Marx’s politics

Issue: 158

Alex Callinicos

Marx’s return

Karl Marx’s reputation has changed significantly in the 35 years since the ­centenary of his death in 1983. I wrote The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx to mark that anniversary against the background of the huge explosion of study of and debate about Marx that was driven by the great ideological and political radicalisation produced by the upturn of 1968-76.1 I was able to build on all that work (as well as the friendly goading of Tony Cliff and Peter Clarke) in writing my book. By then, however, we had entered a different period, one in which the ruling class was on the offensive and the workers’ movement was in retreat. This shift was indelibly marked two years later by the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. This journal continues to debate the causes of the subsequent collapse in strike activity (see Dave Lyddon’s article elsewhere in this issue), but to my mind the memory of the miners’ agony looms large among them, above all in the imagination of the trade union bureaucracy.

Even before this great shift in the balance of class forces Marx’s intellectual star was waning. By the mid-1970s Paris, which had been at the centre of intense debates about Marxism between figures such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser, was the cradle of what was subsequently marketed in the academy as poststructuralism. The key figure here was Michel Foucault, who developed an extremely sophisticated historical genealogy of modernity that, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, gave primacy to different forms of “power-knowledge”. For all his brilliance, Foucault’s references to Marx are generally dismissive, sometimes hostile and frequently ignorant.2 His conception of society as a cluster of power relations irreducible to the economy or the state (both of which he criticised Marx for privileging) provided a useful framework for those who had come out of the movements of the 1970s believing that Marxism was too economically reductive to accommodate the struggle for women’s or black or gay liberation. Foucault’s critique of Marxism was partly stimulated by what he regarded as its implication in the great disaster of Stalinism. Here at least he converged with mainstream liberalism, which was enormously strengthened ideologically by the crisis and then collapse of the Soviet Union.3 The resulting intellectual eclipse of Marx is most evident in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, where he barely mentions Marx as he confidently announces the definitive triumph of liberal capitalism over all modern rivals and therefore the End of History as Hegel had understood it, as the struggle between antagonistic ideologies.4

In 1989 Fukuyama wrote:

Marx, speaking Hegel’s language, asserted that liberal society contained a fundamental contradiction that could not be resolved within its context, that between capital and labour, and this contradiction has constituted the chief accusation against liberalism ever since. But surely, the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West. As [Alexandre] Kojève (among others) noted, the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.5

Where is Fukuyama today? In November 2016, trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s election victory, he struck rather a different note:

Social class, defined today by one’s level of education, appears to have become the single most important social fracture in countless industrialised and emerging-market countries. This, in turn, is driven directly by globalisation and the march of technology, which has been facilitated in turn by the liberal world order created largely by the US since 1945…the benefits of this system did not filter down to the whole population. The working classes in the developed world saw their jobs disappear as companies outsourced and squeezed efficiencies in response to a ruthlessly competitive global market.6

As Fukuyama goes on to acknowledge, the general impact of neoliberal globalisation has been greatly exacerbated by the 2007-8 financial crash and its aftermath—what Michael Roberts calls the Long Depression. This crisis was itself the culmination (to date) of a series of financial crashes—the bursting of the Japanese “bubble economy” in the early 1990s, the East Asian crisis and Russian bankruptcy of 1997-8, and the collapse of the Wall Street dot-com bubble in 2000—that increasingly homed in on the centre of the global economic system in the United States. As the gloss has gone off the neoliberal capitalism whose praises Fukuyama sang when the USSR collapsed, there has been a serious revival in intellectual interest in Marx and his critique of political economy. He was capitalism’s greatest foe and critic so it is natural that when capitalism gets into trouble, people turn to him. This is reflected in mainstream media pieces announcing that “Marx is back”, but much more seriously in renewed interest in Capital, including a wave of reading groups. David Harvey symbolises this entire process, thanks to his video lectures, which have led to two book spin-offs, as well as the numerous other books, articles and talks in which he tries to elucidate the sometimes tortuous logic of Capital and bring it to bear on the present. This has been accompanied by a renewal of scholarly Marxist study of Capital and its drafts, facilitated by the appearance of hitherto unpublished manuscripts in the MEGA2 (Marx-Engels Complete Works).7

This is an enormously positive development. It creates an environment in which, in at least some academic contexts (especially, somewhat bizarrely, in the English-speaking world), Marxism is treated as a serious interlocutor. Of course, the situation is different outside the academy, where (with some important exceptions) serious Marxist organisations have been struggling in recent years.8 Nevertheless the renewal of the Marxist critique of political economy is an important political fact, which can help, in the right circumstances, to create a broader audience for revolutionary socialist politics. My interest here, however, is the dominant view of Marx that this renewal creates—Marx the critic of capitalism and the author of Capital. I would be the last to deny the centrality of this achievement, but what tends to get lost here is Marx the revolutionary and the political activist. The result is to reinforce an image of Marx as a scholastic figure, even an impractical dreamer, confined to the British Museum, far from the realities of working class life and struggle.

The state, “this supranaturalist abortion”

This situation is reinforced by the widespread impression that Marx was much weaker on politics than on economics. The leading Marxist state theorist Ralph Miliband even complains that “the available classical writings [of Marx, Engels and their immediate successors] are simply silent or extremely perfunctory over major issues of politics and political theory”.9 Not everyone agrees. For example, Stathis Kouvelakis, author of an important study of the young Marx, argues: “Rather than an Achilles heel, or the sign of a troubling lacuna, politics is, in my opinion, Marx’s strong point, the point where his work is at its most open and innovative”.10

Certainly Marx himself from the start was preoccupied with politics as a space of struggle and transformation. Early on his long journey to Capital, in 1843-4, he confronted Hegel’s political philosophy, which he saw, as Antonio Gramsci later would, in:

the context of the French Revolution and Napoleon with his wars…the vital and immediate experiences of a most intense period of historical struggles, ­miseries, when the external world crushed individuals, bringing them to the ground, ­flattening them against the ground, when all past philosophies were criticised by reality in such an absolute way.11

Confronting Hegel was therefore a way into politics. In the unfinished manuscript of A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx developed the argument that the modern political state produced by the English, American and French revolutions is the alienated expression of an atomised and competitive civil society.12 He concluded in the 1844 Introduction to this text that Germany, fragmented and dominated by absolutist regimes, required a “radical revolutiongeneral human emancipation” rather than the “merely political revolution” that had taken place in France in 1789-94, and that this revolution could only be made by the proletariat (MECW 3: 184, 186).13 A “Draft Plan for a Work on the Modern State”, apparently written in November 1844, finishes in the same vein: “Suffrage, the fight for the abolition of the state and of bourgeois society” (MECW 4: 666).

