Marx at 200: reflections on his life and work

Fifty years ago, a huge conference called “Marx and Contemporary Scientific Thought” was held in Paris. Eric Hobsbawm recalls attending – and that by “sheer chance” the conference held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Marx’s birth would occur at the same time as the revolutionary movement of May 1968.[1][2] The conference dissolved into protests and among tear-gas, the older generation of Marxists like Hobsbawm joined a new generation of young workers and students for whom Marx was the thinker of the moment. The fresh excitement found in Marx was to be read out on a grand scale.

Yet that was Marx at 150 years, a long stretch from now, when fifty years later, at 200 Marx is yet to be recovered with the same passion and heat as in 1968. Rather, for the last couple of decades, commentators and social theorists have often considered themselves post-Marx. This situation is unfortunate; Marx has been pushed to the margins – renegaded as the exclusive territory for utopians and fanatics – since to live in our world means moving past Marx, to fresher insights, contemporary explorations for a contemporary world.

However, by way of intellectual biography, I contend Marx remains a thinker for the present. This is a stronger claim than it might appear. I think Marx must be seen not merely as the originator of a world view that provides an analysis of contemporary current affairs, economics, imperialism, etc., but as a thinker who remains alive. I see Marx as a modernist, who remains the decisive thinker in understanding the growth, decay and decline of the capitalist mode of production and the fundamental outline of its impact on social being. As mainstream party political orthodoxies collapse, and with economic depression and recession as permanent features of our lives, there is good reason to keep Marx himself in the picture.

Nevertheless, reflecting on Marx at 200 necessitates unshackling him from the mythology. First, it is often said that Marx claimed, late in his life as he increasingly attracted disciples and followers, not to be a Marxist.[3] He is also the focus of much recent biographical interest, as a thinker confined to the immediate context of nineteenth century life – that of Dickensian workhouses, colonial expansion and mass working class activity.[4]

These are two of the most authoritative versions of the Marx myth. First off, Marx the giant thinker: pure, empirical and untainted by political action, a great analyst but not corrupted by any “isms”. Then, Marx the dreamer: the historical figure, long eclipsed by a modern world and a post-USSR paradigm. The era of ideology is gone and history might as well have ended with it.

His followers have added to the mythology too, most notably by vain attempts to save Marx by way of ossification. Marx becomes the scientist and Marxism a science, not because it comprehends reality in thought, but because it is strongly believed to be true. Marx is represented by a list of his quotations, repeated as if true in every instance; true belief becomes a substitute for truth. All three myth-versions present a dead Marx – however, while some think this is good, some are yet to notice. For his friends as well as his foes, Marx can become a dead weight, but when the clichés are brushed aside, we might ask: how are we to understand Marx, 200 years after his birth and 151 since Capital?

The eternal image of Marx’s legacy, the place for pilgrimage and book cover designs, is his horrific tomb at Highgate Cemetery, north London, opened in 1956 and shortly after visited by Khrushchev, still surrounded by the smoke of Soviet tanks sent in to crush the workers uprising in Hungary. We see in this monument the Marx of myths: monolithic, obscene, vulgar and deified. For this reason, I follow Marshall Berman: to “confront” Marx in our world, we need to lower him to our own level, “the level on which we ourselves are trying to stand”.[5]

I will give a brief sketch of Marx’s life, the biographical detail that helps give a sense of the man behind the bust. The focus will not be Marx’s activism or the detail of his critique of political economy. Instead, like Walter Benjamin who constructed a whole conceptual image by a collage of fragments, I will present Marx’s life by the pivot point of four letters, providing the fabric of Marx’s life by his correspondence – via the polemics, personal updates and theoretical reflections found in his letters. Each marks a turning point and a chance to give some characterisation of the formation of his thought.

Hundreds of letters survive from Marx’s enormous correspondence: to his early intellectual influences, Ludwig Feuerbach and Moses Hess, to shonky publishers who didn’t pay up for his journalistic articles, one to Abraham Lincoln, very many to socialists worldwide; but the vast bulk are to Marx’s great friend and collaborator – Frederick Engels.

Letter 1

The first letter is to his father Heinrich in Trier. It’s from late 1837. Marx is studying law at Berlin University, after a short spell at Bonn University. At Bonn, his drinking and duelling, “tricks of swordsmanship”, had concerned his father and now, after a transfer to Berlin, Marx is at pains to demonstrate he has embraced a new lifestyle.[6] Marx’s letter to his father is fascinating; it’s a document of intellectual transition from a young man consumed with romantic poetry to the concerns of philosophy and society. Marx is 19. He is a man of his class and environment. His birthplace, Trier, right on the Prussian border with France, had enjoyed the progressively more liberal laws put in place by Napoleon’s Civil Code in the early part of the nineteenth century. His family lineage is Jewish, but his father, a successful lawyer, converts the family to Protestantism to avoid the career barriers placed on Jews.

