. The “critical-utopian” socialists, for example, “assail all the principles of existing society. They have therefore provided extremely valuable material for the enlightenment of the workers.” Their problem is that “they see no capacity for historical activity on the part of the proletariat itself, no political movement of its own”; all they see in the workers is “the most suffering class”.

Section IV, like section III, deals with parties that have ceased to exist, but tactics that can still be applied. Socialist activity is summed up in one of those sentences that a century and a half hasn’t bettered: “They fight for the attain­ment of the immediate present aims and interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they stand at the same time for the future of the movement.”

The allies of the communists in various countries are then outlined. Where there are working-class parties, the position is as already stated in section II. But elsewhere communists critically support social democrats, radicals, agrarian revolutionaries—“every revolutionary movement against the existing historical and political situation”, but always “bring to the fore the property question, however developed or undeveloped a form it may have assumed, as the basic question of the movement”. Socialists take an unapologetic part in a united front, but without putting the class struggle on the long finger.

Understandably the Manifesto goes into more detail when it comes to Germany. Here the communists fight alongside the capitalists against the aris­tocrats, whenever the capitalists seriously want to fight. “But they don’t forget for a moment to carve out amongst the workers the clearest possible consciousness of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, so that the German workers can at once turn the historical and political con­ditions which the bourgeoisie must bring about with its rule into so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, so that as soon as the reactionary classes in Germany fall the struggle against the bourgeoisie itself begins.” Germany was on the eve of a bourgeois revolution but, because the German working class was more developed than the English or French working classes were during their bourgeois revolutions, this “can therefore be merely the curtain-raiser to a proletarian revolution”. The concept of permanent revolution is not a more recent bit added on to Marxism: here it is right in the heart of the Communist Manifesto itself.

The communists “openly declare that their aims can only be achieved by the forcible overthrow of every social order that has existed until now”. When Engels’s draft asked if private property could be abolished peacefully, it answered: “It would be desirable if this could happen, and the communists would certainly be the last to oppose it.” But given that the capitalists were already forcibly holding down the workers’ movement, this hardly seemed likely. “If the oppressed proletariat is thereby finally driven to revolution, then we communists will defend the cause of the proletarians with deeds just as we now defend it with words.” Marx’s final version is more up-front, not bother­ing with the outside chance that the capitalists might come quietly. And this is the better approach, because it wasn’t a question of crystal ball-gazing about what might and mightn’t happen, but of preparing the workers for what will most probably be necessary.

Proletarians of all countries, unite!” This isn’t just a big finish. It is worth taking to heart that the last word of the Manifesto is a call for workers’ unity. After all is said and done, the most important thing is not for socialists to get themselves organised and clear—important as that is. The most impor­tant thing is for workers everywhere to stand together, because the united working class is the force that can end all the oppression that haunts us today and replace it with “an association in which the free development of each forms the conditions for the free development of all”. The reason we need to discuss, criticise, celebrate the Communist Manifesto—and above all read the thing, again and again—is that it puts our class in a better position to reach that goal.

Marx and the new International

In September 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the International Working Men’s Association, in Issue 57 Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh examined Marx’s involvement.

The 1950s have a bad press and deservedly so, but the 1850s make them look a positively progressive decade. Across Europe the revolutions of 1848 were defeated, their protagonists keeping their heads down, with their enemies in virtually uncontested power. The young movement of the working class shared the bitter cup, with basic trade union organisation hanging on in places, but talk of socialism largely confined to small disheartened coteries. Capitalism seemed triumphant, and knew it. The 1860s saw a thaw set in, however, with some items of good news to hear. In America, the north was forced to forcibly uproot the institution of slavery in the southern states. In Italy, the democratic movement was bringing scattered feudal statelets together into a unified state. In Poland, a new uprising took on Russian imperial rule as well as the privileges of the nobility.

All of these developments were welcomed by the working class movement, which embraced the cause of democracy as its own. While the trade unions of Victorian Britain are often chastised as narrowly pursuing economic interest, they were in fact usually to be found enthusiastically supporting movements for greater democracy and national liberation at home and abroad. And fights for freedom in general fed in to a revival of the workers’ movement as such. Successful strikes led to improvements in conditions and organisation, with city-wide trades councils in Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London being formed, prefiguring the Trades Union Congress itself. Links were forged with unions on the continent, especially France, to prevent scabbing and express solidarity with international democratic movements.

So the meeting organised for 28 September 1864 in St Martin’s Hall in London was not that unusual. A delegation of French trade unionists were in town to meet their English counterparts, as had happened earlier that year, and the meeting was to welcome them and proclaim the international fraternity growing amongst organised workers. The London trades council was central to it, and made a special effort to attract a broad range of nationalities. The city had a good few left-wing exiles to choose from, and one of the organisers —Victor le Lubez, a Frenchman raised in England—knocked on the door of a certain German by the name of Karl Marx.

The 1850s hadn’t treated him too kindly, either. Driven from Germany after the failure of the revolution there, and then from France too, he had moved to London in 1850. He had no intention of staying long, but soon realised that the revolutionary tide had gone out for the foreseeable future. So he settled down to a tough existence, getting to grips with his economic research whenever he wasn’t writing newspaper columns to pay the rent. Still, the rent and other bills often got paid by Friedrich Engels, his comrade who happened to work in a family business up in Manchester.

As he later wrote to Engels1 Marx had a “standing rule, to decline any such invitations”, but he made an exception because “this time real ‘powers’ were involved”, the leading trade unionists of London and Paris. He suggested a German trade unionist—Georg Eccarius, an old comrade of his—to speak on 28 September, and put in an appearance himself “as a mute figure on the platform”. The meeting was “full to suffocation (as there is now evidently a revival of the working classes taking place)”, and it was decided to form a Working Men’s International Association.2 A committee representing the various nationalities was elected to get it off the ground. Marx was elected for the Germans, but was far from prominent: his name comes last in the newspaper reports.

