Optional Material: The Marx-Engles Reader


This exposé is a critique of Marxist revolutionary thought, as presented in the “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” [i] “The Possibility of Non-Violent Revolution,”[ii] “After the Revolution: Marx Debates Bakunin,”[iii] “The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850,”[iv] and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,”[v] as well as the first volume of Capital.[vi]  I hope to marry this critique with some of the dominate themes running through our class discussions, especially in our blog.  I will deal exclusively with problems and omit what I see as commendable in Marx.  Many of the stases in our discussions of revolution and politics seem to spring from errors in Marx’s theoretical conceptions.  These errors are revealed most discernibly in a period of socio-political crisis.[vii]  My goal is to critically examine some of these concepts and expose their weaknesses.  In the interests of time, I will limit myself to three: 1) personifying the abstract, 2) the inevitability of history and the tabula rasa, and 3) the deployment of violence in revolution. 

Personified Abstractions

It is always a risk, reducing paupers[viii] and the poor to singular identities.  This convenience of speech produces an abstraction that gives an impression of unity where none exists and develops a “class” that flattens out the diversity of persons, their conflicting interests, and their attitudes and prejudices into a smooth, singular concept.  There follows from this a tendency to romanticize the unfortunates,[ix] attributing to them many virtues that they do not possess and discounting vices that they do.  Compassion brings along with its salient desire to help, a predisposition to see the unfortunate as innocents, the hapless victims of a repressive system.  Such is the case with Marx.  His is a tendency to apply the pathetic fallacy to his social abstractions, “capital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value;”[x] “the revolution… forged-ahead.”[xi]  Like “capital” or “the revolution,” the bourgeoisie and proletariat are personified as single entities, united in thought and deed.  It goes without saying that Marx’s entire sympathy went to the heroic character in his historical drama, the proletariat.  He shielded the proletariat from all criticism by creating a sub-class, the lumpenproletariat;[xii] an abyss, where Marx could hurl all the working-class individuals whom do not fit his conceptual needs.  In this way, he hopes to conceptually purify the proletariat, ridding it of all undesirables and consolidating all “true socialists,”[xiii] under one banner.  In the creation of his proletariat, Marx was attempting to establish a (historically-derived economically-determined) solidarity in a class of workers, not because he actually detected such solidarity among workers but because his understanding of dialectical-materialism demanded there be one.  The confusion regarding such interests is dense.  Although it seems obvious that people of like economic conditions should have similar interests regarding economic questions, in short, solidarity among them should be a foregone conclusion, we must ask why Marx needed to build a proletariat, why one didn’t form naturally, and even more why he felt the need to purify it.

Marx well established the powers that structural systems bring to bear upon individual members.  This power’s extent is as deep and broad as society itself, because it is society itself.  Its force to shape causes members to experience their lives as out of their control, and to some extent, this is indeed true.  The implication then, which escapes Marx, is that the unfortunates are partially complicit in their own oppression.  Further, efforts aimed at restructuring society, based on a unified proletariat or le peuple fiction, are doomed by their failure to include this complicity.  The poor and (far more so) the paupers, often do not want to have their poverty relieved, preferring to hold onto the dream of being rich.  The difference illustrates the conceptual gap between Marx and those he wishes to empower.  Marx understood that to attempt an interventionist revolution, a coup d’état aimed at the abolition of wage-slavery, would result in a strange sort of slave-uprising, where the slaves rebelled against the abolitionists in support of their masters.  He emphasized the imminent (and immanent) crisis of capital[xiv] that would set the stage for the proletarian revolution and did not believe that revolution could be fomented without the necessary economic conditions being already in place, something the proletariat cannot achieve for themselves.  What he didn’t understand was that many proletarians do not necessarily want to live in a post-slave/post-master world; they want to be masters.  Proletarians are not “Have-nots” anymore than they are “Haves,” but consist largely of a third group Saul Alinsky inserts between the two, the “Have-little, Want-mores,” by which he means they are invested in keeping the system as it is only transitioning themselves from the bottom of the pyramid to the top.[xv]  The goal for these workers is not to abolish class or even poverty; neither is it to raise the living-standard of their class, but to elevate themselves to a higher class.  This is why capitalism will never simply fail, even if we take its own internal contradictions as undeniable; these proletarians will rise-up, of their own free-will, and through sacrifice and hardship, save it from itself.  So far from Marx’s exclamation, the real motto of this proletariat is “Capitalism is dead! – Long live capitalism!”[xvi]  There will always be a Lord Keynes ready to resuscitate what Marx would let die, and there will always be broad-based support for the resuscitation because most people are “Have-little, Want-mores.”

