Marxism and the Left
Laying the Foundations
WHO WERE MARX AND ENGELS? Karl Marx (1818–83) and his collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95) were scions of the very class they hoped to destroy: the self-confident and pros- perous bourgeoisie, whose spokesmen were slowly emerging in Prussia’s western provinces into a belief in their progressive role in history. Marx seemed poised to repeat his father’s career as a successful lawyer in Trier, enrolling at Bonn and Berlin Universities; Engels was apprenticed in the Barmen family firm of Ermen and Engels in 1836, moving to a merchant’s office in Bremen. Their early lives neatly revealed the main axis of the developing social order—Bildung und Besitz, education and property, the twin pillars of German bourgeois respectability.
Both lives were blown
trialization, the Rhineland’s recent Francophone history pointed Marx to the progressive heritage of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Both comparisons gave the German intelligentsia a sense of urgent inferi- ority during the Vorma¨rz, or “Pre-March,” in the years preceding the 1848 revolutions. Well before those events would sweepacross Europe, Marx and Engels had ample chance for reflection—Marx by returning in July
1841 to the progressive western
philosophical critique of the Prussian state; Engels by a
two-year stay in Manchester, observing
1848–49. After the triumph
withdrew to London for the rest of his life, while Engels ran the family business in Manchester. The 1850s were bleak for Marx, with financial difficulties, family
talist boom then underway. It spurred Marx to resume his “economics,” pursing
itics, connecting with the nascent labor
What influence did Marx and Engels have in their own time? To answer this question requires suspending the endless debates about Marxism as a whole. It means forgetting about 1917, the Russian Revolution, and what we know about Communism. It means forgetting about Marx’s philosoph- ical writings of the 1840s, which had little relevance to the 1860s and were entirely unknown to contemporaries. The question of what Marx “really meant”—for example, whether or not the early philosophical arguments about “alienation” still informed the theory of economics in Capital— clearly matters for other purposes. But here, it can be safely set aside. In- stead, we should ask: What political goals did Marx and Engels argue for in the 1860s and 1870s, which the first generation of social democratic politicians also took for themselves? How was their general theory of so- ciety understood?
The Marx we know was not the Marx of contemporaries. Our images are shaped not only by the Marxist tradition’s later course but also by those of Marx’s writings that were unavailable before his death. Posterity—and
the labors of ideologists hostile and sympathetic—have placed Marx and Engels outside of history, blocking our access to their contemporary stand- ing. To grasp that influence, we need to concentrate on the perceptions of socialist politicians and labor activists in the last third of the nineteenth century. What was distinctive about Marx’s ideas by the end of his career? How were they used in politics?
It was only with the events of the 1860s that Marx’s political influence arrived. Few of his writings were available in his own lifetime. These in- cluded a few early philosophical tracts; the journalistic commentaries on the European revolutions (1847–53) plus the Communist Manifesto (1847–
guages (German, French, English), passing quickly out of print. Marx’s theoretical reputation
of Political Economy (1859), and the first volume of Capital (1867). Po- litically,
toriety as a
leader of the First International who backed the Paris Com- mune; and he had a
growing reputation as an economic theorist and historian. But
Marx first encountered workers
This organizational norm of local working-class association was com- mon to the available models of popular radicalism in the 1840s: the con- spiratorial and insurrectionary tradition of Babeuf, Buonarroti, and Blan- qui; Chartism in Britain; and the practical trades socialism associated with Proudhon and the apolitical schemes of utopian socialists. These were not totally separate traditions. The communitarian experiments of the utopi- ans blurred with the co-operative ideals preferred by most politically active workers, a convergence strongest in the Owenite socialism of the early
1830s and the utopian communism of Cabet’s Icarians in the 1840s. Ideas of producer co-operation also ran through Chartism, as did some open- ness to insurrection. If Blanqui and his coconspirators had a social pro- gram, it was on the ideas of Proudhon and the utopians that they natu- rally drew.
