Ready for the revolutionary wave

Marx and Engels saw 1846 and 1847 as a time of preparation for the struggles ahead.

MARX AND Engels could feel revolution in the air in 1846 and 1847, and they had no intention of being caught flat-footed. The two launched a Communist Correspondence Committee, availing themselves of the cutting-edge technology of their day--overnight mail delivery--to dash off hundreds of letters in to win over fellow activists and excoriate foes. They also joined an international political organization called the Communist League to give their theories life.

Columnist: Todd Chretien

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.

As Engels explains in "On the History of the Communist League":

Now, we were by no means of the opinion that the new scientific results should be confided in large tomes exclusively to the "learned" world. Quite the contrary...As soon as we found we had become clear in our own minds, we set to work. (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 26. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, pp. 318-19)

This "work" consisted in winning a hearing for their views among a radical substratum of revolutionaries scattered across several countries. Many boasted a decade or more of political organizing, up to and including organizing strikes and unions, failed insurrections and underground societies. As Marx and Engels were newcomers to the scene, their influence was by no means a given. Engels remembers back to London in 1843:

They were the first revolutionary proletarians whom I had seen, and however far apart our views were at that time in details--for I still bore, as against their narrow-minded egalitarian communism, a goodly dose of just as narrow-minded philosophical arrogance--I shall never forget the deep impression that these three real men made upon me, who was still to become a man at that time. (CW, Vol. 26, p. 314)

Series: Reading Marx
In this series, Todd Chretien provides an accompaniment to the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
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Their plan was straightforward. As we have seen, Marx and Engels believed that capitalism was rapidly creating an urban proletariat who would become conscious of its own interests against those of their bosses. Revolutionaries ought not short-circuit this process by fomenting secretive conspiracies; rather, they must participate in the practical struggles of working-class people.

To that end, they set about winning over adherents in various organizations and announced a plan at a mass meeting in London for a "congress of nations," which would bring together working-class delegates from across Europe in order to chart a course toward revolution. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 619)

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Revolution in the Air

At the time, they left little doubt as to their understanding of the nature of this coming conflagration.

First, revolution led by the bourgeoisie would sweep away all the aristocratic remnants, as in 1789 in France. During this phase, they argued, that the working class should ally itself with all of those in society, regardless of class, who favored genuine democracy. However, capitalism was developing with such force that almost immediately, this first phase of the revolution would be replaced by a working-class uprising. Engels sums up their analysis in an essay called "The Events of 1847," writing:

We are no friends of the bourgeoisie. That is common knowledge. But this time we do not begrudge the bourgeoisie their triumph...They are so shortsighted as to fancy that through their triumph the world will assume its final configuration. Yet nothing is more clear than that they are everywhere preparing the way for us, for the democrats and Communists; then that they will at most win a few years of troubled enjoyment, only to be then immediately overthrown. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 528)

Previously, I have referred to Marx and Engels' tendency to mistake the generalities of their dialectical categories for the concrete balance of forces, so I will only note here that Engels is persisting in this error. After all, since he wrote those words, the balance between enjoyment and suffering has fallen decidedly in the bourgeoisie's favor. But at least this point of view focused their energy on the need to prepare practically for the upheavals to come, whatever their specific nature.

As I discussed in my last column, Marx wrote a book challenging the French anarchist Joseph Pierre Proudhon's ideas, The Poverty of Philosophy, and Engels himself went to Paris to participate in the practical movement. The other two groups to which Marx and Engels turned their attention were the English Chartists and an underground organization of German revolutionaries named the League of the Just.

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Free Trade and the English Working Class

The Chartists were a truly mass phenomenon in the British working class. Their name derived from the charter of six reforms that they demanded from parliament, centering around universal male suffrage. In 1842, the movement gathered some 3.5 million signatures (all without Facebook!), but it was coldly rebuffed by the ruling-class parties, which permitted only 15 percent of adult men to vote in parliamentary elections.

By 1846, Engels had established a close relationship with Julian Harney, the radical editor of the Chartist newspaper The North Star, for which Engels wrote regularly. Marx and Engels were incredibly enthusiastic about the Chartists, believing that if the they won their demands, it would open the door to revolution in England and communist ideas would proliferate.

One of the key ideological questions confronting the Chartists was the question of free trade. In the wake of NAFTA, global justice protests against the World Trade Organization, the Great Recession and a growing movement to unionize Wal-Mart, it might seem odd to us today that free trade advocates could win a hearing among the poor in Britain in the 1840s. However, at the time, free traders posed as friends of the workers, promising lower food prices and more jobs.

