Marx meets the working class

March 29, 2011

In Paris, Marx finally encountered the social force capable of achieving liberation.

"I AM referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results...and being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be."

Marx was in a fighting mood in the months after the German authorities banned the Rheinische Zeitung, the newspaper he had edited in 1842-43. This is not to say that he was unhappy, far from it. After years of courtship, he and Jenny Westphalen were finally married and soon expecting their first child. As Howard Zinn put it in his play Marx in Soho, the two "were powerfully in love."

They spent the summer in Jenny's well-to-do mother's home, where Marx penned a series of letters and articles cutting his ties with his former liberal employers and taking stock of the remnants of the Young Hegelian movement. By the end of the year, his thinking would undergo a dramatic transformation.

In my previous column, I noted that this group of radical writers supported German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel's dialectical method of analysis, but disagreed with his accommodation to the Prussian monarchy.

Columnist: Todd Chretien

Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.

Increasingly, they focused on religion as the root of all evil. Most famously, Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity argued that god was an "invention of man." Books like this provoked the regime's wrath.

Having initially hoped for liberal reforms from the newly appointed German King Wilhelm III, the Young Hegelians split in many different directions when the young royal launched a wave of repression against them in 1843. Many of them retreated from political activity, taking refuge in increasingly abstract (and sometimes reactionary) denunciations of all forms of religion.

Marx went in the opposite direction (as did others such as Frederick Engels and Mikhail Bakunin), arguing in the two essays discussed below that philosophy alone was powerless to change the world. Only political action based on taking up the economic and social grievances of real people offered a path towards revolution.

IN AN essay written in 1843 titled "On the Jewish Question," Marx attacked his one-time Young Hegelian ally Bruno Bauer, who opposed the extension of civil rights to Jews in Germany.

Bauer's seemingly radical renunciation of all religion led him to ignore the concrete question of discrimination against Jews by the Christian state in Germany. As Marx put it, Bauer "demands...that the Jew should renounce Judaism, and that mankind in general should renounce religion, in order to achieve civic emancipation."

Marx, on the contrary, argued, "Political emancipation is, of course, a big step forward." In other words, just because winning civil rights for Jews in Germany did not eliminate all forms of discrimination is no reason to denigrate the importance of winning partial reforms. This was clearly an extension of the type of critiques Marx launched against the government while editing Rheinische Zeitung.

Yet Marx went further, warning that "one should be under no illusion about the limits of political emancipation." That is to say, even if you win limited civil rights or liberties, they will be restricted and the inherent inequality in any system based on private property will find new groups to oppress and new ways to oppress them.

Marx here made an attempt to explain the relationship between fighting for partial reforms and the need to overturn the whole system. This is very important and is a markedly different method than most of the young radicals pursued.

The second part of the essay has achieved some notoriety as supposedly proving that Marx was anti-Semitic. Marx's family roots, in fact, were Jewish, and his grandfather was the last in a prominent line of rabbis. However, Marx's father converted to Christianity in order to escape persecution and advance his career.

Marx himself supported Jewish civil rights in his writings, as noted above, and supported a campaign for Jewish civil rights in his home province. The point of his argument is that both Jews and Christians need to look beyond religion to the system of private property to explain suffering in the world.

Yet despite all this, he could write, for instance, that "Money is the jealous god of Israel...The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world," and Marx generally associates Judaism with "self-interest" or "egoism" throughout this section.

In Marx's defense, many leftist writers have quite correctly argued that he was trying to subvert the idea of the supposedly financial or acquisitive basis of Judaism, which was widely accepted in European society at the time, including among many liberal Jews. As Marx scholar Michael Lowy points out in his book The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx, "Marx shows that egoism, money, etc., are not blemishes specific to Judaism but essential characteristics of all modern and Christian society."

However, even with these provisos, I think it is best to say bluntly that Marx was dead wrong about the supposed relationship between Judaism and the development of capitalism (what Marx called "civil society" at the time).

While some Jews did fill specific financial roles under feudalism (because of the Catholic Church's prohibition on money-lending, for example), most European Jews worked as artisans, farmers, small traders or merchants, laborers, etc. and were not concentrated in the centers of power, but were forced to live in restricted areas in Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, the so-called Pale.

