This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Inqaba Ya Basebenzi Supplement No. 10 (May 1983).
by Brian Ingham
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”.
These now famous words were written by Marx in 1845. They fully convey the spirit in which he was to live out his life over the next 38 years.
No one has ever understood more clearly than Marx the importance of theory to the working class movement and his contribution in the theoretical field has been acknowledged ever since by all the great teachers of socialism as second to none.
But Marx was not the white-haired academic recluse which, since his death, countless historians have attempted to depict. He was to his core a revolutionary fighter, an organiser, speaker, publicist and pamphleteer, vigorously struggling to free society of class oppression, exploitation, misery and want.
After Marx’s death in 1883, Engels, his lifelong friend, co-thinker and intimate political co-worker, paid tribute to the theoretical legacy which Marx, “the greatest living thinker”, had left to the workers of the world. “Marx”, Engels added, “was above all a revolutionary, and his great aim in life was to co-operate in this or that fashion in the overthrow of capitalist society and the state institutions which it had created, to co-operate) in the emancipation of the modern proletariat, to whom he was the first to give a consciousness of its class position and its class needs, a knowledge of the conditions necessary for its emancipation. In this struggle he was in his element, and he fought with a passion and tenacity and with a success granted to few”.
When only 24 years old, he had collaborated with sections of the Rhineland liberal capitalist class in establishing the radical Rheinische Zeitung (‘Rhineland Newspaper’), of which he soon became the editor. Engels later commented that the Rheinische Zeitung “wore out one censor after another. Finally it came under double censorship…that also was of no avail. In the beginning of 1843 the government declared that it was impossible to keep this newspaper in check and suppressed it without more ado”.
Marx was never intimidated by such acts of oppression. On the contrary, they merely steeled his resolve to continue the struggle in an even more steadfast manner. On this occasion he left for France where he was able to gain more experience of the socialist and communist ideas circulating outside Germany, and where he began his lifelong collaboration with Engels.
Marx and Engels clarified the basic tenets of scientific socialism, and they began to work painstakingly to build the very first foundations of a party based upon these principles.
Various groupings of intellectuals existed in Europe at that time, each peddling some utopian socialist scheme, but each also devoid of any real contact with the working class. Marx and Engels refused to join any of these organisations, most of which still cloaked themselves in masonic-type conspiratorial airs. Instead, they formed their own tiny propaganda group.
Marx later explained that in this period: “We issued a series of pamphlets, some of them printed, other lithographed, mercilessly criticising the mixture of Anglo-French socialism or communism and German philosophy…and putting forward instead a scientific insight into the economic structure of bourgeois society as the only tenable basis, explaining this in a popular form and pointing out that the task was not to work out a utopian system but to participate consciously in the historical process of social transformation taking place before our eyes”.
In January 1847 Marx and Engels were persuaded to join the ‘League of the Just’, an organisation, mainly, though by no means exclusively, made up of expatriate German artisans, which had been formed in a number of European centres. The leaders of the League had been won round to the ideas and organisational methods of Marx and Engels.
Under their influence it changed its name to the ‘Communist League’ and re-organised itself for active propaganda work among the working class. It also dropped its old slogan: “All men are brothers” in favour of the battle cry: “Workers of the world unite”.
It was the Communist League which commissioned Marx and Engels to write the Communist Manifesto. This appeared only a matter of weeks before the February Revolution in Paris began a revolutionary earthquake that reverberated around the whole of Europe.
Marx was to emerge as one of the central and most decisive leaders of the German revolution of 1848-49. He had been prepared for the epic part he was to play, by his political and revolutionary activity over the previous 10 years or so. Now his painstaking propaganda work gave way to energetic activity in the maelstrom of great historical events.
Having been hounded out of France in 1845, after pressure from the Prussian government, Marx now faced arrest and banishment from his new home in Belgium. Momentarily he returned to Paris, where a representative of the Provisional government elected in February was offering him both refuge and citizenship.
Then he moved to the Rhineland as editor of the newly founded Neue Rheinische Zeitung (‘New Rhineland Newspaper’), a paper established mainly with money from liberal capitalist shareholders.
In both France and England revolutionary conflict unfolded between the working class and the capitalists, as foreshadowed in the Communist Manifesto, but in Italy and Germany it was still necessary for the infant proletariat to ally itself with the emerging liberal industrialists in order to successfully conclude the struggle with feudal despotism.
The capitalist class, however, proved to be contemptible allies, even in their own revolution! At every serious test they gave way to reaction.
