The Workers are Revolting

John Gray reviews Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, and discovers an unfamiliar ‘early Marx’ (who anticipates Augusto Pinochet):

Writing in the Rhineland News in 1842 in his very first piece after taking over as editor, Marx launched a sharp polemic against Germany’s leading newspaper, the Augsburg General News, for publishing articles advocating communism. He did not base his assault on any arguments about communism’s impracticality: it was the very idea that he attacked. Lamenting that “our once blossoming commercial cities are no longer flourishing,” he declared that the spread of Communist ideas would “defeat our intelligence, conquer our sentiments,” an insidious process with no obvious remedy. In contrast, any attempt to realize communism could easily be cut short by force of arms: “practical attempts [to introduce communism], even attempts en masse, can be answered with cannons.”

Perhaps even more disconcertingly, six months after writing the Communist Manifesto: “In a speech to the Cologne Democratic Society in August 1848, Marx rejected revolutionary dictatorship by a single class as ‘nonsense’ …”

And in a final spasm of sanity: “over twenty years later, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Marx also dismissed any notion of a Paris Commune as ‘nonsense.’”

Just as soon as they find his journal entry dismissing the Labor Theory of Value as nonsense I’ll be returning to right-wing Marxism with a vengeance.

April 25, 2013admin 5 Comments »
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5 Responses to this entry

  • Clerestorian Says:

    This is incredibly strange. I suppose at this stage in his life he was basically making the case that if the productive forces hadn’t yet reached the tipping point — the point at which they were fettered by capitalism itself — and that any attempt at revolution would fail and set the country backward. It’s as if he’s trying to say “…Unite (when I give the signal)!” Certainly his opinions change almost immediately afterwards, so these quotes are quite interesting.

    But perhaps the context shows that he was crudely expressing the same type sentiment that laid forth in his Critique of the Gotha Program: go big or go home.


    admin Reply:

    That’s a brave attempt to make sense of something that might not be susceptible to making sense. Gray seems to be suggesting that he was stressed and confused.
    All the journalism and political dabbling turned Marx into a rhetorician whose words produce an impression of conceptual coherence, ideological clarity, and firm purpose. We’ve known for over a century that the conceptual coherence of his work is a conjuring trick. His other certainties might equally be a mirage.


    Posted on April 25th, 2013 at 8:36 am Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    That’s not what I recall. Pulling my copy of “Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society” off the shelf, (hardly comprehensive, but then again, Marx was prolific), my impression is hard to reconcile with the one that one apparently gets from Sperber’s narrative. Then again, he is the scholar and I am the mere tourist.

    But the impression this mere tourist gets from the timeline of Marx’s thought is that he begins his intellectual career in what was the … how shall I say this … “avant-garde mainstream” (!?) of the late 1830’s / early 1840’s. Also, the guy loves italics.

    Communist Manifesto (1848 – obviously inspired by recent events, and Marx was 30 – which is in the ideal “arena age” range, balancing both maturity and passion) was later, and Das Kapital (1867-1894) was much later. Marx had also been an American Civil War correspondent / commentator, and I would imagine that experience had some influence on him as well.

    You get the occasional internet-ignoramus talk about Marx as part of “The Judeo-Bolshevist Conspiracy!”, but Marx was baptized and raised (classical) Liberal Lutheran” (to which his father converted prior to Marx’s birth). His early writing is basically clever “Naive Utopian Optimistic Enlightenment Protestant Social Justice” in the context of Prussian (gentle) absolutism. What he is particularly good at is getting slightly ahead of his contemporaries and remarking on how they are failing to realize / live-up-to the implications of their principles. He wasn’t an “extremist”, but something more like a “purist” (Puritan?), who was genuinely trying to understand what sincere fidelity to their shared principles meant.

    One’s social context and inherited intellectual tradition creates a kind of mental inertia that prevented a lot of his contemporaries from understanding the full range of subconscious social assumptions under which they were operating and taking for granted. Marx was very successful in pointing this out to them and persuading them to move another step along the path – in terms of understanding that the implications of their principles required more socially radical reforms than they had originally anticipated – and then endorsing them, “I see, yes, I underestimated that … well … so be it!”

    Marx himself probably did not appreciate where those principles would eventually lead him, but, early on, he played the role of the teeth in the leftward ratchet, being moved by his own moving.

    In this way, Marx was really the Calvin of his age (except that the recognition of his contribution was mostly posthumous). “If we’re going to take God’s omnipotence and omnicompetence seriously, then that implied predestination, and that implies … Institutes of the Christian Church”. A lot of people who thought they were already taking those notions seriously realized they hadn’t been, and then had an important, radical choice to make. Marx did similarly, and note that this fits nicely into Moldbug’s theory of the History of leftist thought. When your priors and axioms have no internal, self-limiting principle, then it’s only a matter of social resistance and speed and technological details, and not, really the direction or eventual destination of the ‘left singularity’.


    Posted on April 26th, 2013 at 1:12 pm Reply | Quote
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