Heinrich was, according to his granddaughter Eleanor, “a real Frenchman of the eighteenth-century who knew his Voltaire and Rousseau by heart” and was a member of the liberal Casino Club.[7] The Prussian authorities repressed the club repeatedly for its French sympathies – singing the songs of the French Revolution, support for parliamentary representation and the liberalisation of Prussia. Marx’s education reflects his father’s liberal inclinations.

This newfound mood came from the turning of the age, as the French Revolution ushered in a new epoch that decaying absolutist states could only for so long hold back. This turning point is understood by two of the most insightful thinkers of the post-revolutionary period, Hegel and Goethe, who together saw the new age as turbulent, conflict-ridden but modern.[8] Their response was the need to comprehend the world with a dialectical philosophy; this unfolding was the path to the realities of modern life.[9] In his Phenomenology of Spirit, completed as Napoleon entered Jena in 1806, Hegel writes:

Besides, it is not difficult to see that ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labour of its own transformation. Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward. But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth – there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born – so likewise the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms. The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change. The gradual crumbling that left unaltered the face of the whole is cut short by a sunburst which, in one flash, illuminates the features of the new world.[10]

The modern world was not made by incremental alteration but rather the human spirit enters the scene by a revolutionary leap – a flash – shaped by the common spirit of a new age unfolding, which finds meaning in its journey, never stopping to rest but acting relentlessly for the conscious shape of new truths in a decisively modern dynamic. Goethe’s Faust, finished in 1806, captures the same emergent pulse of this movement:

I feel a lift growing,

And warming in me like new wine.

I feel the nerve to broach the world now

And bear it all, earth’s joy, earth’s sorrow,

And be a swaggering fighter in the tempest

And in the splintering wreck stand fast. [462-67].[11]

One of his father’s colleagues, Ludwig von Westphalen, introduced Marx to Goethe’s poetry and the passions of the intellectual world, poets and thinkers alike, including the French socialist Saint-Simon.[12] The von Westphalens, from the lower rungs of the aristocracy, were neighbours of the Marxes.[13]

Ludwig’s mentoring had such an impact that Marx dedicated his 1841 doctoral thesis to him.[14] Marx also fell rapidly in love with his daughter, Jenny, and the two entered into a secret engagement. Jenny was Marx’s life-long companion but was not a passive bystander. She shared Marx’s “democratic convictions”,[15] and would attend political meetings and act as a research assistant – one of the exclusive few who could make out his handwriting. During this time, Marx wrote a large amount of low quality romantic poetry to Jenny. Floral and in the then fashionable Greco-style, his first decisive intellectual move was away from the ambition of a poet and to an engagement with philosophy. In the letter to his father, he describes this fundamental shift:

From the idealism which, by the way, I had compared and nourished with the idealism of Kant and Fichte, I arrived at the point of seeking the idea in reality itself. If previously the gods had dwelt above the earth, now they became its centre. I had read fragments of Hegel’s philosophy, the grotesque craggy melody of which did not appeal to me… My aim was no longer to practice tricks of swordsmanship, but to bring genuine pearls into the light of day.[16]

In love and confined to a sick bed, Marx describes here his crucial intellectual step. Hegel died in 1831 and his followers – both Left and Right – started to contest what was living or dead in the old man’s thought. Marx writes to his father:

While I was ill I got to know Hegel from beginning to end, together with most of his disciples. Through a number of meetings with friends in Stralow I came across a Doctors’ Club which includes some university lecturers… In controversy here, many conflicting views were expressed, and I became ever more firmly bound to the modern world philosophy from which I had thought to escape.[17]

The letter reveals a certain negligence towards his family, whom he seldom writes to; but we find a Marx in transition and aiming towards the pursuit of a career at the university. He attempts this with his doctoral thesis on Greek philosophy, but this path is quickly closed and Marx turns fully towards politics. His closest intellectual influence at this point is the Left Hegelians, especially Bruno Bauer, also involved in the Doctor’s Club.

The archaic Prussian state, absolutist and in terminal decline, held onto strict censorship laws. These laws targeted the publishing projects of the Left Hegelians, who saw critique as the immediate practice required against the Prussian state. In theoretical terms, the Left Hegelians aimed to save what they saw as the rational element of Hegel, his dialectical method, and distance Hegel’s thought from the Right Hegelians’ glorification of the Prussian state.[18]

During this period, however, Marx develops his own distinctive reading of Hegel, influenced by but distinct from that of Ludwig Feuerbach. Marx sees Hegel as imparting undue rationality in the operation of the modern state, elevating the bureaucracy and inverting the real relation between the state and civil society, seeing the former as subject and the latter as object.[19] In doing so, Marx suggests Hegel places the state before civil society, failing to see the abstract character of the subject. Marx sees the real relation as the other way around – that the state is grounded in the relations of civil society. Marx writes, “Hegel should not be blamed for describing the essence of the modern state as it is, but for identifying what is with the essence of the state”.[20] For Marx, Hegel’s positing of the state as the subject leads to a downplaying of the active citizen and failing to sufficiently justify the idea of the state, as observed in the more schematic sections towards the end of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

However, Marx’s commentary here is complicated because at the same time, he is coming to terms with his own social milieu and the controversies with the other Left Hegelians concerning the difference in political thought and political realities. Rather than settle with varying forms of religious critique, Marx argues that criticism needs practical application – it must become worldly.

