by BoB WeicK
In a café in Paris in 1844 two young, brilliant revolutionary thinkers met, spent ten days in spirited wine-soaked debate and formed a lifelong bond. A friendship that would last 40 years. Their body of brilliant economic and philosophical writings would inspire revolutions, shake the foundations of political economy, and thereby change the course of history.
Long since buried, and in certain circles dismissed as irrelevant, we have recently been experiencing a renewed interest in Marx and Engels. Karl Marx, it seems, with his studious critique of capitalism found in the voluminous Das Kapital, along with his co-author Friedrich Engels, and their clarion call for the revolutionizing of society in The Communist Manifesto, have returned from the grave.
The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, is short and salty, with concepts and ideas immediately accessible. It was born in the midst of great societal upheaval. Kings and capitalists struggled to hold back the rising tide of communist political organizing. Indeed, the ruling classes saw clearly that “A spectre is haunting Europe. The spectre of communism.” These opening lines, this energetic claim, inspired those seeking freedom from the fetters of the bourgeoisie. It placed capitalism in a historical context. For those living in the tumult of the day and for generations to follow, it laid out in layman’s terms the battle that lay ahead, why it must be fought, and who must win. Engels conceded that Marx was the primary author, a “genius” and was content to play “second fiddle” to “so splendid a first fiddle.” Yet together they produced a concise pamphlet, remarkable for its grasp of the historic moment in which it was born. The Manifesto is the most widely read, if not the only work read, by many who engage with anti-capitalist revolutionary thought.
The publication of the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867, along with volumes two and three published posthumously by Engels, is another story. Unlike The Manifesto, it was not written for the general public. When trade unionist Peter Fox was handed a copy of Das Kapital, he lamented “I feel like a man who has just been given an elephant as a gift.” One has to agree. It is an elephant. Yet, it provided an in-depth analysis of the obscure and little understood inner workings of capitalism. Das Kapital is a scientific and technical analysis, albeit with several moments of poetic satire and wit. Written for the consumption of other philosophers, theorists, and economists, and to undergird the vanguard of the party, this work is often a challenge to read. Indeed, certain passages are almost as difficult to read as Marx’s famously indecipherable handwriting. (Handwriting of such dreadful penmanship that it had to be transcribed by his devoted wife Jenny before any work could be sent off to the printer.) The abridged version offered here is a godsend to those wanting to under- stand Marx’s political economy on a deeper level, but are not prepared to devote years of their lives to the effort.
Today, as then, Capitalism and Communism stand in binary oppositions to each other. In between these polls exists a variety of political and economic expression. So why this renewed interest in the philosophy of Karl Marx? Here in the United States neoliberal economic policies have failed to meet the needs and expectations of mil- lions of people, yet with capitalism firmly ensconced in the halls of power, Marx’s closing prediction in The Communist Manifesto that the ruling classes would “tremble” at the inevitable rise of communism seems a naive fantasy. His warning, a hollow threat, a laughable proclamation duly placed in the ash bin of history. Neoliberal democracies, the successful winners in this historic battle of ideologies, would come to rule and dominate the planet. However, across the globe, there are challenges to the status quo coming from both ends of the political spectrum. A terrifying rise of right-wing authoritarianism, nationalism, and neofascism, is met on the left with a resurgence of socialist organizing. Marx would likely point to the systemic injustices in our current economic mode of production as the reason for the rejection of the status quo. Just as millions lived in desperate poverty during the 1800’s so too today, as rampant inequality soars to ever greater heights and as then, so too now, has undue influence in the halls of political power. Marx wrote in 1864 “To conquer political power has, therefore, become the duty of the working classes.”
Marx’s pointed comment in the Manifesto stating that “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” rings true today. The inequality ever present in capitalist society was laid bare in their time, so too in ours. New challenges and questions arose then and arise now: Does society have to be this way? Where can we look for alternative ways for organizing our lives and work? Marx dares to answer these questions and many more in the book you now hold in your hands.
Born on May 5th, 1818 in the Western German city of Trier, Marx enjoyed a childhood of relative ease and economic security. His father Heinrich had converted to the Lutheran faith in order to enhance the viability of his law practice. It was not practical to be a Jew in Germany. It was assumed that young Karl would follow his father in the practice of law, but he was quickly drawn to philosophy and radical politics while being educated at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin. A member of the Young Hegelians and an eager follower of Hegel’s famous dialectic which pro- posed that any existing reality, a thesis, is challenged by a competing thought, an “antithesis.” This tension is then resolved by a synthesis of these competing ideas. At this point, a new thesis arises which is later challenged by a new antithesis, and then a new synthesis emerges and so on ad infinitum. The state of the world order was not fixed or pre-ordained but rather was in a constant process of change. In this exciting academic environment, he became involved in left-wing struggles which eventually led to his exile from Germany as well as other countries on the continent until at last he, his wife, and children landed in London in 1849 where he would live out his days. His remains rest at Highgate cemetery in London.
His life on Dean Street in the slums of the Soho neighborhood of London was one of recurring financial debt and privation. It was dismal setting in which Marx saw three of his children die; their deaths seemingly brought on by the frequent cold and damp of those two cramped rooms, along with periods of malnutrition. Scraping out a meager living was a daily battle for the young philosopher’s family. Without the support of Friedrich Engels, the family may not have survived at all.
