Karl Marx wrote to his wife Jenny in 1856: “My love of you, as soon as you are distant, appears as a giant … the love, not of Feuerbach’s human being … not of the proletariat, but the love of the beloved, namely of you, makes the man once again into a man.” Alas, he also fell prey to unfaithfulness during his wife’s prolonged absence.
The life of this very human individual and that of his family was that of an exile and a revolutionary. In Belgium, in 1846, he and Friedrich Engels formed the Communist Correspondence Committee. They jointly published or wrote at this time, The Holy Family, The German Ideology (not published in Marx’s lifetime), and The Poverty of Philosophy. Although these set out much of the core philosophy of Marxism, they are heavy going today, consisting mainly of polemical attacks on those who haven’t quite grasped the essence.
But the build up to the 1848 revolutions revitalised the pair, who linked up with the London-based League of the Just, which merged into the Communist League (1847–1852). The second congress of this gave Marx the task of writing a manifesto, which became The Manifesto of the Communist Party, first published on 21 February 1848.
Revolutions now swept across Europe, preceded by an economic crisis. Marx, finally expelled from Belgium, flees to France and back again to campaign for radical agitation. Karl Marx was only thirty years old, his broad forehead, jet black hair and beard, great knowledge, and enormous enthusiasm for life was hypnotic. A logical and clear speaker with contempt for poor arguments, his cutting disdain for the wealthy was oft-expressed. Marx was involved in organising a tax boycott against Prussia, being indicted but acquitted for incitement to rebellion by February 1849. He was expelled from the country on 19 May 1849, arriving in London in August; he was 32 years of age.
The next 39 years are ones of writing and organising. But, in 1864, Marx became involved in the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International), to whose General Council he was elected. The most important event during its existence was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the citizens of Paris rebelled and held the city for two months. In response to its bloody suppression, Marx wrote The Civil War in France, a defence of the Commune.
He also sought to understand capitalism and spent a great deal of time in the reading room of the British Museum. By 1857, Marx had accumulated over 800 pages of notes that only appeared in print in 1939. under the title Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy. But, in 1859, Marx published his first serious economic work, which eventually led to the three large volumes that would compose his life’s work – Capital and the Theories of Surplus Value.
Marx’s passion for anthropology was strongly motivated by his belief that future communism would be a return on a higher level to the communism of humanity’s prehistoric past. Before he died, Marx asked Engels to write up these ideas, which were published in 1884 under the title The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Far from being a pompous old man, Marx’s friends referred to him as Moor, owing to his dark complexion and black curly hair, while his children called him Charley Marx. To him, Engels was always The General”, while one of his daughters Chi Chi, after the Emperor of China and another Hottentot, a companion to his swarthy self.
Hardly had the soil in Marx’s grave settled, did revisionist challenges to his ideas appear from within the socialist movement. In 1899, Eduard Bernstein attacked the so-called immiseration theory, whereby a debunking of the claim that the working class was destined to get poorer as the concentration of industry got greater was claimed.
But Marx only wrote of the relative impoverishment of the class. Thus, the castle of the ruling class of the 14th century was obviously very much superior to a hovel the peasant lived in at the time. But the cottage of the 19th century agrarian labourer was surely much better than the 14th century one, although the astonishing luxury that the 19th century aristocrat had seems to prove relative immiseration. Why bend over this? Why complicate the argument?
But that’s exactly what he was forced to do. In considering the odd tendency of the rate of profit to fall, seen for almost 150 years, Marx tried to offer an answer just as the imperialising, globalising, and modernising world was changing around him in ways that seemed to defy the notion. It seemed that capitalism had not only solved the problem of falling rate, prosperity was upon Western Europe.
Recognising that thousands of trees have given their lives for the cause of finding fault with Marx’s written views takes us nowhere, not when set against the fact that global wealth is today in fewer and fewer hands, as larger and larger numbers of people in the world face hardship. Whilst the recognition that crises are endemic has sent sales of Marx’s work soaring, even as fears for a global depression arise from the burgeoning trades war between China and the US.
Clearly, the politician in Marx was often unbending. He did not like to be contradicted but then much of the contradictions were stupid! He did not take to fools gladly. Thankfully, much of his writing was simply accepted as the gospel. Take his journalism in the New York Daily Tribune, which was his family’s bread and butter. The paper published 200,000 copies every day and nearly five hundred articles appeared under his name, about a quarter of which were by Engels, or joint.
Marx was a ferocious iron horse of a worker. He was a chain smoker and worked odd hours. But despite the epithet of `writer’ applying quite correctly to Marx, he was rooted in the world around him. His doctoral dissertation on Epicurus concluded: “As the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly.”
His skill with aphorisms, such as “the weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons”, or “The proletariat merely raises to the rank of a principle what society has made the principle of the proletariat”, is often credited to his roots in the ideas of the philosopher Hegel. But it cannot be separated from the young Marx and his flirtation with poetry. Cringeworthy maybe, but what 18–year old has never floundered when trying to rise above prose. The Old Marx was certainly a master of cynical wit.
The revolutions of 1848 and their failure, and the new European order that emerged, along with the International Workingmen’s Association, which Marx ran for many years, are the very backbone of his later theoretical work. Contrary to much commentary claiming a distance between Marx and the likelihood of radical change in Russia, in his last years, he entertained regular correspondence with young Russian revolutionaries, to whom Marx gives serious attention to the possibility of peasant communalism as a source of revolution.
