By Marc Mulholland, Dublin Review of Books, June 17, 2013
Book Review of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber, Liveright Publishing, 648 pp, £25
Karl Marx, writes Jonathan Sperber in this splendid new biography, was “a true and loyal friend, but a vehement and hateful enemy”. To be in his small circle was to feel part of something historic, but also to be exposed to constant critical scrutiny. Once he feared for his political reputation, Marx let no politesse hold him back. One close colleague, Wilhelm Liebknecht, remembered him as “the most accessible of men … cheerful and amiable in personal relations”. It was as well, perhaps, that Liebknecht remained unaware of his sniping remarks about him in private letters. Marx’s closest friendship was with Friedrich Engels, a man many found to be extremely off-putting in person: strongheaded, rather vain and arrogant. It may be that his buddy relationship with Engels licensed Marx to ditch responsible leadership and blow off steam, and their mutual correspondence is certainly full of unedifying abuse of almost everyone they knew. But it is Marx’s ability to inspire loyalty and awed respect that comes through most clearly from the recollections of those who knew him.
Sperber’s Marx is very much “a nineteenth-century Anglo-German bourgeois”, and as such he was a fairly typical father and husband. Sperber rather approves of Marx’s “middle way” between bohemianism and Victorian patriarchy. That may be justified, though the suicide of one daughter (Eleanor, who feared the emergence of some obscure scandal blackening her dead father’s name) and the suicide pact of another daughter and son-in-law (Laura and Paul Lafargue) rather suggests an intense family atmosphere crippling of psychological well-being.
Marx sacrificed the welfare of himself and his family, as he was guiltily aware, on the altar of revolution. He gave up easy income, quiet study, respectable recognition, his own health and many friendships to the imperious demands of unremitting struggle. His family and circle were dragooned into exhausting work for the cause. Their solidarity was not always sufficient to protect him from the tragedies of life ‑ “All of you cannot give me my boy back” he brokenly cried after the death in 1855 of his eight-year-old son, Edgar – but they were indispensable to Marx’s work and as such never free agents. He was, in life and from the grave, their heroic exemplar and demanding tyrant for the cause. It was a crushing burden, but it had its rewards. Marx’s wife, Jenny Westphalen, in 1881 died contented knowing that her husband’s great work, Capital, was finally reaching public notice in Britain, years after its first publication in 1867, and cheered by the impressive electoral results for Marx-inspired socialists in Germany. These were ambitions for which a lifetime’s energies could rightly be spent.
Marx was that nineteenth century novelty, the professional revolutionary. Like the Mazzinian Italian nationalist, the Blanquist French republican, the Russian nihilist terrorist, or the Irish Fenian he dedicated himself to working for the overthrow of the established order, in season and out. Two things made him unique: his penetrating and awesomely capacious intellect and his faith in the world-changing potential of a new class, the wage-earning proletariat engaged in modern industry. These attributes made him a figurehead for the labour movement that arose powerfully after his death, and for all the regimes that modelled themselves on the Bolshevik Revolution. As has been said, never since the Islamic conquests in the seventh century has the world seen a faith identified with one man spread so far, so explosively, and in such a short space of time.
For Sperber, the collapse of communism has cleared the way for a re-evaluation of Marx as a distinctively nineteenth century figure. This was a man typical of many bourgeois revolutionaries of his time. “Citizen” Marx (he never embraced the new-fangled “comrade”) was like so many others alienated from official society in having no employment to match his high-grade education, in being hypnotised by the Jacobin phase of the great French Revolution, in cheering his chosen side in international wars. Sperber has made ample use of the newly edited complete works of Marx and Engels, and his industry is clear in the multiple references in footnotes. From Marx’s reporting and correspondence in particular, he tracks a life fully imbricated in its own time. So this is a historian’s Marx; but Sperber’s book is also a gripping page-turner. (It is evidently produced for a wide audience. The German titles of periodicals Marx wrote for are silently translated into English. I follow this practice here.) It joins David McLellan’s biography as an indispensable Life and Times of an enduringly fascinating and important man.
It’s certainly true that Marx needs to be understood in his nineteenth century context. It is also true that, as an intellectual, he must be rooted in the canon of political thought his century inherited. As Sperber neatly puts it, Marx’s “communist aspirations” derived from “ideas about abolishing distinctions between individuals and civil society”. These ideas were far from novel.
From the ancient world, philosophy had always turned on the tension between free will and our reliance on the environment, both natural and human. Plato had taught that ideal norms for the individual could be inferred from degenerate empirical reality. No one actually existing person or act is purely “good” – mixed motives lie behind every beneficent or deleterious deed ‑ but we understand what “goodness” means and work towards that ideal. Our free will consists in our recognising the necessity of these ideal forms. They are superior to mere empirical environment and in that sense more real. This philosophical “realism” would underpin monotheistic religion ‑ Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – where the perfection of God and the virtues He embodies is more real than the dim reflections we encounter in our pilgrimage through the fallen world. In the afterlife, estrangement from the Real is overcome, for in eternity the elect are at one with the absolute that is God.