Friedrich Engels, like Marx, was born into a prosperous family in the Rhine- land region of Western Germany. His parents were devout Christians, and his father, a successful industrialist. Displaying a remarkable gift for literature, and languages, (he would later speak nine of them), his father nevertheless ended his education at the age of 17 and set him to work in the family business. Friedrich was soon to take control of his own education, eventually adopting atheism and like his good friend discovered and became a follower of Hegel. Inspired, as was Marx, by the notion that wrestling with contradictory opinions give rise to new ones. Yet, these philosophical pursuits were matched by a vigor and physical engagement with the world. At twenty-one, Engels was both a talented horseman, and a graceful dancer, but he left his cozy existence and joined the Army in 1841. “The General,” as he came to be affectionately called, was delighted to be set free from his desk.
Yet his time spent among the working classes in Manchester deeply moved Engels. His experience led to his first great work The Condition of the Working Class in England.
No doubt Marx’s personal experiences of poverty, along with his daily witness of the struggles of the working class in London and Engels’s experience in his beloved Manchester, fed their dual passion for revolutionizing society. They theorized that a new world was possible. Marx proclaimed “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Capital- ism inhibits this free development. Communism offered an end to this cycle of the dominance of one class and the corresponding submission of another. In the view of Marx and Engels and many of their closest companions, capitalism with its internal contradictions, its tendency to fall into cyclical crises, and its dehumanizing effects on the worker, was merely a stage in the historical development and had outlived its usefulness. The dialectical march of history had proclaimed its doom.
Marx took Hegel’s dialectic and applied it to the history of economic systems. When Marx looked back through history, he saw that there had always been a ruling class and an exploited class. This application leads to one of his most famous conclusions in philosophy, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” He saw that these early systems of slavery and feudalism, like capitalism, had internal conflicts that led inevitably to their demise.
However, contrary to Marx’s foundational premise of a constantly evolving society of “freely associated Men,” subsequent iterations of his philosophy often misinterpreted his meaning and tragically, in the hands of some leaders, became dogmatic and totalitarian, in full rupture with Marx’s dialectical foundation. Most often this abusive centralization of power and rigid dogmatism was a blood-soaked attempt to save a nascent revolution. The Machiavellian belief that the ends could justify the means of maintaining the revolution ran counter to Marx’s insistence on consent as a first principle for organizing society.
As we have seen in the years since his death on March 14, 1883, attempts at forming communist states have drifted inexorably away from the foundational philosophical understanding of Marx. In these instances, Marx’s work has been misinterpreted and faultily applied, when not outright abandoned. These attempts also suffered mightily under capitalist forces bringing all their power in opposition. Yet, throughout the years many still held the red banner of revolution high and struggled to rescue Marx from the distortion of his fundamental philosophy. To this day, many across the globe continue championing the Marxist ideal of co-operation and workers’ democracy in defiance. Many reinforce and build on his theory of freedom from alienation and exploitation. It’s easy to extrapolate that Karl Marx himself would roundly condemn those dictatorial nations that wrongly called themselves communist.
Given the stratification and polarization present in society today the search for a better way to structure our economy has led to a resurgence of inquiry about Marx and socialism to such an extent that avowed socialist Bernie Sanders could not only run in the U.S. presidential primary but win entire States in the process. While Sanders is admittedly not a Marxist, his proud association with socialism indicates a tectonic shift in the political landscape. Clearly, the times have changed. Marx and socialism, at least to a significant portion of the American population, was once again worthy of discussion and consideration. In light of the political and economic realities in the United States the words of the Manifesto stating that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” never seemed more relevant than where we find ourselves today. Marx theorized that the material circumstances of people’s lives are fundamental to their perception and understanding of the world around them. The material challenges and the economic realities of life in western democracies at the start of the 21st century no doubt contribute to this renewed interest and awareness of Marxism. Conversely and more disturbingly to many, the pre- carious nature of the material lives of the typical worker has also led to explorations of right-wing ideology, authoritarianism, nationalism, and Nazism in response to the neoliberal failings.
The stages of development of the communist experiment, once full of hope and promise in the last half of the 19th century, empowered by the publication of the Manifesto and Das Kapital, devolved from a vision of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” of empowered workers, and the truly democratic expression of “freely associated men,” to the centralization of power embodied in a cult figure, single party or central committee.
As we witness the rise of right-wing authoritarianism, with socialism no longer the dirty word it once was, with the crises of capitalism and its problematic results all around us, now is the perfect time to re-issue Marx’s most famous works to meet the needs of the growing number of people drawn to its critical analysis and hopeful message. Rooted in the goal of liberation from the oppressive forces of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism, at a time when right-wing reactionaries and authoritarianism is gaining popularity, Marx and socialism have been reborn in response. In this era of “post-truth,” “fake news,” rising inequality, and environmental destruction, alter- natives must be found. Marx can contribute mightily to that search.
Has the war been lost, or is this conflict of ideas simply an ongoing historic battle? In the end will Karl Marx triumph over Adam Smith? Will a new synthesis come from the current divisions in American political and economic life? What will be the history of economic evolution in the 21st century? Time will tell. Until then, let us all play our part in this historical moment. May this collection help your understanding, and inform your actions.
Bob Weick is the international touring actor of Howard Zinn’s Marx In Soho. He resides in Philadelphia.
Claeys, Gregory. Marx and Marxism. New York: Nation Books, 2018
Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Edited by David McLellan, Oxford: Oxford Classics, 2009
Gabriel, Mary. Love and Capital. Boston: Little Brown, 2011
Marx, Karl. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: Prometheus Books, 1988
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015
Zinn, Howard. Marx in Soho. Brooklyn: South End Press, 1999
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