Saturday, 5 May 2018


This seems a year for anniversaries. As has been previously mentioned here, February was the centenary of the Russian Revolution. While this month marks the fiftieth of May 1968. But today – yes, this very day – marks the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx. (Here pictured in his current hideaway at Highgate. With one of his more disappointing sidekicks, hence the resigned expression.)

I have no idea how Marx spent his birthdays. Perhaps Engels stayed up the night before, valiantly attempting to gift-wrap the means of production for him. But today seems the time to remind people that he so often said the very opposite to what everyone likes to pretend. By which I don’t mean the alt.right goons, who make a meme of him saying “I like to sniff my butt” then imagine they have demolished the Labour Theory of Value. I mean people you’d generally think of as sensible. Many of the worst offenders, alas, think of themselves as Marxists.

Did Marx conceive of history as an overpowering, inevitable force, a train charging down predetermined tracks, on which we – you and me – were merely passengers? No, he didn’t.

“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”
The Holy Family

Alternately, did he insist that if we want things to change then it’s up to us to change them? Yes he did.

“The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself needs educating.”
Theses on Feuerbach

Did he think the masses so stupefied they required rescuing by a vanguard, like a damsel in some shoddy melodrama? Nope.

”In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’


“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”
Both from the Communist Manifesto


“The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with those who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above.”
Circular Letters

Did Marx see the individual as a problem, a nail to be hammered down so as to make Red Square parades run more smoothly? Um, no.

“The reality, which communism is creating, is precisely the true basis for rendering it impossible that anything should exist independently of individuals, insofar as reality is only a product of the preceding intercourse of individuals themselves.”
The German Ideology

Did Marx see Communism as central planning, where party dignitaries issued edicts and decreed everything to be for the common good? After which we got to cheer? Let’s allow his buddy Engels to answer that one.

“The state will inevitably fall. The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”
On the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

There’s two points where Marx is quoted accurately but misleadingly. Marx did refer to “the idiocy of rural life”, it was in the Communist Manifesto. But in context “idiocy” doesn’t mean “stupidity” so much as “idiosyncrasy” or “parochial nature”. Cities are always arterial, connected to other cities in a way villages are not connected to other villages. The drift to urbanism did not in itself socialise the world, but was a necessary step towards it.

Similarly he did call religion “the opium of the masses”, it was in his Critique of Hegel. But he didn’t mean religion was simply a confidence trick, used to stupefy the gullible masses, cooked up by scheming capitalists as they puffed on those fat cigars they always seem to have.

Of course, religion often is used as a confidence trick, but that is scarcely the definition of the thing. Opium was then widely used as a painkiller, and Marx means less “drug” than “salve”. It would in fact be much better if people had picked up from a phrase he used elsewhere in the same passage “the heart of heartless conditions, the soul of a soulless world.” Religion is the...

“...inverted consciousness of the world, because [we] are an inverted world…. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion… Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.”

In short, religion is the attempt to express what is currently inexpressible - the desire for the end of real suffering - so is inevitably driven towards mystical forms of expression. People are fond of telling you communism is just heaven re-labelled. But that actually works much better the other way around.

Marx was not a guru or a prophet. He said so himself many times over. The point isn’t that he can always be relied on to be right. No-one in their right mind would take a hundred-and-fifty year old document as a blueprint for action today, as if it could just be implemented unamended. Particularly one which says itself it shouldn’t be taken for such a thing. The point is that, at an absolute minimum, you can’t deal with what Marx said without looking at what Marx said. And far too many don’t do that, including – most egregiously of all – many of his supposed disciples.

Honestly, just read a bit of Marx. It’s the guy’s birthday, FFS!

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