In his pamphlet On the Question of Free Trade, Marx writes, "Everyone knows that in England the struggle between Liberals and Democrats takes the name of the struggle between Free Traders and Chartists." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 450)

Here, Liberals and Free Traders are the bourgeoisie, while Democrats and Chartists are the proletariat. Marx wants to purge any remaining political influence the bosses have over the workers. To do so, he demonstrates why the economic arguments of the free traders, who promise greater employment, can only mean greater exploitation suffered by the working class. Marx explains that free trade did increase England's national wealth, but:

[t]he reward of labor is less for all, and the burden of labor is increased for some at least. In 1829 there were, in Manchester, 1,088 cotton spinners employed and 36 factories. In 1841 there were but 448, and they tended 55,353 more spindles than the 1,088 spinners did in 1829. If manual labor had increased in the same proportion as productive force, the number of spinners ought to have risen to 1848; improved machinery had therefore, deprived 1,400 workers of employment. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 460)

This argument remains as valid today as it was back in 1847. Not only does it expose the supposed benefits of free trade for the working class, but it also points out that, in our context, most jobs are not "shipped overseas," but lost to technological development and increases in productivity.

For instance, 80 years ago, there were more than 700,000 coal miners in the United States. Today, there are around 80,000, and they produce twice as much coal. Additionally, global markets and transportation systems today are developed to such an extent that capital can seek out cheaper labor costs, creating a race to the bottom for wages. The horrifying tragedy in Bangladesh is only the latest example of the "virtues" of free trade.

Marx then comes to a seemingly bizarre conclusion:

Generally speaking, the Protective system in these days is conservative, while the Free Trade system works destructively. It breaks up old nationalities and carries antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie to the uttermost point. In a word, the Free Trade system hastens the Social Revolution. In this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, I'm in favor Free Trade. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 465)

Insofar as protectionism is often no better than free trade from the point of view of workers, Marx is here trying to point out that neither of these policies can permanently solve the problem of exploitation. That is a valid enough point. Yet I think it also suffers form a certain one-sidedness which I will return to below.

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Love and Capital

Turning to their German audience, Marx and Engels took aim at a trend called "True Socialism." Over the course of 1846-47, both wrote long articles carefully analyzing German literature promoting these ideas--this was a popular way of getting political ideas past the censors.

Honestly, it's difficult to read today, but if you must, try Moralizing Criticism and Critical Morality. I will concentrate on one short piece called the "Circular Against Kriege," in which Marx and Engels and their closest allies denounce a series of articles written by a German emigré living in the United States by the name of Hermann Kriege.

Marx and Engels ridiculed Kriege as "an apostle of love" because he asserted a universal humanism--reaching back to Feuerbach's philosophy--especially emphasizing the role that femininity would supposedly play in softening social contradictions. Kriege writes that, "We have no wish to lay hands on the private property of any man; what the usurer now has, let him keep; we merely wish to forestall the further pillaging." (CW, Vol. 6, 39) Marx and Engels and the other signatories of the Communist Correspondence Committee attacked this notion as replacing the necessity of class struggle with a sort of religious appeal to the rich to reform themselves--the "confusion of communism with communion." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 45)

Kriege's economic plan for communism supported the American National Reformers, a movement which principally demanded the provision of 160 acres of Western lands to any workingman, but also called for the abolition of slavery and the standing army, and a 10-hour working day. Marx criticized the agricultural aspects of this plan as merely postponing the inevitable development of class conflict in the United States, arguing that even if all the land were to be shared out on the basis of small private farms, population growth would soon make land scarce, and competition would revive.

But what really got Marx's goat was Kriege's conception of enlightened leaders and passive followers. Kriege writes, "[O]ur aim will be to unite mankind by love, our aim will be to teach men to work communally and enjoy communally until the long-promised kingdom of joy eventually comes about." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 47) If you remember Marx's third thesis on Feuerbach, where he answers the question of "who will educate the educator" by asserting the need for revolutionary practice, you will see why Marx objects so strongly to Kriege's formulations here.

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Just Plain Wrong

These essays on True Socialism demonstrate the power of the insights Marx and Engels achieved with their method of "materialist history" and their political strategy of proletarian revolution. But they also created some problems.

As we have seen above in the pamphlet On the Question of Free Trade, Marx insists that "Free Trade hastens the Social Revolution." This is far too categorical a statement. First, it leads him to see the "destructive" work of capitalism penetrating into new areas--for example, India, and the corresponding ruin of its social relations--as almost entirely positive, as it lays the basis for future workers struggles. Second, he seems almost entirely ignorant of how this "destruction" takes place in terms of the annihilation of indigenous peoples. Third, he ignores the potential democratic struggles for national self-determination that may arise in resistance to capitalism's offensive. Finally, he cannot yet imagine how capitalism can proceed "destructively" without simultaneously producing massive centers of proletarian resistance. In fact, it did so ingeniously for long periods, leaving only destruction.

Marx is so taken with one aspect of capitalism that he sees developing before his eyes--that is, the rapid creation of urban centers of proletarian resistance as a product of the development of capitalist industry in Northern Europe--that he expects it to spread evenly to all parts of the world. He has no idea of how contradictory that process will be. Hence, he is "[i]n this revolutionary sense alone...in favor Free Trade."

