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 Chapter  II

Main Ideological Currents Leading up to Marxism

The Enlightment

Bourgeois Liberalism

Classical Political Economy

Socialist Theories

German Classical Philosophy


An analysis of the socio-economic and political conditions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century thus points to the inevitable birth then of proletarian ideology. However, in order to understand the specific content and form of Marxism it is necessary to understand the process of development of human ideas and thought in the most advanced countries at that time. Since it was capitalism that was the leading force in the development of human societies and since Western Europe was the seat of most of capitalist development it was but natural that Marxism based itself and drew upon all that was best in European thought. Let us therefore examine the state and progress of the principal streams of advanced European thought at that time.

The Enlightenment

The intellectual and ideological background to the birth of Marxism was the progressive and often revolutionary movement which dominated the world of ideas during the eighteenth century at the time of the emergence of capitalism. It was linked to the struggle of the nascent bourgeoisie and the popular masses against feudal practices and institutions. This movement was called the Enlightenment.

The basic content of the Enlightenment ideology was rationalist and humanist, with a firm belief in the progress of man. It believed that human history was an ascent, rather than a decline or an up-down movement about a level trend. The Enlightenment drew its strength mainly from the growth of production and trade and the economic and scientific rationality believed to be associated with both. Its main ideologues saw that man’s scientific knowledge and technical control over nature increased daily. They thus believed that human society and individual man could be perfected by the same application of reason, and were destined to be so perfected by history. This core Enlightenment belief in the united progress of reason and freedom provided the basis for revolutionary bourgeois ideology, i.e., classical bourgeois liberalism. This core belief also continued into the first socialist thinkers in the nineteenth century.

The distinctive feature of the Enlightenment was the urge of the thinkers concerned to restructure all social relations on a basis of Reason, Eternal Justice, Equality and other principles, stemming, in their opinion, from Nature itself, from the inalienable "natural rights" of Man. The leading figures of the Enlightenment saw the dissemination of progressive ideas and knowledge and the enhancement of moral standards to be the basic means of transforming the life of society. As Engels put it, the ideals of the Enlightenment were in practice none other than the "idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie". Its greatest supporters and champions were the economically most progressive classes, those most directly involved in the advances of the time : the mercantile circles and economically enlightened landlords, financiers, scientifically-minded economic and social administrators, the educated middle class, manufacturers and entrepreneurs. Naturally the two chief centres of the Enlightenment were also those of the dual revolution - France and England.

A secular, rationalist and progressive individualism dominated ‘enlightened’ thought. To set the individual free from the shackles which fettered him was its chief object: from the ignorant traditionalism of the Middle Ages, which still threw their shadow across the world, from the superstition of the churches, from the irrationality which divide men into a hierarchy of higher and lower ranks according to birth. Liberty, equality and fraternity of all men were its slogans. In due course they became those of the French Revolution.

The Enlightenment in England, which followed its bourgeois revolution, was relatively moderate in its ideas and goals. Its leading figure, John Locke, as well as other representatives, propagated in both religion and politics a spirit of class compromise. In France however the Enlightenment preceded the Revolution and played a decisive part in the ideological preparation for it. The fathers of the French Enlightenment were Voltaire and Montesquieu and it was known for its militant anticlericalism and its unswerving opposition to the Roman Catholic religion and Church, which constituted the spiritual bastion of the feudal, absolutist order. The Enlightenment in America was led by the radical democratic wing who took part in the War of Independence (1775-1783)- Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and others. In Russia one of the trends of the Enlightenment included figures who were members of the first modern Russian revolutionary insurrectionary movement, that of the Decembrists (1825). Thus Enlightenment thought often played the revolutionary role of providing the philosophical and ideological basis for the bourgeois revolutions.

Bourgeois Liberalism

Up to the French Revolution the most powerful and advanced formulation of the Enlightenment ideology of progress had been classical bourgeois liberalism. It was rigorously rationalist and secular; that is to say convinced on the one hand of the ability of men in principle to understand all and to solve all questions by the use of reason, and on the other hand of the tendency of irrational behaviour and institutions like organised non-rational religion to obscure rather than enlighten. Philosophically it tended towards materialism or empiricism. Its general assumptions regarding the world and man were marked by an intense individualism.