He attended the inaugural meeting of this committee on 5 October, playing an unspectacular role at an unspectacular meeting. He left before the end, but was elected to a subcommittee “to draw up a platform of principles”.3 It seems they neglected to inform him of this, and because he was too ill to attend meetings of the general committee (those notorious carbuncles at him again) he only found out when Eccarius wrote to him about some less than fortunate goings-on. John Weston, a follower of utopian socialist Robert Owen, had submitted a text which, according to Eccarius, was more of “a sentimental declamatory editorial” than a concrete programme, long-winded and full of “the hackneyed phrase, truth and justice”.4 Luigi Wolff, representing Italian workers in London, submitted a translation of their own rules. Marx was sent notice of the next subcommittee meeting, but it reached him a day too late.

Ill or not, he made sure to be at the next meeting of the central council (as it now became known). His discomfort was only added to when he heard what the subcommittee had come up with, “a horrible, wordy, badly written and completely raw preamble, pretending to be a declaration of principles” which envisaged “a sort of central government of the European working classes”.5 One council member, William Worley, objected to “the statement that the capitalist was opposed to the labourer” and wanted a statement about wealth being “in the hands of the few” struck out, but was voted down with only Weston supporting him.6 Marx offered only “mild opposition” to the subcommittee’s text,7 and even seconded the resolution accepting it. But while the substance was adopted, the subcommittee was to put a shape on it, so Marx could still have an input.

The fact that Weston’s draft hasn’t survived makes it difficult to fathom what exactly Marx objected to. Robert Owen’s work has many strands, but Weston seems to have belonged to the more conservative end of Owenism, which saw its new society as such a rational proposition that everyone, including the ruling classes, should be amenable to it. His support for Worley suggests that he had no time for the class struggle. Weston was a carpenter who had set up a successful business of his own, so may well have seen such enmity as needless and outdated. While truth and justice are un­doubtedly good things, in the absence of practical ideas on what is to be done, and who it is to be done to, they become meaningless generalisations. Marx regarded Weston himself as “a very kindly and upright man”,8 regardless of his politics.

The Italian programme was a bit different. While Weston was only an individual member of the International, Wolff represented hundreds of Italian workers in London, with a strong movement in Italy at their back, which was very popular with English trade unionists. Marx was right to detect the strong influence of Giuseppe Mazzini, a middle-class republican. The objections are clear from a pamphlet on the International’s early years written with Marx’s assistance, if not under his direction:

He [Mazzini] thundered against the class struggle. His rules were couched in the strong centralised manner suitable for secret political societies, but which would wipe out from the word go the conditions of existence of an international workers’ association, which had not to create a movement, but only to unite and bind together the already existing, scattered class movement in the various countries.9

The next meeting of the drafting subcommittee was held in Marx’s house, where he first had sight of the actual draft that had been drawn up. He was determined that as far as possible “not one single line” of it should get through.10 Part of the problem was that as many as forty rules were proposed, and by one o’clock in the morning only Rule 1 had been dealt with. Happily for Marx, an adjournment was suggested and the draft was left to him to look at.

Over the next week he started the whole thing from scratch, reducing the rules to ten, and prefacing them with an address outlining the political basis of the new association. But this was no easy matter:

It was very difficult to keep the thing in such a way that our outlook appears in a form which made it acceptable to the current standpoint of the workers’ movement.… It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old audacity of speech. Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [strongly in deed, softly in manner] is necessary.11

The address is a remarkable piece of work. It resembles the Communist Manifesto in that Marx presents his point of view in a popular manner without in the least watering down his politics. It is a fine example of drafting a text on behalf of a group, with all the concessions to collective opinions which that entails, but it remains a recognisably Marxist document, one which expresses and clarifies key points of socialist theory.

The address maintains that the working class were worse off in 1864 than twenty years earlier. In Marxological literature this gets categorised as the ‘immiseration of the workers’ thesis, usually to be followed by wages statistics supposed to refute it. But what gets forgotten is that Marx was talking about the relative position of the working class, where they stand in society, in comparison with other classes, the proportion of what they produce which gets taken off them as well as that they are allowed to keep. So he writes that “the great mass of the working classes were sinking down to a lower depth”, but this was taking place “at the same rate, at least, that those above them were rising in the social scale”. The capitalist system doesn’t necessarily decrease wages all the time, but it does widen the class gap: “on the present false base, every fresh develop­ment of the productive powers of labour must tend to deepen social contrasts and point social antagonisms”.

While the 1850s had seen the workers of Europe united only in “a solidarity of defeat”, legislation to limit the working day had been a real achievement. The employers had insisted on their right and duty to exploit workers as long as possible, but the workers thought otherwise: “it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class”. (The remnants of the aristocracy in England meant that capitalists still went by the name ‘middle class’.) There is a clear notion here of the working class having an economics of its own, based on its social needs as against the accumulation of profit: not finding a fairer way of running capitalism, but opposing the imperatives of humanity to it.

Marx praises England’s co-operative movement, especially co-ops set up by workers themselves, as proving that capitalists are superfluous, that “hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart”. This does sound a bit arcadian, but there are few better descriptions of what work in a socialist society should be like, and how important liberated labour would be to it. Co-operation will always come up against the rich, however, using their political privileges to maintain their economic privileges. “To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.”