Aristotle rejected “realism” for “nominalism”: the perfect forms are only the names we give to ideals that have no other existence outside our consciousness. For Aristotle, therefore, human communication to identify and act upon ideals is crucial, and this requires sociability. In isolation, man is either a beast or a god, and outside of the human state. Aristotle’s highest form of society was political, specifically the Greek city-state or polis. Here the dichotomy between free will and environment is resolved. The pressure of other wills and resistant nature no longer circumscribes the individual, but realises him. Only through sociability, discussion, and the exercise of authority based upon mutual recognition can an individual assert himself. Admittedly, those biologically unfitted, such as women, children, “natural slaves” and “barbarians”, are excluded from Aristotle’s citizenry.
The polis was breaking down even as Aristotle taught, and there succeeded philosophies of individual disengagement from oppressive society (cynicism, epicurism) or unillusioned acceptance of the individual’s obligations to society (stoicism). The Roman Empire acknowledged the dependence of the individual on the whole through the rule of law, the civic rights of the free Roman citizen and, unlike the Greeks, the natural rights of all peoples; but it allowed little active political role for citizens.
Medieval “feudalism” disintegrated sovereign imperium and the locus of mutual obligations devolved upon the organic group, such as the lord-retainer bond or the artisanal guild. The right to political consultation was recognised for landed and urban elites, and universal natural rights of justice existed for all under one God. But by the seventeenth century states with absolutist ambitions were seeking to reduce the disruptive autonomous power of elites. In this context, Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) took issue with Aristotle’s argument that individual self-fashioning requires communication without hindrance. For Hobbes, the individual is actually inhibited and imperilled by the unrestrained clash of clamorous wills. Man is not realised though society, but oppressed by it. The only resolution is for all individuals to accept a single authority, the sovereign state, as the sole arbiter of right. As the sovereign authority maintains its security most efficaciously by upholding civil peace and order it will be prudent, and such laws as promulgated will be unlikely to impinge on the individual’s powers to pursue private contentment and commercial prosperity. Future liberals were less inclined to take for granted the rationality of the state and from John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) they took a residual right to revolution. Otherwise, they accepted the Hobbesian implication of equality before the sovereign law.
Eighteenth century British thinkers, notably Adam Smith, William Robertson and Adam Ferguson, welcomed a dawning age of commerce, in which the prudent state would leave the industrious individual free to trade and barter, and in so doing elevate the commonwealth. Wealth accumulated though commerce is a moralising influence insofar as its pursuit brings people together to compete in hard work, talent, trustworthiness, and well-grounded reputation. Mere luxury, that acquisition of ostentatious riches by force or guile which degrades individuals and the public sphere, was fated to wither away. British empiricists (such as David Hume) and utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham) abandoned natural law and side-lined God in favour of a pragmatic calculus of benefit, measured by the happiness of the greater number of individuals and arrived at through successive trial and error.
Even the British champions of civil society, however, were concerned that commercial competition could fragment society. Economic competition encourages individuals to haggle and cheat, to buy cheap and sell dear. Mutual dependence suppresses individual authenticity, as the rich boast and intimidate and the poor fawn and connive. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was convinced that the individual could only come into true and free communion with his fellows once society had been fundamentally reordered on egalitarian lines. But he did not expect his new “social contract” to emerge spontaneously from the currents of civilisation. It would require a radical rupture in the flow of history, and the adventitious arrival of a great “legislator”.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German writing in the shadow of the French Revolution, more optimistically thought that a resolution between the individual and the world was immanent in the progress of history. He argued that, looking backwards, history could be understood as a series of approximations in the recognition of freedom, itself defined as society being necessary for individual flourishing rather than antithetical to it. Human understanding apprehends the world, but in so doing acts upon it through practical activity and changes it. This in turn leads to re-evaluation as concepts come into contradiction with changed realities. New conceptions of reality develop in reaction to previous held notions, but this is not a straightforward process of supersession. Each reiteration of understanding carries with it the imprint of the previous, so there is a cumulative if indirect ascent towards the Geist, or Spirit of freedom and necessity reconciled. Hegel, roughly speaking, believed that commercial civil society was beneficial in encouraging mutual interaction so long as sub-state institutions maintained solidarities that softened the edges of cutthroat competition and a rational state stood over all to protect coherence and as a symbol of unity. This not only integrated the partial advances of history into a balanced whole, but for Hegel looked uncannily like the contemporary Prussian state.
Marx was born in 1818 and grew up in the Catholic Rhineland, though he himself came from a Jewish family recently converted to Lutheranism for reasons of career. The Rhineland had been passed from France to Protestant Prussia by the great powers in 1815. For the Rhenish people, the alien Prussian state certainly did not reconcile the individual and society. Many Young Hegelians in university circles, which Marx joined in 1835, approved of their master’s philosophy but were unconvinced that the old-fashioned corporations and authoritarian monarchy were really bulwarks of freedom. By the 1840s, they were moving towards republican and democratic ideals. Edward Gans, Marx’s university teacher before his early death, edited Hegel’s works but was also constructively critical of them. While Hegel had looked backwards to quasi-feudal institutions such as guilds to damp down the centripetal tendencies of the market, Gans looked forward to worker co-operatives. As Sperber points out, the imprint of Gans can be clearly identified in Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848).
