Th. Rothstein, under his pseudonym W.A.M.M 1918

Marx as a Revolutionary Thinker

Source: The Call, May 1918, p.2, (1,459 words);
Transcribed: Ted Crawford,
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

A hundred years ago, the most revolutionary thinker of all times was born — a thinker whose ideas have become a weapon in the greatest fight for freedom ever waged by the human race and are destined ultimately to bring about an entirely new world in which poverty, social and political oppression, and all the untold material and moral suffering bound up with them will be abolished. For if ever the thought of man could rightly be called the “dynamite of history,” it was that of Karl Marx, it was the product of the brain of the man who, like no other philosopher before him, has become the philosopher of a class which, emerging from the vicissitudes and transformations of thousands of years, is now the working class, the slave of to-day and the certain master of the future. The masses here and there — especially in countries so uneducated and bereft of intellectuality as our own — may ignore him; and many a so-called Labour or Socialist leader of the working class may think that he owes nothing to Marx and his teachings or stands high above them. All the same the masses are moving along the lines which his thought laid down in advance, and the leaders feed on the crumbs which fell from Marx’s rich table, without even knowing it. On this anniversary, which, by a tragic irony of Fate, falls in the midst of the greatest betrayal of Marx’s behests on the part both of the masses and the leaders, we still see the giant shade towering high above the genera­tions, past and future, as well as above the bloody battle of to-day as the eternal pledge that, come what may, the working class will come out in the end triumphant.

Marx, however, was no prophet, no priest, no poet, and no dreamer of dreams or of visions, in the accepted sense of these words. His was a thinking and strictly scientific mind, though winged with an imagination such as only minds of the highest order possess. For that very reason he was not mere economist. Those who claim to know or recognise only Marx’s economic teachings do not know him at all. Marx was an economist, but his economic teaching would not have possessed its revolutionary — one may almost say, explosive — value if it had not been part and parcel of a great whole which since his days we have comprehensively termed “Marxism.” For what lends to his economic analysis its revo­lutionary value is that he has at the same time shown us that the mechanism of capitalist pro­duction which has created and is still creating the modern working class is at the same time undermining Capitalism itself and is creating its direct antithesis, Socialism, as a matter of inner necessity, as a postulate of that dialectical law which governs all historical processes. By reveal­ing to our eyes the exact operation of the forces inherent in Capitalism as the conditions of its existence, which lead to its gradual destruction in the same inexorable manner in which Life destroys Life by its own life-processes, Marx profoundly altered our world-outlook, destroyed the play and pitfalls of Socialist fancy and Social­ist will of the Utopian period, and established Socialism on the unassailable basis of scientific fact.

But even this revolution in our mentality, in our hopes and expectations, in our theories and prognostications would not have sufficed to make Marx’s teaching the philosophy of the revolutionary working class. On the contrary, if this part of it had stood by itself it would have extinguished revolutionary and, indeed, all action and condemned mankind and the working class in particular to passivity, to fatalism, to an atti­tude of mere expectation. It was no mere moral corrective, but an essential part of Marx’s teach­ing that, in spite of the inexorable character of the historical processes, history is still made by Man in accordance with his perceptions and volition which, however, themselves form part of the historical process. In other words, Man is the author of his own history, but is himself part of that history, being determined in his ideas and will by the same fundamental agencies which carry on and ultimately complete the given pro­cess. Man and his history, Man’s mind and Man’s action are two sides of the same process, that is, in the language of philosophy, subject and object, I and non-I are identical, as taught with such magisterial grandeur by Marx’s great teacher, Hegel. History is like a stream carry­ing the bark called Man, and Man always, in the long run, steers whither the current directs him.

It is easy to argue from this premise that Man is doomed to perpetual self-deception, that while thinking he shapes the historical process accord­ing to his will, he is in reality himself shaped by it. In other words, it may be said that Marx is merely clothing Man’s fatal subjection to superior historical forces in a garb which at first sight may appear as giving him some freedom of will, but in reality leaves him as naked and helpless as ever before. That is exactly the objection constantly raised by bourgeois critics against Marx’s determinism. But this objection is based upon a misunderstanding. Freedom of will does not exist outside Man. It is part of his subjective consciousness and operates in his mind alike in the case when he is ignorant of the forces of compulsion around him and in that when, recognising Necessity, he chooses to submit to it as a matter of reason. He is “free” in both cases, the difference being that in the one case he is free like a slave born in slavery who has never known or seen freedom, while in the other he is “free” like a free man who, seeing the inevitable, makes the inevitable the instrument of his rational action. He becomes free through Necessity — free in the only true and real sense in which human freedom is possible. In application to the struggle of the working class it means that whereas all struggles for freedom in the past on the part of subjected classes were subjective revolts of slaves, the struggle of the conscious workers is based on the recognition of the neces­sity of the historical process, which, however, can only be carried out by the workers’ rational, that is, aim-subservient, action. Such action alone deserves the name of revolutionary.

But what is that Necessity which lies at the bottom of the historical process and by obeying which Man — in our case the working class — becomes ultimately free? Hegel had taught that the identity of I and non-I, of subject and object, of the mind and the historical process, of Con­sciousness and Being was due to the fact that Consciousness was the mother of Being, that idea was the creator and History was its creation. That was the teaching of the ruling class, the doctrine of Prussian Monarchy, the fatal theory that what was rational existed and what existed was rational. Marx, as a revolutionary, early revolted against such an interpretation and turned it inside out by proclaiming that it was not Con­sciousness, Mind, Idea which was the mother of Being, the Historical Process, the History, but just the reverse; it was Being, which determined our Consciousness, History which determined our mind, and that Being, that History, was the objective structure of Society as determined by its economic foundations at the given time — by the state of its productive forces, by its mode of pro­duction, by its relations of property, by its rela­tions of classes, etc. Starting with the economic analysis, Marx’s analysis embraced all the main problems of philosophy in order to end once more in economics.

As a matter of fact, of course, the process of his own mental evolution was just in the opposite direction: starting from opposition to the Hegelian doctrine about the relationship between Mind and History, Marx gradually arrived at the economic analysis proper. But that makes no difference. The essential thing is that his doc­trines form a complete and united whole, in which every part is closely related and subordinated to the other, and the entire system establishes the revolutionary role of the modern working class in history and the ultimate outcome of its endea­vours. They are at the same time a guidance for that part of the working class which forms its advance guard, inasmuch as they supply it with that knowledge of the Necessity which alone makes Man the conscious and free maker of History. In this sense Marx is the great Libe­rator of the working class, even before the work­ing class has thrown off its fetters.

W.A M.M.