For Marx, Germany lacked the social revolution of the French and in thinking through the struggle for political freedom, he becomes increasing concerned with the potential of human emancipation. He writes in 1843:

So where is the positive possibility of German emancipation?

This is our answer. In the formation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class [Stand] which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere which has a universal character because of its universal suffering and which lays claim to no particular right because the wrong it suffers is not a particular wrong but wrong in general; a sphere of society which can no longer lay claim to a historical title, but merely to a human one… This dissolution of society as a particular class is the proletariat… The proletariat is only beginning to appear in Germany as a result of the emergent industrial movement. For the proletariat is not formed by natural poverty but by artificially produced poverty… When the proletariat proclaims the dissolution of the existing world order, it is only declaring the secret of its own existence, for it is the actual dissolution of that order.[21]

Here Marx identifies the working class as a potential liberator, a universal class that can overcome the fragmentations of modern life. In this passage, for the first time, Marx takes the standpoint of the working class movement. In these early texts, Marx both defines his hostility to the modern state, but also provides the first definite statement of the need for political change well beyond state reform. Marx had written various articles on politics regarding property laws and censorship, but his 1843 writings are pivotal to his theoretical development. They document Marx’s conversion from a type of radical democratic position to a communist one. Marx isn’t the first to think about class or the division of labour, nor is it correct to say that Marx “discovers the working class”, as if no one else noticed the emergence of class – especially from 1789 onwards. Instead, Marx grounds his view in the way that class is a relation between people in society mediated by labour. This allows him to take the standpoint of labour but this is a development in thought, not a break or parting of ways with earlier thought. For instance, in Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right, the division of physical and mental labour is the basis of alienation. Human productive activity, the “universal activity and actuality” of subjects, is objectified and turned “into someone else’s property”.[22] Marx takes from Hegel the fundamental insight that the essence of modern society is the relations of private property, which creates contradictions between different groups in society and creates the ongoing separation of the worker from the products of their labour. This division of labour is a key concern for Hegel and this decisively modern condition provides the starting point for Marx’s further investigations. What Marx does is take the standpoint of the working class.

Marx’s attempt to understand this process of human estrangement from the products of human labouring activity is captured in his most important and creative work of this early period. In a series of notebooks, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, written while on honeymoon with Jenny in Paris, Marx outlines in fundamental form his concept of labour. For Marx, human beings are producing beings, what he calls Gattungswesen, in essence social, defined by the interaction of human labour in collective and historical settings. The 1844 writings are Marx’s first real attempt to understand and critique the most advanced bourgeois thought of his time, classical political economy, found in its most advanced form in Adam Smith and David Ricardo. This project becomes Marx’s life work and culminates in Capital. He writes in 1844, “political economy knows the worker only as a beast of burden”.[23] But to Marx, the worker is much more. Human labour, for Marx, is not simply “work”, it is defining to our essence as beings. We are human because of our ability to labour consciously and collectively. Capitalism is the historical form of society that most develops this ability to work collectively, but at the same time fragments and alienates it.

Marx’s concept of alienation is grounded in the relation between the capitalist and the worker, the “capitalist is always free to employ labour, and the worker is always forced to sell it”.[24] This dialectic of servitude and domination forces the worker to “sink to the level of a commodity” and through the productive processes that the worker is forced to enact, their humanity is objectified.[25] Workers are estranged from the human capacities, the social natures bound up in collective labouring activity and the worker is atomised into a producer that is defined by their ability to sell their productive activity for a wage. For Marx, this productive, species activity, the self-making of humans by their own activity, is where humans seek themselves as free beings. Capitalism estranges humans from the character and potential of their being by estranging humans from the products of their labour, the processes of production, our fellow workers (who now appear in competitive opposition), and from society at large. These interconnecting phenomena result from the act of production itself.[26] Human labour is something held over the worker and distorted from a creative act into something that bears the marks of domination.

This insight grounds all of Marx’s work. Marx’s 1844 writings are brilliant – they fuse a lyrical wit and insight with the dire realities of industrialism. The detail of these realities was observed by Engels in his Conditions of the Working Class in England. Engels visited Marx in Paris for 10 days during the early part of 1845. Here they penned their first co-written work – The Holy Family: Or Critique of Critical Criticism – although actually, Engels wrote just 12 pages.[27] It is an extended attack on their Left Hegelian foes, who were more interested in empty moralising and a critique of religion than coherent political activity or strategies to confront the state. More widely read than the Holy Family is the jointly written (although again mostly by Marx), German Ideology, another exhaustive exegesis of the Left Hegelians, though the first section is also remarkable for its elaboration of the “mode of production”. In this text Marx further elaborates his understanding of labour as productive activity essential to being, where human productive capacities are foundational to the composition of social life and consciousness.[28] This allows the conception of social forms in historical terms, as totalities that can be defined by the manner and character of productive relations.