Most Young Hegelians preferred to attack religion as the expression of man’s alienation from his authentic self and from others. “My religion is no religion,” as Ludwig Feuerbach put it. Bruno Bauer was even more of an anti-religious zealot. His atheist scorn for piety would ultimately lead him down the path of anti-Semitism, but for the young Marx, Bauer’s replacement of Hegel’s idealistic “spirit” with human self-consciousness was an inspiration. Marx was strongly influenced by Bauer, but would soon abandon organised atheism as petty. (Years later, Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, recalled that her father hardly ever spoke about religion; neither for nor against. Marx’s wife and eldest daughter attended Charles Bradlaugh’s atheist Sunday services in London, but Karl was of the opinion that if they wanted edification or satisfaction of their metaphysical needs they’d do better finding them in the Jewish prophets rather than in Bradlaugh’s shallow reasoning. Even if Marx never lost his taste for private anti-Jewish invective to entertain Engels, he was open about his own Jewishness and “took a certain perverse pride” in it; Eleanor positively celebrated her Jewish heritage).
Aged twenty-three, Marx took his doctorate in Greek philosophy and in 1842 returned to the Rhineland to begin adult life. This began a decade during which his political life pivoted between Berlin and Paris, with Cologne at its centre. Cologne was a commercial and trade city, and in the early years its powerful and enlightened liberal bourgeoisie supported Marx’s endeavours. One Cologne liberal proposed raising money for Marx in gratitude for his public service, on the model of funds gathered for the Irish leader Daniel O’Connell. Marx’s first political job was writing for the distinctly capitalist Rhineland News. A poor speaker, with a lisp and a pronounced provincial accent, he made his name with the pen. He courted liberals, defended free trade, and was sensitive to the Catholicism of the Rhineland. As his articles against the censorship showed, he was quick to position himself on the democratic end of the liberal spectrum.
It was in Cologne in 1842 that Marx first intensively studied socialism. He was largely unimpressed. For him, as for Hegel, the universal commodification of the market was to be welcomed insofar as it clarified the mutual interdependence of individual and society. He was opposed to backward-looking schemes that would break up society into communes, no matter how egalitarian these might be. As a philosopher, he stuck to that age-old ambition of achieving “true unity of the universal and the particular”. Equally, however, he grew tired of the Young Hegelian shibboleth of atheist proselytism: “I desired that religion be criticized more in the criticism of political conditions than political conditions be criticised in religion.”
Marx drifted further from the Hegelian mainstream as he absorbed criticism of the dog-eat-dog nihilism of commercial civil society, too powerful to be balanced by mere political structures. In an article defending civil rights for German Jews (1843), he argued that the narrow and selfish huckstering traditionally identified with Jewish traders had become generalised across Christian society by the advent of capitalism. There was no point now in abolishing Judaism, only the supersession of capitalism would suffice: “The emancipation from haggling and from money, thus from the practical, real Jewry would be the self-emancipation of our time.” The jokiness palls at our remove, to put it mildly, but intellectually On the Jewish Question signals Marx’s turn to socialism. Only if mutual reliance was no longer mediated by the impersonal market could it be transformed, from an oppressive force blindly coercing individuals to a means for their self-realisation. Marx was brought to the conviction that only the cooperative commonwealth could achieve “the true dissolution of the clash between man and nature, and between man and man”.
For Marx as a Hegelian, it was crucial to identify immanent tendencies within capitalist society driving towards its dissolution: more specifically, he needed to identify a particular social agency with both the immediate interest in and the capacity to secure the cooperative commonwealth. The class he alighted upon, in the course of 1844, was the wage-earning proletariat. Sperber follows many others in arguing that Marx constructed an appropriate working class in his head, to satisfy philosophical needs, before “discovering” it in reality. “Marx, one could say, invented the working class for political reasons.” There is much to this, though Marx was mixing with the numerous German artisans of Paris in 1844, and the following year accompanied Engels to mingle with Chartists and (probably) the denizens of industrial Manchester.
Sperber doesn’t really explain why Marx thought that the wage-earner was possessed of an instinctive will to socialism, though the question is clearly central to understanding his revolutionary career. His “discovery” of “a class with radical chains” was, admittedly, announced in the most abstruse, semi-mystical Hegelianese. An older colleague, Arnold Ruge, not unreasonably complained that Marx obscured his meaning by affecting a pretentiously epigrammatic style. Elsewhere, however, he was somewhat clearer.
Marx’s intellectual framework, later codified rather misleadingly as “historical materialism”, posited a kind of social metabolism. In making a living, individuals struggle with and assert themselves through nature and society. The means by which they maintain themselves deeply imprint their psychological make-up, so that an idealised mode of existence becomes the lodestar for all their hopes, dreams and beliefs. The peasant idealises sturdy independence on the family farm, the artisan idealises a moral market rewarding craft and reputation, the aristocrat idealises dignity and hierarchy. Naturally, different class interests will grind against each other. As productive forces develop the social metabolism shifts, and ideas, along with the political structures that institutionalise them, are revolutionised.
