Saturday, 27 December 2014

Summary of Marxism

1.     History advances in a series of dialectical stages, each one being an advance on the previous one, like a staircase leading upwards.
2.     Economic forces determine all other changes. The ownership of economic power determines the shape of society. Thus, mediaeval society was determined by the fact that the economy was dominated by agriculture, and so the dominant class was the feudal nobility, who owned agricultural production. The growth of trade and manufacturing then put increasing economic power into the hands of the rising class; the bourgeoisie: the people who own the factories, mines and banks.
3.     All history is the history of class struggles. This is because in all societies up to the present there has always been a possessing class, who control the means of production, and the rest, who are exploited. The interests of the two are fundamentally irreconcilable. Thus in the mediaeval period the interests of the nobility and the peasantry were directly opposite to each other; and the same applies nowadays to the interests of the bourgeoisie and the workers, because the capitalist system by its very nature involves exploitation of the workers, and cannot be otherwise. Anyone who argues otherwise is either stupid or deliberately dishonest.
4.     The state is not, and cannot be, neutral in the class struggle, but exists to serve the interests of the dominant class: the ruling class. In the past this was the feudal nobility, now it is the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie. In the future, after the revolution, it will be the working class: the proletariat.
5.     Revolutions and major political changes occur because the structure of the state has been left behind by economic and social developments. Thus at the end of the mediaeval period the growth of trade and industry put wealth into the hands of a new middle class, who increasingly found that the feudal state, run in the interests of the landowning nobility, no longer served their interests, but tended to hinder further economic growth. It was therefore overthrown and replaced by a government structure more suited to bourgeois needs. This is what lay behind the French Revolutions of 1789-93, 1830 and 1848. In England the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and the Great Reform Act of 1832 left a fa├žade of political power in the hands of the aristocracy, though in fact the government was now run in the interests of the bourgeoisie.
6.     Human consciousness and thinking are determined by the nature of society and the individual’s role in it. Thus, the notion that man is by nature a competitive and possessive individualist (which John Stuart Mill believed was the case) is incorrect. If man behaves like that now, it is because competitive individualism is the way to succeed in capitalist society, and people who behave otherwise are treated with scorn. In the Middle Ages consciousness was different: people were concerned about the salvation of their souls, and possessive individualism was regarded as sinful. After the communist revolution, human consciousness will change again, and possessive individualism will no longer be appropriate. Already concepts like nationalism and religious faith are becoming irrelevant. (Marx also appeared to believe that the working classes had a different consciousness to the bourgeoisie: less individualistic, more tending towards class solidarity)
7.     Although capitalism is vastly superior to what went before, it contains within it contradictions which are seeds of its own destruction. Unprecedented wealth is produced, but virtually none of this comes into the hands of the working classes, the proletarians, who constitute the great majority of the population. They are thus alienated from capitalist society, gaining little from it.
8.     As time goes on, the situation can only get worse. Cut-throat competition between capitalists will compel them to reduce costs by cutting wages, but this will mean that the ability of the proletariat to buy the goods produced will be reduced even further. Alienation will increase and slumps and bankruptcies caused by overproduction of unsaleable goods will become more frequent. It will become increasingly apparent that the capitalist system is a bar to further economic progress. Eventually a flash-point will be reached: the revolution.
9.     The Communist Party is the vanguard of the proletariat: its most class-conscious section; that is, the most aware of the inevitability of class-conflict and of the historical role of the proletariat. The Party leads the proletariat towards the coming revolution, and guards against erroneous ideas and tactics.
10.        When the proletariat seizes power in the revolution the property of the bourgeoisie will be expropriated. Henceforth all economic power will be held in common rather than being privately owned. There will henceforth be no competing classes, but only one class. This means that the state, which is only an instrument of class oppression, will “wither away”. Human consciousness will change, since competitive possessive individualism will no longer be appropriate. The classless, non-competitive society which will ensue is “communist society”.
11.        The abolition of competing classes means that this revolution will be the final one. Without any more class struggles, human history will stop – or, in a sense, this is where human history will start, because man will at last be in control of his own destiny instead of being pushed around by blind socio-economic forces.

12.    Footnotes      Marxism is an ideology that in some ways resembles a religion, because in the eyes of its believers it explains everything that happens in human history and society, and provides a vision of the future. The USSR and Maoist China never claimed to be fully communist societies as described by Marx: instead they claimed to be moving towards communism. In the end the project was simply abandoned.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Monday, 15 December 2014

