From the March 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard
Fifty years ago, on March 14th, 1883, Karl Marx died in London, after a lifetime devoted to the workers' cause. The persecutions and privations he had endured in that cause hastened his death. When he died, much of the work he had planned still remained to be done, but, nevertheless, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had given the working class movement all over the world an impulse and direction. His significance as a thinker and as a revolutionary grows more important each year, and although critics succeed one another in an unending line with “refutations" of his theories, those theories still stand awaiting disproof. History as it unfolds brings new illustrations of the truth of Marx*s discoveries and of the inadequacy of opposing doctrines.
But, before we consider the body of Marxian thought, let us take a brief glance at the man himself.
Karl Marx was born on May 5th, 1818, at Treves, in the Rhineland, of Jewish parents who subsequently adopted Christianity. The Germany into which he was born was very different from modem Germany. It was mainly an agricultural country, and such industry as was carried on was still greatly restricted by relics of feudal barriers. There was nothing to which the term large-scale industry, in the modern sense, could be applied. Industrialism, which had been growing apace in England during the previous fifty years, was hardly known. Politically the country was split up into a number of independent States, each with an autocratic government based on land ownership. The feudal restrictions on industry and commerce, the impediment to trade that was constituted by the multiplicity of States, made the German bourgeoisie, then just emerging into prominence and anxious for power, very receptive of the ideas that Napoleon by his victories had spread over Europe. A united Germany arid a liberal constitution, these were the popular ideals in which the needs of the rising capitalist class expressed themselves. When Marx was twelve years old, the 1830 revolution broke out in France and spread to nearly all Europe. It is quite safe to assume that the events taking place around him made a deep impression on Marx even at that age. In 1835 Marx entered Bonn University and started on a course of jurisprudence to meet the wishes of his father, who was a lawyer. He added to this a study of philosophy and history, for the economic changes of the period were undermining all established ideas and forcing all who thought at all to seek a new basis for the understanding of life. The leaders in the new thought were the Young Hegelians, the followers of Hegel. Marx became associated with this school, but soon became dissatisfied with the idealism of Hegel and began to spread a wider net than his master. It was through their common interest in Hegelian philosophy that Marx and Engels first met and the friendship was established that lasted until Marx died.
In 1841 Marx took his doctorate. The next year, when about to take up an appointment at Bonn University, he was offered, and accepted, the editorship of the Rheinische Zeitung, a Cologne newspaper started by the Rhineland Liberals, to which Marx had already contributed articles. This marks the turning-point in his career. From this time dates Marx’s realisation of the historical task of the proletariat and of the inadequacy of all current philosophy. But at this stage Marx was far from the theories that are now known by his name. He was simply a Radical Democrat interested in and anxious to improve the conditions of the peasants and the workers. The controversies in. which his work as an editor involved him soon convinced him of the need to study and understand political economy if political problems .were to be understood. When, therefore, the attention paid by the censor to the Rheinische Zeitung hampered Marx in his work, he resigned his editorship in 1843 and, with his friend, Arnold Ruge, proceeded to Paris. (Notwithstanding Marx’s departure from the editor’s chair, the paper was suppressed shortly afterwards.) Before then he had married Jenny von Westphalen, the daughter of Baron von Westphalen, who was of Scots descent and who later became, in the words of Engels, “ a reactionary minister of State.”
To Paris had come, after 1830, a number of German revolutionaries. They had formed a secret society, out of which grew the League of the Just. The. League had disappeared in 1839, but many of the leaders were still in Paris at the time of Marx’s arrival. One of the original leaders, Schapper, had gone to London and started the Workers' Educational Society among the German artisans there. This was one of the beginnings of the Communist League. In Paris, Marx and Ruge started the Deutsch-Franzosichen Jahrbucher, of which, however, only two numbers appeared. By this time Marx had progressed beyond mere Radicalism, his thoughts were beginning to move along the lines of their final development, but his realisation of the revolutionary role of the proletariat in the development of society still required the basis which the conception of the class struggle was afterwards to give it. In 1844, in collaboration with Engels, he wrote the “Holy Family.” Here the new theories begin to take form. (Engels states that Marx had worked out the ” Materialist Conception of History ” by 1845.) The importance of this book lies in the fact that, in working out the ideas, Marx had come to appreciate how essential for the purposes of his thought was a knowledge of the economic laws governing production in the society in which he found himself. As a consequence, with his usual thoroughness, he took up seriously the study of economics. In 1845 Marx was compelled to leave Paris because of his attacks on the Prussian Government. He proceeded to Brussels. Here he wrote and published, in 1847, his ”Poverty of Philosophy” in reply to Proudhoun’s “Philosophy of Poverty,” and began the career of revolutionary activities that only death brought to an end. In 1847 he joined an organisation which, after a Congress held in London in that year, came to be known as the Communist League. It had grown out of various secret societies started in the different countries in which the leaders of the defunct League of the Just had found themselves. Towards the end of the same year (1847) a second Congress of the Communist League was held in London, at which Marx was present. At this Congress the new ideas of Marx, to which his studies during the preceding years had led him, came in conflict with the revolutionary idealism which up to then had provided the workers’ movement with its basic ideas. Finally Marx managed to convert the Congress to his views and was instructed to prepare, in the name of the League, a manifesto setting out their aims.
