How the proletariat won Marx to communism

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

"The theoretical conclusions of the communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes." (Communist Manifesto)

In the first article in this series, we attempted to counter the bourgeois cliché that 'communism is a nice idea, but it will never work' by showing that communism was not an 'idea,' invented by Marx or any "would-be universal reformer", but was the product of an immense historical movement which stretched back to the earliest human societies; and above all, that the demand for a society without classes, private prop­erty or the state had been raised in every great upheaval of the proletariat from its very beginnings as a social class.

There was a proletarian communist movement before Marx was born, and when the young student Marx was just begin­ning to enter the arena of radical democratic politics in Ger­many, there was already a plethora of communist groups and tendencies, notably in France, where the working class movement had made the greatest strides towards developing a communist outlook. Thus Paris in the late 1830s and early 1840s was the stamping ground of such currents as Cabet's utopian communism, the prolongation of the views outlined by Saint-Simon and Fourier; there were Proudhon and his followers, forerunners of anarchism but who at that time were making a rudimentary attempt to criticize bourgeois po­litical economy from the standpoint of the exploited; the more insurrectionary Blanquists, who had led an aborted ris­ing in 1839 and were the heirs of Babeuf and the 'Equals' in the great French revolution. In Paris too there was a whole milieu of exiled German intellectuals and workers. The communist workers were mainly grouped in the League of the Just, animated by Weitling.

Marx entered into the political fray from the starting point of critical philosophy. During the course of his university stud­ies he fell - reluctantly at first, because Marx did not enter his commitments lightly - under the spell of Hegel. Hegel at that time was the acknowledged 'Master' in the field of phi­losophy in Germany, and in a more profound sense his work represented the very summit of bourgeois philosophical en­deavor, because it was the last great attempt of this class to grasp the entire movement of human history and consciousness, and because it aimed to accomplish this by means of the dialectical method.

Very rapidly, however, Marx joined up with the 'Young Hegelians', (Bruno Bauer, Feuerbach, etc) who had begun to recognize that the Master's conclusions were not consistent with his method, and even that key elements of his method were deeply flawed. Thus while Hegel's dialectical approach to history showed that all historical forms were transitory, that what was 'rational' in one period was completely 'irrational' in another, he ended up positing an 'End of His­tory' by presenting the existing Prussian state as the incarna­tion of Reason. Similarly - and here the work of Feuerbach was particularly important - it was clear to the Young Hegelians that, having effectively undermined theology and unreasoning faith with his philosophical rigor, Hegel ended up reinstating God and theology in the guise of the Absolute Idea. The aim of the young Hegelians was, first and fore­most, to take Hegel's dialectic to its logical conclusion and arrive at a thorough-going critique of theology and religion. Thus for Marx and his fellow Young Hegelians it was literally true that "the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism" ('A contribution to the critique of Hegel's phi­losophy of right', 1843-44).

But the Young Hegelians were living in a semi-feudal state where the criticism of religion was forbidden by the state censor: therefore the criticism of religion very quickly turned into the criticism of politics. Having given up all hope of gaining a university teaching post after Bauer was dismissed from his, Marx turned to political journalism, and soon be­gan formulating his attack on the wretched Junker stupidity of the prevailing political system in Germany. His sympa­thies were immediately republican and democratic, as can be seen from his first articles for the Deutsche Jahrbuche and the Rheinische Zeitung, but they were still couched in terms of a radical bourgeois opposition to feudalism, and concentrated very much on matters of 'political liberty', such as freedomof the press and universal suffrage. In fact, Marx explicitly resisted the attempts of Moses Hess, who had already gone over to an overtly communist standpoint, if of a rather senti­mental variety, to smuggle communist ideas into the pages of the Rheinische Zeitung. In answer to a charge by the Augs­burger Allgemeiner Zeitung that Marx's paper had adopted communism, Marx wrote that "The Rheinische Zeitung, which cannot even concede theoretical reality to communistic ideas in their present form, and can even less wish or consider possible their practical realization, will submit these ideas to thorough criticism" ('Communism and the Augs­burger Allgemeiner Zeitung'). Later on, in a famous, almost programmatic letter to Arnold Ruge, (September 1843) he wrote that the communism of Cabet, Weitling etc was a "dogmatic abstraction".

