The Mature Marx - Past and Future Communism

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

As this series has developed, we have shown how Marx’s revolutionary work went through different phases corresponding to the changing conditions of bourgeois society, and of the class struggle in particular. The last decade of his life, following the defeat of the Paris Commune and the dissolution of the First International, was therefore, as in the 1850s, primarily devoted to scientific research and theoretical reflection rather than open militant activity.


A considerable part of Marx’s energies during this pe­riod was directed towards his mammoth critique of bour­geois political economy, to the remaining volumes of Capital, which were never completed by him. Ill health certainly played a considerable part in this. But what has come to light in recent years is the extent to which Marx during this period was “distracted” by questions which, at first sight, might appear to represent a diversion from this key aspect of his life’s work: we refer to the anthropologi­cal and ethnological preoccupations stimulated by the ap­pearance of Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society in 1877. The degree to which Marx was absorbed in these issues has been revealed by the publication in 1974 of his Ethnological Notebooks, which he had worked on in the period 1881-2, and which were the basis for Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels wrote the latter as a “bequest” to Marx, in other words in recognition of the central importance that Marx accorded to the scientific study of earlier forms of human society, in particular those preceding the formation of classes and the state.

Closely related to these investigations was Marx’s growing interest in the Russian question, which had devel­oped from the early seventies but was given considerable impetus by the publication of Morgan’s book. It is well known that Marx’s reflections on the problems posed to the nascent revolutionary movement in Russia prompted him to learn Russian and accumulate a huge library of books on Russia. He was even led to conceal from Engels - who had to nag Marx constantly to press on to the completion of Capital - the amount of time he was devoting to the Russian question.

These preoccupations of the “Late” Marx have given rise to conflicting interpretations and controversies which bear comparison to the arguments over the work of the “Young” Marx. There is for example the view of Ryzanov, who on behalf of the Moscow Marx-Engels Institute published Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich and its preceding drafts in 1924, after they had been “buried” by elements in the Russian marxist movement (Zasulich, Axelrod, Plekhanov, etc). According to Ryzanov, Marx’s absorption in these matters, particularly the Russian question, was essentially the result of Marx’s declining intellectual powers. Others, in particular elements who have been on the “edge” of the proletarian political movement, such as Raya Dunayevskaya and Franklin Rosemont [1], have correctly argued against such ideas and have attempted to draw out the importance of the “Late” Marx’s concerns. But in doing so they have introduced a number of confusions that open the door wide to a bour­geois misuse of this phase of Marx’s work.

The article that follows is not at all an attempt to inves­tigate the Ethnological Notebooks, Marx’s writings on Russia, or even Engels’ Origins of the Family in the depth that they require. The Notebooks in particular are almost unchartered territory and require a huge amount of explo­ration and “decoding’: they are very much in note form, a collection of marginal notes and extracts, and much of this written in a curious mixture of English and German. Furthermore, most of the “excavation” that has been done on them so far concerns the section dealing with Morgan’s book. This was certainly the most important section and served as the principal basis for The Origins of the Family. But the Notebooks also include Marx’s notes on JB Phear’s The Aryan Village (a study of communal social forms in India), HS Maine’s Lectures on the Early History of Institutions (which focuses on the vestiges of communal so­cial formations in Ireland) and J Lubbock’s The Origins of Civilisation, which reveals Marx’s interest in the ideologi­cal creations of primitive societies, particularly the devel­opment of religion). There is a great deal that could be said about the latter in particular, but we have no intention of trying to go into these problems here. Our aim is the much more limited one of affirming the importance and relevance of Marx’s work on these areas, while at the same time criti­cising certain of the false interpretations that have been made of them.

The family, private property, and the state are not eternal

This is not the first time in this series that Marx’s inter­est in the question of “primitive communism” has come up. We have shown, for example, in International Review no.75, that the Grundrisse and Capital already defend the notion that the first human societies were characterised by an absence of class ex­ploitation and private property; that vestiges of these com­munal forms had persisted in all the pre-capitalist class systems; and that these vestiges, together with the half-dis­torted memories that lived on in popular consciousness, had frequently provided the basis for the revolts of exploited classes in these systems. Capitalism, by generalising com­modity relations and the economic war of each against all, had effectively dissolved these communal remnants (at least in those countries where it had taken root); but in doing so had laid the material foundations for a higher form of communism. The recognition that the further back you traced the history of human society, the more you found it to be based on communal forms of property, was already a vital argument against the bourgeois notion that commu­nism was somehow against the fundamentals of human na­ture.

