Workers Vanguard No. 846
15 April 2005
How Marx Became a Marxist
by Joseph Seymour
We print below an educational given by Spartacist League Central Committee member Joseph Seymour at the Twelfth National Conference of the SL/U.S. held last summer as published in the Young Spartacus pages of Workers Vanguard Nos. 840 (21 January), 842 (18 February), 844 (18 March) and 846 (15 April).
Becoming a professional revolutionary of the Marxist persuasion almost always involves an intellectual challenge. You have to learn to think about the world in a fundamentally different way than when you first came to social and political consciousness.
Sometimes it also involves a personal challenge of one kind or another. For example, one's parents may strongly disapprove of this particular career choice. This was definitely not what they wanted and expected for their son or daughter. For those of you who have faced that particular personal challenge, you're in very good company. Throughout her life, Marx's mother believed that her son had wasted his great talents on that communist nonsense. It is said that she once exclaimed: "If only Karl had made some capital instead of just writing about it."
The term "dialectical materialism" was devised by George Plekhanov, often called the founding father of Russian Marxism, as a capsule formula for the Marxist worldview. Dialectics or dialectical understanding is not a mysterious concept, although it has been subjected to a great deal of mystification, not least by professed Marxists. In the course of the faction fight with Burnham and Shachtman over the Russian question in 1939-40, Trotsky commented: "What does this terrible word 'dialectics' mean? It means to consider things in their development, not in their static situation" ("On the 'Workers' Party" [August 1940]).
In the most general sense, dialectics signifies that what exists at present and will exist in the future is determined and conditioned by the entire prior course of historical development or, in some cases, retrogression from it. Change is caused by the interplay of contradictions, tensions, antagonistic elements inherited from the past; the remote past as well as the more recent past.
One of Sigmund Freud's favorite aphorisms is that the child is the father of the man. This is a dialectical approach to individual psychology. How one feels, thinks and acts is strongly influenced by one's early childhood experience, especially one's relations with one's parents or parental figures. Someone may wake up one morning and say to himself: "I really hate what my life has become. I hate what I have become. I want to be happy and successful." Who doesn't? Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. You cannot wipe out your entire past experience and reconstruct your life and personality anew according to some preferred model. There is no such thing as being born again. That is true for individuals. It is true for societies. It is true for the non-human natural world.
Like everything else in the world, the origins and also subsequent development of Marxism can only be understood dialectically. As Marx himself stated in this regard: "The biography of a single individual can in no way be separated from the biographies of previous and contemporary individuals: indeed, it is determined by them."
So to understand how Marx became a Marxist, we have to start by looking at the socioeconomic, political, cultural and intellectual universe which Marx encountered and entered as a young liberal idealist in western Germany in the mid-late 1830s. Marx grew up in a society in which a developing industrial economy, based on modern technology, both confronted and coexisted with a political and cultural complex inherited from the late medieval world.
When Marx was nine years old, Alfred Krupp established a steel-making foundry in the Ruhr city of Essen which later developed into one of the great industrial empires in the modern world. The year Marx graduated gymnasium, the equivalent of high school, in 1835, the first railroad was launched in Germany. Two years later, when Marx was at the University of Berlin, August Borsig founded a subsequently famous machinery works in that German city.
At the same time, despite its liberal facade, the Prussian state was a form of monarchical absolutism in which the political personality of the monarch mattered. When the old king died in 1840, he was succeeded by his son, a religious reactionary, who instituted a more repressive policy toward academic and intellectual life. One consequence was that Marx left Germany and moved to Paris, which was then the center of the communist and socialist movements. It was then and there that Marx himself became a communist.
Prussia was officially a "Christian state." Thus in order to practice law, Marx's father, who was a secularized and non-believing Jew, had to legally convert to Lutheranism and also change his name from Herschel to Heinrich.
Marx first entered the political scene in 1837 as part of a radical intellectual circle called the Left Hegelians or Young Hegelians. This movement had been initiated a few years earlier with the publication of a book titled The Life of Jesus by David Strauss. This was a work of biblical criticism which questioned whether Jesus had actually performed the miracles ascribed to him. It ignited an intellectual and political firestorm because decisive sections of the German ruling class, especially the Prussian landed nobility (the so-called Junkers), identified a skeptical, not to speak of hostile, attitude toward orthodox Christianity with the ideology of the French Revolution, with what was called "red republicanism." "First, they question the truth of the Bible; next they'll be calling for the execution of the king of Prussia." This was the mindset of the men who ruled Germany when Marx entered the political scene. In 1843, Marx published an important work in which he called for eliminating the "Middle Ages" in Germany because the heritage of the Middle Ages was so strongly present in the Germany of the day.
Contradictions of Enlightenment Thought
A basic premise of materialism is that external reality exists independently of our consciousness. Thus in understanding the intellectual development of the young Marx, it is useful to consider not only what he thought at the time but what others thought about him. When Marx was a member of the Left Hegelian movement, a close colleague, Moses Hess, wrote the following appreciation of him in a letter to a friend:
"Dr Marx (that is my idol's name) is still a very young man—about twenty-four at the most. He will give mediaeval religion and philosophy their coup de grâce; he combines the deepest philosophical seriousness with the most biting wit. Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel fused into one person—I say fused not juxtaposed—and you have Dr Marx."
—reproduced in David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Interviews and Recollections (1981)
Hess was not simply saying that Marx was a very smart and very knowledgeable guy who had read and assimilated the ideas of the main progressive thinkers from the mid 18th-century French Enlightenment through the then-present day. He was saying something much more significant than that.
Why? Because Rousseau and Voltaire represented fundamentally different and indeed counterposed worldviews within the universe of progressive social thought. They were protagonists in the most famous debate in Enlightenment literature. The question was whether civilization was progressive or retrogressive, with Voltaire maintaining the former and Rousseau the latter.
Rousseau summarized his ideas thus: "Man is naturally good and that it is by institutions alone that men become evil." He maintained that man in a so-called state of nature was instinctively empathetic to the sufferings of fellow members of his species. However, the institution of private property had turned men against one another. Men in society had become murderously acquisitive, driven by greed and envy.
Rousseau himself was a deepgoing historical pessimist. He was a moralist critic of the existing social and political order in Europe. He believed that the large majority of men had become irremediably corrupted by millennia of civilization.
However, during the course of the French Revolution, Rousseau's ideas were in a sense inverted into a naive, world-conquering optimism. The leaders of the Jacobin regime like Robespierre and Saint-Just, who revered Rousseau, believed that the revolutionary transformation of institutions had brought about the moral regeneration of the French people. The establishment of a democratic republic had imbued the citizens of the French nation with the spirit of patriotism and virtue.
In opposition to Rousseau, Voltaire maintained that the betterment of humanity and the progress of society were centrally dependent upon the further development of science and technology. One of his early works was a popular exposition of Isaac Newton's theories of physics. If Voltaire had summarized his worldview in a sentence, it would have been something like: "Man is naturally ignorant, and it is only by the acquisition of knowledge that he gradually becomes enlightened."
