In his latest instalment, Neil Faulkner explores the complex history of Marxism - and how capitalism produced its own gravediggers.
Marxism is sometimes represented as a compound of German philosophy, French socialism, and British economics. This is correct, but incomplete. It is to treat Marxism as a purely theoretical matter, divorced from practice. This is to miss its very essence.
The basic ideas of Marxism were formulated by two young German intellectuals, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederick Engels (1820-1895), in the period 1843-1847.
Their joint work represented a revolution in thought comparable with the achievements of scientists like Newton, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. Marx and Engels were the paradigm-busting scientists of human society. They transformed the way we think about economics, society, and politics.
But because the subject of their intellectual revolution was human society, their laboratory had to be society itself. Marxism was possible only because Marx and Engels were active revolutionaries, embedded in the mass struggles of their epoch.
In particular, they tested and refined their ideas in the political furnace of the 1848 Revolutions. Marx worked as a revolutionary editor in Cologne. Engels defended the Palatinate against Prussian invasion, serving as a soldier in a revolutionary army. Both were forced into exile by the Revolution’s defeat in 1849.
Marx and Engels took contemporary ideas about philosophy, society, and economics and transformed them on the basis of their direct experience of concrete reality. It is in this sense that it is correct to describe Marxism as ‘materialist’. The contrast is with ‘idealism’ – theories not based on experience and never successfully tested in practice.
Both men were trained in German philosophy. This was dominated at the time by the ideas of Georg Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel’s ‘dialectic’ became central to Marxism. It was based on two ideas: a) that ‘all things are contradictory in themselves’; and b) that ‘contradiction is at the root of all movement and life, and it is only insofar as it contains a contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity’.
But the original ‘Hegelian dialectic’ was idealist. Hegel was thinking mainly about changes in human thought. In particular, he thought of history as the unfolding of what he called ‘Absolute Spirit’ – a grand idea changing the world through the contradiction between itself and a reality that failed to match up.
Marx ‘turned Hegel on his head’, transforming the ‘idealist dialectic’ into a ‘materialist dialectic’. His basic point was very simple: the contradictions that matter exist in the real world – not in people’s heads – and it is therefore the clash of actual social forces that drives history. The role of thought is to understand these forces so that human intervention can be better directed and more effective.
Getting to grips with the real world meant studying the new capitalist economy emerging within it. British economists had led the way. The strongest influence on Marx and Engels in this respect was David Ricardo (1772-1823).
Ricardo had made two radical discoveries about the nature of capitalism. First, that ‘the value of a commodity depends on the relative quantity of labour that is necessary for its production’. In other words, human labour – not capital – is the source of all wealth.
Second, he realised that ‘there can be no rise in the value of labour without a fall in profits’. This meant that labour’s gain was capital’s loss – and vice versa. Wages and profits were inversely related. The implication was that conflict over the distribution of income – class struggle – was inherent in capitalism.
Ricardo had revealed the system to be highly contradictory and potentially explosive. Because of this, his work represented the highpoint of mainstream ‘classical’ economics. His successors retreated from the revolutionary implications of their own discipline. Bourgeois economics degenerated into the ideological justification for greed and free-market chaos that it is today.
It is Marx who represents the continuation from Ricardo of a scientific approach to economics. His crowning achievement was the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867. The second and third volumes were edited from his papers after his death and published in 1885 and 1894. These texts remain the essential starting-point for any serious analysis of the modern world economy (see the forthcoming MHW54 ‘What is Capitalism?’).
The third intellectual influence on Marx and Engels was French socialism. Born of the Great French Revolution, and fostered by its failed promise of human liberation, French socialism had split into reformist-utopian and revolutionary-communist wings.
The utopians – like the Comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and (in Britain) Robert Owen – believed that rational argument, good example, and gradual reform would be sufficient to bring about social transformation.
The revolutionaries – like Gracchus Babeuf and Auguste Blanqui – had no such illusions, insisting that armed insurrection would be necessary to overthrow the exploiting classes. Their mistake was to assume that direct action by a secretive underground movement would be enough to detonate a general rising of the masses.
Marx and Engels shared the French socialists’ hatred of exploitation and poverty. Like the utopians, they could imagine a much better world, and like the communists, they had no doubt that revolutionary action would be necessary to achieve it. But they had profound disagreements with both.
The utopians they condemned for their naïve belief that the rich would voluntarily surrender their wealth and power. The communists they attacked for imagining that the state – with its army, police, and prisons – could be brought down by a conspiratorial coup.
Only a popular revolution that mobilised millions could smash the state, dispossess the property-owning classes, and construct a new order based on democracy, equality, and co-operation. The Great French Revolution had been sufficient in scale, but had simply created a new kind of exploitative society.
What had been missing was a revolutionary class with universal interests. The revolutionary bourgeoisie had wanted power for itself. The sansculottes and the peasants had been small property-owners. Even the poorest had aspired to own their own workshop or farm.
But the new industrial working class of Manchester was quite different. Not only was it a class of propertyless wage-labourers. Concentrated together in textile mills and a fast-growing metropolis, it was a class whose circumstances obliged it to think of human liberation in terms of collective solutions.
Revolutionary peasants sought to burn down the chateaux and free the villages of feudal burdens. Revolutionary workers were bound to take over the factories and create organs of mass democracy to run them. What other form could proletarian revolution possibly take? You could not divide up a steam-engine, a railway, or a coal-mine.
And the Chartist movement proved that the proletariat was indeed potentially revolutionary.
The lessons of 1789, the experience of 1848, and Engels’ sociological study of the Manchester working class all pointed in the same direction – towards what was in fact a solution to the riddle of history.
The riddle was this. The steady rise in the productivity of human labour throughout history meant increasing capacity to abolish want. Yet a minority continued to enjoy grotesque wealth while millions lived in poverty. The riddle came down to a question of agency: who might reorder the world so that human labour served human need?
The answer to the riddle was the working class. This was partly because it was an exploited class, one with no vested interest in the system, with ‘nothing to lose but its chains’. But this had been true of the slaves of ancient Rome and the serfs of medieval Europe.
A second factor was decisive. The workers could not emancipate themselves through individual appropriation of private property. They found themselves intrinsic to a vast and growing global division of labour, such that only collective control of the means of production was plausible.
Capitalism had created the first class in history with a general interest in the emancipation of humanity as a whole. The emergence of this class made Marxism possible. Recognising the proletariat’s revolutionary potential was Marx and Engels’ most important intellectual achievement.
Marxism’s living heart is, therefore, the class struggle of working people against capitalism. And Marxism can be defined as: the theory and practice of international working class revolution.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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