Marx and the Silesian strikers

October 3, 2012

When a revolt of textile workers broke out in his native Germany in 1844, Karl Marx took their side--and began to identify a social force that could create a new society.

IN THE 1844 Manuscripts, which I reviewed in my last column, Marx for the first time identifies himself as a communist and argues that free-market competition will give rise to capitalist monopoly and crisis on the one hand, and misery and alienation for the working class on the other.

Further, he extracts from Hegel's idealist philosophy the notion that the motor force of history is "the dialectic of negativity"--or, we could say, that change comes about through conflict and transformation. Marx takes this idea and begins to apply it to how things work in the material world of people, social classes and state power.

Just as Marx was finishing this project, an uprising of textile workers in Silesia, Germany, took place in June of 1844. While the strike was small by French or English standards of the time, it represented the first serious collective action by workers inside Germany protesting against the social and working conditions imposed on them by the new system of factory production.

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.

The workers smashed machines and even demolished several of their bosses' mansions. The King of Prussia sent in soldiers, who fired into the crowd, killing at least 11 workers and injuring many more.

Marx championed this revolt and was shocked when some of his former friends from radical philosophical circles in Germany downplayed or ignored it. This difference of opinion, plus a lack of money, led to the early demise of Marx's attempt to set up a radical exile publication in France. But it did confirm Marx's belief that capitalism and the industrial system it created would inevitably come to Germany--and that system, in turn, would create a proletariat, a class that Marx hoped would lead a revolution of a new type in Germany.

WHEREAS ARNOLD Ruge, Marx's one-time close friend and publishing partner, saw in the strike only poverty and desperation--pathetic servants with no social power--Marx saw life breathed into the theoretical sketches he had laid out in an essay about six months before called Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. In this essay, he wrote:

Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation? Answer: In the formation of a class with radical chains...This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat. (p. 186, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 3. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975)

Ruge hoped that the desperate uprising of the textile workers would force the German middle classes and state bureaucracy to create democratic reform from above, but Marx saw in the strike itself a whole new form of social struggle from below.

Responding to Ruge in a German émigré journal--in a piece called Critical Marginal Notes on the Article: "The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian"--Marx writes, "the proletarian proclaims its opposition to the society of private property. This Silesian uprising begins precisely with what the French and English workers uprisings ended, with the consciousness of the nature of the proletariat." (p. 201, CW, Vol. 3)

Here, Marx begins to develop the distinction between a political revolution and what he calls a social revolution--and the closely related concepts of "political consciousness" and "class consciousness." The former merely changes, or seeks to change, particular political relations within the capitalist framework (or perhaps within a feudal framework), while the latter overturns, or seeks to overturn, that framework altogether. Marx continues, referring to strikes in Lyons, France, in 1831 and 1834:

The Lyons workers believe they were pursuing only political aims, that they were soldiers of the Republic, whereas actually they were soldiers of socialism. Thus, their political understanding concealed from them the roots of social distress. Thus, it falsified their insight into their real aim, thus their political understanding deceived their social instinct. (p. 204, CW, Vol. 3)

When Marx says the workers believed they were soldiers of the Republic, he is referring to their belief that they were fighting for political democracy, for civil rights, under the capitalist system--or, as it was called in France, the Republic (as opposed to the monarchy). In fact, Marx argued, their "real aim" was the abolition of the political state based on the capitalist system and the formation of a new social system based on their cooperative labor.

Referring back to his conception in the 1844 Manuscripts of communal labor being the core of human nature--or, as he called it, man's "species-being"--Marx makes a further assertion about the importance of working-class struggle. For Marx, working-class struggle brings into question the whole nature of capitalist society:

[H]uman nature is the true community of man. The disastrous isolation from their [the workers'] essential nature is incomparably more universal, more intolerable, more dreadful and more contradictory than isolation from the political community. Hence, too, the abolition of this isolation--and even a partial reaction to it, an uprising against it--is just as much more infinite as man is more infinite than the citizen, and human nature more infinite then political life. Therefore, however partial the uprising of the industrial workers may be, it contains within itself a universal soul; however universal a political uprising may be, it conceals even in its most grandiose form a narrow-minded spirit. (pp. 204-205, CW, Vol. 3)

LET'S PUT these quotes together and see what Marx has come up with.