The 1840s saw a key transition, from the purer Blanquist model of revolutionary action to more broadly based popular agitation. While Marx painstakingly broke with the conspiratorial habits of existing revolutionary groups, he remained trapped in Blanquism’s practical logic during the 1848
Revolution itself: moving ahead of popular consciousness, he still aimed to steer the masses toward insurrectionary showdown. But he stressed the
Yet the practical conjuncture
olutionary intelligentsia summoning an industrial proletariat yet to be formed in a
In 1848, Marx radically misread the signs. As Engels ruefully acknowl- edged, what he and Marx mistook for capitalism’s death throes were ac- tually its birth pangs. This sent Marx back to his desk. He already regarded the economics of exploitation as the motor of change, with the oppressed proletariat providing the new revolutionary impulse: no longer small groups of revolutionary conspirators supplied the agency, but social classes defined by conditions of economic life. But after 1848, he reapplied himself to the underlying theoretical inquiry that eventually produced Capital. He broke politically with the Communist League, which in defeat hankered for the old Blanquist temptation. As he argued in the key meeting of its Central Committee, revolutions were no mere feat of the will but came from gradually maturing conditions. Workers faced a politics of the long haul: “If you want to change conditions and make yourselves capable of government, you will have to undergo fifteen, twenty or fifty years of civil war.” This was also a general principle: “While this general prosperity lasts, enabling the productive forces of bourgeois society to develop to the full extent possible within the bourgeois system, there can be no question of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible when two factors come into conflict: the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production.” And: “A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself.”6
The year 1850 was the watershed in Marx’s career. He felt the rush of revolutionary optimism only once more, during the first great cyclical crisis
of the European capitalist economy in 1857, when he set down the basic framework of his economic theory in the seven notebooks of the famous Grundrisse, which remained unpublished for a century. This produced a much tougher emphasis on the social forces and objective structures that, while constraining people’s abilities to change their environment, ultimately made this possible. From this central insight then came the political per- spectives separating Marx and Engels so sharply from the rival traditions of the nineteenth-century Left.
MARX’S AND ENGELS’S LEGACY
For Marx and Engels, economics were fundamental. This began as a gen- eral axiom of understanding: “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and mental life. It is not the consciousness of people that determines their being, but, on the con- trary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Or: “Accord- ing to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining el- ement in history is the production and reproduction of real life.”7 This philosophical materialism dated from the 1840s. It now became a general theory of economics—of the capitalist mode of production and its general
“laws of motion”—to be fully explicated in Capital. Explicitly linked to a political project, bringing 1848–49 into perspective and explaining the cir- cumstances of a future capitalist collapse, this general theory was Marx’s most important legacy for the pre-1914 social democratic tradition. It be- came what contemporaries mainly understood by “Marxism”—the role of the “economic factor” in history, the determining effects of material forces on human achievement, and the linking of political opportunities to move- ments of the economy. In a nutshell: revolutionary politics had to wait for the social forces and economic crises needed to sustain them.
The 1860s galvanized such hopes. In a fresh drama of constitution- making, Italy and Germany were unified. And after the long gapof the
Union Congress in Britain and workers’ associations in
strike wave of 1868–74, dramatized by the great event of the 1871 Paris Commune. What
its connections to politics, which gave the impetus for the First Interna- tional in
constitutional context in which it happened. For Marx and Engels, new nation-states in
(1871), constitutional compromise between
tional reforms in Greece (1864) and Serbia (1869), and even reforms in Russia (1861–64), this
In the 1860s, liberal constitutionalism gained the ascendancy in
Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its predecessors.
The case for national trade union and party organizations “as organ- izing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete eman- cipation” could only be won by defeating older Left traditions.8 Opposition to Marx in the First International had various sources: the liberal-reformist proclivities of many union leaders, especially the British; French Proudhon- ists, hostile to both trade unionism and political action via the state; the unpolitical revolutionism of Bakunin and the anarchists, who opposed the centralist structure of the International and its stress on party organizing; and what remained of Blanquism.
