Max Eastman 1932

Introduction to Capital, The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings

Written: by Max Eastman;
Source: Capital, The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings, The Modern Library, 1932;
Transcribed: by Brian Reid.

It took a revolution in Russia to wake up the English-speaking world to the importance of Karl Marx. Marx regarded England as a model of the mature workings of that capitalist system which he analyzed, and he would regard present-day America as a super-model. Nevertheless it is just in England and America that Marxism never found a home. It, never took firm root among our radical minded intellectuals; it never became the official philosophy of our organizations of the working class, as it has almost everywhere else in the world. There must be some reason why in the countries most advanced economically this most advanced economic theory and program never took hold. I think the principal reason is that Marx was educated in the atmosphere of German metaphysics. He began life as a follower of Hegel, and he never recovered from that German philosophical way of going at things which is totally alien to our minds. Hegel scorned the English for speaking of Isaac Newton as a great philosopher – for regarding his discoveries, that is, as the highest kind of knowledge. We, on the other hand, regard the professorial apostle of “German thoroughness,” who cannot even suggest a plan for building a dam across a creek without starting in with the creation of the world, and getting us to agree about the essential nature of 1 wing and the relations between Pure Reason and the Categories of the Understanding, as a comic type to be caricatured on the stage. In this methodological difference of opinion we are right. Our methodology, like our economic development, is the more advanced. Science in its mature forms casts loose from philosophy, just as earlier it cast loose from religion and magic. It contents itself on the theoretic side with specific solutions of specific problems, and on the practical side with methods of procedure for accomplishing specific things. If these solutions and methods imply some general attitude toward the universe at large, then that is conceded tentatively and with some reluctance. A quick recourse to scepticism, a readiness to say “I don’t know” when large general questions come up about being and the nature of the universe – a readiness to say “I don’t know” whenever as a simple matter of fact you do not know – is the surest mark of an advanced scientific mind, whether practical or theoretical.

Marx gave the world as important a gift of scientific knowledge as any man of the modern era; he is one of the giants of science. Nevertheless, he did not have this mental attitude. His approach to his problems was philosophical. It was German-professorial in the very sense that seems unnatural to us more sceptical and positivistic Anglo-Saxons. He wanted to revolutionize human society and make it intelligent and decent, and he studied its history and its present constitution with that end in view, and drew up a plan by which the thing might be accomplished. But instead of presenting his thoughts in this simple and clear form as a specific plan for the solution of a specific problem, he started in by deciding in general what the universe is made of and how it operates, and then gradually worked down towards a demonstration that by the very nature of its being and laws of its operation this universe is inevitably going to revolutionize itself, and it is going to revolutionize itself in just the manner outlined in his plan, and therefore as intelligent parts of a universe of such a kind it behooves us to get to work on the job. That method of approaching a job is alien to the Anglo-Saxon mind – especially to the hard-headed and radical specimens of the Anglo-Saxon mind. That is surely one reason – and I think it is the main reason – why Marxism does not take firm root in our culture where its lessons are most directly applicable.

In this I do not mean to boast of any inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon brain cells. The more advanced simplicity of logic with which Englishmen like John Stuart Mill approached social problems, however tame their solution of them, was doubtless closely associated with that more advanced industrial development of which Marx himself was so clearly aware. It is important, however, that those young Americans who wish to approach Marx as a teacher – and they all ought to – should not be “buffaloed” by his philosophic mode of approach. They are very likely to in these days, because those most interested in propagating the ideas of Marx, the Russian Bolsheviks, have swallowed down his Hegelian philosophy along with his science of revolutionary engineering, and they look upon us irreverent peoples who presume to meditate social and even revolutionary problems without making our obeisance to the mysteries of Dialectic Materialism, as a species of unredeemed and well-nigh unredeemable barbarians. They are right in scorning our ignorance of the scientific ideas of Karl Marx and our indifference to them. They are wrong in scorning our distaste for having practical programs presented in the form of systems of philosophy. In that we simply represent a more progressive intellectual culture than that in which Marx received his education – a culture farther emerged from the dominance of religious attitudes.