Working class movements had seen “simultaneous revivals” across Europe, with great numbers involved, “but numbers weigh only in the balance if united by combination and led by knowledge”. Workers needed to show international solidarity “in all their struggles for emancipation”. Marx wound up as he did in the Communist Manifesto: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”

The rules Marx drew up for the International open with the affirmation “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”. He goes on to say that “The economical subjection of the man of labour… lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms” and so had to be the object of their endeavours. This was an international question, and solidarity was needed to prevent “the present revival of the working classes” falling into old errors. The Working Men’s International Association was therefore being formed to unite workers’ organisations for “the protection, advancement, and complete emancipation of the working classes”.

The subcommittee liked what they read, only adding to the rules that members would act with “truth, justice and morality” towards each other, and that there were “No rights without duties, no duties without rights”. Hollow enough in themselves, Marx had no problem with these phrases, especially as they were “placed in such a way that it can do no harm”.12 At the central council, one member asked for an explanatory footnote to Marx’s explanation of carbon and nitrogen in the working-class diet, which he duly added. The redoubtable Worley entered the fray again to object to the word “profitmongers”, but this time carried the day, having it struck out by 11 votes to 10. The address and rules were then unanimously carried.13

It is a myth to see Marx and Engels as if they were conjoined twins, two minds with but a single thought: they were the closest of comrades, but thought for themselves and sometimes differed. Interestingly, Marx’s work in the initial weeks of the International was perhaps the only political project for twenty years which he undertook independently of Engels altogether. Engels spent most of September and the first half of October 1864 on holiday. Even when he returned to Manchester, a business crisis kept him from writing to Marx, leaving an atypical gap of nearly two months in their correspondence. Marx sent him a brief note on 2 November expressing concern at his silence, especially as “I have all kinds of important stuff to share with you”. Engels wrote the same day, with news from his travels, and Marx replied with news of the new International in a letter we have quoted from already. Even then, that news was preceded by a mixture of gossip and politics on affairs in Germany.14

Engels’s reply, three days later, is a little reserved. Without having seen the address and rules, he congratulates Marx for negotiating the antagonistic points of view. He writes that “it is good that we can again associate with people who at least represent their class: that is the main thing at the end of the day”. He can’t help thinking that it will never last, though: “this new association will soon split into the theoretically bourgeois and the theoretically proletarian elements as soon as the issues become somewhat defined”.

Marx replied that differences of opinion weren’t that hard to settle when there was agreement on the practical aim: “The thing was not quite as difficult as you reckon, when one is dealing all the time with ‘workers’.”15 He emphasised the same point in modestly telling his uncle that the International was “not without importance”: it was formed by “the real workers’ leaders of London, with 1 or 2 exceptions workers themselves”.16 It is important to remember that trade union leaders a century and a half ago were not what they have since become. While there were of course right-wing leaders and even outright traitors, the movement had not yet reached the stage where a layer of officials could cut themselves off from their rank-and-file members with interests of their own. When Marx sat round the committee table with them, the connection with the actual movement of the working class was a close one. There­fore, as he told a comrade, “The influence on the English proletariat is direct and of the highest importance.”17

Marx noted the healthy political instincts coming through in the International. Having drawn up an address of support for Abraham Lincoln in the US civil war, the traditional method of getting a member of parliament to deliver it was “strongly opposed by many members who said working men should rely on themselves and not seek for extraneous aid”.18 Marx convinced the central council not to co-opt someone about to stand in an election as “our society must absolutely avoid the appearance to serve the interests of any Parliamentary ambition”.19 In fact, they accepted Marx’s proposal “that nobody (apart from workers’ societies) should be invited, and that no one can be an honorary member”.20 The International was still prepared to co-operate with middle-class liberals, but as equals and from an independent position, as seen in a strong campaign to extend the right to vote. All the while more unions were signing up to the International, “so that by and by we are becoming a power”.21

Engels remained a bit sceptical, though. He told Marx that he could only get rid of “c. half a dozen” membership cards in Manchester, and didn’t respond to a suggestion that his partner should join.22 His statement to a correspondent that “The Inter­national Association in London is getting on famously”23 manages to praise it while simultaneously locating its influence a clear 200 miles to his south. He did set up a branch in the end, but as he only interested two friends,24 it can’t have amounted to much.

However, the strength of the International did lay in the capital at this stage, and it would take time to spread north. Engels’s position as an ostensibly respectable pillar of the business community also precluded any real involvement in its affairs. After giving up business and moving to London in 1870 he became heavily involved in the association. He was also concerned that Marx’s involvement might cause him to neglect the writing of Capital, the book he had been working on for years. Some of Marx’s comments about the International may have fed this fear: “I am in fact head of the business. And what time it takes up!”25 By the end of 1865 he was admitting that the International “weighs down on me like an incubus, and I would be glad if it could be got rid of”, before immediately insisting that he couldn’t leave because “the bourgeois element, which looks at us (Foreign infidels) with dis­pleasure from the wings, would have the upper hand”.26

But strange as it might seem, instead of interfering with Capital, the IWMA gave Marx an impetus to finally get it written, his contact with the practical movement spurring on his theoretical work. He was extremely busy, but with theory and practice together: “Besides my work on the book, the International Association takes up a fairly big amount of time”.27 Engels’s doubts were there from the very start, however. His lack of personal involvement may have lessened his interest or confidence in the initiative, but the whole idea seems to have aroused his suspicions. When Marx reported a fairly minor spat on the central council, Engels was almost in ‘I told you so’ mode: “I thought that the naive fraternité in the International Association wouldn’t last long.”28 Naive or no, the fraternity of those first six months had another good six years in it yet, in which it would blaze a trail across the political landscape.

It is a trail worth exploring again 150 years on, with even the first markers on the route pointing to an interesting path.

First of all, the International was born of a tangible revival in the workers’ movement. It emerged on a rising tide, when the move­ment was winning and growing and feeling the need for solidarity. This meant it was bringing together and strengthening what was already existing, not trying to conjure up a movement of its own in a period of retreat. Developed socialist thinkers like Marx were naturally in a minority, with recognised representatives of workers, close to the rank and file, to the fore.

