By vocation, Marx was not an economist, or a philosopher, or a sociologist. He was a revolutionary who, being deprived of the opportunity of participating in revolutions in the years after 1848, turned to the detailed analysis of the economic system he wanted to overthrow. Marx never ceased to stress the liberating quality of practical activity; but he himself was compelled by the circumstances of his time to devote most of his life to theoretical work.
Marx was thirty-one years old when he began, in 1849, an English exile which only ended with his death, nearly thirty-five years later. By the time he settled in London, he had already fashioned the new outlook which came, though not by him, to be called Marxism. In the previous half-dozen years, he had freed himself from the constrictions of the Hegelian philosophy he had learnt at the University of Berlin; in Paris, then the home of European socialism, he had assimilated the French revolutionary thought and experience of the previous fifty years; and he had also dug deep into English political economy: the work which he, with the help of Friedrich Engels, two years his junior, did in those few years, already includes all the main moral, economic, and political themes of his system; the Communist Manifesto of 1848 is, in effect, the culmination, the summation of an intellectual effort which must rank as one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of ideas.
In the two decades following the defeat of 1848, Marx’s main intellectual work was his attempt, as he describes it in the Preface to Volume I of Capital, published in 1867, to “lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” From the foundation of the First International in 1864 until its virtual demise in 1872, Marx was also its leading figure, and it was in its name that he wrote, in 1871, his glowing tribute to the defeated Paris Commune and its tens of thousands of slaughtered defenders.
In all these years in England, Marx and the incomparable Jenny Marx and their children had endured the most bitter poverty, relieved only by Marx’s occasional journalism and by Engels’s unfailing help. By the early seventies, life had become easier; but Marx was plagued by ill-health, and he had, it would seem, lost the capacity for sustained writing. A mass of work which he had planned or started remained uncompleted, notably Volumes II and III of Capital, which Engels put together after Marx’s death.
Engels, who survived him by twelve years, witnessed the rising tide of Marxian influence; Marx just missed it. All his life, he was a leader without a movement, a teacher with few disciples, quite unknown outside a narrow circle of socialists, most of whom were opposed to him anyway. In his own lifetime, there were probably fewer people who, in the whole wide world, thought of themselves as “Marxists” than are to be found today in Paris or Rome.
On the one hand, there is the Marxism of Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, and other Marxists. On the other, there is Marx’s thought and work. The relation between Marx and Marxism is an interesting question, which has caused much ink to flow, and a lot of blood as well. But Marx, in any case, is not Engels, or Trotsky, or Mao Tse-tung, and there is certainly more than a hyphen which separates Marx from Leninism. In any case, later Marxism must be judged on its merits rather than with reference to Marx, the more so as he can, more or less plausibly, be quoted in support of many divergent positions. At the same time, it may at least be possible to distinguish certain fundamental elements which lie at the core of his thought: whatever else authentic Marxism may be deemed to include, it needs to include these.
First of all, there is a certain way of looking at the world: Marx’s first concern is with the material, concrete reality which lies hidden, as he believes, behind the religions, the ideologies, the moralities, which men create for themselves and for others out of ignorance, fear, or design. Marx’s method, adapted from Hegel, is the dialectical method, or the search for the contradictory features of reality, the awareness of the manysidedness of life and events, the consciousness of movement, conflict, change, impermanence—a method appropriate to a man who told his daughter that his “favorite motto” was “Doubt all things.”
Marx’s dialectics must be clearly distinguished from the system known, though not to Marx, as “dialectical materialism.” This is the dialectics which Engels describes as “the science of the general laws of motion and development of Nature, human society and thought.” Marx does not use dialectics in this sense; nor, unlike his followers, did he make any universal claims for his work.
The reality which needs to be uncovered, Marx holds, has above all to do with men’s material existence, with their economic life. At the beginning, there is neither the word, nor even the deed, but hunger and need. In their struggle for existence, men enter into certain relationships with each other. For most of history down to the present, these relations have had as their main characteristic the domination of the few over the many, of slave-owner over slave, of feudal lord over serf, of capitalist over wage-earner, the few appropriating the largest possible part of that which the many produce. Modes of exploitation have varied from epoch to epoch—but exploitation itself has endured. Reforms within a system of exploitation are possible, but do not affect its character as a system of exploitation. This can only be done on the basis of the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production.
Class domination and class conflict are two sides of the same coin. Now acute and violent, now latent and subdued, class conflict is the driving force of history, the way in which men make their history; its extreme manifestation is revolution. In class conflict, the state is not neutral. On the contrary, its principal purpose is to offer protection to the economically and socially dominant class. Nor does that class only seek to protect itself by physical force; it also relies on its control of the “mental means of production” and upon the socially soporific influence of ideologies of resignation and accommodation, of which religion is only one expression.
Marx was a remarkably flexible thinker, save in one respect—his absolute certainty that capitalism was no more permanent than the social systems which had gone before it. Its supersession, he said, was not only desirable but inevitable, above all because there lay at its heart a “contradiction” which could only be resolved by its abolition; with the development of capitalism, “the monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”
Marx did not exclude the possibility that the proletarian revolution he announced might be peaceful, but it is quite clear that he expected it to be violent. It is equally clear that revolution, for him, is above all the business of the class-conscious proletariat, whose dictatorship it installs. The “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in Marx, is not the rule of an elite or a party on behalf of the people: it is rule by the people, their actual running of society. The model depends upon the existence of the class-conscious proletariat as a dominant force: in the absence of such a force, it undergoes fundamental modifications.
The abolition of capitalism does not usher in the “truly human” society; it only makes it possible. As for the character of that truly human, classless, society, Marx consistently refused to speculate on it: it is for those who will make that society to define its features. But the vision which underlies his whole work, from the early 1840s to the end, is the vision of human liberation, of which material fulfilment is the condition but not the sum. Ultimately, this is what Marx, the mature Marx as well as the “young Marx,” is about—life against existence.
There are many loose threads in Marx’s work: his economic analysis, his theory of capitalist crisis, his theory of the state and of classes, his model of social change, the relation between “material base” and “superstructure,” in brief, all the most important aspects of his work yield large questions rather than neat solutions. This, however, is not Marx’s weakness but his strength, save to religious minds. For the questions to which he compels attention, and which his work illuminates, are at least as relevant now as when he asked them; and so is the challenge he poses.
The Victorian era was a great era for explorers. Marx was the greatest and boldest of them all. No one has so far provided a better point of entry into the jungle of social analysis. But having entered, those who follow him are on their own, and must make their own way.