Marx had mixed success in dealing with these enemies. With British trade unionists,
based crafts, he failed: his modest goal of a
break with the Liberal Party showed
the former were defeated via the policies on public ownership adopted during 1866–68,
in 1872, when Marx countered Bakunin’s challenge by transferring the General Council
der Bakunin’s sway, principally Italy, Switzerland, and Spain, it gave Marx’s allies control of the International’s symbolic legacy. Henceforth, anarchism was a
permanently marginalized political creed, with regional impact on
Marx was most successful
spiratorial leadership, heroic sacrifice, and necessary dictatorship still de- fined what revolutions were supposed to be. Marx and Engels repudiated conspiratorial politics in the 1840s, and 1848 confirmed this hostility to vanguardism. Instead, they urged the broadest popular democracy, in both public agitation and internal organization. Linked to the idea of the work- ing class as the agency of progress, whose majority followed from capital- ism’s unfolding, this transformed the image of revolution. Henceforth, it meant not a voluntarist uprising hatched by a self-appointed conspiracy but the coming to power of a class, the vast majority of society, whose revolutionary potential was organized openly and democratically by the socialist party for dispossession of an ever-narrowing circle of exploitative capitalist interests. In this respect, the victory of Marx’s perspective was complete.
In Marx’s view, each of these factors—the practical import of his social theory; the 1860s and the new opportunities for legal politics; the fight against opponents; and the necessity of publicly conducted mass campaign- ing—pointed to the same conclusion: that the emancipation of the working class was a political question. This was true in three senses: it had to be organized politically, coordinated by a class-based socialist party; the party had to concentrate the workers’ collective strengths in a centrally directed movement capable of challenging the political authority of the ruling class; and because the existing state was an expression of class rule, it couldn’t simply be taken over but had to be destroyed. This necessitated a transi- tional state authority, namely, the “dictatorshipof the proletariat.”9
In Marx’s own thinking, the “transitional proletarian state” was une- quivocally democratic. By democracy, he meant something different from liberal parliamentary institutions. For Marx, it was a system of participa- tory decision-making, which demolished the walls of professionalism and bureaucracy separating the people from government or from the special categories of politicians and officials who mystified power and severed it from the people’s control. Marx never set this down systematically. But he saw the Paris Commune as an example of participatory democracy in ac- tion. He urged the return of all offices (armed forces, civil service, judiciary) to the citizenry by direct election. The separation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers would be abolished; a “political class” would cease to exist; and “leadershipfunctions” would be diffused as widely as possible. This was a “vision of democracy without professionals,” quite distinct from the social democratic heritage before 1914, which saw democratic rule in mainly parliamentary terms.10
Finally, to return to Marx’s and Engels’s basic materialism: if one side of this was cautionary—avoiding premature revolutionary adventures be- fore the social forces and economic contradictions had matured, with the need for patient political building—the other side was more optimistic. If one side was the power of objective processes over human political agency and “the subordination of politics to historical development,” the other
was the ultimate inevitability of the victory of socialism. Marx believed in the historical necessity of workers’ emancipation, because the processes of capitalist accumulation themselves created “a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united, and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”11 Politics that neglected these underlying processes could not hope to succeed; politics that built from them were assured of victory. This powerful mixture of optimism and certainty—in the inevitable victory of history’s massed battalions—was decisive for pre-
1914 social democracy.