In the mid-1840s Marx was planning a two-volume Critique of Politics and Political Economy. The planned Critique of Political Economy that he mapped out in 1857-8 in response to a new global economic and financial crisis didn’t really represent much of a narrowing down of this project, since the fourth of the six books he intended to write was to be on the state. It is interesting that when Marx mused in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann of 28 December 1862 about focusing just on the first book, Capital, he reserved the state for special treatment: “the development of the sequel (with the exception, perhaps, of the relationship between the various forms of state and the various economic structures of society) could easily be pursued by others” (MECW 41:435). In the event, of course, Marx never even finished Capital, let alone wrote the Book on the State. But there’s plenty about the state in Capital, volume 1, especially in Part VIII on the primitive accumulation of capital, where he highlights the role of state violence in creating the conditions for modern capitalism—on the one hand, the concentration of money in the hands of the capitalists, and on the other, the formation of a class of propertyless wage labourers. This culminates in the magnificent chapter 31, under the misleadingly technical title of “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, summed up here:

The different moments of primitive accumulation can be assigned in particular to Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England, in more or less chronological order. These different moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies, the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection. These methods depend in part on brute force, for instance the colonial system. But they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized power of society [die Staatsmacht, die konzentrierte und organisierte Gewalt der Gesellschaft], to hasten, as in a hothouse, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force [Gewalt] is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.14

This chapter alone gives the lie to those interpretations (sometimes by Marxists who should know better) that portray Capital as a narrowly economic work that replicates the logic of bourgeois political economy. As Lucia Pradella puts it, in Part VIII more generally Marx “incorporates the state system into the analysis of capital’s accumulation…he…analyses the state’s fundamental role in generating the capitalist relation, both nationally and internationally, and in reproducing the social order as a whole. For Marx the logic of the state is internal to the logic of capital”.15

Indeed the whole of volume 1 is structured by the class antagonism between capital and wage labour. This is constituted in the extraction of surplus value in the process of production whose fundamental structure is uncovered in parts I and II where Marx presents the theory of value and surplus value, but finds expression in the clash of opposed “collective wills” (as Gramsci would put it). We see this in another great chapter, chapter 10 “The Working Day”, where “the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle between collective capital, ie the class of the capitalists, and collective labour” whose outcome the state registers in factory legislation that forces a restructuring of the production process.16 Politics for Marx thus starts from this antagonism, which reaches its apogee in what he calls in the Grundrisse the “concentration of bourgeois society in the form of the state”.17

Capital is thus a profoundly political work. We’ll return below to its relationship with Marx’s political activity, but it’s worth underlining the connection between how he conceives the state as the concentrated form of capitalist power and what he would write four years after the publication of Capital, volume 1, in solidarity with the Paris Commune of 1871. In The Civil War in France Marx praises the Commune for dismantling the centralised bureaucratic structures of the modern capitalist state and replacing them with forms of radical and, where possible, direct democracy. In a critique of his anarchist opponent Mikhail Bakunin in 1875 he even calls the Commune “a Revolution against the state itself, this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people, of its own social life” (MECW 22: 486).18 That same year Marx reaffirmed this in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, where he opposed the statist socialism of Ferdinand Lassalle. Thus socialist revolution would target the very state that had played such a central role in the construction of capitalism in the first place.

So Marx may not have provided the kind of “systematic theorisation” of politics that Miliband demanded.19 My aim in the rest of this article is not to fill this lacuna—after all, Chris Harman has written magisterially on the capitalist state in the pages of this journal, and I have discussed the subject elsewhere.20 Instead I shall try to show that Marx is not “simply silent or extremely perfunctory over major issues of politics”, concentrating on two key episodes where he had a real political influence—the 1848 Revolution and the First International. These show him as a political leader who sought to shape struggles and learned from the experience.21

1848 and after: revolutionary self-education

Exploding in Paris in February 1848, revolution swept throughout Europe, shaking all the established regimes, which were mainly dynastic absolutisms restored after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1814-15. Marx, his communist and materialist outlook already formed, threw himself into the revolutionary struggle in his native Rhineland after a popular rising in Berlin in March 1848. He had two great advantages in this. First, through his editorship of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842-3 he already had political experience and contacts in Cologne, the region’s biggest city, where the liberal bourgeoisie chafed under quasi-colonial Prussian rule (the relatively economically advanced Rhineland had been under French rule under Napoleon when it experienced progressive reforms that made its annexation by Prussia in 1815 hard to bear). Secondly, along with his lifelong friend and comrade Friedrich Engels, he had won the leadership of a German international revolutionary artisans’ society that, at his instigation, adopted the name the Communist League and commissioned him to write its programme, which turned out to be the Communist Manifesto.22

But the strategy that Marx and Engels pursued in 1848 involved substantial internal tensions. Essentially their immediate objective was not proletarian revolution, but a German version of the Great French Revolution of 1789-94, when the Jacobins led a plebeian coalition of the small producers of town and country violently to sweep away the old regime. In other words, they sought a ­radical-democratic bourgeois revolution, though, as they put in the Manifesto, they expected “the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution” (CW 6: 519). In March 1848 Marx and Engels drafted “The Demands of the Communist Party in Germany”. These called for Germany—a patchwork of petty kingdoms and pettier principalities—to be transformed into a “single and indivisible republic” based on universal suffrage, the destruction of feudal property and privileges and progressive social measures that remained within the limits of capitalism (MECW 7:3).

Marx and Engels expected this programme would be achieved through a revolutionary war against Tsarist Russia, the military guarantor of European reaction since 1814-15. In this they were influenced by the example of the revolutionary wars waged by the Jacobins and their successors that had turned Europe upside down in the 1790s and 1800s. Engels wrote in August 1848: “A war with Russia would have meant a complete, open and effective break with the whole of our disgraceful past, the real liberation and unification of Germany, and the establishment of democracy on the ruins of feudalism and on the wreckage of the short-lived bourgeois dream of power” (MECW 7: 352). And, as in the Great French Revolution, the bourgeoisie would find itself forced, at least temporarily, to mobilise the masses against the old regime. Marx wrote in July 1848: “The bourgeoisie cannot achieve domination without previously gaining the support of the people as a whole, and hence without acting more or less democratically” (MECW 7: 262).

But where did the Communist League fit into this strategy of a more radical rerun of 1789-94? Marx found himself in conflict with Andreas Gottschalk, leader of the Workers Association of Cologne (a substantial organisation of 7,000 members at its height), who opposed any cooperation with the liberal bourgeoisie and successfully organised a boycott of elections to the German and Prussian parliaments. Marx was able to see off Gottschalk’s challenge, but he was opposed to the left running candidates against bourgeois democrats and put the Communist League into cold storage. The revived Neue Rheinische Zeitung (NRZ) became the main axis of his intervention in the revolution as a campaigning democratic paper that agitated against Prussian domination in the Rhineland and criticised the timidity of liberal politicians in the national and Prussian parliaments in Frankfurt and Berlin respectively. Consequently Marx had increasingly to confront the conservatism of the bourgeoisie who shunned revolutionary methods. This was dramatised in Paris in June 1848, when the new French Republic bloodily suppressed a workers’ rising. In Germany the vacillations of the bourgeoisie locally in Cologne, but more importantly in Berlin and Frankfurt, gave the initiative to Prussian absolutism, which intervened to suppress the revolution.

