Red Letter
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The Life of a Revolutionary: Part 2 of 4
by Alex Callinicos
Estimated Reading Time: 10 min


At the end of August 1844, Friedrich Engels spent ten days in Paris. During his stay Engels visited Marx, a meeting which resulted in a lifelong partnership.

Engels was then twenty-three, nearly three years Marx’s junior, but had already enjoyed a brilliant career as a radical journalist and Young Hegelian. Although Engels had contributed to the Rheinische Zeitung, Marx had distrusted him as one of the Berlin “Free” whose toy revolutionism he had come to despise. However, in November 1842 Engels moved to Manchester to work in the family firm of Ermen & Engels, to be confronted with the industrial revolution, working-class poverty and Chartism, the first mass working-class movement in history, then still recovering from the defeat of the general strike of August 1842. This experience, recorded most memorably in The Condition of the Working Class in England, led Engels, like Marx, to recognize the revolutionary role of the working class. An essay published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” anticipated Marx’s later writings.

Marx and Engels were, then, natural partners. Their first work together was an attack on Bauer and the “Free,” who were reacting to the repression they had suffered at the hands of the Prussian state by adopting an increasingly elitist and anti-democratic attitude. Bauer, who was to become an anti-Semite and supporter of the Tsarist autocracy in Russia, wrote that “it is in the masses and there alone that one should look for the true enemy of the Mind.” The reply by Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, was intended originally to be a short pamphlet. However, and not for the last time, Marx’s zeal got the better of him. His contribution swelled it into a two-hundred-page book ranging from philosophy to literary criticism, and defending the principle of working-class self-emancipation. Engels protested mildly at the inclusion of his name on the title page, since “I contributed practically nothing to it,” and at its length. “Otherwise the book is splendidly written and enough to make you split your sides.”

Marx was by this time a prominent figure among the exiled revolutionaries who populated Paris in the 1840s. He was on friendly terms with the fathers of anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, with whom he would discuss Hegel. The Marxes were also close to the poet Heinrich Heine, whom they persuaded for a while to overcome his fear of the masses and write socialist verses. It was of Marx and Engels that Heine later wrote, “The more or less occult leaders of the German communists are great logicians, the most powerful of which have come from the school of Hegel; and they are, without doubt, Germany’s most capable thinkers and most energetic characters.”

Marx’s prominence may have helped to persuade the French government, under Prussian pressure, to expel him from France. In February 1845 he moved from Paris to Brussels, where he was soon joined by Engels, who gave up his job in the family firm to become a full-time revolutionary. Here their partnership began in earnest. They visited England together in the summer of 1845, and then settled down to produce one final reply to Bauer and company.

The “Free” had by now become extreme individualists, an attitude summed up by Max Stirner in The Ego and His Own, which argued that nothing except the individual self existed. The German Ideology, written by Marx and Engels between September 1845 and August 1846, was intended as a demolition of Stirner. Running to more than six hundred pages, mainly by Marx, it is that and a lot more. The first part, on Feuerbach, contains the first systematic account of historical materialism. They were unable to find a publisher for the book. As Marx later put it, “We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more willingly as we had achieved our main purpose—self-clarification.”

The German Ideology provided the theoretical foundation for Marx and Engels’s politics. It argued that the possibility of social revolution depended on the material conditions which capitalism itself was creating. The most important of these conditions was the working class. “Communism,” Engels wrote around this time, “is the doctrine of the conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat”.

Having thus formulated their theory of revolution, Marx and Engels threw themselves into political activity. They concentrated their attentions on the League of the Just, an international secret society consisting mainly of German artisans living outside their own country. The dominant influence on the League was Wilhelm Weitling, a tailor whose views on socialism were extremely confused, but who believed that the mass of workers could not be won to communism, and that it was up to the revolutionary minority to seize power on behalf of the masses. This elitist attitude he shared with Auguste Blanqui, the great French revolutionary, and the League was banned in France after it took part in Blanqui’s abortive insurrection in 1839. The headquarters of the League shifted to London, where it was split between Weitling’s followers and those who believed that gradual and peaceful education could achieve socialism.

In February 1846 Marx and Engels set up the Communist Correspondence Committee, with the aim of winning control of the League of the Just. At a stormy meeting of the committee, Marx told Weitling that “to call to the workers without any strictly scientific ideas or constructive doctrine . . . was equivalent to vain dishonest play at preaching which assumed on the one side an inspired prophet and on the other only gaping asses.” He responded to Weitling’s attempt to defend himself by attacking theory and theoreticians with the words, “Ignorance never yet helped anyone!”

Paul Annenkov, a Russian acquaintance of Marx’s who was present at this meeting, has left behind a vivid picture of him in his late twenties:

Marx himself was the type of man who is made up of energy, will and unshakeable conviction. He was most remarkable in his appearance. He had a shock of deep black hair and hairy hands and his coat was buttoned wrong; but he looked like a man with the right and power to demand respect, no matter how he appeared before you and no matter what he did. His movements were clumsy but confident and selfreliant, his ways defied the usual conventions in human relations, but they were dignified and somewhat disdainful; his sharp metallic voice was wonderfully adapted to the radical judgements that he passed on persons and things.

