Marx 200: A brief overview of an extraordinary life’s work

Why does Marx's name still strike fear and loathing into the hearts and minds of the bourgeoisie so many years after his death? What is the legacy that refuses to die?

This article was given as a presentation to the Stalin Society in London on 15 July 2018.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, the greatest man ever. Born 18 May 1818, he died on 14 March 1883.

During the 45 years of his activity as a revolutionist and a scholar, he revolutionised social science through the discovery of historical materialism and the theory of surplus value, in addition to giving guidance to the European and American proletariat in their struggle against capital.

Working in close collaboration with his dearest friend, Frederick Engels, he founded the science of Marxism, which has ever since guided the activity of the proletariat throughout the world.

By way of remembering him, and celebrating his world-historical achievements in the field of social science, economics and practical revolutionary activity, it is a matter of great pride and honour for me to be called upon to make this presentation to the Stalin Society and to outline in brief his main contributions and their significance to the international working-class movement.

As it facilitates my narrative, I start my presentation with Marx’s death.

The final sleep

In the afternoon of 14 March 1883, whilst sitting in his easy chair, Karl Marx fell gently and without pain into his last sleep. Despite great sorrow at this irreparable loss, Engels found that it contained a grain of consolation:

“Medical skill might perhaps have made it possible for him to drag on another few years, living the life of a helpless invalid dying, not suddenly but by inches, to the greater glory of the medical profession. Our Marx could never have stood that. To live on with so much unfinished work before him and to suffer the tantalising desire to finish it and know that he would never be able to do so – that would have been a thousand times more bitter than the gentle death which took him.

“With Epicurus he was wont to say that death was no misfortune for him who died, but for those who survived. And to see the great genius lingering on as a physical wreck to the greater glory of medicine and the mockery of the philistines he so often flayed in the prime of his life – no, a thousand times better as it is, a thousand times better that we carry him to the grave where his wife lies.” (Quoted by Franz Mehring in Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, 1918)

On 17 March, on a Saturday, Karl Marx was buried in the grave of his wife. His family tactfully dispensed with “all ceremony” such as would have closed his life with a painfully discordant note.

No more than a few faithful friends were at the graveside. Engels with Friedrich Lessner and G Lochner, his old comrades from the days of the Communist League, Paul Lafargue and Charles Longuet from France and Wilhelm Liebknecht from Germany. Science was represented by two of its most prominent pioneers, the chemist Carl Schorlemmer and the biologist Ray Lankester.

Engels’ farewell words

“On the afternoon of 14th of March, at a quarter to three the greatest living thinker ceased to think. Left alone for less than two minutes, when we entered we found him sleeping peacefully in his chair – but for ever.

“It is impossible to measure the loss which the fighting European and American proletariat and historical science has lost with the death of this man. Soon enough we shall feel the breach which has been broken by the death of this tremendous spirit.

“As Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history: the simple fact, previously hidden under ideological growths, that human beings must first of all eat, drink, shelter and clothe themselves before they can turn their attention to politics, science, art and religion; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of life and consequently the given stage of economic development of a people or of a period form the basis on which the state institutions, the legal principles, the art and even the religious ideas of the people in question have developed and out of which they must be explained, instead of exactly the contrary, as was previously attempted.

“But not only this, Marx explained the special law of development of the present-day capitalist mode of production and of the bourgeois system of society which it has produced. With the discovery of surplus-value, light was suddenly shed on the darkness in which all other economists, both bourgeois and socialist, had been groping.

“Two such discoveries would have been enough for any life. Fortunate indeed is he to whom it is given to make even one, but on every single field which Marx investigated (and there were many and on none of them were his investigations superficial) he made independent discoveries, even on the field of mathematics.

“That was the man of science. But this was not even half the man. Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force. However great the joy with which he welcomed a new discovery in some theoretical science whose practical application perhaps it was as yet quite impossible to envisage, he experienced quite another kind of joy when the discovery involved immediate revolutionary changes in industry, and in historical development in general. For example, he followed closely the development of the discoveries made in the field of electricity and recently those of Marcel Deprez.

“For Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation.

“Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival. His work on the first Rheinische Zeitung (1842), the Paris Vorwarts (1844), the Deutsche Brusseler Zeitung (1847), the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49), the New York Tribune (1852-61), and, in addition to these, a host of militant pamphlets, work in organisations in Paris, Brussels and London, and finally, crowning all, the formation of the great International Working Men’s Association – this was indeed an achievement of which its founder might well have been proud even if he had done nothing else.

“And, consequently, Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him.

“All this he brushed aside as though it were a cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers – from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America – and I make bold to say that, though he may have had many opponents, he had hardly one personal enemy.

“His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.” (Frederick Engels’ burial speech at the grave of Karl Marx, London, 17 May 1883)

Historical materialism

“The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged.

“From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.

“The growing perception that existing social institutions are unreasonable and unjust, that reason has become unreason, and right wrong, is only proof that in the modes of production and exchange changes have silently taken place with which the social order, adapted to earlier economic conditions, is no longer in keeping.

“From this it also follows that the means of getting rid of the incongruities that have been brought to light must also be present, in a more or less developed condition, within the changed modes of production themselves. These means are not to be invented spun out of the head, but discovered with the aid of the head in the existing system of production.” (Anti-Dühring, Frederick Engels, 1877)

This earth-shattering discovery of Marxism, which truly revolutionised social sciences, was succinctly formulated by Marx in the following well-known, and never to be forgotten, words written as far back as January 1859:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.

“The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto.

“From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution …” (Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859)

Marx and Engels never tried to invent an ‘authoritative’ system of a new social order; they never tried to construct the elements of a new society out of their heads, they did not appeal to ‘pure reason’ nor did they base themselves on ‘ultimate truths’ and ‘eternal justice’, nor for that matter did they claim to have ‘access to an inner spiritual wisdom’. No, there was not an iota of such utopianism in them.

Instead, like the scientists they were, they painstakingly, meticulously and thoroughly studied the data furnished by the development of society, and evolved their system out of the historically developed material at their disposal. It is precisely to this fact that Marxism owes its strength, and it is precisely in this that lies the superiority of Marxism over all rival systems.

In the Afterword to the second German edition of volume 1 of Capital, Marx, while distinguishing his dialectical method from that of Hegel, nevertheless went on to emphasise the revolutionary essence of Hegel’s dialectics in these words:

“My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, ie, the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea,’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

“The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly 30 years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just as I was working at the first volume of Das Kapital it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre epigonoi [inferior imitators – Büchner, Dühring and others] who now talk large in cultured Germany, to treat Hegel in same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza, ie, as a ‘dead dog’.

“I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

“In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.

“The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeois most strikingly in the changes of the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of its action it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom-upstarts of the new, holy Prusso-German empire.” (Karl Marx, 24 January 1873)

Utopianism and its historical justification

Marx and Engels put socialism on firm scientific foundations. All socialists before them were utopian; they could see the problems and the misery of the proletarian masses, but they could not see either the reasons for this misery or the solution to it.

In response to these problems they sought refuge in human reason, or in more perfect systems of social order, to be imposed upon society from without. None of this worked, for in conditions of the incomplete development of capitalism, and therefore of class conditions, there arose crude theories.

It is these conditions which explained and justified the emergence of Utopian socialist theories. In the words of Engels:

“To the crude conditions of capitalistic production and the crude class conditions correspond crude theories. The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain.

“Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as utopian …” (Anti Dühring, Frederick Engels, 1877)

On capital

By the time Marx and Engels came on the scene, capitalist development, at least in Britain, had made possible the discovery of the secret of the misery of the working class, as well as of the solution to that misery. That is the monumental task that Marx embarked on in his life’s towering work, Das Kapital.

This is how he described the aim of his labours in this field: “It is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” (Preface to the first German edition, 1867)

Since Marx’s Capital, socialism has become a science and, as such, it has to be studied as a science. There is no other easy way.

In his words: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” (Preface to the French edition, 1872)

Capital and social relations

In Capital, his epoch-making work, Marx analysed capitalist development and production relations from every angle. In reply to the assertion of the bourgeois economists that capital is accumulated labour, he asked: “‘What is a negro slave?’ A human being of the coloured race. One explanation is as good as the other. A negro is a negro, but under certain circumstances he may become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton, and only under certain circumstances does it become capital. Without these circumstances it is no more capital than gold is money, or sugar the price of sugar.