In November 1848, as counter-revolution rolled across Europe, Marx denounced both faces of the bourgeoisie—brutal in France, cowardly in Germany:

The bourgeoisie in Franceheaded the counter-revolution only after it had broken down all obstacles to the rule of its own class. The bourgeoisie in Germany meekly joins the retinue of the absolute monarchy and of feudalism before securing even the first conditions of existence necessary for its own civic freedom and its rule. In France it played the part of a tyrant and made its own counter-revolution. In Germany it acts like a slave and carries out the counter-revolution for its own tyrants. In France it won its victory in order to humble the people. In Germany it humbled itself to prevent the victory of the people. History presents no more shameful and pitiful spectacle than that of the German bourgeoisie (MECW 7: 504).

Marx initially shifted his position by arguing in December 1848 that “a purely bourgeois revolution and the establishment of bourgeois rule in the form of a constitutional monarchy is impossible in Germany…only a feudal absolutist counter-revolution or a social republican revolution is possible” (MECW 7: 178). The problem with this ambiguous formulation was not that it implied some kind of coalition of classes against absolutism—this was inevitable in a country such as Germany where the majority were peasants and the “Demands of the Communist Party” included proposals directed at their interests. In 1856 Marx was to write to Engels: “The whole thing in Germany will depend on whether it is possible to back the proletarian revolution by some second edition of the [16th century] Peasants’ war. In which case the affair should go swimmingly” (MECW 40: 41). The question in 1848-9, however, before he had reached this clarity, was which class would lead the “social republican revolution”. Marx found himself unable to rely on his bourgeois allies, but lacked an organisation of his own that could drive the revolution forward despite them. As Jonathan Sperber puts it:

Either prong of Marx’s strategy of a double recurrence of the French Revolution—a democratic revolution against Prussia, or a workers’ revolution against the bourgeoisie—had its possibilities. Combining the two proved impossible. Attacking Prussian rule meant neglecting class antagonisms, cultivating the workers’ hostility to the bourgeoisie meant ceasing work with other democrats in Cologne and Rhineland.23

In April 1849 Marx sought to break out of this dilemma by resigning from the district committee of the Democratic Associations of the Rhine Province on the grounds that, “in view of the heterogeneous elements in the Associations in question, there is little to be expected from them that would be advantageous for the interests of the working class or the great mass of the people” (MECW 9: 502). He and his allies tried instead to unite the Workers’ Associations of the Rhine Province and Westphalia in a single organisation. Marx also published in the NRZ “Wage Labour and Capital”, his first developed account of capitalist exploitation. In an introductory note he wrote: “From various quarters we have been reproached with not having presented the economic relations which constitute the material foundation of the present class struggles and national struggles” (MECW 9:197). In explaining why he thought the time was now right for such a presentation Marx drew the lessons from the chain of counter-revolutionary victories:

Europe, with the defeat of the revolutionary workers, had relapsed into its old Anglo-Russian slavery. The June struggle in Paris, the fall of Vienna, the tragicomedy of Berlin’s November, the desperate exertions of Poland, Italy and Hungary, the starving of Ireland into submission—these were the concentrated expressions of the European class struggle between bourgeoisie and working class, by means of which we proved that every revolutionary upheaval, however remote from the class struggle its goal may appear to be, must fail until the revolutionary working class is victorious, that every social reform remains a utopia until the proletarian revolution and the feudalistic counter-revolution measure swords in a world war (MECW 9: 197-8).24

Mario Tronti, one of the founders of Italian workerism, has stressed the theoretical importance of Marx’s editorship of the NRZ:

The experience of editing the newspaper, straddling 1848 and 1849, was a fundamental transition in Marx’s discourse on labour and on capital… In these political writings, rough, violent, sectarian, one-sided, factually unjustified, but limpid in that anticipation of future development that only hatred can give—in these writings we see the abstract concept of labour and the concrete reality of work overlap and conjoined for the first time. The synthesis is that of an idea of the proletariat that is now fully definite, and not merely intuited with the force of genius, as was the case in previous works.25

Any faith in the revolutionary role of the liberal bourgeoisie gone, Marx now sought to arm the workers ideologically and organisationally. But he was expelled from the Rhineland in May 1849 as part of the final counter-revolutionary clampdown (which Engels tried to resist by participating in armed struggle in the Palatinate). Driven into exile in London, in the autumn of 1849 they revived the Communist League and started a publication, the Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-ökonomische Revue. The Communist League Mark II is significant chiefly because it provided the framework for what amounted to a detailed self-criticism of the strategy Marx and Engels had pursued in 1848, the “Address of the Central Authority to the League” of March 1850. They concentrated their fire on the “democratic petty bourgeoisie”, whose radical rhetoric allowed them to act as a bridge between the bourgeoisie, “which is united with absolutism”, and the ­working class:

While the democratic petty bourgeoisie wish to bring the revolution [against the old regime] to a conclusion as quickly as possible…it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their positions of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition between proletarians in these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians (MECW 10: 279, 281).

As Michael Löwy comments:

This striking passage contains three of the fundamental themes that Trotsky would later develop in the theory of permanent revolution: (1) the uninterrupted development of the revolution in a semi-feudal country, leading to the conquest of power by the working class; (2) the application by the proletariat in power of explicitly anticapitalist and socialist measures; (3) the necessarily international character of the revolutionary process and of the new socialist society, without classes or private property.26

So here Marx and Engels anticipated the theory of permanent revolution Leon Trotsky formulated after the Russian Revolution of 1905 and generalised in the course of his struggle against the developing Stalinist bureaucracy during the 1920s: in German conditions, bourgeois and proletarian revolutions would be part of a single process driven by a self-organised working class. The political conclusion Marx and Engels drew was that workers should not allow the democratic petty bourgeoisie to “entangle” them “in a party organisation in which general social-democratic phrases predominate”, and thus “once more be reduced to an appendage of official bourgeois democracy” (MECW 6:281). Therefore:

the workers and above all the League must exert themselves to establish an independent secret and public organisation of the workers’ party alongside the official democrats and make each community the central point and nucleus of workers’ organisations in which the attitude and interests of the proletariat will be discussed independent of bourgeois influence (MECW 6: 282).

In the event of a new revolution:

alongside the official governments, they [the workers] must establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments, whether in the form of municipal committees and municipal councils or in the form of workers’ clubs or workers’ committees so that the bourgeois-democratic governments not only immediately lose the support of the workers but from the outset see themselves supervised and threatened by authorities backed up by the whole mass of the workers (MECW 6: 283).

Though this form of dual power should be backed up by the workers arming themselves and organising their own “proletarian guard”, “the workers must put up their own candidates [in elections] in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint”. They must reject the accusations that “by so doing they are splitting the democratic party”—exactly the reason Marx had opposed left electoral candidates in 1848-9 (MECW 6: 283, 284). The experience of revolution thus led him implicitly to re-evaluate his strategy, in the process sketching out elements that would figure in the much more developed approach to revolution forged by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in the white heat of 1905 and 1917.