The capitalist market for the first time generates “a universal intercourse” wherein all those drawn into integrated production and exchange are directly dependent on all others – employers, fellow-workers, consumers. Wage-earners can no longer hope to retreat behind individual private property, as might peasants with their farms or master artisans with their workshops. The proletariat can only achieve the security of owning the means by which they make a living by appropriating “the existing totality of productive forces”. Proletarian appropriation, uniquely, “must have a universal character corresponding to the productive forces and the intercourse”. The point was not that the proletarian was more selfless than other classes, but that his desire to have and to hold can only be satisfied by collective ownership and regulation. Such an association, in which universal interdependence is now consciously willed, develops the universal recognition that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. Thus is dissolved the dichotomy of the individual on the one hand, society and nature on the other.
As Sperber rightly points out, Marx’s workers were in workshops, not on conveyor belts. Factories on a massive scale were a relative rarity in his lifetime: the heyday of the classic “industrial proletariat” beloved of sociology came later, from about 1920 to about 1970. Marx did speak of an industrial proletariat, but the nineteenth century sense of the term referred more to urban wage-earners available for regular employment (and their families) than to brawny factory metal-bashers as such. In Capital, the most memorable worker depicted is the martyred female seamstress, worked to death. When Marx idealised workers (which was rare enough, he habitually berated them as die Knoten, or blockheads) he had in mind the self-improving journeyman artisan:
When communist artisans unite, at first doctrine, propaganda, etc., is the purpose of their meetings. But as they meet, they appropriate a new need, the need for society, and what appeared as a means becomes an end. ... The brotherhood of man is no phrase, but a truth to them and the nobility of humanity shines out at us from figures hardened by labour.
“Modern industry” for Marx was defined as integrated production systematically organised around technology. Workers contributed the labour, skilled or unskilled, while the organisation provided the science and technique. Marx thought that service workers were proletarians if they were integrated into these productive complexes. As most service providers in his lifetime were those with specific non-transferable skills contracted to provide particular “use values”, he categorised them as petty bourgeois with acquired talents as their private property. Most service workers in the twentieth-first century, from food servers to IT generalists, would presumably be considered proletarian in Marxian terms.
It was Marx’s adherence to the “self-emancipation of the working class”, more than his philosophically derived ambition to overcome man’s alienation from society, nature and his authentic self, or his politically derived adherence to socialism, that marked him out from his peers. Marx adopted the label “communist” because, in the 1840s, this was taken to mean the most proletarian if hitherto least theoretically sophisticated of the socialistic schools. He insisted that communism was not ideological but rather the “universal expression of the actual relationships of an existing class struggle”. Not for nothing was he hailed years later, in 1871, by Italian socialists as “Carlo Marx, the indefatigable instrument of the working class”.
Shortly after his adherence to the proletarian cause, Marx polemicised against so-called “True Socialists” for their promotion of “life-style socialism” disconnected from the working class movement. That he was often unfair in his caricaturing of opponents, as Sperber points out, owed much to the fact that Marx was surreptitiously attacking his own former views. The Communist Manifesto (1848) disdained to philosophise, seeking instead to present the communists as partisans of the proletariat in an ongoing class struggle. Marx’s position in this never changed. Towards the end of his life, in 1879, Engels wrote on his behalf to condemn revisionists within the movement: “For almost forty years now, we have emphasised the class struggle … it is impossible for us to go together with people who wish to strike this class struggle from the movement.”
It is one thing to “emphasise” class struggle, however, and another to prioritise proletarian socialism in all cases. Sperber’s excellent analysis of Marx’s role in the 1848 Revolutions is based upon deeply compelling research. In the tide that swept Europe and plunged the absolutist German monarchies into crisis, Marx struggled to keep his political footing, balancing the demands of worker organisation for socialism and the more immediate goal of winning the “bourgeois liberty” of constitutional government and civil rights. From his Cologne base, Marx edited a newspaper, the New Rhineland News, which wielded a nationwide influence. It touted themes of radical liberalism far more than socialism. He held aloof from the large workers’ association in Cologne, though its eight thousand members comprised one in three of the city’s adult men, because its leader, Andreas Gottschalk, refused cooperation with bourgeois liberals against the counter-revolution. Even when the bourgeois French republic shot down Parisian workers in the notorious June Days of 1848, Marx was desperate to sustain the putative worker-bourgeois alliance. He condemned any attempt to establish single-class rule or workers’ resorting to arms against liberals. Revolutionary government, he insisted, should be made of “heterogeneous elements” that would “reach agreement about the most appropriate form of administration though the exchange of ideas”.
But Marx was no moderate. In calling for revolutionary rather than formally legal measures to secure parliamentary power against the monarchs, Marx favoured a class alliance of the liberal bourgeoisie and the mobilised plebeian “social republicans” to counter the intimidation of the unbroken monarchical soldiery. He appreciated the extreme difficulty of soldering a common front, and hoped for an outbreak of war with reactionary Russia which would split the royalist armies, require a levée en masse and revolutionise the revolution.
