Marx and Marxism


By Gregory Claeys

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A new biography of Karl Marx, tracing the life of this titanic figure and the legacy of his work

Karl Marx remains the most influential and controversial political thinker in history. He died quietly in 1883 and a mere eleven mourners attended his funeral, but a year later he was being hailed as “the Prophet himself” whose name and writings would “endure through the ages.” He has been viewed as a philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, even a literary craftsman. But who was Marx? What informed his critiques of modern society? And how are we to understand his legacy?

In Marx and Marxism, Gregory Claeys, a leading historian of socialism, offers a wide-ranging, accessible account of Marx’s ideas and their development, from the nineteenth century through the Russian Revolution to the present. After the collapse of the Soviet Union his reputation seemed utterly eclipsed, but now a new generation is reading and discovering Marx in the wake of the recurrent financial crises, growing social inequality, and an increasing sense of the injustice and destructiveness of capitalism. Both his critique of capitalism and his vision of the future speak across the centuries to our times, even if the questions he poses are more difficult to answer than ever.


Many Marxes

Karl Marx was the Jesus Christ of the twentieth century. On Easter Day, 1918, Russian newspapers which had previously announced, ‘Christ is Risen’, replaced this with ‘One Hundred Years Ago To-day Karl Marx was Born’.1 If they had then claimed he had walked on water or had awakened from the dead, few would have been surprised. He looked the part of the Father, too. The old man with the grey beard and shaggy hair–the portrait most know of Marx–bears more than a passing resemblance to the grumpy patriarch many Christians envision on his heavenly throne. We can see Cecil B. DeMille or Steven Spielberg casting him in the part.

So why, and how, did history nominate Marx for this role? Marx may have been ‘the Prophet Himself’, as his friend the Thuringian tailor Johann Georg Eccarius put it.2 However, unlike Christ, he was never content only to console the poor: he wanted, more ambitiously, to end poverty instead, and thus the need for consolation. Yet it is not even clear whether Marx became ‘great’ because his works were so popular, or because he stood for an idea whose time had come. At his death much of his writing (perhaps three-quarters) was still unknown.3 Few now read the early polemics, The Holy Family (1845) or The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), much less The Cologne Communist Trial (1852) or the tedious diatribe against Max Stirner in The German Ideology (1845–6). By the time he died in 1883, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and volume one of Capital (1867) had appeared. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) and The Civil War in France (1871) told something of Marx’s politics and historical analysis. And of course The Communist Manifesto (1848) represented Marx’s programme as a whole.

By the early twentieth century this inheritance had grown. Editions of Marx and commentaries on his writings produced in the USSR and East Germany in particular were always selective. By the 1920s many of his manuscripts had been assembled in Moscow by the first great Marxologist, David Riazanov, who was later shot by Stalin. Correspondence appeared in dribs and drabs. A key early text, Marx’s ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ (1843), was published in 1927.4 In 1932 came the ‘Paris Manuscripts’ (1844), whose theory of alienation seemingly offered a ‘humanist’ critique of Stalinism which might free Marx from the taint of totalitarianism. By 1968 this was widely regarded outside the communist bloc as Marx’s main work, and it is often treated today as second only to Capital. Yet the question remains as to whether he abandoned it as inadequate or superseded.

Discerning what Marx ‘really meant’ has always been a function of the times as well as of the texts available. Interpretations accordingly have proliferated. Shelves of books on Marx entice, beg, berate and intimidate the potential reader. Blowing the dust off these volumes we quickly discover that there is not one Marx or one Marxism: there are many. Privileging one view of either above the rest across a range of complex issues is bound to be contentious. But some readings have proven historically more influential than others, largely because they answer more of our questions. Later readers are prone to ask: Why was Marx so successful as a thinker? Did he have a ‘system’ and, if so, what does it consist of? Does Marx take us to Lenin? To Stalin? To the revisionist Eduard Bernstein or the ‘renegade’ Karl Kautsky? Is Marx’s theory of alienation still relevant? Was Marx an economic determinist? Did he regard the end of capitalism as inevitable? Is class the most important category of social analysis? Did Marx deny a role to individuals in history? Was he a democrat or a totalitarian? To complicate matters, Marx answered many of these questions in different ways as the circumstances around him altered. The first testing ground for his theory of communism, Europe in 1848, had altered greatly by his death in 1883. Now too Russia loomed not solely as the epitome of reaction, but as potentially a revolutionary venue.