Marx’s polemics with his competitors is a common theme in his life. His style of critique often places his own theoretical perspective against an opponent. When he had a lesser mind to pick apart, the reader is treated to the force of his literary power. An entire category of people exists who are forgotten to history save for their status as victims of Marx’s polemical fury.

At this time, Marx becomes involved in the workers’ movement in Paris. He attends meetings and incorporates into his own thinking the radical traditions present in French working class culture – the richest and deepest in Europe. This meant engaging with the widespread influence of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the socialist movement. The use and misuse of Proudhon by the Young Hegelians is parodied at length in the Holy Family,[29] but Marx’s attitude towards Proudhon sharpens further in the following year.

First, Marx invites Proudhon to participate in a newly established communist correspondence, hoping to establish by way of letters regular discussion of theory and tactics on internationalist terms. As Marx puts it, correspondence between the German, French and English socialists will “be a step made by the social movement in its literary manifestation to rid itself of the barriers of nationality. And when the moment for action comes, it will clearly be much to everyone’s advantage to be acquainted with the state of affairs abroad as well as at home”.[30] Proudhon refuses, objecting to Marx’s phrase “moment of action”. He writes back, “we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction”.[31]

Marx finds Proudhon’s adoption of Hegel’s terminology to be vacuous, confessing years later to being to “blame” since he had himself introduced Proudhon to Hegel in 1844.[32] Moreover, Marx sees Proudhon’s theoretical approach as barren. Proudhon’s use of Ricardo’s concept of value and empty Hegelian phrases are gestural, an attempt to borrow from the great thinkers without any effort to unify them into a systematic conceptual standpoint. This necessarily results in vulgarisation. This point, as well as Marx’s power of polemic, is captured in the foreword to The Poverty of Philosophy, itself a pun on Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty:

M. Proudhon has the misfortune of being peculiarly misunderstood in Europe. In France, he has the right to be a bad economist, because he is reputed to be a good German philosopher. In Germany, he has the right to be a bad philosopher, because he is reputed to be one of the ablest French economists. Being both German and economist at the same time, we desire to protest against this double error.[33]

In addition to being Marx’s first attempt at working out a theory of value,[34] The Poverty of Philosophy was a direct intervention into the socialist movement. By presenting “our views to the public”, Marx’s aim is not just theoretical, but also political.[35]

Letter 2

The next turning point can be seen in his letter to the editor of La Réforme on 6 March 1848. Marx had found himself yet again deported for his radical agitation (the first time from Paris in early 1845 due to his involvement in a radical paper called Vorwärts!) His letter is a public complaint about the arrest of himself and Jenny, and their deportation. The letter is dramatic, and alongside the arbitrary authority suffered by Marx and Jenny, there is a sense of the aura that surrounds a city on the brink of revolution:

At the present moment the Belgian government is aligning itself entirely with the policy of the Holy Alliance. Its reactionary fury falls on the German democrats with unprecedented brutality. Were we not too distressed by the persecution directed specifically against us, we would openly laugh at the ridiculous attitude assumed by the Rogier ministry when it accuses a few Germans of wishing to impose a republic on the Belgians against their wishes; but it so happens that, in the special case to which we refer, the hateful aspect of it outweighs the absurd.[36]

Brussels attracted many radical exiles, but its government was now in the process of unceremoniously expelling them. As the vice-president of the Brussels Democratic Association, Marx was an obvious candidate, having joined the Communist League just a few months before this letter.

After Brussels, Marx moved to Cologne where he established and edited the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. This was a period of intense and voluminous journalism, essentially linked to the League. For his efforts, Marx was put on trial in Cologne. His defence speech was a tour de force, damning the German bourgeoisie for being unwilling to lead their own revolution. The final issue of the paper was printed entirely in red ink, with a defiant clarion call addressed “To the Workers of Cologne”: “In bidding you farewell the editors of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung thank you for the sympathy you have shown them. Their last word everywhere and always will be: emancipation of the working class!”.[37] Stateless and a refugee, Marx is finally able to move to London in 1849.

As revolutions spread throughout Europe in 1848, Marx had engrossed himself in the practice of the revolutionary. The sublime product of this historical moment is The Communist Manifesto. This is Marx’s great contribution to the revolutionary tract. However, it came from a collaborative effort, commissioned and approved by the Communist League. Engels had initially titled a piece in Q&A format “Communist Confession of Faith”, but as he wrote to Marx in late November 1848, “I think we would do best to abandon the catechetical form and call the thing Communist Manifesto”.[38] Marx produced the finished document in rapid time, taking just a small amount from Engel’s text. When he presented the document for the League, the most enthusiastic response came from an old communist from the very early days of the German workers’ movement. After clapping enthusiastically, the man asked, “What does Marx mean by ‘Achtbalettler’ (plant with eight leaves)?” In the subsequent confusion it emerged that he had mistaken through Marx’s slight lisp and Rhenish dialect the word with Arbeiter (worker).[39]