For it is the relic of a religious attitude to attribute your plan for changing the world to the world itself, and endeavor to prove that the “inner law” of this world is engaged in realizing your ideals. Marx was an implacable enemy of religion, and he was also – or thought he was – in revolt against philosophy. He liked to repeat the saying of Ludwig Feuerbach that “the metaphysician is a priest in disguise”; and he expressed many times the desire to get philosophy out of the way of his revolutionary science. It was with this motive that he so vigorously insisted that the world consists only matter and not spirit. But the essence of philosophy in its kinship with religion is not to declare that the world is spirit, but to declare that this world of spirit is sympathetic to the ideals of the philosopher. Marx banished the spirit, but retained in his material world that now still more extraordinary gift of being in sympathy with his ideals. He retained, that is, the philosophic method and habit of thought. It was not that he wanted help from the universe, but he did not know how else to formulate his colossal plan for controlling social evolution except to implant it as “historic necessity” in evolution itself. The combination of affirmative and confident action in a given field with a general attitude of scientific scepticism was unknown to him.

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In order to help the American student get hold of the monumental ideas of Karl Marx, which is his duty, and yet retain that sceptical poise of the scientific thinker, which is his privilege, I have devised a non-philosophic way of presenting those ideas. I present them as a system of social and political engineering.

An engineer wishing to convert a given form of society into a more satisfactory one would begin by making a very rough outline of the kind of society he proposed to build. With that rough blue-print in mind he would examine the existing society, and he would also examine all past societies, and find out what are the forces which control them and the general laws of their change. When he had finished that investigation and acquired that knowledge, he would draw up a procedure or plan of action, a scheme for getting the thing moving (supposing that his investigations had proven it possible) in the direction of his proposal. That is an engineering approach to the problems raised by Karl Marx. It separates the choice of a goal, which is primarily an act of passion, from the definition of existing facts and the discovery of their laws of motion; and it presents its plan of action as a plan of action pure and simple. It does not undertake the task of proving that the objective world is by virtue of its own inner “dialectic” destined to carry that plan out-a task impossible of accomplishment by any mortal brain. We do not know what the world is destined to do, but we know what we can in our own era try to make it do, and try with good assurance that success is possible. That is all anybody needs to know in order to act, or does indeed ever know when he acts with a hazard sufficient to make his act interesting.

My presentation of Marxism to modern readers therefore takes this form. I present first those scant fragments in which Marx did touch the question of the kind of society which he proposed as worthy of intelligent beings, and which he deemed it possible to approach. The reader must not be surprised to find these outlines extremely sketchy, nor to find them presented in the form of a dogmatic assertion as to what the future is destined to bring forth. That is merely the philosophic way of formulating a scientific purpose. Marx’s faith in the benign drift of his material universe was so great that he was for the most part ready to dispense with any plan at all. The working classes, he said in one place, “have no ideal to realize; they have only to set free the elements of the new society....” And even in that sole fragment where Marx did enter with some detail into the future plans of the communists – the Criticism of the Gotha Program – we find him demurring against any disposition to give these plans a guiding rô1e. He calls them “juridical conceptions,” and says that they are a mere by-product of economic evolution. His goal, he permits us to know, is a society without classes and without government by force, and one in which wealth shall be distributed according to the formula. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” But he insists upon presenting the conditions which make it reasonable to strive for such a goal, and show by what stages one might move toward it, as causes of its inevitable advent.

I have shown elsewhere[1] that this failure to distinguish condition from cause is the most general of those unconscious devices by which Marx and his followers keep up the attitude of a philosopher while presenting the thoughts of an engineer. But it will be obvious upon a moment’s reflection that this must be so. An engineer is compelled to regard his own act as a cause, and to distinguish this from the conditions by which his act is limited – the qualities of his material, its resistance to stresses, strains, etc. The philosopher, wishing to show that his act is identical with what the universe as a whole is doing, is equally compelled to ignore the distinction. He has no other recourse, if he intends to act creatively, but to present the conditions which make his plan possible as causes which make it inevitable.

That is why Marx’s blue-prints of the proposed society are so sketchy, and yet are laid down as though Marx had prophetic insight, and were able to write a history of the remote future of the world.

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After reading these rough sketches of the goal to be striven for, we turn to Marx’s examination of the past history of man and the existing society. He is seeking, remember, those aspects of society and those laws of its history which will guide him in the effort to transform it in the direction of his goal. And here the great work of his genius begins. It divides itself into two sections: first, an explanation of the dominant part played in all human culture and all its history by a gradual change and development of the technique of wealth production; and second, an analysis of our contemporary capitalist method of production. I call the first section “The Theory of History”; the second section is of course Marx’s famous contribution to economics, “Capital, an Analysis of Capitalist Production.”

