Karl Marx and Our Necessary Future

When Karl Marx (born on 5 May 1818) finished his doctoral dissertation on Epicurus, he could not find a job. The reactionary climate in Germany meant that any radical, actually any liberal, could not be allowed a post; two of Marx’s interlocutors – Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer – were both denied academic jobs. Marx, therefore, wandered into journalism; he, along with Bruno Bauer, worked at Rheinische Zeitung, where he wrote powerful pieces from 1842 to 1843. In January 1843, Marx wrote a set of blistering essays (Justification of the Correspondent from the Mosel) defending the wine growers of the Mosel Valley, not far from his birthplace of Trier. The State had decreed that the plight of the wine growers had nothing to do with the abstract capitalist forces or the laws put in place by the bourgeoisie; their distress was their own. ‘For a long time,’ Marx wrote, ‘the desperate state of the vine-growers was doubted in higher quarters, and their cry of distress was regarded as insolent shrieking.’ The Prussians had thrown the wine growers to the forces of the market, and the Mosel peasants suffered the consequences, not of their own making. The State regards the ‘ruin of the poorer vine-growers’ as a ‘kind of natural phenomenon, to which one must be resigned in advance, seeking only to mitigate the inevitable’. Through his research, Marx found, however, that it was the Prussian State that had changed its policies and that had thrown the small farmers to the wolves of the larger wine producers and – inevitably – to the capitalist system.

Marx had written with great feeling about the debates in the Rhein assembly over the question of firewood collected by the dispossessed peasants from the common forests (Debates on Law on Thefts of Wood). The State sought to ban this collection and treated any act of gathering from forests as an act of theft. The military and the police rode into the forest to whip the peasants as they gathered wood. The peasants, Marx wrote, know the punishment. They are being beaten, even killed. But what they do not know is the crime. For what crime are they being punished? The very act of gathering wood was seen by the forest owners and the State as a challenge to the inviolable capitalist right to private property. Marx summoned all his youthful outrage to attack the debate and the law. ‘Just as it is not fitting for the rich to lay claim to alms distributed in the street, so also in regard to these alms of nature.’ The ‘customary rights of the poor’ were being denied so that the State could uphold the bourgeoisie’s right to private property.

It was because of Marx’s essays on such topics that the authorities shut down the Rheinische Zeitung. It was not the last time Marx would fall foul of the authorities for his journalism. From Paris, where he went into exile, Marx would only be allowed to publish one issue of Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher, in which he had called for the ‘merciless criticism of all that exists’. This was too much for the reactionary forces. They accused him of Communism. This piqued Marx’s interest. He went to learn about it. His instinctive attachment to the struggles of the agricultural workers had schooled him to stand on their side in the class struggle; now he would convert that instinct into science.

There are important aspects of Marx’s early journalism that need to be highlighted, since they help orient one to Marx’s important contribution and to why he remains essential for our times.

1. Marx wrote about the plight of the workers and he rooted himself in their reality and their struggles. It was not difficult for him to be able to write – with Engels – in 1848 that ‘the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle’. He had experienced this in the Mosel valley and in the Rhein forests. The baton of the police and the eviction notice of the bailiff were not abstract forces, but the concrete manifestation of the class struggle.

2. Marx understood that liberal pleas to the State were insufficient. The censorship that his papers faced showed him that the State would use violence against workers and the muzzle against the press to prevent any advance on the class struggle. Good arguments were insufficient. The workers had to organise, power had to be constructed in organisations, to change the balance of forces. This was a lesson Marx digested from his own early experiences with State power on behalf of the capitalist class.

3. Marx began to assert the point that the class struggle in one locality – the Morel valley – could not be understood only as a local issue. It was linked to the broader question of the world market, of international trade and of price arbitrage. Marx did not have the concepts for all this yet, but he certainly had the instinct that this was not a local issue, in fact that the struggles in Morel and in the Rhein forests were linked in some way to be studied with struggles elsewhere and with capitalist forces that linked them somehow.

4. Marx offered very detailed assessments of the fights in each of these places, a habit that would continue to his final writings. What Lenin would later emphasise as the ‘concrete analysis of the concrete conditions’ is something that is already there in Marx’s reports; but equally, there is an attempt to understand these concrete conditions in terms – as I mentioned – of the broader historical forces. The influence of Hegel prevented Marx from slipping into mere empiricism; he was interested in structures and in the impact of these structures on the daily struggles of the working class.

Until the end of the 1850s, Marx lived in a Europe defined by counter-revolutionary politics. This was not the easiest time to be alive. Reactionary forces had crushed the flowering of hope that emerged out of the French Revolution, and these reactionaries chased Marx from Germany to Paris to Brussels and eventually to his long exile in London. It was in this context that Marx would develop three related forms of work.

First, Marx, for the totality of his life, continued to be a journalist. He wrote about events in Europe, certainly, with a focus on France (his three sets of writings and speeches on France – Class Struggles in France [1850], The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon [1852], Civil War in France [1871] – are emblematic of these sorts of texts). But through the 1850s, Marx expanded his journalism to cover uprisings in India and Ireland; in 1853, he wrote of India that the English had ‘broken down the entire framework of Indian society … the loss of the old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery’ of the Indian; there is a blistering criticism of colonialism, of how India had been reduced to a producer of raw materials for English industry and to a buyer of finished English goods. The close attention to detail about places that Marx had to study carefully played a role in his global assessment of capitalism, his understanding of the world-historical significance of events in India and Ireland as much as in Germany and England; Marx elaborated his international consciousness in his journalism, texts which he would refer to in his more theoretical work on political economy. Curiosity about the world defined Marx’s attitude.