It was also an intensely practical organisation. Even the job of drawing up a programme was very businesslike, and organising modest but real work on the ground was its keynote. The insistence that the only members were active members—no politicians, celebrities, or prominent leaders ‘lending their names’ for show—placed the emphasis firmly on practice.

Even someone with the political cop-on of Engels looked on suspiciously from the outside, doubting that revolutionary politics could fit in to such a practical movement without an explicit socialist perspective. But Marx, with his conviction that “our outlook” could be presented in a manner “acceptable to the current standpoint of the workers’ movement”, got it right. He didn’t water down his politics at all, but argued for them in a persuasive and rational way, so that it made sense as a logical development of what the movement was already doing anyway. To people who had campaigned to limit the working day, it made sense to see this as a challenge to the imperatives of capital. To people organising co-operatives, it made sense to see them prefiguring a new way of working. To people who had been frustrated in these efforts at every turn by the political power of the bosses, it made sense that such power had to be taken from them. To people fighting to maintain and improve the condition of their class, it made sense to see the liberation of their class as part and parcel of it. Marx started from where the movement was at, instead of weaving dreams of where it should be. But this was a starting point for an uninterrupted journey which, if followed to the full, led to socialism: “the protection, advancement, and complete emancipation of the working classes” were not separate struggles or stages, but part of a single unfolding process.

No one could set the workers free but the workers themselves. This principle is right at the heart of Marxism, but often proves beyond the grasp of many who claim to follow it. To assign another class as the agency of revolution, or even an organisation acting on behalf of the working class and claiming to embody its best interests, is to set a course for something other than the emancipation of the working class. But it proved easy enough to understand for workers setting up an independent association of their own class.

They also understood the need for political theory. Shelley and life had told them that they were many while their rulers were few, and they knew that they needed to get together, but they were also aware that they would have to think about things. They didn’t need telling twice that workers should be “united by combination and led by knowledge”—not by intellectuals but by intellect, and their respect for the contribution of intellectuals like Marx only under­lined the centrality of workers in their own organisation.

This contribution of Marx’s was profound and original. He had no organisation to lean on, let alone a party, only the comradeship of Engels, who was away for the crucial period and sceptical on his return. He had the support of a handful of comrades like Eccarius, but for the most part relied on the persuasive powers of his arguments alone. Presented skilfully, and given a fair hearing from workers alive to the basic interests of their class and humanity, he was confident that they would ring true. For all the distance between his time and ours, a real understanding of his ideas and actions can help socialists make a difference whenever similar opportunities confront them.

Notes

  1. On 4 November.
  2. The name later turned into the International Working Men’s Assoc­iation, commonly the International. Marx and the other members went along with the sexism of the English language at the time, which was reluctant to afford full human status to women. It is often called the First International, but this is anachronous at best, anticipating later Internationals which were all more or less different kettles of fish.
  3. Minutes of the 5 October meeting.
  4. Letter to Marx, 12 October.
  5. Letter to Engels, 4 November.
  6. Minutes, 19 October meeting.
  7. Letter to Engels, 4 November.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Wilhelm Eichhoff, Die Internationale Arbeiterassociation: Ihre Grundung, Organisation, politisch-socziale Thätigkeit und Ausbreitung (Berlin 1868), p 4. Having asked for Marx’s help, the author received a mass of documents from him, as well as some original writing which Eichhoff told him he would use word for word.
  10. Letter to Engels, 4 November. Marx wrote this phrase in English.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Minutes, 1 November meeting.
  14. And it was followed by news of a meeting with Mikhail Bakunin: “I really liked him”, as unlike many others, he had “moved forwards instead of backwards” since 1848. As Marx and Bakunin were to cross swords in the International subsequently, this reference shows that Marx certainly had no premeditated antagonism towards him.
  15. Letter to Engels, 14 November.
  16. Letter to Lion Phillips, 29 November.
  17. Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 29 November.
  18. Minutes of central council meeting, 29 November.
  19. Letter to Engels, 25 February 1865. The words “to serve” onwards were written in English, which explains the slightly clumsy grammar in the transition.
  20. Letter to Engels, 10 December 1864.
  21. Letter to Engels, 25 February 1865.
  22. Letter to Marx, 27 January 1865. Marx’s statement, writing to Engels two days before, that “Ladies are admitted” anticipated the unanimous decision of the central council on 25 April “that females be admitted as members”, but there never seems to have been any suggestion of excluding them.
  23. Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 10 March 1865.
  24. Letter to Marx, 12 May 1865.
  25. Letter to Engels, 13 March 1865.
  26. Letter to Engels, 26 December 1865.
  27. Letter to Engels, 13 March 1865.
  28. Letter to Marx, 12 April 1865.

Capital gains

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh reviewed a book on Marx’s masterpiece in Issue 28 (June 2007).

Francis Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. (Atlantic)

One episode of Steptoe and Son pits the two protagonists on opposite sides of an election campaign. During a heated argument, Harold contributes the following to his father’s political education:

You ignorant little sod! Karl Marx wrote a book called Das Kapital. That’s the greatest book ever written, that. Here you are, here it is. You want to read this, mate. It’s all in here. Ah, he knew what he was talking about. This is the bible of socialism!

Albert, of course, is having none of it, and dismisses him with characteristic contempt.