The theory of history was summarized in this way by Friedrich Engels, the close friend and co-creator of Marx’s ideas: “Marx discovered the simple fact (heretofore hidden beneath ideological overgrowths) that human beings must have food, drink, clothing and shelter first of all, before they can interest themselves in politics, science, art, religion and the like. This implies that the production of the immediately requisite material means of subsistence, and therewith the existing phase of development of a nation or an epoch, constitute the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal outlooks, the artistic and even the religious ideas are built up., It implies that these latter must be explained out of the former, whereas the former have usually been explained as issuing from the latter.”

It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of this simple idea upon the subsequent development of historic knowledge. All thoughtful men have profited by it and they will forever. It marks a turning point in the whole art of understanding history. Here again, however, the fact that Marx conceived himself to be writing a philosophy of history, an explanation of the whole thing as a single process, and one which was leading up to and with necessity including his proposed plan for the future, led him to state the case in a way that is unacceptable to a modern scientific mind. The fact that men have to eat and shelter and clothe themselves before they do other things, makes the productive forces a primary factor in explaining history, a factor conditioning all others. That is to say that no historic phenomenon can arise and endure which runs counter to the prevailing mode of production. This does not mean, however, that everything which arises and endures is explained by the prevailing mode of production. Again the idea of effective cause is confused with that of indispensable condition. It is confused by Engels in this most simple statement of the theory, and it is confused still more explicitly by Marx in his Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy – the classic passage. “The mode of production,” he says, “conditions the social, political and spiritual life process ... ,” and in the very next sentence, as though but developing the same thought: “It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence, but on the contrary their social existence determines their consciousness.” There can be no doubt here that the limiting condition and the determining cause are being interchanged without discrimination, and if the reader will take my word that this is true throughout the entire Marxian system, he will find Marx infinitely easier to read.

In Capital, for instance – which forms the next section of our engineering presentation – Marx turns to the investigation of our present-day method of production. He does so because this conditions and limits the success of any efforts that social reformers may make to improve our society. They way talk about liberty, equality, fraternity, and so on, but if these aims are inconsistent with the mode of production, all their noble talk will merely expand in the air. Now Marx is, as we have seen, interested in liberty, equality, fraternity – in all that is implied by these abstract slogans, and more too. He is interested in forming a society in which wealth shall be distributed according to need, work demanded according to ability. He sees at a glance that our system of production renders such a dream impossible. Capitalist production involves economic classes and the exploitation of one class by another inherently and eternally. It involves class struggle inherently and eternally. But there is nothing inherently eternal about capitalist production itself. It was a product of change; it evolved out of feudalism; it may not necessarily be the end of that evolution. One need not, therefore, simply abandon one’s plan for a better society as impractical, and fall back upon the sad enterprise of doctoring up in small ways the one we have. One may by further investigation and exercise of ingenuity devise a scheme by which the mode of production can again be changed, and thus new conditions created which will not be inconsistent with the ideal of a classless society. It was this latter step that Marx took, and that made him the intellectual father of the Russian revolution and one of the greatest men in human history. He devised the scheme – or the science, rather, for that is what it has become – of engineering with class forces. He pointed out that by organizing and directing the struggle of the working class against the capitalists and their associates, and by interlinking with this struggle in certain quite possible ways the struggle of the poor peasants and tenant-farmers against the landlords, and carrying it forward to a veritable “dictatorship” of these exploited classes, it would be possible to take possession of the instruments of production and change the system. It would be possible to change it in those ways necessary in order to make reasonable the effort to create a classless society in which men will receive according to need and work according to ability.

Marx saw clearly enough that this manouvre would be possible only in a crisis, only at a moment when the system had broken down so badly that the dominant classes were unable to rule and the exploited classes were driven by suffering to forceful and imperious action – only at a moment of actual or potential civil war. He was therefore concerned to find out whether the capitalist system of production does not inevitably produce crises, any one of which may possibly become severe enough to make such action practical. There is little doubt that he did demonstrate the inevitability under a capitalist system of the recurrent crisis of overproduction, and bound up therewith the inevitability of imperialist wars. His contribution to the understanding of business crises and the causes of war will not often be denied today even by the most “bourgeois” economists. And thus he completed the scientific task set by his apparently utopian aims – the task of finding out how the existing system of wealth production might be changed in such a way as to make these utopian possible of attainment, and reasonable to strive after.

