Franz Mehring

Karl Marx:
The Story of His Life

Chapter Five: Exile in Brussels


1. The German Ideology

DRIVEN out Of France, Marx went with his family to Brussels. Engels feared that in the end the authorities would make trouble for him in Belgium also and in fact the trouble came immediately.

In a letter to Heine, Marx writes that immediately after his arrival in Brussels he was summoned to the Administration de la Surete Publique to sign an undertaking not to print anything concerning current Belgian politics. He agreed to this with an easy conscience for he had neither the intention nor the possibility of doing anything of the kind, but as the Prussian government continued to importune the Belgian authorities with demands for his expulsion Marx formally abandoned Prussian citizenship in the same year, on the 1st of December, 1845.

Neither at that time nor at any subsequent period did he seek citizenship in any other country, although in the spring of 1848 the provisional government of the French Republic offered him French citizenship in a fashion which did him all honour. Like Heine, Marx was unable to make up his mind to such a course, though Freiligrath, who was so often played off against them as a German to the core and the brilliant antithesis of the two “vagabonds without a Fatherland,” saw no objection at all to taking out naturalization papers during his exile in England.

In the spring of 1845, Engels arrived in Brussels and the two friends then went together to England for the purposes of study and stayed there for six weeks. Whilst he was in Paris Marx had begun to occupy himself with MacCulloch and Ricardo, and during this visit to England he was able to take a deeper look into the economic literature of the island kingdom, although for the moment he saw “only those books obtainable in Manchester” and the extracts and writings in Engels’ possession. During his first stay in England Engels had contributed to The New Moral World, the organ of Owen, and to The Northern Star, the organ of the Chartists, and he now renewed old friendships and together the two friends established many new contacts with the Chartists and socialists.

When they returned from this journey they began a new joint work. “We decided,” as Marx observed laconically later, “to work out our own standpoint together as against the opinions and the ideology of German philosophy, in fact, to settle accounts with our former philosophic conscience. We did this in the form of a criticism of post-Hegelian philosophy. The manuscript, two big octave volumes, was already in the hands of a Westphalian publisher when we were informed that altered circumstances rendered publication impossible, whereupon we abandoned our manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice. We did so with little regret because our main object had been achieved – we had come to an understanding with ourselves. As a matter of fact, the mice really did get at the manuscript, but its remnants are sufficient to explain to us why its authors were not all too depressed at the misfortune.

Their thorough, even all too thorough, settlement of accounts with Bruno Bauer proved a hard nut for their readers to crack, and the two big volumes, comprising together about 800 pages, would have been a still harder one. The title of the work was The German Ideology, a Criticism of Recent German Philosophy and its Representatives Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Stirner, and a Criticism of German Socialism and Its Various Prophets. Speaking from memory Engels declared later that the criticism of Stirner was no less voluminous than Stirner’s own book, and the examples which have since been published indicate that Engels’ memory was thoroughly reliable. The work is a still more discursive super-polemic than The Holy Family even in its most arid chapters, and the oases in the desert are still more rare, though they are by no means entirely absent, whilst even when dialectical trenchancy does show itself it soon degenerates into hair-splitting and quibbling, some of it of a rather puerile character.

It is true that our taste in these matters is more fastidious to-day, but that alone is not sufficient explanation, particularly as both Marx and Engels had shown before and have shown since, and showed even at the same time, that they were capable of epigrammatically trenchant criticism and that their style suffered little from prolixity. The decisive factor was that these intellectual struggles took place in a very small circle and most of the combatants were very young. It was the same phenomenon that literary history has observed in Shakespeare and his dramatic contemporaries, a tendency to ride a turn of speech to the death, to give the statements of their opponents as foolish a meaning as possible by literal interpretation or misrepresentation, a tendency to exaggeration and recklessness of expression – all that was not meant for the general public but for the esoteric understanding of the fellow expert. Much that is indigestible or even ununderstandable in Shakespeare’s humour to-day can be explained by the fact that, consciously or unconsciously, he was influenced in his work by considerations of what Greene and Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher would think about it.

Something of the sort is probably the explanation of the tone which Marx and Engels consciously or unconsciously adopted when dealing with Bauer and Stirner and other of their old companions in the art of purely intellectual gymnastics. What they had to say about Feuerbach would have been much more interesting because it would have been something more than purely negative criticism, but unfortunately this part of the work was never completed. Fairly clear indications of their attitude are given in one or two aphorisms about Feuerbach jotted down by Marx in 1845 and published a few decades later by Engels. Marx complained chiefly that Feuerbach’s materialism lacked an “energizing principle,” just as he had complained in the same way in his student days about Democritus. This, he declared, was “the chief weakness of all previous materialism,” the appreciation of the thing, the reality, the sensuality, only in the form of the object or the idea, and not subjectively, not in practice, not in human sensuous activity. In consequence the active side had been developed by idealism as against materialism, but abstractly only, for naturally idealism knew no real sensuous activity. In other words, when Feuerbach abandoned the whole of Hegel he had abandoned too much. It was, in fact, necessary to transfer Hegel’s revolutionizing dialectics from the realm of thought to the realm of reality.

