Communism Vol. 3, Part 1: Mankind's entry into its real history

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The only future is communism

With this article, we are beginning a third volume of our series of communism, begun nearly 15 years ago. The second volume of the series (in International Review 111) ended with an end: the exhaustion of the international revolutionary wave which shook world capitalism to its foundations, and more specifically, with an audacious description of the communist culture of the future, outlined by Trotsky in his 1924 work, Literature and Revolution.

For the proletarian movement, the clarification of its overall goals has always been a constant element of its struggle. This series has try to play its own part in this struggle, not only by re-telling its history – although that is important enough, given the terrible distortion of the proletariat’s real history by the dominant ideology – but also by seeking to explore new or long-neglected areas, to develop a deeper understanding of the entire communist project. In forthcoming articles, therefore, we will continue with the chronological thread of the series up to now, in particular by studying the contributions to the problems of the period of transition made by the left communist fractions during the period of counter-revolution that followed this historical defeat of the working class. But rather than simply taking off from the workers’ movement’s new theoretical developments on the problems of communism and the period of transition in the light of the revolutionary proletariat’s first seizure of power, we think it both useful and necessary to clarify the aims and methodology of the series by returning once more to a beginning: on the one hand we will return to the beginning of the series, and to the beginning of marxism itself, while on the other we will recapitulate the main arguments developed in the first two volumes of this series, which give an account of the studies and clarification of the content of communist society that have accompanied the development of the proletariat’s historical experience. This will then provide a firmer starting point for looking at the questions that were posed to the revolutionaries of the 1930s and 40s, and indeed for going on to consider the problem of the proletarian revolution in our own times.

In this issue of the Review, we will therefore examine in detail a seminal text of the young Karl Marx: the letter to Arnold Ruge[1] of September 1843, a text which has been quoted very often but rarely analysed in depth. There is more than one reason for going back to the letter to Ruge. With Marx and marxism it is not simply a question of struggling for a new form of economy to replace capitalism once it has reached its historical limits. It is not simply a question of fighting for the emancipation of the working class. As Engels said later on, it is a question of making it possible for the human species to move from “the reign of necessity to the reign of freedom”, from its “prehistory” to its real history; it is a question of liberating all the potential that mankind bears within itself and which has been held in check by hundreds of thousands of years of scarcity and in particular by thousands of years of class society. The letter to Ruge provides us with a way into this problematic, by insisting that we are on the verge of a general awakening of mankind. And we could go even further: as Marx was to argue in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the resurrection of man is at the same time the resurrection of nature; if man becomes conscious of itself through the proletariat, then nature becomes conscious of itself through man. Surely these are questions that take us to the very depths of human inquiry. The outlining of their solution is not the invention of the brilliant individual Marx, but the theoretical synthesis of the real possibilities unfolding in history.

The letter to Ruge is a very good illustration of the process through which Marx evolved from the milieu of philosophy to the communist movement. We have already dealt with this question in the second article of the series (‘How the proletariat won Marx to communism’ in International Review n°69), where we showed that Marx’s political trajectory was in itself an illustration of the position adopted in the Communist Manifesto: that the views of the communists were not the inventions of individual ideologues, but the theoretical expression of a living movement, the movement of the proletariat. We showed in particular how Marx’s involvement with the workers’ associations of Paris in 1844 played a decisive part in winning him over to a communist movement that predated Marx and arose independently of him. The study of Ruge’s letter and of other works by Marx prior to his arrival in Paris make it clear that this was no sudden ‘conversion’, but the culmination of a process that was already in development. But this does not alter the basic thesis. Marx was no aloof philosopher concocting the recipe books of the future from the safety of his kitchen/study. He moved towards communism under the magnetic pull of a revolutionary class which was then able to appropriate and integrate all of his undoubted talents as a thinker into the struggle for a new world. And the letter to Ruge, as we shall see, already begins to articulate this biographical reality into a coherent theoretical approach to the question of consciousness.

From the critique of alienation to historical materialism

In September 1843, Marx spent a ‘holiday’ of several months in Kreuznach, thanks in part to the actions of the elephantine Prussian censorship, which had deprived Marx of the responsibility of editing the Rheinische Zeitung. The newspaper had been closed down after publishing a number of ‘subversive’ pieces, including Marx’s article on the sufferings of the Moselle wine-growers. Marx took advantage of the freedom thus accorded him to reflect and to write. He was going through a crucial period of evolution, of transition from a radical democratic standpoint to the explicitly communist position he was to proclaim from Paris in the following year.

