Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
this essay last updated November 21, 2002
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From November 1917 to August 1991, the Communist government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) served as the center for the most enduring 20th century challenge to Western concepts of democracy and human rights. In the Fall of 1991, communism collapsed there, and by early 1992 a new, non-communist Russian government would emerge. For the first few years of the 1990s, it appeared that Communist political systems would continue to challenge Western values only in a few places, primarily in Asia: China, Vietnam, North Korea, etc. Yet, even as democratic forces appear to have dislodged the CPSU from power in most of the scattered remnants of the former USSR, clouds have appeared again in Eastern Europe. In Poland, Lithuania and Hungary democratic processes have been used by ex-communist parties to win power anew. In Belarus and Ukraine former communists never fully surrendered political power and their authority remains a significant obstacle to democratization and the establishment of a free market economy. In Russia, the marriage of democracy with faltering attempts to create free market capitalism made vulnerable the first democratically elected president, Boris Yeltsin, slowing the pace of reform until after his July 1996 re-election as Russian President. Under his successor, Vladimir Putin, marked authoritarian features have returned to the political system. In the dissolving states of the former USSR, as much as in Eastern Europe, communist ideas still guide political actors whose final influence may not yet have been felt. For these several reasons, understanding communism contributes to an understanding both of an important historic force which shaped our recent past and of a continuing influence on important states' present and future behavior.
This first reading discusses the life and ideas of the man who gave greatest inspiration and purpose to communist revolutionaries throughout the world. It prepares us to examine the way in which these beliefs had an impact on Russia in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, as we learn about Russian political culture and traditions in the next chapter, "Russian Revolutionary Theory." Along with the Russian political tradition, Marxism can provide clues to the costly transformation of individual rights and of society as a whole under the Soviet government which ruled the far-flung former Russian Empire, 1917-1991. Moreover, though the authority of Soviet communists crumbled in our time, the Russian Communist Party remains among that nation's largest, and is its best organized political force. Thus, it is especially important to understand the ways in which communist beliefs shaped attitudes and the Russian political culture in ways that continue to obstruct complete democratic evolution of society in the former USSR and the areas formerly allied with it.
II. Marx's life: A disposition toward nonconformity
Communism long posed as the key, universal, and scientifically valid set of axioms that explain the past, present and future development of all human societies. But like all human ideas it was, in fact, a set of mental constructs hatched in the minds of mere men. In the mind of Karl Marx were laid the foundation stones of communist theory, and his experiences influenced the way he saw the world to be.
Marx approached life in an unconventional way. At birth on May 5, 1818, he was a subject of one of the disunited German states, but the young Marx never became an overtly patriotic German. Born and raised in Trier in the Rhineland area that long was claimed by both France and Germany, Marx lived most of his adult life not as a German or a Frenchman, but as a stateless person. In an age of chauvinistic nationalism and its accompanying hyper patriotism, Marx saw himself as a man without a country.
Marx rejected much else that Europeans took to be their links with a valuable past. He saw custom, tradition and law not as steadying influences on society, but as yokes that impeded human tendencies in society toward change and improvement. These were decidedly unconventional views. His rejection of the steadying influence of tradition was in some ways paradoxical. In his own life Marx was uneasily estranged from the new opportunities that were offered to Europeans by the industrial revolution. He never worked as a manual laborer, but saw himself as the natural leader of all factory workers. While other romantics pined nostalgically for the predictability of a slower, more orderly pre-industrial age, Marx discarded hope for discovering virtues through study of earlier stable social orders. Rather, the human history he chose to find through study was an unending pageant of conflict and domination. Only the further development of industry, social conflict and violent revolution would make possible a new human harmony, he contended.
Religious non-conformism. Marx was unconventional at nearly all levels of his life. He claimed, for example, that "religion is the opiate of the people," a flip atheistic sentiment not uncommon among the children of the better-off classes, then or now. The middle class home into which Marx was born, after all, lacked few of the comforts of the age. With little immediate need for spiritual answers to life's quandaries, the young Marx turned toward the secular and rational world view that was dominant among 19th century Germans of similar social station.