The reason why Marx himself did not further elaborate what he began to argue in 1850 was that 1848 proved not to be a dress rehearsal for the real event, but the end, in western Europe at least, of the era that opened in 1789 when the bourgeoisie was willing to take to the streets. Fear of the masses, including now an increasingly organised and militant working class, pushed the bourgeoisie towards a modus vivendi with the old regime. In Britain, where Marx and Engels had taken refuge, 1848 marked the moment when the ruling oligarchy succeeded in breaking Chartism, the first great mass workers’ movement, through a combination of systematic repression and the successful mobilisation of the middle class in defence of the status quo.27 Great bourgeois revolutions did take place in the mid-19th century, but they either took the form of what Gramsci was to call “passive revolutions”, in which Italy and Germany were unified from above through a combination of interstate wars, diplomatic manoeuvres and class compromises, or, in the case of the mightiest of all, the American Civil War that destroyed the Southern slave power, was tightly controlled from above by the Union government and its vast armies.28

Marx and Engels were confronted in the Communist League by opponents who refused to recognise the defeat of the revolution and sought to revive the struggle through insurrectionary conspiracies. In September 1850 they broke with the League. As Marx put it:

The materialist standpoint of the Manifesto has given way to idealism, the revolution is seen not as the product of realities of the situation but as a result of an effort of will. Whereas we say to the workers: You have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power, it is said: We must take power at once, or else we must take to our beds (MECW 10: 626).

A few months later Marx and Engels sought to fill in a broader analytical framework for the rhythm of revolution and counter-revolution they had experienced. In the “Review May to October” that they drafted for the third issue of the Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch-ökonomische Revue (which never appeared) they argued that, just as the spread of the economic crisis that broke out in Britain in 1847 to the Continent had helped to spark off the wave of risings in 1848, so the subsequent recovery—made possible by global imperial expansion fuelled by the discoveries of gold in Australia and California and Western penetration of China but once again moving across the Channel via Britain—set the seal on their defeat. A revival of the revolutionary struggle would depend on a future crisis:

While, therefore, the crises first produce revolutions on the Continent, the foundation for these is, nevertheless, always laid in England. Violent outbreaks must naturally occur rather in the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, since the possibility of adjustment is greater here [ie London] than there. On the other hand, the degree to which Continental revolutions react on England is at the same time the barometer which indicates how far these revolutions really call in question the bourgeois conditions of life, or how far they only hit their political formations.

With this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society develop as luxuriantly as is at all possible within bourgeois relationships, there can be no talk of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible in the periods when both these factors, the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production, come in collision with each other… A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis (MECW 10: 509-10).

The First International, the writing of Capital and the struggle against racism and imperialism

The break with the Communist League temporarily brought to an end Marx’s organised political activity. He wrote to Engels (on 11 February 1851):

I am greatly pleased by the public, authentic isolation in which we two, you and I, now find ourselves. It is wholly in accord with our attitude and our principles. The system of mutual concessions, half-measures tolerated for decency’s sake, and the obligation to bear one’s share of public ridicule in the party along with all these jackasses, all this is now over (MECW 38: 285).

In his reply (13 February 1851) Engels agreed in even more emphatic terms:

How can people like us, who shun official appointments like the plague, fit into a “party”? And what have we, who spit on popularity, who don’t know what to make of ourselves if we show signs of growing popular, to do with a “party”, ie a herd of jackasses who swear by us because they think we’re of the same kidney as they? (MECW 38: 290).

But what Marx and Engels were distancing themselves from was not so much the idea of a party as such but party organisation, particularly of the secret ­conspiratorial kind that dominated the revolutionary left before 1848. Thus Marx wrote to the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath nearly a decade later (29 February 1860):

Since 1852, then, I have known nothing of party in the sense implied in your letter. Whereas you are a poet, I am a critic and for me the experiences of 1849-52 were quite enough. The “League”…was simply an episode in the history of a party that is everywhere springing up naturally out of the soil of modern society… I have tried to dispel the misunderstanding arising out of the impression that by “party” I meant a “League” that expired eight years ago, or an editorial board that was disbanded twelve years ago. By party, I meant the party in the broad historical sense (MECW 41: 82, 87).

Monty Johnstone argues that “for Marx the party in this sense was the embodiment of his conception of the ‘mission’ of the working class, concentrating in itself ‘the revolutionary interests of society’, to accomplish ‘the historical tasks which automatically arose’ from its general conditions of existence”.29 But Marx couldn’t even abandon the “party” in the narrow sense of the Communist League: in 1852 he was busy campaigning against the Prussian government’s show trial of his ex-comrades in Cologne. He complained to Adolph Cluss (7 December 1852): “The trial dragged me even deeper into the mire, since for 5 weeks, instead of working for my livelihood, I had to work for the party against the government’s machinations” (MECW 39: 259). Moreover, as August Nimtz argues, Marx and Engels also “consciously operated as an informal party”, with a network mainly of ex-League members and other veterans of 1848, one of whom, Wilhelm Liebknecht, would play an important role in founding the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).30

Marx’s main priority was, however, his endlessly interrupted, never-ending Critique of Political Economy—in particular, the intensive studies recorded in the London Notebooks (1850-3), and the cycle of manuscripts, beginning with the Grundrisse (1857-8) and culminating in Capital, volume 1, a decade later.31 But of course this was itself a deeply political project, particularly given the analysis Marx and Engels had developed in 1850 that made a future revolutionary wave depend on the outbreak of another economic crisis. When the next crisis came in 1857, both were initially optimistic about its political impact. Marx suggested to Engels that they write “a pamphlet together about the affair as a reminder to the German public that we are still there as always” (MECW 40: 225). He went as far as assembling what he called the “Book of the Crisis of 1857”, in which he systematically ordered the mass of newspaper articles and statistics he had collected for this project.32 Even after their hopes of renewed revolution had been disappointed, Marx’s recognition of the political importance of his Critique of Political Economy comes out in a letter to Lassalle of 12 November 1858 where, quite characteristically, he explains why he hasn’t sent the manuscript off to the publisher: “In it an important view of social relations is scientifically expounded for the first time. Hence I owe it to the party that the thing shouldn’t be disfigured by the kind of heavy, wooden style proper to a disordered liver” (MECW 40: 354).33

So Marx never lost sight of “the party in the broad historical sense”. And his correspondence with Engels shows them closely following the political events of the day, accompanied by continuous acerbic commentary on both established political leaders and their revolutionary opponents. Occasionally they were dragged back into polemic, most notably in 1860 when Marx had to interrupt the Critique to respond in a book-length polemic to the zoologist Karl Vogt, one of the leaders of the Frankfurt Parliament—and an agent of the Emperor Napoleon III, who had accused Marx of being a police spy and gangster boss.34 Exile quarrels aside, Marx was confined to commentary, most effectively in the articles he wrote (sometimes they were ghosted by Engels) for the New York Daily Tribune. These provided a laboratory for Marx’s developing political and economic analyses.