The 23-page Manifesto remains in every sense a grand vision of politics. Marx declares the history of the world as one of class and class struggle. But he is a modernist. It is modern society that creates the greatest wonders and the greatest turmoil of human experience. The bourgeois age clears away the archaic garb of feudalism – the religious and political veils of hierarchy – and provides equality; however this is the equality of “naked self-interest”.[40] In a remarkable passage, Marx writes:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudice and options, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.[41]

Marx conceives of a two-sided development in the formation of bourgeois society that constantly reinvents itself – creating extraordinary wonders but inescapably based on gross accumulation, exploitation and all its trimmings: colonialism, poverty, oppression. However, as Marx argues, “the weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself”.[42]

Capitalism, as Marx famously declares, creates its own gravediggers. Marx in 1848, as in 1844, sees the workers’ movement as a movement for power in which the free development of human beings becomes a mutually shared and collective act.[43] To Marx, this is only possible under a post-capitalist society, brought about by the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”.[44]

Letter 3

Marx writes to Engels at 2 o’clock in the morning of 16 August 1867,

Dear Fred,

Have just finished correcting the last sheet (49th) of the book. The appendix – Form of Value – in small print, takes up 1¼ sheets. Preface ditto returned corrected yesterday. So, this volume is finished. I owe it to you alone that it was possible! Without your self-sacrifice for me I could not possibly have managed the immense labour demanded by the 3 volumes. I EMBRACE YOU, FULL OF THANKS!

Enclosed 2 sheets of corrected proofs.

The £15 received with best thanks.

Salut, my dear, valued friend.

Yours, K. Marx.[45]

So much about Marx’s relationship with Engels is encapsulated in these few lines. First we see that Engels supported Marx financially. It seems as if no letter Marx wrote to Engels was complete without a comment about money. The Marxes lived a precarious life, always on the threshold of poverty. It was tragic, riddled with infant deaths and significant hardships. All of Marx’s children died in terrible circumstances: two as infants not yet one year old; his son Edgar at eight; his daughter Jenny of cancer less than two months before his own death; and the other two daughters Eleanor and Laura (both dedicated militants, Eleanor especially was a serious organiser and translator) both by suicide. The Marxes always lived one step away from poverty. Frequently unable to pay his debts, Marx would be forced to pawn his books, coats and Jenny’s family heirlooms. On one occasion, the pawnbroker distrusted his dishevelled appearance to such an extent that he assumed that Jenny’s “von Westphalen” silver was stolen. Marx spent the night in the lockup. On another, Marx had to visit the pawnbroker before he could afford a coffin for Edgar’s tiny body. Marx noted that nobody had ever written so much on money who had so little.[46] Marx’s years in London are marked by frequent moves from house to house, depending on how much he could scrape together. When the situation improved, whether by some inheritance, a publishing deal, or more often Engels’ generous support, Marx tried to live a life of normality. The family would move to a more comfortable residence and even once organised a ball for their daughters. The extreme poverty that plagued Marx’s life also caused intense sickness. Along with the deaths of so many in his family, the last ten years of Marx’s life were devastated by bronchitis and large boils. His work was severely hindered by this condition.

However, Marx’s period in London was his most politically fruitful, marked by his involvement in the International Workingmen’s Association, known later as the First International. Unlike Marx’s previous political activities, the International was comprised not just of political exiles but included a loose collection of British trade union leaders and the various currents – “Marxist”, “Proudhonist” and “Bakuninist”.[47] As his correspondence evidences, especially his letters to Dr Kugelmann, during the 1860s Marx’s efforts are split between the International and preparing to write Capital. This feels like a necessary frustration for Marx, who writes to Kugelmann on 13 October 1866: “Since my penultimate letter to you I have suffered another series of relapses [of sickness] and have consequently only been able to pursue my theoretical work very intermittently. (The practical work for the International Association goes on as ever, and there is a lot of it, as I am in fact having to run the whole Association myself.)”[48] The collapse of the International after the Paris Commune allows Marx to rapidly put together his notes for the subsequent volumes of Capital under the twin pressures of sickness and poverty.

The 16 August letter to Engels exhibits in bold simplicity the special character of their shared intellectual project. Just as Marx finishes proofing the sheets to Capital, his life work – in the early morning – he must write to Engels. Not a moment could be missed between the two for such an accomplishment. In April 1851, Marx had written to Engels that he would be done with the “whole economic shit in five-weeks time”.[49] These five weeks turned into sixteen years.