Capitalism has produced a "class with radical chains"--that is, a class that does not control any of the economic or political bastions of power. Its only strength is in its numbers and its ability to collectively, not individually, take over the means of production, thereby wiping out private ownership.

Previous social revolutions--and here, Marx was mostly thinking of the French Revolution of 1789--saw one sort of elite, the feudal landowners and royal bureaucracy, overthrown by a new sort of elite, the bourgeoisie. Once in power, they remade the economy to their liking. There were many changes in the forms of oppression and exploitation for the vast majority who stayed on the bottom, but society remained, as it had before, divided into haves and have-nots.

In other words, once the bourgeoisie threw off the chains by which the King had kept them subordinate, they used their control of private property to reshape the chains on those below them. Marx argues that there is no social class below the proletariat, and it can only come to power by socializing private property, thereby eliminating the principal means of exploitation of one class by another.

Whereas before the Silesian strike, Marx had only considered this proposition in abstract terms, he now thought he saw it coming to life among the textile workers. The workers in the earlier strikes in Lyons were still caught in the spell of trying to improve the old French Republic, he believed--essentially trying to make the bourgeoisie treat them more fairly by granting them rights and better working conditions, which is why Marx described them as thinking of themselves as "soldiers of the Republic." But the Silesian strikers had already gained the "consciousness of the nature of the proletariat" and aimed to dissolve private property in Germany--they were "soldiers of Socialism."

Marx then tacitly modifies what he surely must have realized was an exaggeration on his part about the strikers' immediate aims (and anyone who has ever overdone it with a bit of rhetorical flourish can forgive him this). More perceptively, he contends that even "a partial reaction, an uprising" against private property--and the rigid isolation it imposes on workers from their "essential nature"--carries with it a "universal soul."

For "isolation," substitute his discussion of alienation discussed in my last column, and you can see how Marx is fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. In other words, the very form of working-class struggle tends toward unity, solidarity, the overcoming of isolation. It points toward the universal, toward the reunification of humanity with its species-being.

Very exciting, no? But is there any basis to it? Weren't the Silesian strikers just impoverished slobs who took a beating from the cops, licked their wounds and got driven back to work in defeat?

Fortunately, the recent strike by the Chicago Teachers Union gives us excellent grounds for testing Marx's proposition. The teachers certainly didn't end capitalism in Illinois, but you would have to be as blind as a bat--apologies to any bat enthusiasts--to miss the elements that Marx identified way back in the summer of 1844 bubbling up among the pickets, mass marches and meetings of teachers, parents, students and their supporters.

The strike began to forge a powerful unity among the teachers themselves, who, after all, spend most of their day in their own classrooms, isolated from their co-workers. Black, Latino, Asian and white; young and old; immigrant and native-born; men and women; gay and straight--all teachers found a common strength against the corporate reformers, the politicians and the would-be King of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel.

Not to stretch the point too far, but Marx might say that the Chicago Teachers Union articulated the universal hopes of Chicago's working class for nine hard-fought days on strike.

The union's main slogan--"Fighting for the schools our children deserve"--rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of billionaires like Bill Gates who blather on and on about how to fix our schools by blaming teachers. But it also raised the question of what sort of world our children deserve. Not what sort of world we can afford to give them under the current system, but what they deserve as human beings. This dynamic is why Marx saw such revolutionary potential in working-class struggle.

WHILE THIS is an important insight for Marx, it also carries with it the danger of dismissing the importance of what he calls political struggles--or what we might today refer to as partial struggles, or struggles for immediate reforms. After all, the Chicago teachers didn't win on every question--they were even forced to accept some concessions.

In a previous essay, "On the Jewish Question," Marx had emphasized the other side of the relationship between reform and revolution, criticizing Bruno Bauer for denigrating the importance of fighting for civil liberties for Jews even within the framework of the German state, which upheld Christianity as its official religion.

Marx was wrestling with how to reconcile the need to revolutionize society and get rid of capitalism (the root of all evil) while at the same time fighting against aspects of oppression and exploitation (specific evils) before a social revolution takes place. Anyone who has worked to build a union, get a killer cop convicted or defend abortion rights and who, at the same time, believes that we need to completely transform the entire world will recognize this dilemma.

