Ernest Mandel

The Place of Marxism in History

VIII. The reception and diffusion of Marxism throughout the world

The explanation of the origins, content and development of Marxism must necessarily conclude with an analysis of its diffusion and real influence in the world. On the long run, ideas and overall bodies of ideas, that is doctrines, are worth what their impact on real history is worth. Ideas that never influence anything or anyone are necessarily marginal, even in the spiritual history of humanity, not to mention, of course, its material history. “Theory becomes a material force when it takes hold of the masses,” the young Marx had already said.

The question of the time lag must of coarse be eliminated from this line of reasoning. Ideas that influence the world more and more some fifty or one hundred years after they were first formulated, are obviously more important than ideas that achieve an immediate impact but gradually decline thereafter, to the point of disappearing from the political scene.

The decisive criterion is whether their social impact is reflected in material reality, sooner or later, on a broad, growing and – when dealing with the ideas that purport to strengthen the workers movement, socialism and the universal cause of human emancipation – on a world-wide scale, as befits the world-wide nature of the “social question,” the exploitation of the wage slaves, the oppression of the proletariat and all other oppressed human groups around the world: women, nationalities and oppressed races, etc.

Finally, the particular characteristics of the proletariat, its position of economic and ideological subordination within bourgeois society, a subordination that is not overcome by its growing organisation, combatively and social weight, entail that the specific (and sometimes deformed) version in which Marxism is transmitted to the large working class organisations and popular masses at a given historical stage, leaves a definite imprint on the evolution of class consciousness. The latter combines with the former in a sense, positively or negatively depending on the circumstances. But this articulation cannot in turn be detached from the real march forward of the proletariat’s organisation and struggle, that is the real march forward of history.

The reception and diffusion of Marxism throughout the world must therefore be examined on several successive levels:

  1. the narrow level of the diffusion of the writings of Marx and Engels;
  2. the level of the influence of its ideas outside the workers movement properly speaking, that is in intellectual and academic milieus, and more generally in “the spirit of the time” (the dominant ideologies of the successive phases through which bourgeois society has passed;
  3. inside the organised workers movement;
  4. inside the broad working class;
  5. at the international level.

The circulation of the various writings of Marx and Engels was very uneven and marked by fits and starts. Some of their writings had a relatively rapid and broad impact, chief among them, the Communist Manifesto, which was translated into a large number of languages, and distributed in tens and then hundreds of thousands of copies (although even in this case, one had to wait for the 1920s and 1930s for its diffusion to become truly universal and be counted in the millions). Volume One of Capital also experienced a relatively rapid diffusion in a large number of languages, although on a smaller scale than the Communist Manifesto, usually a few thousand, not tens of thousands, copies in each language. The diffusion of almost all their other works, save for Engels’s Anti-Düring, was far more uneven and limited.

In this regard, one should note that some of the major works of Marx and Engels were only published for the first time after a considerable delay, even in their original language, German. The Critique of the Gotha Program, Volumes Two and Three of Capital were only released in print twenty years after they were written; the German Ideology and the Grundrisse, some eighty years after they were written. This meant that three successive generations of Marxists did not have access to an adequate overall view of the doctrine of Marx and Engels, often only through sheer lack of information and data.

We should note that some manuscripts of Marx still have not been published to this day. The last of his major economic works was only published in 1983.

By the same token, works by popularisers of Marxism have generally had a far broader impact than the writings of the great masters themselves. In this respect, a special mention should go to the brochures of Karl Kautsky, above all The Economic Doctrine of Karl Marx and the Erfurt Program (of the SPD), hundreds of thousands of copies of which were printed in many languages. Other popularisation authors had a similar impact on a narrower scale, that is in one or a few languages. Among these were Bebel in German, Jules Guesde and Lafargue in French, Labriola in Italian, Iglesias in Spanish, Herman Gorter in Dutch, Plekhanov in Russian, De Leon and Debs in the United States. Their writings were far more widely read by the first generations of Socialists than the works of Marx and Engels themselves.