Yet in other respects not only Europe, but the world, was exactly what Marx had predicted by the time he died. He prophesied an evangelical, crusading capitalism which aimed to conquer the globe. His understanding of this process remains amongst the most compelling explanations ever offered. The great secret of Marx’s success, it is argued in this book, lay in his ability to synthesize this vision into a few simple formulae which the masses could easily digest, while presenting a complex and all-encompassing worldview which was captivating and intellectually stimulating to the well-educated. No competitor succeeded in achieving this degree of comprehensiveness, or in provoking the extraordinary intellectual ecstasy and moral fervency that Marxism has often induced.

The line between the popular and elite readings of Marx has often been deliberately maintained. Many Marxist intellectuals have strained to make Marx and his ‘system’ as unintelligible as possible, if only to justify their leadership of the inchoate masses in the correct direction. This is usually achieved by adopting tortuously obscure, convoluted Hegelian phraseology which renders Marxism a kind of gnostic, secret science accessible to only the few. It is analogous to the medieval church’s insistence on using Latin to exclude the masses from accessing the sacred texts. The seductiveness of incomprehensibility here has proven extraordinarily powerful. Words like ‘dialectic’ and ‘negation’ may pierce the veils of ignorance and dispel the superstitions of the many, but can also become weapons that defend unintelligibility. In its simplest form official Marxism–Leninism, or ‘Diamat’ (dialectical materialism), became a bland, formulaic dogma. Here complex theory is reduced to a few ritualistic and easily parroted phrases. This worldview purports to answer every question, and is invoked ever more shrilly and insistently in response to any query or doubt. Most later readers bolt quickly when confronted with either of these discourses. But hundreds of thousands have become ‘Marxists’–some of the most dogmatic sort–without having read a line of Marx, indeed without being able to read at all. And some have found this to be a virtue rather than an anomaly.

Those who do read Marx carefully view him variously as a philosopher, an economist, a historian, a sociologist, a political theorist, even a literary craftsman. The approach to Marx adopted in this book is chiefly through the history of socialism. Like many other disappointed nineteenth-century radicals, Marx thought communism–a variety of socialism–answered the most burning issue of the time: the rapid spread of capitalism. There were (and are) many socialisms on offer. Just which one(s) Marx adopted, and why, and with what consequences, are the most important questions we may ask of his writings today. But we must treat Marx as critically as we would any other thinker: not reverently, but giving credit where credit is due.

If this approach makes Marx appear less original than is sometimes presumed, it also portrays him as more practical and less wedded to metaphysical schemas. It depicts him navigating a complex field of alternatives to capitalism in a peculiarly compelling way, while still making mistakes, and sometimes overstating his own accomplishments. It makes him seem less Hegelian, and in later life less philosophically oriented. Marx is not portrayed here as either a genius or a scoundrel. The movements associated with his name have lent hope to hundreds of millions of victims of tyranny and aggression, but have also proven disastrous in practice, and resulted in the deaths of millions. Part of this failure, doubtless, was Marx’s doing, but most of it was not, simply because Marx never had the power to put his ideas into practice and thus was never forced to compromise with historical necessity. Of all the great critics of modern society, however, Marx is the one we most need to confront, to question, to engage with. Both his critique of capitalism and his vision of the future, we will see, speak across the centuries to our times, even if the questions he poses are more difficult to answer than ever, and his answers are sometimes simply wrong.

