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Chapter  III

The Birth of Marxism

Early Life of Marx and Engels

The Hegelian Left

Contact with Socialist and Revolutionary Thought

Study of Political Economy

Discovery of the Materialist Conception of History

Elaboration of Basic Principles of Marxism

Revolutionary Activity

The Communist Manifesto


Early Life of Marx and Engels

Karl Marx was born May 5th , 1818, in the city of Trier (Rhenish Prussia). His father was a lawyer, a Jew, who in 1824 adopted Protestantism. The family was well-to-do, cultured, but not revolutionary. Marx entered university, at Bonn in 1835 and later at Berlin in1836, where he first took up law, but soon devoted most of his attention to history and philosophy. He completed his doctorate in 1841. In Berlin he belonged to the circle of "Left Hegelians" who sought to draw atheistic and revolutionary conclusions from Hegel’s philosophy. Soon after leaving university, Marx plunged directly into the turbulent political life of that period. His very first article, written against the Prussian press censorship, resulted in the confiscation of the issue of the German Yearbook in which it was published. He however continued to write for Left Hegelian journals. In 1842, Marx was appointed as chief editor of a radical democratic newspaper in Cologne, the Rheinische Zeitung. However his revolutionary writings were too much for the censor and he was soon forced to leave this post. During this time, apart from articles on the freedom of the Press, he wrote analyses of the debates in the provincial assembly, in which for the first time he devoted his attention to economic questions and the standard of living of the deprived classes. Adopting a radical democratic standpoint, he denounced the pseudo-liberalism of the Prussian government and stood up for the oppressed peasantry. In 1843 he moved to Paris where he became the joint editor of a journal, The German-French Yearbooks. In Paris he was in close contact with various revolutionary groups. It was here that he developed the foundations of Marxist theory which he to some extent generalised in the only issue of his journal that came out in February 1844.

Frederick Engels was born on September 28th 1820, in Barmen, Rhenish Prussia. His father was a manufacturer. In 1838 Engels, without having completed his school studies, was forced by family circumstances to enter a commercial firm in Bremen as a clerk. Commercial affairs did not prevent Engels from pursuing his scientific and political education. He had come to hate autocracy and the tyranny of bureaucracy while still at school. As a result of practical contact with trade and industry he soon became interested in social questions. The study of philosophy led him further. In the course of private study he imbibed liberal-democratic ideas and was attracted to Left Hegelian radicalism. His first press articles written in1839 attacked German bigotry and the hypocrisy of petty-bourgeois pietism. He also described industrial conditions and the oppression and poverty of the workers. In 1842, he moved to Manchester, then the centre of British industry, where he entered the service of a commercial firm of which his father was a shareholder. He spent much time observing the conditions of the British working class and studying political economy and socialism. It is here that he contacted the Chartist and Owenite movements and became a revolutionary. He wrote for various journals including the Chartist Northern Star, and participated extensively in the activities of the various revolutionary groups of that time. The same issue of The German-French Yearbooks which contained Marx’s first preliminary exposition of the materialist conception of history also contained Engel’s essay entitled ‘Outline of a Critique of Political Economy’. Though he was corresponding with Marx earlier too, it was during a visit to meet Marx in Paris in the summer of 1844, that they found complete agreement in all theoretical fields. This marked the beginning of the fruitful partnership of these two magnificent fighters for and with the working class.

As can be seen from the above, the early intellectual and practical experiences of Marx and Engels equipped them considerably to absorb all that was best in European society at their time. Besides their grounding in classical German philosophy, they were within a short span exposed to and participated in the development of revolutionary theory and practice in the two main centres of France and England. Further, the period was one of the greatest revolutionary ferment throughout Europe — a period when both the bourgeoisie and proletariat often expected revolution to break out. In order to trace how Marx and Engels established Marxism in these conditions let us begin at their starting point - the Left Hegelian group.

The Hegelian Left

Almost immediately after the death of Hegel in 1831, some of his radically minded interpreters took up the task of breaking free from the political conservatism of the founder. To them it seemed evident that a philosophy which proclaimed the principle of universal negativism, treating each successive phase of history as the basis of its own destruction, could not consistently tolerate the endorsement of a particular historical situation, or recognise any kind of state, religion, or philosophy as irrefutable and final. This led by degrees to an attitude of radical criticism in politics, certain forms of which supplied the philosophical basis of communism.

This Left Hegelian or Young Hegelian movement was the philosophical expression of the republican, bourgeois-democratic opposition which criticised the feudal order of the Prussian state. Prussia’s western provinces, the Rhineland and Westphalia, had been under French rule for the most part of two decades and had benefited from the Napoleonic reforms - abolition of feudal estates and privileges, and equality before the law. They were also the centre of early modern industrial centres like Cologne. After their annexation to Prussia in 1815 they were a natural centre of repeated conflict with the monarchical system. Both Marx and Engels being natives of the Rhineland they were naturally imbued from a young age with this spirit of anti-feudal radical opposition.