Marx & Engels: Basic Dates and Early Careers

1818    Karl Marx born
1820    Friedrich Engels born
1836+  Marx at university in Bonn, then Berlin
1842+  Marx’s early journalism
1843    Marx marries Jenny von Westphalen: works in Paris & Brussels
1844-5    Engels writes “Condition of the Working Classes in England”.
             Marx & Engels first meet
1847    Formation of Communist League
1848    Year of Revolutions. “Communist Manifesto” written.
             Communist League dissolved
             Marx in Cologne: edits “Neue Rheinische Zeitung”: soon suppressed
1849    Marx moves to London. For the next few years he lives in poverty,          researching and writing
1864    “First International” founded; soon dominated by Marx
1867    First volume of “Das Kapital” published
1869    Engels retires from business to devote himself to politics and writing
1871    Paris Commune
1877    Engels writes “Anti-Duhring”, later reprinted as “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”. Marx’s active career now over
1883   Death of Marx, leaving “Das Kapital” incomplete
1893    Rise of European socialist parties brings a reprint of “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”
1895    Death of Engels

Marx in his prime

Karl Marx was born in 1818, to a Jewish family at Trier in the German Rhineland. His father, Herschel, came from a long line of rabbis, and his mother, about whom little is known, was descended from Hungarian Jews who had emigrated to Holland.
     For many centuries Trier was ruled by a Prince-Bishop. It was a more-or-less independent state which was one of the 300-odd states which constituted the Holy Roman Empire, under the largely theoretical authority of the Habsburg Emperors of Austria. But in 1806 Napoleon, having smashed the Austrians and Prussians in whirlwind campaigns, redrew the map of Germany an abolished the Holy Roman Empire, replacing it with a body called the Confederation of the Rhine. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 the map was redrawn again. The Rhineland, including Trier, was awarded to Prussia. Germany now consisted of about 30 states, joined together in the German Confederation; an invertebrate body dominated by the monarchs of Austria and Prussia, whose main aim was to eliminate any trace of liberal or revolutionary ideas.  The Prince-Bishopric of Trier, like most of the small German states, was not resurrected: instead the Rhineland was given to Prussia. Since Prussia was a Protestant state, this cannot have pleased the people of Trier, who were overwhelmingly Catholic.
    Wherever the French Revolutionary armies had gone, they had abolished laws discriminating against Jews, but in 1816 new anti-Semitic laws were enacted. Herschel Marx found that, in order to work as a lawyer, he would have to renounce his Jewish religion. Since he was a lifelong devotee of the Enlightenment, with no strong religious feelings, he promptly joined the Lutheran church and changed his name to Heinrich. He does not appear to have been a particularly courageous man: in the 1830s he delivered an after-dinner speech suggesting some moderate reform, but then swiftly recanted it under police pressure.     
 This background helps us to understand why Marx consistently underestimated two important human motivations: religion and nationalism. Religious belief was clearly of little importance in the Marx household. His father had worn his Judaism lightly, and had converted to Christianity purely for career reasons. And how could the young Marx feel any sense of nationality? There was as yet no German state for him to identify with, and in any case, as a Jew he would have been an outsider in one. The romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century, as exemplified by such leaders as Garibaldi, Mazzini and Kossuth, was always wholly incomprehensible to Marx.

The Marxes were friends with a neighbour, Ludwig von Westphalen, an enlightened government official who came from the minor nobility (there were many thousands of minor nobles in Germany). Ludwig had a daughter, Jenny. Karl Marx became engaged to her in 1837 and married her in 1843.

Karl Marx’s studies began in 1835 at the University of Bonn, then after a year he transferred to Berlin. For much of the time he lived a life typical of any German student, in rowdy drinking clubs. He changed his field of study from law to philosophy, to the disappointment of his father, who (correctly, as it turned out) did not see how philosophy could bring him a decent standard of living. 
   The dominating influence in German universities at the time was the philosophy of Hegel. Hegel remains the most obscure of the great philosophers, and his thought is impossible to summarize in a few sentences, but basically he taught that history is the story of progress. History goes through a series of stages, like steps on an upward staircase, with each step being an advance on the previous one. (The notion of “history as progress” is obvious to us, but the idea was unknown before the end of the eighteenth century: a great historian like Edward Gibbon saw history as a tale of degeneration). Hegel named this mechanism “the dialectic”. It is largely due to Hegel that we still use such terms as “the middle ages” and “the Elizabethan age”, with the implication that they were quite different in character, and crucially, that people thought differently from one age to another. We do not think like people did in the Middle Ages, and they too thought differently from people in the ancient world. (Equally, such key concepts as “the industrial revolution” did not emerge till the mid-nineteenth century, when people looked backwards and realized that society and the economy had changed radically). Hegel ascribed the driving mechanism of this theory of history to a somewhat mystical entity called “spirit”. What he appeared to mean was that men’s thinking changed first, and caused the structure of society to change and adapt to it.
      Marx’s contemporaries, the “Young Hegelians”, applied Hegel’s ideas to radical politics, seeing the Prussian state as reactionary. From Hegel, Marx took the notion that history had laws which could be understood, giving change a measure of inevitability; and that to try to stop this change was not only futile, but also in a sense wrong. As with Hegel, he never doubted that change was progress to a better form of society. But to Marx, the motive force of change was not “spirit”, but economics. He was well aware that the developing industrial revolution was changing the world in an unprecedented way. Economic change caused changes in the class structure of society, and ultimately to changes in mental outlook, in culture, in consciousness; in ways of looking at the world. This interpretation came to be known as “Dialectical Materialism”. As was once said, “Marx stood Hegel on his head”; to which was sarcastically added, “and all the brains fell out”.