Everything changed in September 1864 when a meeting he helped to set up by British and French workers’ organisations in support of the Polish struggle for national independence decided to launch the International Working Men’s Association (IMWA)—the First International. Its formation reflected the revival of progressive politics and the workers’ movement after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848. According to Gareth Stedman Jones:

in England, three developments were particularly important. Without them, the International Working Men’s Association (IMWA) would never have come into existence, let alone have made the impact it did. The first was the popular response to republican transnationalism in the form of identification with the stirring and heroic national struggles in Italy, Bourbon and Russian autocracies. The second and equally important development was the growth in popular support for the abolition of slavery and the cause of the North in the American Civil War… But none of these campaigns would have made such an impact without a third and fundamental development, the transformation in the capability and political presence of trade unions.35

The International had at its core 23 British trade unions with 25,000 members, “the real worker-kings of London”, Marx called them (MECW 42: 44).36 They were based among skilled workers, particularly in the building trades and engineering, and were developing class-wide forms of organisation—notably the London Trades Council (1860) and the Trades Union Congress (1868). The British unions were flanked by Continental workers’ societies, and radical political currents, notably the followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France, and Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy. But Marx was the dominant figure in the General Council of this politically heterogeneous coalition. Its founding documents were written by him; he complained to Engels: “I was, however, obliged to insert two sentences about ‘duty’ and ‘right’, and ditto about ‘truth, morality and justice’ in the preamble to the rules, but these are so placed that they can do no harm” (MECW 42:18). The IMWA affirmed his fundamental conception of the self-emancipation of the working class—“the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes”—and insisted on the necessity of working class political action: “To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes” (MECW 20: 14, 12). This latter principle would be strongly contested by the Proudhonists and Bakuninists.

It was exactly in the early years of the IMWA, 1864-7, that Marx wrote the manuscript of Capital, volume 3, and, under Engels’s constant chivvying, completed volume 1 for publication in September 1867. So at the peak of his intellectual creativity he was leading one of the most important movements in the history of the organised working class. Marx complained to Engels on May Day 1865: “I really am overworked, as completing my book, on the one hand, and the ‘International Association’, on the other, are making very heavy demands on my time” (MECW 42: 149). This led to a cross-fertilisation of theory and practice. Marx’s theoretical research informed the political debates he undertook. His classic summary of his theory of value and surplus value, “Value, Price, and Profit”, originated as a paper for the General Council in which he challenged a follower of the Utopian socialist Robert Owen who argued that trade union struggles were futile because wages couldn’t rise above the level of basic subsistence. At the same time, the experience of these struggles was reflected in Capital, volume 1, above all in the chapter on the working day.37

The International played an important role in building solidarity for workers’ struggles in different countries—by Parisian bronze workers, London bookbinders and tailors and Genevan building workers among others—and combating the importing of scab labour to break strikes. But its focus was more political than economic. In Britain the unions involved in the IMWA were a driving force in the Reform League, which in 1866-7 agitated for the old Chartist demand of manhood suffrage and succeeded in winning a substantial extension in the franchise in the 1867 Reform Act. Marx wrote to Engels after big Reform League rallies in Trafalgar Square in June/July 1866: “The workers’ demonstrations in London are fabulous compared with anything seen in England since 1849, and they are solely the work of the “International” Mr [Benjamin] Lucraft, f.i., the captain in Trafalgar Square, is one of our Council” (MECW 42: 289-90).

But of course the horizons of the International were firmly international. So were Marx’s. The object of Capital was the capitalist mode of production conceived as a global economic system. As his critique of political economy deepened, particularly in the different editions of Capital, volume 1, he demonstrated how the tendencies of capitalist accumulation—the concentration and centralisation of capital, the development of an industrial reserve army, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—drove Western territorial expansion and colonial domination. He thus anticipated the theory of capitalist imperialism developed by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin and others in the first decades of the 20th century.38 But this understanding of capitalism as a world system implied that resistance would take the form not only of the struggle between wage labour and capital within individual countries but of different movements for political emancipation dictated by the hierarchical structure of power on an international scale and the plurality of forms of exploitation integrated into the global capitalist economy. For Marx, the most important example of these forms outside the direct wage-labour/capital relationship was American slavery. He writes in Capital:

While the cotton industry introduced child-slavery into England, in the United States it gave the impulse for the transformation of the earlier, more or less ­patriarchal slavery into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact the veiled slavery of the wage-labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal.39

Marx wrote to Engels in January 1860: “In my view, the most momentous thing happening in the world today is the slave movement—on the one hand, in America…and in Russia, on the other” (MECW 41: 4). The emancipation of the serfs in Russia did not lead to a great upheaval from below, but the secession of the Southern slave states from the United States in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November 1860 did unleash the most gigantic struggle. Marx refers in a footnote in Capital, to “the one great event of contemporary history, the American Civil War”.40 Presciently, in his earlier letter to Engels, Marx had wondered: “Should the affair grow serious by and by, what will become of Manchester?” (MECW 41:5). The slave plantations of the American South were part of a transnational economic complex that bound them to the first great modern industrial capitalist cluster, the textile factories of north western England whose main raw material, cotton, they supplied, via the merchants and ship-owners of Liverpool.41

Sven Beckert writes:

By multiple measures—the sheer numbers employed, the value of output, ­profitability—the cotton empire had no parallel. One author boldly estimated that in 1862, fully 20 million people worldwide—one out of every 65 people alive—were involved in the cultivation of cotton or the production of cotton cloth. In England alone, which still counted two-thirds of the world’s mechanical spindles in its factories, the livelihood of between one-fifth and one-fourth of the population was based on the industry; one-tenth of all British capital was invested in it, and close to one-half of all exports consisted of cotton yarn and cloth…in 1861, the flagship of global capitalism, Great Britain, found itself dangerously dependent on the white gold shipped out of New York, New Orleans, Charleston and other American ports. By the late 1850s, cotton grown in the United States accounted for 77 percent of the 800 million pounds of cotton consumed in Britain.42

Therefore the “cotton famine” produced by the American Civil War—first the Southern Confederacy banned exports and then the Union imposed a blockade of the rebel states—had a devastating economic effect. “By early 1863, a quarter of the inhabitants of Lancashire—more than half a million individuals—were out of work, receiving some form of public or private assistance”.43 Agents of the South sought to use the cotton famine to win support for British recognition of the Confederacy—a project that had serious prospects of success given that important sections of the British ruling class were tempted to intervene in the Civil War to prevent the US from developing into a peer competitor that could challenge their hegemony. Their efforts were countered by a campaign in support of the Union led by MPs such as John Bright who were on the Radical wing of the Liberal Party, supporters of free trade but also opposed to slavery and aristocratic privilege, and based especially on the same trade unions that went on to form the International.44 As Marx put it after the most dangerous war crisis, the Trent affair in the winter of 1861-2, was over, “it ought never to be forgotten in the United States that at least the working classes of England, from the commencement to the termination of the difficulty, have never forsaken them” (MECW 19: 137).

