the "live intellectual tradition" of Marxism

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The Financial Times' piece on Marx's birthday tomorrow begins as the 1857 economic shock rippled around the globe:

In London, where the suspension of the Bank Charter Act of 1844 had freed the Bank of England to take whatever emergency action was necessary, an obscure German exile was fired into intellectual action. He set himself to diagnosing a new phenomenon, a global economic crisis. Over the previous millennium the world had been swept by religious movements, political upheavals, plagues and famines. 1857 was the first worldwide convulsion in the system of production, credit and exchange. From the efforts of this lonely scholar, known then only to a narrow circle, would emerge an intellectual tradition that would find its place alongside that of Darwin as one of the great legacies of the Victorian age. It would inspire a political movement that spanned the world.

Karl Marx was born 200 years ago on May 5 1818 in the ancient Palatinate bishopric of Trier to a converted Jewish family. Growing up in the shadow of the French Revolution, religion and monarchy were the first targets of his youthful radicalism. But, in the 1840s, as industry spread across Europe, Marx took a further radical turn. Reading Friedrich Engels's reportage on The Condition of the Working-Class in England, Marx glimpsed a new reality. He did not use the term capitalism -- that would be later coined by his students -- but there was no denying the massive dynamic resulting from the combination of competitive capital accumulation and technological change.

"When the revolutionary tocsin sounded across Europe in 1848," as Sven-Eric Liedman shows in what FT calls a "landmark anniversary biography" (A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx), "Marx and Engels were ready with The Communist Manifesto:"

The great French revolution of 1789, they announced, was just a stepping stone, a bourgeois revolt against feudalism. Capitalism had been unleashed across the world and now it was giving birth to its gravediggers in the form of the disenfranchised and propertyless industrial working class.

Once established in London, Marx "first set himself to diagnosing what had gone wrong:"

How had the promising revolutionary uprising of 1848 ended three years later in the seizure of power by the upstart nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte? 1848, it turned out, was not a genuine revolution. It was history as farcical repetition. The real drama of world history was the epic of capitalist development. In particular, Marx was fascinated by the spectacle of America's relentless expansion.

"Marx knew that he would have to dig deeper," and so he did:

As revolutionary ardour dampened and in the 1860s, the world entered the age of Bismarck, blood and iron and realpolitik, Marx set himself to the analysis of capitalism's inner workings, concocting a unique synthesis of economic theory, empirical data drawn from factory inspector reports and economic history all mixed with Hegel's dialectical logic. The result was not economics as we know it, so much as an analysis of how capitalist production and exchange, down to the commodity form itself, gave rise to a world of appearances that conventional economics then sought more or less naively to explain.

"It was a mammoth intellectual effort undertaken in the face of considerable personal adversity," the piece observes, and notes of Liedman's book that "Marx is not a historical relic, nor is he the harbinger of a 20th-century shipwreck:"

He is the initiator and inspirer of a live intellectual tradition and a model of the kind of capacious thought that is necessary to grasp contemporary modernity. Liedman's strength is as a political philosopher and he is superbly well-equipped to take us on a tour of Marx's intellectual workshop.

Socialist Worker explains how Marx became a Marxist in five easy steps, but first lays the foundation:

Marx was hardly the first critic of society, though, and he was not even the first communist. Jesus of Nazareth was among the many to condemn "rich men" long before Marx.

What makes Marx unique is that he was the first to propose a historically specific path for winning equality that combined defiance of oppression and exploitation with a social force potentially capable of replacing the elite with an equitable and democratic common association--socialism--as opposed to a new ruling class.

"For the purposes of this article," the piece continues, "I will delineate some of Marx's conclusions as a series of theoretical leaps." I have excerpted some portions below:

Leap One: From Critic to Radical Democrat

He landed a job in 1842 as editor of a liberal newspaper called the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhineland Times) and set about journalistically savaging laws that prohibited peasants from collecting firewood on the gentries' estates and limited freedom of the press.

These conflicts taught Marx that society was not made up of autonomous individuals operating under a more (or less) democratic government. Rather, society was divided into classes and ruled over by a political state.

Marx wielded his pen like a sword, but the Prussian police wielded real swords, shutting down the paper in 1843 and sending Marx into exile.

Leap Two: A Class with Radical Chains

Leap Three: Class Struggle and Revolution

Marx had come a long way from battling fellow graduate students over French novels and philosophical treaties. He now saw that the working class was the only social group potentially powerful enough to defeat the forces of order, and that the working class itself would become conscious of its own goals in a living mass movement, a revolution--not through lectures by well-meaning philosophers.

Leap Four: Harder Than It Looks

In addition to the "muck of ages" and internal divisions, workers faced a centralized, armed, organized enemy in the ruling class state. So long as this state remained whole, it had the power to suppress or absorb any revolutionary challenge.

Leap Five: Taking Power for Ourselves

In 1871, exhausted by a senseless war between Germany and France, workers and the poor in Paris threw out their capitalist government and replaced it with the Paris Commune. For 71 days, the red flag flew over the most famous city in the world. [...]

German and French rulers knew the real enemy when they saw it and, putting aside their military conflict, conspired to drown the Commune in blood. Thirty thousand died in the fighting and subsequent mass executions.

"Marx would recognize Donald Trump for the reactionary he is," the piece continues as it leads to present-day events, "and he would celebrate the teachers' strike wave in West Virginia and Kentucky and Oklahoma and Arizona:"

He would recognize the terrible human toll of a system based on profits for the few and misery for the many.

He would recognize that radicals must merge with a living mass movement if they want to challenge the powers that be. And he would recognize Egypt and Occupy and Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and the March for Our Lives.

But he would also insist that the only social force capable of moving from protest to power is the global working class.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on May 4, 2018 7:48 AM.

crediting Marx's contribution was the previous entry in this blog.

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