May 5 was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx birth. To honour him, the ISL will publish a series of articles on the German revolutionary. Our aim is to popularise his thinking and work, especially among the workers. In this article we present a short summary of his life and his relationship with the working class.
Gustavo Machado, PSTU
Nowadays, Marx is portrayed in most books, articles, and documentaries as an intellectual who sought to teach lessons that were only achieved due to his brilliant mind. Some aspects of his thinking are studied in university courses and his name is always present in the literature dealing with specific subjects of human sciences: history, economics, sociology and so on. 200 years after his birth in traditional political circles, universities and the media, many have paid him tributes or criticised him.
If for some reason someone living a hundred years ago made a time travel today, he would certainly be amazed at the big audience Marx acquired in those circles. In the early 20th century, many years after his death, his thinking was not studied in universities and was rarely addressed by economists and philosophers. Almost all of Marx’s listeners were within the European workers’ and socialist organisations, especially in the German Social Democratic Party and other parties of the Socialist International [or the II International]. He was well-known although always associated with the labour, socialist and radical movements. His theory was little studied outside these sectors.
There were two moments that made Marx a renowned and famous name. Curiously, it was neither the publication of his great work, Capital, nor of any other of his works, but two revolutions. The first of them was the Paris Commune in 1871. At that time, Marx lived in England, but much of the world associated his name with the French uprising. Not by accident. The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), also known as the First International, played an important role in the Commune. Since its inception, it was organized and led by Marx. It was on behalf of the General Council of the International that Marx wrote an address on the Commune, known as The Civil War in France. This was Marx’s first work with a large audience, selling more than 18,000 copies in three months. The second moment that put Marx under the international spotlight came after his death – the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Early political life
Born in 1818, in a middle-class family and son of a lawyer employed by the state bureaucracy of what is now Germany, Marx joined the German university system and studied at its main university in Berlin. It was there, years before, that Hegel, one of the most brilliant German philosophers, had taught. Marx’s doctoral thesis was on the Greek materialist philosophers and looked forward to an academic career, which proved impossible after the government’s repression from 1842. Marx then became a journalist, his life-long professional activity, that changed his fate forever.
Marx made contact with the weavers’ insurrection of Silesia, the French labor movement, as well as the German and Parisian communist movements. Based on these and other experiences of the past, Marx broke with his earlier, left-wing democratic conception and began to defend the connection between the communist movement and the working class. In his conception, socialism would not come from outside, the product of a plan made by a genuine reformer, but on the contrary, could only be achieved if it was linked with the most genuine product of developing capitalist society: the proletariat. As he said at the time: “Theory becomes a material force when it seizes the masses.” So, all Marx’s activity was oriented to the organisation of the working class. It was not only his intellectual activity that had this goal, but also his personal relationships, his political practice, and organisational activity.
One of his first works on the functioning of capitalist society, Wage Labour and Capital, was composed from a series of lectures presented at the Association of German Workers of Brussels. Shortly afterwards, Marx would use a large part of his assets to fund the daily newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish Newspaper) during the revolutionary days of 1848-49. It became one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the revolutionary period, until its prohibition and Marx’s expulsion from the German city of Cologne. The newspaper’s headquarters was a kind of barracks. “On account of the eight rifles with bayonets and 250 live cartridges in the editorial room,” Engels would say later, “our house was reckoned by the officers likewise as a fortress which was not to be taken by a merecoup de main.”
Among Marx’s collaborators, both in the organisations and the newspapers, we find several workers whose ties he cultivated all his life. Some examples are the watchmaker Joseph Moll, the typographer Karl Schapper, the shoemaker Heinrich Bauer, the tailor John Eccarius among many others. Far from being a distant and passive relationship, these fighters would be Marx’s political collaborators and friends for decades. They are authors of several of the articles written for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and also documents and manifestos published in the years that followed. It will be with them that Marx shares his life. To mention only one episode, in the late 1850s, Marx would pawn the coat of his wife Jenny, the only one not yet pawned in his entire household to pay for the treatment of an illness of Eccarius, a member of the IWA and of the Communist League.
Among the intellectuals and liberal professionals who collaborated continuously with Marx, all of them dedicated most of their lives to the work of the workers’ associations to support their movements and struggles. They had, in their vast majority, participated in the 1848 European revolutions. An exemplary case is Wilhelm Wolff, son of farmers and a private teacher of mathematics. It was Wolff who reported the repression and the importance of the insurrection of the weavers in Silesia throughout Germany, the first workers’ uprising that Marx came directly into contact with. He led militias in the 1848 European revolution and subsequently built links with countless activists in the English working class. Not without reason, Marx’s Capital, which took all his life to write, begins with the following words: “To my unforgettable friend, Wilhelm Wolff. Intrepid, faithful, noble protagonist of the proletariat.”
“The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”
It was no coincidence that while Marx’s name disappeared in European intellectual circles, it increasingly appeared in workers’ circles and organisations. This, of course, had its price. Marx lost his citizenship and was expelled along with his family from one country after another: Belgium, Cologne, twice from France until, finally, he spent the rest of his life in England. He mostly survived in absolute misery, but was rescued several times by his friend and associate Friedrich Engels. In a particularly striking episode, with all coats pawned, Marx and his family used to organize domestic “festivals” of dance in order to alleviate the cold.
His genius was known in the German upper circles, for example, he was invited by a messenger from Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the newly unified German Empire, to collaborate. Bismarck wanted to “put his great talents at the service of the German people.” Marx not only refused all such attempts he also publicly exposed them.
Marx’s whole life, therefore, was oriented to the organization of the working class as the core struggle against the capitalist mode of production. It is for this purpose that his work was written, and his immediate goals accomplished or not. It was not without reason, frustrated with the initial reception of Capital, that his wife and collaborator Jenny Marx wrote: “If the workers had an inkling of the sacrifices that were necessary for this work, which was written only for them and for their sakes to be completed they would perhaps show a little more interest.” Years later, Marx himself stated that “the appreciation which Das Kapital rapidly gained in wide circles of the German working class is the best reward for my labours.”
As can be seen, Marx not only developed all his work for and in the historical interest of the working class but was organically linked to it. It was not by chance that his name became universally known and linked to the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution. Although many today want to tame him and his work in political and academic institutions he will always be linked to the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat for its liberation.
In Engels’ and Marx’s own words, during one of the last fights within the German Social-Democracy: “The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. We cannot therefore co-operate with people who say that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must first be freed from above by philanthropic bourgeois and petty bourgeois.”