But who are the social agents who will so enlighten the benighted mass of humanity? For Voltaire, they were and could only be benevolent and rational members of the upper classes and intellectuals, like himself, who could influence the ruling circles.
In addition to Rousseau and Voltaire, Hess mentions another leading figure of the French Enlightenment, Holbach, whose ideas influenced the young Marx. Holbach, who was a wealthy nobleman, was a thoroughgoing materialist, in effect an atheist. But he believed that such advanced views were the limited preserve of exceptional members of the upper classes like himself. "The people," he wrote, "reads no more than it reasons; it has neither the leisure nor the ability to do so."
So how did Marx fuse the democratic egalitarianism identified with Rousseau with the intellectual elitism of Voltaire and Holbach? To oversimplify, Marx combined the goal of Rousseau with the means of Voltaire by way of a dialectical conception of history derived from Hegel, while purged of the latter's idealist metaphysics.
The goal of communism is an egalitarian and harmonious society in which all men support the needs and interests of other men. But such a future society can come into being only through the overcoming of economic scarcity by qualitatively raising the level of production and labor productivity through the further progressive development of science and technology. Moreover, throughout the history of civilization prior to advanced industrial capitalism, raising the level and forces of production necessarily entailed the exploitation and oppression of the mass of humanity by a small class of property owners. In other words, private property and class-divided society were not a tragic historical mistake which could have been avoided if only people had known better.
A very good capsule statement of the Marxist worldview in this regard is to be found in one of Marx's lesser-known works, Theories of Surplus-Value (1863):
"Although at first the development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even classes, in the end it breaks through this contradiction and coincides with the development of the individual; the higher development of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process during which individuals are sacrificed."
This conception fundamentally differentiates dialectical materialism from all variants of radical idealism, such as anarchism.
Liberalism, Communism, Socialism
In the period in which Marx and also Engels first came to political consciousness, the terms liberalism, communism and socialism were commonly used in conventional political discourse. However, liberalism, at least in emphasis, meant something significantly different than it does today, while communism and socialism meant something fundamentally different than today.
Central to the liberal worldview was a belief in raising the level of production and productivity through the application of science and technology. Scottish and English political economists—from Adam Smith in the late 18th century to David Ricardo in the early 19th to lesser lights like James Mill in Marx's formative years—were leading intellectual representatives of liberalism. They maintained that the wealth of nations—to use the title of Adam Smith's classic and seminal work—would be maximized by the institutional framework of a competitive market economy made up of a multiplicity of capitalist entrepreneurs. In order to maximize profits and avoid losses (and potential bankruptcy), such entrepreneurs would supposedly be compelled to continually reduce the costs of production through technical innovation.
What I want to emphasize here is that in this period it was liberalism, not communism or socialism, which was identified as centrally concerned with and committed to increasing what Marx later called "the forces of production." The intellectual hegemony of liberalism as a doctrine of economic production was a major factor that later caused Marx to write Capital. Throughout Capital, there are polemical arguments against David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and other economic ideologists of the new bourgeois order. Some years ago, a perceptive Polish ex-Stalinist intellectual observed that Marx was the first major left-wing thinker who took on liberalism on its own chosen terrain, that of political economy.
What then of communism and socialism? Communism, both as a doctrine and movement, originated as an episode in the last phase of the French Revolution with Gracchus Babeuf's Conspiracy of Equals in 1795-96. This was a movement of former left-wing Jacobins who had come to the conclusion that their principles could be realized only by a revolutionary dictatorship, brought to power through a popular insurrection, which would establish a communism of distribution and consumption.
That is, peasants would continue to grow crops on their small farms as before. Artisans—tailors, shoemakers, carpenters—would continue to produce their goods in small workshops as before. However, instead of selling these on the market they would be deposited in a kind of gigantic state-run warehouse system, and the government would distribute them on an egalitarian basis. Families with more children would receive larger houses and proportionally more food, clothing and the like.
In the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) Marx wrote of the Babouvist movement in this way:
"The first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these attempts necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation, conditions that had yet to be produced, and could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone. The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat had necessarily a reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form."
This leveling-down conception of communism was necessarily conditioned by the pre-industrial character of French society at the time.
In the lengthy period of reaction in Europe following the overthrow of Napoleon in 1815, what I have called the Jacobin communist tradition was perpetuated and promoted by one of the surviving leaders of the Babouvist movement, Philippe Buonarroti. In the late 1820s he published a book about it, including original documents, which became known as "the bible of revolutionaries." A little later I'm going to discuss Buonarroti's ideas in another context. But here I want to emphasize that even after the advent of industrial capitalism in continental West Europe in the 1820s, the term "communism" retained its programmatic connotation of a leveling-down. It evoked in popular consciousness, as well as among the ruling classes, the spirit and the image of the French Revolution in its most radical phase, that is, a violent uprising of the poor against the rich, of the have-nots against the haves.
In the period we're talking about, the difference between communism and socialism was more sharply delineated than it later became and is today. Whereas communism was insurrectionary—it meant red revolution—socialism was reformist and pacific at two fundamental levels. First, all socialist tendencies appealed to the supposedly benevolent and rational-minded members of the ruling class to promote their program. For example, Robert Owen, the foremost British socialist of the era, dedicated a section of his pioneer work, A New View of Society, written in 1813, to the prince regent of England.
Secondly, with the important exception of the Saint-Simonians (whom I'll discuss in a bit), all major socialist schools—the Owenites in Britain, the followers of Charles Fourier and Étienne Cabet in France—advocated a system of decentralized, self-governing communities based on economic cooperativism. Such socialist communes, so to speak, could be established and coexist within the overall framework of the developing capitalist economies of the day. People would be able to see for themselves in practice that socialist cooperativism was in every respect a better way to organize society. More and more people would form more and more socialist communes until, peacefully and gradually, they completely displaced the existing class-divided and exploitative society. In short, socialists sought to transform society through the force of example rather than the force of force.
In the early 19th century, numerous attempts were actually made to establish socialist communities. Many of these attempts were made in the northern part of the United States with its relative political liberty, fluid social structure and cheap land. However, one of the most interesting and historically noteworthy attempts to form a socialist commune was made in, of all places, Romania. An eccentric Romanian landowner was an enthusiastic admirer of the ideas of Charles Fourier. So he set up a commune—it was called a phalanstère—for his peasants on Fourierist principles.
Fourier was a pioneer advocate of what was later called "free love." He opposed traditional marriage and sexual monogamy. It turned out that many of these young Romanian peasant men and women appreciated Fourier's ideas in this respect and practiced them. Pretty soon news of the strange and scandalous goings-on of this estate reached the ears of the Romanian Orthodox clergy and government authorities who were, of course, outraged. They organized a reactionary mob to attack and demolish this commune. I'm happy to report that the Fourierist peasants of Romania heroically defended their socialist commune. A small historic victory for our cause.
Between the French Revolution and Marx's formative years, the Industrial Revolution crossed the channel, so to speak, from Britain to France, Germany and elsewhere in continental West Europe. This opened up a historical possibility which did not previously exist and could not have been envisioned by even the most far-sighted progressive intellectual. It now became possible to envision the limitless expansion of material wealth available to all members of society, not just a small privileged class of property owners.