Turning to the relationship between intellectuals (or philosophers) and the working class, the Silesian strike forced Marx to reconsider the division of labor he had envisioned previously when he wrote, "The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat."

In the wake of the Silesian strike, Marx changed his tune, writing, "the German proletariat is the theoretician of the European proletariat, just as the English proletariat is its economist, and the French proletariat its politician." (p. 202, CW, Vol. 3) This is the first passage where Marx ascribes to the working class--or at least a part of it--the ability not only to act, but to think and create knowledge for itself. Although relying on extremely generalized, so-called national characteristics of different European working classes, Marx nonetheless broke down for the first time the divide between the mental and manual labor of revolution itself, if only in a partially thought-out manner.

He connects the dots between the rise of the working class as an economic entity, the necessity of socialism in order to overcome the injustices of capitalism, and revolution being the only means to establish a new society. The links between these three concepts would, in many ways, guide Marx's thinking for the rest of his life.

Before leaving behind the episode of the Silesian strike and Marx's commentary on it, it is worth pointing out that Marx radically telescoped the development of the working-class movement in Germany and seems to have expected a very rapid resolution of this conflict.

This can perhaps be explained by Marx's adoption of the attitude of political partisan and his growing hostility to the world of what he called "critical criticism." In other words, like almost everyone who has ever become a revolutionary, he mistook his newfound enthusiasm for the Silesian strike with a realistic appraisal of the social forces at play and their level of development and organization.

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci later warned revolutionaries that they must balance "optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect." This is easier said than done, and Marx clearly overdid it in the case of the Silesian strike. But his attitude can also be explained by his anger at former radical colleagues who turned their backs on a concrete political struggle when it emerged. Mocking Ruge, Marx writes scornfully, "Confronted with the first outbreak of the Silesian workers uprising, the sole task of one who thinks and loves truth consisted not in playing the role of schoolmaster, but instead of studying its specific character." (p. 202, CW, Vol. 3)

Some weeks later, in a letter to Ludwig Feuerbach, Marx's favorite philosopher at the time, he criticizes his former Young Hegelian friends and his former mentor Bruno Bauer, saying, "These Berliners do not regard themselves as men who criticize, but critics who, incidentally, have the misfortune of being men." (p. 356, CW, Vol. 3)

This is not to say that Marx's abandoned his high regard for theoretical work. But he increasingly insisted that philosophical investigation and economic analysis had to be concretely linked to the real-life struggles of the working class. Just days before Marx sent his article on the Silesian strike to the printers, a new partner appeared who agreed wholeheartedly on this point.

His name was Frederick Engels.

NEXT TIME, we'll take a look at sections from the first jointly written work by Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, concentrating on parts that demonstrate why Marx and Engels felt it was so important to draw a line between themselves and their past associates--principally Bruno Bauer and his self-titled "critical criticism" philosophy. We'll also focus on how Marx began to use his dialectical method to understand the relationship between the economy, the class struggle, history and the production of human knowledge.

Read the following sections of The Holy Family for the next column: Forward, Chapter 2 (in which Engels ridicules the critical critics' ignorance of material history), Chapter 4, Part 4 (read the subsections called "Critical Comments 1 & 2," where Marx explains why the proletariat must abolish private property), Chapter 6, Part 1 (read subsection A, "Spirit" and "Mass"), Chapter 6, Part 3 (read subsections C, D and E, "Critical Battle Against the French Revolution," "Critical Battle Against French Materialism" and "The Final Defeat of Socialism"), Chapter 8, Part 4 (for a concise explanation of what's wrong with Hegel), and Chapter 9 (which is two pages of Marx just making a series of jokes at Bauer's expense).

All together, this is about 45 pages of reading. As I've said before, don't worry if you get lost in some places or don't get all the references and inside jokes. If this seems like a lot, just focus in on "Critical Comments 1 & 2" in Chapter 4, Part 4 (about seven pages). That's probably the clearest section of the whole book--and the heart of Marx and Engels' theory of revolution.

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