As Marx is the central figure in this book, so the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 is its key historical event. Few communists have emulated Marx. Many more have followed Lenin’s revolutionary course. Part Two here considers how Marx’s ideas evolved through to the present, and how they relate to his original outlook.




The Young Karl

Karl Marx was born on 5 May 1818 in the small Rhineland city of Trier, near the French border, which then had about 12,000 inhabitants.1 Until recently the largely Catholic, liberal-leaning town had lived quite happily under twenty years of French occupation. Many of its citizens, including Marx’s future father-in-law, Ludwig von Westphalen, harboured sympathies for revolutionary principles and even, in the 1830s, for the socialist schemes of Henri de Saint-Simon’s followers. Marx’s father, born Hirschel ha-Levi Marx, came from a long line of rabbis; but, renamed Heinrich Marx, he practised law as a Protestant convert (from around 1817), after the kingdom of Prussia, in which Trier was then located, forced Jews out of such professions. He too had liberal sympathies, urged wider political representation and assisted in local poor-relief schemes. His wife, Henrietta, came from a family of Dutch rabbis.

The young Karl spent most of his schooldays with classical authors like Homer and Ovid. He was not a particularly distinguished student. His school director was a republican who sympathized with Rousseau and Kant and saw the French Revolution of 1789 as extending Enlightenment principles of liberty and equality. Marx imbibed such principles, one of his first essays (1835) insisting that choosing a profession should be guided by ‘the welfare of mankind and of our own perfection’, the happiest person being ‘the man who has made the greatest number of people happy’ (1:8). We witness here, at the age of seventeen, a desire to define ‘the nature of man’ by ‘the spark of divinity in his breast, a passion for what is good, a striving for knowledge, a yearning for truth’ (1:637)2–as good a definition of himself throughout his life as any Marx ever provided. Thirty-five years later he wrote to his daughter Laura respecting the Irish question that while he desired to accelerate the class struggle he was also ‘acted upon by feelings of humanity’ (43:449). The latter thus remained a dominant motif in his life. ‘Those who have the good fortune to be able to devote themselves to scientific pursuits must be the first to place their knowledge at the service of humanity. One of his favourite sayings was: “Work for humanity”’, recalled his son-in-law Paul Lafargue.3 To term him a ‘cosmopolitan humanitarian’ would not be a misnomer. Yet he always fought shy of the romantic implications of such sentimentalism.

In October 1835 Marx left Trier to study law in Bonn. Seemingly destined for an academic post, he led the traditional riotous student life, drinking to excess, duelling and spending a night in gaol for rowdiness. In October 1836 he moved to Berlin, where his focus shifted from law to philosophy. Nine days after submitting his dissertation on ‘The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’, Marx was awarded his doctorate of philosophy in 1841 (by the University of Jena, after he had grown disenchanted with Berlin). Epicurus was regarded as a forefather of Enlightenment French materialism, though Marx also portrayed him as anticipating a Hegelian idea of self-consciousness, which his preface termed ‘the highest divinity’ (1:30).

Hegel and the Young Hegelians

The newly minted doctor viewed the world as an oyster to crack. In these years Marx saw himself as at the cutting edge of modern philosophical development, and capable of reconciling the most radical paradoxes that had been created by the Enlightenment collision with what he would soon term ‘bourgeois society’.4 This confidence resulted most directly from his confrontation with the greatest German philosopher of the age, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), and his followers.