The publication of Morgan’s study of American Indian society (in particular the Iroquois) was thus of considerable importance to Marx and Engels. Although Morgan was no revolutionary, his empirical studies provided a striking con­firmation of the thesis of primitive communism, making it plain that institutions which, as foundation stones of the bourgeois order, were deemed to be eternal and immutable, had a history: they had not existed at all in remote epochs, had emerged only through a long and tortuous process, had altered in form as society had altered in form - and could thus be altered and indeed abolished in a different kind of society.

Morgan’s view of history was not altogether the same as that of Marx and Engels, but it was not incompatible with the materialist view. In fact it laid considerable stress on the central importance of the production of life’s necessities as a factor in the evolution of one social form into another, and attempted to systematise a series of stages in human history (“savagery”, “barbarism”, “civilisation”, and vari­ous sub-phases within these epochs) that Engels essentially took over in his Origins of the Family. This periodisation was extremely important for understanding the whole pro­cess of historical development and the origins of class soci­ety. Furthermore, in Marx’s previous works, the source material for studying primitive communism was mainly drawn from archaic, and extinct, European social forms (eg the Teutonic and the classical) or those communal vestiges which persisted in the Asiatic systems being wiped out by colonial development. Now Marx and Engels were able to broaden the scope by extending their study to peoples who were still in the “pre-civilised” stage, but whose institutions were advanced enough to make it possible to understand the mechanics of the transition from primitive or rather bar­barian society to a society based on class divisions. In short, this was a living laboratory for the study of evolving social forms. Small wonder that Marx was so enthusiastic and strove to understand it in such depth. Pages and pages of his notes go into vast detail about the kinship patterns, customs and social organisation of the tribes that Morgan studied. It is as if Marx is seeking to get as clear as possible a picture of a social formation which provides empirical proof that communism is no idle dream, but a concrete pos­sibility rooted in humanity’s material conditions.

“Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”: Engels’ title reflects the main sub-divisions of Marx’s notes on Morgan, in which Marx seeks to establish how, on the one hand, these “sacred” pillars of bourgeois order had once not existed, and how, on the other, they had evolved from within the archaic communities.

Thus, Marx’s notes concentrate on the fact that in “savage” society (ie, hunter-gatherer societies), there is virtually no idea of property at all except for a few personal possessions. In more advanced (‘barbarian’) societies, par­ticularly with the development of agriculture, property at first remains essentially collective, and there is still no class living off the labour of another. But the germs of differen­tiation can be discerned through the organisation of the “gens”, of clan systems within the tribe where property can be passed on through a more restricted group. “Inheritance: its first great rule came in with the institution of the gens, which distributed the effects of a deceased person among his gentiles”(The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, edited by Lawrence Krader, the Netherlands, 1974, p 128). The “worm in the bud” of private property is thus contained within the ancient communal system, which existed not be­cause of humanity’s innate goodness but because the mate­rial conditions in which the first human communities evolved could permit of no other form; in changing mate­rial conditions connected to the development of the produc­tive forces, communal ownership was eventually trans­formed into a barrier to this development and was super­seded by forms more compatible with the accumulation of wealth. But the price paid for this development was the ap­pearance of class divisions - the appropriation of social wealth by a privileged minority. And here again, it was through the transformation of the clan or gens into castes and then classes that this fateful development took place.

The appearance of classes also results in the appearance of the state. Marx’s recognition of a tendency inside the Iroquois “governing” institutions for there to be a separation between public fiction and real practise is developed by Engels into the thesis that the state “is by no means a power imposed on society from the outside” (Origins of the Family); that it was no plot imposed by a minority but emerged from the soil of society at a certain stage of its de­velopment (a thesis magnificently confirmed by the experi­ence of the Russian revolution and the emergence of the transitional Soviet state out of the post-revolutionary situa­tion). Like private property and classes, the state arises out of contradictions appearing in the original communal order. But at the same time, and no doubt with the experience of the Paris Commune still very fresh in his mind, Marx is clearly fascinated by the Iroquois “council” system, going into considerable detail about the structure of decision making and the customs and traditions that accompanied the tribal assemblies: “The Council - instrument of government und supreme authority uber gens, tribe confederacy ... sim­plest u lowest form of the Council - that of the Gens; a democratic assembly, wo every adult male u female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it; it elected and deposed its sachem u. chiefs .... It was the germ of the higher council of the tribe, and that still higher of the con­federacy, each of which was composed exclusively of chiefs as representatives...” (ibid, p 150).

Thus, just as the notion that property was originally collective struck a blow against bourgeois notions of politi­cal economy, the “Robinsonades” which saw the urge to­wards private property as innate in human nature, Morgan’s work confirmed that human beings had not always needed an authority controlled by a specialised minority, a state power, to manage their social life. Like the Commune, the Iroquois councils were proof of humanity’s ability to gov­ern itself.