A great deal has been written about ‘the young Marx’, in particular the works he wrote in the years 1843-44. Some of the most important works of this period remained unknown until well after Marx’s death; in particular, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, (EPM), which he wrote in Paris in 1844, were not published at all until 1932.

As a result, much of Marx’s early work and ideas were unknown to marxists themselves during a very significant period in the development of the workers’ movement – including the entire period of the Second International and the period of the formation of the Third. Some of the most daring explorations contained in the EPM – key elements concerning both the concept of alienation and the content of human experience in a society in which alienation has been overcome – could not have been directly integrated into the evolution of marxist thought during this whole period.

This has given rise to a number of ideological interpretations, gradations of which can generally found to lie between two poles. The one pole is personified by that spokesman of the most senile form of Stalinist intellectualism – Louis Althusser, for whom the early writings of Marx can be relegated to the category of sentimental humanism and youthful folly, later wisely discarded by a Scientific Marx who emphasised the central importance of the objective laws of the economy – which, if you can move from the sublime gobbledegook of Althusserian theory to its rather more comprehensible application in the world of politics, happily point not towards the end of alienation but towards the much more achievable state capitalist programme of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The other pole is the mirror image of Marx-the-hard-headed-Stalinist: this is the ideology embraced by a congregation of Catholics, existentialists and other philosophers, who also accept the continuity between Marx’s later work and the Five Year Plans in the USSR, but who whisper to us that there is a different Marx, a young, romantic and idealist Marx who offers an alternative to the spiritual impoverishment which plagues the Materialist West. In between these poles are all sorts of theorists – some of them more inclined to the Frankfurt school[2] or the work of Lucio Colletti,[3] others who are partly influenced by partial aspects of left communism (example: the publication Aufheben in Britain) – who have used the Second International’s reliance on Engels rather than on the early Marx in matters of philosophy to construct a huge gulf not so much between the two Marx’s, but between Marx and Engels or between Marx and the Second and Third Internationals. In either case, the villains of the piece are seen as proponents of a mechanical, positivist distortion of Marx’s thought.

These approaches certainly sprinkle elements of the truth into their recipes. It is true that the period of the Second International in particular saw the workers’ movement becoming increasingly vulnerable to the penetration of the dominant ideology, and this was no less the case at the level of general theory (e.g. philosophy, the problem of historical progress, the origins of class consciousness) than at the level of political practise (eg on the question of parliament, the minimum and maximum programmes. etc). It must also be the case that an ignorance of Marx’s early work accentuated this vulnerability, sometimes in regard to the most far-reaching problems. Engels for one never denied that Marx was the more profound thinker of the two, and there are moments in Engels’ theoretical work when a full assimilation of some of the questions posed most insistently in Marx’s earlier work would indeed have taken his contributions onto a deeper level. But what all the divisive approaches lack is the sense of the continuity of Marx’s thought, and of the continuity of the revolutionary current that, for all its weaknesses and deficiencies, adopted the marxist method to advance the cause of communism. In previous articles in this series, we have argued against the idea that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the Second International and authentic marxism, either before or after it (see International Review n°84, ‘Social Democracy advances the communist cause’); we have also responded to the attempt to oppose Marx to Engels on the philosophical level (see ‘The transformation of social relations’ in International Review n°85, which rejects the idea advanced by Schmidt - and Colletti - that there is no concept of the dialectics of nature in Marx). And we have insisted, with Bordiga, on the essential continuity between the Marx of 1844 and the EPM, and the mature Marx of Capital, who did not abandon his earlier visions but sought to give them a solid grounding and a more scientific basis, above all through the development of the theory of historical materialism and a more profound study of capitalist political economy (see International Review n°75, ‘Capital and the principles of communism’).

A glance at Marx in his immediately ‘pre-communist’ phase, the Marx of 1843, fully supports this way of approaching the problem. During the preceding period, Marx had been increasingly exposed to communist ideas. For example, while involved in editing the Rheinsiche Zeitung, he had attended the meetings of a discussion circle in the paper’s Cologne offices, animated by Moses Hess,[4] who had already declared his support for communism. Certainly, Marx did not commit himself to any cause lightly. As he had thought long and hard about becoming a follower of Hegel, so again he refused any superficial adoption of communist theories, recognising that many of the existing forms of communism were crude and undeveloped – dogmatic abstractions, as he described them in his September 43 letter to Ruge. In a previous letter to Ruge (November 1842), he had insisted that “I find it inappropriate, indeed even immoral to smuggle communist and socialist doctrines, hence a new world outlook, into incidental theatre criticisms, etc, and that I demand a quite different and more thorough discussion of communism, if it should be discussed at all”.