Marx fought through the Neue Rheinische Zeitung and through tireless personal activity to stiffen these temporary allies, but in vain. The liberal bourgeoisie in general retreated under pressure from the reaction, and as they did, those connected with the paper withdrew their financial support so that Marx was compelled to plough his own meagre savings into the paper as the only means of keeping it alive.
Marx attempted to lead the movement in the Rhineland back onto the offensive. Special editions of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung called for: a boycott of taxes to the victorious counter-revolutionary government; for the arming of the people; and for armed resistance against “the enemy”.
For this stand he faced arrest and trial. But neither Marx nor the Neue Rheinische Zeitung were that easily silenced. At his trial he stood firm, defended the revolutionary movement and mercilessly attacked the forces of reaction. As a result the jury acquitted him and the foreman even thanked him for his instructive remarks!
The Neue Rheinische Zeitung continued for a short time after this until the reaction had gathered enough strength to close it down altogether and expel Marx from Prussian territory. The last defiant issue, after 301 issues in all (sometimes appearing 7 days a week), appeared in red ink on May 19th 1849, warning the people against any attempt to seize power while the military situation was unfavourable, thanking its readers for their sympathy and support, and declaring that their final word always and everywhere would be: “The emancipation of the working class”.
Marx was again forced into exile, first in France, and then, compelled to move once more, he settled in London where he lived for the rest of his life.
Initially he worked to help re-assemble the Communist League, in the preparation for the expected renewed revolutionary upsurge. This upsurge, however, did not materialise. By 1852 it was clear that the tide of European revolt had temporarily ebbed.
The Communist League began to break up into different squabbling sects. Marx and Engels stepped to one side, finding the atmosphere of these groups increasingly sterile. Marx began to devote his energies primarily to his important theoretical work on economics and to earning a precarious living as a correspondent of the New York Tribune.
Nevertheless, he still kept in regular active contact with the emerging working class movements, especially in Germany and Britain. He was, for instance, a frequent contributor to The People’s Paper, the paper founded in 1852 by the revolutionary wing of the Chartists.
It was not until 1864, however, that Marx was able fully once again to pick up the threads of his practical revolutionary activity. By then, Engels wrote:
The Labour Movement in the various countries of Europe had so far regained strength that Marx could entertain the idea of realising a long-cherished wish: the foundation of a Workers’ Association embracing the most advanced countries of Europe and America, which would demonstrate bodily, so to speak, the international character of the socialist movement both to the workers themselves and to the bourgeois and the governments…A mass meeting in favour of Poland…on September 28, 1864 provided the occasion…
The International Working Men’s Association was founded; a provisional General Council with its seat in London, was elected at the meeting, and Marx was the soul of this as of all subsequent General Councils up to the Hague Congress. He drafted almost every one of the documents issued by the General Council of the International, from the Inaugural Address of 1864, to the Address on the Civil War in France.
“For 10 years”, wrote Engels, “the International dominated one side of European history—the side on which the future lies”. The International gathered under its banner all the various conflicting tendencies within the Labour Movement of Europe and America, including French, Swiss and Belgian followers of the anarchist Bakunin, the utopian Proudhon, German followers of Lassalle and British trade unionists.
London was the home of the General Council. Marx considered Britain to be the key country in the struggle for socialism, given the more advanced stage that both capitalism and the organisations of the working class had achieved.
Marx therefore insisted upon direct representation on the General Council for all trade unions and other working class organisations affiliated from Britain, and it was only towards the end of the life of the International that there was a separate British Federation.
Marx strove to develop the International as a truly mass movement. Affiliation was open to all individuals and organisations which accepted the need to struggle for an end to the yoke of capitalist exploitation. But Marx never attempted to bureaucratically force his own theoretical views or tactics on any section; he believed that it was only through joint action and discussion that genuine agreement and genuine unity emerge.
In drawing up the Inaugural Address, Marx was conscious of the different stages of theoretical development reached by the labour movement in each country. Therefore, while repeating the fundamental ideas expressed in the Communist Manifesto, the tone was different. “Time is necessary”, he wrote to Engels; “before the movement can allow the old boldness of speech. The need of the moment is bold in matter, but mild in manner”.
The practical achievements of the International included mobilising solidarity during numerous industrial struggles, among them the 1871 Tyneside Engineers’ strike and the London basket makers dispute of 1867. Such was the authority of the International among British trade unionists that at one point the Annual Congress of Trades Unions in 1869 urgently called all working class organisations in the United Kingdom to affiliate to the International.
The authority of the International in Britain was also built up by its work in the Reform League, the body created to fight for the old Chartist demand: “Universal Manhood Suffrage”. Half the executive of the Reform League were members of the General Council.