The quotation above mentions the equality of men and women in the tribal democracy. Again, Marx notes that even here, the signs of a differentiation can be seen: “In this area as elsewhere Marx discerned germs of social stratification within the gentile organisation, again in terms of the separation of “public” and “private” spheres, which he saw in turn as the reflection of the gradual emergence of a propertied and privileged tribal caste. After copying Morgan’s observation that, in the Council of Chiefs, women were free to express their wishes and opinions “through an orator of their own choosing”, he added, with emphasis, that the “decision (was) made by the (all-male) Council’” (Rosemont, “Karl Marx and the Iroquois”, in Arsenal, Surrealist Subversion, no. 4, 1989). But as Rosemont goes on to say, “Marx was nonetheless unmis­takably impressed by the fact that, among the Iroquois, women enjoyed a freedom and a degree of social involve­ment far beyond that of the women (or men!) of any civilised nation”. This understanding was part of the real breakthrough that Morgan’s researches enabled Marx and Engels to make on the question of the family.

As early as the Communist Manifesto, the tendency around Marx and Engels had denounced the hypocritical and oppressive nature of the bourgeois family and had openly advocated its abolition in a communist society. But now Morgan’s work enabled the marxists to demonstrate through historical example the fact that the patriarchal, monogamous family was not the irreplaceable moral foun­dation of any social order; in fact it was a rather late arrival in humanity’s history and, here again, the further back one looks, the more it becomes evident that marriage and child-rearing were originally communal functions, that a “communism in living” (Notebooks, p 115) prevailed among the tribal peoples. This isn’t the place to go into the very complicated details about the evolution of marriage in­stitutions noted by Marx and summarised by Engels, or to assess Engels’ views in the light of more recent anthropo­logical research. But even if some of their assumptions about the history of the family were mistaken, the essential point remains: the patriarchal family where the man consid­ers the woman to be his private property is not “the way things have always been” but a product of a particular kind of society - a society founded upon private property (indeed, as Engels points out in Origins of the Family, the very term “family”, from the Latin “familias” is totally bound up with slavery, since it originally meant, in ancient Rome, the household of a slaveowner, those over whom he had the power of life and death - slaves and women in­cluded). In a society where neither classes or private prop­erty existed, women could not be seen as chattels or ser­vants and indeed enjoyed a much higher status than in “civilised” societies; the oppression of women thus develops with the gradual emergence of class society, even if, as with private property and the state, its germs can already be seen in the old community.

This social and historical view of the oppression of women was a refutation of all the openly reactionary views which assume some inherent, biological basis for the “inferior” status of women. The key to women’s inferior status down the ages is not to be found in biology (even if biological differences have their input into the development of male dominance) but in history - in the evolution of par­ticular social forms corresponding to the material develop­ment of the productive forces. But this analysis also goes against the feminist interpretation which (however much it might borrow from the marxist position) also inevitably tends to make the oppression of women something biologi­cally inherent, though this time in the male rather than the female. In any case, both feminism and the out-and-out re­actionary view lead to the same conclusion: that women’s oppression can never be abolished as long as society is made up of men and women (“radical separatism”, for all its absurdity, is really the most consistent form of feminism). For the communists, on the other hand, if the oppression of women had its beginnings in history, it can also have its end - in the communist revolution that will provide men and women with the material conditions to relate to each other, and to bring up children, free of the social and eco­nomic pressures that have hitherto forced them into their respective, restrictive roles. We will return to this point in a subsequent article.

The dialectic of history: Marx against Engels?

