Lecture two: Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century

Part 1


This is the first part of the lecture “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century” delivered by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the second lecture that was given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century,” also by David North, was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1.

The triumph of Marxism

The growth of the European socialist movement and of the influence of Marxism on the working class during the last three decades of the nineteenth century are among the most extraordinary political and intellectual phenomena in world history. In late 1849 Marx and then Engels arrived in England as political refugees. During the next two decades Marx conducted his theoretical research into the laws of motion of capitalist society under the most difficult personal circumstances. We are provided a sense of what Marx endured in a letter that he wrote to Engels on January 8, 1863:

“The devil alone knows why nothing but ill-luck should dog everyone in our circle just now. I no longer know which way to turn either. My attempts to raise money in France and Germany have come to naught, and it might, of course, have been foreseen that £15 couldn’t help stem the avalanche for more than a couple of weeks. Aside from the fact that no one will let us have anything on credit—save for the butcher and baker, which will also cease at the end of this week—I am being dunned for the school fees, the rent, and by the whole gang of them. Those who got a few pounds on account cunningly pocketed them, only to fall upon me with redoubled vigor. On top of that, the children have no clothes or shoes in which to go out. In short, all hell is let loose...

“It is dreadfully selfish of me to tell you about these horreurs at this time. But it’s a homeopathic remedy. One calamity is a distraction from the other. And, in the final count, what else can I do? In the whole of London there’s not a single person to whom I can so much as speak my mind, and in my own home I play the silent stoic to counterbalance the outbursts from the other side. It’s becoming virtually impossible to work under such circumstances.”[1]

Just three days before this letter was written, Marx had completed the drafting of the main body of his monumental three-volume Theories of Surplus Value, an essential prologue to the writing of Capital, which he finished in August 1867.

Within 25 years of the completion of Capital, a work whose publication went virtually unnoticed by bourgeois economists of the day, Marxism had provided the theoretical inspiration and guidance for the growth of the first mass party in Europe. That this triumph occurred in Germany was not an accident. Marxism first found a mass audience within the working class of the country in which cultural and intellectual life had achieved a level of almost unimaginable brilliance during the era of the Aufklärung (Enlightenment).

The vast heritage of classical German philosophical idealism—represented most profoundly by Kant, Fichte and, above all, Hegel—passed in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution through Marx and Engels into the working class. Indeed, Marx had foreseen the extraordinary role that philosophy—shorn of all idealist trappings, critically reworked on a materialist basis, rooted in nature and directed toward the study of the economic foundations of human society—was to play in the liberation of the German working class. He wrote in 1843:

“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. [2]

“As philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapons in philosophy... The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of the human being. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy cannot be made a reality without the abolition of the proletariat; the proletariat cannot be abolished without philosophy being made a reality.” [3]

This passage was written just as Marx was embarking upon his critique of Hegel’s idealist philosophy. The extraction of the rational core of Hegel’s idealist system—that is, the reworking of the dialectic of categories and concepts, conceived by Hegel as the self-alienation and reconstruction of the Absolute Idea, on a materialist basis—constituted a theoretical-intellectual achievement of the greatest magnitude. However, the transcendence of Hegelianism could not be achieved with a critique that remained within the confines of speculative thought. Before Marx, the German philosopher Feuerbach had already laid the foundation for a materialist critique of Hegelianism. But the strength of Feuerbach’s criticism was limited by the predominantly naturalistic and mechanical character of his materialism. “Man” as conceived philosophically by Feuerbach lived in nature, but not in history. Such an ahistorical being lacked all social concreteness.

Thus, while insisting on the primacy of matter over thought, Feuerbach could not, on this basis, account for the complexity and diversity of the forms of human consciousness. In particular, he was unable to provide an explanation for changes in consciousness as manifested in the course of mankind’s historical development.

The Europe and Germany in which Hegel was born in 1770 and Feuerbach in 1804 were transformed by the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. But how were such events to be explained? Were they simply the product of the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity? And even if one were to acknowledge the power of these ideals, from whence did they arrive? The answer given by Hegel—that these ideals arose as logically-determined moments in the self-alienation of the Absolute Idea—was all too inadequate as an explanation of concrete historical processes. Only on the basis of a study of the history of man as a social being did it become possible to derive, on a materialist basis, the origins and development of social consciousness.

The essential elements of the materialistic conception of history were developed by Marx and Engels in the course of three extraordinary years—between 1844 and 1847. During that time they wrote the Holy Family, The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, and, finally, The Communist Manifesto. During the next 20 years, Marx’s study of political economy, resulting in the writing of Capital, provided the theoretical substantiation of both the dialectical method of analysis and the materialist conception of history. In 1859, by which time Marx’s work on political economy had reached a very advanced stage, he summarized the “guiding principle” of his theoretical work as follows:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Thus begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks of himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions in material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.” [4]

Even after nearly 150 years, the penetrating force of the ontological and epistemological principles advanced in this passage is overwhelming. How petty, intellectually immature and, to be blunt, stupid the cynical postulates of post-modernism appear when read alongside Marx’s elaboration of the driving force of history and the foundation of human social consciousness in all its complex forms. Like that other staggering achievement of 1859, Darwin’s Origins of the Species, the theoretical conceptions advanced by Marx in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy marked a critical milestone in the intellectual development of mankind. Indeed, there exists a profound internal connection between the two works. It is not simply that with these works Marx forever transformed the study of history and Darwin the study of biology and anthropology.

That is, of course, true, and that is no small achievement. But these works are more than that. By 1859, in the work of Darwin and Marx, the human species had finally arrived at the point when it became able to comprehend the law-governed processes of its own biological and socio-economic development. The intellectual prerequisites had now emerged for man’s conscious intervention in the heretofore unconscious processes of his own biological and social evolution.

To be continued

[1] Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 41 (New York: International Publishers, 1985), p. 442.
[2] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), p. 182.
[3] Ibid, p. 187.
[4] Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Collected Works, Volume 29 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), p. 263.