Marxism was a product of its time. But it was neither a spontaneous nor an automatic one. For the transformation of the social sciences, the evolution of utopian socialism towards scientific socialism, the supersession of petty-bourgeois and pre-proletarian practices and organisations by proletarian revolutionary organisations, and the consolidation of working class political independence in mass workers parties actually to take place, at the time when they did, the role of two individuals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was decisive.
Of course, they were able to play this role because “history needed them,” that is because their activity corresponded to a need felt by many people (mainly proletarians, but also other socialists/communists of their time). The existence of a demand for their work is confirmed by the fact that other people attempted to advance in the same direction. Attempts at syntheses of that sort were in the air at the time. Nevertheless, the precise manner in which these syntheses and supersessions were effected, their exact content and dynamics, were shaped to a large extent by the distinctive personality of the two founders of Marxism. As in most cases, “historical necessity” was filtered through specific personalities who could not alter its fundamental course, but could, to a point, impart their individual imprint and characteristics to it.
Neither Marx nor Engels were proletarians. The former was the son of a well-to-do petty-bourgeois family. He was born in 1818: his father was an influential liberal lawyer in the Rhineland city of Trier who, although descended from an old family of rabbis, had converted to Christianity for reasons of personal convenience rather than conviction. Through his mother and through his wife, Jennie von Westfalen, Marx was connected to the big bourgeoisie rather than to the toiling classes. Manifestly, his evolution towards communism was not determined by his own immediate experience, or by his own deprived living conditions (his years of deprivation came after he threw in his lot with the struggle of the nascent proletariat, mainly during his second exile in London, in the 1850s and 1860s; his material situation improved in the 1870s). It was essentially the result of his intellectual labour and moral impulses.
The same applies to Friedrich Engels with even greater force. He was born in 1820 into a bourgeois family of textile industrialists based in Barmen, in the Ruhr. He spent the greater part of his life as the manager of a textile mill that his family owned in England. He lived comfortably and left a sizeable estate when he died in 1895. For him too, the journey towards communism was essentially motivated by intellectual and moral considerations.
But the evolution and progressively greater social awareness of the two thinkers was not the result of an intellectual effort detached from the real conflicts unfolding around them. Not only their scientific, but also their moral motivation sprang precisely from such encounters with social situations – of workers’ poverty, workers’ revolts, political struggles – that occurred before their very eyes and influenced them profoundly. It is obviously also the result of a commitment, the resolve not to behave in a purely interpretative and therefore quietist and passive fashion in the face of human misery in general, and the “social question” in particular. Marx and Engels quickly decided to act, to bring their activity into line with their beliefs, to tend towards that unity of theory and practice that became at once an epistemological criterion (in the last analysis, only practice can verify the truthfulness of a theory) and a moral obligation.
In fact, their commitment to and involvement in the labour movement became the precondition for their ability to complete their most important contribution to history: the progressive fusion of the real emancipation movement of the workers with the main advances of scientific socialism.
Indeed, the individual journeys of Marx and Engels revolved around a series of encounters and involvements in situations and conflicts that periodically oriented and reoriented them. Together with the results of their critical scientific analyses – that is, the critical examination of the findings of the main social sciences of their time – these encounters determined the theoretical and political positions they defended as well as their subsequent evolution, from neo-Hegelianism to petty-bourgeois political radicalism, from petty-bourgeois democracy to socialism/communism, and from rudimentary communism to the scientific and revolutionary socialism/communism of their mature years.
While most of these encounters were fruitful and even exciting for the two founders of Marxism, while they enabled them to test and refine many of their political concepts and theoretical hypotheses, the truth is that on many occasions this progression took place through conflicts of ideas and persons in which the two became involved, often reluctantly. This “factional” aspect of the activities of Marx and Engels has often been denounced as a reflection of their personal defects, their alleged “authoritarianism” or even their “intellectual terrorism.”
In reality, all history confirms that ideas and organisations can only advance through the clash of ideas and groupings that differentiate when faced with new events and problems. Believing that this process could take place in any other way would be tantamount to believing either that the individuals and social interests involved were completely undiversified, or, alternately, that some of these individuals were infallible, and their infallibility self-evident to all others. Discarding these two absurd hypotheses, it is obvious that tendency and group struggles are inevitable in politics in general, and in workers’ politics in particular.
The successive conflicts and breaks which had the greatest impact on the intellectual evolution of Marx and Engels were, in chronological order:
The chronology of these conflicts seems to be a chronology of the main works of Marx and Engels. Only their political writings (such as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Class Struggles in France, Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany), their journalistic writings and The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, as well as Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, are missing from this list.
Except for one trip by Engels to the United States towards the end of his life, the actual experience of the two founders of Marxism was purely European. Their thought was deeply affected by Europe’s distinctive social and intellectual history. As a result, they have often been reproached with “Euro-centrism,” and even German particularism. These reproaches have no basis in reality.
