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Arne Swabeck

On the Anniversary of Marx’s Birth

(May 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 19 (Whole No. 115), 7 May 1932, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

May 5 is one of the notable days in the annals of working class history. That date, in 1818, inaugurated a period which closed with March 14, 1883, and embraced the life-span of the greatest thinker of our epoch, and for that matter of all times, the life-span of Karl Marx. It became a life-span of profound teaching, the significance of which we can begin to perceive today, but which remains to be fully recorded only by future generations.

Karl Marx belongs to the revolutionary proletariat. It alone can properly appreciate him and his life’s work. It alone can carry forward the great heritage which he has left it and which today enables it to stand erect, conscious of its growing maturity and of its true position as the life-beating pulse of mankind. It is that heritage which lends the directive force to a working class moving onward to higher goals.

Karl Marx, a towering giant in the realms of thought and action, was a product of his age. His birth almost coincided with the stormy ushering in of the capitalist stage of society. His life became dedicated to the elaboration of the theoretical system which bears his name. A system built entirely upon the dynamics of the material world and itself throwing new life-giving fermentation into human society and setting new forces into motion. A system which has stood the test in storm and in stress, which has been assailed by its critics, calumniated by its enemies and cunningly revised by the sleek soldiers of fortune who picked the proletarian movement as a fruitful hunting ground. But after each assault, after each effort to blunt its edge, it emerged again, bolder in conception and more clearly understood. This is because it is not constituted of scholastic or dead formulas, each one to be applied separately, because it is a live theoretical system covering the whole range of the social and revolutionary sciences. A theoretical system which cannot be understood when viewed merely in its separate parts, but only when viewed as a whole, as a solid structure from its foundation stone to the roof.

To understand properly the Marxian system it is necessary first of all to learn to approach its study with the Marxian method of viewing all material things in motion. The purely static, or scholastic approach will get us hopelessly lost. It is necessary that its thoroughgoing proletarian impulse and revolutionary spirit penetrate every fibre of our material and mental make-up. That must, so to speak, be in the blood.

The Marxian system took form and assumed life and blood during the first stormy period of the capitalist cycle, when capitalism rapidly developed toward a position of mastery, It had as its immediate background the two important events, the great French revolution and the industrial revolution in England. It therefore took form essentially as a summing-up of the developing conditions. The Marxian system, which, of course, takes into account the discoveries of certain preceding thinkers, is a logical conception of the main social and economic phenomena of the present epoch.

The tumultuous events of the class struggle during the active, mature life of Marx became the great historical laboratory, from which not only the proletariat emerged definitely as a class, but which also helped to work out and to test his theoretical system. Of these main events must be mentioned in the first instance: The revolutions and counter-revolutions on the European continent, the organization of the First International and the Paris Commune. Each step of development Marx followed, not as a mere onlooker, but actively intervening with clear and decisive counsel to the proletariat and with scorching criticism virtually burning up the adversaries. He attained to mastery of each situation and drew the fundamental lessons which became the future guide for the proletarian revolutionists. Today we can follow that counsel and trace its logical development; how it shaped and took form and was put to the test in the fire of these important events of the class struggle.

Marx kept in intimate contact with and studied the social and economic concepts and movements which had preceded him and of his time. He had early become influenced by French socialism and made himself acquainted with the ideas of the utopians. He utilized what was progressive in them but quickly settled account with their abstract “eternal truths” and “pure reason”. He assumed the leadership of the first international revolutionary organization of proletarians, the Communist League, which, when transformed from the Federation of the Just, had become converted to his views. It openly proclaimed itself a Communist organization, and finally settled with its old mystical concepts, when shortly before the February revolution of 1848 in France it accepted the program written by Marx, in collaboration with Engels – the Communist Manifesto.

Marx studied the conspirative proletarian organizations of France, and elsewhere, which were mainly influenced and inspired by the sentimental utopias of Fourier and the revolutionary gospel of minority, conspirative action of Blanqui. He soon concluded that these were not the tactics to be pursued. He had witnessed the development, both of the pure and simple trade unionism in England as well as that of the Chartist movement, which, during the brief period of its existence, embodied, in an abbreviated picture, the whole course of the proletarian struggle. The vehement conflict with the anarchist schools of thought – from the purely petty bourgeois idealist, to the more revolutionary but narrowly futile propagandists of the deed of Bakunin, and finally with the anti-authoritarians – forms some of the most strenuous chapters of Marx’s life.

While Marx had nothing but disdain and scorn for the vulgar economists of his time he set to work patiently at the herculean task of unraveling the economic laws of the various stages of society. For the study of these laws he made use of the discoveries already made by the classical school of bourgeois economy; which generally begins with William Petty in England, Boisguillebert in France and ends with Ricardo in England and Sismondi in France. He stripped this material of its idealist veil of the capitalist economic laws being “natural laws”, and presented them as laws dictated by historical relations of production corresponding to a given degree of development of the material forces of production. What had so much puzzled this school of economy Marx discovered and embodied in his concept of the production of surplus value.

But above all Marx participated in building the revolutionary proletarian party. From the founding of the Communist League and presentation of the Communist Manifesto, there is a continuous thread of building and teaching. It next appears in the lessons drawn from the fateful events of 1848–50. Again, in the theoretical and practical work within the First International, beginning with 1804, in the serious lessons drawn from the Paris Commune and finally, in 1875 in the criticism of the Gotha program. This criticism which can perhaps be termed the last outstanding act of Marx was occasioned by the program draft for the fusion congress of the two German socialist groups, the Lassalleans and the Eisenachers. Marx subjected that compromise program draft to a merciless criticism in which he again summed up in brief sentences the essence of his concepts.

Here we have, through a whole chain of events and activities, conclusions compressed, into a theoretical system, each part, of which forms a harmonious whole. The essence of Marxism stands out today as incontrovertibly as when proclaimed in the final paragraph of the Communist Manifesto:

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

We recall that many have been the attempts to construct a new system and invest it with the name of Marx by tearing out of their context some casual remarks made by Marx on episodic questions in order to destroy the real essence of the system itself. As a part of the general foul revisionism, we know, it brought disastrous results to the proletarian movement of the Second International. Most outstanding were the attempts to distort, to cover up and to repudiate the concept of the proletarian dictatorship and to substitute for it the peaceful democratic means at all costs. Often, in accomplishing this, was recourse, and for that matter still is being, taken to the observation made by Marx in the seventies on the possibility of peaceful revolution in England and in America, leaving out, of course, Marx’s qualifying clause. In the seventies, as we know, conditions obtained which could indicate these two countries as possessing certain exceptional characteristics; and it is from actual conditions, from the specific stage of capitalist relations that Marxian strategy and tactics proceed in each instance. The conditions of these certain exceptional characteristics no longer exist today. That gives the episodic character to such an observation which only reformist snivellers can still attempt to distort. Revolutionists will have nothing in common with that but will endeavor to comprehend the Marxian system in its totality and in its real essence.

Another article on Marx and Marxism is to follow next week – Ed.

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