In fact, these hesitations about adopting a communist position were similar to Marx's hesitations when initially confronted with Hegel. He was really being won over to communism, but refused any superficial adhesion, and was well aware of the weaknesses of the "actually existing" communist tendencies. Thus in the same article which appeared to reject com­munist ideas, he went on to say that "if the Augsburger wanted and could achieve more than slick phrases, it would see that writings such as those by Leroux, Considerant, and above all Proudhon's penetrating work, can only be criticized after long and deep study, not through superficial and passing notions". And in the above-mentioned letter to Ruge, he went made it clear that his real objection to the commu­nism of Weitling and Cabet was not that it was communist but that it was dogmatic, ie that it saw itself as no more than a good idea or a moral imperative to be brought to the suf­fering masses from a redeemer on high. In contrast to this, Marx outlined his own approach:

"Nothing prevents us, therefore, from lining our criticism with a criticism of politics, from taking sides in politics, ie from entering into real struggles and identifying ourselves with them. This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall de­velop for the world new principles from the existing princi­ples of the world. We shall not say: abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with the true campaign slogans. Instead we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must ac­quire whether it wishes or not".

Having broken from the Hegelian mystification which posited an ethereal 'self-consciousness' standing outside the real world of men, Marx was not about to reproduce the same theoretical error at the level of politics. Consciousness did not pre-exist the historical movement; it could only be the coming-to-consciousness of the real movement itself.

The proletariat as a communist class

Although in this letter there is no explicit reference to the proletariat and no definite adoption of communism, we know from its date that Marx was in the process of doing just that. The articles written in the period 1842-3 about social ques­tions - the Prussian wood theft law and the situation of the Mosel wine growers - had led him to recognize the funda­mental importance of economic and class factors in political affairs; indeed Engels said later that he had "always heard from Marx that it was precisely through concentrating on the law of thefts of wood and the situation of the Mosel wine­growers that he was led from pure politics to economic rela­tionships and so to socialism" (Engels to R Fischer, 1885, Marx and Engels, Werke xxxix 466). And Marx's article 'On the Jewish question', also written in late 1843, is communist in all but name, since it looks forward to an emancipation that goes beyond the purely political domain to the emanci­pation of society from buying and selling, from the egoism of competing individuals and of private property.

But it should not be thought that Marx came to these views simply through his own capacities for study and reflection, enormous though they were. He was not an isolated genius contemplating the world from on high, but was engaged in constant discussion with his contemporaries. In the process of his 'conversion' to communism, he acknowledged his debt to the contemporary writings of Weitling, Proudhon, Hess and Engels; and with the latter two in particular, he had engaged in intense face to face discussions when they were commu­nists and he was not. Engels above all had the advantage of having witnessed firsthand the more advanced capitalism of England, and had begun to develop a theory of capitalist de­velopment and crisis which was vital to the elaboration of a scientific critique of political economy. Engels had also seen firsthand the Chartist movement in Britain, which was no longer a small political group but a veritable mass movement, clear evidence of the capacity of the proletariat to constitute itself as an independent political force in society. Perhaps most important of all in convincing Marx that communism could be more than a utopia was his direct contact with the groups of communist workers in Paris. The meetings of these groups made a tremendous impression upon him:

"When communist artisans form associations, education and propaganda are their first aims. But the very act of asso­ciating creates a new need - the need for society - and what appears to be a means has become an end. The most striking results of this practical development are to be seen when French socialist workers meet together. Smoking, eating and drinking are no longer simply means of bringing people to­gether. Company, association, entertainment which also has society as its aim, are sufficient for them; the brotherhood of man is no empty phrase but a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their toil-worn bodies" (Economic  and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844).

We may forgive Marx a certain exaggeration here; commu­nist associations, workers' organizations, are never actually an end unto themselves. The real point is elsewhere; that in participating in the emerging proletarian movement, Marx was able to see that communism, the real and concrete broth­erhood of man, could be not just a high-minded phrase but a practical project. It was in Paris, in 1844, that Marx first ex­plicitly identified himself as a communist.

Thus, what above all else allowed Marx to overcome his hesitations about communism was the recognition that there was a force in society which had a material interest in com­munism. Since communism had ceased to be a dogmatic ab­straction, a mere 'Good Idea', the role of the communists would not be reduced to preaching about the evils of capital­ism and the benefits of communism. It would involve identi­fying themselves with the struggles of the working class, showing the proletariat "why it is struggling" and "how it must become conscious" of the ultimate goals of its struggle. Marx's adhesion to communism was identical to his adhesion to the cause of the proletariat, because the proletariat was the class that bore communism within itself. The classic exposi­tion of this position is the concluding passage to the 'Critique of Hegel's philosophy of right'. Although this article was attempting to deal with the question of what social force could bring about the emancipation of Germany from its feu­dal chains, the answer it gave was actually more appropriate to the question of how mankind could be emancipated from capitalism, since the "positive possibility of German emanci­pation" lay "in the formation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of classes, a sphere which has a universal character because of its universal suffering and which lays claim to no particular right because the wrong it suffers is not a particular wrong but wrong in general; a sphere of society which can no longer lay any claim to a historical title, but merely to a human one ... and finally, a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from - and therefore 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. This dissolution of society as a particular class is the proletariat."