Overcoming the separation between the individual and the community

But a cursory examination of the texts he was writing in this phase show that the transition to communism was already well underway. The main text he was working on during his stay at Kreuznach was his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. This is a long and incomplete text which is difficult to read but which shows Marx wrestling with Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel. Marx was particularly influenced by Feuerbach’s pertinent inversion of Hegel’s idealist speculations, which stressed that thought derives from being and not the other way round. This method informs the critique of the state, seen by Hegel as an incarnation of the Idea rather than the reflection of the more earthy realities of human life. The premises are therefore laid for a fundamental critique of the state as such. In the view of the 1843 Critique, the state – even the modern representative state - was already approached as an expression of the alienation of man’s social powers. And although Marx is still counting on the advent of universal suffrage and a democratic republic, he was from the very beginning looking beyond the ideal of a liberal political regime; for in the admittedly hybrid formulations of the Critique, Marx argues that universal suffrage, or rather radical democracy, heralded the transcendence both of the state and of civil (i.e. bourgeois) society. “Within the abstract political state the reform of voting is a dissolution of the state, but likewise the dissolution of civil society”.

Here in embryo is a goal that has animated the marxist movement throughout its history: the withering away of the state.

In his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’, written towards the end of 1843, Marx is again looking beyond the fight to abolish feudal barriers – in this case, restrictions on civil rights for Jews, whose repeal he affirmed as a step forward, in opposition to the sophisms of Bruno Bauer. Marx shows the inherent limitations of the very notion of civil rights, which can only mean the rights of the atomised citizen in a society of competing egos. For Marx, political emancipation – in other words, the goals of the bourgeois revolution, yet to be achieved in backward Germany – should not be confused with a genuine social emancipation, in which mankind would not only be freed from the rule of alien political powers, but also from the tyranny of buying and selling. This involved overcoming the separation between the individual and the community. The word communism is not used, but the implications are already plain (see ‘Marx and the Jewish Question’, International Review n°114).

Finally, in the shorter but far more focused Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (written at the end of 1843 or the beginning of 1844), Marx’s achievements are enormous and it would take another article to do them justice. Summarised as briefly as possible, they are twofold: first, he puts forward his famous critique of religion which already surpasses the rationalist criticisms of the bourgeois Enlightenment, recognising that the power of religion derives from the existence of a social order which must deny human needs; and secondly, he for the first time identifies the proletariat as the agent of the social revolution, this “class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes…..a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from – and thereby emancipating – all the other spheres of society, which is in a word the total loss of humanity and which can therefore redeem itself only through the total redemption of humanity”.

The emancipation of the proletariat is inseparable from general human emancipation: the working class cannot merely free itself from exploitation, cannot perpetuate itself as a ruling class, but must act as the standard bearer of all the oppressed; likewise, it cannot rid itself and humanity of capitalism alone, but must overcome the nightmare weight of all previously existing forms of exploitation and oppression.

The proletariat, agent of revolutionary change

We should also add that the last two texts, together with the collection of Marx’s letters to Ruge, were published in the one and only edition of the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher in February 1844. This journal was the fruit of Marx’s collaboration with Ruge, Engels, and others.[5] Marx had set great store by this enterprise, which he had hoped would both replace Ruge’s banned Deutsche Jahrbücher and take an important step forward by creating firm links between French and German revolutionary thought, although in the end none of his prospective French collaborators lived up to these hopes, and all the contributions were from the German side. It is of considerable interest to note that in August-September 1843 Marx wrote a short draft programme for the publication:

The articles of our annals will be written by Germans or Frenchmen, and will deal with

1) Men and systems which have acquired a useful or dangerous influence, and political questions of the day, whether they concern constitutions, political economy, or public institutions and morals.
2) We shall provide a review of newspapers and journals which in some way will be a castigation and correction of the servility and baseness shown by some, and which will help to call attention to the worthy efforts on behalf of humanity and freedom shown by others.
3) We shall include a review of the literature and publications of the old regime of Germany which is decaying and destroying itself, and finally a review of the books of the two nations which mark the commencement and continuance of the new era that we are entering”.