This idea was first developed in programmatic form by the followers of Saint-Simon after he died in 1825. Henri de Saint-Simon is usually and rightly described as an idiosyncratic genius. He was a wealthy French nobleman who claimed direct descent from Charlemagne, the founder of the early medieval French feudal state. Saint-Simon himself was a liberal and in the last phase of his life he became a leading spokesman and publicist for the bourgeois liberal opposition—bankers and industrial entrepreneurs—to the reactionary Bourbon monarchy.
However, he was a liberal imbued with the ideas of rational humanism. Even in this early stage of capitalism, he recognized what Marx would later call the anarchy of the market. There were periods in which industrial production declined instead of increasing. Factories went bankrupt, causing great suffering to their former workers, because the owner had miscalculated future market conditions. Useful inventions were not introduced into production because bankers and entrepreneurs would not take the financial risk. To solve these problems, Saint-Simon advocated what could be called centralized capitalist planning. That is, all financiers and industrialists should get together through the banking system and coordinate their operations so as to continually maximize production.
After Saint-Simon died, his followers took the next logical step. This is, they advocated a public institution that would take over all the factories, railroads, mines and other industrial resources and direct these so as to maximize the production of society in line with the progressive development of science and technology. In 1830, they published the Exposition of the Doctrine of Saint-Simon, the crux of which was:
"A social institution is charged with these functions which today are so badly performed; it is the depository of all the instruments of production; it presides over the exploitation of all the material resources; from its vantage point it has a comprehensive view of the whole which enables it to perceive at one and the same time all parts of the industrial workshop....
"The social institution of the future will direct all industries in the interest of the whole society, and especially of the peaceful laborers." [emphasis in original]
—quoted in George Lichtheim, The Origins of Socialism (1969)
These ideas were so far ahead of their time that they found no point of support in the French society of the day. The bourgeois liberals who had sponsored Saint-Simon were, of course, appalled by the new radical ideas of his followers. But neither did Saint-Simonian socialism get a sympathetic hearing in the working class. The mass of urban wage earners were artisans using pre-industrial technology. They aspired to own their own small shops. A typical French carpenter, furniture maker, watchmaker would have considered a central institution directing a technologically dynamic industrial economy as both utterly fantastical and deeply repugnant to his perceived interests.
Completely politically isolated, the Saint-Simonian school soon disintegrated into antagonistic sects. And I am using the term "sect" in the literal religious sense. One of the latter-day Saint-Simonian groups believed in the Great Mother. This personage was supposedly an Oriental Jewess living in the Near East who was destined to unite East and West, man and woman, matter and spirit. The leaders of this group went to Egypt, Palestine, Turkey searching for the Great Mother. The left was a lot more imaginative and interesting in those days. These were wild and crazy guys. Almost all of our left opponents today are real dullards by comparison.
Although the Saint-Simonian school had disintegrated while Marx was still in his early teens, its ideas gained a widespread and sympathetic currency among progressive-minded intellectuals in France, Germany and elsewhere in continental West Europe. One such intellectual was a learned Prussian nobleman and middle-level government official, Ludwig von Westphalen, who was a friend of the Marx family in Trier. He saw in young Karl a kindred spirit—hungry for knowledge, committed to the betterment of humanity—and he took him under his wing. Marx later described von Westphalen as a "paternal friend," who also became his father-in-law. The two would go for long walks in the Rhenish countryside where they would exchange ideas on everything from Shakespeare to socialism.
In this way Marx early on acquired a knowledge of the Saint-Simonian school, that is, of a far more advanced conception of the future collectivist organization of the economy than the crude leveling-down of the Jacobin communist tradition or a system of decentralized socialist communes. When in the mid 1840s Marx made the transition from radical democrat to communist, he operated with a basically Saint-Simonian conception of the future organization of the economy.
Buonarroti and Hegel on the French Revolution
In 1843, commenting on the increasingly repressive policies of the Prussian state, Marx wrote in a letter to a colleague, Arnold Ruge:
"The mantle of liberalism has been discarded and the most disgusting despotism in all its nakedness is disclosed to the eyes of the whole world.
"That, too, is a revelation, although one of the opposite kind. It is a truth, which, at least, teaches us to recognise the emptiness of our patriotism and the abnormity of our state system, and makes us hide our faces in shame. You look at me with a smile and ask: What is gained by that? No revolution is made out of shame. I reply: Shame is already revolution of a kind; shame is actually the victory of the French Revolution over the German patriotism that defeated it in 1813."
The French Revolution was the Russian question of the day. One's attitude toward the French Revolution and its various phases centrally defined one's political outlook and program. If you opposed the French Revolution in toto from the beginning, you were a monarchical reactionary. If you supported the early moderate period of the revolution—expressed in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which explicitly included the right of private property deemed "sacred and inviolate"—then you were a liberal. If you supported the Jacobin regime of Robespierre, you were a radical democrat. And if you supported Babeuf's Conspiracy of Equals, you were a communist.
In our Enlightenment pamphlet, I said one could think of two roads leading from the French Revolution to the Marx of the Communist League and Communist Manifesto of 1848, a rightward road and a leftward road. The rightward road ran from the Napoleonic occupation of western Germany through Hegel to the left Hegelians. The leftward road ran from Babeuf's Conspiracy of Equals through Buonarroti and Auguste Blanqui to the German worker-communists of the League of the Just in the 1830s and 1840s.
In keeping with this approach, one can say that Marx had two political godfathers, a liberal political godfather, Hegel, and a Jacobin communist political godfather, Buonarroti. Both had been members of the defeated progressive party. Buonarroti had been a left-wing Jacobin, part of Robespierre's personal circle. Hegel had been one of the few prominent German liberal intellectuals who supported the Napoleonic occupation throughout as historically progressive. He called Napoleon the "world spirit on horseback." If you understand that image, then you can understand Hegel. In 1813, Hegel advised his students not to join the German volunteer corps fighting the French army in the so-called "wars of liberation."
In the long period of reaction following Napoleon's decisive defeat at Waterloo in 1815, both Buonarroti and Hegel thought long and hard about the causes of the defeat of the French Revolution. Why had Robespierre been overthrown? Why had Napoleon been defeated? More fundamentally, why had the ideals of the French Revolution expressed in the slogan, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" not been realized in the Europe of the day?
Buonarroti and Hegel arrived at fundamentally different answers and corresponding programmatic conclusions. Buonarroti operated with a Rousseauean worldview. Hegel rejected the concept of natural law and natural right in favor of a dialectical—though not materialist—conception of historical development.
To use a term and concept with which we're all familiar, Buonarroti maintained that the French Revolution was "betrayed." Robespierre was overthrown by a group of Jacobin leaders who had become morally corrupted by access to the wealth which their newfound political power and influence gave them. He maintained and truly believed that had Robespierre continued to rule France, he would gradually have introduced communism in the Babouvist sense.