This, of course, didn’t come to pass. The old regimes reasserted themselves, and in 1849 the Tsarist army marched into Hungary to help Austria put down the revolution there. With many others, Marx the same year fled to London, aged thirty-two and already halfway through his life. At first he still expected the renewal of revolution, but now it was no more Mr Nice Guy: workers should “force the democrats to carry out their current terrorist phrases”, he insisted: “far from opposing so-called excesses, examples of the people’s revenge on hated individuals or public buildings connected with hateful memories, they must not just tolerate such excesses but take over leadership of them”. Still, these bloodcurdling tactical proposals were within the limits set down by the example of the original French Revolution, as Sperber notes. Marx still did not counsel immediate proletarian revolution. Even if the larger bourgeoisie had broken from the revolution, its unfolding would progress through stages ‑ petit-bourgeois, “social republic”, “social-communist”, only eventually “purely communist” ‑ and workers would not be fit to exercise power for fifteen, twenty or fifty years. Only by the late 1850s had Marx come to believe that immediate socialist revolution was conceivable in Europe.
By 1851, Marx had come to accept that a long period of reaction had set in, and he now argued that it was necessary to wait for economic crisis to detonate movements spontaneously rather than indulging in revolutionary adventurism. Marx’s constant prediction of imminent economic crisis became something of a standing joke among his colleagues. The Cologne Communists Trial of 1852, a travesty based upon the perjury of police spies and motivated by king Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s spite, smashed the residual presence of Marx’s organisation in Germany and led to the final dissolution of the Communist League.
With his scope for political activity now much circumscribed, Marx took time to look back on the experience of ’48 and to prospect ahead. Though Sperber argues that he was fixated throughout his career on the evils of Prussian absolutism, in the division of labour with Engels he actually specialised in French affairs. The collapse of the French Republic that had been declared in 1848 into Napoleon III’s authoritarian empire, mandated by plebiscite in 1852, was a particular problem for Marx, both emotionally and intellectually. Sperber presents Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), which attacked the ’48 revolutionaries for their excessive reliance on the model of the French Revolution, as “a particularly drastic example of Marx’s practice of engaging in self-criticism through the criticism of others”. This is certainly true. Its greater significance, however, was to revise Marx’s earlier assumption that the bourgeoisie were consistent opponents of absolutism and champions of constitutional government with civil rights. So long as capitalists were left to make money, Marx feared, the bourgeoisie were content to surrender the trouble of ruling to authoritarian governments on the model of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, particularly if political freedom threatened to enable the “social republicanism” of the working class.
The pusillanimity of the bourgeoisie, for Marx, was not just a French phenomenon. He bemoaned the “peace-mongering middle-class” in England who deferred to Whig aristocrats and refused to fight with sufficient vigour the counter-revolutionary Russian bear. Marx’s only complaint about the Crimean War (1853-1856) was that Britain was not prepared to expand it into all-out confrontation with the Tsarist regime. Partly for this reason, he always rather preferred the jingoistic British Tories to the Liberal Whigs. Sperber writes that Marx, like almost all radicals, “understood great power warfare in ideological terms, pitting the forces of change against those of the status quo”. Marx put Russia, the great reservoir of reactionary military power, at the centre of all his calculations. In 1859 he even opposed France and Piedmont’s war to liberate Italy from Austrian control for fear of Austria being weakened against Russia.
For Marx, the clearest political measure of the bourgeois parties was their willingness to wage revolutionary war rightly directed. With the possible exception of Lincoln’s determined and ultimately total war against the slave-owning Confederate States in the American Civil War, he was always disappointed. Still, he never entirely dismissed the bourgeoisie as a progressive force against “feudal absolutism”. He was optimistic about the struggle between the liberal Prussian parliament and the crown in the early 1860s, and he certainly opposed Ferdinand Lassalle, who was prepared to ally his incipient German socialist workers’ party with Bismarck against the liberals. In the 1870s he was still sternly warning his German followers against any “alliance with the absolutist and feudal enemies of the bourgeoisie”.
It was particularly the “democratic absolutism” of Louis Napoleon’s regime in France that frightened Marx. Resting upon the vote of a peasant mass lacking cohesion and the ability to pressurise the governmental centres of power, the Bonapartist state appeared dangerously free of restraint. Marx was always a specifically urban revolutionary. He welcomed capitalism because it raised human productivity and so for the first time promised the possibility of ending generalised want. But he equally celebrated its clarifying the mutual dependence of everyone who bought and sold goods and labour through its circuits. It created powerful collective actors focused in the towns and cities. The peasantry were quite a different matter. It is true that Marx maintained his conviction “that the social revolution must begin from the ground up, that is from property in land”. But while he despised landlordism he was no enthusiast for peasant proprietorship as a foundation for social structure. He deprecated the “idiocy” of rural life – idiocy then implying closed off, narrow and isolated.
Speaking of the self-contained villages that he thought characterised the “Oriental despotism” of pre-conquest India, he reminded readers that “we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it an unresisting tool of superstition”. English colonisation breaking apart traditional society was the “sine qua non of Indian self-emancipation, and of India ceasing to be the prey of the first foreign intruder”. It is difficult to imagine Marx approving of the Bolshevik decision in 1917 to ally with the peasantry against the liberal bourgeoisie. Certainly, as Sperber suggests, the Stalinist regime that eventuated can be considered analogous to Marx’s oriental despotisms.
