Ernest Mandel

The Place of Marxism in History

II. The fundamental characteristics of Marxism

Marxism emerged at once as a revolutionary transformation and a progressive unification of:

In each of these fields, Marx and Engels started from what already existed, fully assimilating and then submitting to critical examination the advances accumulated before them. They thereby radically transformed those advances, all the while preserving everything they considered fundamentally valid.

In the field of social science, their critical appropriation concerned mainly classical German philosophy, English political economy and French sociological historiography, which had discovered and applied the concepts of social class and class struggle.

In the field of the social emancipation movement, Marx and Engels picked up the continuity of revolutionary action and revolutionary organisation developed by Babouvism and Blanquism, while combining them with the lessons drawn by the first German revolutionary organisations, which they knew, lessons which motivated the creation of the Communist League, which they joined. They integrated the radical democratic demands of organisations fighting absolutism and trying to establish democratic republics in Italy, Ireland, Spain, or to abolish slavery in the United States, Brazil and European colonies. They also strove to integrate the lessons drawn from the first experience of a mass workers’ party, the Chartist party of Britain.

In the field of socialist thought and organisation (which was predominantly non-revolutionary and even non-political), they attempted to introduce a scientific analysis of bourgeois society, of its tendencies, dynamics and future, and of the contradictions that would lead to its decline and fall. They applied this method notably to the analysis of women’s oppression initiated by feminist utopian socialists. This effort was summed up as the attempt to transform essentially utopian socialism into scientific socialism. At the same time, Marx and Engels tried to base socialist thought and organisation on the necessity of political action, that is to fuse them with revolutionary organisation and action.

Finally, Marx and Engels attempted to introduce into the elementary self-organisation movement of the working class above all the programme (the principles) of scientific socialism, of communism, which meant emphasising both the socialist goal as well as the immediate needs, and revolutionary political action as well as economic (trade-union, mutual aid) and educational action.

Marxism thus emerged as a quadruple synthesis:

These syntheses have not been finalised once and for all. They are not dogmas and do not spring from any a priori and axiomatic bias other than the recognition that human beings are the ultimate goal of human beings, the only measure of all human action. They are therefore always subject to new tests of practice. They must be re-examined constantly in the light of new experiences and also of new data on the past, much of which is still not known to us.

Conversely, much of this quadruple synthesis is already based on an enormous body of knowledge derived from many experiences and profuse empirical data, and can therefore not be challenged light-mindedly on the basis of new partial and conjunctural data, that is in an essentially impressionistic fashion. Moreover, such a challenge ought itself be criticised and subject to revision in light of subsequent events, if these confirm the initial thesis.

More generally, these syntheses are based on an overall view of bourgeois society and human history in its successive modes of production, that is on the capacity to lay bare the laws of development of a given society considered in its totality. Any fragmentary approach that would try and “do without” this overall view, should be treated with the utmost caution. It almost always and inevitably leads to false analyses and forecasts that are not borne out by the facts.

Moreover, these syntheses always imply a critical appropriation of the data produced by the most advanced academic and scientific research combined with a critical analysis of the emancipation movement, including its various attempts to build revolutionary organisations, its various attempted solutions of “the social question” and the elementary self-organisation and self-emancipation efforts of the working class. This critical appropriation continually moves back and forth between retrieval and innovation, in dialectical fashion.

In the Marxist approach, given the method of apprehending reality (that is social evolution) adopted by Marx and Engels, this pendulum motion is unavoidable. Marxism does not believe in innate knowledge let alone intuition. Nor does it behave one-sidedly as the “educator” of the proletariat, or the “judge” of the historical movement (the various ups and downs of the class struggle). It constantly learns from perpetually changing reality. It understands that the educators themselves need to be educated, that only a collective revolutionary praxis, rooted on the one hand in scientific praxis, and on the other in the real praxis of the proletariat, can produce this self-education of the revolutionaries and all toiling humanity.


Last updated on 22.7.2004