Despite the fact that the working class was only beginning to form in Germany itself, Marx's acquaintance with the more developed workers' movement in France and Britain had al­ready convinced him of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. Here was a class which embodied all the suf­ferings of humanity; in this it was not unlike previous ex­ploited classes in history, though its "loss of humanity" was taken to an even more advanced level. But in other respects it was quite unlike previous exploited classes, and this became clear once the development of modern industry had given rise to a modern industrial proletariat. In contrast to the earlier exploited classes such as the peasants under feudalism, the working class was first and foremost a class of associated labor. This meant, to begin with, that it could only defend its immediate interests by means of an associated struggle -by uniting its forces against all the divisions imposed by the enemy class. But it also meant that the ultimate solution to its condition as an exploited class could only lie in the creation of a real human association, of a society based on free coop­eration instead of competition and domination. And because this association would be based on the enormous progress in the productivity of labor brought about by capitalist indus­try, it would not collapse back to a lower form under the pressures of scarcity, but would be the basis for the abundant satisfaction of human needs. Thus, the modern proletariat contained within itself, within its very being, the dissolution of the old society, the abolition of private property, and the emancipation of the whole of humanity:

"When the proletariat proclaims the dissolution of the exist­ing world order, it is only declaring the secret of its own ex­istence, for it is the actual dissolution of that order. When the proletariat demands the negation of private property, it is only elevating as a principle for society what society has already made a principle for the proletariat, what is embod­ied in the proletariat, without its consent, as the negative re­sult of society" (ibid).

This is why, in The German Ideology, written a couple of years later, Marx was able to define communism as "the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs": communism was none other than the real movement of the proletariat, which was led by its innermost nature, by its most practical material interests, to demand the collective ap­propriation of all social wealth.

To such arguments the Philistines of the day responded in the same way as they do today: 'how many workers do you know who want a communist revolution? The vast majority of them seem quite resigned to their lot under capitalism'. But Marx was ready with his response in The Holy Family (1844): "It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will be historically compelled to do". Here he warns against taking a purely empiricist snapshot of the proletariat as represented by the views of a particular worker, or by the consciousness of the vast majority of the class at a given moment. Instead, the proletariat and its struggle must be seen in a context which encompasses the whole sweep of its history - including its revolutionary future. It was precisely his capacity to see the proletariat in this historic frame which enabled him to predict that a class which up till then was still a minority of the soci­ety around him, and had only troubled bourgeois order on a local scale, would one day be the force that would shake the entire capitalist world to its very foundations.

"The philosophers only interpreted the world,

The point is to change it"

The same article which announced Marx's recognition of the revolutionary nature of the working class also had the temer­ity to proclaim that "philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat". For Marx, Hegel had marked the supreme point in the historical evolution not only of bourgeois philos­ophy, but of philosophy in general, of all philosophy since its very beginnings in ancient Greece. But after reaching the mountain top, the descent was very quick. First came Feuer­bach, the materialist and humanist, to unmask Hegel's Ab­solute Idea as the last manifestation of God; and having un­masked God as the projection of man's suppressed powers, to elevate the cult of man in his place. This was already a sign of the coming end of philosophy as philosophy. All that re­mained was for Marx, acting as the avant-garde of the proletariat, to deliver the coup de grace. Capitalism had estab­lished its effective dominion over society; philosophy had had its last word, because now the working class had (albeit in a more or less crude form) formulated a realizable project for the practical emancipation of humanity from the chains of all the ages. From this point onwards, it would be perfectly correct to say, as did Marx, that "philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as masturbation and sexual love" (German Ideology, 1845). The ensuing nullity of virtually all bourgeois 'philosophy' after Feuerbach only bears this out[1].

The philosophers had made their various interpretations of the world. In the field of 'natural philosophy', the study of the physical universe, they had already had to cede their place to the scientists of the bourgeoisie. And now, with the arrival of the proletariat, they had to cede their authority in all matters pertaining to the human world. Having found its material weapons in the proletariat, philosophy was dissolved as a separate sphere. In practical terms, for Marx, this meant a break both with Bruno Bauer and with Feuerbach. With re­gard to Bauer and his followers, who had retired to a true ivory tower of self-contemplation, known under the grandiose term of 'Critical Criticism', Marx was sarcastic in the extreme: this truly was philosophy as self-abuse. Towards Feuerbach, Marx had a far deeper respect, and never forgot the contribution he had made to 'turning Hegel on his feet'. The basic criticism he made of Feuerbach's humanism was that its 'man' was an abstract, unchanging creature, divorced from society and its historical evolution. For this reason Feuerbachian humanism could do no more than propose a new religion of humanity's oneness. But as Marx insisted, humanity could not really become one until class divisions had reached their ultimate point of antagonism, and so all the honest philosopher could do from now on was to throw in his lot with the proletarian side of the divide.