The letter includes an update about a key theoretical part of the book – the appendix, which is incorporated into later editions as the last part of chapter 1 of the first volume, “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret”. This section is of vital importance to Marx’s theory of value. Soon after, he comments:

The best points in my book are: 1. (this is fundamental to all understanding of the FACTS) the two-fold character of labour according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange-value, which is brought out in the very First Chapter; 2. the treatment of surplus-value regardless of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc.[50]

The two-fold character of labour is the unity of concrete and abstract labour in the form of value apparent in a society defined by commodity production.[51] Concrete, useful labour is made abstract by the process of capitalist production into a quantifiable amount that can be exchanged and traded in a market of equal commodity owners, its quality falls aside to sheer quantity, as measured time. Labour is not a creative function but measured in the hours of the day sold to the capitalist and the basis for surplus value as profit. The quality of human labour used to create products of human need is negated by a system where exchange dominates the entire logic of human relationships. Marx sees capitalism as a system of social relations mediated by the products of labour.[52] Capital is objectified labour. As Marx notes in the Grundrisse, “[t]hrough the exchange with the worker, capital has appropriated labour itself; labour has become one of its moments, which now acts as a fructifying vitality upon its merely existent and hence dead objectivity”.[53]

Accordingly, the capitalist buys abstract labour as the objectified labour-time measured in the working day and the worker sells their living labour to the capitalist, who uses the concrete character of their activity to accrue value. Exchange socially mediates the relation between the concrete labour of the productive process and the abstract character of labour measured in homogeneous empty time.[54] The congealed abstract labour, measurable in terms of quantities (time and money) is thus objectified into the socially recognisable form of value.[55] Marx makes this clear:

Within the production process labour is transformed into capital. The activity of labour-power, i.e. labour, objectifies itself in the course of production and so becomes value. But since the labour has ceased to belong to the worker even before be starts to work, what objectified itself for him is alien labour and hence a value, capital, independent of his own labour-power. The product belongs to the capitalist and in the eyes of the worker it is as much a part of capital as the elements of production. On the other hand, an existing amount of value – money – becomes real capital only when, in the first place, it begins to realize itself, to become part of a process, and this it achieves when the activity of labour-power, namely labour, is incorporated in the production process and becomes its property. And secondly, it must yield surplus-value as distinct from its original value, and this in turn is again the product of the objectification of surplus labour.[56]

Marx’s value theory, which centres objectified labour in the creation of capital, brings out a crucial component of his analysis, the manner in which this social process mystifies real relations between human beings. He writes:

[T]he commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.[57]

This is a development of his early insight in 1844 that the products of human labour are held over human beings. Marx sees surplus value coming from the abstract, sellable quality of labour. So, when Marx speaks of “the secret” of the commodity, he is aiming at mapping the social functions that are hidden by the veil of the capitalist mode of production.[58] He wants to reveal the essential social relationships hidden and obscured by the overpowering logic of the commodity. This “mystical power” is located in the very composition of the commodity form as it arises from the socially mediated productive process.[59]

Capital consumes Marx’s thought for decades. While he had initially had much wider plans for separate works on the state, on the dialectic, etc., Marx’s critique of political economy becomes much more intensive and he attempts to bring all aspects into the one project. He has several attempts at drafting what will be Capital. The most important, though largely under-appreciated, is the Grundrisse, his notebooks from 1857-8. This is effectively a draft of Capital, but its focus on the concept of value demands the 1867 text is re-read with the philosophical stress of his earlier terminology and emphases.[60]

Still, Capital is the work to judge Marx by. It is vast, lyrical and lucid but flawed and unfinished. Above all, it is a profound effort to understand the categories and operation of capitalist modernity. Capital’s development is historical, as in “it happened”, but is also logical. By this I mean that Marx uses Hegel’s mode of thinking to suggest that to understand capital, we have to know how it comes to be; how the categories that characterise capitalism – the commodity, money, capital – unfold through a series of mediations and real abstractions to fully formed shapes of being. To understand this is to understand the world we live in. Capital is a work that demands that any overcoming of the vast oppression that exists in capitalism means negating capital itself. There is no solution outside or external to our world, but through an immanent destruction of the economic categories that stand over us and determine our existence.

Letter 4

One final letter. It is dated 15 March 1883 and was written by Engels to Johann Philipp Becker, a participant of the revolutions of 1848 and the First International. The occasion is Marx’s death.

My dear old fellow,

Be thankful that you saw Marx last autumn, for you will never see him again. Yesterday afternoon at 2.45, after leaving him alone for less than two minutes, we found him peacefully asleep in his armchair. The greatest mind in our Party had ceased to think, the strongest heart that I have ever known had ceased to beat. It was in all probability a case of internal hemorrhage.

You and I are now almost the last of the old guard of 1848. Well, we’ll remain in the breach. The bullets are whistling, our friends are falling round us, but this is not the first time we two have seen this, and if a bullet hits one of us, let it come – I only ask that it should strike fair and square and not leave us long in agony.

Your old comrade-in-arms,

F. Engels.[61]

Marx died just over a year after his wife. In their sickness, they suffered together. As Eleanor wrote:

It was a terrible time. Our dear mother lay in the big front room, Moor in the small room behind. And the two of them, who were so used to one another, so close to one another, could not even be together in the same room.[62]

His daughter Jenny died soon after her mother and Marx, having lost his wife and first-born, died a broken man.