Marx personally worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help establish the Reform League, which then rapidly developed as a mass campaigning force, dreaded by the capitalist class which saw within it the spectre of revolution. Continual mass pressure from the League bore down upon the ruling class until the government brought in new electoral reform legislation.
It was a limited reform, extending the vote only to the middle class and to skilled workers, but it was sufficient to mollify the main trade union leaders and split the movement. After this, most of the union leaders who had been active in the International began more and more to accommodate themselves to the Liberals, some hoping in this way to find their own personal passage into Parliament.
The final cleavage with these opportunist leaders came after the Paris Commune, the finest hour for the working class during the lifetime of the International.
In 1871, after the fall of France in the war with Prussia, Parisian workers seized control of Paris, forming the first ever workers’ state in history. From afar—and through intermediaries—Marx made every effort steer the Commune along the path to victory.
The Commune was to prove, however, to be only a brief if glorious episode. Tragically, the Commune was drowned in blood.
“The Commune gave the mischievous abortion Thiers (the leader of the French government—Editor) time to centralise hostile forces”, wrote Marx… “They should immediately have advanced on Versailles”, in other words spread the revolution by taking over the Bank of France, the government buildings and advancing to the other cities.
After the crushing of the Commune, the International came under a savage assault from all the European governments who saw the International’s, and Marx’s, guiding hand in the Commune.
The response of many fainthearts in the International—including some of those trade union leaders associated with the International—was to denounce the Commune and distance themselves from the heroic French workers.
Even though he had not advocated the formation of the Commune, such a stand would never have entered Marx’s head. Within days of the fall of the Commune he issued his defiant defence of the Commune, The Civil War in France, which to this day remains an inspiration and as an invaluable source of guidance for the labour movement.
Marx and Engels immediately understood the tremendous historic significance of the Commune. They studied it carefully to see how the experience of the Commune could enrich further the working class movement and help it to be better prepared for the future.
With this in mind they wrote into the Preface of the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto, the following central lesson: “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”‘.
Throughout the life of the International Marx and Engels had to contend with political opponents who fought political battles not with ideas but with manoeuvre and intrigue. After the defeat of the Commune these intrigues intensified, especially on the part of the followers of the anarchist, Bakunin.
With the International facing crippling blows from state authorities throughout Europe, the danger existed that Bakunin’s followers might wrest control. Marx and Engels acted decisively to prevent this and to preserve intact the historical prestige of the International in the eyes of the world working class.
At the 1872 Hague Congress they secured the transfer of the General Council to New York, thus effectively bringing to an end this momentous chapter of working class history.
Engels, later explaining the action of himself and Marx at this time, wrote:
There are circumstances in which one must have the courage to sacrifice momentary success for more important things. Especially for a party like ours, whose ultimate success is so absolutely certain…
…We knew very well that the bubble (of the International) must burst. All the riff-raff attached themselves to it. The sectarians within it became arrogant and misused the International in the hope that the meanest and most stupid actions would be permitted them. We did not allow that. Knowing well that the bubble must burst at some time our concern was not to delay the catastrophe but to take care that the International emerged from it pure and unadulterated.
With the end of the International Marx once again began to give priority to his theoretical work. Though always as long as he lived he remained actively involved in the life of the labour movement, attempting to steer it forward along the most constructive path.
In 1881 Engels commented:
By his theoretical and practical achievements Marx has gained for himself such a position that the best people in all the working class movements throughout the world have full confidence in him. At critical junctures they turn to him for advice and then usually find that his counsel is the best.
This position he holds in Germany, in France, in Russia, not to mention in the smaller countries. It is therefore not a case of Marx forcing his opinion, and still less his will, on people but of the people coming to him of themselves. And it is upon this that Marx’s peculiar influence, so extremely important for the movement, reposes.
In 1883 he finally fell victim to his chronic ill health. Throughout his adult life he had been plagued by recurring illness. He also had to endure desperate poverty and terrible personal tragedies. But because of his unshakeable confidence in the socialist future of mankind he always was able to summon the will for the struggle against capitalism.
Marx’s ideas and the example of his personal revolutionary activity live on.
At Marx’s graveside in 1883, Engels finished his address with these words:
Marx was the best-hated and most slandered man of his age. Governments, both absolutist and republican, expelled him from their territories, whilst the bourgeois, both conservative and extreme democratic, vied with each other in a campaign of vilification against him.
He brushed it all to one side like cobwebs, ignored them and answered them only when compelled to do so. And he died honoured, loved and mourned by “millions of revolutionary workers from the Siberian mines over Europe and America to. the coast of California, and I make bold to say that though he had many opponents he had hardly a personal enemy.
His name will live on through the centuries and so also will his work.