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International Socialism, January 1975


Peter Green

The First International And After


From International Socialism, No.74, January 1975, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The First International And After: Political Writings, Vol.3
Karl Marx
Penguin, £1.00

THERE is an image current on the left, of Marx as a turgid old academic who spent most of his time in the British Museum writing enormous incomprehensible books. It’s an image that certain commentators have cultivated, finding that perhaps the most insidious way of distorting the man’s thought is to tear it from the political context so crucial to its formation. The value of this collection is that it gives us a continuous picture of Marx’s activity in one of the most formative periods in the history of the European labour movement It reveals the Marx who once wrote that his idea of happiness was to fight, his idea of misery submission. It shows that the key to Marxism is not any single individual’s manipulation of abstract categories but a dialectic of practice between an open-ended theory and the struggles of the working class.

The volume starts with the documents Marx wrote for the First International – which, Marx noted, was no gathering of minute sects but the product of a resurgence of the labour movement throughout Europe. It climaxes with the first manifestation of the creativity of the working-class in revolution, the Paris Commune, celebrated in The Civil War in France. The bloody defeat of the Commune exposes the divergence of views which made further effective action by the International impossible. As Marx confronts a somewhat unprincipled alliance of reformists and anarchists he produces some of his best writing, on the destruction of the capitalist state and the unprecedented democracy of the workers’ state which would follow. The period ends with Marx witnessing me founding of the German Social-Democratic Party he had done so much to inspire – the party which would soon become the most powerful witness to the power of his ideas in the world. Yet at the moment of its birth we find Marx anticipating its eventual ignominious end, exposing the seeds of reformism in savage style. His warnings would be largely unheeded. They are still highly relevant.

Here, then, we have Marx engaged in incessant debate with all those who deviated from the principle that only the self-emancipation of the working class could resolve the contradictions of capitalism. To understand this is to understand an apparent paradox – that the Marx who so stubbornly fought for his beliefs that the International collapsed never resorts to stale dogma or incomprehensible jargon as a substitute lot political analysis, and is always ready to adapt his propaganda to the course of the struggle. It is this combination of unalterable principle and flexible strategy which characterises Lenin and all great revolutionary socialists. It appears here in Marx’s criticism of Lassalle for failing ‘to seek the real basis for agitation in actual elements of the class movement but of trying to prescribe the course of the movement according to a doctrinaire recipe’.

A resort to dogma in itself reveals a lack of commitment to the working-class, a refusal to learn from its struggles as Marx did when he responded to the Paris Commune by making his only alteration to the Communist Manifesto. But if Marx is always prepared to adapt himself to whatever problems the class immediately faces he is never prepared to countenance schemes which set forth any road to socialism other than the efforts of workers themselves. He will immerse himself in the struggle for reforms such as a shorter working day or an end to juvenile labour but have no truck with those who urje reliance on the goodwill or charity of middle-class intellectuals and politicians.

If the class must rely on itself, it must be united. Hence internationalism, hence his efforts to arouse British workers to the depredations of British Imperialism in Ireland, not on moralistic grounds but because the class win never free itself so long as one section acquiesces in the oppression of another. The example should bring home why this book is practically relevant today. Capitalism continues to generate crises, waste, wars and the labour movement is still suffering from the ideas Marx so mercilessly castigates here.

The introduction is useful, less marred than those to the two earlier volumes in the series by the style and politics of New Left Review, but lacking the emphasis given here to the practical roots of Marx’s politics. The translations, however, are excellent, capturing the force, verve and clarity of a Marx speaking to and for the working class. Despite the abundant references to events a century ago the impact can be electrifying.

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