In brief, for classical liberalism the human world consisted of self contained individual atoms with certain built-in passions and drives, each seeking above all to maximise his satisfactions and minimise his dissatisfactions, equal in this to all others, and ‘naturally’ recognising no limits or rights of interference with his urges. In other words, each man was ‘naturally’ possessed of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as the American Declaration of Independence put it. In the course of pursuing this self-interest, each individual in this anarchy of equal competitors, found it advantageous or unavoidable to enter into certain relations with other individuals, and this complex of useful arrangements - which was often referred to as a social ‘contract’ - constituted society and social or political groups. Of course, social arrangements or associations meant some reduction of man’s ‘naturally’ unlimited liberty to do what he liked, one of the tasks of politics being to reduce such interference to the practicable minimum. Social aims were therefore the arithmetical sum of individual aims. Happiness was each individual’s supreme object; the greatest happiness of the greatest number, was the aim of society.

Though this in theory was the political outlook of liberalism, in actual practice the bourgeoisie did not go according to this pattern. This was because the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers and the pursuit of rational self-interest could also be interpreted to include rational interference by the state in the bourgeois rights of private property, enterprise and individual freedom. Thus in practice it was ensured that these rights of the bourgeoisie were safeguarded from any state interference or submission to the requirements of rationality. Thus England’s John Locke put private property as the most basic of ‘natural rights’; and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was modified to bring the demand for free enterprise under the form of a general natural right to liberty.

Classical Political Economy

The essence of the bourgeois liberal ideology was carried forward in the most thorough fashion in the works of the classical political economists. This new field of study naturally reached its heights in the mother country of the Industrial Revolution — Britain. Its period started with the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776, it reached its peak with David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy in 1817, and from 1830 onwards started the period of its decline or transformation. Adam Smith (1723-90) argued that the self-interested competitive activities of independent individuals, when left to operate as far as possible unchecked, produced not only a ‘natural’ social order, but also the most rapid possible increase in the ‘wealth of nations’, i.e. the comfort and well-being, and therefore the happiness, of all men. The basis of this natural order was the social division of labour. He therefore logically proved that the existence of a class of capitalists owning the means of production benefited all, including the class of labourers hiring themselves out to the capitalists. He thus also similarly proved that both Britain and Jamaica were best served by the one producing manufactured goods and the other raw sugar. Moreover, according to him, the economically very unequal society which resulted inevitably from the operations of human nature was not incompatible with the natural equality of all men or with justice. This was supposedly because even the poorest was ensured a better life than he would otherwise have had. Further, it was based on the most equal of all relationships, the exchange of equivalents in the market. Thus, in Adam Smith’s view, progress was as natural as capitalism. Remove the artificial obstacles to it which the past had erected, and it must inevitably take place. And the progress of production went hand in hand with that of the arts, the sciences and civilisation in general.

This comforting view of the all-conquering nature of capitalism gained acceptance not merely because of what was then believed to be the unanswerable nature of its deductive reasoning. More than that its basis lay in the very visible progress of eighteenth century capitalism and European civilisation. However when there were marked difficulties in capitalist expansion from around 1810 to the 1840s the mood changed. Optimism changed to criticism and there started a period of critical enquiry, particularly into distribution as against production, which had been the main concentration of economists during Adam Smith’s time.

The work of David Ricardo (1792-1823) belongs to this period. He was an economist who participated wholeheartedly in the practical issues affecting the capitalist class of the day. He thus was a champion of the cause of free trade and opposition to landlords, issues which he also supported by economic theory. However he also pointed out contradictions in the capitalist system which Smith had overlooked. One important such point was the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. More significant however was his basic general labour theory of value. It pointed out, for the first time, that labour was the source of all value and that the capitalists and landlords appropriated in the form of profit and rent respectively the surplus which the worker produced over and above what he received back as wages. Ricardo however did not lead his labour theory of value to its logical social conclusions. He did not clearly point out that the capitalist in fact exploited the worker and it was necessary to do away with capitalists to do away with exploitation. A group of Ricardian ‘labour economists’ however soon arose in Britain who made this analysis.

Such analysis and critique of capitalism would however not have gained much weight if the earlier period of continuous rapid capitalist expansion had continued. However the capitalist system had started facing crises, first the localised crises in particular manufacturing and financial sectors of the economy from 1793, and then the all encompassing periodic general crises of 1825-26, 1836-37, 1839-42, 1846-48, etc. Economists like Sismondi, Wade and others too had started locating the cause of the crises in the nature of the capitalist system itself. In such a situation it was therefore but natural that as contradictions sharpened, particularly after 1830, even Ricardian theories started being looked upon with suspicion by the bourgeoisie. In fact some bourgeois writers saw Ricardo as the source of inspiration for agitators and disrupters in society. While such direct and immediate inspiration from Ricardo’s works may have not been that significant, he definitely provided the groundwork for a much more serious and enduring offensive on the basis of capitalism. It was his labour theory of value and other contributions of the classical economists that Marx developed upon while making his critique of capital.