Both Dunayevskaya and Rosemont have noted, in their comments on the Notebooks, that the “Late” Marx’s interest in primitive communism represented a return to some of the themes of his youth, in particular of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The latter had repre­sented a more “philosophical” anthropology; in the Notebooks Marx was moving towards a historical anthro­pology, but without renouncing the preoccupations of his earlier work. Likewise the theme of the man-woman rela­tion had been posed, if somewhat abstractly, in 1844, and was now being dealt with “in the flesh’. These comments are accurate as long as one also bears in mind, as we showed in International Review 75, that the “themes of 1844” had continued to be a vital element in Marx’s thought in “mature” works like Capital and the Grundrisse, and didn’t suddenly revive in 1881. In any case, what does emerge from a reading of the Notebooks is Marx’s respect not only for the social or­ganisation of the “savages” and “barbarians”, but also for their cultural achievements, their way of life, their “vitality”, which he saw as being “incomparably greater ... than the Semitic, Greek, Roman and a fortiori the modern capitalist societies” (‘Drafts of a reply” to Vera Zasulich, in Teodor Shanin, ed, Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the Peripheries of Capitalism, New York, 1983, p107n). This respect can be seen from his frequent defence of their intelligence against bourgeois (and racist) “blockheads” like Lubbock and Maine, of the imaginative qualities inherent in their myths and legends; it can be seen, above all, in his detailed depiction of their customs, feasts, festivals and dances, of a mode of living in which work and play, politics and celebration had not yet become totally separate categories. This is a concretisation of one of the central themes that emerge from the 1844 MS and the Grundrisse: that in the pre-capitalist societies, and espe­cially in the pre-civilised ones, human life was in many re­spects less alienated than it has become under capitalism; that the people of primitive communism provide us with a glimpse of the all-round human being of tomorrow’s com­munism. Thus Marx in his reply to Vera Zasulich on the Russian commune (see below) was quite prepared to en­dorse the view that “the new system to which modern soci­ety is tending “will be a revival, in a superior form, of an archaic social type’” (ibid, p107. Marx here was probably quoting from memory the lines by Morgan with which Engels closes The Origins of the Family).

This concept of a “revival” on a higher level is integral to dialectical thinking but it is a real puzzle to the bourgeois outlook, which offers us a choice between a linear view of history and a naive idealisation of the past. When Marx was writing, the dominant trend in bourgeois thought was a simplistic evolutionism in which the past, above all the primitive past, was repudiated as a fog of darkness and childish superstition, the better to justify “present day civilisation” and its enslavement or extermination of the primitives who stood in its way. Today the bourgeoisie car­ries on exterminating what’s left of the primitives, but it no longer has the same unshakable faith in its civilising mis­sion, and there is a strong counter-trend, especially among the petty bourgeoisie, towards “primitivism”, the hopeless desire to return to the primitive way of life, now imagined as a kind of lost paradise.

For both these outlooks, it is impossible to look at primitive society lucidly, recognising both its “grandeur”, as Engels put it, and its limitations: the lack of real indi­viduality and freedom in a community dominated by scarcity; the restriction of the community to the tribe, and thus the essential fragmentation of the species in this epoch; the inability of mankind in these formations to see himself as an active, creative being, and thus his subordination to mythical projections and unchallengeable ancestral tradi­tions. The dialectical view is summed up by Engels in The Origins of the Family: “The power of these primordial communities had to be broken, and it was broken” - thus permitting humankind to free itself from the limitations enumerated above. “But it was broken by influences which from the outset appear to us as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral grandeur of the ancient gentile society”. A fall that is also an advance; elsewhere in the same work Engels writes that “Monogamy was a great historical ad­vance, but at the same time it inaugurated, along with slav­ery and private wealth, that epoch, lasting until today, in which every advance is likewise a relative regression, in which the well-being and development of one group are at­tained by the misery and repression of the other”. These are scandalous concepts to bourgeois common sense, but, just like the “revival on a higher level” which complements them, they make perfect sense from the dialectical point of view, which sees history moving forward through the clash of contradictions. 

It is important to quote Engels in this regard because there are many who consider that he deviated from Marx’s view of history into a version of bourgeois evolutionism. This is a broader question which we will have to take up elsewhere; for the moment suffice it to say that a whole body of literature, embracing academic “marxism”, aca­demic anti-marxism, and various strands of modernism and councilism, has emerged in recent years to try to prove the degree to which Engels was guilty of falling into economic determinism, mechanical materialism and even reformism, distorting Marx’s thinking on a whole number of vital questions. The argument is often closely linked to the idea of a total break in continuity between the First and Second Internationals, a concept dear to councilism. But particu­larly relevant here is the fact that Raya Dunayevskaya, echoed by Rosemont, has also accused Engels of failing to carry out Marx’s bequest when he transposed the Ethnological Notebooks into The Origins of the Family.

According to Dunayevskaya, Engels’ book is at fault for talking about a “world historic defeat of the female sex” as being coincident with the appearance of civilisation. For her this is a simplification of Marx’s thought; in the Notebooks, the latter finds that the seeds of the oppression of women are already developing along with the stratifica­tion of barbarian society, with the growing power of the chiefs and the resulting transformation of tribal councils into formal rather than real organs of decision. More gener­ally, she sees Engels as losing sight of Marx’s dialectical view, reducing his complex, multilinear views of historical development to a unilinear vision of progress through rigidly defined stages.