Engels underlines this error, writing approvingly of the French army's defeat of anti-colonial forces in Algeria:

Though the manner in which brutal soldiers have carried on the war is highly blamable, the conquest of Algeria is an important unfortunate fact of the progress of civilization...and if we may regret that the liberty of the Bedouins of the desert has been destroyed, we must not forget that the same Bedouins were a nation of robbers." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 471)

And in "The Events of 1847," he proclaims:

In America, we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it. It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in the future be placed under the tutelage of the United States. The evolution of the whole of America will profit by the fact that the United States, by the possession of California, obtains command of the Pacific. CW, Vol. 6, p. 527)

Since some people like to claim that Engels sometimes said foolish things, but Marx never did, it's worth pointing out that Marx signed off on a very similar claim in the "Circular Against Kriege," which champions the American Reform Association's claim to Western lands in the United States with no thought at all to the Native Americans then living on the vast majority of that territory. While he does not celebrate capital's victory, as Engels does in the case of Algeria and Mexico, Marx is either entirely ignorant of the centuries-long struggle against the white settlers or he does not consider it worthy of consideration.

At the same time, Marx and Engels were sympathetic to certain rebellions for national self-determination. In 1846, an uprising took place in Kraków, Poland against the domination of Tsarist Russia. Both Marx and Engels hailed this movement because, in Marx's words, it identified the "national cause with the democratic cause and the emancipation of the oppressed class."

In essence, Marx believed that, like in Ireland at the time, the rebellion, if successful, would sweep away foreign domination, so exposing the domination of the local ruling classes and opening up the possibility of a direct struggle between domestic oppressors and oppressed. (CW, Vol 6, p. 549) That neither he nor Engels could see the same potential in Algeria or Mexico or among Native Americans was, I think we have to say, based on ignorance of the forces involved and a teleological, even non-dialectical, enthusiasm for the supposedly creatively destructive work of capitalism.

Some people will naturally see these erroneous positions as evidence that Marx and Marxism are Eurocentric or even racist.

This is dead wrong, in my opinion. While Marx and Engels are way off base on these specific questions, it is not out of any allegiance to racial or cultural notions of superiority. Rather, they are badly overgeneralizing from what they see in front of them in northern Europe--and they do not yet know much, as 20-somethings, about the rest of the world. After all, Marx also supported free trade in Germany, even though it could only, in the short term, do nothing but entrench capitalist domination.

Marx and Engels were never indifferent to the suffering capitalism causes--far from it. They actively condemned it. Yet they can only imagine one way out of capitalism, and that is for everyone to be forced to first go all the way through it, and all the horrors it entails, and then overthrow it based on the social relations that modern industry will inevitably produce. They would soon realize that this model did not fit easily in all circumstances.

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Get Ready, Get Set...

Despite these very real problems in their writing, Marx and Engels soon took their radically new way of understand the world "Out of the tomes and into the streets!" to mash up Engels and an old ACT-UP chant.

The two exiles were not as well known in the political movements around Europe as either their friends or foes, but their radical journalism, their books on philosophy and economics, and their innumerable letters and personal discussions helped sharpen up the conception of the coming revolution for a growing layer of activists. And if their influence remained modest in London and Paris, they did win over a key layer of German working-class leaders in a group called the League of the Just. As Engels recounts:

We entertained no doubt that an organization within the German working class was necessary. If only for propaganda purposes...there already existed exactly such an organization in the shape of the League. What we previously objected to in this League was now relinquished as erroneous by the representatives of the League themselves; we were invited to cooperate in the work of reorganization. How could we say no? (CW, Vol. 26, p. 321)

It's hard to say exactly how many members made up the underground League and its affiliated German Workers Educational Societies, which operated publicly in Paris, London and Brussels. Probably there were no more than a couple hundred in the League and perhaps a few thousand in the affiliated Societies. Nonetheless, Marx and Engels' leadership in the League and their newly won control over a German-language newspaper gave them the biggest bully pulpit they enjoyed since Marx's Rheinische Zeitung newspaper was shut down by the German authorities in the fall of 1843.

The reorganization that Engels refers to had to do with the democratization of the League's statutes over the course of 1847, so that local organizations could elect and recall its central authority as well as the transformation of its political goals. For instance, before Marx and Engels joined the League, its opening statement proclaimed:

The League aims at the emancipation of humanity by spreading the theory of the community of property and its speediest possible practical introduction. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 586)

Under Marx and Engels' influence, this was reworked to read:

The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society which rests on the antagonism of classes, and the foundation of a new society without classes and without proper property. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 633)

Marx and Engels also demanded a name change as a precondition of their membership. And it was for this newly minted Communist League that Marx and Engels were commissioned to draft a statement of principles to popularize the organization's ideas and recruit new members. After suffering through several false starts, that essay became The Communist Manifesto. It will be the subject of my next column.

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The Manifesto itself is just 38 pages long. I suggest you tackle it all at once. Phil Gasper has edited an indispensable edition, with a treasure trove of supplemental writings--it's available from Haymarket Books. You might want to take a look at a previous column I wrote about the Manifesto's continuing relevance in the 21st century.