The uncommon venomousness Marx felt toward the sacred, however, is explained with more difficulty. Some scholars have pointed to the fact that Marx himself had undergone a forced conversion from Judaism to Lutheranism at the age of six. Unlike the tolerance of Jews that the French had brought to the Rhineland in the then recent Napoleonic Wars, in order to practice law in the re-Germanized Rhineland, Marx's father had had to convert to Christianity. Even the Marx family's conversion to Christianity didn't bring entry to the predominant group: the Rhineland was and is a predominantly Roman Catholic area. Some scholars have made much of the fact that for several generations preceding his father, the men in Marx's family had been rabbis or Jewish teachers. These facts, it has been argued from a psychological perspective, account for the great hatred of all religion that an Oedipally-obsessed Marx exhibited. One of the key axioms of Judeo-Christian ethics, after all, is "love thy neighbor as thy self," and in this interpretation, if one hates oneself (or, by extension, ones' heritage) only then can great hatred of ones' neighbors become possible. It is undeniable that Marx's early essay "On the Jewish Question," when read in this light, seems to exhibit self-hatred by the author in its explicitly anti-Semitic arguments. While casual modern observers tend to identify these sorts of sentiments with Germans and Germany in general, in the early 19th Century, public anti-Semitism was not the norm in the German states of Marx's childhood (Goldhagen: 56, 489). Widespread political and journalistic anti Semitism engaged the German public most intensely after German Unification (1864-71); that is, not in Marx's German youth, but much later, after the Empire there had extended full legal and civil equality to the Jews (1869-71). Thus, Marx's views cannot be assumed to be a vain attempt of a controversial writer to gain acceptance among gentile readers.
Intellectual aspects of Marx's non-conformism. Whether due to deep, psychological causes or simply due to an argumentative personality, Karl Marx remained a nonconformist in other ways throughout his adult life. In the 19th Century, the supremacy of the State was a central feature of social analysis among educated German people, following the thinking of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Marx rejected this presumption, choosing instead to delve into the then very new, and very un-German school of thought called "political economy" for new and original answers to eternal questions of "who gets what and why?" Even when pursuing the questions wrestled with by these British political economists (e.g., David Ricardo; Thomas Malthus; Adam Smith), Marx was original, and non-conforming. In his thinking, he elevated economics to the highest and most central place in his analysis, dropping mainstream political economists' emphases on companion forces (e.g., politics; demographics) as the full range of shaping forces in history.
We can again speculate about psychological dimensions of this choice: political life was also not an arena in which Marx, the man, met much success. In fact, as an activist, Marx never had any real political influence in his lifetime. An irritant in the side of several states' governments, he never actively was involved in the actual threats to those governments that were posed by incipient mass revolutions. His 1848 Communist Manifesto was not very influential in the 1848 French revolutionary uprising. It was not even translated into the local languages in several of the revolutionary hot-spots (e.g., Budapest, Prague, Italy) until after the 1848 events. As an advocate of the historic necessity for violent revolution, he never could bring himself to conform to the more popular, logical end of this line of argument: terrorism. He consistently dueled with the leading continental anarchist-terrorist, the Russian exile Mikhail Bakunin, for supremacy within the revolutionary socialist movement.
Yet the very fiber of Marx's being was rebellious. Even before developing his materialist conception of history -- an economic explanation of why history moves forward in "law like steps" toward communism--, Marx's nonconformism was clear. As a young man, in the introduction to his doctoral dissertation, he wrote: "Not he who rejects the gods of the crowd is impious, but he who embraces the crowd's opinion of the gods" (quoted in Selsam and Martel: 283). Thus, it is one of the finer ironies of history that a century after his death, Marx's thought had become a virtual dogma to which unquestioned conformity was demanded in half the world. One must wonder how Marx, the rebel, would have viewed the fact that the most powerful political organization in history, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), long legitimized its one-party rule and its years of censorship of most non-Marxist social thought by claiming that these dictatorial forms grew directly from Marx's theory of history!
III. Intellectual influences on Marx's thought
Marx's life and experiences helped to shape his intellectual work. From several of his youthful experiences, Marx's thought surely was influenced by Romanticism. In Romanticism's idealization of a then absent human community, Marx found a critical posture to guide his social criticisms. His writing style was, in a perverse sort of way, also influenced by the Romantics. As a writer Marx's own style always was dense, wordy and tendentious, but Marx-the-reader's taste ran to Sir Walter Scott and other epic Romantic authors who entertainingly engaged readers with complex and nuanced plots. Marx's single-minded form of argument differed fundamentally from the Romantics' style, but he seems to have compensated by rewriting and, indeed, overwriting many of his essays to the point where the reader often is forced to closely note and retrace the argument. This tendency to over-edit and recompose eventually caused him to seek in Friedrich Engels a co-author who could, in effect, extract and make obvious some of the major points. But the goal of perfection, a common theme in Marx's work and the Romantics' world view, also inhibited Marx. In the end, he died with many of his major works not fully finished, though they had been in the process of being drafted and rewritten for decades.