Politically people act similarly.  They do not want to reconfigure the power-structure; they want to inherit the existing structure.  Hence Marx’s great divide with Bakunin over the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  Bakunin clearly fears “the so-called people’s state,” describing it as “nothing other than the quite despotic administration of the masses of people by a new and very non-numerous aristocracy of real and supposed learned ones.”  And a sentence later, “The Marxists sense this contradiction [liberation through despotism] and… console themselves with the thought that the dictatorship will be temporary and short-lived.”  Marx’s reply to this political critique is typical of the economic primacy central in his thought, “Non, mon cher!  The class domination of the workers over the resisting strata of the old world must last until the economic foundations of the existence of classes are destroyed [emphasis his].”  Marx appears blind to the threat that his innocents, the proletariat, upon seizing the dictatorship of state and society, might be content to abort the revolution right there.  For Marx, the transition from socialist state to communism is unavoidable, once the fight with the bourgeoisie is concluded.  Bakunin doubts this, writing that the Marxists think that the elites will “shape and elevate the people both economically and politically to such a degree that all government will soon be superfluous and the state… will all by itself turn into a free organization of economic interests and communes,” [emphasis added].[xvii]  Marx’s revolution, a transition to some unspecified “final organization,” wishes to destroy the existing power-structures, by occupying them first.  But these power-structures exist because they serve some function or solve some social problem, for which they were originally instituted.  Although they can be oppressive, these institutions, still serve that originary function.  The destruction of the institution or as Marx puts it, their “fall[ing] away after liberation,” must have some alternative solution to the original problem ready to replace them.  It is my suspicion that Marx assumes better solutions will be found after the demise of capitalism, although he has none himself; and is willing to allow the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to last until these solutions are found.  Marx necessarily assumes the possibility of these solutions, without which the “dictatorship of the proletariat” must be the “final organization.”  And so, in-the-meantime, the answer must be for the revolutionaries to reinstitute the ancien régime under new management.  “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  However, it is exactly the fact that the revolutionaries are thinking and acting just like their former oppressors that reveals a silver-lining: there is some unity in thought among widely divergent groups and this is possibly proof of an underlying human nature.

The Locomotive of History

Which brings me to my second point; there are certain conceptual configurations which exist independent of cultural development and that these configurations are not taken into account by the Marxist revolutionary framework.  It is clear that a historical development must eliminate the element of nature or at least regard it as superfluous.  Marx spends great deals of Capital[xviii] and other works, tearing down the naturality of social conditions by tracing their historicity.  Thus Marx can prescribe a future were individual interests are understood only through communal interests, “the so-called people’s will disappears to make way for the real will of the cooperative.”[xix]  We may reasonably speculate that Marx’s idea of human nature is the tabula rasa.  Marx presumes (and extensively makes a case for) the idea that humanity is malleable and determined by outside forces.  Marx writes, “Will power and not economic conditions is the basis of [Bakunin’s] social revolution,” [emphasis his].[xx]  The idea of human will as the determining agent in social revolution is abhorrent to Marx, who prefers an external, alien force (akin to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”) to compel society into an assured future.  Such a force, if slightly mystifying, is theoretically expedient.  It assures Marx that the “class dictatorship of the proletariat,” considered as the unalterable force of history and not as a mere faction of human beings, will serve as “the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.”[xxi]