It may be the case that Engels’ use of the phrase “world historical defeat of the female sex” (which he took from Bachofen rather than Marx) gives more the impression of a one-off, concrete historical event than of a very long process which already has its origins inside the primitive commu­nity, especially its later phases. But this does not prove that Engels’ basic approach deviates from Marx: both are aware that the contradictions which led to the appearance of the “family, private property and the state” arise from contra­dictions within the old gentile order. Indeed, in the case of the state, Engels made considerable advances on the theo­retical level: the Notebooks themselves contain very little raw material for the important arguments about the emer­gence of the state contained in The Origins of the Family; and we have already shown how, in this matter, Engels was entirely in accord with Marx in seeing the state as a product of a long historical evolution within the old communities.

We have also shown that Engels was in accord with Marx in rebutting the linear bourgeois evolutionism which fails to understand the “price” mankind has paid for progress, and the possibility of reappropriating, on a higher level, what he has “lost’.

If anything, Dunayevskaya fails to make the most perti­nent criticism of Engels’ presentation of the history of class society in his book: its complete failure to integrate the concept of the Asiatic mode of production, its picture of a straightforward and universal movement from primitive so­ciety to slavery, feudalism and capitalism. Even as a de­scription of the origins of “western” civilisation this is sim­plistic, since the slave societies of antiquity were influenced at a number of levels by the Asiatic forms which pre-ex­isted them and co-existed with them. Engels’ omission here not only blots out a vast chapter in the history of civilisa­tions, but also gives the impression of a fixed, unilinear evolution valid for all parts of the globe, and in this respect adds some grist to the mill of bourgeois evolutionism. Most important of all, his error was exploited later on by the Stalinist bureaucrats who had a vested interest in obscuring the whole concept of Asiatic despotism, since it proved that class exploitation could exist without any discernible form of “individual” private property - and thus that the Stalinist system could itself be seen as a system of class exploitation. And of course, as bourgeois thinkers, the Stalinists felt much more at home with a linear view of progress advanc­ing inexorably from slavery to feudalism and capitalism, and culminating in the supreme achievement of history: the “real socialism” of the USSR.

Despite this important mistake, the attempt to drive a wedge between Marx and Engels is fundamentally at odds with the long history of collaboration between the two. Indeed, when it comes to explaining the dialectical move­ment of history, and of nature itself, Engels has given us some of the best and clearest accounts in the whole of marxist literature. The historical and textual evidence gives little support to this “divorce” between Marx and Engels. Those who argue for it often pose as radical defenders of Marx and scourges of reformism. But they generally end up by destroying the essential continuity of the marxist move­ment.

Marxism and the colonial question

The defence of the notion of primitive communism was a defence of the communist project in general. But this was not only the case at the most historical and global level. It also had a more concrete and immediate political relevance. Here it is necessary to recall the historical context in which Marx and Engels elaborated their works on the “ethnological” question. In the 1870s and 1880s, a new phase in the life of capital was opening up. The bourgeoisie had just vanquished the Paris Commune; and while this did not yet mean that the entire capitalist system had entered into its epoch of senility, it certainly brought to a definite end the period of national wars in the centers of capitalism, and, more generally, the period in which the bourgeoisie could play a revolutionary role on the stage of history. The capitalist system now entered into its last phase of expan­sion and world conquest, not through a struggle by rising bourgeois classes seeking to establish viable national states, but through the methods of imperialism, of colonial con­quests. The last three decades of the 19th century thus saw virtually the entire globe being seized and divided up amongst the great imperialist powers.

And everywhere the most immediate victims of this conquest were the “colonial peoples” - mainly peasants still tied to old communal forms of production, and numerous tribal groupings. As Luxemburg explained in her book The Accumulation of Capital, “Capitalism needs non-capitalist social strata as a market for its surplus value, as a source of supply for its means of production and as a reservoir of labour power for its wage system. For all these purposes, forms of production based upon natural economy are of no use to capital” (chapter XXVII, p 368, London 1951). Hence the necessity for capital to sweep aside, by all the military and economic force at its disposal, those remnants of communistic production which it encountered every­where in the newly-conquered territories. Of these victims of the imperialist juggernaut, the “savages”, those living in the most basic form of primitive communism, fared worst of all: as Luxemburg showed, while peasant communities could be destroyed by the “colonialism of the commodity”, by taxation and other economic pressures, the primitive hunters could only be exterminated or dragged into forced labour because not only did they range across wide territo­ries coveted by capitalist agriculture, they produced no sur­plus capable of entering into the capitalist circulation pro­cess.

The “savages” did not simply lie down and surrender to this process. The year before Morgan published his study of the Iroquois, an Indian tribe from the eastern parts of the USA, the “western” tribes had defeated Custer at the Little Big Horn. But “Custer’s Last Stand” was in reality the last stand of the native Americans against the definitive de­struction of their ancient way of life.