At a personal level, Marx also was a bit of a romantic and sought a harmony in his own life that his theories hypothesized to be generally impossible for society as a whole. As a young man his ardors infatuation was with the daughter of a prominent aristocrat, not a female member of the "oppressed" classes. Though his theories foresaw an inevitable class war in which aristocrats were destined to lose, Marx married the aristocrat's daughter.
At university first in Bonn and later in Berlin, the wild life of a young student in which Karl initially engaged gradually gave way to serious study and a second major influence on Marx's thought. He read closely the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, and he became involved with the "Young Hegelians," then a leading force on German campuses. Yet, even in this he was not a full conformist. Hegel had seen in the ebb and flow (or "dialectical process") of the emergence of great ideas and great states the ultimate realization of the perfect state on earth: Prussia, the Hohenzollern-led monarchy that had grown from roots in Medieval Brandenburg. Marx copied this dialectical process but changed the categories. He saw in the ebb and flow of the rising of new technologies the creation of new economic classes in tension with one another. From the process of the economic emergence of the town dwellers in the late Middle Ages, Marx extracted a general rule: their rivalry with the aristocrats he saw as paradigmatic of all history. Rising classes (e.g., town dwellers) would employ new technologies and gradually would outstrip the economic importance of those who held formal political power. From this rivalry, as he saw it, would come rising tensions, then a violent moment in which the economically most important group would revolt, seize power, and reorganize all institutions and all other social relationships. They would eliminate the once vital, but now moribund, class. Thus, the rule of kings and aristocrats was replaced, he argued, because the historical process required that they be replaced by the ascendant economic class, the commercial town dwellers. The advance of technology, he argued, would continue to produce new classes (e.g., industrialists, factory workers), new tensions among them, and "dialectically," new moments of removal of the old until a new age arrived: the ultimate but future achievement of perfection on earth. In this assumption of forward motion to history, he clearly was a child of the changing and optimistic 19th Century, often dubbed the "Age of Progress." But, in seeing a blissful, future end point of human development (in communism) he clearly departed from nearly all other 19th Century rationalists.
Thus, in the sordid violence of the French Revolution of 1789, Marx located the motor which he believed drove the wheels of history: revolutionary violence. Rather than view this event as a break from the pattern of European development, Marx's view that the forward motion of history unfolded dialectically led him to see in the moment of France's deep catharsis something ordinary, indeed necessary. The wheels of history, the very contours of human existence, Marx argued were economic: property was virtually everything. The clash between property owners and the property-less was inevitable; to Marx, political delaying tactics that might attempt to give to the property-less a stake in the system of property were simply straws before a stronger wind. Thus, Marx gave little attention to reforms such as the U.S. Homestead Act, finding these efforts at reform simply outside the larger forces of history. (The English Political Economists, mentioned earlier, were the fourth major influence on his thought.) He saw violent revolution in mankind's future, and his embrace of piquant language (e.g., "elimination" of classes) encouraged others, later, to translate the phrases about the elimination of classes into state policies consciously designed to produce the mass elimination of millions of people (Malia: 187-188).
To summarize, Marx saw human life as primarily a material (or economic) existence, not a spiritual sojourn. He saw it to be shaped by the material reality we live in, not by our independent will (or reason). The biggest reality that shapes us, he believed, is our economic class; the biggest reality that shapes us collectively is the clash of economic classes, or in Marxist terms "the class struggle." He saw this as unavoidable and necessary to the larger historical process of human development, not a choice we individually or collectively make. He saw it moving us forward to a utopian time when all conflict would end, but only after all classes in society were eliminated. And, most important to our understanding of the origins of the dark events of the 20th century, he saw the class struggle in every age to be able to be resolved so to move history forward only through violent revolution.
