The History of History 7: Marx & Engels

Ah Karl, you little rascal, you. Your philosophy inspired heated debates in the nineteenth century, turned the world upside down in the twentieth century, and lies somewhat dormant in the twenty-first century, as the word communism is associated with totalitarian regimes. Moreover, your name frequently overshadows your collaborator, Friedrich Engels. What of poor Engels, who seemed forever content to live in your shadow, acting as your promoter? People speak of Marxism, but he had a hand in many of your writings; you did not write in a vacuum, Karl. The biggest irony is that, for a man who ended his German Ideology by calling the words of prophets “sedative[s]” (Chapter 4, On Communism & Inequality), you positioned yourself as a secular prophet, proposing a complete way to perceive the world.

It is not hyperbolic to say that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels changed philosophy to the same degree that Luther and Calvin changed Christianity in the sixteenth century. Luther and Calvin criticized the dominant Catholicism of Europe; Marx and Engels criticized monarchy, religion, industrialism, income inequality, and (most of all) capitalist economics, calling for worldwide revolution. This week, I read three of Marx and Engels’s works, providing me with a deeper immersion in their thoughts than in past history courses, which typically assigned the Communist Manifesto and nothing else. Marx and Engels’s Principles of Communism covers the same material as the Communist Manifesto, but it is structured as an academic argument instead of a vehement sermon. Principles recommends that the unskilled laborers of the world rise up against bourgeois capitalists and greedy manufacturers, but the text does not end with a soaring call for the workers of the world to unite. The German Ideology discusses aspects of capitalism in greater detail, but its main function is to criticize the dominant philosophy, Hegelianism, of nineteenth-century Germany. The Civil War in France is a work solely authored by Marx (but affixed with an Engels introduction!) that defends the Paris Commune of 1871 as an honest attempt at achieving communism. As in the writings of Luther and Calvin, the prose of Marx and Engels can be knotty and slow going, but if one is going to be a historian of the modern era, then one cannot avoid these foundational works of communism.

A plethora of philosophical ideas figure into these documents, especially the mammoth German Ideology (which I found to be more confusing and unreadable as it went along). Marx and Engels’s biggest idea is historical materialism, a focus on economics and observable factors in history, rather than abstract theological ideas. This notion of materialism has some similarity to Leopold von Ranke’s emphasis on empirical evidence, except that the communists emphasize economics and class struggle above all other topics. Marx and Engels reject the idea of a racial hierarchy — that whites are more advanced than Africans, Mongols, etc. — thereby challenging the casual racism seen in works by Kant, Hegel, etc. In their rejection of all religions (not just Christianity), and in their refusal to believe that there is a Spirit at work in the world, Marx and Engels position themselves in opposition to the theological philosophy of Hegel, which dominated German high society in the nineteenth century. The communist writers also challenge a global tradition of religiously infused histories, which goes back to ancient texts like Sima Qian’s Records and Bishop Gregory’s History of the Franks. Marx and Engels do bear some similarity to Johann Herder: The communists believe that economics shape humans, much the way Herder believes that climate and nature shape humans. Of course, Marx and Engels would think Herder silly for believing that Nature is a deity of sorts.

Did Marx and Engels think that communism was inevitable? That is the impression one gets when reading the Communist Manifesto — Marx and Engels enthuse that now is the time when workers will seize the modes of production. The German Ideology contains a similar message: Just as Edward Gibbon wrote that humans would always enjoy progress, Marx and Engels write that history is “a continuous process” building to communism (Chapter 1, History as a continuous process). However, Marx and Engels’s Principles of Communism describes the need for workers to unite, but it feels more like a position paper identifying possibilities instead of certainties. Principles reads like the kind of document one delivers during a classroom debate. The Civil War in France is problematic, as well. It describes a communist-style worker’s revolt in Paris, but the revolt failed, crushed by bourgeois merchants and government functionaries. Perhaps Marx and Engels wanted to believe that communism was inevitable, but they had to convince themselves sometimes. The fact that Engels re-released the Civil War lectures twenty years after Marx delivered them suggests that Engels was trying to keep the communist dream alive, when the reality of the Paris Communards’ defeat suggested otherwise.

Marx and Engels reveal a shocking degree of pettiness and personal vindictiveness with their attacks on Max Stirner and other Young Hegelian philosophers. Indeed, Marx and Engels devote a large chunk of German Ideology to mocking “Saint Max,” whom they also call Sancho in the Cervantes/Don Quixote sense. Such petulance reveals that Marx and Engels were not perfect sages made of marble. Rather, they were ordinary men immersed in the culture of their times, with grudges against academics who disagreed with them. Furthermore, a strain of sexism threads its way through Marx and Engels’s communist worldview. In Principles, the authors enthuse about communism’s transformation of marriage from one based on capital to one based on mutual respect. However, Marx and Engels argue that communism will abolish the “community of women,” a bourgeois construct that usually leads to prostitution (Principles). This is not an enlightened view of women, their relationships with each other, or their role in the public sphere. It is also worth noting that Karl Marx, a married man with a house and children, had at least one mistress. Marx may have been poor for most of his adult life, but he lived like an elite man of letters, recruiting patrons to fund his work and committing adultery when he was so inclined. In short, Marx resembled the bourgeois figures he disdained, meaning that he was not as radical a figure as he likely envisioned himself.

Despite Marx’s flaws, his ideas had remarkable staying power, even after Engels was no longer alive to preserve Marx’s memory. Consider the proliferation of communist regimes in the twentieth century, as well as the importance of Marxism in universities. Indeed, many academics, including a healthy number of historians, continued to explore Marx’s ideas of class conflict and economic exploitation, even as they frowned upon the anti-democratic aspects of China and the Soviet Union. We read one example of Marxist historical writing this week — Albert Soboul’s 1953 application of Marxist class struggle to the French Revolution — to grasp Marx’s continuing hold upon the minds of Western social scientists, even in the midst of the Cold War. I think it’s fair to say that, in the academy, Marxism had enduring popularity as a way to write better history books, and not so much as a way to launch revolution. Many historians who claim to be Marxists would never get down in the trenches to lead a revolution. In that respect, these armchair communists are actually like the gentlemanly Karl Marx, ensconced in his subsidized house, cuddling with his mistress, and talking revolution.

And let’s not forget the many college students who go through periods of feeling like diehard Marxists. I had my Marxist phase in my freshman year of college, but even then I thought that Marx’s vision of a communist utopia was untenable. Marx assumed that no one would become selfish and challenge the communal lifestyle of a communist state. From my perspective, Marx correctly identified problems of industrial society that still plague us in the twenty-first century, but he fumbled when identifying a solution. The altruistic dream of true communism is impossible because people will always be selfish and greedy. Still, I think Marx got enough right that we need not dispose of all his ideas. After all, the democratic socialist states of Western Europe have historically enjoyed a high standard of living by modifying, but not totally dismantling, capitalism. (Marx hated democratic socialism as a shallow version of communism, but he isn’t around anymore to protest.) Here in America, Bernie Sanders waged a quixotic but honorable campaign for the presidency, recommending that we use democratic socialism to temper the bourgeoisie and create a more equitable society.

The question is if Sanders’s campaign will rehabilitate Marx’s reputation among most Americans, who think of totalitarianism and not student idealism when they hear the word communism.




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