The question of understanding the nature of primitive society was thus of immediate political importance for communists in this period. First, because, just as Christianity had been the ideological excuse for colonial conquests in an earlier period of capitalism’s life, the 19th century ethnological theories of the bourgeoisie were often used as a “scientific” justification for imperialism. This was the period which saw the beginning of racist theories about the White Man’s Burden and the necessity to bring civilisa­tion to the benighted savages. The bourgeoisie’s evolution­ist ethnology, which posited a linear ascent from primitive to modern society, provided a more subtle justification for the same “civilising mission’. Furthermore, these notions were already beginning to seep into the workers’ move­ment, although they reached their apogee with the theory of “Socialist Colonialism” in the period of the Second International, with the “Jingo” socialism of figures like Hyndman in Britain. Indeed, the question of colonial policy was to be a clear line of demarcation between the right and the left fractions of social democracy, a test for internation­alist credentials, as in the case of the Italian Socialist Party (see our pamphlet on the Italian communist left).

When Marx and Engels were writing on ethnological questions, these problems were only just beginning to emerge. But the contours of the future were already taking shape. Marx had already recognised that the Commune marked the end of the period of revolutionary national wars. He had seen the British conquest of India, French colonial policy in Algeria (where he went for a rest cure shortly before his death), the pillaging of China, the slaughter of the native Americans; all this indicates that his growing interest in the problem of the primitive community was not simply an “archaeological” one; nor was it re­stricted to the very real necessity to denounce the hypocrisy and cruelty of the bourgeoisie and its “civilisation’. In fact it was directly connected to the need to elaborate a commu­nist perspective for the period then opening up. This was demonstrated above all by Marx’s attitude to the Russian question.

The Russian question and the communist perspective

Marx’s interest in the Russian question went back to the beginning of the 1870s. But the most intriguing angle on the development of his thought on the question is provided by his reply to Vera Zasulich, then a member of that frac­tion of revolutionary populism which later, along with Plekhanov, Axelrod and others, went on to form the Emancipation of Labour group, the first clearly marxist current in Russia. Zasulich’s letter, dated 16 February 1881, asked Marx to clarify his views on the future of the rural commune, the obschina: was it to be dissolved by the advance of capitalism in Russia, or was it capable, “freed of exorbitant tax demands, payment to the nobility and arbi­trary administration ... of developing in a socialist direc­tion, that is, gradually organising its production and dis­tribution on a collectivist basis”.

Marx’s previous writings had tended to see the Russian commune as a direct source of Russian “barbarism”; and in a reply to the Russian Jacobin Tkachev (1875), Engels had put the emphasis on the tendency towards the dissolution of the obschina.

Marx spent a number of weeks pondering his answer, which ran into four separate drafts, all of the rejected ones being much longer than the letter of reply he finally sent. These drafts are full of important reflections on the archaic commune and the development of capitalism, and explicitly show the degree to which his reading of Morgan had led him to rethink certain previously held assumptions. In the end, admitting that ill health was preventing him from completing a more elaborated response, he summed up his reflections firstly by rejecting the idea that his method of analysis led to the conclusion that every country or region was mechanically fated to go through the bourgeois phase of production; and secondly by concluding that “the special study I have made of it, including a search for original source-material, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. But in order that it might function as such, the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be as­sured the normal conditions for spontaneous development” (8 March 1881).

The drafts of the reply were not discovered until 1911 and were not published until 1924; the letter itself was “buried” by the Russian marxists for decades. Ryzanov, who was responsible for publishing the drafts, tries to find psychological reasons for this “omission” but it appears that the “founders of Russian marxism” were not very happy with this letter from the “founder of marxism’. Such an in­terpretation is strengthened by the fact that Marx tended to support the terrorist wing of populism, the People’s Will, against what he referred to as the “boring doctrines” of Plekhanov and Zasulich’s Black Repartition group, even though, as we have seen, it was the latter that formed the basis of the Emancipation of Labour group on a marxist programme. 

The leftist academics who specialise in studying the Late Marx have made much of this shift in Marx’s position in the final years of his life. Shanin, editor of Late Marx and the Russian Road, the main compilation of texts on this question, correctly sees the drafts and the final letter as a superb example of Marx’s scientific method, his refusal to impose rigid schemas on reality, his capacity to change his mind when previous theories did not fit the facts. But as with all forms of leftism, this basic truth is then distorted in the service of capitalist ends.