It was not necessary for him as an engineer to prove that this change is inevitable. It was not even necessary to prove that social evolution is tending in that direction. He might, indeed, have believed with Spengler that it is tending in an opposite direction, towards decay and disaster, and that this deliberate and informed action – this new economic engineering science – is the only thing that can save us from the fate of the older civilizations. All he had to prove was that in spite of the limiting conditions his method of action is practical, and the occasions for its application will arise.

That is the sum and substance of Das Kapital as a part of an engineering science. Owing to his philosophical mode of approach, however, his training in the school of Hegel, Marx felt obliged to prove that his whole scheme of salvation is involved with “historic necessity” in the very laws of the capitalist system which “work with iron necessity toward inevitable results.” It was with this sense of his mission that he approached his studies in economics.

“As far as I am concerned,” he wrote to his friend Weydemeyer in 1852, “I cannot claim to have discovered the existence of classes in modern society or their strife against one another. Petty bourgeois historians long ago described the evolution of class struggles, and political economists showed the economic physiology of the classes. I have added as a new contribution the following propositions: 1. That the existence of classes is bound up with certain phases of material production; 2. That the class struggle leads necessarily to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. That this dictatorship is but the transition to the abolition of all classes and to the creation of a society of the free and equal.” Or to put this mode of approach in the youthful words of his friend Engels: “With the same certainty with which from a. given mathematical proposition a new one is deduced, with that same certainty can we deduce the social revolution from the existing social conditions and the principles of political economy.”

Such words reveal the essence of what is unscientific and untrue in the Marxian system – the reading of the desired result into the limiting conditions, the failure to realize the central rôle played in all science by the working hypothesis. Given these conditions, if such and such action is taken, then the conceived result will follow: that is the language of science, and that is as far as the knowledge of man can reach. The attempt of Marx to know more than is possible to know, to prove more than he needed to prove, is what makes his great book, Capital, cumbersome and obscure and something of an affliction even upon the most willing. The abridgment so skillfully effected by Julian Borchardt will reduce these features to a minimum, and if in addition the reader will remember what is the matter while he reads, he may be able to get hold of the gigantic ideas in this book without obscuring his own clear judgment as so many have before him.

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That being accomplished, he will turn with amore willing mind to the third part of Marxism as an engineering science – presentation of the scientific procedure, the mode of action by which it may be possible actually to pass from the conditioning facts toward the proposed goal. Here the famous Communist Manifesto comes into its true place. It contains, to be sure, a good deal of the metaphysic of history. Its very first sentence – “The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggles” shows that disposition to read one’s own interests into the definition of facts, which distinguishes the philosopher from the scientist. “No hitherto existing society has ever been changed fundamentally except by way of a struggle” is all that the authors needed to say. But on the whole the Communist Manifesto, being the program of a conspiratorial league of revolutionists who hoped it might be possible in the approaching revolutionary disturbances in Europe to overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish a communist state, contains little of the phraseology of the dialectic philosopher. Historic necessity and the logic of evolution, are here pretty well forgotten. The universe is dropped out of the picture. The Communist League declares concretely in the language of common sense and of practical science that such and such are their “views” and such their “aims,” and that these aims can be attained only by such and such methods.

In order to make more detailed the method of action which Marx believed in and initiated, and which received so high and developed at the hands of Lenin and Trotsky and their followers in Russia, I have added a letter of instructions written to the Communist League by Marx from London in 1850. At that time he believed that the revolutionary crisis was still present, and he confidently expected another militant action of the proletariat led by the League. This letter has never before appeared in English, and yet it will perhaps more than anything else written by Marx convey a full sense of the degree in which he was the author and creator of all the essential outlines of what we call “Bolshevism.” And finally, to give the reader a sense of Marxism as an attitude of feeling as well as of judgment, I have included another address written by Marx to his followers after the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871 – the first occasion in history, and the only one in Marx’s life, when an organization of the revolutionary working-class did actually seize the power. In the introduction, written by Engels, will be found again that concept of a dictatorship of the proletariat which has become the battle-cry of organized millions since the victory of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

It is hardly necessary to say that the man who foresaw these struggles, discovered their basis in the technique of wealth production, and also laid down the methods of organization and action, and exemplified the emotional attitude, which have led them to victory over one-sixth of the habitable earth, is one of the most significant minds of our race. I hope that this volume will do something toward making that mind more directly accessible to intelligent Americans than it could ever be when presented with any reverence for its Hegelian-metaphysical inheritance and mode of dress.

Max Eastman.

New York,
June, 1932.


1. Marx and Lenin, the Science of Revolution (1926).