The eulogy given by Engels at Marx’s grave in 1883 may be more than touched by grieving but is it so over the top? “Charles Darwin discovered the law of the development of organic nature upon our planet. Marx is the discoverer of the fundamental law according to which human history moves and develops itself, a law so simple and self-evident that its simple enunciation is almost sufficient to secure assent.”
Those who denigrate evolution say: `but it’s only a theory’ … and so it is. Like Marxism which, as a working device to understand how humans adapt and change over time, was so remarkably comparable to the observation that sexual selection and adaptive benefits motored species development, that Engels ascribed the same intellectual importance to Darwin as he did to Marx. The insight that labour is the source of all value and that people as an identifiable group tend to do that which benefits them as a group, and that the course of history is very much influenced by these things is just as powerful.
A scientific law is thought of as the description of an observed phenomenon, which does not explain the phenomenon. That is where scientific theory comes in. Facts, laws, theories and hypotheses are distinct things, one doesn’t become the other, or grow into it. Much of Marx’s thinking is a statement about an observed phenomenon, which in the minds of most scientists ought to make it a law. But scientific laws are often mathematical descriptions of natural phenomenon; for example, Newton’s Law of Gravity.
The more contested Marx’s thinking has become, the more we shy away from using the term `laws’. But Marx more than adequately explained why the phenomenon that capitalism is, works the way it does. Arguably, Engels should have dubbed Marxism, like Darwinism, a Theory of Exploitation and How It Drives History. Marx never said that full communism would end human conflict, merely that it would end the systemic political conflict between economic classes – class struggle as a driver.
This has become lost to us since science, behavioural studies, and economics, like so many sciences, have become detached from each other and from society. Contemporary social psychology, which looks at the way human behaviour is influenced by others has been itself strongly influenced by the work of Muzaffar Sharif, a theorist of group dynamics. Running a US summer camp in the 1950s, he brought a group of boys together, allowed them to make friends, then separated them into two factions to compete for a prize. He believed they would forget their friendships and start demonising one another – but a manufactured end would come after a forest fire so that when faced with a shared threat, the group would be forced to work as one team again.
Sharif believed that competition over scarce resources could drive people to enmity. But simply place a common obstacle in their way, and they cooperate. During his youth, he had witnessed devastating inter-ethnic violence between Turks, Greeks and Armenians. What is known as the “Robbers’ Cave experiment” is still thought of as one of the best-known examples of realistic conflict theory, although doubts about its scientific rigour now apply.
Why humans are prone to co-operate, puzzles biologists, psychologists and economists alike. Between-group conflict is even thought to drive within-group cooperation. Altruism seems to be hard–wired into us, even in a commodity dominated economy. The evolution of cooperation among unrelated individuals is a fundamental issue being studied in the biological and social sciences.
Marx never aimed to paint a picture of the world as divided between the pleasant but stupid worker and the vicious and evil capitalist. What followers of The Simpsons would today think of as Homer and Mr Burns! The system damages everyone, even those with enormous power and wealth. Marx the thinker was truly curious about humanity and the concept of alienation that he developed did not come out of thin air.
Alienation is a term rooted in the desire to rationally explain odd kinds of human behaviour that can certainly be traced to at least the 12th century BCE. Early attempts to elaborate a discipline that we might call ‘psychology’ saw the old word ‘alienist’ – a mind doctor – emerge from the Latin root word alienare, meaning to make strange. When Marx referred to opium in the famous passage about religion, which he penned in 1843, it is highly likely that his contemporary knowledge of the work of alienists informed the sketching out of his own notion of alienation. And perhaps how opium was then used to keep babies quiet during the night – and even mature men with carbuncles! There was no term for what he had in mind, so he had to invent or adapt one. If he were writing today, perhaps we might say he could just as well have coined the term ‘psycho-social distress’ instead!
He was well on the way to understanding what was behind much of what we would today call toxic behaviour when he connected this idea to what earlier thinkers about economics had put forward – the idea that labour (strictly speaking labour power) and capital (also carefully defined) are the only two elements in the market. The supply and `price’ of the former is related to population levels and tends to fluctuate around absolute subsistence levels. For Marx and earlier thinkers, labour is the only source of value. It’s really a very simple idea yet proves often to be the idea most difficult to accept or grasp. For acting out the laws of economics is largely an act without comprehension. But, much like the way working people became increasingly suspicious of New Labour or the EU, most workers emotionally divine that there’s something not quite right about the way a boss makes money out of them.
Whilst the learned professors of economics think supply and demand, and profit and loss, are key drivers of the economy, and rarely speak of Marx, if at all, without dismissiveness. Any debate about Marx and his life always seems to try to pose the early Marx against the late Marx and that is as pointless as trying to isolate those pages of Capital that speak about capitalism’s inevitable doom to make a case for how outdated he is. Marx developed himself as he tried to understand the world around him and so, too, can we. He left a legacy of thinking that is focused on the reality of the here and now. The complexities of that process are not the point, rather it is where our ideas come from and what we do with them that matters. At the heart of a very human personality lay a very real understanding of what it means to be a human.
first published May 2018