Marx and Engels themselves strongly supported the Union cause, but placed this in a class framework, as when Marx predicted in “The Civil War in the United States” (October 1861) that a Southern victory (which seemed quite likely in the early stages of the war) would produce:

not a dissolution of the Union, but a reorganisation of it, a reorganisation on the basis of slavery, under the recognised control of the slaveholding oligarchy… The slave system would infect the whole Union. In the Northern states, where Negro slavery is in practice unworkable, the white working class would gradually be forced down to the level of helotry. This would fully accord with the loudly proclaimed principle that only certain races are capable of freedom, and as the actual labour is the lot of the Negro in the South, so in the North it is the lot of the German and the Irishman, or their direct descendants.

The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other (MECW 19: 50).

The International was only formed towards the end of the Civil War. For most of it, Marx and Engels were condemned to follow it as commentators, frequently frustrated by the feebleness of the Union generals. In their correspondence, however, Marx accurately predicted that Lincoln would be forced to use revolutionary methods—for example, creating black regiments—to defeat the South. When he took his most radical step, announcing on 22 September 1862 that he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation the following 1 January freeing the slaves in all rebel states, Marx commented:

Lincoln’s acts all have the appearance of inflexible, clause-ridden conditions communicated by a lawyer to his opposite number. This does not impair their historical import… Like others, I am of course aware of the distasteful form assumed by the movement chez the Yankees; but, having regard to the nature of bourgeois democracy, I find this explicable. Nevertheless, events over there are such as to transform the world (Letter to Engels, 29 October 1862; MECW 41: 421).45

Marx underestimated Lincoln’s abilities, but not his actions. He drafted the letter the General Council sent to the president congratulating him on his re-election in November 1864. It contains this important paragraph:

While the working men, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned labourer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labour, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war (MECW 20: 20).

Marx repeated the same point in Capital, volume 1: “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin”.46 He had, therefore, a clear understanding of how the racial subjugation of one section of the toiling classes would also weaken that section not subject to this oppression. But this insight, well-developed in Marx’s writings on the US, was capable of much wider application, as industrial capitalism’s core in Europe and North America subordinated the rest of the world. This meant that national liberation struggles were not simply a product of the surviving old regime in Europe, as in the case of Italy, Poland and Hungary, but would persist into the emerging era of capitalist imperialism.47 Thus, in the International, Marx had to confront French socialists (including his future son-in-law) who argued that nationality was an “out-dated prejudice”. Marx described to Engels on 29 June 1866 the debate in the General Council the previous day:

The English laughed heartily when I began my speech with the observation that our friend [Paul] Lafargue, and others, who had abolished nationalities, had addressed us in “French”, ie in a language which 9/10 of the audience did not understand. I went on to suggest that by his denial of nationalities he seemed quite unconsciously to imply their absorption by the model French nation (MECW 42: 287).

The case that brought home the significance of national struggles was that of Ireland. Its conquest and annexation by the English state long predated the triumph of capitalism, but Ireland in the 19th century had been reduced, thanks to the famine and mass emigration to Britain and the US, as Marx put it in one of the most powerful sections of Capital, volume 1, to “merely an agricultural district of England which happens to be divided by a wide stretch of water from the country for which it provides corn, wool, cattle and industrial and military recruits”.48 The condition of Ireland was a pressing political question for the IMWA because of growing struggles against rack-renting absentee Anglo-Irish landlords (which would develop into the so-called Land War of 1879-82) and the attempts by the Fenians, or Irish Republican Brotherhood, to mount armed resistance to British rule, including various terrorist “outrages”. Marx and Engels therefore studied the situation closely, constantly swapping snippets of economic and historical information about Ireland in their correspondence.

Marx wrote to Engels on 2 November 1867: “I once believed the separation of Ireland from England to be impossible. I now regard it as inevitable, although federation may follow upon separation” (MECW 42: 460). He elaborated a few weeks later:

What the Irish need is:

1. Self-government and independence from England.

2. Agrarian revolution…

3. Protective tariffs against England. From 1783-1801 every branch of industry in Ireland flourished. By suppressing the protective tariffs which the Irish parliament had established, the Union destroyed all industrial life in Ireland. The little bit of linen industry is in no way a substitute… As soon as the Irish became independent, necessity would turn them, like Canada, Australia, etc, into protectionists (MECW 42: 486-7).

The last demand is particularly interesting since previously Marx had supported free trade against bourgeois economic nationalists such as the German Friedrich List and the American Henry Carey, who advocated protectionism as a way of allowing their countries to industrialise despite the dominance of British capitalism. Marx anticipated the course that British colonies that were allowed “Dominion” status—including southern Ireland under Éamon de Valera in the 1930s and 1940s—actually pursued. But his support for Irish independence was not only for the sake of the Irish themselves. He wrote to Engels (10 December 1869):

quite apart from all “international” and “humane” phrases about justice for Ireland—which are taken for granted on the International Council—it is in the direct and absolute interests of the English working class to get rid of their present connexion with Ireland… For a long time I believed it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy… Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. This is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general (MECW 43: 398).

Marx most fully elaborated his reasoning in a justly celebrated letter to two old German comrades, Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt (9 April 1870):

Ireland is the bulwark of the English landed aristocracy. The exploitation of this country is not simply one of the main sources of their material wealth; it is their greatest moral power. They represent, in fact, the domination of England over Ireland. Ireland is, thus, the grand moyen [great means] by which the English aristocracy maintain its domination in England itself.

On the other hand, if the English army and police were to be withdrawn from Ireland tomorrow, you would immediately have an agrarian revolution in Ireland. But the overthrow of the English aristocracy in Ireland would entail, and would lead immediately to, its overthrow in England. And this would bring about the prerequisites for the proletarian revolution in England…the English bourgeoisie has also much more important interests in the present economy of Ireland. As a result of the constantly increasing concentration of lease-holding, Ireland is steadily supplying its surplus to the English labour market, and thus forcing down the wages and material and moral position of the English working class.

And most important of all! All industrial and commercial centres in England now have a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who forces down the standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker, he feels himself to be a member of the ruling nation and, therefore, makes himself a tool of his aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against him. His attitude towards him is roughly that of the “poor whites” to the niggers in the former slave states of the American Union. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of English rule in Ireland.

This antagonism is kept artificially alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret of the maintenance of power by the capitalist class. And the latter is fully aware of this…

England, as the metropolis of capital, as the power which has hitherto ruled the world market, is for the present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and, in addition, the only country where the material conditions for this revolution have developed a certain degree of maturity. Thus, to hasten the social revolution in England is the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association. The sole means of doing so is to make Ireland independent… The special task of the Central Council in London is to awaken the consciousness of the English working class that, for them, the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation (MECW 43: 473-5).