As is well known, Marx spent much time in his London exile labouring on economics, finally producing just the first volume of Capital in 1867. “We imagine a bearded scholar poring for hours over tomes in the British museum,” writes Sperber, “but usually Marx’s theoretical pursuits had to be crammed in beside far more time-consuming activities.” Marx struggled to raise a family in at least genteel poverty, battled his affliction of suppurating skin sores, wrote tranches for six newspapers and plunged into controversies and polemics now almost entirely forgotten. It’s easy to overstate the centrality of his economic studies, much beloved of Marxian academia, to his life as lived.
He was not, moreover, seeking to erect an entirely new economic schema. The “discoveries” often attributed to him – the labour theory of value and the tendency for the rate of profit to fall – were borrowed from a “political economy” tradition, descended from John Locke, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, that was perfectly orthodox in its day. Sperber wryly points out that Marx’s writing on the perils of financial bubbles, which seem particularly apposite to our own era, owed little to his academic study, being reflections derived from the personal travails of both himself and his friend Engels. The bulk of Marx’s work on economics, in contrast, was “backward-looking” and firmly rooted in a tradition deriving from the eighteenth century.
At the heart of political economy was the “labour theory of value”. If value arises from labour, then the distribution of income should reflect individuals’ respective efforts through their labour contributed, either day to day, stored up in property, or justly inherited. The theory was intended to show that completely free trade, without inference from the state, would guarantee a harmonious and just distribution of income according to contribution. Whatever anybody earns in the laissez faire economy, the political economists wished to suggest, is determined by the assets of effort, talent or savings they invest. Political economy was a model of a society based upon “just rewards”.
Marx’s critique was “immanent”. In other words, he accepted the premise of the political economists, but tried to demonstrate that by following it consistently one discovered exploitation, not harmony of interests; not a natural state of affairs but a historically specific phase. His argument in the notoriously dry first six chapters of Capital, often considered to be the basics of a specifically “Marxist” economics, was actually presenting a clarified version of the political economists’ defence of liberal and utilitarian capitalism: “a very Eden of the innate rights of man” furnishing the “Free-trader Vulgaris with his views and ideas”. Marx spotlighted the ideological apologia smuggled into political economy by its assuming that labour is exchanged for its equivalent in wages. Under capitalism, Marx demonstrated, workers do not offer up a quantum of labour in return for wages, but rather their capacity to work (or “labour power”), and the capitalist is then free to extract as much labour from this as possible.
With this crucial introduction of labour power, the picture changes: “He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but ‑ a hiding.” Once the wage and working hours are agreed, there is no other contractual limit on the amount of labour the capitalist can extract from the worker. If it requires four hours for the worker to cover wages, she may not then go home. She is obliged to work another four hours, and this produces “surplus value”. The capitalist buys labour power for wages determined by the labour market, but seeks at a minimum to realise capital by selling the goods produced at the “price of production”, which includes all costs plus the average rate of profit.
Marx argued in Capital that only workers created value. But by his own reckoning this cannot be true, for Marx said that only “socially necessary” labour creates value. This is a crucial concession to a subjective definition of value, later taken up by the “marginalists”, because demand determines what labour is “socially necessary” rather than wasted in inefficient technique or the production of goods nobody wants. Marx’s attempt to dodge around this by contrasting “creation” of value in production to mere “realisation” of value in exchange seems to be a distinction without a real difference. As he elsewhere admitted, it requires specialised skill and effort to anticipate and supply demand in a complex economy, and so “the capitalist is still an independent functionary in the development of surplus value and surplus product”. At least part of profit can be considered a wage, and indeed is now often so accounted for, as salaries and bonuses. Still, as the capitalist bears down on labour costs whilst maximising profit and richly remunerating higher management, Marx’s exposé of the capitalist ideology of “just rewards” retains its sting.
Capitalism, Marx argued, amalgamated the individual worker in the workplace into a “collective labourer” directed from above by scientific technique. As he wrote:
When numerous workers work side by side in accordance with a plan … this form of labour is called co-operation ... In such cases, the effect of the combined labour could either not be produced at all by isolated individual labour, or it could be produced only by a great expenditure of time, or on a dwarf-like scale. Not only do we have here an increase in the productive power of the individual, by means of co-operation, but the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.
Marx should have concluded that co-operation was a value creating power itself, for “in the determination of value the question turns around social labour time in general”. When he tried to argue that the reduction of labour power as a proportion of total capital in technologically advanced industry must lead to the decline of the rate of profit, he barely took seriously enough his own observation that association of individual labour powers amounted to a collective labour power greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps he was misled by his determination to prove the conclusions of political economy, particularly their prediction of an economic “stationary state”. In practice Marx failed to come up with an overarching theory of “capitalist breakdown”.
While he broadly agreed with the political economy of the free trade vulgaris but corrected their view that the free market proportionately rewards effort, he disagreed with the socialist vulgaris who would seek to engineer a very Eden of individual workers receiving the full value of their labour. Marx did not wish to retreat from “the increasing development of the societal productive power of labour”. Private ownership could only be superseded by social ownership and profit only superseded by collectively agreed “deductions” to fund investment and social purposes. He pictured “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as one single social labour power”.
A real oddity of the volume of Capital published in his lifetime, at least to my mind, is in its characterisation of the proletariat. His description of workers as plunged into “slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation” was not only caricature, even in mid-Victorian England, but seemed to provide scant reason for expecting the proletariat to be able to emancipate itself. Certainly the arch-revisionist Eduard Bernstein, at the turn of the century, would make the case for abandoning worker-centred socialism by arguing that the debased nature of the proletariat rendered them incapable of acting as a “ruling class”.