But if the norms upon which class distinctions originally developed are natural to mankind (and so inclined to manifest under any economic order), then Marx’s “coming historical process” that inevitably results in “the permanence of the revolution” is in serious jeopardy.[xxii]  It seems the case today, suggested by a growing body of research,[xxiii] that Marx’s reduction of political economics into mere historical-development is no truer than the bourgeois fantasy of a purely natural economic hierarchy.  Instead it seems to be the case that cultural norms have their roots in an evolutionary design from which variability is possible but some arrangements are precluded.  These common roots are why we tend to think alike, reach similar conclusions from similar stimuli, and even derive the same meanings from stings of symbols in the phenomenon of language.[xxiv]  Never-the-less these natural forces have grave impact on theories of revolution.  It is true that revolutionary times seem to bring all norms into question, but some changes seem to be beyond our ability to change.  For example, the emotions surrounding blood ties, children, and mates seem to be impervious to revolutionary development and social design.[xxv]  Another implication of certain fixed norms is their moral polarity at given conditions may reverse under other conditions.  Many of these “natural” norms in fact presume conditions.  For example the human feeding mechanisms, from hunger to metabolism to taste, presume a scarcity of food, periods of fasting, and the rarity of certain ingredients (e.g. salt, sugars, fats) in the natural environment.  So it is that an adaptive natural inclination becomes maladaptive under altered conditions.[xxvi]  Marx is certainly not ignorant of this fact; after all he is not countering capitalism with a call for asceticism.  It seems clear to Marx that the bourgeoisie are as equally powerless and fettered in the historically developed conditions of capitalism as well as the proletariat.  He writes, “Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.”[xxvii]  Strangely, this point of solidarity between bourgeoisie and proletariat evokes no sympathy from Marx, who seems to simultaneously hold them responsible for maintaining the present condition (capitalism) while continuing to assert its historical determinism.  Comparing the description of the bourgeois revolution in the “Manifesto,”[xxviii] with the prediction of the proletariat revolution from Capital, [xxix] one can clearly see the inevitability brought on by technological necessity for a reinvention of political and economic relations.  In Marx’s view, traditional norms, once rendered maladaptive by changing technological conditions and productive capacities, must be redesigned, but this assumes that all norms can be altered.

However, particular norms are not simply value-free, necessary conditions of history for Marx.  He repeatedly condemns capitalism for its exploitation, alienation, and degradation of workers.   Marx does however seem to suffer from a political blind spot, where he fails to take into account the contingent aspect of norms.  Every adjustment of conditions will displace all, even the seemingly unconnected norms.  As a way turning now to the third section of this exposé allow me to illustrate the duplicitous moral nature of norms.   It is by the strength of our norms that social cohesion is protected.  However, it is often the case that the norms we rely on to bind us together are the exact same ones that produce genocide and the will to dominate others.  Love, typically considered a morally-positive socially cohesive emotion, when combined with fear of loss can result in abusive domination of a partner or in cases of generalized social fear can serve as the root of genocide.  It is the love of one’s nearest and dearest combined with the experience of certainty of a threat posed by a group (e.g. Jews, bourgeois, Tutsi) that results in the rational conclusion that the only way for your people to secure life is the total elimination of the threatening group.  Times of socio-political crisis serve as fertilizer to the fear that simultaneously intensifies the love of friends and family and ostracizes all others; the only question that needs be answered in order to commit the most heinous acts of violence is “who threatens me?”


Which brings me to my third and final point, what is the political and ethical value of violence in revolutionary action?  Marx’s position on this issue is made most explicit in his 1872 speech after the congress of the First International.  He says, “Someday the workers must seize political power in order to build up the new organization of labor,” then a little later,

“But we have not asserted that the ways to achieve that goal are everywhere the same.  You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries – such as America, England… I would perhaps also add Holland – where workers can attain their goal by peaceful means.  This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must someday appeal in order to erect the rule of the labor.”[xxx]