The tragedy is that, while most Marxists pay lip service to Harold’s opinion, in their heart of hearts they go along with Albert. The number of them who actually feel any inclination to read Capital is truly minuscule. It is understandable that people new to Marxism would put it off—although a surprising number are interested in tackling it—but people who have been knocking about for decades calling themselves Marxists without ever getting up to think about reading Marx’s central work? There is something a bit fraudulent about that, like a priest who never read the Bible. There are third-level graduates among them who, by definition, were prepared to wade through acres of dry academic tomes when a degree lay at the end of them, but won’t trouble themselves to attempt Capital. In fact, it gets worse, with the very idea of reading it often put forward as the height of absurdity, as if being ignorant of the workings of a system puts you in a better position to overthrow it.

One peculiarity of the book, reflected in the name of this short study of it, is that its title is almost always rendered as Das Kapital, although various English translations of it have been available since 1888. We don’t insist on referring to other Marxist works, or works of literature in general, in the language they were written in, so why is Capital different? The effect is to further alienate people from the book, to project it as an impenetrable, unfathomable enigma. This obviously suits the class whose downfall it was intended to hasten, but what are socialists doing playing the same game?

Francis Wheen’s 1997 biography of Marx won widespread acclaim. The welcome for his general enthusiasm about Marx blinded many to his frequent straightforward failures to understand his work, and a similar mixture is evident here. Once again, the journalist gets the better of the historian too often: for instance, when he characterises Marx’s work with Engels as “Marx with his wealth of knowledge, Engels with his knowledge of wealth” (p 16). Besides patronising Engels, who could teach him a thing or two hundred, Wheen is too eager to let a supposedly witty bon mot get in the way of an accurate description.

Marx never expected conventional economists to get his point, and soon after finishing Book One, he told Engels that it contained plenty of “traps for those fellows which will provoke them into an untimely display of their idiocy” (p 111). Probably the most common trap is the idea that Marx forecast increasingly lower wages for workers as capitalism progressed. Wheen is perceptive enough to read Capital properly and grasp Marx’s point that workers would get relatively worse off, with a smaller share of the total wealth.

But he does walk into other traps. Marx noted a tendency for general profit rates to fall—while also noting certain actions by capitalists which acted against that tendency. According to Wheen, “it looks as if he is rewording his proposition so as to be right either way” (p 67). A few minutes’ thought clears this one up. Most of those who read Wheen’s book will hold it in front of them with their hands. If they remove their hands, it will fall into their lap or on to the floor. Gravity exerts a constant downward pressure on that book, even though very few readers will give in to that pressure. But because the tendency is usually counteracted, does that mean gravity doesn’t exist?

He takes another pratfall in questioning Marx’s insistence that a commodity’s value depends on the labour needed to produce it. How come, then, he asks, people will pay astronomical prices for a fancy diamond ring or a superior vintage claret? For a start, a rare diamond takes more labour to mine, and a vintage wine takes more labour to cultivate and store. But Wheen is simply mistaking value and price. When supply outstrips demand, then a commodity’s price is brought down below its value; and when supply can’t keep up with demand, its price rises above its value. The price of commod­ities which are scarce by their very nature can go exceptionally above their value, far more so than ordinary commodities.

This book rightly recognises the artistic merit of Capital, a work of literature in its own right. However, it takes that too far, focussing on the form of Marx’s argument to the detriment of its content. Wheen wants to understand Capital as a picaresque Gothic novel because he can’t fully understand it as a work of economic theory. After misunderstanding the difference between use-value and exchange-value, he attributes his own confusion to Marx (p 42): “we are in fact reading a shaggy-dog story… How else could he do justice to the mysterious and often topsy-turvy logic of capitalism?” Where he fails to follow the logic, he resorts to claiming that there can be no logic, celebrating that in an almost postmodern way. He quotes Marx’s criticism of economists who “conceal under a parade of literary-historical erudition, or by an admixture of extraneous material, their feeling of scientific impotence and the eerie conscious­ness of having to teach others what they themselves felt to be a truly strange subject” (p 74), blissfully unaware that this does well as a description of Wheen’s own method on occasion. De te fabula narratur, as Marx quotes Horace in his preface: the joke’s on you!

The complaint is made that “Nowhere in Das Kapital does Marx explain why or how—still less when—the system will ultimately destroy itself” (p 68). In truth, it explains at great length why and how the very workings of capitalism regularly lead to crises which require ever more drastic measures to overcome them. But as for the system destroying itself, if Marx was ever under the illusion that it would, he wouldn’t have spent his life trying to get the working class to do the job. Book One’s climactic conclusion that the expropriation of the expropriators would sound the system’s death knell is too matter-of-fact for Wheen—but for someone trying to write the book’s biography, this displays serious ignorance of the conditions under which it was written. It was published legally in Germany, where a rigorous censorship prevailed. A book openly preaching red revolution would never have got through, and Marx was forced to drop hints and make allusions to the political action needed to do capitalism in. Wheen constructs a laboured interpretation of the chapter Marx placed after the “expropriators are expropriated” climax—but it crumbles somewhat when you realise that the chapter was more than likely put there to distract the censor from the big finish.

Marx was working on economic studies for twenty years, on and off, before Book One of Capital saw the light of day in 1867. His involvement in the International Working Men’s Association from 1864 on had provided “a new distraction”, we are told (p 33). This spectacularly misses the point that Marx’s renewed political activism was precisely the impetus that brought his work to a conclusion. The re-emergence of the workers’ movement after years of stagnation gave him a new reason to provide that movement with a theoretical weapon. Capital Book One is a product of the International, just like another of his masterpieces, The Civil War in France. Marx’s most fruitful theoretical periods coincide with or feed off his most politically active periods—a confirmation, if one were needed, that Marxist theory and practice reinforce and complement each other rather than being in any kind of conflict.