But the whole sentence reads: "Just as philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its intellectual weapons in philosophy". The effective sup­pression of philosophy by the proletarian movement did not imply that the latter had carried out a crude decapitation of intellectual life. On the contrary. It had now assimilated the best of 'philosophy' - and by extension the accumulated wis­dom of the bourgeoisie and of previous social formations -and had embarked upon the task of transforming it into a sci­entific critique of existing conditions. Marx did not come empty-handed into the proletarian movement. He brought with him in particular the most advanced methods and con­clusions elaborated by German philosophy; and, along with Engels, the discoveries of the bourgeoisie's most lucid politi­cal economists: in both fields, these represented the intellec­tual apogee of a class which not only retained a progressive character, but had only just completed its heroic, revolution­ary phase. The entry of men like Marx and Engels into the ranks of the workers' movement marked a qualitative step in the latter's self-clarification, a move from intuitive, specula­tive, half-formed theoretical groping to the stage of scientific investigation and comprehension. In organizational terms, this was symbolized by the transformation of the sect-like, semi-conspiratorial League of the Just into the Communist League, which adopted The Communist Manifesto as its pro­gram in 1847.

But let us repeat: this did not signify that class consciousness was being injected into the proletariat from some higher as­tral plane. In the light of what we have written above, it can be seen more clearly that the Kautskyite thesis, according to which socialist consciousness is brought to the working class by bourgeois intellectuals, is actually a continuation of the utopian error criticized by Marx in the 'Theses on Feuer­bach' :

"The materialist doctrine that men are products of cir­cumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed up­bringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example).

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of hu­man activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."

Put in other terms: the Kautskyite thesis - which Lenin took up in What is to be done but later abandoned[2] - starts off with a crude materialism, seeing the working class as eter­nally conditioned by the circumstances of its exploitation, unable to become conscious of its real situation. To break out of this closed circle, vulgar materialism then turns itself into the most abject idealism, positing a 'socialist consciousness' that for some mysterious reason is invented ... by the bour­geoisie! This approach completely reverses the way that Marx himself posed the problem. Thus, in The German Ide­ology he wrote:

"From the conception of history we have sketched we obtain these further conclusions: in the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the ex­isting relationships only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces ... and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of so­ciety without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from so­ciety, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist con­sciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class".

Clear enough: communist consciousness emanates from the proletariat, and as a result of this, elements from other classes are able to attain communist consciousness. But only by breaking with their 'inherited' class ideology and adopting the standpoint of the proletariat. This latter point in particular is stressed in a passage in The Communist Manifesto:

"In times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the process of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a vi­olent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of com­prehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole."

Marx and Engels could only 'bring' to the proletariat what they did by "cutting themselves adrift" from the ruling class; they could only "comprehend theoretically the historical movement" by examining critically bourgeois philosophy and political economy from the standpoint of the exploited class. In fact a better way to put this is to say that the proletarian movement, by winning over the likes of Marx and Engels, was able to appropriate the intellectual wealth of the bour­geoisie and use it to its own ends. Furthermore, it would not have been able to do this if it had not already embarked upon the task of developing a communist theory. Marx was quite explicit about this when he described the workers Proudhon and Weitling as the theoreticians of the proletariat. In sum: the working class took bourgeois philosophy and political economy and forged them with hammer and anvil into the indispensable weapon that bears the name of marxism, but which is none other than the "fundamental theoretical acqui­sition of the proletarian struggle the only conception which really expresses the viewpoint of that class" (ICC plat­form). CDW


In subsequent parts of this series, we will examine further Marx's protest against the condition of the proletariat in bourgeois society, and his initial definitions of the commu­nist society that would overcome these conditions.

[1] Henceforward, only those philosophers who recognize the bankruptcy of capitalism have anything at all to say. But traumatized by the growing barbarism of the declining capi­talist system, and yet unable to conceive that anything but capitalism could exist, they decree that not only present-day society, but existence itself, is a complete absurdity! Unfortunately, the cult of despair is not a very good advertise­ment for the health of an age's philosophy.

[2] See our article in International Review, 43, 'Reply to the Communist Workers Organization: On the subterranean mat­uration of consciousness'. The CWO, and the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party to which it is affiliated, continues to defend a slightly watered-down version of the Kautskyite theory of class consciousness.