This opposition in the field of literature was led from the late thirties by a group of Hegelian radicals mainly centred in Berlin with whom Marx came into contact at the time when he was beginning to formulate his own ideas. One of the prominent figures with whom Marx collaborated was Bruno Bauer (1809-82), a former Protestant theologian, who wrote numerous anti-Christian pieces from a Left Hegelian atheistic viewpoint. While being a part of the Left Hegelian group Marx at this early stage itself had a differing viewpoint in his emphasis on the philosophy of praxis (of linking with the practical world). This emphasis appeared in his doctoral thesis of 1841.

At the same time in 1841 appeared two books which helped Marx in freeing himself from the boundaries of Left Hegelian thought. The first was The European Triarchy by Moses Hess (1812-75) who had composed a communist philosophy on the basis of a combination of French socialist and Left Hegelian ideas. In this book Hess attempted to strip Hegelianism of its contemplative backward looking tendencies and transform it into a philosophy of action. Hess from 1841 became Marx’s friend and collaborator and many of his ideas helped to form Marx’s conception of scientific socialism. The other influential work of 1841 was The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) which presented a materialistic critique of religion expressed in Hegelian language. This and other works of Feuerbach played an important role in converting many Left Hegelians including Marx and Engels to materialism.

Marx’s transformation thus coincided with a process of radicalisation and then break-up of the Hegelian Left. The radicalisation of Left Hegelian philosophy led to them raising anti-feudal demands like the abolition of privileged estates, public office open to all, freedom of speech and property - in short, a bourgeois egalitarian state. This brought upon them the repression of the Prussian state. At the same time as the censor’s attacks on Marx’s Cologne newspaper, the authorities in1843 also suppressed an important Left Hegelian philosophical journal The German Yearbooks edited by Arnold Ruge. It was this journal that was attempted to be revived in Paris under the name of The German-French Yearbooks under the joint editorship of Marx, Ruge and Hess. The process of the break-up of the Left Hegelian group had however already begun and differences between Marx and Ruge led to the journal’s closure after one issue came out in February 1844.

Contact with Socialist and Revolutionary Thought

From the time of leaving university in 1841 the key role in Marx’s development was played by a deep involvement in revolutionary practice. During the period of his activity in Germany among bourgeois radicals itself Marx acquired some acquaintance with French socialist thought. However it was only after his shift to Paris that he got the opportunity to get deeply involved with both the French revolutionary and socialist-communist groups as well as the German emigrant communist organisations. Though he did not adopt any of the various socialist doctrines, Marx’s study and interaction with the socialists helped to form his initial views regarding scientific socialism and the revolutionary role of the proletariat.

At the same time Engels was going through the process of becoming a revolutionary in the main centre of the working class, England. He developed through interaction and participation in activity with the revolutionary Chartists and the reformist Owenites, observation of the conditions of the British working class and a study of political economy and socialism.

Study of Political Economy

The initial work in this respect was done by Engels who being in England was first exposed to the works of the great English classical economists. This study was reflected in his essay on political economy published in February 1844. He argued that the contradictions of capitalist economy could not be resolved on the basis of that economy; that periodical crises of overproduction were the inevitable consequence of free competition, etc. Private property led necessarily to antagonism between classes and an incurable conflict between private and public interests; it was also bound up with anarchy in production and the resultant crises. The abolition of private property was the only way to save humanity from crises, want, and exploitation. Planned production would do away with social inequality and the absurd situation in which poverty was caused by an excess of goods.

This was followed up by Marx who spent much of 1844 in Paris in studying the fathers of political economy like Adam Smith, Ricardo, Say, James Mill, Quesnay, as well the German philosophers and socialist writers. He was attempting a critique of political economy in which he attempted to provide a general philosophical analysis of basic concepts: capital, rent, labour, property, money, commodities, needs, and wages. This work which remained unfinished was published for the first time in 1932 as the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. In it he tried to present socialism as a general world-view and not merely a programme of social reform, and to relate economic categories to a philosophical interpretation of man’s position in nature.

Discovery of the Materialist Conception of History

It was during this period that the historical meeting between Marx and Engels took place in Paris in August-September 1844. Though they had exchanged ideas through correspondence the meeting helped to established a oneness of views and the beginning of a forty years’ collaboration in revolutionary activity.