What then was to be done? To use another term and concept with which we're all familiar, Buonarroti maintained that the crisis of humanity had been reduced to the crisis of "revolutionary leadership." He and his successor Auguste Blanqui sought to construct an organization of morally stalwart revolutionaries which at a suitable moment would launch an insurrection to establish a revolutionary dictatorship on the Jacobin model. This regime would install a communist system based on the egalitarian distribution of the means of consumption, which would in fairly short order bring about the moral regeneration of the citizens of the new "red republic."
Doubtless everyone in this room has relatives and friends who say that communism is contrary to human nature. But the main body of communists in early 19th century Europe believed just the opposite, that it was private property which was unnatural. Communism was that form of social organization which corresponded to man's instinctual empathy with the fellow members of his species.
Hegel rejected that concept, both its programmatic conclusion and theoretical premise. He maintained that society was not governed by man's supposedly instinctual nature. Men's consciousness changed qualitatively over the course of history as it expressed the progressive development of what he called the "absolute spirit." The ideals of the French Revolution could not be realized because European civilization had not attained a sufficient level of spiritual maturity.
What did Hegel mean by "spirit"? Not an easy question to answer. I've read a couple of dozen books and articles on this subject and have gotten several different and mutually exclusive explanations. In the early 1840s, Ludwig Feuerbach exercised a strong influence on Marx and also Engels. At this time he summarized his own intellectual evolution in this way: First, I believed in God. Then I believed in reason (that's when he was a more or less orthodox Hegelian). Now, I believe in man. All of us understand what it means to believe in God, doubtless some of you from bitter personal experience. And you can understand what Feuerbach meant when he said he now believed in man. If you recognize the illusory character of an all-powerful supernatural deity, then you can believe that man is the master of his own fate.
But what does it mean to believe in reason instead of and in between believing in God and in man? Reason is not an all-powerful entity; it's an activity. Men reason, they think in order to pursue their needs and interests. But for Hegel, it was the other way around. Man in the natural, biological sense existed to serve the needs and interests of reason. Men were the necessary agents to actualize the progressive development and self-consciousness of the absolute spirit.
But let's try to set aside the semimystical, metaphysical component of Hegel's philosophy. What was he saying in real-world terms about Europe in the era of the French Revolution? He was saying that the leaders of the French Revolution like Robespierre had failed because they tried to wipe out in one stroke the cultural inheritance of millennia of European civilization—the Christian religion, respect for monarchical authority. At another level, Hegel maintained that no government, including a revolutionary government, could eliminate individual egoism—material self-interest. He held that the role of the state was to represent the general interests of the community by mediating between the conflicting material interests of individuals and groups, for example, between employers and workers.
Hegel maintained that social progress had to be organic and gradual—in his case, very gradual. Thus he wrote in his major work on political philosophy that political change should be such that "the advance from one state of affairs to another is tranquil in appearance and unnoticed. In this way a constitution changes over a long period of time into something quite different from what it was originally" (The Philosophy of Right ).
As Marx developed historical or dialectical materialism, he incorporated Hegel's understanding that one could not reconstruct the world anew according to some ideal model. He likewise agreed with Hegel that Europe during the French Revolution and in subsequent decades was not sufficiently developed to realize the principles of "liberty, equality and fraternity." But he came to understand that underlying what Hegel called the "spiritual immaturity of European civilization" was its material or economic immaturity.
In one of Marx's last major writings he stated: "Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development which this determines" (Critique of the Gotha Programme ). This statement encapsulates the fundamental difference between Marxism and both the Rousseauean concept of natural law and the Hegelian concept of the autonomous and transcendent development of consciousness or culture. How Marx arrived at this understanding is the subject of the next session.
Many, many years ago I did a multi-part series of educationals under the general heading of "Marxism and the Jacobin Communist Tradition." One reason was because I thought the Hegelian contribution to Marxism had been overvalued, especially by bourgeois academics, and the influence on Marx and Engels of contemporary plebeian and proletarian radicalism—red republicanism— had been undervalued.
So I'd like to conclude this session with the wisdom of Philippe Buonarroti, a great and noble-minded man. For decades, usually under conditions of severe repression, he sought to form and lead revolutionary communist organizations. On one occasion he made a list of the personal qualities he looked for in recruits:
"Devotion to the principles of the order and willingness to sacrifice to them personal interests and pleasure."
"Courage, that is to say, scorn of danger, of work and hardship."
"Reflection, gravity, prudence." It's a dangerous world out there, so be careful.
"Patience and perseverance."
"Scorn for wealth, position, men, and power...."
"Inviolable respect for the word, the promise, and the vow." Say what you mean and mean what you say.
"Willingness to overlook personal wrongs." In other words, don't be subjective, don't be cliquist.
"Moderation in the use of intoxicating liquors." Well, that's really a matter of personal taste.
"The habit of speaking little and to the point." This will make local meetings a lot shorter, comrades.
"No wish to make an impression, to shine, and to impose oneself." In other words, don't try to be a star.
"Caution in gambling, in love, in anger, and in the opening of one's heart." That really is a matter of personal style.
And finally: "Exquisite sensibility concerning the wrongs that weigh on humanity." With that we can all agree.
Marx was born in 1818 in the city of Trier in the German Rhineland bordering on France. It was the region of Germany most directly affected by and sympathetic to the French Revolution. It was the main concentration of German radical democrats ideologically akin to the French Jacobins. The French revolutionary army occupied the Rhineland a decade before Napoleon occupied the rest of western and southern Germany. So the French Revolution was extended to this region in its more radical and democratic phase. Marx grew up in a city in which many bourgeois notables had been ardent revolutionary democrats in their youth, and some retained a sentimental attachment to their old ideals.
In the earlier session, I cited Freud's aphorism that the child is the father of the man. But the father is also the father of the child who is the father of the man. And Marx revered his father throughout his life. A boyhood friend of Marx and later his brother-in-law, Edgar von Westphalen, described Heinrich Marx as a "real eighteenth-century Frenchman, who knew his Voltaire and Rousseau inside out."
Heinrich Marx was a leading figure in the Trier liberal social club. On one occasion he and some other members had a little too much to drink, and they started singing the "Marseillaise," the anthem of the French Revolution. This was rather like singing the "Internationale" at a local Democratic Party headquarters. News of the scandal got out, and the Trier liberals involved were strongly denounced by the Prussian authorities, including the crown prince. Fortunately, nothing worse came of it for Marx's father.
So Marx was raised in the spirit of rational humanism. And this can be clearly seen in an essay he wrote titled, "Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of a Career" (1835), upon graduating gymnasium at the age of 17:
"History calls those the greatest men who ennoble themselves by working for the universal. Experience praises as the most happy the one who made the most people happy....
"When we have chosen the vocation in which we can contribute most to humanity, burdens cannot bend us because they are only sacrifices for all. Then we experience no meager, limited, egotistic joy, but our happiness belongs to millions, our deeds live on quietly but eternally effective."
—quoted in David McLellan, Marx Before Marxism (1970)
So Marx began as a liberal idealist wanting to better the condition of humanity. Broadly speaking, his outlook at 17 was similar to my own at that age and probably to most of yours at that age. It's also similar to most of the student youth we encounter in, say, the "anti-globalization" protests at least in the U.S.