The reception of Marxism in the academic and intellectual circles was even slower and more irregular. This should not surprise us. The reluctance of the bourgeoisie and upper layers of the petty-bourgeoisie to take Marxism seriously on the intellectual plane was commensurate with the intransigent opposition of Marx and the Marxists against not only the material interests of bourgeois society, but also against its most cherished “values.” The very fact that Marxist ideas were gaining greater influence among the masses was an additional argument for keeping them out of the educational system, the universities, the “official” textbooks. Save for a few rare exceptions – such as the Austrian economist Böhm-Bawerk, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce and the leader of the Czech bourgeoisie Thomas Masaryk – the appointed representatives of bourgeois ideology did not deign to polemicise against Marxism with a minimum of theoretical seriousness. This situation only changed towards the end of World War One, with the victory of the Russian revolution, the upsurge of the European labour movement from 1918 to 1923, the spread of communism in China and, a bit later, the economic crisis of the 1930s. Marxism progressively penetrated the academic world, first in Central Europe and China, India and Japan, then in the Anglo-American sphere. In France and Latin America, it only made a major breakthrough in intellectual milieus after World War Two.

During the entire period of 1875 to 1900, polemics about Marxism were essentially confined to polemics inside the Socialist movement, under the stimulus of debates, attempted revisions and successive schisms, chief among which was the revision undertaken by one of Engels’s main intellectual collaborators and executors, Eduard Bernstein.

All in all though, Marxism had a growing, albeit sometimes indirect, influence on the academic social sciences, mainly historiography and sociology, by introducing an increasing awareness of the importance of the “economic factor” and of social groups (as opposed to “great men”) in history. Thus, it refashioned the very concept of history, from a history of states and essentially political and military events, to a history of societies.

Marxism’s impact on “official” economics was more belated. It affected mainly the field of the theory of economic fluctuations (business cycles), then that of large aggregates (macro-economic theory), especially from the 1930s, then the fields of planning and the analysis of imperialism and under-development, and finally that of the analysis of post-capitalist societies.

The influence of Marxism inside the organised workers movement only developed in a decisive way with the creation of the large mass social-democratic parties in the years from 1885 to 1900 (in Germany: 1875 to 1900). It never achieved more than marginal influence in the mass trade unions of the Anglo-American cultural sphere. The same is basically true of the Labour Parties which emerged successively from these mass trade unions in Australia, Britain, New Zealand and most recently, English Canada.

The social-democratic parties that eventually came together to create the Second International (through two rival congresses in Paris in 1889, a second united congress in Brussels in 1891, and a third, equally united, congress in Zurich in 1893) generally adopted the fundamental theses of Marxism in their programmes or professions of principle. Most were modelled on the Erfurt Program drafted by Kautsky with the close collaboration of Engels himself.

Undeniably, this was a rather summary version of Marxism, boiled down to a few central ideas: the class struggle; the socialist goal of that struggle, through collective ownership of the major means of production and exchange; the conquest of political power to achieve that goal; international solidarity of the workers. But compared to the ideology of the first organisations of the working class, whether trade unions, co-operatives or political organisations, the doctrine that was thus popularised constituted a quite coherent whole that represented an enormous advance, especially since it was able to influence broad masses, contrary go the first communist sects and leagues.

Its main weakness lay in its narrow determinism, verging on fatalism, that saw the supersession of capitalism by socialism in a more or less inevitable fashion, under the combined impact of economic evolution and Socialist organisation (of the workers), but failed to stress the political initiative and conscious action of the party. This often implied downplaying, even disparaging, direct mass action, not to mention revolutionary action and the destruction of the bourgeois state (“Generalstreik ist Generalunsinn”: general strike is general nonsense, the leaders of the German trade unions used to say.)

Only after the Russian revolution of 1905 did a broad international current, embodied essentially by Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian Socialists Lenin and Trotsky, reclaim and revive the Marxist tradition of direct mass action and revolutionary initiative of the party. During the thirty previous years, that tradition had been marginalised inside social-democracy – except, partially, in Belgium – and confined to Anarcho-Syndicalist and Revolutionary Syndicalist circles (Spain, Britain, Argentina, partially the United States, Italy and France).

