THE leader of the Communist Party of Germany, Ernst Thaelmann, who was murdered in 1944 by the nazis in the Buchenwald concentration camp, said in 1925 that anniversaries are for communists and the class-conscious “not vain commemoration days, but guidelines for class struggle, manuals for action.”
This is valid also for today. To honour Marx is to remind us of the most important thinker in the history of Europe, to study his ability to combine theory and practice.
Friedrich Engels, his close friend and comrade-in-arms, described this in 1883 in his speech at Marx’s grave.
“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history — the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc, that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned have been evolved and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.”
There were, naturally, materialist philosophers before Marx.
But he was the first to explain and demonstrate that the state, ideas or religious faith are not the driving forces of history but rather the dialectics of productive forces, of technology and man, and of production conditions, in juridical terms, the conditions of property.
It was in Brussels that Marx and Engels fleshed this out in their manuscript The German Ideology. It was a revolution in social science. For the first time the internal laws, which form a society, were formulated.
But Marx also discovered the law of motion of the capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois society it produced — surplus value and the economical mechanism of exploitation.
The purchase of labour force by an owner of capital is the base of this society of private property of the means of production, because the labour force produces more than the expense needed to buy it.
This fact is not fading away just because many people ignore it. The same goes for the class that possesses only its labour force or a little more.
It is still there and the counterpart to the class of owners of the means of production.
Marx studied intensively the development of sciences, of technology.
Today we are in a new industrial revolution, based on a scientific and technological revolution.
The internet and social media are not the core of this revolution, they are precursors of a revolution in the production processes itself.
A philosopher in Germany calls it the revolution of the tools of thinking after the revolution of the tools of instruments, which we had in the previous 250 years.
Since around 1900, chemistry and electrical industry, and later car production, have been the leading branches.
We don’t know if there will be a similar development in the future or if we shall have a similar increase of productivity.
But it is certain that the struggle has begun to dominate this field of new technology — in the US, the EU and China. Around 1900 the technological base of monopoly capitalism, of imperialism, came into being.
Today we face new forms of social production in private ownership. That means the technological revolution will be used to harm the working class by reducing wages and increasing poverty. Another direction of development is possible only in another society, a socialist one.
This perspective is unchanged. Engels said in his speech pf 1883: “Marx was above all else a revolutionist.
“His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element.”
Pavel Annenkov, a Russian revolutionary who visited Marx in Brussels in 1845 or 1846, wrote years later that Marx followed his aim with “energy, power of will and rigid conviction.” A fascinating person for his contemporaries.
Philosophy, economy, class struggle and politics were for Marx a unity.
Lenin wrote in 1913, 30 years after the death of Marx, that these were the “three sources and three ingredients of Marxism.”
Theory without practice is foolish, practice without theory is blind, eyeless.
Besides, Marx was together with Martin Luther and Johann Wolfgang Goethe one of the best writers in the German language.
Many notions of his are now common parlance, like the famous first words of the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
From his youth Marx was looking for an answer to the question, under which conditions can human beings live freely — as far as labour and nature allow?
His answer was that there cannot be freedom for the working class under capitalism. I want to demonstrate this with an example. It’s about the causes of war in capitalist society.
We have to imagine Marx and Engels as they were born 200 years ago, when the impact of the Great French Revolution of 1789 still shook the continent.
It did so in a double respect. Nobody had forgotten the revolution, not the victorious kings and emperors who ruled the roost after the victory over the “monster” Napoleon I.
This was an epoch of restoration and counterrevolution, of repression and surveillance.
They had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
The same went for the ruled, the people.
They remained apparently silent, because they had suffered 25 years of nearly permanent war, raging from Lisbon to Moscow. Engels wrote in 1880 on the era of enlightenment before the revolution of 1789: “The promised eternal peace was turned into an endless war of conquest.”
But on the other hand, after 1789 Europe had witnessed uprisings, rebellions and the first national war of partisans, the “little war,” the guerilla.
Germany saw the biggest mass unrest since the peasants’ war 300 years earlier. And like a thunderclap came the revolution of slaves in the richest French colony, Saint Domingue, today’s Haiti.
The revolution reclaimed the human rights of all people. It was a unique successful slave uprising in world history.
It foreshadowed the broader liberation of the oppressed after the next great revolution in Russia in 1917 and after World War II in the liberation wars of the colonial and oppressed peoples of Africa, Asia and South America.
This period after 1815 is similar to the time we have lived in since 1990. The progressive movements are internally suppressed. And there’s a second similarity — war remained a part of this social “order.”
The French invasion of Algeria, the so called Opium Wars of Britain, the wars in South America are subjects of many writings by Marx and Engels.
China lost its leading position in Asia and as the world’s leading exporter of high technology for 150 years, only regaining this in the current epoch.
The European counterrevolutionary wars of tsarist Russia, the atrocities of Britain in India and in Ireland, the “blood and iron” politics of Prussia showed that capitalism and war are two sides of the same coin.
capitalism and war are two sides of the same coin
In 1853 Marx wrote in the New York Daily Tribune, where he published more than 500 articles in 10 years as London correspondent: “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”
One could say almost the same in 2018 about Nato and the EU, repeating Marx’s 1859 denunciation of “the great lie.” “Si vis pacem, para bellum — if you want peace, prepare for war.”
So begins in Europe “every one of those wars of civilisation which belong with their frivolous barbarism to the best times of robber barons, which, however, with their perfidiousness are exclusively part of the modern period of the imperialist bourgeoisie.”
Right now we witness the “perfidiousness of the imperialist bourgeoisie” — there is a risk of nuclear war.
The demand made by Marx in the article I quoted above is more urgent today than in his time. “The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world — on the one hand universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind, and the means of that intercourse, on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man and the transformation of material production into a scientific domination of natural agencies.
“Bourgeois industry and commerce create these material conditions of a new world in the same way as geological revolutions have created the surface of the Earth.
“When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, only then will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”
Marx knew what capitalism means. He could not know that it would become a danger for the existence of all human beings. His conclusion in this text, to master the results of the bourgeois epoch in a new society, describes the only chance for mankind.
Arnold Scholzel is a former editor of the German newspaper Junge Welt.
Taken from the Morning Star's Marx200 special issue, celebrating 200 years since Karl Marx's birth and looking at the tremendous legacy of Marxism https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/philosopher-economist-revolutionist-being-date-marx