Attempts are often made to separate them, however. Wheen quotes articles from the Financial Times and the like, recognising that, with capitalism as prone to crisis as ever, there might just be something to Marx’s theories. The excitement over such acknowledgment should give way to the fact that such eulogies are invariably idle attempts to divorce Marx’s analysis from its revo­lution­ary implications. This book recounts the way that reformist politic­ians from Eduard Bernstein to Harold Wilson have had to dismiss and discredit Marx’s economics to pursue their political project. If we only see capitalism as a system that doesn’t pay us enough wages, then reformism is there to fill that gap. But if, with Marx, we see it as a system based entirely on robbing our unpaid labour, then a movement to increase the rations of the wage slave will leave us unimpressed. No one can logically accept Marx’s dis­covery of surplus value and its extraction and not be a revolutionary socialist.

A guide to Capital that helped readers get into it could well be helpful, but this isn’t it. Wheen undoubtedly has an enthusiasm for some of Marx’s ideas and communicates this to the reader, but he doesn’t understand the theory well enough to explain it. For better or worse, there is no substitute for opening Capital itself and having a go. It’s far from an easy book, but farther still from the nightmare portrayed by its enemies and some of its supposed friends. It’s not a bad idea to start with Value, Price and Profit, a pamphlet where Marx introduces some of the concepts that Capital expands on. But any intelligent socialist can understand Capital and profit from it greatly. “I assume, of course,” wrote Marx in the preface, “a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself.” The question is: Did he assume too much?

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).

1850-1864:
“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.

1864-1872:
“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.

1872-1883:
“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.

Notes

  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).

1848-1850:
“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.

Notes

  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.

1818-1848:
“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 >

Notes

  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.

The Communist Manifesto: birthday honours

This article by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh appeared in Issue 3 in November 1998.

The Communist Manifesto is 150 years old already, but the celebrations have been nothing to write home about. Magazines and papers, television and radio programmes have been beating the bushes all year for anyone who’ll answer to the name of communist and subjecting them to the full rigours of whatever facile question comes into their researchers’ heads, before presenting their own ignorance as the last word on the subject. If this is the Manifesto’s birth­day party, Harold Pinter could have thrown a better one. This article is for everyone who has found themselves rolling their eyes at what’s passed for serious consideration of the Communist Manifesto.

Everyone knows the first sentence, if they know no more: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” But most people have been so bewitched by the metaphor that they’ve missed the point. Read on another few lines and you’ll see that communism itself isn’t the spectre, but the myths and legends about the communist bogeyman coming to gobble up every good bourgeois in his bed. The whole point of the Manifesto is to set the actual principles of communism against “the fairy tale of the spectre of communism”.

“To this end communists of the various nationalities have assembled in London and drawn up the following manifesto”—only they were more or less all Germans, only two of them did the business in the end, and not in London. The conference of the Communist League, an organisation of emigrant German craftsmen, appointed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to write them a manifesto. This point is important politically (and not just historically) because this was the manifesto of an organisation, not the personal opinion of Marx and Engels—who weren’t even identified as the authors for some years. So it may well be that they had to express themselves in a way that would be acceptable to the League, rather than just as they liked, although they were just after winning the League to their way of thinking.

Engels had a bash, coming up with a kind of communist catechism, “in which there will at least be nothing contrary to our views”, he told Marx. But he felt the question-and-answer format wouldn’t do, and hit upon the idea of a manifesto in narrative form. Marx wrote the final text in early 1848 on the basis of Engels’s draft—which goes a long way to explain why the Manifesto is Marx’s most concise and direct piece of writing, free of the tendency to explore every nook and cranny that characterises most of his work, for good and ill.

This is where we get down to business: “The history of every society until now is the history of class struggles.” Engels was right to point out later that this doesn’t go for hunter-gatherer societies, but the proposition that since then the motor of history has been the “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open struggle” between oppressing and oppressed classes is a defining moment. Marx never claimed to have discovered the class struggle (explicitly denied it, in fact), but to trace its development and harness it as the means of achieving the liberation of the working class set Marxism apart, and still sets it apart, from most other versions of socialism knocking about.

Class division gets starker in capitalist society: “The whole society splits more and more into two great opposing camps, into two great classes standing directly against each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.” Before the sociolo­gists get out of their tree and hurl textbooks on stratification theory at us, it should be noted that nowhere is it claimed that this class division is finished, that every mother’s son can fit unproblematically into a box marked Capitalist or a box marked Worker. It expressly describes this division as a tendency, that “more and more” people are being forced into one of the two classes, down the Property in the Means of Production to Declare channel or the Nothing but my Labour Power to Declare channel. Capitalism will always throw up in-between groups, but Bourgeoisie versus Proletariat is the way things are headed.

“The modern state power is only a committee that manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Now there’s a sentence calculated to de­value your politics degree: surely that’s a bit over-simplified, reductionist, verging on conspiracy theory? But have another look at it: if it manages the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, then obviously different factions with divergent interests exist within the capitalist class, so divergent that they have to delegate a committee to look after the really important things they all agree on. The Manifesto (never mind the rest of Marx’s or Engels’s writings) presents a more sophisticated picture of the capitalist state than you’d think.

If there’s anyone left out there who still thinks that Marx’s writings on alienation were just a folly of youthful idealism that he grew out of, the Mani­festo should make them think again: “The work of the proletarians has, through the spread of machinery and the division of labour, lost all autono­mous character and with it all charm for the worker. He becomes a mere accessory of the machine, which calls for only the simplest, most monotonous, easiest to learn knack from him.”

As a result of this, “The cost of the worker therefore shrinks almost to nothing but the means of existence required for his maintenance and for the propagation of his race”, and so, “The average price of labour is the minimum wage.” Wrong: as Marx later pointed out, the ability to work is different from other commodities in that it happens to be embodied in a human being. Con­sequently, the amount needed to produce this commodity is flexible and depends on historical, social factors—on the going rate of civilisation, if you like. Where workers have managed to win a certain standard of living, the expectation of maintaining this standard (and even improving it a bit) enters into the determination of the value of their labour power. The economic and political struggle of the working class can pull against the capitalists’ struggle to push wages down.