Sometimes though, there was a more direct interaction between the organisational, electoral and trade-union expansion of international social-democracy in the quarter century that stretched from 1875 to 1900, and the actual spread of Marx’s ideas and works. A special case deserves mention in this respect: that of Finland. This small country under the boot of Tsarism succeeded in the span of one decade, between 1899 and 1911 in creating one of the most powerful and combative workers movements of the world. The rapid ascent of this party was to lead in 1917-1918 to the deepest and most tenacious proletarian (but also most repressed) revolution outside Russia. In the parliamentary elections of 1913, the Finnish Socialists obtained 43% of the vote, the highest figure in Europe, more than the German social-democracy. They then extracted from the Diet a decision to publish Volume One of Marx’s Capital, at Parliament’s expense!

The penetration of Marxist ideas and doctrine among the broad working masses during the epoch of the Second International has generally been exaggerated by historians, including those of the labour movement. In fact, the masses of workers formed their political and trade union beliefs through the filter of two experiences: their day-to-day struggles for immediate demands (economic goals and universal suffrage, in a few countries national-democratic demands were added to this set); and the regular education dispensed by the Socialist press and Socialist rallies. There already was a big gap between Marxism as a coherent doctrine and the summary Marxism of social-democratic programmes. From these programmes to the practice, to the day-to-day experience and education of the workers, the distance was even greater.

Systematic political education of workers was conducted on an extremely small scale. Marxist theoretical reviews, including the most prestigious, the Neue Zeit, only succeeded in reaching a few thousand subscribers (10,000 in the case of the Neue Zeit). The central schools of the parties, including that of the SPD, which had one million members, did not bring together more students than the present school of the Fourth International.

This limited penetration of Marxism among the masses can be illustrated by an example. In Milan, the fortress of Italian socialism, public libraries loaned 264,000 books in 1910. Forty-four percent of the loans were to workers, and 32% to students. The names of Marx and Engels do not appear once among the authors of books loaned out!

What Marxism brought to the masses, beyond strong political organisations and the general understanding of the need to combine trade union action with class independence and political action – including international action – was a general feeling of marching “with history”: the feeling that capitalism was doomed and that socialism must succeed it.

About the manner in which the transition from the former to the latter would take place, there were few precise ideas and even little substantive debate. Serious discussion was basically confined to the spheres of the most active political activists, and even to the upper spheres of the party. It concerned thousands of individuals whereas the Socialist movement numbered in millions. It only penetrated deeper into the masses towards the end of the 1914-1918 world war, that is when it was posed in practice under the combined impact of the war and the great proletarian revolutions that emerged from it: the Russian, Finnish, German, Austrian, Hungarian revolutions, as well as the revolutionary crisis in Italy.

Nevertheless, Marxist doctrine had a deep effect on the masses, sometimes through indirect and unforeseen mediations that should not be underestimated. An example of this sort of progression is the struggle for the shortening of the working day to eight hours.

Marx was the great propagandist and the great educator of the international workers movement on the emancipatory value and importance of the shortening of the workday. The idea of an international action by male and female workers for a class goal common to the proletarians of all countries, is also clearly an idea of Marxist origin. But in practice, the decision to turn May Day in all countries into an international day of strike for the eight-hour day, only became widely accepted after five Anarchist leaders in Chicago, the Haymarket martyrs, were accused of having thrown a bomb at the police, condemned to death and executed in 1886. This tragedy was needed to inflame the imagination and sensitivity of the workers on a mass scale. It was the event which triggered a powerful, and, in the long run irresistible movement (the eight-hour day was eventually won in almost all industrialised countries); the spark of Marxist thought and propaganda alone proved inadequate for that job.