Socialist Theories

Meanwhile as classical bourgeois liberalism started losing much of its Enlightenment confidence in the inevitability and desirability of progress, a new ideology, socialism, started reformulating the truths of the eighteenth century. Reason, science and progress were its firm foundation. The socialists of this period were thus no mere repetition of dreamers in a perfect society of common ownership that periodically appear throughout history. They did not long for the return of some idyllic pre-industrial society. Rather their distinguishing feature was that they all accepted the Industrial Revolution which created the very possibility of modern socialism. They attempted to take the industrial society forward to a more rational, more scientific stage.

The first active manifestation of socialism after the French Revolution was the conspiracy of Gracchus Babeuf. Babeuf and the Babouvists took their philosophy in the main from Rousseau and the utopianists of the Enlightenment. Their basic premise was the idea of equality. They thus aimed at the abolition of private property, equal distribution of wealth irrespective of the work done, no right to inheritance, no large cities, and that all would be compelled to do physical work and live in the same manner. The Babouvists planned to seize power through a conspiracy, and then the conspirators were supposed to rule on behalf of the masses, until the people were educated and able to rule through elected bodies. Babeuf’s conspiracy was detected in 1796 and he was executed. His ideas were to some extent carried on by Louis Blanqui. The Babouvist programme was not expressed in specific class categories but merely talked in terms of rich and poor or people and tyrants. It however was one of the first attempts at an economic criticism of private property as the foundation of society.

Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) is however normally recognised as the real founder of modern theoretical socialism, conceived not merely as an ideal but as the outcome of a historical process. He formulated the principle of a future ‘organic’ social community to which industrial concentration was leading. This future society would be one where production would be planned and measured by social needs, where private property would be subordinated to the general good and where inheritance would be abolished. The social hierarchy would no longer be hereditary; the highest positions would be held by wise men supervising the general development of society. The new industrial order would put an end to the misery of the proletariat, but the oppressed workers would not be the class to implement Saint-Simon’s plans. According to him, the transformation would be carried out by manufacturers, bankers, scholars, and artists, once they had been convinced by the new doctrine. To bring about this change nothing more was needed than peaceful reforms such as the acquisition of parliamentary power by industrialists; Saint-Simon also appealed to the governing class to support his plan. The most important features of his doctrine may be listed as follows : the firm belief in the regularity of history and its inexorable march towards socialism; the ruinous consequences of anarchic competition and the necessity of state economic planning; the replacement of political government by economic administration; science as the instrument of social progress; and the internationalist approach to politico-economic problems. Some negative features were Saint-Simon’s idea that the state as it now exists can be used to bring about a socialist transformation; his appeal for co-operation between classes, and the religious character he gave to his industrial order. In later years after his death Saint-Simonism became somewhat of a sect with his followers often stressing the religious aspects of his teachings. Its influence however continued through various prominent individuals. The socialist Louis Blanc was a disciple of Saint-Simon and through him was Lassalle, the pioneer political organiser of the German working class. In the field of industry one of Saint-Simon’s disciples built the Suez Canal whereas another became the manager of a railway line. In fact of all the pre-Marxist socialist doctrines Saint-Simonism had the strongest effect in spreading socialist ideas among the educated classes in various parts of Europe.

Robert Owen (1771-1858) was the other influential socialist thinker of this period. His main theoretical work was A New View of Society (1813-14), through which he tried to convince manufacturers and the aristocracy of the need for a reform of the industrial and monetary system, wages and education, in the interest not only of the workers but of capitalists and the whole of society. In numerous subsequent pamphlets, periodicals, articles, memorandums and appeals to Parliament he continued to advocated his reformist ideas, exposing the horrors of industrialisation and urging the adoption of social and educational measures which would remedy abuses without hindering technical progress. He was one of the main forces behind legislation restricting the working hours for children. Due to his intense propaganda against religion and private property he came under severe attack in Britain. He therefore left for America where he unsuccessfully attempted to set up communist settlements. However when he returned to Britain he became the first outstanding organiser of the trade union and workers co-operative movement. In his later years Owen put his trust in communist settlements engaged in agriculture and industry, the nuclei of the future harmonious society. Here, he believed that thanks to good organisation and loyal co-operation, people would produce more willingly, in greater quantity, and at a cheaper rate than elsewhere. Although it originated in practical experience, Owen’s doctrine, like that of the French socialists, centred round the conviction that socialism was a unique discovery, so manifestly right that it was bound to be accepted by all classes as soon as proclaimed. Owen thought that a radical economic reform in a socialist spirit could be effected by appealing to universal human interests and with the aid of the existing state power. Owen’s doctrine initiated a new phase of the British workers’ movement, in which it ceased to be merely an outburst of despair and became a systematic force. However, the British trade union movement is still marked by his outlook, which directly subordinates the political struggle to economic interests. The social democratic theories which treated workers’ political parties as organs of the trade unions are a continuation of the same doctrine.