From this document we can draw two things. First, that even at this stage, Marx’s preoccupation was a militant one: to draw up a draft programme for a publication, however brief and general, is to see that publication as the expression of organised action. This dimension of Marx’s life – the idea of committing his life to a cause and to the necessity to build an organisation of revolutionaries – remains a fundamental mark of the proletarian influence on Marx the “man and fighter”, to use the title of Nikolaevsky’s 1936 biography.

Secondly, when Marx talks about the “new era”, we must bear in mind that while in Germany and in much of Europe the new era meant the overthrow of feudalism and the victory of the democratic bourgeoisie, there was also a powerful tendency in Marx and Engels’ initial commitment to communism to conflate the bourgeois with the proletarian revolution, to see one following fairly rapidly after the other. This is clear from Marx’s identification of the proletariat as the agent of revolutionary change even in backward Germany, and it is even clearer in the approach taken by the Communist Manifesto and in his theory of permanent revolution, elaborated in the wake of the 1848 uprisings. Applied to Marx’s thinking in 1843 and 1844, we must deduce that in anticipating a “new era”, Marx’s gaze was fixed less on the purely transitional struggle for a bourgeois republic and far more on the ensuing battle for a truly human society free of capitalist egoism and exploitation. What animated Marx throughout his life was above all this sense of the possibility of such a society. He was later to recognise more lucidly that the direct struggle for such a world was not yet on the agenda of history; that mankind had yet to pass through the Calvary of capitalism in order for the material bases for the new society to be established; but this original inspiration never left him.

Marxism is not a closed system

It is therefore senseless to make a rigid distinction between the young Marx and the old. The texts of 1843-4 are all decisive steps towards his fully-formed communist world-outlook, even before he consciously or explicitly defined himself as a communist. Furthermore, the pace of Marx’s movement in this period is quite remarkable. Following the production of the texts mentioned above, Marx moved to Paris. During the summer of 1844, palpably influenced by his direct involvement with the communist workers’ associations of that city, Marx produced the EPM where he declares for communism; in late August he met Engels, who was able to contribute a much more direct understanding of the functioning of the capitalist system. Their collaboration had a further dynamising effect on Marx’s work, and by 1845, through his "Theses on Feuerbach" and The German Ideology, he was able to present the essentials of the materialist theory of history. And since marxism, contrary to its detractors, is not a closed system, this process of evolution and self-development was continue to the very end of Marx’s life (see for example the article from this series on the "late Marx" in International Review n°81, which recounts how Marx took on the task of teaching himself Russian in order to deal with the Russian question, producing answers that confounded some of his more rigid followers).

The September letter to Ruge, which we reprint in full below, must be approached in the light of the above. It was not accidental that the entire collection of letters was published in the DFJ; they were obviously seen even then as contributions to the elaboration of a new programme or at least of a new political method; and the final letter is the most ‘programmatic’ of them all. Through the course of these letters, we can chart Marx’s decision to quit Germany, where his prospects had become ever-more precarious owing to a combination of family disagreements and harassment by the authorities. In the September letter, Marx confesses that he was finding it increasingly difficult to breath in Germany, and had determined to head for France – the land of revolutions, where socialist and communist thought was developing luxuriously in a variety of directions. Ruge, the former editor of the suppressed Deutsche Jahrbuche, was a willing collaborator in the plan to establish the ‘German-French Annals’, although their ways were to part when Marx adopted an explicitly communist standpoint, and Ruge had already confessed to Marx his feelings of discouragement following his experiences with the German censors and with the philistine atmosphere prevailing in Germany. Thus Marx’s penultimate letter to Ruge (written from Cologne, May 1843) was devoted in part to lifting Ruge’s spirits, and gives us a good insight into Marx’s optimistic state of mind at the time: “For our part, we must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way. The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in its womb”.