A certain confusion developed among the masses around the end of the 19th century, as the revolutionary content of Marx’s and Engels’s doctrine was undermined from within social-democracy by Bernstein’s revisionism and the ministerial collaboration advocated and then practised by Millerand in France and Bissolati in Italy. The confusion was particularly grave because this revisionism, although rejected on the plane of ideas by most well-known social-democratic leaders identified with Marxism, actually increasingly corresponded to their day-to-day practice. This was particularly true of Anseele and Vandervelde in Belgium, Troelstra in the Netherlands, Branting in Sweden, Stauning in Denmark, Greulich in Switzerland, Palacios and Justo in Argentina, and, to a large extent, Victor Adler in Austria. Only Bebel in Germany, Guesde in France, and Sen Katayama in Japan, were intransigently consistent in their opposition to the revisionist practice and theory spreading during this period. But Bebel’s and Guesde’s intransigence crumbled in the years that followed the Russian revolution of 1905, around 1910. (Guesde became a minister in the so-called “Sacred Union” bourgeois coalition government of 1914). Only Katayama remained an intransigent Marxist.

While it is true that Marxist theory was not widely disseminated among the masses in its original and integral version, another myth also needs to be refuted, namely the claim that even the few key ideas of Marxism incorporated into their programme and propagated by the first mass social-democratic parties, did not really influence the consciousness of the masses. This claim is particularly wrong with respect to internationalism. There were in fact impressive practical demonstrations of proletarian internationalism in the heyday of the Second International. It was precisely because that practice had existed that the betrayal of August 1914 appeared so disorienting to the broad masses, and monstrous to the Socialist left.

Shortly after the outbreak of war between Russia and Japan in 1904, the Socialist leaders of these two countries, Plekhanov and Sen Katayama embraced at the Congress of the International in Amsterdam, and proclaimed their shared opposition to the war and to the ruling classes of their respective countries who had provoked it. When the Russian revolution of 1905 broke out, it elicited a powerful movement of international solidarity. In fact, it triggered a radicalisation of the workers struggles in several countries, notably a general strike for universal suffrage in Austria. When the Swedish bourgeoisie tried to stop the movement for Norwegian independence by a military intervention in 1906, the congress of the Swedish social-democratic party decided to oppose the war by all means, including a general strike, and organised a gigantic demonstration in Stockholm that forced the government to back off.

In 1913, the Italian Socialist Party despite a chauvinistic campaign supported by one third of its own parliamentary caucus, organised a general strike against Italy’s colonialist expedition to Tripoli (Libya).

At that point, Marxist education, the deepening and enrichment of Marxism, its application to the new analytic and strategic problems posed by the onset of the era of imperialism, were pursued mainly by the Socialist left. This left developed mainly inside the Social- Democratic Parties themselves until 1914 (1917 and even 1920), although in several countries it led to splits even before World War One: Russia, Poland, the Netherlands, Bulgaria. Elsewhere, Revolutionary Syndicalist currents developed certain aspects of Marxism outside the Socialist Parties. This Marxist left was to lead up to the creation of the Third International following the great revolutions of 1917 to 1919.

The most striking phenomenon of this entire period of growth of mass political parties influenced by Marxism, was the world-wide extension of its influence, touching successively Western and Central Europe, then the United States, Southern and Eastern Europe (Russia, the Balkans), Asia (Armenia, Georgia, Iran. Japan, China, India, Indonesia), Latin America (Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Chile), Australasia (Australia, New Zealand) and Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa).

By rebound, but with some delay, the specific problematic of the colonial and semi-colonial countries was progressively integrated into Marxist analysis and practice, particularly after the Russian, Iranian and Chinese revolutions of 1905 to 1912. It should be noted that this process basically did not take hold during the Mexican revolution of 1910 to 1917, the last great contemporary revolution in which no clearly Marxist current emerged.

At the end of the third congress of the Socialist International held in Zurich, on August 12, 1893, Friedrich Engels, who was seated in the hall as a simple delegate, was carried to the podium by an immense ovation. Moved by the gesture, the old militant regretted that Karl Marx, his companion of so many struggles, had not witnessed this upsurge of the organised labour movement world-wide. He then expressed his unshakeable confidence in “the new, stronger, invincible international.” Glancing back over the fifty-two years of his political life, looking at the cities of Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London, he proclaimed that “Marx and himself had not struggled in vain, that they could look back on their work with pride and satisfaction.” He concluded: “There is not a single country, not a single great state where social-democracy is not now a power that all must heed. We are, we too, ‘a great power’ that is feared. The future depends far more on it and on us, than on any one of the bourgeois ‘great powers’!”


Last updated on 22.7.2004