Marx then went to the University of Bonn in western Germany for a year. So far as we know, there was no significant change in his intellectual outlook in this period. But an incident occurred which illuminates Marx's personal character and also the character of German society at the time.
The university had the equivalent of today's fraternities in the form of tavern clubs or drinking societies. These were organized on geographical and, to a certain extent, class lines. Marx joined a tavern club of students from Trier who were mainly of bourgeois and professional backgrounds like himself. There was also a tavern club of young Prussian aristocrats—Junkers—who despised and constantly baited Rhenish bourgeois types like Marx.
And on one occasion one of these young Junkers provoked Marx into a duel with sabers—real sabers, not with tipped points and blunted blades. Marx held his own and got a permanent scar above his left eye. For the rest of his life he was immensely proud of that scar as a wound gotten in honorable class combat. "See this—I got this in a saber duel with some young Junker creep in my university days."
Origins of the Hegelian Left
The following year, Marx transferred to the University of Berlin. He arrived there at the very moment that it was becoming the main center of the main left-radical intellectual current in Germany: the left Hegelians, sometimes also called the Young Hegelians although some of them were a good deal older than some right Hegelians. This current was the product of two mutually reinforcing developments: the rightward motion in Prussian ruling circles, especially as it affected academic and intellectual life, and the internal contradictions of Hegel's philosophy.
During the so-called "wars of liberation" against the Napoleonic regime, a strong rightist tendency cohered, centrally within the Prussian nobility, which combined Christian fundamentalism—it was called Pietism—with backward-looking German nationalism conveyed by the expression "blut und boden"—blood and soil. A very good book on the emergence of the Hegelian left by an American academic, John Edward Toews, commented in this regard: "These young Junkers had experienced the war against Napoleon as a kind of Christian-German crusade against French rationalism and liberalism" (Hegelianism: The Path Toward Dialectical Humanism, 1805-1841 ).
In opposition to Christian fundamentalism and romantic German nationalism, Hegel sought to mediate at the intellectual level between the era of the French Revolution and the post-1815 period of reaction. He maintained that Prussia, as a result of the reforms undertaken during the Napoleonic period, had become a modern, rational state—a rechtstaat, a state of law. Hegel considered himself a good Christian of the Lutheran persuasion. He maintained that Protestant Christianity expressed in terms of symbols and allegories fundamental truths about God which philosophy, that is, his own philosophy, apprehended through reason.
The Christian right of the day regarded Hegel's moderate liberalism as containing the seeds of dangerous radicalism in both politics and religion. Granted, Hegel himself maintained that the laws and policies of the Kingdom of Prussia represented the highest interests of the German community. But from the same theoretical premises someone else could maintain that those interests required the overthrow of the Prussian monarchy and its replacement by a democratic republic.
The Pietists were even more virulently hostile to Hegel's views on religion than to his politics. Christianity, they insisted, must be based on faith in an unknowable God. Hegel's contention that man through reason could understand God and his works was blasphemy. One of the leading Pietists, Heinrich Leo, exclaimed that Hegel's philosophy would lure "'the children of the German nation into Satan's watchtower' where they would 'die from hunger and thirst for the word of the Lord'" (quoted in Toews, Hegelianism).
In the 1820s, the top level Prussian bureaucrats in charge of academia were relatively liberal and favored the Hegelians over the Christian rightists. However, in the 1830s the balance of political forces in Prussian ruling circles was reversed. The more liberal Hegelians were now regarded and treated as dangerous radicals. They were thwarted in their academic careers. As a consequence, some of them moved to the left as they intersected and influenced a new generation of young liberal idealists like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who eventually would become truly dangerous radicals.
In their own way the Christian rightists recognized the potentially radical implications embedded in Hegel's philosophy. Hegel maintained that the broad sweep of history expressed the progressive development of the absolute spirit. But he didn't consider that this was true of everything that happened. He allowed for historical accidents. And he recognized that many institutions and cultural attitudes were dead remnants of the past devoid of spiritual vitality. As Protestants, Hegel and his followers consigned Roman Catholicism to the latter category as an outmoded superstition.
Hegel thus differentiated between existence, the German word being dassein, and reality, the German word being wirklichkeit. Dassein was the totality of that which existed empirically. Wirklichkeit represented those particular aspects of existence which corresponded to the historical development of reason. But how was one to know what was merely existent and what was really real? The answer is—one couldn't.
Thus even in Hegel's lifetime there were very significant political differences of a left-right character among his followers. His best-known protégé was Herbert Gans, a secularized Jew. Like Marx's father, Gans had to legally convert to Lutheranism in order to hold a professorship at the University of Berlin where he lectured on law and political philosophy. Perhaps because of his Jewish background, Gans was much more critical of the Prussian government from the left than was Hegel. The crown prince once complained to the minister of education that Gans was turning his students into revolutionary republicans. Incidentally, Gans was still at the University of Berlin when Marx arrived there, and he attended Gans' lectures. The old left Hegelian died a few years later. Basically, a very good guy.
The contradiction at the core of Hegel's philosophy was implicit in his most famous aphorism: what is real is rational and what is rational is real. The first implies that the world as it currently exists is perforce rational; the second that what is irrational is soon fated to disappear and be replaced by what is rational.
You may recall from the earlier session that Moses Hess listed six thinkers who influenced the young Marx. Only one of these was an older contemporary, Heinrich Heine, who was the best-known German writer of the day of radical leftist sympathies. Heine studied under Hegel in the 1820s though he was never a Hegelian. He later settled in Paris where he met Marx in 1844-45, and the two became good friends. At this time Heine commented on the rise of the Hegelian left in his usual wise guy style:
"We now have monks of Atheism [he's referring to the likes of Feuerbach and Marx], whom Mr. Voltaire, because he was an obstinate Deist, would have broiled alive. I must admit that this music does not appeal to me, but it does not frighten me either, for I have stood behind the Maestro [that is, Hegel] while he composed. To be sure, he composed with indistinct and elaborately adorned notes—so that not everyone could decipher them. Occasionally I observed how he anxiously looked about in fear that he might have been understood. He liked me very much because he was convinced that I would not betray him; I even thought him servile at that time. Once, when I expressed displeasure with the phrase 'Everything that is, is rational,' he smiled strangely and said, 'One could also read it as "everything which is rational must be".'"
The Influence of Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach
A year after arriving at the University of Berlin, Marx joined the left Hegelian circle which was organized around the Doctors' Club. Its leading figure was Bruno Bauer, and Marx became one of Bauer's main protégés over the next few years. There's some anecdotal evidence that Marx collaborated in writings which Bauer published in his own name and also in writing an anonymous pamphlet Bauer brought out. Marx himself did not publish anything in his own name until his doctoral dissertation on ancient Greek philosophy in 1841. However, since Bauer treated him as a protégé, one can reasonably assume Marx's ideas at the time were broadly similar to Bauer's.
Basically, what Bauer did was to jettison the metaphysical, semi-religious aspects of Hegel's philosophy while retaining its idealist conception of historical development. He also took the rationalist implications of Hegel's doctrines to their extreme, even absurdist, logical conclusion. Bauer maintained that what Hegel had called the absolute spirit was really the collective self-consciousness of mankind or, to use more conventional terminology, the prevailing cultural attitudes.