Approaching Hegel via Marx we need to know something about four themes in particular: Hegel’s metaphysics; his philosophy of history; his political theory; and his method, the famous ‘dialectic’. Following Plato, Hegel’s philosophical starting point was pure Idealism: only the world of Spirit or Mind (Geist), or self-conscious reason, was real. ‘Things’ did not exist, ‘for “thing” is only a thought’.5 Hegel’s chief concern was to define both human nature and history in terms of mankind’s desire for freedom. This he portrayed partly in terms of Spirit’s coming to awareness of its own free nature. As Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) plotted it, humanity progressed from naïve empiricism, knowing only what our senses present to us, to its logical end, an eventual stage of knowing the Absolute (or God, or Mind’s own nature). Spirit’s progress towards self-consciousness was ‘dialectical’ insofar as every stage constantly evolved into the next through a process of contradiction, by negating the previous stage while preserving something of it, a process Hegel called Aufhebung, or ‘sublation’. Each stage involved self-consciousness ‘alienating’ itself in nature, developing in history and emerging again in the self-consciousness of humanity, in a progression from lower to higher.

Few modern readers find this scheme comprehensible in such abstract terms. If we see Mind as a metaphor for progressive human development, and as describing an empirically verifiable desire for freedom occurring through real social institutions and relations, however, the theory makes more sense. Hegel’s goal, Charles Taylor writes, was thus to define ‘a whole, integrated life in which man was at one with himself, and men were at one with each other in society’.6 No small ambition! In the former sense, this meant unifying our own alienated souls with God, the Absolute, as well as recognizing the world as our own creation, and thus overcoming ‘alienation’ (Entfremdung), the failure to achieve such recognition. In the latter, it meant achieving ‘consciousness of belonging to a community’.7 Here the ideal was Periclean Athens, whose ‘spontaneous harmony’ has been called Hegel’s ‘utopia’.8

Hegel’s philosophy of history attracted many by explaining how subsequent stages embodied Spirit’s growing self-consciousness. History, in a word, possessed ‘meaning’. ‘What distinguished Hegel’s mode of thinking from that of all other philosophers was the exceptional historical sense underlying it’, thought Friedrich Engels (1820–95), Marx’s lifelong intellectual partner, recalling that Hegel had first posited ‘that there is development, an intrinsic coherence in history’ (16:474). Commencing with Persian despotism, where only the monarch is free, humanity passed through the Greek polis, where consciousness of freedom (for the few) first arose; to Rome, where slavery still shows that not all are free; to Christianity, and the recognition of mankind as spiritual beings; thence to the Germanic world, where after the Reformation it became clear that ‘the human being as such is free’.9 But how could the moderns hope to emulate the achievements of the ancients? Whereas virtue was civic, not merely private, in classical Greece, now there was no turning back. Modern individuality had staked its claims against ancient republicanism. The young Hegel was greatly impressed by the French Revolution. He had glimpsed the ‘world soul’ on horseback as Napoleon entered Jena in October 1806. Hegel’s glorification of reason has been seen as having its counterpart in attempts to found a Cult of Reason during the revolution.10 The older Hegel, however, believed that modern Prussia might exemplify the further progress of Spirit.

Nonetheless a major hitch in this otherwise soothing narrative was posed by the profound disharmony which potentially characterized the age of commerce and industry. Hegel was the first significant modern German philosopher to confront the reality of commercial society. Civil society, he thought, now recognized the positive value of individualism, as well as the growth of mutual dependency through the operation of ‘the system of needs and wants’. But its flip side posed a peculiar threat to any dreams of abolishing servitude and achieving freedom. This would become Marx’s starting point.

This threat first became evident to Hegel around 1793, when he began studying the chief eighteenth-century Scottish political economists, Sir James Steuart, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith.11 What he discovered was potentially very disturbing. These writers broadly defined humanity’s progress from ‘rudeness’ or ‘simplicity’ to ‘refinement’. The newly emerging international market, new forms of machinery, an increasingly specialized division of labour and concentrated production in workshops–of which they were the first witnesses–were well designed to meet the growing demand for commodities and the limitless proliferation of needs generally. It was much less clear that the workers themselves actually benefited from these developments. Smith in particular would be associated with an ideal of increasing economic freedom and minimizing state interference. But he too was aware that great wealth might be created while the workforce became increasingly degraded. Specialization and poverty seemed paradoxically interwoven in commercial society. In 1803–4 Hegel lectured, paraphrasing Smith, that ‘in the same ratio that the number produced rises, the value of the labor falls; the labor becomes that much deader, it becomes machine work, the skill of the single laborer is infinitely limited, and the consciousness of the factory laborer is impoverished to the last extreme of dullness’. ‘Factories and workshops’, he added, ‘based their existence on the misery of a class’.12 If this class were to become sufficiently large it would surely threaten any presumption that increasing freedom was humanity’s destiny.