However, I do not want to finish with Marx’s death. The image I started this article with was of Marx’s tomb, which stands as an ongoing legacy of distortion and caricature. For this reason, I am going to conclude with an alternative vision – that of Marx as the thinker who allows us to understand the world as it is – riddled with forms and modes of being that are held over us.

Here if we return to what Berman calls Marx’s “melting vision”,[63] where fixed modes of life are blown asunder amid new processes of understanding, we gain from Marx the ongoing importance of the fluid dynamics of modern life. Just when it seems as if capital couldn’t be more ossified, Marx reminds us that “[a]ll that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”.

It is only in this state that humans can come to see reality as it is, and with a sober mind understand the essence of a world turned upside down. Here, without the pervasive fetish of the commodity form, humans might be able to see directly human relationships, unhindered by the distortions that arise from a world defined by the things abstracted from their human origins. As Marx maintains, from his early writings right through to Capital, the essential workings of capitalism are far from plain to see. His vision is the attempt to make it possible to understand, and in turn alter, this dynamic and bring to bear the possibilities of human association and control. To Marx, the modern image is one in which possibilities develop immanently from existing realities, unfolding as moments that confront, engulf and transcend the last, always striving for a higher ground to stand.

The Communist Manifesto celebrates the obsolete character of the feudal age in a historical moment that is vividly cognisant of the new horrors that face us. Yet, Marx’s vision does not stop here. As capitalism grows older and seems ever more eternal, the melting turns further inwards. We can understand the vision that Marx allows in The Communist Manifesto by examining how these processes are renewed and repeated. These moments are found in the imminence of everyday life and the simple translation that occurs from the ordinary and banal into a broader reflection of what is central to our modern experience.

Walter Benjamin saw this in surrealism’s ability to “perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded’, in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them”.[64] Benjamin sees these objects as relics of earlier times, made obsolete by the development of new trends and manners of thinking, but also by technologies and productive forces. For him, these represent the cultural embodiment of the antiquation and ossification of the productive process. Benjamin understands these “ruins” as architectonic to the world of the commodity:

They are residues of a dream world. But given that the realization of dream elements, in the course of waking up, is the paradigm of dialectical thinking, it follows that dialectical thinking is the organ of historical awakening. Only dialectical thinking is equal to the recent past, because it is, each time, its offspring. Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in thus dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it – as Hegel already noticed – by cunning. The earliest monuments of the bourgeoisie began to crumble long ago, but we recognize, for the first time, how they were destined for this end from the beginning.[65]

Benjamin presents the continuation of Marx’s melting image, where the initially grand products of bourgeois society themselves start to rot and decompose, dissolving into yet another disparate form. This negative power is the enveloping character of modern social relations, but its force allows a vision of a further historical awakening and overcoming.

What Marx seeks to understand is the essence of the social relations that guide our lives, determine our labour, distort our beings and control us. Marx was not a thinker of doctrine, fully fixed for all times, but of social reality – its genesis, nature of being and historical movement. Modern life to Marx was alive with possibilities, paths and forms of resistance that give primacy to the potential of the working class to become revolutionary. Here Marx lives on. As long as the world we live in is one riddled by the commodity, Marx survives with capital. In questioning how we might break the chains that bind us, Marx’s legacy and its substance as revolutionary activity still needs this modern image. This is how we should think of Marx at 200.

Axelos, Kostas 1976, Alienation, Praxis and Techne in the Thought of Karl Marx, University of Texas Press.

Benjamin, Walter 1978, “Surrealism”, in Reflections, Schocken Books

Benjamin, Walter 1999, “Exposé of 1935, Early Version” in The Arcades Project, Belknap Press.

Berman, Marshall 1999, “Unchained Melody”, in Adventures in Marxism, Verso.

Berman, Marshall 2010, All That is Solid Melts into Air, Verso.

Draper, Hal 1977, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Part 1, Monthly Review Press.

Fine, Robert 2001, Political Investigations, Routledge.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 2003, Faust, Part 1, Penguin.

Goldmann, Lucien 1968, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hegel, G.W.F. 1977, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hegel, G.W.F. 1991, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge University Press.

Hegel, G.W.F. 1999, “On the English Reform Bill” in Political Writings, Cambridge University Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric 2002, Interesting Times, Penguin.

Hudis, Peter 2013, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Haymarket.

Liebknecht, Wilhelm 1956, Reminiscences of Marx & Engels, Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Liebknecht, Wilhelm 1975, Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs, Journeyman.

Löwith, Karl 1964, From Hegel to Nietzsche, Columbia.

McLellan, David 1973, Karl Marx: Life and Thought, Macmillan.

Márkus, György 1988, Marxism and Anthropology, modem-Verlag.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1975-2004, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Collected Works 1-50, Lawrence & Wishart. Cited as MECW.

Marx, Karl 1955, The Poverty of Philosophy, Progress.

Marx, Karl 1970, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1973, Grundrisse, Penguin.

Marx, Karl 1975, Early Writings, Penguin.

Marx, Karl 1976, Capital, 1, Penguin.