“Differences of sex and age no longer have any social validity for the working class.” But of course (and this goes for national, racial and other prejudices too) just because something has become worthless doesn’t stop people futilely trying to spend it. And the Manifesto is far from painting a rosy picture of the onward-ever-onward march of the proletariat into the revolutionary sunset: “This organisation of the proletarians as a class, and consequently as a political party, is burst apart at every turn by the competi­tion amongst the workers themselves.”

The Manifesto rightly states that “the proletariat is the only really revolu­tionary class”, but is too one-sided in characterising some of the others. Small farmers, artisans, the lower middle classes are all of them “not revolutionary, but conservative. What’s more, they are reactionary, they try to turn back the wheel of history.” On the off-chance that they do behave in a revolutionary way, it’s only “in view of their impending crossing over to the proletariat” anyway.

This encourages a sort of ‘ourselves alone’ approach, the kind of dismissal of every other class as reactionary that Marx and Engels had to fight against in later years: the workers can just go their own way, and if the others want to join the back of the queue, they know where to find us; if not, sure it’s their own loss. But there are virtually no situations where the working class can’t use allies, and some situations where we can’t begin to manage without them. We have to actively go out and win these other oppressed classes, to rally them behind our banner, not sit back waiting indefinitely for every one of them to become proletarians anyway.

The bourgeoisie itself has created the working class, and here comes another of those classic images the Manifesto is full of: “It produces above all its own gravediggers. Its downfall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” This is hopefully no more than a rhetorical flourish on Marx’s part because, while you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see the inevitability of capitalism collapsing, there’s nothing inevitable about the workers emerging victorious from the ruins. World war, fascism, barba­rism— “the common downfall of the battling classes” is how the Manifesto puts it—awaits if our class doesn’t shape itself to build socialism instead.

Which is where section II of the Manifesto comes in, asking where the com­munists stand in regard to the working class as a whole. The initial answer is worth repeating in full:

The communists aren’t a separate party as against the other workers’ parties.
They have no interests apart from the interests of the whole proletariat.
They set up no separate interests by which they seek to mould the pro­letarian movement.
The communists differ from the rest of the proletarian parties only in as much as, on the one hand, in the various national struggles of the prole­tarians they emphasise and bring to bear the common interests— independently of nationality—of the whole proletariat and, on the other hand, in the various stages of development that the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie pass through they always advocate the interests of the entire movement.
The communists are therefore practically the most resolute part, always driving further forward, of the workers’ parties of all countries; they have theoretically the advantage over the great mass of the proletariat of the insight into the conditions, the course and the general results of the proletarian movement.

Firstly, why is the class-conscious section of the working class referred to as “communists”? Engels later explained that “we could not have called it a Socialist Manifesto”. 150 years ago socialists were those who advocated social reform with the support of middle-class philanthropists; those in the working-class movement who called for the workers to free themselves through social revolution were known as communists. And so, “there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take. Moreover, we have, ever since, been far from repudiating it.” Since then, Stalinism has gone and ruined the word communism on us, and socialism is a much less problematic term, especially now that the labour parties only use it when they lose the run of themselves. But, with a small c and a clear health warning, communism is a grand revo­lutionary name for a grand revolutionary thing, and we shouldn’t go throwing it out altogether.

Secondly, if communists aren’t a separate party, what exactly was this here Communist League up to then? And what was it doing publishing a Manifesto of the Communist Party? The answer requires a look at how politi­cal language has changed. In the mid-nineteenth century the word “party” had a much wider meaning. The ‘Repeal party’ referred to the movement for the repeal of the union with Britain, not just Daniel O’Connell’s clique; the ‘Chartist party’ in Britain meant the movement to enact the People’s Charter, rather than a particular association; the ‘democratic party’ in Europe was those who wanted democracy, instead of any individual organisation. If you read this sentence as meaning that socialists are part of the workers’ move­ment rather than a movement of their own, it makes perfect sense. Whether the work of socialists requires separate organisation at all times is a question the Manifesto doesn’t attempt to answer.

Thirdly, how many Marxist organisations of the past 150 years can you recognise in the above quotation? On one side, the humility of the Manifesto, modestly pointing out that us communists aren’t all that different from most people after all. On the other, those who define themselves by what separates them from the working class rather than what unites them, who judge the success of a strike by the number of members they’ve recruited, who always manage to conclude that what’s best for them happens to be best for the working class. Wherever these latter get their inspiration from, it isn’t the Communist Manifesto.

In attacking the capitalists’ hypocritical defence of the family, the Mani­festo refers to the “absence of family amongst the proletarians”. In 1848 this was fair enough: capitalism was young and was dragging in anyone and everyone to turn a profit for it, tearing family ties to shreds in the process. It was only later in the century that it began to see the family as a handy institu­tion for rearing the next generation of workers and privatising domestic labour. This is one of the rare occasions on which the Manifesto mistakenly takes a short-term trend for a permanent feature of capitalism.

The communists were accused of wanting to nationalise women. The alle­gation is now more curious than anything else, but the answer shows that sexual politics is nothing new to Marxism:

The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production should be worked in common, and naturally can’t think other than that the fate of being in common lies in store for the wives as well.
Little does he know that it is a question of abolishing the position of wives as mere instruments of production.

“The national separations and antagonisms of the peoples are disappear­ing more and more already with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the corre­sponding conditions of life.” Yes and no: the world market and trade has increased national antagonism, by systematically underdeveloping large regions of the world. But at the same time it has created the foundations for a global community, the potential for a united human race. But like most of capitalism’s possibilities, the capitalist system will have to be abolished inter­nationally before it can be realised.