Hegel did worry about this prospect. But he cannot be blamed for failing to foresee capitalism’s future course. The universal and explosive nature of the factory system was not yet obvious. Some thought it might be confined to Britain, the ‘workshop of the world’. Hegel also regarded inequality of wealth as ‘absolutely necessary’. Work might become ‘more mechanical, dull, spiritless’. But that was the price of progress.13 Classical Athens had after all been based on slavery, and surely the modern system was less oppressive. There was still the danger that the rabble might revolt. But there was no question here of challenging the right to property. This Hegel regarded as sacrosanct, as the offspring of appropriation. It was indeed the very ‘embodiment of personality’, ‘the first embodiment of freedom’. Modern selfhood was freed from earlier religious and personal obligations and focused instead chiefly on objective relations framed by property.14 The means by which individuality was realized was through such rights, implying that those without property were in effect not even human. In any case machinery might well replace mechanical human labour and ‘through the consummation of mechanical progress, human freedom is restored’. ‘Human beings are accordingly first sacrificed’, but afterwards ‘they emerge through the more highly mechanized condition as free once more’.15 This anticipates strikingly some of Marx’s later reflections on the problem.

Nonetheless spiritual freedom (Spirit’s self-knowledge) and social freedom (in society, at work and politically) now seemed poles apart. Indeed applied to a model of universal industrialization the freedom of the few seems contingent on the degradation of the many. Hegel’s chief political work, the Philosophy of Right (1821), purportedly resolved this problem. It assumed that the modern division of labour fulfilled demands both for individual freedom and for satisfying needs through exchange, thus substantially producing the common good through individuals pursuing their own private interest. But the state still needed to mediate between conflicting strands in civil society and tensions produced by the market, a view Marx upheld until 1843. To this end certain restraints on wealth accumulation were required. Social harmony would be safeguarded if the state used its bureaucracy as a ‘universal class’, protected by its own sense of Standesehre (collective sense of honour), to uphold ‘the universal interests of the community’. But could the bureaucracy live up to such expectations? And would the state tolerate growing demands for political representation and freedom of speech and assembly, or prove repressive instead?

Hegel’s later system of thought could be taken to imply that the most rational state was modern Prussia. His more conservative followers, and the bureaucracy of this very state, were smugly satisfied with this conclusion. They were however confronted by a more radical group, the Young or Left Hegelians, who felt that the dialectic of thesis, antithesis and higher synthesis implied further progressive movement, chiefly by advances in theological and political criticism, with the first necessarily preceding the second, since religion provided crucial support for the established order.16 Though initially lukewarm about Hegel’s system, Marx encountered their views in 1837, at the Young Hegelians’ Berlin watering hole, the Doctors’ Club, where philosophy and drink intermingled freely. Exulting in their own cleverness and cocky in the extreme, the Young Hegelians agreed that reason could march still further onwards, and was quite possibly embodied in one or other of their group, who were all desperately keen to excel. ‘Young’ to them meant feisty, radical, sceptical, practical. Philosophy, they hoped, could now become ‘realized’, meaning that all thought was meaningful only if it eventuated in action, or ‘praxis… truth in concrete activity’.17 This would be a central principle for Marx, who became an exuberant member of the group before breaking with them around 1845.