The struggle against dogmatism

By the time Marx wrote the September letter, Ruge’s depression had lifted. Marx was keen to outline the political approach that should hold sway in their proposed enterprise. To begin with, he was anxious to avoid any dogmatic and sectarian approaches. It must be remembered that this was the hey-day of utopian socialism of all kinds, nearly all of them based on abstract speculations about how a new and more equitable society should be run, and with little or no connection to the real, down-to-earth struggles going on around them. In many cases, the utopians displayed a haughty disdain both for the demands of the democratic opposition to feudalism and for the immediate economic demands of the nascent working class; and they could rarely come up with a better scheme for instituting the new social order than handing out the begging bowl to rich bourgeois philanthropists. This is why Marx dismisses so many of the varieties of contemporary socialism as forms of dogmatism, confronting the world with ready made schemas and regarding practical political struggles as unworthy of their attention. At the same time, Marx makes it clear that he was well aware of different trends within the communist movement, and that some of these – he mentions Proudhon and Fourier[6] – were more worthy of study than others. But the key is the conviction that a new world could not descend from the heavens but must be the result of struggles going on in the real world. Hence the famous passage:Nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to”.


In essence, as Lukacs points out in his 1920 essay ‘Class Consciousness’, this is already a materialist analysis: it is not a question of bringing consciousness to unconscious matter – the essence of idealism – but of making conscious a process which is already moving in a certain direction; a process driven by a material necessity which also encompasses the necessity to become aware of itself.

It is certainly the case that Marx is still largely talking about the struggle for political emancipation - for the completion of the bourgeois revolution, and this above all in Germany. The emphasis on the critique of religion, on intervening in contemporary political questions such as the differences between the estates system and representative government, confirms this, as does the possibility that these activities will “win the interest of a large party” – i.e. influence the liberal bourgeoisie. But let us not forget that Marx was also on the verge of announcing the proletariat as the agent of social change, a conclusion that would soon be applied both to feudal Germany and to the more capitalistically developed countries. Hence the method can equally – and in fact most specifically – be applied to the proletarian struggle for immediate demands, whether economic or political. This is in fact a profound anticipation of the struggle against the sectarian approach to socialism, which in later years would be typified by Bakunin; but it is also linked to the formulations in the German Ideology, which define communism as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs”; which locates revolutionary consciousness in the existence of a revolutionary class, and which explicitly defines communist consciousness as an historic emanation of the exploited proletariat. The continuity with the "Theses on Feuerbach" - the understanding that the educators must also be educated - is equally evident. Together these works provide an early warning against all the latter-day saviours of the proletariat, all those who see socialist consciousness being brought to the lowly workers from some exalted place on high.

Communism in continuity with mankind’s history

The concluding paragraphs of the letter summarise Marx’s approach to political intervention, but they also take us into deeper waters.

Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.

In short, therefore, we can formulate the trend of our journal as being: self-clarification (critical philosophy) to be gained by the present time of its struggles and desires. This is a work for the world and for us. It can be only the work of united forces. It is a matter of a confession, and nothing more. In order to secure remission of its sins, mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are”.

In George Elliot’s great novel of mid-19th century social life in England, Middlemarch, there is a character called Casaubon, a dry and dusty scholar, a man of the church with independent means, who devotes his life to writing a monumental and would-be definitive work entitled The Key to All Mythologies. This work is never completed and this is a symbolic expression of the character’s divorce from real human life and passions. But we can also take this as a story about bourgeois scholarship in general. In its period of ascent, the bourgeoisie did develop a taste for universal questions and the search for universal answers, but this search was increasingly abandoned in its decadent phase, when any posing of such questions leads to the uncomfortable conclusion of its demise as a class. Casaubon’s failure thus anticipates the intellectual dead-ends of bourgeois thinking. Marx, by contrast, in just a few brief remarks, offers us the beginnings of an approach that really does offer us a key to all mythologies; for just as Marx says in the September letter that religion is the “register” or “table of contents of the theoretical struggles of mankind”, mythology is the register of mankind’s psychic life since its beginnings, both in its limits and in its aspirations, and the study of mythology provides us with an insight into the needs that give rise to these aspirations .

David McLellan, perhaps one of Marx’s best biographers since Mehring, comments that “the notion of salvation through a ‘reform of consciousness’ was, of course, very idealistic. But this was merely typical of German philosophy of this time” (Karl Marx, His Life and Thought, 1973, p 77). But this is surely to take a purely static view of Marx’s formulation. When we take into account the fact that Marx was already seeing this ‘reform of consciousness’ as being the product of real struggles, when we recall that Marx was already beginning to look to the proletariat as the bearer of this ‘reformed’ consciousness, then it is evident that Marx is already moving past the dogmas of contemporary German philosophy. As Lukacs later made clear in the essays contained in History and Class Consciousness, the proletariat, the first to be both a revolutionary and an exploited class, has no need for ideological mystifications. Its class consciousness is thus for the first time a clear and lucid consciousness which marks a fundamental break with all forms of ideology.[7] The notion of a consciousness which is clear to itself is intimately linked to Marx’s movement towards the proletariat. And it was this same movement which was to enable Marx and Engels to elaborate the materialist theory of history, which recognised that communism was no longer just a "beautiful ideal" because capitalism had laid down the material premises for a society of abundance. The basics of this understanding would be put forward only two years later, in The German Ideology.