The first step in socialist revolution is “the elevation of the proletariat to ruling class, the winning of the battle for democracy”. Democracy is here equated with the victory of the working class: socialist revolution is the beginning of democracy. (The standard English translation is unclear here: “to win the battle of democracy”. But “die Erkämpfung der Demokratie” clearly means winning democracy in a battle. Samuel Moore’s translation, edited by Engels, improves upon the original here and there, but sometimes confuses matters. Worst of all, how did Engels allow “proletarians” to be turned into “working men”? This article uses the original text of the Manifesto.)

“If the proletariat in struggle against the bourgeoisie necessarily unites as a class, through a revolution makes itself the ruling class and as ruling class forcibly abolishes the old relations of production, it then abolishes with these relations of production the conditions of existence of class antagonisms, of classes in general, and with that its own rule as a class.” The workers’ use of state power is a minimal one: the only reason they assume political domina­tion as a class is to put an end to political domination and to classes.

The Manifesto outlines ten immediate measures such a revolution would take. Despite Marx and Engels stressing how provisional they were, depend­ent on a particular time and place, too much attention has been focussed on them. Many commentators are surprised at how moderate they are—but, the same as anyone else, the working class will have to walk before we can run, and the important thing is to get things underway; building a socialist society will be a continuous job, constantly outstripping itself.

The big mistake is measure number three: “Abolition of inheritance”—a step guaranteed to drive the small farmers of Europe into the arms of reaction. Engels’s draft called for the restriction of inheritance rather than its abolition, and even for the right of children born outside marriage to inherit. When the Communist League drew up a list of demands on the outbreak of revolution in Germany a month or two later, Engels’s approach prevailed. And in later decades Marx found himself arguing that the workers’ state wouldn’t take land from small farmers’ children.

The third section is notable for being a fine example of Marx keeping his satiric powers under control. Too often he would fill pages with minute critique of whatever counterfeit version of socialism he was faced with, ten times more than it deserved. That he succeeded in keeping it snappy here is probably a tribute to the influence of Engels’s draft. And he had so much to play with—it seems every world-reformer going back then called themselves a socialist.

The section on petty-bourgeois socialism interestingly sees its origin in the way that “a new petty bourgeoisie has been formed, that hovers between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and is continually formed anew as a supple­mentary part of bourgeois society”. So the tendency of capitalist society to split up into a capitalist class and a working class is modified by another ten­dency, to create a new middle class. But this tendency is a subordinate one, and these petty bourgeois are constantly pushed up or (more usually) down into one of the two great camps.

For all its criticism of the various socialist schools, the Manifesto does give credit where it’s due. The “critical-utopian” socialists, for example, “assail all the principles of existing society. They have therefore provided extremely valuable material for the enlightenment of the workers.” Their problem is that “they see no capacity for historical activity on the part of the proletariat itself, no political movement of its own”; all they see in the workers is “the most suffering class”.

Section IV, like section III, deals with parties that have ceased to exist, but tactics that can still be applied. Socialist activity is summed up in one of those sentences that a century and a half hasn’t bettered: “They fight for the attain­ment of the immediate present aims and interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they stand at the same time for the future of the movement.”

The allies of the communists in various countries are then outlined. Where there are working-class parties, the position is as already stated in section II. But elsewhere communists critically support social democrats, radicals, agrarian revolutionaries—“every revolutionary movement against the existing historical and political situation”, but always “bring to the fore the property question, however developed or undeveloped a form it may have assumed, as the basic question of the movement”. Socialists take an unapologetic part in a united front, but without putting the class struggle on the long finger.

Understandably the Manifesto goes into more detail when it comes to Germany. Here the communists fight alongside the capitalists against the aris­tocrats, whenever the capitalists seriously want to fight. “But they don’t forget for a moment to carve out amongst the workers the clearest possible consciousness of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, so that the German workers can at once turn the historical and political con­ditions which the bourgeoisie must bring about with its rule into so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, so that as soon as the reactionary classes in Germany fall the struggle against the bourgeoisie itself begins.” Germany was on the eve of a bourgeois revolution but, because the German working class was more developed than the English or French working classes were during their bourgeois revolutions, this “can therefore be merely the curtain-raiser to a proletarian revolution”. The concept of permanent revolution is not a more recent bit added on to Marxism: here it is right in the heart of the Communist Manifesto itself.

The communists “openly declare that their aims can only be achieved by the forcible overthrow of every social order that has existed until now”. When Engels’s draft asked if private property could be abolished peacefully, it answered: “It would be desirable if this could happen, and the communists would certainly be the last to oppose it.” But given that the capitalists were already forcibly holding down the workers’ movement, this hardly seemed likely. “If the oppressed proletariat is thereby finally driven to revolution, then we communists will defend the cause of the proletarians with deeds just as we now defend it with words.” Marx’s final version is more up-front, not bother­ing with the outside chance that the capitalists might come quietly. And this is the better approach, because it wasn’t a question of crystal ball-gazing about what might and mightn’t happen, but of preparing the workers for what will most probably be necessary.

Proletarians of all countries, unite!” This isn’t just a big finish. It is worth taking to heart that the last word of the Manifesto is a call for workers’ unity. After all is said and done, the most important thing is not for socialists to get themselves organised and clear—important as that is. The most impor­tant thing is for workers everywhere to stand together, because the united working class is the force that can end all the oppression that haunts us today and replace it with “an association in which the free development of each forms the conditions for the free development of all”. The reason we need to discuss, criticise, celebrate the Communist Manifesto—and above all read the thing, again and again—is that it puts our class in a better position to reach that goal.