It is very sad to see Marx use racist language in a letter whose dominant thrust is to demonstrate the dangers of racialised divisions (promoted by dominant Victorian British attitudes towards the Irish). It shows how pervasive racial discourse was, even among those who rejected racism. Marx also overestimated the Anglo-Irish landlords’ importance to British imperialism. Though the question of Home Rule for Ireland polarised ruling class politics in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, splitting the Liberal Party in the 1880s and threatening civil war in the summer of 1914, the ruling class actually was ruthlessly unsentimental in the manner in which it ditched the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Both Liberal and Unionist governments passed major Irish land reforms. According to Henry Patterson, “the British land legislation culminating in the Wyndham Act of 1903 removed the landlord class as a unifying focus of resentment. An estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of farmers had become owners of their land by the outbreak of World War One”.49 This facilitated the emergence of a class of big cattle ranchers who helped to provide the social base of the conservative Irish Free State that emerged from the War of Independence and Civil War between 1918 and 1923.

These defects don’t alter the importance of Marx’s argument. First, as in “The Civil War in the United States”, the letter shows his understanding of the role of flows of transnational migration in forming the working class in different countries—Irish and Germans to the US, Irish to Britain. Underlying this understanding is Marx’s theory of the industrial reserve army of labour constantly being created by technological change and colonial domination that provides capital internationally with new drafts of cheap workers. Secondly, the tensions caused labour market competition between “native” and migrant workers, when reinforced by the ideological apparatuses of what Gramsci would call civil society, can solidify into racialised antagonisms that divide and weaken the working class. Thirdly, it is in the interests of the “native” workers, and of the working class as a whole, that socialists should actively support the struggles of oppressed nations for their political emancipation, even if (as proved to be the case in Ireland) these struggles remain within the limits of capitalism.

In the event, Marx himself was unable to pursue these insights much further. The IMWA succumbed to the great crisis produced first by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and then by the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx won the General Council’s support for The Civil War in France, which championed the Commune. But he was increasingly caught between two fires. On the one hand, he was challenged on his left by Bakunin and his supporters, which meant the International was increasingly riven by internal factional struggle. On the other hand, particularly amid the media furore over The Civil War in France, which soon homed on Marx as the author, he was abandoned by the British trade union leaders who had provided the Council with its ballast. This wasn’t especially surprising. As Stedman Jones points out, for them “the fundamental aim of the IMWA…was to bring the benefits of British social legislation (limitation of working hours, restriction of juvenile employment) and the achievements of the new ‘amalgamated’ model of trade unionism to the other nations of Europe and the world”.50

Moreover, the Liberals under the leadership of William Gladstone, who pioneered a new progressive bourgeois politics aimed at the mass electorate created by the 1867 Reform Act, offered an attractive political home to trade union leaders who had worked with Radicals such as Bright in the past. Marx spotted this development early on, telling Kugelmann on 6 April 1868 that Gladstone’s championing of the disestablishment of the Irish Church “is detrimental to the workers’ party, because the intriguers among the workers, such as [George] Odger, [George] Potter, etc, who want to get into the next parliament, have now found a new excuse for attaching themselves to the bourgeois liberals” (MECW 43: 3). Many of his former trade union allies ended up as Lib-Lab MPs—a form of subaltern working class politics that had to be smashed when the Labour Party emerged at the end of the 19th century.

By 1872 the First International was history. Nevertheless, the arguments Marx had developed in its heyday were of lasting importance. Lenin would rediscover his writings on the state during 1917 and develop them further in The State and Revolution. Moreover, in pre-1914 debates among Marxists in the Russian Empire, he had restated the position Marx had mapped out in his writings on Ireland: it was essential for workers in imperialist countries, in order to break free from the ideologico-political hegemony of their ruling class, to support the struggle for self-determination of oppressed nations. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Communist International generalised this argument: in the era of imperialism the revolutionary workers’ movement must ally itself to colonial revolts. So here too we see Marx laying the foundations of the analysis and strategy developed further by his successors, and in particular the leaders of the October Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky.


There are, of course, problematic aspects to Marx’s political interventions. An obvious one is his relatively relaxed attitude to the question of organisation, as is evident in his participation in the relatively tight, conspiratorial Communist League and his leadership of the rumbustious, ideologically incoherent First International. Monty Johnstone indeed distinguishes five major “models” of the party in Marx’s and Engels’s work:

each of which corresponds to a stage or stages in the development of the working class movement in a given period or in given countries… (a) the small international Communist cadres’ organisation (the League of Communists—1847-52); (b) the “party” without an organisation (during the ebb of the labour movement—1850s and early ’60s); (c) the broad international federation of workers’ organisations (the First International—1864-72); (d) the Marxist national mass party (German Social Democracy—1870s, ’80s and early ’90s); (e) the broad national labour party (Britain and America—1880s and early ’90s) based on the Chartist model.51

A consistent thread running through Marx’s political writings is his hostility to sectarianism. In a letter to Friedrich Bolte of 23 November 1871 that must be seen as a reflection on the experience of the IMWA, by then on its deathbed, he writes:

The International was founded in order to replace the socialist or semi-socialist sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle. The original Rules and the Inaugural Address show this at a glance. On the other hand the International could not have asserted itself if the course of history had not already smashed sectarianism. The development of socialist sectarianism and that of the real labour movement always stand in indirect proportion to each other. So long as the sects are justified (historically), the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary. For all that, what history exhibits everywhere was repeated in the history of the International. The antiquated tries to reconstitute and assert itself within the newly acquired form (MECW 44: 252).

As John Molyneux puts it, “the strength of Marx’s conception lies in its materialism, its emphasis on learning through experience and struggle; its weakness lies in its economic determinism and optimistic evolutionism”. He notes “a strong element of fatalism in Marx’s attitude to the formation of the party. The struggle of ideas and tendencies within the working class movement will sort itself out as the class tendencies of the workers assert themselves”.52 Hence Marx’s pragmatism about the organisational form the party should take. But the challenges of Bakunin on the one hand, and the future Lib-Labs on the other, proved not to be just “antiquated” reversions to the past. The problem would re-emerge on a much larger scale in the Second International, formed in 1889 after Marx’s death, and especially in the German SPD that prided itself as the citadel of his and Engels’s thought.

Marxists generally embraced the model defended as that of the founders by the SPD’s chief theoretician, Karl Kautsky—a progressive convergence between socialism and the labour movement within the framework of broad parties in which different tendencies co-existed. But the support the SPD, along with most other sections of the Second International, gave to the First World War threw this model into crisis and demonstrated the material weight that reformism exerted through the conservative influence of parliamentarism and the now increasingly powerful trade union bureaucracy. After October 1917 Lenin and the Bolsheviks offered a different model, in which revolutionaries would organise separately from reformists but (and here they differed from sectarian “Left” Communists) work systematically to win the support of the majority of workers through active participation in their daily struggles.53

It would be anachronistic to criticise Marx for his failure to anticipate problems that emerged fully with the development of mass trade unions and socialist parties in the last decades of the 19th century. But the historic limitations imposed by his situation—not merely those arising from the development of capitalism in his day, but also the comparatively scarce opportunities that he and Engels had to exercise political influence—merely underline what he was able to achieve as a political leader. He brought the theoretical understanding he had previously developed to both the revolutions of 1848 and the First International, but he also enriched that understanding thanks to his practical experiences.