Marx does not make violent overthrow a foregone conclusion, yet he seems to be saying that only in particular places and by particular people[xxxi] will non-violent revolution be possible.   Violent revolution however, is subject to a serious problem that Marx seems to ignore, namely the solidarity of the proletariat.  Revising the “series of defeats” view of the 1848 French revolution, Marx writes “the revolution made progress… by the creation of an opponent in combat with whom, only, the party of overthrow ripened into a really revolutionary party.”[xxxii]  In other words, the confrontation with a common enemy (the bourgeoisie) would unite the workers into a solid mass (the proletariat.)  What Marx fails to see here is the incompatibility of combat as the dominate metaphor of social revolution and the ultimate goal of permanent revolution.  If the workers are brought and held together only by combat against bourgeois interests, then nothing would signal the end of the revolution faster than the victory of the proletariat.[xxxiii]  Thus a revolutionary society, united through external opposition, must preserve its opposition or risk dissolution; it cannot survive its own success.  Without the bourgeoisie, the proletariat fractures, and new classes are formed in the classless society.  To preserve the revolutionary struggle, violence would have to be both restrained (to prevent victory) and constant (to prevent defeat.)  The permanent revolution, as balanced and constant warfare, is exactly what George Orwell envisioned in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Three other, related, problems with violence are 1) it forces the conclusion of political discourse, 2) it presumes politics, and 3) it is always an act of exclusion and domination.  If we understand politics as deciding how we should relate to other living beings, then violence, as an action, is always posterior to and exterior to politics.  Thus politics is the resolution of principles and particular behaviors involving living relations, while action is merely their follow-through.  Violence may be tactical or strategic but it is always the consequence of a decision and never the decision itself.  When disagreement between people turns violent, decision-making is at an end; violence is the decision.  Marx visualizes the revolution as warfare, casting the bourgeoisie in the role of enemy and the proletariat in the role of conqueror.  By doing so, Marx is actually taking the political decision-making process away from the people and pre-deciding how these two oppositions can and should relate.  Once one has determined the enemy, one need no longer consider how to relate to that enemy but merely one’s strategy to subdue them.[xxxiv]  Violence is exclusionary, as we must consider another person (people or, as is so often the case when justifying violence, a personified abstraction) sufficiently beneath us that they’re input is no longer worthy of our consideration, and that all that we require of them is their compliance with our will.  Violence is always an act of domination that bars the possibility of equality.  This leaves Marxists with the difficult (political) question of how to relate to the bourgeoisie in light of a permanent revolution or communist end of history.  On the one hand they are necessary for the continued solidarity among the proletariat, so they cannot be violently destroyed.  On the other hand they cannot be brought into the fold so to speak, because this too removes them as external threat.  However, this is not a true impasse, but one artificially created by Marx’s insistence on warfare as the metaphor of social progress.


There remain with us today still, these tendencies, many of which predate Marx.  We must move beyond such conceptual frameworks.  It is right that we love the unfortunates, but we must not make our love conditional on their innocence or victimhood.  Nor can we view the winners of capitalism as agents free of structural forces and, what is worse, the shapers of those forces.  As the working class understands, we cannot all be white-collared.  Some will daily have to scrub toilets and flip endless burgers and the banality of this labor is felt all the more sharply when one is erudite and might rather send their time as a university professor.  A strong conviction in the power of people to help themselves must be tempered with a realistic understanding of their “education,” their anxiety about new social arrangements, and the internalization of the norms and values of the exploited that have kept them alive for generations.  In the end, we are our own best oppressors.  Violence should be understood as an exclusionary action, meant to control another’s behavior and bring them into compliance with our will, and never as an instance of a historical imperative.  Further, it should be recalled that violence is always directed against people.  Institutions, governments, and all like abstractions feel no pain and can suffer no violence.  To be effective, violence must afflict the bodies in which these abstractions are housed and is therefore always the act of an oppressor.  Finally, it is perhaps the philosophic emphasis on theory, seeking a design for human harmony and ignoring the cultivation and practice of virtuous principles in individual humans that has condemned the world to its current misery.  If so, social philosophers like Marx, have much to answer for; let us not to repeat their mistakes.

[i] Marx, Karl and Fredrick Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” 1888. Trans. Fredrick Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader  2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 469-500.

[ii] Marx, Karl. “The Possibility of Non-Violent Revolution.” 1872. Trans. Saul K. Padover. The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 522-524.

