Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

Paul Foot: Karl Marx: The Best Hated Man

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Karl Marx continues to be damned because of the revolutionary power he identified, argues Paul Foot.

Karl Marx was so famous when he died in March 1883 that eleven people went to his funeral at Highgate cemetery. The funeral oration given by his friend and collaborator Frederick Engels ended with the observation that Marx, though he was a delightful character, a loyal friend and a devoted father, was the 'best hated and calumniated man of his times'. That may have been true at the time but it became even more true later. Most socialists and revolutionaries can expect some relief from the abuse of high society after they are dead. But Marx has gone on being attacked and insulted for the 120 years since he died. At best he has been denounced as 'out of date'. He is also denounced as immoral and cruel to those around him - did he not sleep with his servant? And lastly and more shockingly, he has been held responsible for monstrous tyrannies of our time, in Russia, China, Cambodia and so on, that pretended to be socialist but were in fact the opposite. Leaders of every academic discipline - politics, philosophy, economics, history, science and mathematics - have united to attack Marx. They kill him again and again only to regroup and kill him again. What I want to do is to try to understand why.



The first and most obvious answer is the power of his ideas. Engels's oration summed them up like this: 'Just as Darwin discovered the laws of evolution in organic nature so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history; he discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, religion, art, etc; and that therefore the means of life, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation on which the forms of government, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which these things must therefore be explained, instead of vice versa as has hitherto been the case.'


Central to these ideas was the fact that human society is cut into classes, based on the property they own and control, and that the history of human society is a history of a ceaseless struggle between those who have the wealth and those who don't.


In themselves, these ideas, however profound and accurate they may be, don't really answer our question. If the ideas were simply the result of academic scientific discovery, as Darwin's were, then the discoverer could surely be left alone, almost revered for his discovery, as Darwin, for all the bigoted attacks on him, has been. Surely there was another element of Marx's life and thought which singled him out for such exceptional and long-lived vituperation? To find it, we return a third time to Engels's speech in Highgate: 'For Marx was, before all else, a revolutionary. His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the forms of government which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the present day proletariat.'


There in a nutshell is the answer to our question. He was not only a man with revolutionary ideas. He wanted to put those ideas into practice. Nothing is more misunderstood about Marx than his own insistence that he was a 'scientific socialist'. Did this mean, as the crudest of his supporters have sometimes claimed, that his classification of capitalist society meant that its overthrow could be accomplished by doing nothing? Quite the opposite. The science in Marx's approach was in the analysis, not the prescription. He was irritated by philosophers who mused idealistically about the evils of capitalist society and did nothing about them. For centuries philosophers had sought to interpret the world, he observed in a famous passage, and concluded, 'The point is to change it.'


The way to change it was the exact opposite of waiting to see if a scientific experiment would work out. It was for human beings to involve themselves in the struggle on the side of the oppressed. Marx's life was a model of that involvement. In his youth, in quick succession, he was thrown out of Germany, Belgium and France, because he threw himself into the struggles of workers in all three countries. In France he associated closely with the fighting elements in the working class, and never forgot his admiration for them. Finally in 1849, aged 31, he came to England (where there was no immigration control) and settled here for the rest of his life. He spent a lot of that time as an investigative journalist of the highest quality. He buried himself in the information the reactionary governments of the time published about their activities. His aim was to find out relevant information and publish it to assist workers' struggles.


The period from 1849 to 1883 when he died was a period of low class struggle. The Chartists, who had brought the country to the brink of revolution, had been defeated and the working class movement was, for the moment, cowed. Marx's tiny organization, the Socialist League, split and split again. In the end, when there were really only two members left, Marx and Engels, Marx decided to concentrate on his journalism and on expanding the ideas that he and Engels had set out in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. In 20 years he wrote the three great theoretical works that set out his communist theory - the Critique of Political Economy, the Grundrisse and the greatest of them, Capital. There may be some of you, like me, who find these works difficult, and so they are. But Capital in particular is well worth persevering with. It is illustrated throughout with examples of human struggle, from the British workers fighting for the ten-hour day to black Americans fighting against slavery.


Yet even when he was composing these huge works, even though all the time he was trying to fend off abject poverty and considerable pain from skin disease, again and again he involved himself in the working class struggles of the time. I pick out three examples.


The First International


The first was the formation of the First International - the International Working Men's Association - in 1864. The idea for the International came from trade union leaders who were fed up with the constant importation of scab labour to break strikes and weaken trade unionism. The International needed a written introduction to set out its aims. None of the trade union leaders could write anything comprehensible. When the various factions from foreign countries had a go, they made an even greater mess of it. Marx was asked for help. He suggested a subcommittee of one, and elected himself to it. The resulting articles of the International, clear and concise, start with the ringing dedication that the self- emancipation of the working class is 'the act of the working class themselves'. The articles went on all the membership cards of the International.


The second issue was universal male suffrage. This had been the demand of the Chartists, but since their defeat it had faded into the background. In 1866 a new organization called the Reform League was formed to resurrect the demand. Marx organized a small group of socialists to try to take control of the Reform League and commit it to universal suffrage. He was so pleased with his efforts that he described the league as 'all our work'. This claim was an example of another characteristic of Marx that often gets him criticized - his impatient optimism. He was inclined to put the best spin on any socialist initiative. The Reform League quickly deteriorated. It was not 'all our work' or anything like it. It attracted all sorts of reactionaries and compromisers who eventually won the day. Marx had got it wrong, but only in his intense enthusiasm to push the struggle forward - a sin, incidentally, that we ourselves commit more often than not, and are none the worse for.


The final example of his involvement that I've picked out is undoubtedly the greatest.


People sometimes ask me what work of Marx they should read first, and the obvious answer is the Communist Manifesto. Second to that in my opinion is a pamphlet he wrote in 1871 called The Civil War in France. This was about the Paris Commune, formed by the working people of Paris in revolutionary circumstances in March 1871. It lasted for two months until it was suppressed by murderous military terror of the most revolting proportions. Marx followed the commune through almost every hour of its existence, demanding from friends, family and acquaintances any fragment of information from Paris. When the commune was suppressed, he sat down, boiling with rage, and in five days wrote his pamphlet which he read out loud to the council of the International. As a description of the commune, it has never been bettered before or since. It sets out, above all, the democratic nature of the commune; how it not only made laws but carried them out, how it replaced the machinery of the capitalist state with an entirely new democracy that could never be tolerated by capitalism and its armies, and, incidentally, has nothing whatever to do with the societies presided over by Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. The Civil War in France magnificently combines Marx's terse journalism and his fighting spirit: 'When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands; when plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their "natural superiors", and under circumstances of unexampled difficulty performed their work modestly, conscientiously and efficiently - performed it at salaries the highest of which barely amounted to one fifth of what, according to high scientific authority, is the minimum required for a secretary to a certain metropolitan school board - the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labour, floating over the Hotel de Ville.'


That passage (and indeed the whole pamphlet) takes us closer to the reason why Marx has been hated and calumnied for so long. It is not his ideas alone which important people detest - it is the drive to put them into practice. It is not simply that his ideas have not lost their relevance over all this time - there is still a class society after all, that is every bit as foully exploitative as it ever was - it is the fact that there are people inspired by Marx who still want to change the world in the direction to which he pointed. So people are still ridiculed and abused by the professors of the profiteers because we want to fight, as he did, to rid the world of riches altogether and to get rid of poverty at the same time. Such people, such Marxists, are prepared moreover to organize to do so.



From Socialist Review, February 2004