Whilst still in Barmen Engels had written audaciously to Feuerbach in order to win him for communism and the latter had answered in a friendly tone, but, for the moment at least, in the negative. Feuerbach expected to go to the Rhineland in the summer and Engels was planning “to drum it in to him” that he must go on to Brussels. In the meantime he sent Hermann Kriege, a pupil of Feuerbach, to Marx, describing him as “a splendid agitator.”

However, Feuerbach did not go to the Rhineland and his subsequent works showed that it was too late for him to discard his “old shell.” His pupil Kriege also failed to come up to the mark. He did carry communist propaganda over the Atlantic, but he caused irreparable mischief in New York and it reacted ruinously on the communist colony which Marx had begun to gather around him in Brussels.



2. “True Socialism”

The second part of the work which Marx and Engels had planned was to deal with German socialism and its various prophets and to dissolve critically “the whole Bat and stale literature of German socialism.”

This attack was launched against men like Moses Hess, Karl Grun, Otto Lüning, Mermann Püttmann and others, who had created quite a respectable literature particularly in periodicals. There was the Gesellschaftsspiegel, which appeared monthly from the summer of 1845 to the summer of 1846, the Rheinische Jahrbücher and the Deutsches Burgerbuch, which both appeared in 1845 and 1846, the Westfälisches Dampfboot, a monthly which first appeared in 1845 and which lasted into the German revolution, and finally one or two dailies such as the Triersche Zeitung.

The extraordinary phenomenon which Karl Grün once termed “True Socialism,” an expression which Marx and Engels adopted ironically, had a short life. By 1848 practically nothing was left of it and what remained disappeared immediately the first shot of the revolution was fired. It exercised no effect whatever on the intellectual development of Marx, who was its masterful critic from the beginning, but the harsh verdict he passes on it in The Communist Manifesto does not sum up his whole attitude towards it, and for a time he regarded it as a mixture which for all its absurdities might produce something worth while, and Engels was even more firmly of this opinion.

Engels co-operated with Moses Hess in the publication of the Gesellschaftsspiegel and even Marx made one contribution to it. Both Marx and Engels co-operated with Hess on numerous occasions during the Brussels period, and at one time it appeared as though Hess had completely adopted their ideas. Marx repeatedly tried to persuade Heine to contribute to the Rheinische Jahrbücher, whilst this publication and the Deutsches Bürgerbuch, both of which were issued by Püttmann, printed contributions from Engels. Both Marx and Engels contributed to the Westfälisches Dampfboot and this organ published the only part of the second section of The German Ideology which has yet seen the light of day. It was a thorough and sharp criticism of a book which Karl Grün had published on the social movement in France and Belgium. The fact that “True Socialism” also developed out of the dissolution of Hegelian philosophy has led to the contention that in the beginning Marx and Engels were its adherents and that for this reason they criticized it all the more sharply later, but this was not true. The difference between Marx and Engels and the supporters of “True Socialism” was that although both sides had arrived at socialism from Hegel and Feuerbach, Marx and Engels had studied the character of socialism from the French Revolution and from English industry, whilst the supporters of “True Socialism” had contented themselves with translating socialist formulas and slogans into “corrupt Hegelian German.” Marx and Engels did their best to raise “True Socialism” above this level and at the same time they were fair enough to recognize the whole tendency as a product of German history. It was flattering enough for Grün and his friends when their interpretation of socialism as an idle speculation on the realization of the human character was compared with the fact that Kant understood the expression of the will of the Great French Revolution only as the law of the really human will.

In their pedagogic efforts to improve “True Socialism” Marx and Engels spared neither patience nor severity. Go-operating with Hess on the Gesellschaftsspiegel, Engels let many things of the latter pass though it must have gone against the grain, but in the Deutsches Bürgerbuch in 1846 he proceeded to make things hot for the “True Socialists.” “A little humanity, as they have begun to call the thing, a little ‘realization’ of this humanity, or rather monstrosity, a little about property – at third or fourth hand – a minor proletarian Jeremiad, the organization of labour, the formation of pitiful associations for uplifting the lower classes, plus an all-embracing ignorance of economics and the real nature of society – that is the whole business, and even then it loses the last drop of blood and the last vestige of energy and vitality thanks to theoretical impartiality and ‘the absolute calm of thought.’ And with this tiresome stuff they want to revolutionize Germany, to set the proletariat in movement, to make the masses think and act!” It was consideration for the proletariat and the masses which chiefly determined the attitude which Marx and Engels took up towards “True Socialism.” They attacked Karl Grün more violently than any other of its representatives not only because he in fact offered them the most opportunity, but because, living in Paris, he was causing hopeless confusion amongst the workers there and had won a disastrous influence over Proudhon. And when they dissociated themselves so sharply from “True Socialism” in The Communist Manifesto, even clearly indicating their former friend Moses Hess, they did so because thereby they were opening up the path for practical agitation on the part of the international proletariat.