The Communist Manifesto
The manifesto was written and issued by February, 1848, shortly before the outbreak of the 1848 revolution. This manifesto is what we now know as the Communist Manifesto. In writing it, Marx used a draft prepared by Engels before the Congress met, but to it he added what Engels himself has described as “the fundamental proposition which forms its nucleus.” Engels goes on to state that proposition as follows:—
That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolution in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class—the proletariat—cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class—the bourgeoisie—without, at the same time, and once and for all emancipating society at large from all exploitation oppression, class-distinctions and class-struggles. (Preface to Communist Manifesto. Preface written by F. Engels, 1888.)
With the publication of the Manifesto a new stage is reached in the history of the working-class movement. The Manifesto may not be a perfect piece of work, from the point of view of the present day. Had Marx been called upon to write it in 1878 instead of 1848 certain things in it would no doubt have been different. Even so it contains in embryo most of Marx’s later ideas and was a significant advance on anything of the kind that had preceded it. It took Communistic thought out of the world of Utopias and set it up on a basis of reality.
The Writing of “Capital”
On February 24th, 1848, the revolution that overthrew Louis Philippe broke out in France, and by March Germany was in the throes of liberal revolutions. The Belgian Government did not choose at such a time to have a revolutionary of Marx’s calibre in Brussels, so he had to seek shelter elsewhere. He returned to Paris, and from there went to Cologne accompanied by Engels. Here they started a newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. For nearly a year this journal poured forth the opinions of Marx and Engels and brought to an examination of the political events and problems of the day the understanding of historical processes that the “Materialistic Conception of Histor ” had provided. It was in the pages of this paper that the articles now gathered together under the title, “Wage Labour and Capital” appeared. Finally, during the period of reaction after 1848, the paper was suppressed (May, 1849), and Marx went on his travels again. After a short stay in Paris he sought refuge in London, and there he remained for the last thirty-four years of his life.
In 1852 the Communist League, after prolonged internal dissension among its members, came to an end, and for about ten years Marx was not actively engaged in political affairs. This was the period that commenced his prolonged economic researches, during which he laboured on the preparation of his greatest work—“Capital.” At the beginning it was a period of great hardship for Marx, whose only source of income was his pen. Three of his children died as a result of the privations to which the family was subjected. In 1851 he became a contributor to the New York Tribune. Certain of the articles he wrote for this paper on events in Germany have since been gathered together under the title "Revolution and Counter Revolution.” Another of his works, now widely read, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” also appeared about the same time in another paper, Die Revolution, published in New York. Engels meanwhile had gone into his father’s business in Manchester as a means of providing monetary support. In 1859 the "Critique of Political Economy" appeared. This work is the forerunner of “Capital,” and contains the first exposition of Marx’s theory of value. —
The First International
Marx’s active participation in political agitation began again with the First International in 1864, of which he soon became the leading spirit. The inaugural address and constitution were written by Marx. They follow the lines laid down sixteen years before in the Communist Manifesto, but show that Marx’s thought had progressed far since 1848. The Declaration of Principles of the S.P.G.B. bears many strong resemblances to the constitution drawn up by Marx for the First International. But in writing for a body like the International Marx could not be entirely himself, and certain parts of the constitution cannot be considered as indicative of Marx's own ideas. About one passage, for example, he is found writing to Engels: "I was compelled to insert into the constitution some phrases about 'rights' and ‘duties’ as well as ‘truth, morality and justice,' but all this is so placed that it is not likely to bring any harm.”
Marx's struggle with Bakunin sprang out of the International, as did his famous monograph, “The Civil War in France,” which was originally written as an address for the International. In 1873 the bureau of the International was shifted to New York. Three years later it had ceased to exist.
Throughout the period of his work on the General Council of the International Marx was continuing his researches and studies. In 1867 he published the first volume of “Capital.” The other two volumes were first published after his death by Engels, who prepared them from the notes Marx left behind. In 1869 Engels retired from business, and returned to London in the following year. This meant easier conditions for Marx: Engels brought not only monetary assistance, but also relieved Marx of a large part of the work to be done for the International. After the transference of the International to New York Marx devoted all his energies to his studies. On these were spent the last ten years of his life.