“Capital is a social productive relation, a productive relation of bourgeois society. A sum of commodities, of exchange values, becomes capital when it appears as an independent social power, that is to say, as the power of a section of society, and increases itself by exchange with direct living labour-power.

“The existence of a class possessing nothing but its capacity to labour is a necessary condition for the existence of capital. It is only power of accumulated, past, externalised labour over living labour-power that makes accumulated labour into capital. Capital does not consist in the fact that accumulated labour serves living labour-power as a means for further production. It consists in the fact that living labour-power serves accumulated labour as a means of maintaining and increasing its exchange-value.”

Capital and labour-power mutually condition each other; they produce each other mutually.

Primitive accumulation

Marx, with his customary erudition, withering wit, biting sarcasm and scientific insight, revealed the history and “methods of primitive accumulation which are anything but idyllic”; he revealed how money and commodities, under certain circumstances, were transformed into capital; he showed that this transformation centred on the creation of free labourers – free “in the double sense that neither they belonged to the means of production, as in the case of slaves .., nor do the means of production belong to them, as in the case of peasant proprietors …

“With this polarisation of the market for commodities, the fundamental conditions of capitalist production are given. The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realise their labour. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually extending scale.

“The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage labourers. The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.”

Countering fairy tales about capital accumulation being the result of prudence and abstinence, Marx showed that “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part”; that the “spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the state domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, created for the town industries the necessary supply of a ‘free’ and outlawed proletariat.” (Capital, Chapter 26)

As to the part played by colonial conquest in primitive accumulation, Marx had this to say:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.

“These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s anti-Jacobin war, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, etc.” (Capital, Chapter 31)

Marx traced the expropriation of the agricultural population from the land; bloody legislation against the expropriated from the end of the 15th century, the forcing down of wages by acts of parliament, the genesis of the capitalist farmer, the reaction of the agricultural revolution on industry, and the creation of the home market for industrial capital; the genesis of the industrial capitalist; the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation; and more.

Historically revolutionary role of capitalism

While making a devastating critique of capitalist exploitation, Marx and Engels fully recognised the historically revolutionary role played by capitalism in concentrating the scattered means of production and turning them into powerful levers of modern production.

To concentrate the “scattered, limited means of production, to enlarge them, to turn them into powerful levers of production of the present day – this was precisely the historic role of capitalist production and of its upholder, the bourgeoisie”. (Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877)

Contradiction between productive forces and relations of production

With strict scientific accuracy, Marx and Engels were able to show how petty production made way for capitalist production; how labourers were turned into proletarians, and their means of labour into capital; how the further development of capitalism led to the socialisation of labour and the transformation of the means of production “into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production”; how “the action of the immanent laws of capitalist production” led not only to concentration but also centralisation of capital with the “expropriation of many capitalists by few” resulting in “the constantly diminishing number of magnates of capital who usurp and monopolise all advantages of the process of transformation”.

They showed how alongside this centralisation grows “the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation”; how “with this too grows the revolt of the working class”, which is “disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself”; how “the monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with and under it”; how “the centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument”; and how, finally, this capitalist shell is “burst asunder”, the knell of capitalist property sounded and expropriators expropriated – through the seizure of power by the proletariat. (Capital, Chapter 32)

Under the conditions of capitalist production, the means of production cannot function unless they have first been transformed into capital, into the means of exploiting human labour-power.

“The necessity of this transformation into capital of the means of production and subsistence stands like a ghost between these and the workers. It alone prevents the coming together of the material and personal levers of production; it alone forbids the means of production to function, the workers to work and live.

“On the one hand, therefore, the capitalistic mode stands convicted of its own incapacity to further direct these productive forces themselves. On the other, these productive forces themselves, with increasing energy, press forward to the removal of the existing contradiction, to the abolition of their quality as capital, to the practical recognition of their character as social productive forces.” (F Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877)

“As can clearly be seen from the above, the conflict “between the productive forces and the mode of production is not a conflict engendered in the mind of man, like that between the original sin and divine justice. It exists, in fact, objectively, outside us, independently of the will and actions even of the men that have brought it on.