This was also the period when Marx made the first of his most important discoveries, which revolutionised the whole conception of world history. Engels describes the process in the following words, "While I was in Manchester, it was tangibly brought home to me that the economic facts, which have so far played no role or only a contemptible one in the writing of history, are, at least in the modern world, a decisive historical force; that they form the basis of the origination of the present-day class antagonisms; that these class antagonisms, in the countries where they have become fully developed, thanks to large-scale industry, hence especially in England, are in their turn the basis of the formation of political parties and of party struggles, and thus of all political history. Marx had not only arrived at the same view, but had already, in the German-French Yearbooks (1844), generalised it to the effect that, speaking generally, it is not the state which conditions and regulates civil society, but civil society which conditions and regulates the state, and, consequently, that policy and its history are to be explained from the economic relations and their development, and not vice versa. ....When, in the spring of 1845, we met again in Brussels, Marx had already fully developed his materialist theory of history in its main features from the above-mentioned basis and we now applied ourselves to the detailed elaboration of the newly-won mode of outlook in the most varied directions." (Engels, On the History of the Communist League, Marx-Engels, Selected Works, p. 436).

Thus the discovery of the materialist conception of history in a sense laid the basis. Drawing from the sources of German classical philosophy, English classical political economy, and French revolutionary and socialist doctrines, the basic foundation of Marxism had been laid. Standing on this foundation it was now possible to elaborate the component parts of the world outlook of the modern proletariat.

Elaboration of Basic Principles of Marxism

This was the task that Marx and Engels devoted a large part of their energies in the immediate following years. While taking an active part in intense revolutionary activity they worked out the theory and tactics of revolutionary proletarian socialism or communism. The basic principles in all three component parts of Marxism — philosophy, political economy, and scientific socialism — were laid out in the course of intensive study and a battle against wrong trends in all these spheres.

In the sphere of philosophy, they in 1844, in a joint book, written mainly by Marx, (The Holy Family, or a Critique of Critical Criticism), launched a severe attack on the contemplative idealism of Bruno Bauer of the Left Hegelian circle, which Marx and Engels were earlier a part of. It is an important document signalling Marx’s final break with Left Hegelian radicalism: for its proclamation of communism as the ideology of the working class movement is not presented as a supplement to the critique of Left Hegelianism, but as something opposed to it.

In 1845-46, Marx and Engels "resolved to work out in common the opposition of [their] view to the ideological view of German philosophy, in fact, to settle accounts with [their] erstwhile philosophical conscience." 4 This resulted in a two volume work, The German Ideology, which first shaped the materialistic conception of history as the philosophical basis for the theory of scientific communism. It was primarily an attack on Feuerbach, Max Stirner (a Left Hegelian who stood for the absolute sovereignty of the Ego), and German ‘true socialism’. It was published, however, only after the October Revolution. And according to Engels, the exposition in this work proved "only how incomplete [their] knowledge of economic history still was at that time". 5 Yet it served at that time the very important purpose of self-clarification of these two great working class teachers.

Another short document written by Marx at that time (1845), and only published after his death, served a similar purpose. It was his eleven Theses on Feuerbach, which according to Engels, was "invaluable as the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook."6 It briefly and sharply pointed out the principal defect of Feurbach’s and other materialism, as its contemplative nature and its failure to understand that man’s activity is revolutionary. In fact one common string running through Marx and Engels’ philosophical writings of this period was that they demanded of the philosopher, not contemplation, but a struggle for a better order of society. This was best expressed in Marx’s oft quoted eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."  7

In the sphere of political economy, Engels, in February 1844 itself, brought out his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy. The next year he published The Condition of the Working Class in England, where he became the first one to proclaim that the proletariat was not only a suffering class, but a fighting class which would help itself; and that socialism would become a force only when it became the aim of the political struggle of the working class. After his contact with Engels, Marx too decided to study political economy which resulted in the already mentioned unfinished Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. And in 1847 he gave a series of lectures to workers in Brussels, which was later published as a pamphlet, ‘Wage-Labour and Capital’. This gave a popular outline of the economic relations forming the material basis for the class struggle in capitalist society.

it was however in the sphere of socialist theory and practice, that Marx and Engels, in this period, put in the most intense efforts. While participating energetically in the activities of the secret revolutionary groups, they made all efforts to win over the maximum possible forces to the side of proletarian revolutionary socialism. To do this they had to fight the numerous reactionary and petty bourgeois trends which were confusing and misleading the genuine elements in these organisations. Thus the second volume of their earlier mentioned work, The German Ideology, was an exposure of the reactionary, petty bourgeois, German ‘True’ socialism. However, the more major battle was against Proudhon’s bourgeois socialism which was very influential among the French socialists and revolutionaries at that time. In 1846, Proudhon published his most important work, The Philosophy of Poverty, which as Marx himself said, "produced a great sensation." Marx replied in a sharp polemic which tore to shreds the Proudhonist system. He called his reply The Poverty of Philosophy. He criticised Proudhon’s ignorance of economics, misuse of Hegelian concepts, moralistic conception of socialism, and a reactionary petty-bourgeois Utopia. This marked the beginning of a 20 year long battle with Proudhon and Proudhonists who continued to maintain a strong presence within the international socialist workers movement.