Second, frustration with the limits of socialist thought – steeped in idealism – drew Marx to very close assessments not only of the best of theoretical writings but to build knowledge about material conditions of human life. Vast reading of government reports and of union activity alongside a close reading of Adam Smith and David Ricardo and others enabled Marx to develop his scientific understanding of capitalism. This would appear in several texts, such as his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and Capital (1867). It was through his studies that Marx developed his understanding of how human beings who had lost their means of survival had to sell their labour power as a commodity to the capitalist, and how this labour power was wielded on the factory floor through the tussle over time and over productivity to provide surplus value, which was then wrenched by the capitalist to accumulate capital. This accumulation of capital – out of the theft of surplus value from the production process – enabled the capitalists to expand their operation of production and deepen their hold on the economic, social, and political order. It was this scientific assessment that enabled Marx to explain why a worker, who worked ceaselessly, could not break the chains of exploitation through savings or through harder work; it explained why the seemingly perpetual motion machine of capital accumulation continued to generate inequality. The fetters on workers, as Marx’s theory showed, were not laziness or lack of ingenuity – the fetter was the lack of power to challenge the basis of the system; and the antidote was to fight for its transformation.

Third, from his early days, Marx involved himself in active political work. In the Spring of 1847, he joined the Communist League, for whom he – with Engels – wrote the Communist Manifesto a year later. In exile in England, Marx maintained an active correspondence with his comrades, hoping – even in this time of counter-revolution – to maintain connections and build a network of organisations and militants. This work germinated in the International Workingmen’s Association, founded in September 1864, which would later be called the First International. The international linked together labour movements from across Europe. Marx’s spectacular address to the International on the Paris Commune – The Civil War in France – provides a powerful example of the way Marx understood how to analyse the conjuncture and how to develop strategies and tactics out of it. These were the days before the mass socialist labour parties existed. Marx developed his understanding of international politics through his correspondence with his comrades, learning from them, pushing them, always with the full knowledge that the working-class movement had to expand itself to unite the international working class to confront the immense power of capitalism and the capitalist states.

So much needs to be said about Marx, so much needs to be explained in a careful and detailed way. But, for now, on his birthday, three main points should at least be absorbed for us, in our time:

1. That we must always seek a precise assessment of the structures of exploitation and oppression. A scientific attitude must govern our exploration of why social inequality is reproduced routinely in our world. Outrage is important, but only when combined with the most careful and accurate understanding of how the totality of the system operates. It is clear, for instance, that the capitalist system lurches from one crisis to another, that it cannot find a project of any credibility to lead us forward past these crises. Each crisis demonstrates the insolvency of the system, and with each crisis and the lukewarm solutions of the bourgeois managers come the same exhausted answers; for instance, put liquidity into the financial sector and bail out the multinational corporations. The bourgeois order is more concerned to save the capitalist system than to save humanity. That is clear. But we, as Marxists, need to understand precisely the nature of the crisis and see within the world as it is what elements there are to carry us forward into the world that is to be built.

2. That we must develop a sober assessment of the subjective limitations of our political forces. For forty years the capitalist system has been in crisis. It is equally clear that in this period the working class globally has struggled to build its strength, that the reservoirs of working-class power have eroded, that our organisations are not what they should be. To develop strategies to build the independent strength of the working class and the peasantry remains a key task of our time, as it was in Marx’s time, another long period of counter-revolution.

3. That we must look beyond nations and beyond communities towards the liberation of humanity, that only an international perspective can help us develop the kind of movements that are needed to build power and undermine the authority of the bourgeois order. The dilemmas of humanity will not be easy to solve only within nation-states, although political power must be secured through them. Ours has always been a movement that builds its strength within a country and then without the country. We do not succumb to the lure of bourgeois nationalism. As Rosa Luxemburg warned during the period of the First World War, and bitterly against militarism as a synonym for nationalism: ‘workers of the world unite in peacetime; during war, they slit each other’s throats’. This is not our politics. Our politics is class war, not the war of people against people.

One of the great downsides of our current inflation of atrocities is the sense that nothing other than this nightmare is possible. Alternatives cannot be imagined. Mockery pushes aside thinking about a different future. When these are attempted, as they always are by resilient humans, those in power strive to snuff them out. It is better for the powerful and the propertied to see that no model of an alternative can flourish. It would call into question the claim that what governs the world now is eternal, that History has ended.

The challenges before us are many. We come to them with no illusions. ‘Tell no lies,’ said Amilcar Cabral, ‘claim no easy victories.’ But we are resolute. If we do not struggle to build strong left movements, we deliver humanity into the arms of atomisation and hate, into authoritarianism and neo-fascism. That is the direction in which we are going – towards hate and the destruction of the planet. Only the left is against this orientation. Our task is simple: either we organise people and form a socialist world, or the planet itself will perish.

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Also see:

A World to Win: Essays on The Communist Manifesto (1999), ed. Prakash Karat, with contributions by Aijaz Ahmad, Irfan Habib, Prabhat Patnaik

Marx’s Capital: An Introductory Reader (2011), essays by Jayati Ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik, Prasenjit Bose, R. Ramakumar, T. Jayaraman, Venkatesh Athreya, Vijay Prashad

कार्ल मार्क्स : जीवन परिचय (2019), शंकर दयाल तिवारी

Featured image created by Tings Chak.