Many years later in a brief sketch of his own intellectual development, Marx wrote: "My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind" (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy ). The idea that legal and political institutions express the general development of the human mind was that of Bruno Bauer, which Marx shared for a time and then transcended.
Like Hegel, Bauer viewed the history of European civilization as a progression from lower to higher levels of thought. Applying this conception to the present, Bauer maintained that by theoretical criticism he was dealing the Prussian Christian monarchical state a decisive blow against which its empirical reality could not long resist. He wrote to Marx in 1841: "The terrorism of true theory will clear the field.... Theory is now the most effective practice and we cannot yet predict in what a great manner it can become practical" (quoted in Toews, Hegelianism). Once an institution was condemned in theory as historically outmoded, its fate was thereby sealed.
Bauer considered himself a revolutionary, indeed an extreme revolutionary. But the arena in which the revolution was to be made was that of ideas, indeed academia. In a letter to Arnold Ruge, Bauer exclaimed: "My blasphemous spirit would be satisfied only if I were given the authority of a professorship to teach publicly the system of atheism" (quoted in Toews, Hegelianism). If only Bauer could preach atheism from a university lecture hall, thrones would be toppled across Europe from Portugal to Russia. Christian churches would be closed down for lack of believers.
Marx and Engels' first joint work, The Holy Family, written in 1845, was centrally a polemic against Bauer. Here's the crux of it:
"History does nothing, it 'possesses no immense wealth', it 'wages no battles'. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; 'history' is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims." [emphasis in original]
In the 1860s, a friend and admirer gave Marx an old copy of The Holy Family, and he reread it probably for the first time since it had been originally published. Marx wrote to Engels, "I was pleasantly surprised to find that we do not need to be ashamed of this work, although the cult of Feuerbach produces a very humorous effect upon one now."
What was it about Feuerbach's ideas at this juncture that had such an immediate and powerful impact on Marx, Engels and other left Hegelians? Feuerbach argued that Hegel's concept of absolute spirit and its derivative, Bauer's idea of the general development of the human mind, shared the same basic premise as traditional Christianity and other religions. An imaginary entity created by men's minds was elevated above real, living human beings. Men came to believe that they were dominated by what was in fact the product of their own thoughts. As Engels later explained:
"With one blow it [Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity] pulverised the contradiction, by plainly placing materialism on the throne again. Nature exists independently of all philosophy. It is the foundation upon which we human beings, ourselves products of nature, have grown up. Nothing exists outside nature and man, and the higher beings our religious fantasies have created are only the fantastic reflection of our own essence." [emphasis in original]
—Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886)
Feuerbach himself summarized his ideas in this way: "The new philosophy deals with being as it is for us, not only as thinking, but as really existing being.... It is the being of the senses, sight, feeling and love" (quoted in David McLellan, The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx ). A few years later Feuerbach carried his view that the behavior of man in society was governed by his biological make-up a step further. He maintained that the actions of individuals and groups were strongly influenced by their diet, by the kind of food they ate. One can understand why this idea would have a special appeal for a German intellectual. In German, the third person singular of the verb "to be" and "to eat" is a homonym: Man ist was man isst. One is what one eats.
Feuerbach was a materialist in terms of man and nature. But he was an idealist in terms of man and man, of man in society. Like Bauer and other left Hegelians, he believed in the liberating power of ideas. Once men recognized that they themselves had created God as an all-powerful entity, they would reappropriate the powers which they had alienated to an imaginary deity. Thus he wrote: "To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must become nothing." But a recognition of the illusory character of God does not imbue man with latent powers of which he was previously unaware. It does not increase the material wealth and productive forces of society. Rejection of religion removes an important ideological barrier to progressive social struggle on the part of the exploited and oppressed. But atheism does not in itself constitute such social struggles.
Furthermore, one can be an atheist and also believe in, so to speak, cynical self-interest. "There's no God. There's no heaven or hell. I'm going to get mine here and now. Screw the rest of the world. I'm looking out for number one."
Here we come to the second major aspect of Feuerbach's idealism, his concept of the "religion of humanity." Man, he argued, was a social animal. The well-being and happiness of an individual depend upon his cooperation with the fellow members of his species, on their respect and affection for him. Thus he wrote: "Only community constitutes humanity.... That the thou belongs to the perfection of the I, that men are required to constitute humanity" (quoted in Toews, Hegelianism). However, society not only unites individuals for their common interests; it also divides them into classes and other groups based on conflicting material self-interest.
Marx Becomes a Communist
Even in this period when Marx was most strongly influenced by Feuerbach, he was beginning to understand the primacy of material self-interest and class divisions in society. How so?
The rightward motion in the Prussian ruling classes not only propelled some liberal Hegelian intellectuals to the left; it also resulted in a more oppositional mood among some elements of the liberal bourgeoisie. In late 1841, Moses Hess convinced a number of wealthy liberal businessmen in the Rhineland to finance a newspaper whose contributors and staff would be heavily drawn from left Hegelians. One of the main backers, Ludolf Camphausen, later became Prussian prime minister during the Revolution of 1848. The paper was called the Rheinische Zeitung and subtitled "For Politics, Commerce and Industry." Politics was a code word for liberal reform, which was linked to the progress of commerce and industry.
Given Marx's reputation as a left Hegelian and protégé of Bruno Bauer, he could not get an academic appointment. So Bauer suggested he contribute to the Rheinische Zeitung, which he did. He soon became de facto and then official editor of the paper. According to Marx's own later testimony, it was as a result of his involvement with the Rheinische Zeitung that he began to develop a materialist understanding of society.
As an academic intellectual, Marx had been concerned almost exclusively with questions of philosophy and history. He had little if any interest in current events. He was far more knowledgeable about the different schools of ancient Greek philosophy than about the different political tendencies in the Germany of the day.
But as editor of a newspaper, Marx had to think about and make judgments on current events. That was his job. Shortly after becoming editor, Marx wrote an article strongly critical of a proposed law imposing harsher penalties on the theft of dead wood from privately owned forests. This was an important source of heating fuel for poor people in the countryside. Along similar lines, the paper ran a series on the economic distress of farmers in the Moselle valley who grew grapes and made them into wine.
Marx came to recognize that differences over laws protecting property, differences over the causes and solutions to poverty did not express differences over abstract concepts of justice or economic doctrine. Rather they expressed conflicting material interests, ultimately conflicting class interests. As Marx later wrote:
"In the year 1842-43, as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, I first found myself in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests. The deliberations of the Rhine Province Assembly on thefts of wood and the division of landed property; the official polemic started by Herr von Schaper, then Oberpräsident of the Rhine Province, against the Rheinische Zeitung about the condition of the Mosel peasantry, and finally the debates on free trade and protective tariffs caused me in the first instance to turn my attention to economic questions."
—"A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy" (1859)
Marx's growing recognition of the primacy of material interests and class divisions in society did not lead him immediately and directly to communism. He remained within the political mainstream of the left Hegelian movement. The extreme left wing was represented by a coterie of intellectuals in Berlin who called themselves die Freien (The Free). Among them were a young Russian nobleman, Mikhail Bakunin, and the son of a wealthy western German textile manufacturer, Friedrich Engels. Die Freien combined a bohemian lifestyle with anarcho-communist political posturing.