The charge could also be made that Marx’s formulations in the September letter are still caught up in the framework of humanism, of an ‘all-class’ vision of mankind. But as we have shown, since Marx was already tending towards the proletarian movement, it seems plain that any such humanitarian residues were no obstacle to his adoption of a class standpoint. Besides, it is not only permissible but necessary to speak of mankind, of the species, as a reality and not as an abstraction if we want to understand the true dimensions of the communist project. For while the proletariat is the communist class par excellence, still the proletariat “does not begin a new work”. The EPM, as we have seen, would make it clear that communism must be based on the recovering the entire wealth of the human past; by the same token it argued that “the entire movement of history, as simply communism’s actual act of genesis – the birth act of its empirical existence – is, therefore, for its thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its becoming. Communism is therefore the labour of history, and the communism of the proletariat is the clarification and synthesis of all previous struggles against misery and exploitation. This is why Marx, for one, named Spartacus as the historical figure he admired the most. Looking even further back, the communism of the future will rediscover on a higher level the unity of the tribal communities in which mankind lived for the greater part of its historical existence, prior to the advent of class divisions and the exploitation of man by man.

The proletariat sees itself as the defender of all that is human. While ferociously denouncing the inhumanity of exploitation, it does not preach an attitude of hatred even towards individual exploiters, nor does it regard with contempt or superiority other oppressed classes and social strata, past or present. The view that communism meant the obliteration of all culture because it had hitherto belonged to the exploiters was lambasted as “crude communism” in the EPM. This is a negative tradition that has plagued the workers’ movement ever since, for example in certain forms of anarchism which delight in the despoiling and destruction of the cultural symbols of the past; and the decadence of capitalism, especially when it is combined with the Stalinist counter-revolution, has spawned even more hideous caricatures such as the Maoist campaigns against “The Four Olds”[8] during the so-called Cultural Revolution. But simplistic and destructive attitudes to the culture of the past did manifest themselves even during the heroic days of the Russian revolution, when in particular organs of repression such as the Cheka frequently displayed a harsh and vengeful attitude towards ‘non-proletarians’, sometimes almost seen as congenitally inferior to ‘pure’ proletarians. The marxist recognition of the historical role of the working class has nothing in common with this kind of ‘workerism’, the worship of the proletariat as it is at any given moment; nor with the philistinism that rejects the entire culture of the old world (see in particular the article in this series on Trotsky and proletarian culture, in International Review n°109).The communism of the future will integrate into itself all that is best in the cultural and moral endeavours of the human species.


Marx’s letter to Ruge, September 1843

I am glad that you have made up your mind and, ceasing to look back at the past, are turning your thoughts ahead to a new enterprise. And so — to Paris, to the old university of philosophy — absit omen! [May it not be an ill omen] — and the new capital of the new world! What is necessary comes to pass. I have no doubt, therefore, that it will be possible to overcome all obstacles, the gravity of which I do not fail to recognise.

But whether the enterprise comes into being or not, in any case I shall be in Paris by the end of this month, since the atmosphere here makes one a serf, and in Germany I see no scope at all for free activity.

In Germany, everything is forcibly suppressed; a real anarchy of the mind, the reign of stupidity itself, prevails there, and Zurich obeys orders from Berlin. It therefore becomes increasingly obvious that a new rallying point must be sought for truly thinking and independent minds. I am convinced that our plan would answer a real need, and after all it must be possible for real needs to be fulfilled in reality. Hence I have no doubt about the enterprise, if it is undertaken seriously.

The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. For although no doubt exists on the question of “Whence,” all the greater confusion prevails on the question of “Whither.” Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

Therefore I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc.[9] This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis — the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines — such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc. — arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle.