How might we account for Marx’s deprecation of workers in Capital? Perhaps it owed something to the two modes of his thought identified by Sperber in the post ’48 years: his Hegelian love of paradox, with the most glorious salvation ironically found in the most degraded class, combined with a positivist faith in laws of development moving people around like chess-pieces, regardless of their attributes. Maybe it owed something to the depressing reality that, as Marx complained, Capital “was written to the accompaniment of carbuncles and daily dunning by creditors!” It’s true that Marx’s colleagues, including Engels, were rather underwhelmed by Capital, appearing as it did after years of effort and procrastination. Marx was understandably irked at the lack of public response that greeted its publication, and took refuge in the consoling myth of a bourgeois conspiracy of silence.
As a commentary on political economy, much of Capital was soon outdated by the development of an entirely new paradigm in the discipline: the marginalist revolution. In the 1870s Marx studied Stanley Jevons’s pioneering marginalist economics, but was by now too weakened to reflect on it creatively. By a curious twist of fate, his economic writings – so orthodox in many ways for their time –were by 1900 stranded far from the shifting academic mainstream, and this gave them an entirely unintended niche status appealing to heterodox subversives. In this curious half-life, Marx’s economics lives on, while that socialist analysis based upon marginalism developed by the Fabians, which categorised much of bourgeois income as a form of unearned rent, is lost to anti-capitalist thought. This is not only unfortunate but somewhat ironic because, as Sperber shows, Marx spent an inordinate amount of time examining the rent question, though he never moved beyond its limited application to land.
As Sperber argues, to get the full measure of Marx we need to look also at his activism during the Capital years. It is true that for much of the 1850s he had been isolated from workers and politically quite pessimistic. But, as Sperber notes, since 1859 he had re-established contact with German workers in London and was delivering regular lectures to them. His real break came with the setting up of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA) in 1864. Perhaps pointedly, it was the IWMA rather than Capital that Engels would describe as the “crowning of all” his endeavours in his eulogy for his dead comrade.
Marx quickly became the driving force behind this organisation. It was inter-nationalist rather than cosmopolitan in orientation, and certainly did not envisage a borderless world. Indeed the IWMA won much of its popular support in various countries by campaigning against the importation of foreign workers as scab labour: a far cry from the no-borders instinct of modern leftism. Stronger national borders, Marx reasoned, could be a prerequisite to inter-national class unity. Partly for this reason, and partly no doubt out of sentiment, he supported the restoration of Polish nationhood, German unification, French national self-defence, and Irish separatism. Marx’s daughters and Engels’s two Irish life-partners were even more staunchly pro-Fenian in their sympathies.
Marx had always recognised that the proletarian instinct for collective solidarity could take reactionary form, though he was ever tempted to take the easy route of putting this down to the corrupting influence of alien classes. His works are full of warnings against deviations, such as Proudhon’s petty-bourgeois socialism, reactionary “feudal socialism”, reformist “bourgeois socialism”, or Bismarck’s “state socialism”. Close examination, however, led him to identify more profound concerns. Workers in England, he concluded, were “divided into two hostile camps”: “English proletarians and Irish proletarians … This antagonism is the secret of the powerlessness of the English working class, in spite of its organization. It is the secret of the preservation of the power of the capitalist class.” In the US South, “the poor whites relate to the niggers” as the English did to the Irish. This theory of ethnic division is hardly an adequate explanation in itself for the slow development of socialism in liberal countries. But it’s true that Marx’s attention to Ireland was perceptive. It was the 1880s “betrayal” of Irish land agitation and nationalism by Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Radicals that first shifted many British activists from the camp of bourgeois liberalism to socialism, and the brutality of Lloyd George’s attempt to squash Irish independence after World War One would have a significant influence in propelling Labour ahead of the Liberal Party. But Marx never really took full stock of the intrinsic attraction of all sorts of strategies – whether reformist, class-collaborationist, nationalist, even racist – which workers might adopt to protect themselves against the insecurities of the unfettered liberal market.
For him, workers were instinctively socialist. One did not “make socialism by making socialists”, that is, by propagandising an ideology. The key was to persuade workers to organise as a political party, free of compromising entanglement with other classes. One of the last acts of the IWMA under Marx’s aegis was to pass a resolution in September 1872 welcoming any move towards the proletariat “constituting itself as a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes”. Sperber comments: “It may be hard to grasp how radical a departure this was.” Perhaps it is not so hard to grasp in our own age of umbrella parties chasing after the marginal “swing vote”.
Marx’s expectation that workers holding power would of itself advance socialism was expressed in his famous defence of the 1871 Paris Commune. As the city had been deserted by the bourgeoisie during its siege, first by Prussia and then the national government, Paris was briefly controlled by (mostly artisanal) workers and their leaders. Marx optimistically anticipated that such a government, should it be allowed space, would naturally provide the framework for “united co-operative societies … regulat[ing] national production on a common plan”.