In a letter to Arnold Ruge, Marx joked that he had thrown out more contributions from die Freien than had the official government censor. He described them as "scrawls pregnant with world revolutions and empty of thought, written in a slovenly style and flavoured with some atheism and communism (which these gentlemen have never studied)." Marx did not reject and oppose communism at this time. Rather he was not convinced of its theoretical and practical validity as expounded in the mainly French communist literature of the day.
Even without contributions from die Freien, the Rheinische Zeitung was too radical for the Prussian authorities to tolerate, and the paper was suppressed in early 1843. The following autumn, Marx moved to Paris, having just married his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen. They lived in a housing complex with other German leftist radicals, among them Georg Maurer, who was a leader of the Paris branch of the League of the Just. This was a group of German communists, mainly artisans, who were closely tied to their French counterparts. A few years earlier, the League's cadre had participated in a failed insurrection led by Auguste Blanqui, the foremost representative of Jacobin communism in that era.
For the first time in his life, Marx now socialized with communist and socialist workers—French as well as German—whose political views were as advanced as his own, if not more so. And it was then that Marx became a communist. He might well have arrived at communism in Germany through a purely intellectual path, as had Moses Hess and Engels before him. But the fact is that he didn't. In the notebooks he kept at the time, he expressed his deep admiration for the communist workers he had come to know. One gets the impression that this experience dispelled an element of intellectual elitism in Marx's outlook. He recognized that workers with little formal education, not only intellectuals like himself, could be deeply committed to the struggle for a future world free of oppression and exploitation.
On Left Hegelian Radicalism
The period between late 1843 and the spring of 1845, when Marx wrote the "Theses on Feuerbach," was a transitional period in his thinking. His ideas did not constitute a consistent and coherent whole. Elements of left Hegelian idealism coexisted with rudimentary elements of what Plekhanov would later term "dialectical materialism."
Thus in late 1843, Marx projected an imminent revolution in Germany led by the proletariat. At the same time, he by no means rejected and opposed Feuerbach's concept of the "religion of humanity." He wrote to Feuerbach in 1844:
"In these writings you have provided—I don't know whether intentionally—a philosophical basis for socialism and the Communists have immediately understood them in this way. The unity of man with man, which is based on the real differences between men, the concept of the human species brought down from the heaven of abstraction to the real earth, what is this but the concept of society!" [emphasis in original]
Marx was here still operating with a concept of man in society which was class undifferentiated.
A superficial and ahistorical reading of Marx's early writings might give the impression that he was more radically leftist in 1843-44 than in 1847-48. In the introduction to his "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law," written in late 1843, Marx declared:
"In Germany emancipation from the Middle Ages is possible only as emancipation from the partial victories over the Middle Ages as well. In Germany no kind of bondage can be broken without breaking every kind of bondage. The thorough Germany cannot make a revolution without making a thoroughgoing revolution. The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of the human being. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat." [emphasis in original]
However, in the Communist Manifesto, written four and a half years later, Marx projected:
"The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation, and with a much more developed proletariat, than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution."
How does one explain Marx's change in position on the crucial question of the social character of the coming revolution in Germany? The answer is that in 1843-44 Marx was not yet a Marxist. He used the terms "proletariat," "revolution" and "communism," but these terms were placed within a left Hegelian conceptual framework. The proletariat was assigned the role of the revolutionary negation or antithesis of the existing social and political order in Germany. Marx defined the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat essentially, indeed entirely, in negative terms. It was
"a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong but wrong generally is perpetrated against it." [emphasis in original]
—Introduction to "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law"
None of Marx's early writings investigate the actual socio-economic condition of the German proletariat, its various components (such as artisans versus factory workers), its organizations and political consciousness. The empirical reality represented by the term "proletariat" in Germany in the 1840s was fundamentally different than it is today or, for that matter, half a century later. No more than a third of urban wage earners worked in factories. The large majority were employed in small workshops using pre-industrial technology. And they considered having to work in a factory a form of social degradation which they resisted as best they could.
When the political situation opened up in 1848, the newly formed mass working-class organizations did not look forward to a collectivized industrial economy, but rather backward to a protected artisanal economy. They demanded higher tariffs to protect German workers from cheap manufactured imports from Britain. They agitated for laws to protect artisans from competition from goods made in German factories. On a few occasions, small groups of artisans physically attacked and sought to demolish factories. "We are destroying industrial capitalism...literally. Smash! Take that, you evil factory!"
I want to digress a little on the present-day significance of left Hegelian radicalism. Because of Marx's involvement in this movement, left Hegelianism is usually identified with Germany in the early-mid 1840s. But the German left Hegelian movement was very short-lived. Even before 1848, its leading figures—Bruno Bauer, Feuerbach, Arnold Ruge—had dropped out of radical politics, while Marx and Engels transcended left Hegelian idealism.
It was not German but rather Russian left Hegelians—notably Alexander Herzen and his colleague Mikhail Bakunin—who founded historically significant political-ideological tendencies which exist to this day. Herzen was the founding theorist of Russian populism—the idea of a peasant-based revolution leading to peasant-based socialism. Bakunin was the founding figure of anarcho-communism both as a doctrine and a movement.
We're all aware of the revival of anarchism in the post-Soviet period. However, there has been a revival of left Hegelian radicalism, in substance though not form, since the 1960s. From the late 1950s until his early death in 1961, Frantz Fanon, a left-wing intellectual from the French West Indies, served as a publicist for the Algerian petty-bourgeois nationalists then waging a war of liberation against French colonial rule. In that capacity he published a book whose title, The Wretched of the Earth, instantaneously entered into the vocabulary of the left internationally.
Fanon maintained that the industrial working class in the advanced capitalist countries, and also the colonial and semicolonial countries, had become bourgeoisified. The revolutionary negation of the global capitalist-imperialist system was now to be found in the "wretched of the earth"—the poorest and most downtrodden section of the peasantry and the impoverished slum dwellers in cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In the U.S., Fanon's views strongly influenced the leaders of the Black Panther Party like Huey Newton and David Hilliard, who maintained that black lumpens—the "brothers on the block"—were the social vanguard of the American revolution. To speak Hegelian, the black lumpenproletariat was the revolutionary antithesis of the American racist, capitalist social and political order.
All of us in the SL/U.S. are familiar with the expression: the most oppressed is the most revolutionary. This is the crux of left Hegelian political radicalism which Marx and also Engels transcended in the course of becoming Marxists.
Toward Dialectical Materialism
Looking back in the 1880s, Engels considered that the "Theses on Feuerbach," written by Marx in the spring of 1845, was the first coherent expression of historical materialism. The following year, Marx and Engels wrote The German Ideology, which was in a sense an explanation and elaboration of the ideas which the "Theses" presented in a highly encapsulated, almost cryptic, form. Marx later wrote that The German Ideology was a work of "self-clarification," thereby implying that it criticized ideas which he and Engels had recently shared with other left Hegelians, notably Feuerbach.
