History & Theory

Karl Marx: 200 Years Since His Birth

By John Pickard

Marx was born and educated in the Rhine province, the most industrialised and economically advanced part of Prussia. Sections of the Rhenish capitalist class were involved in the movements for democratic rights and for the unification of Germany, because the divisions of German into small kingdoms and principalities (with the exception being the relatively large Prussian state), with all their separate feudal customs and legal restrictions, was an obstacle to the development of capitalism. The Prussian state-bureaucracy was dominated by the old class of landlords, the ‘Junkers’, particularly of East Prussia.

When the young Marx went to university to study Law, like most of his contemporaries, he came to embrace Hegel, whose ideas dominated the German universities. Both Marx and Engels considered that Hegelian dialectics, described by Engels as “the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought”, represented an enormous achievement in modern philosophy.

The basic idea of dialectics, as Engels later wrote, was “that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through and uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away…”

Lenin, in his pamphlet on the Three Sources and Component Parts of Marxism, described dialectical development as a process “that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes and revolutions; in continuity; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society…”

However, Hegel’s own view of the world, whilst embracing dialectics, was based on an idealistic framework, that is to say, it was based on the supremacy of ideas, of thoughts, of concepts – of mental processes, in other words – over material things. Hegel viewed the historical development of society, of the living world, as being due in the final analysis to the development of the human spirit, the ‘Absolute Idea’.

His political ideas were out-and-out reactionary. He sought to justify the strong Prussian state as something approaching the ideal constitutional form. After his death, a furious struggle developed between the ‘Old Hegelians’ who followed the old man’s politics and the ‘Young Hegelians’ who accepted the basis of his philosophy – dialectics – but who were radical democrats, opposed to the Prussian state.

Marx joined the Young Hegelians

Marx himself became involved in one of the Young Hegelian clubs and gained an early reputation as one of its most able advocates. It was because of his involvement in these circles that he was given, in 1842, the job of contributor and then editor of the radical-democratic newspaper, Rheinische Zeitung, backed financially by Rhenish radicals.

Marx was by this time influenced by another German philosopher, the materialist Feuerbach, and in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of Law, Marx already concluded that legal relations could not be understood on the basis of the “general development of the human mind”, as Hegel believed. He argued, on the contrary, that legal relations originated in the material conditions of life.

During the period of the Rheinische Zeitung, unlike many of his Young Hegelian contemporaries, Marx became more involved in the concrete political questions of the day. Through the pages of his paper he furiously attacked the privileges of the Junkers and the restrictions and oppression of the Prussian state bureaucracy.

He commented on the debates in the Rhenish Diet (parliament) where the representatives of the capitalist class fought out their battles with the state, and at the other end of the scale, on the struggles of ordinary workers and peasants, even, for example, in relations to their fight for the right to collect firewood in the royal forests.

Marx also saw, as he was many times in this life, the weakness of these capitalist democrats who were often ‘radical’ in words but who were not prepared to struggle against feudal reaction because they feared the working class more than they feared the Prussian Junkers.

In a later period, after the 1848 revolution was betrayed by them, he wrote bitterly of the capitalists as a class:

“Without faith in itself, without faith in the people, grumbling at those above, frightened of those below, egotistical towards both and aware of its egoism, revolutionary with regard to the conservatives and conservative with regard to the revolutionaries. It did not trust its own slogans, used phrases instead of ideas, it was intimidated by the world storm and exploited it for its own ends; it displayed no energy anywhere…”

The weakness of the Rhenish capitalist class brought about Marx’s first enforced exile. Despite the increasing circulation of Rheinische Zeitung under Marx’s editorship, when the Prussian government finally decided to suppress or behead the paper in March 1843, the ‘radical’ capitalist shareholders meekly submitted. Rather than stand and fight for the paper, they sacrificed its editor and Marx went into exile in Paris.

The ‘League of the Just’

There he became involved in the local revolutionary-democratic movements. He was particularly associated with an organisation of German workers, known as the ‘League of the Just’, of whom he wrote, in a letter to Feuerbach, “…the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase to them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.”

While others of his contemporaries were indifferent to, or underestimated the role of the working class, Marx already saw the enormous potential of their struggles and their political organisation.

At about this time Marx began a collaboration with another former Young Hegelian, Frederick Engels, and it proved to be a partnership which lasted a lifetime. Their first joint work was a polemic against the stagnant, sectarian politics of their former associates among the Young Hegelians. The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism was, as the irony in the title implies, a merciless criticism of those Young Hegelians who were trapped in the mire of scholastic ‘criticism’, divorced from the realities of life.