In the same way they were perhaps prepared to forgive “True Socialism” the “pedantic naivete” with which it took “its clumsy elementary exercises so seriously and solemnly, and trumpeted them out into the world in such a blatant fashion,” but certainly not its alleged preparedness to support the government. The struggle of the bourgeoisie against pre-March absolutism and feudalism allegedly offered it “the desired opportunity” for attacking the liberal opposition in the rear. “It served the German absolutist governments, with their camp-following of parsons, schoolmasters, clodhopping squires and bureaucrats, as a welcome scarecrow against the threatening advance of the bourgeoisie. It formed the sweetened supplement to the bitter scourge and the volleys of bullets with which the same governments belaboured the insurrection of the German workers.” This was greatly exaggerated in point of fact and quite unjust as far as the persons were concerned.

In the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher Marx himself had pointed out that the peculiarity of conditions in Germany made it impossible for the bourgeoisie to rise against the government without itself being attacked in the rear by the proletariat. He declared that the task of socialism was to support liberalism where it was still revolutionary and to oppose it where it was already reactionary. In detail, however, this task was not easy to perform. Even Marx and Engels had occasionally defended liberalism as still revolutionary when it was in fact already reactionary, whilst the “True Socialists” sinned in the other direction and condemned liberalism whole and entire, a proceeding which was naturally agreeable to the German governments. The biggest sinner in this respect was Karl Grün, but Moses Hess was not without fault, whilst Otto Lüning, who edited the Westfälisches Dampfboot, was perhaps least guilty. In any case, their errors in this respect were committed from foolishness and lack of judgment and not from any desire to support the governments. In the revolution which passed sentence of death on all their illusions they were all without exception on the left wing of the bourgeoisie, not to mention Moses Hess who fought in the ranks of the German Social Democracy. Not one single man amongst the “True Socialists” went over to the enemy, and of all the shades of bourgeois socialism in their day and since, the “True Socialists” have the best record in this respect.

In addition they harboured great respect for Marx and Engels and placed their publications willingly at the disposal of the two friends, even when “True Socialism” came in for a drubbing thereby. It was obviously not secret malice, but a lack of understanding which prevented them slipping their old skin. Unfortunately they subscribed wholeheartedly to the old Philistine idea that things must always go smoothly and without uproar. They felt that a young party could not afford to be particular, and that when discussions became inevitable they should be conducted with all decorum and in the best of taste. In particular they felt that reputations like those of Bauer, Ruge and Stirner must be treated with respect. Naturally they caught a Tartar in Marx and on one occasion he declared: “It is characteristic of these old women that they are always striving to gloss over and whitewash all real party disputes.” However, the robust ideas of Marx on this subject met with understanding here and there even in the ranks of the “True Socialists.” For instance, Joseph Weydemeyer, who was related to Lüning by marriage and who collaborated in the editorship of the Westfälisches Dampfboot, became one of the most loyal supporters of Marx and Engels.

Weydemeyer had been a lieutenant in the Prussian artillery but had abandoned a military career on account of his political convictions, and as sub-editor of the Triersche Zeitung, which was under the influence of Karl Grün, he had come under the sway of the “True Socialists.” In the spring of 1846 he went to Brussels. Whether he did so with the express intention of meeting Marx and Engels we do not know, but in any case, he quickly became friendly with them and stoutly opposed the chorus of protest which arose in the ranks of the “True Socialists” at the ruthlessness of the criticism exercised by Marx and Engels, although even his brother-in-law Lüning joined in the protest. Born in Westphalia, Weydemeyer had something of the quiet and even slow, but loyal and tenacious character attributed to his countrymen. He never became a writer of any outstanding talent and when he returned to Germany he obtained work as a surveyor in connection with the building of the Cologne-Minden railway, collaborating in the editorship of the Westfälisches Dampfboot only in his spare time. In his own practical way he now sought to be of assistance to Marx and Engels in a difficulty which was becoming more and more serious the longer it made itself felt, namely, the difficulty of obtaining a publisher.

Owing to the spite of Ruge, the Literarisches Kontor in Zurich was closed to them. Ruge knew very well that whatever Marx might write would hardly be of poor quality, but he practically dragooned his partner Fröbel into having no business relations with Marx, whilst Wigand in Leipzig, the chief publisher of the Young Hegelians, had already refused to publish a criticism of Bauer, Feuerbach and Stirner. Weydemeyer therefore opened up a welcome prospect when he persuaded two rich communists in Westphalia, Julius Meyer and Kempel, to agree to put up the necessary money to found a publishing house which was to begin its activities with no less than three productions: The German Ideology, a library of socialist authors, and a quarterly magazine edited by Marx, Engels and Hess.

