Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Speech on Communism (February 15, 1845; Elberfield)
by Moses Hess
Estimated Reading Time: 10 min

After yesterday's reading by Flora Tristan, we are continuing on a short detour into some ofthe utopian socialism that would influence Marxism. Let David McLellan's short biography of Engels introduce Moses Hess:

On terminating his military service in October 1842 Engels took a trip that gave his life its defini­tive orientation. A stop in Cologne on the way home had as its immediate purpose to meet the editors of the Rheinische Zeitung, a radical news­ paper, founded by Rhenish industrialists to propa­gate their liberal doctrines, which had opened its columns to the Berlin Young Hegelians. The mov­ing spirit behind the paper—at least in its in­ception—was Moses Hess, known as "the com­munist rabbi." Like Engels, Hess came from a prosperous business family but had educated him­self toward communism. In a series of books writ­ten in a meandering style and almost messianic tone, Hess had been the first of the Young Hegeli­ans to proclaim a version of communism. Strongly influenced by French sociology and particularly the Utopian socialism of the Comte de Saint Simon, with its positive emphasis on the develop­ment of industry, Hess turned Hegel's philosophy toward the future and asserted that Feuerbach's philosophical humanism and the French political notions of class struggle were about to be put into practice through a communist revolution in the most economically advanced country—England.
These ideas had a profound effect on Engels. Hess wrote concerning their meeting: "We talked of questions of the day. Engels, who was revolu­tionary to the core when he met me, left as a passionate Communist."

Alex Callinicos also mentions Moses Hess in a reading we will be posting soon:

Marx, who had returned to Trier in 1841, now threw himself into political journalism. The Rheinische Zeitung had been set up by Rhineland industrialists to press for their economic interests. To its bourgeois shareholders’ bemusement, however, it soon fell under the control of the Young Hegelians, led by Moses Hess, one of the first German communists. Marx began writing for the paper in April 1842, and in October moved to Cologne to become its editor in chief. He was at this stage a radical liberal democrat, who hoped to see in Germany a republic and universal suffrage such as France had achieved after the revolution of 1789. When another paper accused the Rheinische Zeitung of communism he replied that “the Rheinische Zeitung . . . does not admit that communist ideas in their present form possess even theoretical reality, and therefore can still less desire their practical realization”


There is no point in talking to you about the intellectual, moral and physical misery of today’s society. Any man with a heart, however favourable his position, will agree with me, when he looks at this world of misery, that our life is not happy. I just want to draw to your attention that the basic cause of all the ills of present-day society, which is normally attributed to the imperfection of human nature, is in fact the lack of organisation of human society. I have already also often heard it said that the idea of communism, fine and true in itself, is unfortunately unrealisable. If I am not mistaken, it is these two points, concerning the possibility of realising communism and the fundamental cause of human miseries, which most need to be spelt out. In order to make the best use of the short time which has been given us to deal with our subject, I think I will limit myself to elucidating a little further these two themes.

The idea of communism, gentlemen, with which everyone says he agrees, is the life-law of love applied to social life. The law of love is innate in man, as in all life; but attempts to apply this law to social life will only be made when men’s consciousness of their life has begun to mature in them, when they come to see more and more clearly their own existence, when they understand more and more clearly that it is precisely and solely in love that energy, the energy of life, creative energy lies. When men compare their own inner understanding of life with, on the one hand, the life of nature they find that here their life-consciousness is everywhere confirmed, that love, which they recognise as their life, is equally the real life of nature; but when, on the other hand, they compare their conception of life, now confirmed and enriched by the natural sciences, with social life, they find with horror that here, in their own world, nothing conforms to this law of life and that everything contradicts it – in a word, they discover that they are living in a perverted world! After the first stupefaction and the terror produced by this sad discovery has gone, men think they must look for the cause of this perversion of their own world only in the consciousness which men have had of life up till now being perverted; thus, they think, how could human society, this product of human understanding and will, be reasonable while this same understanding and will are not yet so? But, gentlemen, this is manifestly not the ultimate cause. We must therefore ask again: what is the origin of the perverted life-consciousness? We will now try to answer you on this point.