Whereas Marx and Engels had moved on from their former days, some of the Young Hegelians had not. They were radicals in name only; they saw the labouring classes as a more or less inert mass incapable of changing society. They looked instead to their own intellectual labours, their “critical criticism”, as the only motive force in history, not unlike all those present-day “Marxist” professors and academics who have long-since written off the working class. Marx and Engels, in contrast, spoke of the workers as a class which “can and must emancipate itself” by the abolition of capitalist exploitation and oppression. Although in The Holy Family, Marx and Engels give an outline of their materialist conception of history, the most complete and general exposition was contained in a later work by them begun in December 1845, The German Ideology. Marx and Engels, it should be noted, had come to the same general conclusions, quite independently of each other and their subsequent collaboration was so close, that it is difficult to discuss the work of one without discussing the other.

Marx and Engels arrived at the same result

In a later reference to the German Ideology, in his Preface to the first part of a A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Marx wrote, “Frederick Engels…arrived by another road at the same result as I and…we decided to set forth together our conception as opposed to the ideological conception of German philosophy.” Thus, together, they set to work on The German Ideology, in order as Marx phrased it, “to settle accounts with our former philosophical consciences.”

In this work, Marx and Engels described the material basis of all historical development, as opposed to the idealistic view held by Hegel and others:

“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals…men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc, that is real active mean, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these…

“In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here it is a matter of ascending from earth to heaven. That is to say, not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but setting out from real active men and on the basis of their real life processes demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process…” In other words, “It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.”

Although both Marx and Engels were influenced by the materialist philosophy of Feuerbach, they could also see the weakness in his ideas. Feuerbach’s materialism was undialectical; it contained no element of change and development. Whereas Feuerbach saw the world, as Marx and Engels put it, “as a thing given direct for all eternity, remaining ever the same”, The German Ideology presented a view of a world which was “the product of industry…a historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the previous one.”

“As far as Feuerbach is a materialist”, they wrote, “he does not deal with history, and as far as he considers history, he is not a materialist.”

Marx and Engels and the Young Hegelians.

The best elements of Hegel and Feuerbach

Marx and Engels, therefore, rejected Hegel’s idealism, while embracing the dialectic; they embraced Feuerbach’s materialism, while rejecting his ‘fixed’ view of the world. Their view of history was at once dialectical and materialist, a synthesis of the best elements of Hegel and Feuerbach.

Using the materialist concept of history as the basis, it was possible to understand the progress of humanity from one form of society to another.

In a later work, his Preface to the first party of Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859), Marx summarised the basis of historical materialism:

“The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but their social being that determines their consciousness.

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

“Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious or philosophical – in short, ideological forms – in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

Marx and Engels and the Young Hegelians.

Marx and Engels thus argued that the laws, morals and ideas generally, which were dominant in capitalism were only those of the ruling class. “The class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

The theoreticians of capitalism – economists and philosophers – would attempt, of course, to picture their own system as the most perfect, the product not of their own class interests but of general human development, progressing from less perfect forms of society. The capitalist system, they argue, would endure forever.

Marx and Engels, on the other hand, put capitalism in its historical context, showing its emergence from feudalism, its flowering and its eventual decay. It was the very development of the means of production which had forced the breakdown of feudalism (and was still doing so in Germany and central Europe), overcoming the old property rights, customs and legal restrictions standing in its way.

Where the legal and judicial values of capitalism were established, as they were in England especially, they provided the framework for the unfettered growth of industrial capitalism.

But capitalism also carried with it the seeds of its own destruction, in the form of the proletariat, the industrial working class. Marx and Engels saw the working class, a new social class developing alongside the capitalist class, as the standard-bearers of the future.

As the mass of production, the material forces of society, developed further, a point would be reached where the property relations ie the property laws of capitalism, would themselves become a barrier to further social development. “From the forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters.”

Thus, Marx and Engels anticipated the present-day situation where world capitalism is in crisis, unable to develop society, because of private property and the nation state, once progressive features, are now absolute fetters on economic progress.

The authors of The German Ideology thus separated themselves by a huge chasm from all those various philanthropists, do-gooders and social reformers who sought to retain capitalism itself, while satisfying their consciences by trying to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalist exploitation. They also distinguished themselves from the ‘utopian’ socialists who thought that moral persuasion or the establishment of ‘cooperatives’ would offer a means of changing society.

Marx and Engels did not run away from the idea of class struggle; they embraced it and gave it its historical justification. “Revolution”, they wrote, “is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other kinds of theory.”

The working class, they explained, through its very conditions of existence under capitalism, would inevitably come into conflict with its ‘masters’, at first partially and spontaneously, and later consciously, as a class. The working class, overthrowing the capitalists, would take hold of the levers of society and prepare the way for a classless society; private property and the nation state would disappear.