However, when it came to the point and the promised money fell due the two capitalists went back on their word, although they had in the meantime confirmed it to Moses Hess. “Business difficulties” cropped up just at the right moment to paralyse their spirit of communist self-sacrifice. The result was a bitter disappointment for Marx and Engels and it was aggravated by the fact that Weydemeyer was unsuccessful in his efforts to place the manuscript of The German Ideology elsewhere. It was now abandoned for good and all to the gnawing criticism of the mice.



3. Weitling and Proudhon

The discussions which now took place between Marx and the two brilliant proletarian theorists who had exercised such an important influence on his early development were incomparably more moving from a human point of view and incomparably more significant politically than Marx’s criticisms of the Post-Hegelian philosophers and of the “True Socialists.”

Weitling and Proudhon were both born in the ranks of the proletariat. Both were blessed with healthy and vigorous characters, both were generously talented and both were so favoured by outward circumstances that they might well have been amongst those rare exceptions which help to create the Philistine legend that anyone of real talent in the ranks of the working class may rise to the ranks of the possessing classes. Both men scorned to take this path, and instead they remained voluntarily in poverty and devoted themselves to fighting for their class and for their fellow sufferers.

They were both well-built men, strong and vigorous, and made to enjoy the good things of life, but instead they gladly suffered the severest privations in order to pursue their aims. “A modest bed, often with three persons in the same room, a piece of board as a writing desk, and now and then a cup of black coffee” – that was the life Weitling was living at a time when his name was already a sound of fear in the ears of the great ones of the earth, and Proudhon was living similarly in a Paris attic, “clothed in a knitted woolen jacket with his feet in clattering wooden clogs,” at a time when he already enjoyed a European reputation.

French and German culture went into the making of both men. Weitling was the son of a French officer and when he grew old enough he hurried to Paris to study French socialism at the source. Proudhon came from the old free county of Burgundy, which had been annexed to France under Louis XIV. His associates always declared that he had a German head, and occasionally, a German thick head. But, one way or the other, when he awakened to intellectual activity Proudhon felt drawn to German philosophy, whose representatives Weitling regarded as nothing but hazy “confusionists,” whilst on the other hand Proudhon condemned with extreme severity the great utopians who had meant so much to Weitling.

The two men shared the same fame and the same fate. They were the first members of the modern proletariat to provide historical proof of the intellect and vigour of the proletariat, proof that it could free itself, and they were the first to break down the vicious circle in which the working-class movement and socialism revolved. To this extent therefore they opened up a new epoch, and their work and their activity were exemplary and exercised a fruitful influence on the development of scientific socialism. No one has praised the beginnings of Weitling and Proudhon more generously than Marx. That which the critical analysis of Hegelian philosophy had given him as the result of speculative thought, he now saw confirmed in real life chiefly by Weitling and Proudhon.

Despite all their discernment and far-sightedness, however, Weitling never developed beyond the German artisan or Proudhon beyond the French petty-bourgeois, and thus they parted from the man who was to complete magnificently what they so brilliantly began. It was the result neither of personal vanity nor obstinate dogmatism, though perhaps both played some role the more the two felt themselves being stranded by the flow of historical development. Their discussions with Marx show that they simply did not grasp what he was driving at. They were the victims of a limited class consciousness which was all the more effective because it influenced both of them unconsciously.

Weitling arrived in Brussels in the beginning of 1846. After his agitation in Switzerland had come to an end, partly owing to internal dissension and partly owing to the exercise of brute force by the authorities, he had left for London, where however, he was unable to get along with the members of the League of the Just. His efforts to save himself from a cruel fate by seeking refuge in prophetic arrogance made matters worse instead of better. Although the waves of Chartist agitation were rising high in England at the time he did not plunge into the English working-class movement, but turned his attention to drawing up a system of thought and speech with a view to founding a world language, and from that time on this became increasingly his favourite fad. He plunged recklessly into tasks for which his capacities and knowledge in no way fitted him and as a result he fell into an intellectual isolation which separated him more and more from the real source of his strength, the life of his class.

His journey to Brussels was certainly the best thing he could do, for if anyone could save him intellectually it was Marx. The latter received him hospitably and this fact is vouched for not only by Engels, but also by Weitling himself. However, any intellectual agreement between them proved impossible and at a meeting of communists which took place in Brussels on March 30th, 1846, the two came to grips violently. Weitling had irritated Marx extremely, as may be seen from a letter written by the former to Moses Hess. Negotiations were proceeding in connection with a new publishing house and Weitling insinuated that Marx and his friends were trying to cut him off from the “financial sources” in order to do well themselves with “well-paid translations.” Even after this Marx did what he could for Weitling. Writing to Marx on the basis of a report from Weitling, Moses Hess declared in a letter from Verviers on the 6th of May: “It was to be expected from you that your hostility towards him would not go so far as to close your purse hermetically so long as there was still something in it.” There was in fact desperately little in it.