The Marxian Theories
Marx’s importance in the history of the Labour movement comes from his having discovered first the basic law governing the development of society, and second the essential economic principles underlying production in a particular form of society, the capitalistic form. The first of these is embodied in the “Materialist Conception of History.” which is outlined above in the words of Engels. The corner-stone of the second is Marx’s theory of value, the only economic theory that has succeeded in giving an adequate explanation of the sources of profit in capitalistic production. Both of these theories have been attacked, but it is safe to say that at no time has their validity been more apparent than to-day. A whole school of economic historians has arisen during the last fifty years, re-writing history from the viewpoint provided for them by Marx, although few of them are honest enough to acknowledge his influence. For the workers the importance of the Materialist Conception of History lies in its revelation of the class struggle as the mechanism through the operation of which social changes are produced. Without the guiding principle of the class struggle working-class thought must inevitably flounder about in a morass of reformism. Until the identity of interests of all workers everywhere, as members of the same class, was made apparent by Marx, there was no solid basis on which an international working-class movement could be established. Without such a movement capitalism cannot be overthrown.
Marx’s theory of value made clear the exploitation of the worker, gave it scientific proof and demonstrated its inevitability under capitalism. Here was the final blow to all theories of social reform. Once it was shown that the preventable evils from which the workers suffer are the result of their being numbers of an exploited class in society it followed that only by terminating their exploitation could those evils be abolished. Revolutionary Socialism was born.
The S.P.G.B. and Marx
It is to preach this that the S.P.G.B. exists. In putting itself forward as the only party worthy of the support of the workers, the S.P.G.B. does so as a Marxist organisation. What do we mean when we describe ourselves as a party of Marxists? In the first place, it does not mean that we claim infallibility for Marx, or accept all he wrote as dogma and true just because he wrote it. But we do claim that Marx, in all his main ideas, was correct and provided explanations of social problems and guidance in the solution of those problems. To the extent that these ideas pass the test of modern experience—and we contend that, fundamentally, they do satisfy such a test —we subscribe to them, but we do so in no blind spirit of hero worship. We appreciate that Marx, like lesser men, was subject to the environment in which he found himself. The body of his thought did not emerge fully formed at the beginning of his career, it developed and grew each year as his researches and experience increased. Inevitably, until Marx had completed his economic studies, his thought was not rounded off, and certain of his earlier ideas are not altogether consistent with those of his mature years. Engels referred to this in his introduction to “Wage Labour and Capital," Engels wrote: —
All his (Marx’s} writings which appeared before the publication of the first part of. his “Critique of Political Economy” differ in some points from those published after 1859, contain expressions and even entire sentences, which from the point of view of his later writings appear rather ambiguous and even untrue.
In other words, where there are contradictions —and they are relatively few—in Marx's teachings it is on the later statement that he must be judged. The particular conditions of his times, the undeveloped nature of capitalism and the struggles to overthrow the relics of the feudal restrictions on capitalist industry, made him an advocate at certain periods of courses of action which, in his later years, he disavowed and which, in any event, are not applicable to modern conditions. For example, Marx’s (and Engels’) ideas on the use of armed force to achieve revolutionary objectives underwent a radical change during his lifetime, and the reasons that led Marx, in 1848, to advocate war with Russia, and later to subscribe to a political programme of immediate demands, including such things as the eight-hour day, are no longer operative: Marx’s example cannot be pleaded in defence of the support given to the war of 1914-18 by the various Labour Parties of the belligerent countries or in justification of reformism. Experience has shown that a programme of immediate demands cannot be used to build up a socialist organisation. In practice immediate demands have soon brought confusion and destroyed the Socialist objective of the parties which adopted them.
Marx and Engels also underestimated capitalism's strength and ability to adjust itself to the demands made upon it. They both thought in the ’fifties that capitalism could not survive its industrial crisis and that its end was imminent.
We dare to mention the shortcomings of Marx even in a commemorative article just because he was a genius. His reputation is big enough to bear the truth. Marx, like Cromwell, would have insisted on being painted “wart and all.’’ Only mediocrity has to be protected from being judged on account of its mistakes. It was Marx himself who said: “Ignorance never helped nor did anybody any good," and ignorance of the development of Marx’s thought can only lead to difficulties in understanding his final ideas. An understanding of these ideas provides a sure and complete key to all modern social and political problems. The S.P.G.B. aims in its propaganda to provide that understanding.