Socialism was thus give a solid foundation and a scientific basis for the first time. It was no longer in the realms of ‘dreams’ and ‘nice ideas’ but was firmly rooted in the science of material social development.

Socialist ideas rooted in material conditions

Paul Lafargue, the French socialist who later married Marx’s daughter Laura, wrote, on reading the manuscript of The German Ideology, “…it was as if the scales fell from my eyes. For the first time I could see clearly the logic of world history and could trace the apparently so contradictory phenomena of development of society and ideas to their material origins. I felt dazzled…”

 However, despite initial attempts, The German Ideology was never published in full in the lifetime of either author. “We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice”, Marx wrote later, “all the more willingly since we had achieved our main purpose – self-clarification.”

In the next few years, Marx was involved with Engels in organising “communist correspondence committees”, linking groups of socialists in Brussels where they now lived, to to others in London, Paris, Hamburg, Cologne, and other cities. During this period, Marx was forced on many occasions to take up the cudgels against a variety of confused semi-utopian, sectarian and middle-class trends in the socialist movement.

Joseph Proudhon, the French utopian socialist, wrote The Philosophy of Poverty, and when Marx published his devastating reply, The Poverty of Philosophy, it was the first occasion that the general basis of historical materialism was published, although in a polemical form.

The most popular exposition of historical materialism, however, and the work which still “dazzles” workers who read it for the first time today, is the Communist Manifesto, another joint work with Engels.

Marx and Engels had both been invited in 1847 to join the ‘League of the Just’ and they very quickly became the theoretical leaders of that organisation. The League changed its name to the ‘Communist League’ under their persuasion because Marx and Engels wanted to distinguish their group from the ‘Owenites’ in Britain, and other strands of utopians, on the one hand, and the ‘social quacks’ and philanthropists on the other, who all at that time went under the general title of ‘socialists’.

The Communist League, at its congress in late 1847, instructed Marx and Engels to draft a manifesto outlining the philosophy and the policy of the League. This they did and the Communist Manifesto, published the following February, had and immediate and powerful effect on those workers it reached.

Written in a popular and accessible style, without vulgarising the ideas however, the pamphlet describes the rise and development of capitalism, as neither an historical ‘accident’ nor as a permanent feature.

They described the role of the working class in production under capitalism and its future role in forging a new society: “not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself, it has called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the proletarians.”

The Communist Manifesto, from the first section that comments, “the history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle”, is at the same time a perspective, a programme, a polemic against the utopians and others, and a call to action, ending with the famous lines, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”

“A spectre is haunting Europe”

The prophetic words that opened the Communist Manifesto – “A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism” – were given substance a few days after it was published. On February 22nd, King Louis Phillippe of France was overthrown, launching France into a turbulent period of revolution and counter-revolution.

Weeks later, other European nations were caught in the same whirlwind as insurrections broke out in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Central Europe, Italy and Poland. Marx and Engels themselves were to play no small part in the revolutionary movement that developed in Germany, in 1848-1849.

The same “spectre” referred to by Marx and Engels still haunts Europe and the world today. The economic and social crisis in the three main areas of the world – the advanced capitalist states, the Stalinist states and the underdeveloped world – are reaching such a stage that the next historical period promises to be the most turbulent in the whole of human history.

Only the socialist transformation of society, on world scale, can offer a future for mankind.

The fundamental ideas of Marxism, of scientific socialism, retain their full force and validity today. Marxism is at present a minority view within society, and even in the labour movement, but a glimpse of the enormous potential of these ideas today can be caught by the frantic attempts of the capitalist class and their spokesmen in the labour movement to expel Militant supporters from the Labour Party. But they will fail to expel ideas.

In the course of his own lifetime, Marx was forced into exile, not once, but four times. His ideas were often ridiculed by ‘theoreticians’ who, unlike Marx, have since sunk into obscurity.

While more ‘modern’ philosophies have disappeared without trace, leaving no impression on society, the method and outlook of Marxism retains its full force today. Even the spokesmen and representatives of capitalism acknowledge and employ the method of Marx, of class analysis (though, of course, from their own class standpoint) in their more serious journals and publications.

In the last one hundred and forty years all kinds of attempts have been made to suppress Marx’s ideas, to distort and misrepresent them, or to simply write them off. But as Marx said, “life determines consciousness”. As much as Marx’s ideas have been an enormous inspiration to the struggles of workers in the hundred years since his death – the outstanding example being the October Russian Revolution – the very conditions that workers will experience in the dead-ends of capitalism and Stalinism will ensure that the best period for these ideas lies in the future, not in the past.

One hundred years on, Marxism is still the most modern and relevant philosophy and the only one to hold a future for mankind.