A few days later Weitling forced matters to the point of an irreparable breach. The propaganda conducted by Kriege in America had not justified the hopes both Marx and Engels had placed in it. The Volkstribun, a weekly newspaper which Kriege issued in New York, carried on fantastic and gushingly sentimental propaganda in a fashion both childish and pompous. This propaganda had nothing to do with any communist principles and it tended to demoralize the workers utterly. Even worse than this, however, was the fact that Kriege began to send out grotesque letters to rich Americans begging them for financial support for the paper. As he presented himself in America as the literary representative of German communism, its real representatives had every reason to protest against the compromising association.

On the 16th of May, Marx and Engels and their supporters decided to make a detailed protest in a circular to be sent to Kriege’s paper for publication and to all their sympathizers. Weitling was the only one who refused to associate himself with the protest and he sought to justify his attitude with various empty pretexts: the Volkstribun was after all a communist organ and it was suited to American conditions; the communists had enough powerful enemies in Europe without looking for trouble in America, particularly against their own comrades, etc. However, he was not satisfied with his refusal alone, but wrote a letter to Kriege warning him against those who had signed the protest as “cunning intriguers.” “The League, which is rolling in money, and consists of perhaps a dozen or a score of individuals, has nothing better to do than fight against me, the reactionary. I am to be polished off first, then the others and finally their friends, whilst in the end, of course, they will cut their own throats ... And tremendous sums of money are now coming in for this sort of thing, whilst I cannot even find a publisher. Hess and I are quite alone on this side, but Hess is boycotted also.” After that Hess also abandoned the deluded man.

Kriege published the protest of the Brussels communists and it was also published by Weydemeyer in the Westfälisches Dampfboot. However, Kriege published Weitling’s letter, or at least its worst passages, as a sort of antidote, and persuaded the Social Reform Association, a German workers organization in America which had chosen Kriege’s weekly as its organ, to appoint Weitling as editor and to send him the money for the journey. Weitling accepted and disappeared from Europe.

In the same month, May, the breach between Marx and Proudhon came nearer. In order to make up for the lack of an organ of their own, Marx and his friends issued printed or lithographed circulars, as in the Kriege affair, and at the same time sought to establish permanent correspondence connections between the various big towns in which there were communist groups. Such Corresponding Bureaus, as they were called, existed in Brussels and London, and one was to be set up in Paris. Marx therefore wrote to Proudhon asking him to co-operate. On the 17th of May, 1846, Proudhon sent a letter from Lyons, agreeing, but pointing out that he would be able to write neither often nor much. At the same time he utilized the occasion for delivering a moral lecture to Marx which revealed to the latter how wide was the gulf which had opened up between them.

Proudhon now professed “an almost absolute anti-dogmatism” in economic matters and advised Marx not to fall into the error of his countryman Luther, who, after the overthrow of Catholic theology, had immediately begun to found a Protestant theology to the accompaniment of a great wealth of anathema and excommunications. “We should not give mankind new work by creating new confusion. Let us rather give the world an example of wise and far-seeing toleration. We should not play the role of apostles of a new religion even if that religion is the religion of logic and reason.” In other words, like the “True Socialists,” Proudhon wished to maintain that pleasant confusion whose abolition Marx considered the preliminary condition for any real communist propaganda.

Proudhon also abandoned the revolution in which he had believed so long: “I prefer to burn property in a slow fire rather than give it new force in a St. Bartholomew’s Night of property owners.” He announced that he had given a detailed explanation of how this problem was to be solved in a work which was already half printed, and promised to submit it to the scourge of Marx’s criticism gladly in the expectation of his revenge.” “In passing I may remark that in my opinion the situation is: Our proletarians in France have such a great thirst for knowledge that we should get a bad reception if we offered them nothing to drink but blood.” Proudhon then defended Karl Grün against whose misunderstood Hegelianism Marx had warned him. Owing to his ignorance of German Proudhon was dependent on Grün and Ewerbeck in his studies of Hegel and Feuerbach, of Marx and Engels. He informed Marx that Grun intended to translate his, Proudhon’s, latest work into German, and asked whether Marx would assist in the distribution, adding that this would be honourable for everyone concerned.

The conclusion of Proudhon’s letter sounds almost like mockery, though it was probably unintentional. But in any case, Marx can hardly have found it edifying to be described as bloodthirsty in the bombastic gibberish of Proudhon, and in consequence the doings of Grun gave rise to even stronger suspicion. This was one of the reasons why in August, 1846, Engels decided to go to Paris for a while and take over the reporting there, for Paris was still the most important centre of communist propaganda. It was necessary to inform the Paris communists at first hand about the breach with Weitling, the Westphalian publishing fiasco and about those various other matters which had stirred up the dust, particularly as Ewerbeck was not altogether reliable and Bernays still less so.