Another contemporary writes of Marx at this time:

Marx was a born leader of the people. His speech was brief, convincing and compelling in its logic. He never said a superfluous word; every sentence contained an idea and every idea was an essential link in the chain of his argument. Marx had nothing of the dreamer about him.

This formidable intellect was set to work to refute what Marx and Engels regarded as the erroneous versions of socialism current in the German workers’ movement. One target was the “true socialists,” intellectuals who had discovered the “social problem” after the weavers’ revolt, and who believed that society could be transformed through the moral conversion of the mass of the people. Another target was Proudhon. Marx wrote to him in May 1846 inviting him to become the Paris correspondent of the Brussels Committee. Proudhon replied with a patronizing letter in which he told “my dear philosopher” that he was opposed to revolution, preferring instead “to burn property by a slow fire.” In 1847 Marx published The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he demolished Proudhon’s The System of Economic Contradictions—which had as its subtitle “The Philosophy of Poverty.”

After lengthy maneuvers Marx and Engels succeeded in winning control of the League of the Just. A congress in June 1847 transformed the League from a conspiratorial secret society into an open revolutionary organization, the Communist League. Its slogan was no longer “All men are brothers” (Marx said there were plenty of men whose brother he did not want to be) but “Working men of all countries, unite!” The second congress of the Communist League, meeting in December 1847, instructed Marx and Engels to draw up a manifesto stating its principles. The result was the Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by Marx in February 1848 and published that same month in London. It opens with the words, “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism”. It was the first popular exposition of Marxism, and is by far the most famous of all socialist writings.

The "Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Organ der Demokratie" or "New Rhenish Newspaper: Organ of Democracy"

By the time the Manifesto appeared, Europe was being swept by revolution. In February Louis-Philippe of France was overthrown and the Second Republic proclaimed; in March uprisings broke out in Vienna and Berlin. The reactionary Europe of the Holy Alliance had suddenly crumbled. The frightened Belgian government expelled Marx at the beginning of March. After a brief stay in Paris, he returned to Germany, to become editor in chief of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, based, like its predecessor, in Cologne. According to Engels, “The editorial constitution was simply the dictatorship of Marx.” Werner Blumenberg writes of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung that “with its 101 numbers it is not only the best newspaper of that revolutionary year; it has remained the best German socialist newspaper.”

The revolutions of 1848 represented the moment at which the struggle between capital and labor took on greater importance than that between the bourgeoisie and the old feudal landowning classes. This was confirmed by the events of June 1848 in Paris, when a workers’ uprising was brutally crushed by the republican government. Here, Marx wrote at the time, “fraternité, the brotherhood of antagonistic classes, one of which exploits the other, this fraternité [brotherhood] which in February was proclaimed and inscribed in large letters on the facades of Paris, on every prison and every barracks, this fraternité found its true, unadulterated and prosaic expression in civil war, civil war in its most terrible aspect, the war of labor against capital”.

Marx and Engels continued to believe, however, that in backward Germany the bourgeoisie could be pressed into playing a revolutionary role like its English and French forebears. The Communist League, with its few hundred members, found itself swamped in the mass movement which followed the March revolution in Berlin. Rather than, as Engels put it many years later, “preach communism in a little provincial sheet and . . . found a tiny sect instead of a great party of action,” they decided “to take on the role of the forward-pressing, extreme left wing of the bourgeoisie”. The League was effectively dissolved and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung provided the focus of Marx’s and Engels’s political activity. Its “political program,” Engels explained, “consisted of two main points: a single, indivisible, democratic German republic and war with Russia”.

The Russia of Tsar Nicholas I was the most powerful counterrevolutionary state in Europe and her armies were to play a crucial role in restoring order in 1848–49. Marx and Engels hoped that a republican Germany could, like the French Jacobins in the 1790s, liberate Europe by waging a revolutionary war against the reactionary powers. These hopes were to be dashed. The German bourgeoisie, terrified of the rising workers’ movement, sought an accommodation with the Prussian monarchy. The Neue Rheinische Zeitung had to record the triumph of the counterrevolution in country after country—Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, France and Germany itself.

Marx found himself waging an increasingly uphill struggle to keep the paper going. In February 1849 he and other editors of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung were put on trial twice, but were acquitted by sympathetic juries. Finally, in May the Prussian authorities suppressed the paper and expelled the editors. The last issue, of May 19, 1849, was printed entirely in red. The editorial by Marx concluded, “In bidding you farewell the editors of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung thank you for the sympathy you have shown them. Their last word everywhere and always will be: emancipation of the working class!

The Life of a Revolutionary: Part 2 of 4
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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