Revolutionary Activity

All the above theoretical work was done in the midst of continuous revolutionary activity. Marx in Paris took an active part in the meetings of socialist organisations and especially the League of the Just, while Engels, who had returned to Germany spread the word of communism in speeches and writings and endeavoured to weld scattered socialist groups into a single organisation. In February 1845 Marx was deported from Paris at the instance of the Prussian government and had to move to Brussels, where Engels joined him in the spring. In summer they visited England, where they made contact with the Chartists and took steps to establish a centre of co-operation of the revolutionary movements of different countries. Returning to Brussels, they continued to work for the unification of revolutionary associations.

This was a period of intense revolutionary ferment throughout Europe. The revival of the bourgeois revolutionary movement from 1830 was, by the 1840s, having its impact throughout Europe. It was becoming more and more clear that the old feudal aristocracy who still commanded large parts of Europe would no longer be able to rule in the old way and would have to concede power wholly or partially to the industrial classes. The pressure for the abolition of serfdom and for bourgeois rights was growing everywhere. This crisis of the old system which was all encompassing, then combined with a crisis of the new capitalist system - the severe periodic economic crisis of 1846-48. Harvests failed, food prices rose, and entire populations, such as those of Ireland, starved. Industrial depression multiplied unemployment, and the masses of the urban labouring poor were deprived of even their tiny incomes at the very moment when their cost of living rocketed. The situation varied somewhat from country to country, but taking Western and Central Europe as a whole, the situation was explosive.

Parallel with the unrest among the working class and urban poor was the process of radicalising of the young communist movement. The Communist League which had been formed in 1847 had united various revolutionary groups consisting chiefly of exiled workers and intellectuals — French, German, Swiss, Italian, Russian, etc., — in London, Paris, and Brussels. The League soon came under the guidance of Marx and Engels and they were asked to prepare the programme of the new organisation. This programme written during the period of tremendous revolutionary anticipation leading up to the 1848 Revolution was the first revolutionary programme of the modern proletariat. It brought together in one document, ‘The Communist Manifesto’, the basic principles of Marxism, which even after 150 years stand firm, altogether impervious to the attacks of capitalist enemies.

The Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party published around 24th February 1848, was a document of unparalleled historical importance. It was intended to be immediately published in English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish, though it was also published in Polish and Swedish before the year was completed. It has since been translated and published in innumerable languages around the globe.

The Manifesto was not only a programmatic document, analysing society and outlining the programmatic tasks of the proletariat. It laid down the very basis of scientific socialism and the approach to all other types of socialism. It also gave the approach to other opposition parties of that time. With regard to the Manifesto, Lenin puts it like this, "With the clarity and brilliance of genius, this work outlines a new world-conception, consistent materialism, which also embraces the realm of social life; dialectics, as the most comprehensive and profound doctrine of development; the theory of the class struggle and of the world-historic revolutionary role of the proletariat - the creator of a new, communist society" (Lenin, Marx-Engels-Marxism, p. 11).

Thus the Communist Manifesto contained the basic conclusions of Marxism in all its three component parts — philosophy, political economy and scientific socialism. With its appearance, we can say that Marx’s theory of society and his precepts for action had attained completion in the form of a well-defined and permanent outline. His later works did not modify what he had written in any essential respect, but enriched it with specific analyses and transformed what were sometimes no more than statements, slogans, or heads of argument into a massive theoretical structure. Marx and Engels themselves saw little cause to revise subsequent editions of the document as far as its theoretical bases were concerned. They had this to say in their joint preface to the 1872 German edition, "However much the state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever."

This statement remains as true even today. But in order to grasp this truth let us follow the destiny of Marx’s doctrine during the various periods of the last 150 years of world history.

For this purpose history can be divided into the following six main periods :

1. From the Revolution of 1848 to the Paris Commune (1871) ;

2. From the Paris Commune to the Russian bourgeois revolution of 1905 ;

3. From the Russian 1905 revolution to the Great October Socialist Revolution (1917) ;

4. From the Great October Socialist Revolution to the Chinese People’s Revolution (1949) ;

5. From the Chinese People’s Revolution to the death of Mao and loss of China, the last Socialist Base (1976) ;

6. Since the loss of China, the last Socialist Base.




4. Marx-Engels, Selected Works, p. 182. (Marx, Preface to The Crtique of Political Economy)

5. Marx-Engels, Selected Works, p. 585. ( from the Foreword to Ludwig Engels)

6. same as above.

7. Marx-Engels-Lenin, On Historical Materialism, p. 13. (from Theses on Feuerbach by Marx)




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