Charles Fourier (1772-1837), was the one who described the future socialist society in greater detail than any of the other socialists of his time. Fourier’s doctrine was inspired by the phenomena of crisis, speculation, exploitation, and the misery of the workers. All this, he thought was due to a wrongful system of labour and exchange. Human needs and passions were ineradicable, but they only led to unhappiness because society was badly organised; the problem was to order matters in such a way that they led to the general good instead of to antagonism. To achieve this Fourier drew up an elaborate system of society composed of basic units of 2000 persons each called phalanxes. Unlike Saint-Simon and Owen, he did not see the remedy in the transformation of human nature but in a new social order where conflict of interests would be so organised as to lead to harmony. His disciples while giving up the more fantastic portions of Fourier’s theory tried to modify his ideas in the direction of realism. Workers’ consumer co-operatives were an outcome of his system, as were attempts to establish producer co-operatives in which the workers were shareholders.

Besides these principal figures there were many other socialists contributing to the immense outpouring of socialist literature of this period. Among them was Wilhelm Weitling (1808-71) a German emigrant worker who presented communism as a Christian ideal. He presented an intense critique of capitalism from a class viewpoint and unlike many of the prominent socialists, did not expect the government or the capitalists to recognise his ideal and bring it about of their own accord ; he believed that the workers can rely only on themselves and on their own strength. Etienne Cabet (1788-1856) was another socialist who wrote extensively advocating a non-revolutionary communism as the teaching of Christ. He later emigrated to America to establish communist settlements there. Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-65) was another prolific writer. Regarded as the father of modern anarchism, he painted the picture of a future society operated by ‘free mutualist associations’; a system which he called anarchy. A figure who was not much of a theoretician but was of immense practical significance in the principal revolutionary events of the time - both the 1848 Revolution and the Paris Commune - was Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-81). He continued the Babouvist tradition of revolutionary conspiracy into the workers’ movement and was a strong proponent and practitioner of armed insurrection. In a vague and broad sense he also accepted communism and the conception of dictatorship of the proletariat. Louis Blanc (1811-82) on the other hand was the successor of the Saint-Simonist tradition and is considered one of the chief precursors of the welfare state. He believed that it was possible, without violence or mass expropriation, to carry out peaceful economic reforms within a system of political and industrial democracy which would eliminate poverty and harmful competition and would gradually lead to social equality and to the socialisation of means of production.

This substantial body of socialist thought as can be seen emanated mainly from France, which was at that time the main centre for secret revolutionary groups and communist organisations. While socialists branched out in different directions, in essence this thought was a continuation of the Enlightenment spirit and ideas of rationalism and progress. However socialism was at the same time a break with the individualism, self-interest and competition of bourgeois liberalism. It was the ideology representing the initial hopes and aspirations of the infant proletariat.

German Classical Philosophy

Whereas British classical political economy representing the revolutionary modern bourgeoisie and French socialist theory representing the infant proletariat had a clear-cut progressive and also revolutionary content, the position was quite ambiguous with regard to German classical philosophy — the other great and influential body of European thought at the turn of the nineteenth century. It occupied an ideological position between the progressive and the anti-progressive, or in social terms, between the industrial bourgeoisie and proletariat on one side, and the aristocratic, mercantile and feudal classes on the other. It represented the contradictions and complexities of the German middle classes, who while in some ways believing in progress, were at the same time not prepared to follow it to its logical liberal or socialist conclusions. This because they were too weak and too frightened (after the experience of the Jacobin radical phase of the French Revolution) to challenge the power of the princes whose officials they often were. Thus the views of this group combined the liberal with the anti-liberal, the progressive with the anti-progressive. Further, this essential complexity and contradictoriness allowed them to see more deeply into the nature of society than either liberal progressives or anti-progressives. It in a way forced them into dialectics.

The German middle class contained a disproportionately large number of civil servants and state-employed professors. This affected the views of this class which had very few classical liberals. A belief in the inevitability of progress and in the benefits of scientific and economic advance, combined with a belief in the virtues of an enlightened paternal or bureaucratic administration and a sense of responsibility among the upper sections was the common opinion. German moderate liberalism was best represented by middle class demands to be implemented by an enlightened state.