There were gaps in Marx’s thought. He never systematically addressed the problem of the state, nor the transition to socialism and the character of postrevolutionary society. Nor have I addressed every aspect of his thought, most notably internationalism. But there, Marx and Engels had less to say that was original. International solidarity predated the First In- ternational and mattered less than the idea of national party organization, which was new. Marx’s and Engels’s belief in revolutionary war came from the Jacobin tradition. And on nationalism they often repeated the preju- dices of the age. Finally, some aspects of Marx’s thinking, like his apparent openness in the 1870s to Populist strategies based on the peasantry in Rus- sia, were not widely known at the time.12
Marx’s and Engels’s ideas should be judged for their contemporary sig- nificance as opposed to their future or abstract meanings. Marx’s activity in the First International has often been seen as a sideshow or a distraction from his finishing Capital. In fact, it delivered the vital political perspectives for the socialist parties about to be founded, particularly when contrasted with the older radicalisms of the 1830s and 1840s. Organizationally the First International had limited impact. In 1869–70, it became riven with conflicts and by 1872 it was a dead letter. But certain policies had been publicly stated—for example, the practical program of labor legislation and trade union reforms in Marx’s “Instructions” for the delegates to the Ge- neva Congress in 1866; or the resolution on public ownership at the Brus- sels Congress in 1868; or the resolution on the “Political Action of the Working Class,” which called for “the constitution of the working class into a political party,” adopted by the London Conference in 1871. These became fixed referents for the later socialist parties. In other words, through their influence in the First International Marx and Engels supplied the guid- ing perspectives for the first generation of social democratic politicians and the movements they tried to create.
THE DIFFUSION OF MARXISM
The period between publication of Engels’s Anti-Du¨ hring in 1877–78 and his death in 1895 saw “the transition, so to speak, from Marx to Marx- ism.”13 This was orchestrated by Engels himself. As Marx’s literary exec-
utor with Eleanor Marx, he made the popularization of Marx’s thinking the mission of his final years. He edited Capital’s remaining volumes for publication, with volume 2 appearing in 1885 and volume 3 in 1894, vol- ume 4 becoming the three-volume Theories of Surplus Value (1905–10) edited by Karl Kautsky.14 Engels revived older works, published new ones, and codified Marx’s thought into a comprehensive view of the world.15
Engels also managed an extraordinary network of international socialist contacts, rapidly expanding with the new socialist parties and the founding of the Second International in 1889. He advised these national movements, especially the German, French, Austrian, Italian, and Russian ones, and helped launch the new International. He represented Marx not only via the printed word but in constant communications and personal visits, with countless practical interventions. He tutored the first generation of conti- nental Marxist intellectuals. His influence “provided the formative moment of all the leading interpreters of the Second International” and a good number of the Third as well.16
Making Marx’s heritage secure thus established a “Marxist” political tradition. Older veterans eschewed this label as a “sectarian trade-mark,” an aversion Marx and Engels had shared, preferring “critical materialist socialism,” or “scientific” as against “utopian socialism.”17 Kautsky, how- ever, had no such compunctions. Using his closeness to the SPD leaders August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht and to Marx’s and Engels’s leading protege´ in the 1880s, Eduard Bernstein, he maneuvered skilfully through the party debates of the 1880s and made Marxism into the social demo- cratic movement’s official creed. His vehicle was the monthly theoretical review Neue Zeit, which he founded in 1883. He assured his standing as theoretical heir by publishing The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx in
1887, which swiftly became the standard introduction.18
If Engels was the final arbiter of Marx’s authority, Kautsky was its faithful mouthpiece. Kautsky’s orthodoxy systematically expunged non- Marxist traces. Other leading thinkers of the first generation—Eduard Bernstein, Victor Adler, Georgy Plekhanov, Antonio Labriola—were less dogmatic but shared the same commitment. They wished “to systematize historical materialism as a comprehensive theory of man and nature, ca- pable of replacing rival bourgeois disciplines and providing the workers’ movement with a broad and coherent vision of the world that could be easily grasped by its militants.” This meant validating Marxism as a phi- losophy of history and dealing with themes Marx and Engels had not de- veloped, like literature and art, or religion and Christianity.19
This work had practical urgency. Within two decades of the SPD’s foun- dation in 1875, every European country acquired a movement aligning itself with Marx’s ideas. New generations of militants needed training in the movement’s basic principles, not only as a cadre of socialist journalists, lecturers, and officials but also to impart socialist consciousness to the rank
We can track this