Prawer, S.S. 1976, Karl Marx and World Literature, Oxford University Press.

Rosdolsky, Roman 1977, The Making of Marx’s Capital, Pluto Press.

Rubel, Maximilien and Margaret Manale 1975, Marx Without Myth, Basil Blackwell.

Rubin, I.I. 1973, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, Black Rose Books.

Singer, Peter 2000, Marx, Oxford University Press.

Stedman Jones, Gareth 2017, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Penguin.

Michael Lazarus, a socialist activist, is completing a doctoral thesis at Monash University. His research examines Marx’s social thought and the method of immanent critique.

[1] I would like to thank Vashti Kenway for the discussions preceding this article, which originated as a talk at the Marxism 2018 conference, as well as Sagar Sanyal, Daniel Lopez, Luca Tavan, Lachie Petrie and Liam Parry for their comments on an earlier draft.

[2] Hobsbawm 2002, p246.

[3] Singer 2000, p51.

[4] Stedman Jones 2017.

[5] Berman 1999, p255. Berman’s work decisively influenced this article. His treatment of Marx is both inventive and beautiful.

[6] MECW 1, p18.

[7] Eleanor Marx quoted in Liebknecht 1956, p130.

[8] For a comparison of the two thinkers, see Löwith 1964, pp3-29.

[9] Goldmann 1968, p9.

[10] Hegel 1977, §11/p7.

[11] Goethe 2003, p19; Berman 2010, p42.

[12] Goethe appears frequently in Marx’s work, see for instance “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” in Marx 1975, p376, Marx 1973, p704, Marx 1976, pp180, 302, p381, 741, 868. Prawer 1976 draws out the significance of these references.

[13] McLellan 1973, p4-16.

[14] MECW 1, p27.

[15] MECW 6, p555-6.

[16] MECW 1, p18.

[17] MECW 1, p19.

[18] It is a tired cliché that Hegel glorified the existing Prussian state. This characterisation survives in the more derivative accounts of Marx’s political thought. For instance, Hal Draper bizarrely states that Hegel “is on the other side of the barricades. He is not simply voicing mistakes about the state; he is a voice of the state. He is not simply wrong about the problem; he is part of the problem”. (Draper 1977, p95.) Apart from the obvious lack of any serious engagement with Hegel’s philosophy, if Draper’s straw man was to be accepted, one would wonder why Marx took him seriously at all. Added to this, Draper claims that Marx was never an “orthodox Hegelian” (p94), which is directly contradicted by Marx’s own claims in the letter to his father quoted above. It is convenient to distance Marx from Hegel in such a categorical way so the difficult question of the relationship between the two thinkers is completely dissolved and sloganised. This type of crude position has been comprehensively refuted for some decades now; see Fine 2001, especially chapters 1 and 2. Further, it simply does not hold up to Hegel’s own writing; see for instance Hegel 1999, pp234-70. This pro-reform text was suppressed by the Prussian censor in 1831.

[19] “Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State”, in Marx 1975, p112.

[20] ibid., p127, emphasis added to “is”. See Hudis 2013, pp47-52.

[21] “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction”, in Marx 1975, p256.

[22] Hegel 1991, §67/p97.

[23] “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”, in Marx 1975, p290.

[24] ibid., p293.

[25] ibid., p322.

[26] ibid.

[27] Rubel and Manale 1975, p.51.

[28] Book length treatments of this point can be found in Márkus 1988 and Axelos 1976.

[29] MECW 4, pp23-55.

[30] Karl Marx to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 5 May 1846, MECW 38, p39.

[32] Marx to J.B. Schweitzer, 24 January 1865, in Marx 1955, p168.

[33] ibid., p25.

[34] MECW 24, p326.

[35] Marx 1970, p22.

[36] MECW 6, pp555-6.

[37] MECW 9, p467. Emphasis in original.

[38] MECW 38, p149.

[39] Liebknecht 1975, p65.

[40] MECW 6, p487.

[41] ibid.

[42] ibid., p490.

[43] ibid., p506.

[44] ibid., p519.

[45] MECW 42, pp402-5.

[46] Marx to Engels, 21 January 1859, MECW 40, p369.

[47] Stedman Jones 2017, pp454-5.

[48] MECW 42, 328.

[49] Marx to Engels, 2 April 1851, MECW 38, p325. This translation opts for “stuff”.

[50] MECW 42, p407.

[51] Marx 1976, p132, p.951.

[52] For the centrality of this point see Rubin 1973.

[53] Marx 1973, p298.

[54] Rubin 1973, p128.

[55] Marx 1976, p142.

[56] ibid., p1016.

[57] ibid., p165.

[58] ibid., p163.

[59] ibid., p164.

[60] See Rosdolsky 1977.

[61] Engels to Johann Philipp Becker, 15 March 1883, MECW 46, p460.

[62] Quoted in McLellan 1973, p447.

[63] Berman 2010, pp90-105.

[64] Benjamin 1978, p181.

[65] Benjamin 1999, p898.

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