How do these theoretical developments stand up to the test of time? The learning process Marx experienced in 1848-9 was important both because it reflected his first encounter with a real revolution and because he anticipated what we now know as the theory of permanent revolution. But the achievements of Trotsky—and, of course, along his own parallel path, Lenin—in grasping the interrelation of bourgeois and proletarian revolutions—surpassed Marx’s. They could draw on much more advanced revolutionary experiences and on a much deeper understanding of capitalism on both a global and a Russian scale, thanks above all to Capital and the studies it stimulated.

But what Marx in the 1860s learned about the connections between workers’ struggles and movements against national and racial oppression retains all its actuality today. This is partly because of the depth of understanding of capitalism as a global system driven by the dynamics of uneven and combined development that he had achieved in Capital.54 But it’s also that the transnational mobilisation of workers to meet the needs of capital accumulation, and the potential that this creates simultaneously for racialised divisions and internationalist class solidarity is at the heart of anti-capitalist politics today. This was true in 1968, when Enoch Powell made his “Rivers of Blood” speech (see Shirin Hirsch’s article elsewhere in this issue) and students rebelled across borders. And it is even more true now, with the offensives of state racism and the radical right and the counter-mobilisations by anti-racists and anti-fascists. So, just as when we explore Marx’s critique of political economy, so when we scrutinise his politics, we encounter a thought that is far from being out-dated.

Alex Callinicos is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and editor of International Socialism.


1 Harman, 1988, is a classic study of that upturn.

2 See Bidet, 2014, for a more charitable reading.

3 This doesn’t mean that I agree with the idea that Foucault had any sympathy with neoliberalism, as is sometimes argued today: see his very subtle and interesting discussion of liberalism and neoliberalism in Foucault, 2008.

4 Fukuyama, 1992.

5 Fukuyama, 1989, p9. Alexandre Kojève was the author of a hugely influential interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy of history—Kojève, 1969. See my discussion in Callinicos, 1995, chapter 1.

6 Fukuyama, 2016.

7 For much more on this and on the interpretation of Capital, see Callinicos, 2014a.

8 Callinicos, 2014b.

9 Miliband, 1977, p2.

10 Kouvelakis, 2003, p351.

11 Gramsci, 1995, p401; Gramsci, 1975, II, p1317.

12 For contrasting readings of this text, see Kouvelakis, 2003, chapter 5, and Finelli, 2016, chapter 5.

13 To avoid over-cluttering this article with footnotes, all references to Marx and Engels, 1975-2005, have been placed in the text as MECW followed by volume and page numbers. Passages in bold were in English in the original.

14 Marx, 1976, pp915-916.

15 Pradella, 2013, p130. See also Pradella, 2010, chapter 4.

16 Marx 1976, p344; see also pp599-610. See the detailed commentary in Choonara, 2017.

17 Marx, 1973, p108.

18 This passage is interesting because it shows Marx comparatively late in life harking back to one of the main themes of his writings of the mid-1840s—the state as the alienated form of civil society and revolution as its reabsorption into society.

19 Miliband, 1977, p6.

20 Harman, 1991, and Callinicos, 2009, chapter 2.

21 My arguments largely dovetail with August Nimtz’s excellent study of the whole of Marx’s and Engels’s political activities: Nimtz 2000. I haven’t been able to deal with their efforts to build a workers’ party in Germany, but this is well covered by Nimtz.

22 Two good studies of Marx in 1848 are Gilbert, 1981, part 2, and Sperber, 2013, chapters 6 and 7, despite the distorting effects of the authors’ politics, respectively (at the time) Maoism and mainstream liberalism. See also the detailed analysis of his writings in 1848 and after in Draper, 1978, chapters 7-10, and the broader discussion in Löwy, 1981, chapter 1.

23 Sperber, 2013, p228.

24 The defeat of Napoleon in 1814-15 left Britain and Russia as the leading European states, the first exercising power primarily economically, the second by its armies, which were deployed in 1848-9 to help defeat the revolutions.

25 Tronti, 2006, p160.

26 Löwy, 1981, p15. Hal Draper argues that already in the 1844 Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Marx has “a primitive theory of permanent revolution”, but that “he proceeded to go through a complex course of rethinking in the course of experience, first circling away from this view, before coming squarely back to it in a more sophisticated form, as the outcome of the revolution of 1848-1849”—Draper, 1978, p174.

27 Saville, 1987.

28 Callinicos, 1989, and Davidson, 2012.

29 Johnstone, 1967.

30 Nimtz, 2000, p155.

31 On the London Notebooks, see Pradella, 2015, chapter 4.

32 Marx, 2017.

33 See for more on Marx’s thinking about crises, Callinicos, 2014a, chapter 6.

34 There is a sympathetic account of the background to Herr Vogt in Sperber, 2013, pp331-336.

35 Stedman Jones, 2016, p432-433. See more generally chapter 11, the best part of a disappointing biography.

36 Sperber, 2013, p357.

37 Roberts, 2017, is a new study of Capital, volume 1, that stresses the importance to it of Marx’s debates with other socialist currents.

38 Pradella, 2010, 2013 and 2016.

39 Marx, 1976, p925. On New World slavery, see Blackburn, 1997 and 2011.

40 Marx, 1976, p366, n78. Important studies of Marx and the American Civil War include Dunayevskaya, 1971, chapter 5, Pradella, 2016 and Anderson, 2010, chapter 3.

41 Beckert, 2014, chapters 5-8.

42 Beckert, 2014, Kindle locations 4388, 4401..

43 Beckert, 2014, Kindle location 4486. See also Marx, 1981, pp219-234.

44 On Britain and the American Civil War, see Foreman, 2010.

45 On the background to the Emancipation Proclamation, see Foner, 2010, chapter 7.

46 Marx, 1976, p414.

47 During the 1848 revolutions Marx and Engels approached the national question from the perspective of what was necessary to destroy the old regime in Europe. Thus they strongly supported German, Hungarian and Polish self-determination but opposed Pan-Slavism in Central and South-Eastern Europe as a reactionary movement backed by Tsarist Russia. This led Engels quite wrongly to dismiss some nations as “history-less”: see Callinicos, 1983, pp162-170.

48 Marx, 1976, p960. See, on the “recolonisation of Ireland” as a supplier of wheat and livestock to Britain during the Industrial Revolution, Belich, 2009, pp445-446, and, on Marx on Ireland more generally, Pradella, 2010, pp230-50, and Anderson, 2010, chapter 4.

49 Patterson, 1989, p10. Of course, land reform didn’t end the contradictions of Irish society under British rule: see the powerful portrait of Ireland on the eve of the Easter rising in Allen, 2016, chapter 1.

50 Stedman Jones, 2016, p458.

51 Johnstone, 1967.

52 Molyneux, 1978, pp30, 31.

53 Harman, 1968/9.

54 Pradella, 2010, 2013 and 2015.


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