“Modern socialism is nothing but the reflex, in thought, of this conflict in fact, its ideal reflection in the mind first of the class directly suffering under it, the working class.” (Ibid)

When the bourgeois economists conclude from this that the interests of the capitalists and the interests of the workers are identical, it is true only in the sense that the worker must starve unless the capitalist employs him, and that capital must perish unless it exploits the worker.

The more rapidly productive capital increases, that is to say, the more flourishing industry becomes, then the more workers the capitalist needs and the dearer the worker can sell his labour power. The indispensable condition for a tolerable situation of the working class is therefore the speediest possible growth of productive capital.

Marx points out that in this case any considerable increase in wages presupposes a still more rapid increase in productive capital. When capital grows then wages may increase also, but all the more rapidly do the profits of capital increase. The material situation of the workers has improved therefore, but at the expense of his social situation; the social chasm between him and the capitalist has grown wider.

Therefore, to say that the most favourable condition for wage labour is the speediest possible growth of capital means only that the more rapidly the working class strengthens the hostile power, the alien riches which dominate it, the more favourable will be the conditions under which it is permitted to work anew to increase the power of capital, satisfied with forging the golden chains which drag it along at the heels of the bourgeoisie.

Historical justifications for the existence of classes

In earlier times the division of society into classes, into an exploiting minority and an exploited majority, had a certain historical justification. It was based upon the insufficiency of production. So long as the productivity of labour was so low as to yield a produce which was but slightly over that which was the necessary minimum for the existence of the labourer, so long there existed the division of society into classes, for alongside the great majority, exclusively engaged in labour, “arises a class freed from directly productive labour which looks after the general affairs of society; the direction of labour, state business, law, science, art, etc.” (F Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877)

The development, however, of modern productive forces, the development of production, has reached a point “at which appropriation of the means of production and products and, with this, of political domination, of the monopoly of culture, and of intellectual leadership by a particular class of society, has not only become superfluous but economically, politically, intellectually a hindrance to development.” (Ibid)

This point was reached over 100 years ago. Since then free competition capitalism has made way for monopoly capitalism, which has led to an unprecedented socialisation of production.

In the words of VI Lenin: “Capitalism in its imperialist stage leads directly to the most comprehensive socialisation of labour; it, so to speak, drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialisation.” (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916)

Already in the days of Marx and Engels, the political and intellectual bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie was barely a secret to the bourgeoisie themselves, for the recurring crises of overproduction revealed this bankruptcy every ten years.

During these crises, “society is suffocated beneath the weight of its own productive forces and products, which it cannot use, and stands helpless, face to face with the absurd contradiction that the producers have nothing to consume, because consumers are wanting. The expansive force of the means of production burst the bonds that the capitalist mode of production had imposed upon them. Their deliverance from these bonds is the one precondition for an unbroken, constantly-accelerated development of the productive forces, and therewith for a practically unlimited increase of production itself.” (F Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877)

The solution

The proletariat solves this contradiction by its seizure of state power and, by means of this, the transformation of the socialised means of production into public property. By so doing, the proletariat “frees the means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne, and gives their socialised character complete freedom to work itself out.

“Socialised production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible. The development of production makes the existence of different classes of society thenceforth an anachronism. In proportion as anarchy in social production vanishes, the political authority of the state dies out. Man, at last the master of his own form of social organisation, becomes at the same time the lord over nature, his own master – free.” (Ibid)

“To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat. To thoroughly comprehend the historical conditions and thus the very nature of this act, to impart to the now oppressed proletarian class a full knowledge of the conditions and of the meaning of the momentous act it is called upon to accomplish, this is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific socialism.” (Ibid)

The seizure of state power by the proletariat, and the transformation by it of the socialised means of production into public property, not only removes the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also eliminates “the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products” which characterise present-day production, and which reach absurd heights during the crises.

“Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today, and their political representatives. The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now, for the first time, here, but it is here.” (Ibid)

Historical experience fully confirms the correctness of Marxism. If humanity wishes to liberate itself from the torments of hunger and the horrors of war that are but an inevitable concomitant of capitalism, especially of its imperialist stage, it must seize the means of production and transform them into public property; it must do away with commodity production, and, with it, “the mastery of the product over the producer”; it must replace the anarchy of production with conscious, planned organisation of production.