At this point theology became a key sticking point dividing Hegel’s followers. The Young Hegelians were all interested in engaging with Hegel’s account of religion. The Right Hegelians were chiefly intent on defending it, seeing Hegel’s system as proving the truths of Christianity. The book which finally led Engels to shed his religious beliefs, the theologian David Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835), also helped to shift other Young Hegelians further from orthodoxy by suggesting that much of early Christianity was mythological and, like all religions, reflected the community from which it sprang. Soon it became clear that criticizing religion was tantamount to undermining the state itself. When Prussia appeared increasingly reactionary after Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s ascent to the throne in 1840, and after the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, who opposed Hegel, began lecturing at the University of Berlin in 1841, three Young Hegelians–Bruno Bauer (1809–82), Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) and Max Stirner (1806–56)–took up this line of criticism.18

Hegel’s erstwhile most accomplished student, and Marx’s close confidant at this point, Bauer considered Prussia as a key obstacle to freedom. He urged that Hegel’s political ideal should be replaced by a new republican ethos of civic duty which would negate the egoism of civil society. Bauer also regarded atheism as the logical terminus of Hegel’s system, a point he drove home in a savagely satirical pamphlet.19 He had already suggested that human self-consciousness was all that ‘God’ or ‘Absolute Spirit’ meant. His attack on the illusion, false appearance or self-deception created by religion, and his insistence on dispelling it, were soon central to Marx’s outlook. Bauer also thought egoism could be overcome through collective identification with self-consciousness. Going beyond Strauss he now denied the historical existence of Jesus Christ (although he admired the practical religion of the ancient Greeks). Then he plumped openly for atheism, and promptly lost his job. Bauer’s idea that religion represented an inverted reality was appealing to Marx, who had little respect for Christianity or Judaism. Marx now concluded that no philosophy was worth discussing unless it was atheistic, and planned with Bauer to found a journal called The Archives of Atheism. In 1844, following the same trajectory as Marx, Bauer attacked the division of labour and emphasized its interference with recognizing the collective nature of labour. But Bauer then turned against socialism and communism, warning that here the state would govern every detail of life and abolish ‘freedom in the smallest things’ by subjecting all to a dogmatic principle of absolute equality.20 So he too would soon incur Marx’s wrath.

The idea that the biblical image of God was only human consciousness externalized, ‘the moral nature of man taken for absolute being’, became the great theme promoted by Ludwig Feuerbach.21 His Essence of Christianity (1841) portrayed God as a projection of human desires and denounced Hegelian philosophy as the last stage of religion. In 1843 Feuerbach criticized Hegel in two short articles, insisting that the attributes Hegel associated with Spirit were in fact only human. Theology was not about discovering God, Spirit or the divine element in the human, but about human self-understanding. This implied that philosophy must study humanity in its real, concrete relations. ‘The secret of theology is anthropology’ became the flattering slogan of the new view.22 Humanity was now at the centre of the universe, defined by Gattungswesen–‘species-being’, ‘species essence’ or ‘species existence’–a term adopted from Strauss.23

There was sufficient ambiguity in this key term to allow it to perform many functions. To Feuerbach it meant identifying with the species, ‘the absolute unity of humanity’, knowing our true nature as that of the species, and subsequently actualizing human capacities within it, where this was alone possible. It implied overcoming subjective individuality and, through education (Bildung), achieving a kind of self-renunciation. It was at once a principle both of religion and of sociability. ‘All aspects of life that expressed man’s activity as a “species being” were “sacred”: marriage, love, friendship, labor, knowledge’, writes John Toews.24


On Sale
Apr 24, 2018
Page Count
384 pages
Bold Type Books

Gregory Claeys

About the Author

Gregory Claeys is Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Previously he taught at the University of Hannover, Germany, and Washington University, St Louis. He has written nine books, focusing on the history of radicalism, socialism and utopianism, and edited some fifty volumes of primary sources and essays.

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