In the beginning the reports sent by Engels from Paris, some to the Brussels Corresponding Bureau and others to Marx personally, were quite hopeful, but gradually he came to the conclusion that Grün had thoroughly “mucked up” the whole situation. The work mentioned by Proudhon in his letter appeared in the autumn of the same year and turned out in fact to lead into the morass as his letter had already indicated. Marx then proceeded to wield the scourge of criticism thoroughly, as Proudhon had invited, but all the revenge that the latter took consisted in a certain amount of round abuse.



4. Historical Materialism

Proudhon entitled his book, The System of Economic Contradictions, with the sub-title, The Philosophy of Poverty, and Marx therefore entitled his reply, The Poverty of Philosophy, and he wrote it in French in order to hit his opponent still more certainly. As a matter of fact, Marx did not succeed, for Proudhon’s influence on the French working class and on the proletariat of the Latin countries in general rose rather than fell, and for many decades Marx had still to contend with Proudhonism.

However, neither the immediate value of his reply nor its historical significance was diminished thereby. It represented a milestone both in the life of its author and in the history of social science. In this book the decisive factors of historical materialism were scientifically developed for the first time. In his earlier writings these ideas flash up like isolated comets, and in later writings he collected them in epigrammatic form, but in his reply to Proudhon he developed them systematically with all the convincing clarity of a triumphant polemic. The greatest scientific service rendered by Marx was his development of historical materialism and it did for the historical sciences what Darwin’s theories did for the natural sciences.

Engels had a share in this, and it was a larger share than his modesty was prepared to admit, but the classic formulation of the basic idea he ascribes, and probably with justice, exclusively to his friend. He describes how, when he went to Brussels in the spring of 1845, Marx placed the basic idea of historical materialism before him in its finally developed form: namely, that economic production in each historical period, and the social structure necessarily following from it, formed the basis for the political and intellectual history of the period; that in consequence the whole of history had been a history of class struggles, struggles between the exploited and the exploiters and between the ruled and the ruling classes at various stages of social development; and that these struggles had now reached a stage at which the exploited and oppressed class, the proletariat, could no longer free itself from the exploiting and oppressing class, the bourgeoisie, without at the same time freeing the whole of society from exploitation and oppression forever.

This is the basic idea presented in the reply to Proudhon, the focal point from which a multitude of rays irradiate. The style of the reply is magnificently clear and incisive, in strong contrast to the discursiveness which sometimes tires the reader in the polemics against Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. This time the vessel is not being pushed and dragged along through a marsh, but speeds along over the open sea with a fresh breeze in its sails.

The book is in two parts. In the first part, to quote Lassalle, Marx shows himself as a Ricardo turned socialist, and in the second part as a Hegel turned economist. Ricardo had proved that the exchange of commodities in capitalist society took place on the basis of the amount of labour spent on them. Proudhon demanded that this “value of commodities should be “constituted” so that the product of one producer should exchange with the product of another containing the same amount of labour. Society was to be reformed by turning all its members into workers exchanging similar quantities of labour. English socialists had already drawn this “egalitarian” conclusion from Ricardo’s theory and had attempted to put it into practice, but their “exchange banks” had soon gone into liquidation.

Marx now pointed out that “the revolutionary theory” which Proudhon thought he had discovered to emancipate the proletariat was in fact nothing but the formula of modern working-class slavery. On the basis of his law of value Ricardo logically developed his law of wages: the value of labour as a commodity was determined by the amount of time necessary to obtain the products which the worker needs in order to live himself and perpetuate his kind. It was a bourgeois illusion to imagine individual exchange without class contradictions, and to suppose in bourgeois society the possibility of a state of harmony and eternal justice permitting no one to enrich himself at the cost of others.

Marx describes the real development of things in these words: “With the beginning of civilization production begins to rise, based on the contrast of occupation, social position, and finally on the contrast of accumulated and direct labour. Without contrast there can be no progress: civilization has acknowledged this law down to the present day. Up to the present the productive forces have been developed on the basis of this dominance of class contradiction.” With his theory of “constituted value,” Proudhon sought to secure for the worker the ever-increasing product of everyday labour resulting from the progress of social labour; but Marx pointed out that the development of the productive forces which permitted the English workers to produce twenty-seven times more in 1840 than in 1770 depended on historical conditions based on class contradictions: the accumulation of private capital, the modern division of labour, anarchic competition and the wage system. For the production of surplus labour there must be a class which profited and a class which lost.

Proudhon put forward gold and silver as the first examples of his “constituted value,” declaring that they had become money from their sovereign consecration at the hands of sovereigns. Nothing of the sort, answered Marx. Money was not a thing in itself but a social relation and, like individual exchange, it reflected a certain definite mode of production. “Indeed, an utter ignorance of history is necessary in order not to know that at all times sovereign rulers have had to submit to economic conditions and have never been able to dictate laws to them. Both political and civil legislation do no more than recognize and record the will of economic conditions ... Law is nothing but the recognition of fact.” The sovereign seal on money gave it its weight and not its value. Gold and silver fitted to “constituted value” about as comfortably as a blister. Precisely in their function as tokens of value they were of all commodities the only ones not determined by their costs of production, and could be replaced in circulation by paper money, as Ricardo had long since made clear.