IV. Marx's Adult Experiences
Marx's Adult Experiences also influenced the development of his thought. In 1841, Marx completed his doctoral thesis and left the university to become a journalist. His experiences reinforced his developing belief that government officials were among the excess baggage of the age. As a journalist, then as editor for the Rhineland Gazette, he had repeated difficulties with the Prussian government censors who then ruled the Rhineland. His primary financiers at the time were local businessmen (or, to Marx, "capitalists") who saw in his ideas a progressive view of the role of technology in history, as opposed to the stale regulation (mercantilism) of their extant governments. It is important to remember that petty restrictions among the German states in fact had impeded the development of trade among them, thus retarding the overall growth of German industry and thereby slowing the embrace of the new technologies of the industrial age. But the state censors eventually tired of his attacks on such varied regulations as the restrictions on wine production, attacks on the new laws ending the old custom of gathering wood in the (private) forests, and his advocacy of freely available divorce. In 1843, after a six year engagement he married Jenny von Westphalian, an aristocrat's daughter, and shortly thereafter was sent packing by the authorities, who closed the Gazette. He did not ever again reside in Germany, and except for a visit to Cologne for a few weeks in 1848, never even visited the land of his birth.
During his first period of exile, in Paris and in Brussels, Marx's ideas about the antiqueness of the extant States, and their "inevitable" collapse in the face of imminent social revolution distilled. This is what is known as Marx' theory of Determinism, or Historic Determinism. This view states that there are laws of history, not merely patterns that may or may not pan out.
For example, he wrote: "morality, religion... have no history, no development. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas..." This summarizes his theory of human consciousness and social reality. It is not just the fashions, the trends, the transient aspects of life that "trend-setters" dictate: Marx believed, rather, that history's past and future unfolded in predictable steps. In each stage of history, a predominant (but small) productive property owning group dominated economic life. This "ruling class" controlled the institutions of government, law, religion and other apparently independent sources of social authority. The ruling class shapes the definition of legal and illegal, moral and immoral, good and bad, in order to better serve its accumulation of power and wealth. In The German Ideology, Marx wrote (c. 1844): "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.." (in McClellan: 176). Put another way, people like John Locke and James Madison believe property to be sacrosanct because the property system they live within conditions them only to be able to imagine life that way.
But history, as he saw it, was dynamic, changing. In each age there exists a counter-tendency, created by the very forces that empower the stronger or ruling class. This dominated group, the oppressed who in fact through their labor have created all that was valuable, forms a counter force against the ruling class. Thus, just as the town dwellers were created by the requirements of the lifestyles of the ruling class (the aristocracy), so eventually were the conditions of their lives such that they were driven to the point of revolt. Thus, according to Marx, economic change creates political and social structures to secure the control of the stronger class. Against this arrangement arise new pressures and as further economic change magnifies these pressures they eventually become unbearable. Revolt then occurs, and when it does so completely, a new era with a new ruling class unfolds. New economic powers (e.g., the successful town dwellers) consolidate their primacy by remaking the existing social and political structures: with the rise of the bourgeoisie comes a new form of formal authority ("limited government," "separation of powers," etc.) and new definitions of the lines between moral and immoral are created.
Thus, to Marx, British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill's concepts of utilitarian ethics to guide public policy ("look for the greatest good for the greatest number") are dismissed as mere slogans of convenience through which the bourgeoisie manipulate society so as to more fully insure their accumulation of economic resources. On this subject, in The German Ideology, Marx wrote (c. 1844): "all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism... but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug;...not criticism, but revolution, is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy, and all other types of theory" (in McLellan: 172).
Marx's views were heir to the uplifted expectations of a generation that had experienced the French Revolution (as had his parents'), and seemed consistent with the generally turbulent nature of his adult times. They also seemed to grow from the none-too-pretty soil of early industrial society. In England, as throughout Europe, the ugliness of child labor, debtors' prisons, mass unemployment and cyclic depressions impressed upon many people the need for change. Consider that Charles Dickens --and a host of others-- also penned caustic views of the fruits produced by Victorian society. But, among the critics of the age, Marx linked together the growing restiveness of the industrial workers (or "proletarians" as he called them) to a theory of economic history that foretold not reform, not amelioration of poverty and unemployment, but the ultimate triumph of the workers by violent revolution and the physical elimination of the old rulers.
In 1848, revolts in Hungary, throughout the Germanic states, in Italy, in France and in Poland, reinforced this perception that revolution was the main motor of historical change. If any point is central to Marx's theory it is this insistence on the necessity of revolution. Indeed, this claim greatly may account for the later appeal of Marx's ideas.