I want to emphasize three aspects of the new Marxist worldview which sharply differentiated it from left Hegelian idealism. First, external reality cannot be adequately understood through passive contemplation. Thought is purposive. People think in order to pursue their needs and interests. One can expand and deepen one's understanding of the world only by seeking to change it, by trying to act upon it. One can then assess the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of such efforts and therefore the validity and adequacy of one's understanding of the world. As Marx wrote in the second thesis on Feuerbach:
"The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which isolates itself from practice is a purely scholastic question."
Second, Marx insisted that the elimination of oppression and exploitation in their various historically derived forms required the development of the productive forces of society. It was not enough to expose and refute the ideological legitimations of the existing social and political order such as religion and nationalism or, for that matter, liberalism. Thus a key passage in The German Ideology:
"We shall, of course, not take the trouble to explain to our wise philosophers that the 'liberation' of 'man' is not advanced a single step by reducing philosophy, theology, substance and all the rubbish to 'self-consciousness' and by liberating 'man' from the domination of these phrases, which have never held him in thrall. Nor shall we explain to them that it is possible to achieve real liberation only in the real world and by real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. 'Liberation' is a historical and not a mental act."
Marx and Engels did not, of course, deny or minimize the importance of combating the influence of bourgeois ideology among the mass of the working class. Such propagandistic activity was a necessary precondition for a proletarian revolution. But it was the proletarian revolution that was the necessary and decisive act of social liberation in the real world.
This bears on a third important aspect of Marxism as it differentiated itself from left Hegelian radicalism. This was a dialectical materialist understanding of the working class. Here I believe Engels' contribution was of crucial importance. Unlike Marx, during this period Engels acquired firsthand knowledge of a mass political movement of an industrial proletariat, the British Chartist movement of the 1840s.
In 1843, Engels was sent to help manage the family textile factory in Manchester, England. At the time he was a pure left Hegelian communist who believed that what is rational must soon become real, especially in Germany. Soon after arriving in England, he wrote an article, "Progress of Social Reform on the Continent," for the Owenite socialist journal, The New Moral World, in which he stated:
"The Germans are a philosophical nation, and will not, cannot abandon Communism, as soon as it is founded upon sound philosophical principles: chiefly if it is derived as an unavoidable conclusion from their own philosophy....
"There is a greater chance in Germany for the establishment of a Communist party among the educated classes of society, than anywhere else. The Germans are a very disinterested nation; if in Germany principle comes into collision with interest, principle will almost always silence the claims of interest. The same love of abstract principle, the same disregard of reality and self-interest, which have brought the Germans to a state of political nonentity, these very same qualities guarantee the success of philosophical Communism in that country." [emphasis in original]
So how did Engels become a Marxist? Certainly, an important factor was that he developed a close political relationship with the leaders of the left wing of the Chartist movement, notably Julian Harney and Ernest Jones. He came to recognize both the potential social power of the organized industrial proletariat and the many obstacles to and difficulties in organizing the mass of workers on a revolutionary program.
Even among the relatively advanced workers who participated in and supported the Chartist movement, there were significantly different levels of political consciousness. The Chartist movement, whose central programmatic demand was universal suffrage, had a well-defined right-left factional spectrum. Workers who supported the right wing were willing to settle for moderate reforms and were prepared for that purpose to collaborate with bourgeois liberals. The leaders and militants of the Chartist left were "red republicans," and indeed, later chose that term for the name of their newspaper.
Unlike Marx's earlier writings, the Communist Manifesto presents, albeit briefly, a dialectical materialist analysis of the modern working class, explaining the interaction between objective economic development and the organization and political consciousness of the proletariat. The Manifesto also for the first time clearly defines the fundamental difference between the communist vanguard and the relatively more backward workers:
"The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."
The same month that the Manifesto was published, a popular, working-class-centered uprising in Paris overthrew the government of Louis Philippe, known as "the bankers' king." This initiated revolutions throughout continental west and central Europe. The revolutions of 1848, Marx and Engels' participation in them, their defeat and aftermath lie beyond the scope of this educational, which is plenty ambitious as it is.
However, one episode in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions bears directly on one of the themes I've been discussing. By 1850, following the defeat of the revolution in Germany, the leadership of the Communist League reassembled in London. In the fall of that year, the League experienced a factional struggle leading to a split. A group around Karl Schapper, the veteran leader of the organization before Marx, maintained that the victory of monarchical reaction in Germany was transient. Schapper and his cothinkers projected a renewed imminent revolutionary upsurge which would be even more radical than before, since the bourgeois liberals had discredited themselves with the workers and petty-bourgeois masses.
Marx and Engels considered this wishful thinking. In the course of the fight, Marx exclaimed:
"The materialist standpoint of the Manifesto has given way to idealism. The revolution is seen not as the product of realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will. Whereas we say to the workers: You have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through in order to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power, it is said: We must take power at once, or else we may as well take to our beds." [emphasis in original]
The basic point is that the revolutionary capacity of the working class is not simply a result of the condition of oppression and exploitation but is a product of its own historical development, in which the communist vanguard plays a crucial role.
In 1850, Marx and Engels did not foresee and could not possibly have foreseen that the reactionary conditions in Germany and also France would last another decade and a half. And even after that, except for the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, there was no prospect for proletarian revolution in Europe during Marx and Engels' lifetimes.
When the Communist Manifesto was published, there were a couple of thousand members and supporters of the Communist League in Germany and elsewhere in West Europe. Ten years later only a handful of these were still communists. The overwhelming majority of "Red '48ers," as they were called, had come to terms with the developing bourgeois order. One even ended up as German finance minister under Bismarck. A goodly number of former "Red '48ers" emigrated to the United States where they played an honorable and important role as officers and soldiers in the Union Army in the American Civil War. But they did so as radical democrats, no longer communists.
A parallel development occurred in Britain. In 1850, the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto was published on the front page of the journal of the Chartist left, the Red Republican. However, over the next decade, the Chartist movement disintegrated completely. First Julian Harney, then Ernest Jones became demoralized, moved to the right and came out for collaboration between the workers movement and bourgeois liberals.
Almost uniquely among the leading "red republicans" of the 1840s, Marx and Engels continued to stand for and fight for communism for the rest of their lives. They modified their concrete program in line with changing historical conditions (for example, on the colonial question), but they did not change their ultimate goal. Eventually, they were able to intersect a new generation of young militant leftists—represented by Jules Guesde in France and Georgi Plekhanov in Russia—who had not been scarred by the historic defeat of 1848.
If, in the years or decades after 1848, Marx and Engels had abandoned communism as a utopian fantasy, the Communist Manifesto would today be as little known and little read as the writings of Wilhelm Weitling, Étienne Cabet, Auguste Blanqui, Robert Owen and the many other communists and socialists of the pre-1848 era. Marx and Engels were the human, that is, material, agents necessary to transmit their ideas to future generations.
We, too, now operate in the aftermath of a world-historic defeat: the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union. And we, too, are the only human agents—there's no one else out there—who can transmit the principles and program of communism and the understanding of dialectical materialism to future generations. That's just the way it is.