The fundamental atmosphere of German thought - whether in philosophy, science or the arts - differed markedly from the main tradition of the eighteenth century in Western Europe. Perhaps since its members had neither the power to overthrow their societies nor the economic resources to make an Industrial Revolution, they tended to concentrate on the construction of elaborate general systems of thought. The persistence of the intellectual atmosphere of the last age in which Germany had been economically, intellectually, and to some extent politically, predominant, largely accounts for it. Due to the decline in the period between the Reformation and the later eighteenth century the archaism of the German intellectual tradition had been largely preserved. And at a time when the classical eighteenth century view was approaching its limits, this gave German thought some advantage, and helps to explain its increasing intellectual influence in the nineteenth century. The most impressive and influential expression of German thought was German classical philosophy created basically between 1760 and 1830. Its two great figures were Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).

Kant first expounded his ideas in his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Among his significant positive ideas are his insistence that independently of our consciousness and outside it there exists an objective world (‘things in themselves’); the attempt to examine the Earth and the Solar System in their emergence and development; his investigation of the sources and forms of knowledge; his identification of a number of contradictions intrinsic to knowledge and reality. Some potentially reactionary aspects of Kant’s thinking are: his teaching regarding the fundamental impossibility of cognizing (‘things in themselves’); the impossibility of surmounting the barrier separating phenomena, accessible to human knowledge, and their essence that is inaccessible to it; Kant’s efforts to reconcile materialism and idealism, scientific knowledge and religious faith.

Hegel elaborated a philosophical system , in which "the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process, i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is make to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all the movement and development" (Engels, Anti-Duhring, p. 34). Hegel’s system consists of three parts: Logic, Philosophy of Nature and Philosophy of the Spirit. In the first part he considers the progress of thought in the divine mind up until the creation of Nature, in the second he examines the development of that thought within created Nature, and, thirdly, its return to itself in the human spirit. The essential core of this system is provided by the ideas concerning the historical advance of man’s knowledge and social consciousness, presented in the context of dialectics.

German classical philosophy was a thoroughly bourgeois phenomenon. All its leading figures hailed the French Revolution and remained loyal to it for a considerable time. The Enlightenment was the framework of Kant’s thought and the starting point of Hegel’s. The philosophy of both was deeply immersed in the idea of progress and Hegel’s entire philosophy is one of evolution and necessary progress. Further, both studied the British political economists and were probably influenced to some extent by Adam Smith. Hegel even used in an abstract manner the tools of the classical liberal economists in his formulation of labour as a fundamental factor in humanity. All this firmly established German classical philosophy’s bourgeois roots.

Nevertheless, from the very beginning it differed from classic liberalism in important respects. This was more apparent in the case of Hegel. In the first place German philosophy was deliberately idealist, rejecting the materialism or empiricism of the classical tradition. In the second place, Hegel, unlike the classical liberals, makes his starting point the collective and not the individual. Moreover, German thinkers not being central participants in the bourgeois-liberal advance, were much more aware of its limits and contradictions. While recognising the inevitability of bourgeois society’s triumphant progress, they also raised the question of whether it may not in turn be superseded. In theory the transitoriness of the historically doomed society was built into their philosophy itself.

However in practice the philosophers tried to reconcile this revolutionary nature of their philosophical conclusions with reality in a conservative manner. This Hegel did through a process of idealisation of the Prussian state and a refusal to accept its transitoriness, as also an attempt to end history with the cognition of the Absolute Idea. However this lay in direct contradiction to the core substance of a philosophy which saw the historical process itself developing through the dialectic of contradictions. This contradiction could not obviously stand up to the years of ferment following 1830. Just as we saw a process of decline in classical political economy in this period, we can also see a period of disintegration in German classical philosophy. The ‘Young Hegelians’ refused to halt where their teacher did and insisted on following their philosophy to its logical conclusions. They further showed their readiness to take the road of revolution abandoned by their predecessors. However the issues of revolution in the 1830-48 period were no longer simply the question of the seizure of power by bourgeois liberals. A new class — the proletariat — had emerged and started rewriting the agenda of history. Therefore the intellectual revolutionary to emerge from the disintegration of German philosophy was not some bourgeois radical but Karl Marx.

In fact 1830 which marked the revival of the major west -European revolutionary movement, also marked the beginning of the crisis of classical bourgeois ideology. Its most advanced fields - political economy and philosophy - were in a process of decline and disintegration. The changing material conditions of the bourgeoisie and the apparent obstacles to its triumphal advance prevented the contemporary bourgeois thinkers from carrying forward uninterruptedly the classical tradition of Adam Smith and Ricardo or of Kant and Hegel. The great tradition of the intellectual development following from the Enlightenment however did not die. It was transformed into its opposite in the form of Marxism.



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