[iii]   –. “After the Revolution: Marx Debates Bakunin” Trans. and Ed. Robert C. Tucker. The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1978. 542-548.

[iv]   –. “The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850.” 1850. The Marx-Engels Reader  2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 586-593.

[v]   –. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” 1852. The Marx-Engels Reader  2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 594-617.

[vi]  –. Capital Vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1976.

[vii] A state of socio-political crisis suggests the possible dissolution of all normative social relations, an undoing of society; revolution, domestic war, large natural disaster, frontier lawlessness [e.g. the old west], are examples.  A socio-political crisis should not be confused with events that do not alter the form of norms but only exchange their particular contents, such as electoral administrative changes, coup d’état, usurpation, etc.

[viii] Pauper in my sense means a person fully-employed but still poverty-stricken; the working poor.

[ix] By “the unfortunates” I am myself pushing this labeling process to absurdity; I mean to gather the poor, the paupers, the weak, the worse-off, the disempowered, and the disenfranchised of all stripes, into one, hopelessly over-generalized sociological conglomerate, i.e. the rabble.

[x] Capital Vol. I, p. 342

[xi] M-E Reader, p. 543 and 586

[xii] ibid., p. 613-616.  For a fuller description, Marx write of the Paris lumpenproletariat, “Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.”  From “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” section V (not found in the M-E Reader): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch05.html

[xiii] ibid., p. 615.  For a full description see “Manifesto,” Chapter III, Part 1, Section C on p. 493 of the M-E Reader.

[xiv] “A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis.  It is, however, just as certain as this crisis [the French revolution of 1848].” M-E Reader  p. 593

[xv] Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals.  New York: Vintage, 1971. (18-23.)

[xvi] “The revolution is dead! – Long live the revolution!” M-E Reader, p. 591

[xvii] All above M-E Reader, p. 546-7

[xviii] See particularly Capital Vol. I, p. 273

[xix] M-E Reader, p. 546

[xx] ibid. p. 544

[xxi] ibid. p. 592-3

[xxii] ibid. p. 592

[xxiii]  See Noam Chomsky’s attacks of B. F. Skinner for an example of the inadequacy of the tabula rasa.

[xxiv]  I want to be extra clear here, this is not to be read as all of our decisions are reducible to human nature.  Far from it!  I am only suggesting that certain conceptions will reoccur over and over again throughout time and geography, because of the underlying structures of human reasoning.  It is likely the case that our “logic,” “mathematics,” and language are not truth in any objective and universal sense but are species subjective.

[xxv]  And so it is that the family has survived all socio-political and economic forms, including race-based slavery where it was under constant assault.

[xxvi]  While this fact is equally true for cultural norms, natural norms cannot be amended  to deal with new conditional challenges.

[xxvii]  Capital Vol. I, p. 381.   See also note 82 on the same page.

[xxviii]  “At a certain stage in the development of [the bourgeois] means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organization of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters.  They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.”   M-E Reader, p. 477-478

[xxix]  “The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it.  The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument.  This integument is burst asunder.  The knell of capitalist private property sounds.  The expropriators are expropriated.”  Capital Vol. I, p. 929

[xxx] M-E Reader, p. 523

[xxxi]  I think it is clear that by saying England might allow for non-violent revolution, Marx was not suggesting her colonies or commonwealth nations would enjoy the same privilege.  England houses the possibility of non-violent revolution for the English proletariat alone.

[xxxii] M-E Reader, p. 586

[xxxiii] Another possibility is that Marx naively believed that, after the achievement of worker solidarity, the cohesive force that originally united them could be dispensed with, and that no new force would be necessary to prevent fracture and internal strife.

[xxxiv]  This why I would disagree that the Che Guevara anecdote in Mesing’s blog post, “Politics, Violence, and Complicity: A Few Notes on Arendt’s On Revolution” demonstrated a “concrete political decision.”  Guevara’s decision to personally execute an infiltrator was strictly a military one and was political only in the sense that it carried within itself the presumption of a prior political decision.

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