Theory and Event 4 Marx and Engels 1848

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Theory and Event 4

Marx and Engels 1848

This week and the next are devoted to the political thinking of Karl Marx. While in universities it is customary to discuss Marx mainly in terms of his political economic or historical theories in other words his sociology of class exploitation and class struggle, in fact Marx mentions in a letter that he was not the originator of the idea of the class struggle but that it was discussed by theorists who came before him.

What we would like to do in this series of seminars is to connect Marx’s thought to the popular struggles of his time. In particular it must also be borne in mind that Marx along with his friend Engels (who incidentally kept him alive, Marx’s life was one of poverty and struggle to keep himself and his family going under very difficult material circumstances) followed the struggles of his time very closely and was directly involved in setting up The International Working-Men’s Association which was expressly designed to give content to his view that workingmen have no country.

Marx and Engels were both convinced that those whom they refer to as ‘the modern proletariat’ held the capacity through their struggles for emancipation against exploitation by capital to free the whole of humanity (nb) from exploitative relations. Marx never refers to a ‘socialist’ future which would be in the interests of workers alone (as is constantly referred to by today’s Marxists) but stressed the need for universal emancipation. Yet at the same time Marx confronts a difficulty in that he links a social interest (that of the working class or classes) with a universal conception of freedom for all of humanity. In this he was probably influenced by the experiences of his time where in Europe generally, 1848 saw the development of mass insurrections by workers and other classes against oppression. Even in England a country where (unlike France say during the revolution and in 1830) workers did not have a revolutionary tradition, the Chartist movement had engaged in mass agitation at the time.

Engels in his introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France – which refers precisely to the period of 1848 – mentions that in their journalistic writings of the time for the German publication which Marx edited The Neue Rheinische Zeitung they developed this new approach of interpreting “political events of the day” both historically and in terms of “economic causes in the last resort”. Marx’s writings of this period then refer both to the working class as a politico-historical subject in that it must save humanity from capitalist exploitation and expression and to how the events of the day can be understood historically in terms of class struggle.

Rather than give you the Class Struggles in France to read (which is probably best read in conjunction with his other 2 major historical writings on the country) which is replete with references to obscure organisations, I thought it more fun to read Fred Engels’ Peasant War in Germany, which although it refers to the early 16th century is more interesting because it refers to a major peasant rebellion during the time of the Reformation in Europe, i.e. the struggle against both the feudal nobility and the catholic church by ordinary people. It is also very critical of Luther as a representative of the rising bourgeoisie. Written in 1850 the text is full of references to 1848 (the ‘modern proletariat’) and to class struggle and betrayal by the bourgeoisie etc…. It is therefore very much an example of Marx’s and Engels’ method as outlined by Engels above.

In addition I think we should also (re-)read the Manifesto of the Communist Party written by both Marx and Engels. This is a classic text and probably one of the core texts of human emancipation. It must of course be judged within the context of its time. For example, there were no political parties of the kind we know today at the time when it was written (1847 – note incidentally that the language in which emancipation is being thought here is not the language of 1789, 1791 or 1804). The Manifesto stresses that “Communists” (which is what Marx and Engels called themselves, nothing resembling the contemporary parties of that name) “do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties” for example. Modern political parties develop much later at the end of the 19th century. Marx does not develop a theory of emancipatory politics, for him politics is connected to history (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), but arguably the closest he comes to outlining one is in this text. We shall see next week that in some important ways this is modified in 1871 after the Experience of the Paris Commune (see the 1872 Preface by Engels).

Enjoy your reading!

Engels Peasant war in Germany

Marx and Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party
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