Marx hinted at the final aim of communism by pointing out that “the correct balance between supply and demand” for which Proudhon was looking had been possible only in times when the means of production were limited, when exchange took place within very narrow boundaries, when demand governed supply and consumption governed production. With the development of large-scale industry this had become impossible because industry was compelled by its tools alone to produce in steadily increasing quantities without waiting for demand, and must therefore experience with inevitable necessity and in constant succession the phases of prosperity and depression, crisis and stagnation, new prosperity and so on. “In present-day society, in industry which is based on individual exchange, productive anarchy, which is the source of so much evil, is at the same time the cause of all progress. Therefore the alternatives are: one either strives to obtain the correct proportions of former centuries with the means of production of our own day, in which case one is both reactionary and utopian, or one must strive for progress without anarchy, in which case one must abandon individual exchange in order to maintain the productive forces.”

The second chapter of Marx’s reply to Proudhon is even more important than the first. In the first chapter he deals with Ricardo without as yet having won through to complete scientific objectivity towards him – for instance, he still accepts Ricardo’s law of wages without reservation. But in the second chapter he deals with Hegel and there he is in his element. Proudhon had grossly misunderstood Hegel’s dialectical method. He held fast to those aspects which had already become reactionary, for instance, that the world of reality is derived from the world of ideas, whilst he rejected its revolutionary aspect: the auto-activity of the idea which formulates both thesis and antithesis in order to develop in the conflict that higher unity which maintains the real content of both aspects by resolving their contradictory forms. He differentiated a good and a bad side in each economic category and then sought for a synthesis, for a scientific formula which would embody the good side and destroy the bad. The good side he saw stressed by the bourgeois economists and the bad side condemned by the socialists. With his formulas and syntheses he thought he raised himself above both the bourgeois economists and the socialists.

Marx answered this claim in the words: “Monsieur Proudhon flatters himself that he has criticized both economics and communism, but in reality he has remained far below either of them: below the economist because as a philosopher with a magic formula in his pocket he imagines himself spared the necessity of going into economic details; and below the socialist because he has neither sufficient insight nor sufficient courage to raise himself, even speculatively, above the bourgeois horizon. He aspires to be the synthesis and he is in fact nothing but a composite error. He desires to hover above both bourgeois and proletarian as a man of science, but in fact he is nothing but a petty-bourgeois thrown hither and thither between capital and labour, between economics and socialism.” However, one~must not confuse the petty-bourgeois here with the Philistine, for Marx always regarded Proudhon as a capable man unfortunately unable to go beyond the limits of petty-bourgeois society.

It was not difficult for Marx to reveal the defectiveness of the methods adopted by Proudhon: if one split up the dialectical process into a good and a bad side and offered the one category as an antidote against the other, then all life fled from the idea; it could no longer function, no longer formulate the thesis and the antithesis. As an authentic student of Hegel, Marx was well aware that the bad side which Proudhon was so anxious to abolish everywhere was just the side which made history by producing the struggle. Had one tried to maintain the better aspects of feudalism, the patriarchal life in the towns, the prosperity of the rural domestic industry and the development of urban handicraft, whilst at the same time seeking to exterminate everything which cast a shadow over the picture, serfdom, privilege and anarchy, then everything which produced the struggle would have been wiped out and the bourgeoisie would have been strangled at birth. One would thereby have taken on the grotesque task of emasculating history.

The correct formulation of the problem was given by Marx in the following words: “If one wishes to estimate feudal production correctly one must regard it as a mode of production based on contradiction. One must show how riches were produced within this contradiction, how the productive forces developed simultaneously with the struggle of the classes, and how one of these classes, the bad side, the social evil, grew ceaselessly until the material conditions for its emancipation had ripened.” And he then showed the same historical process of development in connection with the bourgeoisie. The productive relations in which it moves have no simple and uniform character, but a double one: misery is produced under the same conditions as riches; as the bourgeoisie develops so the proletariat develops to the same degree, and, as a result, the struggle between the two classes. The economists are the theorists of the bourgeoisie whilst the communists and socialists are the theorists of the proletariat. The latter are utopians who draw up systems and seek for scientific remedies to meet the needs of the oppressed classes as long as the proletariat is not sufficiently developed to constitute itself a class and as long as the productive forces of bourgeois society are not developed sufficiently to reveal the material conditions necessary for the emancipation of the proletariat and the building up of a new society.