Even wealthy Jews were never the dominant partners in the colonial conquests, enslavement of Africans and other peoples, enclosures of the common lands and development of the factory system that gave rise to capitalism. In the years to come, Marx would probe deeply into these factors and more in his analysis of capitalism.

However, at the time he wrote On the Jewish Question, he showed little awareness of any of this and simply accepted the "common sense" at face value. Fortunately, Marx soon broke free from this particular conception and never returned to it.

MARX BROKE new ground in his next major essay, the Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, which I suggested reading in my last column, written just after On the Jewish Question.

Lowy points out the importance of this work, arguing that the "Young Marx's journey had reached its end. Critical philosophy, no longer considering itself to be an end in itself, had turned to practice...the French proletariat was decisive for the final stage of Marx's evolution." What was so different about the Introduction compared to all Marx's previous writings?

To begin, Marx reversed Hegel's belief that history and all human activity is merely a projection of God or Spirit's process of becoming self-aware. Following in Feuerbach's footsteps, Marx claimed, "Man makes religion, religion does not make man." As promised, he stood Hegel's dialectic of historical development right-side-up. Marx then made one of his most famous pronouncements.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the masses.

As we saw previously, far from the crass denunciation of religion as simply a drug that dulls one's senses, as this quote is often understood, Marx was explaining that religion is not a groundless or foolish phenomena. Rather, it is a "protest against real distress," which is rooted social conditions.

Marx was an atheist, but he demanded that radicals turn the "criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics." His real aim was to break the Young Hegelians free from their one-sided obsession with abstract theological and philosophical debates.

Ideas alone would never overthrow the German aristocracy and its police and censors. As he put it, "The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses."

This passage is especially important to understand. Remember Marx's frustration with the inability of the liberal movement in Germany to defend itself from state repression and censorship, and you will see why Marx believes a "material force," that is a powerful social movement, is the only way to defeat the powers that be.

At the same time, far from rejecting the importance of radical ideas or philosophy, he contended that theory itself can become such a force if enough people act on it, are "gripped" by it.

But what sort of force does Marx have in mind? He wrote the first half of this essay while still living at his mother-in-law's house in Germany. It is full of references to Martin Luther and the German Reformation of the 16th century as well as lessons from the French Revolution of 1789.

He used them to describe the dynamics of class struggle, but lamented that there was no class in Germany that had the "courage or ruthlessness" to lead a revolution. He was clearly grasping for a lever to uproot the German status quo. Yet if you read any of Marx's prior works, or even the first 10 out of 12 pages of this one, you might have noticed that he has yet to utter the word "proletariat."

LOWY, I think convincingly, argues that Marx, despite seeing the need for a revolution in Germany, does not come up with the answer through studying Hegel. Rather, the shock of moving from his small town surroundings in Germany to the metropolis of Paris, with its large working class (including 100,000 German workers in exile) and organized radical political clubs hits Marx between the eyes. Now he saw it:

Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation? Answer: In the formation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate [a class of people] which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering...which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in an all-round antithesis to the premises of the German state...which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society...This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.

Although Marx was writing for a German audience, this insight became the key to his theory of revolution in any nation, and indeed internationally. Namely, Marx identified the proletariat--that is, the class of people who do not own the factories, fields, offices, etc. in which they work and must rely on weekly or daily wages to survive--as the "material force" that can lead the revolution.

If you stop and think about it, this was a truly remarkable prediction. Rather than looking for a powerful, educated, wealthy class or group of people to transform society, Marx looked to the very bottom of society. Those whose only possessions were their "radical chains."

However, Marx's notion of exactly how this revolution would come about remained imprecise. Keep in mind that he had never seen a strike, nor even a mass demonstration. Paris was seething with workers when Marx arrived in the fall of 1843, but he still had no personal experience with workers' struggle.

So Marx continued to see the proletariat as a passive force that would somehow "proclaim" or "demand" the "negation of private property." As he put is, "The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat."

Nevertheless, in these two essays Marx laid down some of the most important building blocks of his theory of human emancipation: society's ills are rooted in private property, criticism of religion must become concrete political action aimed a changing social conditions, radical ideas can only win out if they are embodied in a "material force," and the proletariat is the class that can lead this transformation.

Next time, we'll see how Marx develops his theory of alienation and why communism is the solution by reading selections from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Read these two sections: "Estranged Labor" and "Private Property and Communism."

Further Reading

From the archives