His theory of revolution also grew out of the conditions of his life. In 1843, Marx first met and began to collaborate with Friedrich Engels, a British industrialist's son who would prove to be a financier of last resort for the growing Marx family, a collaborator on theoretical writings, and an adept translator of the more arcane aspects of Marx's theory into a practical language that more readers could comprehend. Their first significant work, the 1848 Communist Manifesto, stated the theory of the necessity of revolution and included a fairly reformist agenda of grievances that should make "workers of the world unite." Personally, Marx regarded it as a definitive piece, as his 1852 letter (quoted in Berlin: p. 206) stated: "What I did that was new was to prove (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular, historic phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society."
The Manifesto, however, was not widely read by the rebels in 1848, nor was Marx an activist in the street fighting in Paris that year. A brief visit to Germany to join their 1848 revolution came too late for him to join in the violence, but not too late for it to have some impact on Marx personally. It led to his trial on charges of treason; he eventually was acquitted but the authoritarian German authorities expelled from his fatherland anyway. The French were less than charitable about his returning there: after 3500 other revolutionaries were executed in the Luxembourg Gardens by the French police, "restoring order", and after the Parisian authorities discerned the general drift of Marx's revolutionary sympathies, he was expelled from France as well.
After some further wanderings, in late summer (August 24) 1849, Marx arrived in England where he would remain until his death in 1883. It was by using the magnificent library facilities of the British Museum that his impressionistic economic theory gained shape by his access to mountains of economic fact. The early years in England (the 1850s) were years in which his talent for writing developed. Children were born, but some three Marx children died prematurely; on one occasion a coffin could not be afforded. Life without regular gainful employment was, however, at least free of the political repression the Marx's had experienced elsewhere. In time, Marx became the leading European correspondent of the New York Tribune. When all but one other foreign correspondent for the paper were fired in a hard economic crunch in 1857, Marx was retained. Loans from Engels, eventual inheritances from his family and other rich socialists (!), gifts from sympathetic friends and other odd sources of income sustained the family, but life was at times very precarious for them. One cannot but wonder whether some of Marx's contempt for Victorian society did not emerge from the envy that a person in such a precarious personal situation must feel toward those of more secure social station.
Forever the would-be activist, Marx in 1864 formed the International Working Men's Association, and became its Secretary General during his exile in London. The group in time came to be known as the communist First International. However, it was not ever a significant force in Britain, composed as it was almost entirely of exiles from the Continent. Even after Marx' death the International never really made effective in-roads into the available, authentic workers' movement, the British trade unions. Marx divided his time between serious academic study and writing on the one hand, and his life as an activist/pamphleteer on the other. In both, he took full advantage of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press which Britain accorded him and all others. Thus, it is supremely ironic that the "scientific theory of socialism" he developed there relegates such "rights" to a position in which the believer perceives them as simply devices through which the "bourgeois" rulers of the age manipulate the intellectuals into doing the bidding of the ruling class. Their dictatorship, imposed later, would need no such rights.
As mentioned above, the serious work of Marx never was fully completed, though his publications fill shelves. The Critique of Political Economy is probably the best short read for a student curious about the main ideas the man had to offer. His magnum opus, Capital, was originally intended to be the three volume final word on the dynamics of our age; it had to be completed by Engels after Marx's death in 1883. Often he was sidetracked by the need he felt to provide contemporary insights, especially in regard to revolutionary impulses such as the "Paris Commune" of 1871, a communist revolt after the French were defeated in the third of the Wars of the German Unification, the Franco-Prussian War. The dense German prose in which he wrote always impeded clear translation or rapid assimilation of his questionable ideas by the masses. Pre-revolutionary Russian censors, for example, allowed his works to be imported to the Russian Empire; apparently they were unable to discern the clearly revolutionary implication of his theory. Yet his epitaph must report him, along with Charles Darwin, to have changed the way 20th century humans thought about their world more than any other mind of the 19th Century.
Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (London: Oxford UP, 1939, 1963).
Henry Collins and Charles Abramsky, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement (1948)
Lewis Feuer, ed., Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1959)
Lewis Feuer, Marx and the Intellectuals (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1969)
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (NY: Knopf, 1996).
Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (NY: Free Press, 1994).
David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (1974)
David McLellan, Karl Marx: Selected Writings (New York: Oxford UP, 1977)
H. Selsam and H. Martel, Reader in Marxist Philosophy (New York, 1973).
Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971)
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