Who remembers Marx?
Paul Demarty marks 200 years since the birth of the founder of scientific socialism
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Bertolt Brecht, ‘A worker reads history’
It is an odd time in history to bump into a Karl Marx anniversary. But here we are: in May 1818, Marx was born to a bourgeois professional family in Trier. In May 2018, we get to work out how to retrospect over this.
The abiding image so far has to be the five-metre-high bronze of the ‘Great Man’ in Trier itself - a gift to the town from the Chinese government. Its unveiling was subject to the precise array of protests and counter-protests you would expect - Alternativ für Deutschland, Free Tibet and Falun Gong types on one side, grizzled tankies on the other. This comes at a time when China is fighting to be counted as a free-market economy under World Trade Organisation rules.
British eyes will be reminded of the famously ghastly memorial to Marx in Highgate cemetery - a giant stone head after the fashion of Easter Island cult statues. The fact that the Chinese government is still capable of a piece of high-grade Stalinist kitsch is quite remarkable at this stage of its evolution into a pool of cheap labour for American manufacturing concerns.
The irony of this sort of Stalinist statuary is clear to many, including bourgeois commentators. The tragedy of Marx is that his belief in the power of oppressed classes to move history curdled into veneration of state power. When and how this happened is a matter of debate - for the bourgeoisie it followed inevitably from the nature of the communist project. For libertarian communists, the project was hijacked by ‘middle class’ parties like the Bolsheviks; for Trotskyists, by the Stalinist Thermidor. So whose Marx is remembered today?
Born into trouble
Born into a secularised Jewish family (his father had converted to Protestantism after the abrogation of Jewish emancipation in Prussia), Marx’s youth took him into the care of many liberal opponents of the Prussian monarchy - and then, in Berlin, to radical intellectual circles.
The primary influence on the young radicals was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose vastly ambitious philosophical project managed to serve both a clique of conservative professors as an apologia for the Prussian status quo, and Marx and his friends - Ludwig Feuerbach, Arnold Ruge, Bruno Bauer and so on - as a model of the triumph of reason over superstition, and also a picture of the dissolution and transformation of stable verities. Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity - a bravura account of religion’s earthly origins - was especially influential. Feuerbach was trying to combine the philosophical materialism of the enlightenment with the audacious sweep of Hegel’s religious idealism, and the result was a highly interesting book.1The radical intellectuals matured in part by settling accounts with Feuerbach.
There were more important things with which to settle accounts, of course. The Europe Marx and his friends lived in was essentially the one left to them by the reversal of Napoleon’s military victories and the subsequent Congress of Vienna, whose package of diplomatic measures survived long enough for the reactionary kingdoms of the continent to retrench themselves. In France, Napoleon’s dictatorship gave way to violent counterrevolution and then a generation of more-or-less constitutional monarchy under the Bourbon and Orléans houses. Germany, meanwhile, remained fragmented into innumerable trivial principalities, dominated by Prussia and Austria. The democratic impulse had been awakened, however: combined (especially in Germany) with nationalist sentiment and (especially in France) with socialist doctrines, the powder was dry for another social explosion.
Marx’s own political career had put him into Parisian exile as an ultra-democrat, where he confronted the nascent workers’ movement for the first time. Utopian socialists like Étienne Cabet and Flora Tristan were beginning to attract working class followers. Marx remained sceptical of the working class’s significance, however, until he became better acquainted - thanks in large part to the efforts of Friedrich Engels - with the Chartists in England, who demonstrated conclusively a class instinct for democracy. After his bitter disappointment with Prussian liberals and ‘constitutionalists’, the arrival of the working class in Marx’s consciousness proved the decisive turning point. Marx, Engels and their followers fused in the end with a long-standing religious-utopian organisation, the League of the Just, to form the Communist League, on whose behalf Marx and Engels wrote the Communist manifesto.2
Age of revolution
A year later, finally, the levee burst: 1848 saw the ousting of Louis-Philippe in France, the Italians setting off on the road to unification and the Germans coming within spitting distance of the ‘one and indivisible republic’ that was the objective of the revolutionaries.
Marx and Engels revived their old paper, the Rheinische Zeitung, and threw themselves into the most radical wing of the democratic movement. The revolutionary wave, as we know, receded, and reaction set in; the Second French Republic gave way a few years later to the corrupt dictatorship of Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Bonaparte, and, when Germany was finally to be unified decades later, it was done forcibly by the Prussian army, in the name of the kaiser. There was to follow another long political freeze, and the 48ers were scattered, geographically and politically. Marx returned to exile, this time in London, where he wrote at a furious pace, researching the political economy of capitalism in painstaking detail.
It is sometimes thought that Marx was merely an obscurity in his own lifetime, but the reality is that the bonds forged in 1848 were firm: many of the defeated revolutionaries remained in contact, and Marx retained a vigorous epistolary life among them. It will suffice to mention that his influence over those 48ers who ended up in America - for instance, Joseph Weydemeyer - contributed to making out of the German immigrants a fertile source of committed troops for the suppression of the slaveholders’ revolt in 1861-65. This highlights another aspect of Marx’s political outlook, which is that it was properly global. It was the movement of working class solidarity with the union that occasioned the foundation of the International Workingmen’s Association, in which Marx was an early and prominent participant.