Only then will the struggle for individual existence disappear, for then “for the first time man, in a certain sense” will be “finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom”, and emerge “from the mere conditions of existence into really human” conditions, and “for the first time” become “the real, conscious lord of nature”, through having “become the master of his own social organisation”.

“The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action.

“The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history – only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” (Ibid)

Soviet achievements

Since Engels wrote the above lines, the development of capitalism into imperialist (monopoly) capitalism, with the consequent enormously comprehensive socialisation of labour, has only served to emphasise the correctness and profundity of the Marxian analysis.

The remarkable achievements of the former Soviet Union in the field of economics, science, art, culture and military science shall forever remain an eloquent testimony to what a society can achieve once it has freed the means of production from the character of capital which they had borne.

Conversely, the restoration of capitalism, thanks to the treachery and renegacy of Khrushchevite revisionism, in the former USSR, is equally eloquent testimony to the horrors heaped upon the masses by capitalism.

Marxist Leninists have a duty to emphasise that “The reply of the proletariat to the economic policy of finance capital, to imperialism, cannot be free trade, but socialism. The aim of proletarian policy cannot today be the ideal of restoring free competition – which has now become a reactionary ideal – but the complete elimination of competition by the abolition of capitalism.” (Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital, quoted by VI Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916)

And what will follow this expropriation of the expropriators? Instead of some reactionary nostalgia and hankering after things which have passed into history, Marx states that the ending of capitalist production “does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: ie, on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and the other means of production”. (Ibid)

Why the bourgeoisie and its hired lackeys attack Marxism

In view of the scientific force and the lucidity of the Marxist analysis, in view of the attraction Marxism – the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific socialism – has for the proletariat all over the world, it is only to be expected that the imperialist bourgeoisie should carry on a ceaseless and relentless propaganda war against it in an endeavour to discredit Marxism and to ‘annihilate’ it for the millionth time.

All this is with the aim of preventing the now oppressed proletariat from realising the significance of “the act of universal emancipation” which it is its historical mission to accomplish, to prevent it from acquiring a thorough grasp of the historical conditions and the very nature of “the momentous act it is called upon to accomplish”.

With this aim in mind, the bourgeoisie conducts anti-communist mass propaganda of the most coarse and crude type, hand in hand with the most sophisticated campaign against communism. In the latter type of propaganda, the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia (especially those who make noises critical of imperialism) of every type – Trotskyite, revisionist, social-democrat and ordinary – play an important dirty role in the fight against communism, coming with all kinds of fabrications, devilish tricks and ‘alternatives’.

These ‘alternatives’ emanate from a mixture of ignorance, malice, fear of revolution, and, above all, a burning hatred of Marxism. They decry proletarian use of force to achieve its revolutionary aims.

But: “Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.” (K Marx, Capital, Chapter 31)

Elsewhere, emphasising the role of revolutionary violence in history, and mocking Eugen Dühring’s parson-like reasoning against the use of force, Engels said that force is “the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms”, and highlighted “the immense moral and spiritual impetus which has been given by every victorious revolution” – including the American revolution of the late 18th century against British colonialism. (F Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877)


Throughout his life Marx suffered from bouts of ill health and grinding poverty. To get an idea of Marx’s commitment to his scientific work and political activity in the service of the cause of liberation of the proletariat, one need go no further than read the following heart-rending accounts of the circumstances in which he laboured and his family suffered:

“My affairs have now reached the agreeable point at which I can no longer leave the house because my clothes are in pawn and can no longer eat meat because my credit is exhausted.” (27 February 1852)

These were the circumstances in which Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte saw the light of day, thanks to a gift of $40 by a worker whom Marx’s comrade in New York, Joseph Weydemeyer, did not name.

The death of Franziska, Marx’s youngest daughter, occurred at Easter the same year, movingly described in Frau Marx’s diary: “At Easter 1852, poor little Franziska fell ill with severe bronchitis. For three days the poor child struggled against death and suffered much. Her small lifeless body rested in our little back room whilst we all went together into the front room and when night came we made up beds on the floor.