For Shanin, Marx’s questioning of the linear, evolu­tionist idea that Russia had to go through a phase of capi­talist development before it could be integrated into social­ism proves that Marx was a Maoist before Mao; that so­cialism could be the result of peasant revolutions in the pe­ripheries. “While on the level of theory Marx was being “engelsised” and Engels, still further, “kautskised” and “plekhanovised” into an evolutionist mould, revolutions were spreading by the turn of the century through the backward/’developing” societies: Russia 1905 and 1917, Turkey 1906, Iran 1909, Mexico 1910, China 1910 and 1927. Peasant insurrection was central to most of them. None of them were “bourgeois revolutions” in the West European sense and some of them proved eventually so­cialist in leadership and results. In the political life of so­cialist movements of the twentieth century there was an ur­gent need to revise strategies or go under. Lenin, Mao and Ho chose the first. It meant speaking with “double-tongues” - one of strategy and tactics, the other of doctrine and con­ceptual substitutes, of which the “proletarian revolutions” in China or Vietnam, executed by peasants and “cadres”, with no industrial workers involved, are but particularly dra­matic examples” (Late Marx and the Russian Road, p24-25).

All of Shanin’s sophisticated musings about the dialectic and the scientific method thus reveal their real purpose: to provide an apologia for the Stalinist counter-revolution in the peripheries of capital, and to trace Mao’s or Ho’s horri­ble distortions of marxism to none other than Marx himself.

Writers like Dunayevskaya and Rosemont consider that Stalinism is a form of state capitalism. But they are full of admiration for Shanin’s book (“a work of impeccable scholarship that is also a major contribution to the clarifi­cation of revolutionary perspective today” (Rosemont, “Karl Marx and the Iroquois’). And for good reason: these writ­ers may not share Shanin’s admiration for the likes of Ho and Mao, but they too consider that the crux of Marx’s “Late” synthesis is the search for a revolutionary subject other than the working class. For Rosemont, Late Marx was “diving headlong into the study of (for him) new expe­riences of resistance and revolt against oppression - by North American Indians, Australian aborigines, Egyptians and Russian peasants”; and these interests “also look ahead to today’s most promising revolutionary movements in the Third world, and the Fourth, and our own” (ibid). The “Fourth world” is the world of the remaining tribal peoples; ergo, today’s primitive peoples, like those in Marx’s day, are part of a new revolutionary subject. Dunayevskaya’s writings are similarly full of a search for new revolutionary subjects, and they are generally made up of a hotch-potch of categories such as Women, Gays, Industrial Workers, Blacks and Third World “National Liberation” movements.

But all these readings of the Late Marx take his contri­butions out of their real historical context. The period in which Marx was wrestling with the problem of the archaic commune was, as we have seen, a “transitional” period in the sense that while it pointed to the future demise of bour­geois society (the Paris Commune being the harbinger of the future proletarian revolution), there was still a vast field for the  expansion of capital into its peripheries. Marx’s recognition of the ambiguous nature of this period is summed up in a phrase from the “Second draft” of his reply to Zasulich: “...the capitalist system is past its prime in the West, approaching the time when it will be no more than a regressive social regime..” (Karl Marx and the Russian Road, p103).

In this situation, where symptoms of decay had already appeared in the centers of the system, but the system as a whole continued to expand at an extraordinary pace, com­munists were faced with a real dilemma. For, as we have already said, this expansion no longer took the form of bourgeois revolutions against feudal or other outmoded class societies, but of colonial conquests, the increasingly violent imperialist annexation of the remaining non-capi­talist areas of the globe. There could be no question of the proletariat “supporting” colonialism as it had supported the bourgeoisie against feudalism; the concern in Marx’s in­quiry into the Russian question was rather this: could hu­manity in these areas be spared being dragged through the inferno of capitalist development? Certainly, nothing in Marx’s analysis suggested that every single country had to pass mechanically through the phase of capitalist develop­ment before a world communist revolution was possible; he had in fact rejected the claim of one of his Russian critics, Mikhailovskii, that his theory was a “historico-philosophi­cal theory of Universal Progress” (letter to the editor of Otechesvennye Zapiski, 1878) which insisted that the pro­cess whereby the peasants were expropriated and turned into proletarians must inevitably be the same in all coun­tries. For Marx and Engels, the key was the proletarian revolution in Europe, as Engels had already argued in his reply to Tkachev, and as was made perfectly explicit in the introduction to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, published in 1882. If the revolution was suc­cessful in the industrialised centers of capital, then human­ity could be spared a great deal of torment right across the globe, and the vestigial forms of communal property could be directly integrated into the world communist system: “if the Russian revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two can supplement each other, then present Russian communal land ownership can serve as a point of departure for a communist develop­ment”.