It was at this time that the first volume of Capital was published, and Marx’s alleged ‘obscurity’ is belied by the rapidity with which it was translated into all the major European languages. It was read with interest by some of the Russian Narodniks, some of whom - Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich - would go on to become political Marxists as a result. Though Marx’s followers were marginal in the Paris insurrection of 1871, and though Marx advised holding back beforehand, his defence of the Communards and coruscating denunciation of their murderers presented his political project in immaculate literary form. Though the First International could not long survive the crushing of the Commune, the immediate result was the foundation of the first parties of the Second International; and it was people like August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht - somewhat eclectic followers of Marx and his rival, Ferdinand Lassalle - who made it happen.
There has never since been a time when ostensibly Marxist parties and organisations have been absent from politics. This is a more significant fact than it first appears. Proudhonism - once hegemonic over large parts of the radical workers’ movement - never recovered from its physical near-extermination at the hands of Thiers and friends. We could name many other examples. Bakuninist anarchism survives, but in reality overwhelmingly in hybrid forms with Marxism (the various ‘libertarian communist’ trends).
If the radical left is permanently altered by Marxism, so in reality is the ideology and even the operative functioning of capitalist societies. We are sometimes told that Marxism was all well and good in the 19th century, with children working 14-hour shifts in the mill, but is not appropriate to the age of universal suffrage, the minimum wage, and health and safety laws. This is to miss the point spectacularly: Marx never claimed that amelioration of conditions was impossible: merely that it was impossible without a fight. We have a more ‘civilised’ world, in the west at least, only because Marx’s peers and his heirs scared their enemies into giving ground, and we shall lose it quickly enough if we accept that Marx’s approach is ‘outmoded’.
Still more ridiculous is the opinion that some combination of consumerism, digital technology and other novelties make Marx’s economic theories obsolete. The wise old sages who write such gems do so, presumably, on computers that assembled themselves, from parts made out of minerals that dug themselves out of the ground.3 This is one aspect of a wider phenomenon: bourgeois macroeconomic theories (micro-modellers can, luckily for them, restrict themselves to calculating the prices of spherical cows in a vacuum) must always be defined against Marxism, as well as against each other. Providing a reassuring firewall against the theses of Capital and later writers in that tradition is part of the use-value of an economic framework these days. A pity that reality has been so cruel to Keynes, Friedman, Hayek and whoever else you like.
Of course, it is undeniable that Marx’s name, today, is under a shadow - the shadow of a five-metre statue of himself. The greatest weapon of the bourgeoisie against Marxism is not the fatuous occasional polemics of its economists, or the scaremongering of the far right about ‘cultural Marxists’, but the lived experience of the 20th century and the bloody disaster of Stalinism. We ought to have learned, by now, that it is not enough to merely not be Stalinist; to wish to avoid a similar outcome is not an irrational fear, and the commonplace idea that communism is ‘a nice idea, but it will never work’ does have evidence for it. It is just not conclusive evidence - and, indeed, far less conclusive than the evidence for the proposition that the continuation of capitalism shall have apocalyptic consequences. We have much work to do here - but, fortunately, the theoretical legacy and political example of Karl Marx is an extraordinary gift to us in this endeavour.
The fundamental problem with the big statues is that Marxism is, among other things, the most thoroughgoing and scientific debunking yet of the ‘great man’ theory of history, and its more vulgar contemporary complement in the cult of heroic CEOs and ‘leaders’ in the abstract. Brecht, in our epigraph, echoes Marx’s famous formula, “How many cooks were caesars, and how many caesars cooks?” It was his good fortune to bring the message that the secret of the people we treat as archetypes was their bodies and their societies; that Caesar could not eat victory or honour.
The communist project is based on the certainty that this inverted world will in reality be righted, and that the conscious direction of society will fall to all its members rather than a self-perpetuating ruling class. Here’s hoping our great-great-great-grandchildren will not celebrate the 300th anniversary of Marx’s birth before it is achieved.
1. It is not without interest that the liberal theologian, Karl Barth, attempted mischievously to claim Feuerbach as one of the great Lutheran theologians. Suffice it to say that the Lutherans of his own day were not so impressed, and Feuerbach had basically to keep his head down for the rest of his life. Such is the lot of a prophet in his own land.
2. A fine account of Marx’s and Engels’s political development to this point can be found in the first part of Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977.
3. My very favourite example of this genre comes from the futurologist charlatan (a tautology, if ever there was one), Jeremy Rifkin, who told readers of TheGuardian that “Marx never asked what might happen if intense global competition some time in the future forced entrepreneurs to introduce ever more efficient technologies, accelerating productivity to the point where the marginal cost of production approached zero ... putting an end to profit and rendering the market exchange economy obsolete” (March 31 2014). Except, er, in the really famous bit about the falling rate of profit. See me after class, Jeremy ...