“The three surviving children lay with us and we cried for the poor little angel who now rested so cold and lifeless in the next room. The poor child’s death took place in a period of bitterest poverty. I went to a French fugitive who lives near us and who had visited us shortly before. He received me with friendliness and sympathy and gave me two pounds and with that money the coffin in which my child could rest peacefully was paid for.

“It had no cradle when it was born and even the last little shell was denied it long enough. It was terrible for us when the little coffin was carried out to go to its last resting place.”

Ten years later matters had not improved. Marx had to write to Engels in the following terms: “I assure you I would sooner cut off my finger than write this letter. It is truly crushing to have to live half one’s life in dependence. The only consolation which sustains me is that you and I are in partnership and that my job is to give my time to theoretical and party business.” (31 July 1863)

The First International

The International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) was founded at a large meeting in St Martin’s Hall, London, on 28 September 1864. The political awakening of the English and French workers had revived the idea of internationalism, leading to this meeting under the chairmanship of Marx’s friend, the radical positivist historian Professor Edward Spencer Beesly.

After a lively debate, the meeting adopted the proposal to elect a committee and to instruct it to write the statutes of an international workers’ association for use until an international congress in Belgium should decide on them finally. This committee included Marx among its members.

Circumstances allowed Marx the intellectual leadership of this committee, composed of about 50 members representing English, German, French, Italian, Polish and Swiss workers. Many of the German workers had been members of the Communist League. This committee appointed a sub-committee to formulate the programme and statues of the new organisation, and Marx was elected to this subcommittee.

After the failure of some efforts by others, Marx took the matter in hand, coming up with the brilliant idea of drawing up an address to the working class by way of a review of working-class history since 1848, to serve as an introduction to the statutes of the new organisation. The committee unanimously and enthusiastically adopted the Inaugural Address and Provisional Rules he produced.

Not without reason did Professor Beesly wax lyrical over the masterpiece of a document produced by Marx. The Inaugural Address and Provisional Rules of the IWMA, were, he said: “Probably the most tremendous and impressive representation of the working-class case against the middle class ever pressed into a dozen pages.” (Quoted in Franz Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, 1918)

Contrasting working-class misery, on the one hand, and the accumulation of fabulous wealth by the propertied classes, on the other, during the 1848-64 years of unparalleled industrial development and commercial growth, the address stated:

“Everywhere the great mass of the working classes sank into ever deeper misery at least to the same extent as the upper classes rose in the social scale. In all the countries of Europe it is now an irrefutable fact, undeniable for every unprejudiced inquirer and denied only by those who have an interest in awakening deceptive hopes in others, that neither the perfection of machinery nor the application of science to industry and agriculture, neither the resources and artifices of communication nor new colonies and emigration, neither the conquest of new markets nor free trade, or all these things combined can succeed in abolishing the misery of the working masses, and that on the contrary, every new development of the creative power of labour is calculated, on the false basis of existing conditions, to intensify the social antagonisms and aggravate the social conflict.

“During this intoxicating period of economic progress starvation raised itself almost to the level of a social institution in the capital of the British empire. This period is characterised in the annals of history by the accelerated return, the extended compass and the deadly effects of the social pest known as industrial and commercial crisis.”

Though the working-class movement in the fifties had been defeated, this period had compensating characteristics.

First, the enactment of the ten-hour day with its salutary effects on the English proletariat. Besides being a great practical success, it was also a victory of principle – the victory of the political economy of the working class over the political economy of the bourgeoisie.

Second, the political economy of the proletariat had won a still greater victory through the cooperative movement:

“By deed instead of by argument they have proved that production on a large scale and in accordance with the laws of modern science is possible without the existence of a class of employers giving employment to a class of workers; that in order to produce wealth the tools of labour need not be monopolised as the instruments of an exploiting dominance over the workers; that wage-labour, like slave-labour and serfdom, is only a subordinate and temporary form doomed to disappear before cooperative labour, which performs its difficult task with a willing hand, a joyful spirit and a light heart …

“However, cooperative labour limited to occasional attempts would not be able to break the monopoly of capital. Perhaps just for this reason aristocrats, apparently high-minded in their ideas, philanthropic rhetoricians of the bourgeoisie and even hard-headed economists have suddenly begun to pay loathsome compliments to the cooperative labour system, which they tried vainly to suppress in its infancy, mocked at as the utopianism of dreamers or condemned as the madness of socialists.

