by Brian Jones
February 25, 2009
Karl Marx developed his ideas in an era of when young people were dedicating their lives to a struggle for new rights and freedoms. Brian Jones examines Marx’s revolutionary ideas in this second of three articles.
HOW DID Karl Marx become a Marxist? Marx developed his idea not just through study–although he was a voracious reader (really, the word “voracious” doesn’t begin to touch it). Marx’s Marxism is really the theoretical product of his practical efforts to build a movement for radical change, and his observations of struggles taking place around him.
This is worth our attention because Marx is not only the author of a set of ideas about history, but the author of a unique method of looking at history. This method is widely known as historical materialism or dialectical materialism.
Our tale begins with the 1830s. A young Karl goes off to university to study law, and like so many before him and so many since, is seduced instead by the study of philosophy on the one hand, and the drinking of great quantities of beer on the other.
One of his school reports cites him for: “excellent diligence and attention,” and then blithely goes on to add:
He has incurred a punishment of one day’s detention for disturbing the peace by rowdiness and drunkenness at night…Subsequently, he was accused of having carried prohibited weapons…The investigation is till pending.
The brand of beer (and weapons) may remain unknown, but the brand of philosophy is not: Marx was a radical democrat, which is to say that he was living in an era of revolutions–known as bourgeois revolutions, because they were the revolutions led by the bourgeoisie (French for “capitalists”) to overthrow the feudal order of kings, queens and the nobility.
The kings and queens taught that the world never changed, and that universe, the earth and society were all organized in God’s image–with them, conveniently, perched at the top. But this was increasingly a lost argument once their royal heads started rolling into guillotine baskets.
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MARX BECAME a follower of the ideas of Georg Hegel. Hegel said that the kings and queens were wrong–that the world is always changing. The change, Hegel argued, is produced by conflicting ideas–feudal ideas vs. bourgeois ideas, for example. Rather than a view of a static, never-changing world, Hegel put forward a view of a dialectical, ever-changing world.
Marx was for Hegel. Marx was for the bourgeois revolutions and the triumph of the new bourgeois ideas about rights and freedoms (of the press, of the ballot and so on). These were the exciting, dangerous new ideas that young people everywhere were dedicating their lives to fight for. A young heir to a textile business, Frederick Engels (Marx’s future collaborator), was just the sort who was thoroughly infected with these ideas, as he himself pointed out:
What shall I, poor devil, do now? Go on swotting on my own? Don’t feel like it. Turn loyal? The devil if I will!…I cannot sleep at night, all because of the ideas of the century. When I am at the post office…I am seized with the spirit of freedom. Every time I look at a newspaper I hunt for news of advances of freedom. They get into my poems.
The bourgeoisie had revolutionized France and America. But in Germany, there was a problem: the old Prussian state still clung to power and was determined to repress anyone who spoke out. Many who had previously called for change succumbed to the pressure, including Hegel!
Marx remained among those who would not submit. These opponents of the old order called themselves the “Young Hegelians.” Just when Marx got his PhD and was hoping to get a faculty position in a university, “Hegelianism” was banned by the Prussian state. Marx was effectively blacklisted from teaching, so he turned to journalism.
Marx started writing for a newspaper that was funded by some reform-minded capitalists. He wrote hundreds of articles about all sorts of abuses of the Prussian state, and made a huge impression on his colleagues. In fact, within one year of working as a journalist, Marx had such a reputation that Engels (who had yet to actually meetMarx) wrote a poem about him, based only on the stories he was hearing:
Who runs up next with wild impetuosity?
A swarthy chap of Trier, a marked monstrosity.
He neither hops nor skips, but moves in leaps and bounds,
Raving aloud. As if to seize and then pull down
To earth the spacious tent of Heaven up on high,
He opens wide his arms and reaches for the sky.
He shakes his wicked fist, raves with a frantic air,
As if ten thousand devils had him by the hair.
The problem with all of this fist-shaking was that Marx was advocating for freedom of the press (among other things) in a country where freedom of the press had not yet been won. Again and again, Marx’s newspapers were shut down and Marx was arrested. He was deported for the things he dared to write.
Even worse, when Marx wrote about anything that went beyond bourgeois freedoms, his own funders would retreat. For example, Marx wrote a scathing article against the land “rights” that prevented the poor from gathering free firewood from the estates of the rich, and the shareholders (precisely the sort who didn’t want the poor to set foot on their land) complained that the paper was becoming “more and more impudent.” Just as the newspaper was growing in popularity, it was shut down.
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FROM THIS experience, it was confirmed for Marx that the world isn’t just driven forward by ideas. There was something else thattrumped ideas: material interests.
Marx retained the idea that the world was dialectical, and therefore constantly changing through struggle. But instead of a struggle between pure ideas, he came to see society as driven by a struggle between conflicting material interests. Marx was on his way toward developing a dialectical and materialist way of looking at the world.
This enabled him to explain why the German bourgeoisie wouldn’t lift a finger to fight for bourgeois ideals. They made their money off the growing armies of wage workers, so while they still hated the authority of the kings, they feared even more the possibility of stirring up any kind of revolt among their employees.
It seemed increasingly unlikely, especially in Germany, that capitalists would carry out anything resembling a real revolution, on the model of the French Revolution. But if they wouldn’t, who would?
As Marx and his family were chased around Europe, searching for refuge, he came in contact with a new class of people: wage workers.
They were different from peasants, and different even from artisans or craftspeople–all of whom worked mostly in small, self-sufficient units. Wage workers, on the other hand, were organized into giant collective armies, and Marx discovered that they were political! In France, they had secret societies. Marx sat in on their meetings, listened to their speeches and plans, and was struck by how bold and honest their discussions were. As he wrote:
You would have to attend one of the meetings of the French workers to appreciate the pure freshness, the nobility which bursts forth from these toil-worn men… It is among these “barbarians” of our civilized society that history is preparing the practical element for the emancipation of mankind.
In Silesia, a group of 3,000 poorly paid weavers revolted after one of them was arrested for harassing the boss in song (under his window!). They went to the bosses’ houses and destroyed their account books. The army was sent in, and the weavers beat them, too.
The workers’ material interests led them to stand up for each other–solidarity was a necessity, not just an ideal.
So while the material interests of the bourgeoisie got in the way of fighting for loftier ideals, for the wage workers, it was the opposite. Whether they even knew about the lofty ideals, their material interests compelled them to fight for freedom and equality.
Marx’s struggles and experiences led him to a new way of looking at history–not just as a contest of ideas, but a contest of material interests. As he and his now collaborator Engels wrote in theCommunist Manifesto:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.
And Marx came to a new conclusion about history–that if the modern working class were to fight capitalists and actually win–that is, if the working class became the ruling class–its victory would mean the end of classes:
If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
NEXT: Marx’s vision of socialism
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