With the 1871 Paris Commune, Marx found notoriety and fame at last: the long bourgeois “conspiracy of silence” was over. But it also marked the end of his active career as a revolutionary. In 1873 he suffered a breakdown in health from which he never really recovered. The IWMA disappeared and Engels, whose negative personality traits seem to have mellowed with age, took over the work of shepherding the new national workers’ parties that were germinating or, in Germany, beginning to flourish. Marx’s infrequent interventions in his last decade were generally to establish a fine balance between worker self-organisation and defending necessary alliances against statist absolutism.
Marx’s alliances, indeed, raise an eyebrow. He had always accused Whig Liberalism in Britain of undue deference to the Russian Tsarist autocracy, and rather embarrassed his friends by his insistence that prime minister Palmerston was a Russian agent. He was prepared to ally with the right-wing eccentric David Urquhart in the 1850s to “expose” Palmerston, and in the 1870s he fed information detrimental to Gladstone’s policy of appeasing Russia to the fanatically pro-Catholic (and anti-Parnell) Irish Nationalist MP Keyes O’Cleary. Marx feared any weakening of British military power against Russia, and when one Liberal MP of working class origin voted against the Tories’ military budget, he denounced him for betraying his proletarian constituents and leaving “their army in a lurch”.
But his old expectation that Europe-wide revolution required war against Tsarist Russia began to fade in the 1870s. He understood that future wars might no longer be the limited extensions of politics allowing progressives to pick their sides but rather catastrophic collisions imperilling progress itself. More positively, the prospect of a bourgeois revolution in Russia seemed more likely than ever (though it was not to break out until 1905). It is interesting that he was prepared now to countenance a more progressive role for the peasantry. It seems likely that he was influenced by Irish Land War, which impressed him as a hammer against the Whigs. He even speculated that the Russian muzhik village commune might survive as a sui generis starting point for socialism in Russia, so long as the western European proletariat led the way.
It is clear that by the time Marx died, in 1883, the landmarks of his own era were sinking from view. That he still had much to say to his successors is undeniable. It is unfortunate that the Marxist academy dismisses the bulk of those in succeeding generations who learned their politics from Marx, from Karl Kautsky to Léon Blum, preferring endless dalliance instead with shades of Leninism. Sperber, for his part, does not wish to excavate a “real” Marxism either for praise or condemnation. His point is to understand Marx’s world, not to change ours. Still, he clearly does not think that the “actually existing socialism” of the communist states had much to do with Marx’s vision. This is not so controversial now. What is perhaps more striking is the distance between Marx and our present day Marxian fringe.
The present-day radical left’s insular opposition to foreign entanglements in almost all conceivable circumstances is starkly at odds with Marx’s strategic approach to international conflict. It dismisses borders and nationally defined polities when Marx supported them. It calls for higher taxes when Marx praised the Paris Commune for its cheap government. It acts as champion of the incorrigibly welfare-dependent when Marx scorned the parasitic “lumpenproletariat”. It defends all kinds of “socialism” ‑ statist welfarism, the nationalised behemoth, the craft psychology of certain workers – that Marx railed against as products of class adulteration. It dismisses as fraudulent the bourgeois liberalism and liberties Marx never gave up on. It hosannas the working classes but resents their real-life aspirations. It is hard now to imagine a radical left-winger speaking, as Engels did at Elberfeld in 1845, to condemn poverty relief schemes and propose as an alternative the establishment of cooperatives to turn “demoralised, oppressed paupers into moral, independent, active people”.
To be sure, there is much in the stance of the present-day left that is more humane and generous than the Victorian instincts of Marx and Engels. But it’s hard not to feel that something of that era’s hard-headed and pragmatic radicalism has been lost too. In our pessimistic age much of the Marxian left combines hopeless nationalism in its defence of unreformed welfarism and labour market rigidity, with hopeless internationalism in its insistence that only global socialism may hope to prosper.
Perhaps it is not impossible to imagine twenty-first century “social republican” demands that would capture the essence of Marx’s approach: harnessing the political instincts of modern wage-earners in pursuit of a cooperative commonwealth where the flourishing of individuals is through and not against society. A new generation might speak to the sixty per cent or so who live by standard waged-work alone by developing proposals cutting with their grain. One can speculate on such a social republican policy list: a shift from taxes on wages to taxes on unearned incomes (dividends, property values, financial transactions, inherited goods); educational resources focused on the very young rather than those already advantaged; a maximum regular salary but bounties for innovation; radical devolution of power to local government; people’s juries selected by lottery to supplement representative democracy at all levels; cooperative mutual insurance societies; an equal minimum wage for childminders and stay-at-home parents; regular funded career breaks; time out during working hours for freely chosen activities; a right to local social amenities; a commitment to full-employment or training but no individual post guaranteed; job variation across careers; opposition to the demoralisation of welfarism; no immigration privileges for the rich or skilled; investment in social inclusion; self-managed cooperative enterprises; competition for public contracts; local planning to build complex, connected economic communities; nationwide planning for best practice, mobility and efficiencies of scale; an inter-nationalist cooperation fostering variety in each country’s social republicanism. One can imagine it; but a social republican politics of class based upon actually existing working class aspirations seems more shocking now than it did in Marx’s nineteenth century. We have become all too easily shocked.
Marc Mulholland teaches history at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism (Oxford University Press, 2012).
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