“But to the extent to which history advances, and with it the struggle of the proletariat, it is no longer necessary for them to seek science in their heads. All they need do is give themselves an account of what is going on before their eyes and make themselves its instruments. While they are still seeking science in their heads and drawing up systems, while they are only at the beginning of their struggle, they see only misery in misery, and fail to realize the revolutionary side of misery which will overthrow the old society. From this moment on science becomes the conscious product of the historical movement; it has ceased to be doctrinaire and has become revolutionary.” Marx regards economic categories as nothing but the theoretical expression, the abstraction of social relations. “Social relations are closely connected with the productive forces. With the attainment of new productive forces, mankind alters its mode of production; with the way in which it obtains its living, mankind alters all its social relations....But the same men who form their social relations in accordance with their material mode of production, form also their principles, their ideas and their categories in accordance with their social relations.” Marx compares the bourgeois economists who speak of “the eternal and natural institutions” of bourgeois society with those orthodox theologians who consider their own religion a revelation from God and all other religions as the inventions of man.

Marx revealed the defectiveness of Proudhon’s methods on the basis of a number of economic categories with which the latter had experimented: the division of labour and the machine, competition and monopoly, landownership and rent, strikes and workers’ organizations. The division of labour was not, as Proudhon assumed, an economic category, but a historical category, which had taken on various forms in various periods of history. According to bourgeois economics, the factory is the condition for the existence of the division of labour, but the factory did not originate, as Proudhon assumed, as the result of friendly agreement amongst the workers and not even in the lap of the old Guilds. The merchant became the head of the modern workshop and not the old Guild master.

Competition and monopoly are thus not natural, but social categories. Competition is not industrial, but commercial zeal. It is not concerned with the product, but with profit. It is not a necessity of the human soul, as Proudhon assumed, but the result of historical necessity originating in the eighteenth century, and it could disappear in the nineteenth century for historical reasons.

Proudhon’s idea that landed property had no historical origin, that it was based on psychological and moral considerations having only a very distant connection with the production of wealth, that ground-rent should bind man closer to nature, was just as erroneous: “In every period property developed differently and under quite different social relations. To explain bourgeois property therefore means nothing more than to explain all the social relations of bourgeois production. To explain property as an independent relation is nothing but an illusion of metaphysics or jurisprudence.” Ground-rent – the surplus of the price of agricultural produce above the cost of production including the prevailing rate of profit on capital and the interest on capital – originated under definite social relations and could have originated only under those definite social relations. It is landownership in its bourgeois form, feudal property subjected to the conditions of bourgeois production.

And finally Marx explains the historic significance of strikes and unions, both of which Proudhon rejected. Although both bourgeois economists and socialists may warn the workers, though perhaps for opposite reasons, against the use of such weapons, strikes and unions will develop parallel with the development of large-scale industry. Divided in their interests by competition, the workers have nevertheless a common interest in maintaining their wages. The idea of resistance, common to them all, united them in unions which contain all the elements of a coming struggle, just as the bourgeoisie began with sectional combinations against the feudal lords, then constituted itself as a class and, as a constituted class, transformed feudal society into bourgeois society.

The antagonism between proletariat and bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which, brought to its highest expression, means a complete revolution. The social movement does not exclude the political movement because there is no political movement which is not at the same time a social movement. Only in a society without classes will social evolution cease to be political revolution, but until then the last word of social science on the eve of all general social transformations will always be: “Victory or death! Bloody war or nothing! This is the pitiless formulation of the question.” Marx used this quotation from George Sand to conclude his reply to Proudhon.

In this book Marx developed historical materialism from some of its most important angles and at the same time he finally settled accounts with German philosophy. He went beyond Feuerbach by going back to Hegel. The official Hegelian school had certainly gone bankrupt. It had degenerated the dialectical methods of its master to a mere formula which it applied to everything and everybody, often with the greatest clumsiness. One could say of these Hegelians, and it was said of them, that they understood nothing and wrote about everything.

Their hour had struck when Feuerbach challenged the speculative conception: the positive content of science once again outweighed its formal side. But the materialism of Feuerbach lacked an energizing principle.” It remained pure natural science and excluded the historical process. This was not enough for Marx, and how right he was seen later when the peripatetic preachers of this materialism, Büchner and Vogt, appeared on the scene. Their narrow-minded Philistine methods of thought caused even Feuerbach to exclaim that though he might agree with such materialism from behind yet never would he from the front. Or, to quote a comparison once used by Engels: “The stiff-kneed cart-horse of bourgeois common sense naturally shies at the ditch which separates essence from appearance and cause from effect, but if one wants to hunt over the broken country of abstract thought one must not ride a cart-horse.”

However, the Hegelians were not Hegel. They might display their ignorance, but Hegel himself was amongst the best brains of all time. Far more than all other philosophers, his method of thought had a historic significance which permitted him a magnificent conception of history, although this conception was a purely ideological one which saw things, so to speak, in a concave mirror and conceived world history as no more than a practical example of the development of thought. Feuerbach had not succeeded in coping with this real content of the Hegelian philosophy and the orthodox Hegelians had abandoned it.

Marx took it up anew, but he reversed it in that he no longer proceeded from “pure thought,” but from the stubborn facts of reality, thus giving materialism the historical dialectical method and an “energizing principle” which sought not merely to explain society, but to transform it.


Last updated on 27.2.2004