This was a perfectly reasonable hypothesis at the time. Indeed, it is evident today that if the proletarian revolutions of 1917-23 had been victorious - if the proletarian revolu­tion in the West had come to the aid of the Russian revolu­tion - the terrible ravages of capitalist “development” in the peripheries could have been avoided, remaining forms of communal property could have become part of a global communism, and we would not now be faced with the so­cial, economic and ecological catastrophe that is most of the “third world’.

Furthermore, there is a great deal that is prophetic in Marx’s preoccupation with Russia. Ever since the Crimean War Marx and Engels had had the profound conviction that some kind of social upheaval in Russia was about to take place (which partially explains their support for the People’s Will, who were judged to be the most sincere and dynamic revolutionaries in the Russian movement); and that even if it did not assume a clearly proletarian character, it would indeed be the spark that lit the general revolutionary confrontation in Europe [2].

Marx was mistaken about the imminence of this up­heaval. Capitalism did develop in Russia, even without the emergence of a strong and independent bourgeois class; it did largely, though not completely, dissolve the archaic peasant commune; and the main protagonist of the actual Russian revolution was indeed the industrial working class. Above all, the revolution in Russia did not dawn until cap­italism as a whole had become a “regressive social regime”, ie had entered its phase of decadence, a reality demon­strated by the imperialist war of 1914-18.

Nevertheless, Marx’s rejection of the necessity for each country to go through mechanical stages, his reluctance to support the nascent forces of capitalism in Russia, his intu­ition that a social upheaval in Russia would be the opening shot of the international proletarian revolution - in all this he was brilliantly anticipating the critique of Menshevik gradualism and “stageism” initiated by Trotsky, continued by Bolshevism and practically vindicated by the October revolution. By the same token, it is no accident that the Russian marxists, who had been formally correct in seeing that capitalism would develop in Russia, should have “lost” Marx’s letter: the majority of them, after all, were the founding fathers of Menshevism...

But what for Marx was a series of profound anticipa­tions made in a particularly complex period in the history of capitalism, becomes with today’s “interpreters” of the Late Marx an ahistorical apology for new “roads to revolu­tion” and new “revolutionary subjects” at a time when capi­talism has been in decay for eighty years. One of the clearest indicators of this decay has been precisely the manner in which capitalism in the peripheries has destroyed the old peasant economies, the vestiges of the ancient com­munal systems, without being able to integrate the resulting mass of landless peasants into productive labour. The mis­ery, the slums, the famines and wars which ravage the “third world” today are a direct consequence of this barrier reached by capitalist “development’. Consequently, there can be no question today of using archaic communal ves­tiges as a stepping stone to communist production, because capitalism has effectively destroyed them without putting anything in their place. And there are no new revolutionary subjects waiting to be discovered among the peasants, the displaced sub-proletarians, or the tragic remnants of the primitive peoples. The remorseless “progress” of decadence this century has if anything made it clearer than ever not only that the working class is the only revolutionary sub­ject, but that the working class of the most developed capi­talist nations is the key to the entire world revolution.

The next article in this series will look more closely at the way that the founders of marxism treated the “woman” question.


[1] Raya Dunayevskaya (aka F Forest) was a leading figure in the Johnson-Forest tendency which broke from Trotskyism after the second world war on the question of state capitalism and the defence of the USSR. But it was a very partial break that led Dunayevskaya into the dead end of the “News and Letters” group which took Hegelianism, councilism, feminism and plain old leftism and mixed them into a strange cult of personality around Raya’s “philosophical” innovations. She writes about the Ethnological Notebooks in her book Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, New Jersey, 1981), which seeks to recuperate both Luxemburg and the Ethnological Notebooks to the Idea of Women’s Liberation. Rosemont, whose article “Karl Marx and the Iroquois” contains a lot of interesting elements, is a leading figure in the American Surrealist Group, which has defended certain proletarian positions but which by its very nature has been unable to make a clear critique of leftism and still less of the petty bourgeois rebelliousness from which it emerged in the early 70s.

[2] According to another leftist academic in Shanin’s book, Haruki Wada, Marx and Engels even held out the prospect of some kind of “separate” socialist development in Russia, based on the peasant commune and more or less in­dependent from the European workers’ revolution. He ar­gues that the formulation in the Manifesto isn’t supported by the drafts to Zasulich, and that they corresponded more to Engels’ particular viewpoint than Marx’s. The paucity of Wada’s evidence for this is already exposed in another arti­cle in the book  - “Late Marx, continuity, contradiction and learning”, by Derek Sayer and Philip Corrigan. In any case, as we have shown in our article in International Review 72 (‘Communism as a political programme’) - the idea of socialism in one coun­try, even when based on a proletarian revolution, was en­tirely foreign to both Marx and Engels.