1873, during which time Marx’s statements on the Paris Commune also became widely
Czech, Finnish, and Yiddish. By 1918,
Most evidence—memoirs, print runs for particular titles, catalogues and lending records of socialist and union libraries, questionnaires on workers’ reading habits—shows that Marx was read mainly by movement intellec- tuals. Even in a broad definition of these, embracing not only recognized theoreticians, journalists, and parliamentarians but also activists who ran the workers’ libraries, taught party education classes, organized discussion circles, and lectured at public meetings, we are still dealing with minorities. In addition, the SPD, for example, contained a plurality of outlooks. Even the Party School, founded in 1906 under Marxist control, gave a mixed picture. Having won the fight for an orthodox curriculum, with tight the- oretical training and screening of enrollees, the Marxist instructors were chagrined by many students’ revisionist ideas. Moreover, the 240 students graduated by the Party School during 1906–14 were offset by the 1,287 passing through the Trade Union School, with its highly practical curric- ulum. The actual diffusion of Marxism among the cadres was limited, and as we move outward to the unschooled outlook of ordinary members, this becomes plain. Only 4.3 percent of borrowings from workers’ libraries were in the social sciences, with another 4.4. percent covering philosophy, religion, law, and miscellaneous subjects. The vast bulk, 63.1 percent, were in fiction, with another 9.8 percent in children’s books and another 5.0 percent in anthologies.21 Works by Marx and Engels (and for that matter Kautsky) were mainly absent from the chosen reading.
The diffusion shouldn’t be too narrowly understood. Even if Marx’s own writings were hard to get hold of, there were many commentaries about them—some three hundred titles in Italy alone from 1885 to 1895,
or over two books a month on Marxism and socialism for a decade.22 Not surprisingly, then, early socialist intellectuals acquired garbled versions of Marx. They knew a few basic ideas: the primacy of economics in history; the natural laws of social development; the scientific basis of socialism; the class struggle as the motor of change; the proletariat as the agency of pro- gress; the independent political organization of the working class; the emancipation of labor as the emancipation of society. To this degree, Kaut- sky’s popularization had already succeeded: awareness of “Marxism” pre- ceded awareness of Marx himself and supplied rudiments of popular so- cialist consciousness.
The socialist press was
1906, less than 3 percent of the 48,352 SPD members were not reading Vorwa¨rts (the party daily) or another party paper, and elsewhere subscrib- ers often outnumbered party members. Moreover, party newspapers were consumed collectively, passed hand to hand, and available in cafe´s, clubs, and bars. Most decisive were the rhythms of daily communication in working-class communities. Joining in the life of the movement, with its politicized sociability, cultural opportunities, and face-to-face interaction, made people into Social Democrats.23
It’s unclear how consciously Marxist this everyday culture of the so- cialist movement was. On some interpretations, the SPD’s official Marxism was disconnected from its practical life, whether in unions, daily propa- ganda, cultural and recreational clubs, or general consciousness of mem- bers.24 But this can go too far. Most people most of the time don’t hold an explicit philosophy, let alone sophisticated doctrinal bases for their beliefs. That doesn’t preclude deeply felt political values, which in the early labor movements meant ideas of social justice, separateness from the dominant culture, an ethic of working-class community and collective solidarity, a class-combative anger against the powerful, and so forth. Marxism wasn’t the only creed sustaining those beliefs. But its contribution was clear, es- pecially in derivative values and popular discourse. A cadre of more con- sciously Marxist militants was also created before 1914, and during wider popular agitations this cadre clearly came into its own.
Pre-1914 labor movement values
litical legacy of Marx and Engels. This was true of the basic materialist outlook; the new opportunities for national politics created by
constitutional reforms; the antipathy to anarchism; the sense of the need for strong union and party organization to wrest gains from government and employers; and the general conviction that history was carrying the working class to its rightful inheritance in society. This congruence was especially strong
In two respects the legacy changed in the passage from Marx to Marx- ism. One was the bifurcation of labor movements into political and indus- trial arms. As each pursued their own reformist ends, the unified struggle for workers’ emancipation conceived by Marx fell apart. Marx’s other com- mitment to participatory forms of direct democracy was also lost, making the main versions of democracy almost completely parliamentary in form. Second, Engels’s and Kautsky’s renditions of Marx’s thought brought ev- olutionism and naturalism into historical materialism. Engels had already set the tone in his speech at Marx’s funeral, drawing parallels with Charles Darwin: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”25
Engels elaborated this claim in his works of the 1880s, which Kautsky then consummated in his further works of popularization.