Marxism is, of course, a product of the maturation of the contradictions of bourgeois society which undeniably appeared first in Europe. In this sense, it could not be developed in Asia, the Americas or Africa which experienced only a rudimentary form of capitalist development during most of the 19th century.
But although Marxism was born in Europe, it had from the outset an international, and even worldwide, dimension which made it dependent on everything that happened on other continents. The violent disruptive, destructive and inhuman impact of capitalism on pre-capitalist societies in the Americas, Asia and Africa was far worse than its impact on pre-capitalist society in Western, Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. Marx and Engels were too rigorous scientists and too passionate humanists not to notice this, to be indignant about it and to revolt against these abominable crimes.
As a result, the perception of the “Third World”, of its degradation and inevitable revolt, was quickly integrated into their writings, after occupying only a small place in the writings of their youth. It is enough to recall their resolute support for the Indian Sepoys and the Chinese Tai-pings, and for the emancipation of the American slaves, to reject the accusation of Euro-centrism. In the same vein, they branded the joint French, Spanish and British expedition against Mexico as “one the most monstrous undertaking in the annals of international history” (23/11/1861, MEW, Vol. 15, p. 366). Their steadily more advanced investigation of the “Asian mode of production”, of ethnology, of the particularities of non-European civilisations and societies, of the Russian village community (mir), occupied a growing place in the intellectual work of Marx and Engels in the last two decades of their life, and left a more and more marked imprint on their writings – including Capital.
At the same time, the international sources and resolutely internationalist activities of the two friends justify the rejection of the accusation of German nationalism levelled against them as straightforward slander. On the plane of ideas, the sources of Marxism are to be found in France and Britain as much as in Germany. On the plane of practice, the experiences and activities through which it participated in the political life of its time were located in France, Belgium, England and the countries of the Austro-Hungarian empire as much as in Germany. They also concerned Poland, Ireland, Hungary, Spain, Switzerland and even the United States and Russia. As for their organisation, it was, from the start not purely German, but international. This was already true of the Communist League. It was also true of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA). And it would be even truer of international social-democracy after 1885, leading up to the creation of the Second International. In the countries where their supporters were beginning to organise, Marx and Engels urged them to study the concrete social formation of their country, to incorporate the local traditions of struggle and to translate their programme into the language of the existing workers and radical organisations; this was the general message of their Letters to Americans, written from 1848 to 1885.
One of the greatest successes of their political life, and a source of genuine and legitimate pride for them, was the stand taken by their German comrades, Bebel and Liebknecht, when they opposed Germany’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871 and the first peace of Versailles. Their attitude was the same, some time before, when the IWA, British trade unions in the lead, opposed the pro-Confederate policy of the British government during the Civil War in the United States. To bring the working class of each country to develop its own foreign policy, based on its own class interests and a few great principles that flowed from them (“no people can be free as long as it oppresses another”), that was the constant ambition of their political life. It was exactly the opposite of nationalism, let alone German nationalism.
Marx and Engels were undeniably the product of their epoch. They could not completely rise above all the subjective limitations determined by the still excessively fragmentary experiences of proletarian and human emancipation. They were not infallible. They could not understand everything, explain everything, predict everything, even though they undeniably understood, explained and predicted what was essential. They had their failings.
Engels was mistaken when he called the small Slav nationalities in 1848-1849 “peoples without history,” incapable of constituting states or even truly independent nations. History proved him wrong in this respect. Marx was wrong when he applauded the annexation of California and other Mexican territories by the United States in 1845, and characterised the Mexicans as “lazy” and incapable of exploiting the natural wealth of these territories. He repeated a racist prejudice in doing so.
In both cases, a judicious application of historical materialism would have made it possible to explain the specific behaviour of different actors in the 1845-1855 period, with very different conclusions from those reached by Marx and Engels. It would have made it possible to explain the second Mexican revolution (the Reforma) led mainly by Benito Juarez, a revolution which followed the war between Mexico and the United States to which Marx alluded. It would have made it possible to explain the birth of an anti-Tsarist and democratic Czech and Serbo-Croatian left that was at once fiercely nationalist and socialist, an outcome deemed impossible by Engels. In both cases, Marx and Engels were insufficiently Marxist. They should have used class criteria to interpret seemingly confusing political phenomena, such as the sudden turnaround of the Czech and Serbo-Croatian peasantry and intelligentsia during the revolution of 1848, and the apparent passivity of the Mexican peasantry before the Yankee conquest.
Similarly, while they developed an acute awareness of the dual oppression of women in class society, and extended the analysis of the origins of that oppression to the very beginning of that society, Marx and Engels were not able to encompass all the necessary aspects of women’s emancipation that progressively emerged in the 20th century.
Even with these qualifications, the overall balance sheet of the two friends’ theoretical and practical activity is more than impressive. Their personal contribution to the progress of the social sciences and to proletarian and human emancipation places them at the summit of human achievement. Without them, the history of the 19th and 20th centuries would not have been what it was.
Last updated on 22.7.2004