“Only the development of cooperative labour to national dimensions could save the working masses, but the owners of land and capital would always mobilise their political privileges to perpetuate their economic monopoly indefinitely, and it was therefore the great duty of the working class to conquer political power.

“They possess one element of success – numbers. But numbers are weighty in the scales only when they are united in an organisation and led towards a conscious aim.” (Inaugural address of the International Working Men’s Association, October 1864)

Hence the necessity for fraternal relations between the workers of all countries, for their opposition to criminal wars and for their efforts to frustrate such wars. The struggle for such a foreign policy was an integral part of the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, said Marx.

The address concluded, as did the Communist Manifesto of 1848, with the words “Workers of the world, unite!”

From its formation in 1864, Marx and Engels were undoubtedly the leaders of the IWMA, which has come to be known as the First International.

In 1872, owing to the triumph of reaction in Europe following the defeat of the Paris Commune, as well as the factional activities of the anarchists, Marx and Engels moved a motion at the September 1872 Hague Congress of the International for the transfer of the general council (the general staff of the organisation) to New York, and for its members to be composed from the federal council of North America. The resolution was carried against fierce opposition from the Bakuninists (anarchists) and Blanquists (believers in revolution by conspirators).

The transference to New York, though not formally, was in political reality the end of the First International. The hopes entertained by Marx and Engels that the rapid development of capitalism, and with it the working-class movement, might furnish a secure basis for strengthening the International, unburdened by the anarchist confusion that infected some sections, mainly in southern Europe, were not realised.

In 1876, at a congress of the International in Philadelphia, the general council of the International was formally dissolved.

Historical significance of the First International

I conclude with a long quotation on the historical significance of the First International by Rajani Palme Dutt:

“The record and example of the First International, guided by the teaching and direct leadership of Marx, remains a permanent inspiration for the working-class movement. Its weaknesses sprang from the still elementary stage of the organised working-class movement. But the courage, initiative and leadership displayed on every single issue arising in the world during those eight years of its effective existence, and the masterly definition of guiding principles on so many of the til then uncleared and hotly contested key questions of the economic and political struggle, the programmatic aims of the working-class political power and collective ownership, tactical methods and the role of the trade unions and political party organisation, and democratic centralism, remain an immortal inheritance and treasurehouse for all subsequent development.

“Directly from the First International and its initial organisation and influence arose the main political working-class parties, based on the aim of socialism and guided by Marxist theory, of the subsequent period. From the First International derives the modern international working-class movement and modern communism.

“Commenting on the transfer of the general council to New York, Marx wrote in 1873:

“‘As I view European conditions it is quite useful to let the formal organisation of the International recede into the background for the time being … Events and the inevitable development and complication of things will of themselves see to it that the International shall rise again in improved form … Furthermore it upsets the calculations of the continental governments that the spectre of the International will fail to be of service to them during the impending reactionary crusade, besides, everywhere the bourgeoisie considers the spectre laid for good.’ (K Marx, Letter to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, 27 September 1873)

“Similar confidence in the future rebirth of the International in a new and strengthened form was expressed by Engels in 1874:

“‘With your resignation the old International is anyhow entirely wound up and at an end … Any further effort to galvanise it into new life would be folly and a waste of energy. For ten years the International dominated one side of European history – the side on which the future lies – and can look back upon its work with pride.

“‘But in its old form it has outlived its usefulness. I believe the next International – after Marx’s writings have exercised their influence for some years – will be directly communist and will proclaim precisely our principles.’ (Engels, Letter to Sorge, 12 September 1874)

“The immediately next International, the Second International, only partially fulfilled this prediction. Marxist theory was in principle accepted, but became increasingly corroded in the leading democratic parties of western and central Europe by reformism and revisionism, with the consequent collapse of 1914. The prediction of Engels fo a future communist international received its fulfilment 45 years later with the foundation of the Communist International [the Third International] in 1919.” (The Internationale, 1964)