In most accounts of Second International Marxism, this “scientific” lan- guage was its hallmark. A natural-scientific outlook formed by reading Dar- win and the works of Ludwig Bu¨ chner and Ernst Haeckel permeated Kaut- sky’s pre-Marxist thinking. This encounter with evolution proved intellectually liberating for Kausky’s socialist generation. In Neue Zeit, the dual affiliation to Marx and Darwin was virtually on the masthead. The class struggle—“the struggle of man as a social animal in the social com- munity”—mirrored the biological struggle for existence. What was true of Kautsky characterized the SPD at large. Bebel declared confidently: “So- cialism is science, applied with full understanding to all fields of human activity.” After Bebel’s own Women and Socialism, popularizations of Dar- win and evolutionary theory were the favorite nonfiction reading in work- ers’ libraries.26 The same applied to Italian socialism, where the architect of a remarkably vulgar Darwinian Marxism was Enrico Ferri, a leading party official and long-time editor of the party newspaper Avanti!27 When the young socialist agitator Benito Mussolini began editing a party news- paper in Forli in 1910, he called Marx and Darwin the two greatest think- ers of the nineteenth century.28
The hallmark of popular socialist consciousness, however, was robust eclecticism. In shaping a
socialist political tradition, certain general prin- ciples—the labor
ing Lassalleanism in
A large centrally organized
resources available to the worker wanting to learn. But this proceeded largely beneath
A special set of circumstances made this eclecticism possible—after oppor- tunities for popular literacy had grown, but before these individual efforts at self-learning became preempted by comprehensive systems of state schooling and more doctrinaire approaches to party educational work.32
Underpinning the organized efforts of socialist movements, moreover, were the momentous social changes produced by capitalist industrializa- tion, which assembled massive concentrations of working-class people in the new urban environments. Collective action became essential to the hopes and material well-being of these new populations, and it was here that the relevance of Marxist ideas decisively converged. Before considering the emergent socialist parties in more detail, therefore, it is to industriali- zation and the making of the working class that we must turn
during the “dual revolution” be- tween the
“class” became a modern keyword. “Social- ism,” “working class,” and “proletariat” all appeared in Britain and France by the early
“worker” and “bourgeois” during the third quarter of the nineteenth century in the wake of the failed 1848 revolutions, as capitalism began its first worldwide boom.1 The progress of machinery, steam power, factories, and railways became increasingly the markers of progress in Europe, and as the first industri- alizing society Britain pointed toward an ex- citing and necessary but forbidding future. Moreover, the novel concentrations of indus- try presaged a dangerous new presence in so- ciety, one troublesomely resistant to social and political control.
Industry brought the “social problem.” New forms of regulation were needed for public health, housing, schooling, poor relief, recreation, and criminality. Worse, industri- alization contained a political threat. Industry brought the rise of a working class, with no stake in the emerging order or its laws. For polite society, collective action by the laboring masses became a constant anxiety, and to cope with such fears distinctions were drawn between “respectable” workers and the rest. To such thinking, the skilled working man be- came demoralized by an unhealthy urban en- vironment, corrupted by the criminally indi- gent and seduced into radicalism by socialists
and other agitators. But for their own part, the agitators drew the opposite conclusions. The socialist advocates of the class-conscious proletariat found in workers’ communities an essential unity of purpose, borne forward by the logic of capitalist growth. This chapter, by sketching the working class as it emerged into social history, provides a framework for measuring those claims. In what ways were socialist hopes justified?
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