Marx obtained his Doctorate in 1841. Under other circumstances he might have pursued an academic career, but the new King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, decided to purge the “Young Hegelians” from the universities. Despite the fact that Marx was shortly to become a married man, and that his father died, leaving him short of money (a situation which remained the case for almost all the rest of his life), he instead became involved in the precarious world of radical journalism. He began to write for the “Rheinische Zeitung”, denouncing Prussian absolutism, and when that paper was duly suppressed in 1843 he left for the centre of radical class-struggle politics: Paris. Here he wrote his earliest books, coining the memorable phrase, “Religion is the opium of the people” in 1844. (Writing nowadays, he would probably have named football rather than religion)

Engels as a young man

Friedrich Engels was also born in the Rhineland, two years after Marx, but his family background was commercial rather than academic. His father, also Friedrich, was a partner in the firm of Ermen & Engels, which owned cotton factories both locally and in Manchester, in England. They were a happy, strongly Protestant family, influenced by German romanticism and nationalism, hostile to Prussia and Austria.
    Young Friedrich was taken from school in 1837 and trained for the family business, being sent to Bremen to learn about exporting.  In 1841 he volunteered for a year of military training. But he always had literary leanings, wrote poetry, and via Hegel and Feuerbach came to socialism. This led to his first meeting with Marx, at the “Rheinische Zeitung”. His father, however, did not approve, and sent him to Manchester as the family representative at the Ermen & Engels factory.
    Manchester in 1842 was the first-ever factory city in the world, generating enormous wealth from its cotton mills, but at the same time filthy and grossly overcrowded, and seething with radical activity. This was the year of the Chartist “Plug Plot” to disrupt industrial production, and the Owenite socialists were also active. Engels met Julian Harney, the militant Chartist leader, and he also met an illiterate Irish mill-girl, Mary Burns, who became his long-term mistress and provided him with a link to the slums. In 1845 he wrote his first book, “The Condition of the Working Classes in England”; a young man’s scream of rage against the appalling conditions he found in Manchester. It was written in German, and was not translated into English for forty years, but has remained in print ever since. Engels therefore knew factory conditions at first hand, whereas Marx did not.

Engels’s work as a businessman in Manchester, which was to bring him a very comfortable and prosperous lifestyle (though little personal enjoyment) left him enough time to visit Marx.  Paris in the early 1840s had many schools of socialist thought, mixed in with the revolutionary Jacobin tradition of the French Revolution. Such figures as Saint-Simon, Fourier, Blanqui, Louis Blanc and Proudhon offered different nostrums, alongside the revolutionary schemes of Weitling and the anarchism preached by the exiled Russian Bakunin. Marx disagreed profoundly with all these people, and as Bakunin observed, he was brutally vindictive in the character-assassination of any rival socialist philosopher. But Engels came to Marx as a disciple, not a rival, and was always happy to minimize his own undoubted contribution to Marxist thought.

   Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845 (“We must purge Paris of German philosophers”, said King Louis-Philippe) and went to Brussels, where he began to organize the Communist League: an international revolutionary movement consisting largely of German-speaking artisans. Engels meanwhile was composing a “Revolutionary Catechism” for communists, and in 1847 brought Marx to London. There they were commissioned to write a definitive statement of the beliefs and aims of the Communist League. The result was one of the most famous and influential short books of all time: the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, just 40 pages long in a modern edition.

It was published in early 1848: just in time for the revolution in Paris which overthrew the monarchy and ushered in the “year of revolutions” throughout Europe – which however is another story.


(The best biography of Marx is still that written by Isaiah Berlin in 1939. Tristram Hunt's life of Engels: "The Frock-Coated Communist" is very good)

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Eighteenth Century Political Abuse

I recently came across a magnificently scurrilous piece of political abuse from the 1720s, printed in an anti-government publication called the "True Briton".  This extract describes an alleged piece of unsuccessful lechery by the Prime Minister of the day: Sir Robert Walpole:- 

"..... But Walpole, long by vice decayed,
Unable was to please the maid:
By none his fury can describe
To find one member scorn a bribe,
Unlike his wretched voting tribe,
And happy were it for the land
If corrupt members ne'er could stand".

How splendid! The play on the words "member" and "stand" (for election to Parliament) is especially inspired. And how feeble by comparison is our modern standard of political abuse! 
(This is an anti-Walpole cartoon from the 1730s, depicting "how to get on in politics" - by kissing the Prime Minister's bottom. Despite all the abuse, Walpole stayed in power for 21 years)