And the whole socialist principle in its turn is only one aspect that concerns the reality of the true human being. But we have to pay just as much attention to the other aspect, to the theoretical existence of man, and therefore to make religion, science, etc., the object of our criticism. In addition, we want to influence our contemporaries, particularly our German contemporaries. The question arises: how are we to set about it? There are two kinds of facts which are undeniable. In the first place religion, and next to it, politics, are the subjects which form the main interest of Germany today. We must take these, in whatever form they exist, as our point of departure, and not confront them with some ready-made system such as, for example, the Voyage en Icarie.

Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form. The critic can therefore start out from any form of theoretical and practical consciousness and from the forms peculiar to existing reality develop the true reality as its obligation and its final goal. As far as real life is concerned, it is precisely the political state — in all its modern forms — which, even where it is not yet consciously imbued with socialist demands, contains the demands of reason. And the political state does not stop there. Everywhere it assumes that reason has been realised. But precisely because of that it everywhere becomes involved in the contradiction between its ideal function and its real prerequisites.

From this conflict of the political state with itself, therefore, it is possible everywhere to develop the social truth. just as religion is a register of the theoretical struggles of mankind, so the political state is a register of the practical struggles of mankind. Thus, the political state expresses, within the limits of its form sub specie rei publicae,[as a particular kind of state] all social struggles, needs and truths. Therefore, to take as the object of criticism a most specialised political question — such as the difference between a system based on social estate and one based on representation — is in no way below the hauteur des principes. [Level of principles] For this question only expresses in a political way the difference between rule by man and rule by private property. Therefore the critic not only can, but must deal with these political questions (which according to the extreme Socialists are altogether unworthy of attention). In analysing the superiority of the representative system over the social-estate system, the critic in a practical way wins the interest of a large party. By raising the representative system from its political form to the universal form and by bringing out the true significance underlying this system, the critic at the same time compels this party to go beyond its own confines, for its victory is at the same time its defeat.


Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.

The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions. Our whole object can only be — as is also the case in Feuerbach’s criticism of religion — to give religious and philosophical questions the form corresponding to man who has become conscious of himself.

Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.

In short, therefore, we can formulate the trend of our journal as being: self-clarification (critical philosophy) to be gained by the present time of its struggles and desires. This is a work for the world and for us. It can be only the work of united forces. It is a matter of a confession, and nothing more. In order to secure remission of its sins, mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are.


1 Arnold Ruge (1802-1880) was a young left Hegelian, who collaborated with Marx on the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher before breaking off relations with him. He became a supporter of Bismarck in 1866.

2 The Frankfurt school was founded in 1923. Its initial objective was to study social phenomena. After the war, it became less an institute of social research and more of an intellectual current (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Pollock, Grossman, etc.) that claimed to be influenced by Marx.

3 Lucio Colletti (1924-2001): an Italian philosopher who considered Marx to be a successor to Kant rather than to Hegel. Author of several works, including Marxism and Hegel, and Introduction to Marx’s early writings. At one time a member of the Italian CP, he then moved towards social-democracy and ended his political career as an MP in the Berlusconi government.

4 Moses Hess (1812-1875): a Young Hegelian, cofounder and collaborator with Marx on the Rheinische Zeitung. A founder of "real socialism" in the 1840s.

5 As well as the texts by Marx mentioned already, the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher contained Marx’s letter to the editor of the Allegmeine Zeitung (Augsburg) and two articles by Engels: "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" and a review of Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present. Marx had also written to Feuerbach in October 1843, hoping that he would contribute, but it seems that Feuerbach was not yet ready to pass from the field of theory to that of political action.

6 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865): French printer, journalist, and member of the National Assembly in 1848. Marx criticised his economic theories in The poverty of philosophy. Charles Fourier (1772-1837): French utopian socialist, who had a considerable influence on the later development of socialist thinking.

7 It is perhaps not accidental that in these essays Lukacs was also one of the first – despite not being acquainted with the EPM at the time – to return to the problem of alienation, which he approached via the concept of reification

8 The "four olds" indicated the "old ideas, culture, customs and habits" which were supposedly the targets of the "Cultural Revolution".

9 Wilhelm Weitling (1808-1871): a tailor and one of the leaders of the early German workers’ movement, advocate of an egalitarian communism. Théodore Dézamy (1803-1850) : one of communism’s first theoreticians. Etienne Cabet (1788-1856): French utopian communist and author of Voyage en Icarie, Roman philosophique et social.