No living being comes into existence fully developed. Rather, everything first develops in the course of time. This development is called the history, the genesis of a being. Gentlemen, if you now find the idea of communism fine and true in itself this is because your life-consciousness has already come to maturity, because you recognise that the true life consists only of love. A long series of centuries, fertilised by the sweat of anguish and by the blood of the human race struggling for its existence, was necessary for the growth and ripening of this life-consciousness, this fruit. Just as the development of our planet was full of natural upheavals, of elemental struggles and tempests, just as it was necessary that many creations should perish before the fully developed forms of the present mature geological era appeared and could peacefully progress in mutual harmonious interaction according to the eternal laws of love; so in human history it was necessary that elemental struggles precede the state of complete organisation. The elemental, inorganic state always precedes the harmonious, organic state. The human race did not live as now in large social groupings, and even less in organised spheres of action, from the first instants of its appearance. There were at first only isolated individuals – they were thus only the elements of humanity that came from the womb of the Earth – and it was only gradually that these individuals, these human elements, entered into association, intercourse, interaction. How would a fully developed intercourse, a mutual understanding of what was advantageous to them, have been able to have been established between these individuals who were beginning to have dealings with each other? If union, the intelligent cooperation of different individuals, in short, if life in love, the organic life, is the only true and real life, you will understand that it is only after a long series of struggles that union, that this understanding between men, was able to be achieved. As long as men did not have this understanding they had to struggle amongst themselves, and history up till now has only been a recital of these struggles. From very early on they were obliged to enter into intercourse with each other. As they learned to know the produce of nature and the man-made productions which surrounded them, needs were awakened in them and the exchange of products became all the more necessary; no single country, no single people, no single individual, is able to produce everything itself. However, in the beginning the exchange of products consisted uniquely in this: when then the strongest entered into contact with the weakest he fought him and robbed him. The first form of exchange of products was precisely this robbery with murder. And just as the first form of exchange of products or of intercourse was robbery with murder, so the first form of production or labour was slavery. The victors did not content themselves with stealing products, they also wanted to seize hold of the producers; so they soon realised that it was more advantageous to reduce the surviving conquered to slavery, and to exploit them in this way, than to consume them by indulging in cannibalism. Egoism thus became more and more refined. It is on this historical basis, gentlemen, that production and intercourse have developed to the stage of free competition, in which we now live, even though we refuse to admit to ourselves that this intercourse still rests on the same egoistic basis of mutual exploitation which was its origin. However, a glance at our situation clearly shows us that, today as yesterday, we sell ourselves and exploit each other. This exploitation has no doubt become more refined over the ages, but it has not thereby become more human; rather has it become more inhuman since at the present time the more we are forced to sell ourselves willingly and mutually, the less we are able to escape from this traffic in men, the more universal has this become. So we all have to peddle our life-activity in order to buy in exchange the life-activity of other men – and what is the sum total of all our faculties and of all our forces, which we throw on the market and which we must turn into money, but our own whole life? It is not our body, which we only touch from the outside, but its real force that constitutes our life. When we sell this force of ours we ourselves sell our very life. Money is the mark of slavery; is it not therefore but human value expressed in figures? But men who can be paid, men who buy and sell each other, are they anything but slaves? How can we begin to escape from this traffic in men as long as we live in isolation and as long as each person has to work for himself on his own account in order to gain the means of existence? Who gives us the means of life, the means of our physical and social activity if we don’t gain them by buying and selling our own life? We are living in the midst of an eternal contradiction, of a perpetual struggle. It is the contradiction of intercourse in constant expansion in the midst of isolation. We are separated from each other, each one of us lives and works only for himself, yet none of us can for an instant do without each other. Whereas each person needs the production of the whole accessible human world, from China to North America, in order to live and act as a human, they are limited to their own isolated force to obtain all that they need. It is not useful activity, real physical and intellectual energy, fair work that decides the lot of individuals – for what is the greatest force of an individual in face of the world? – but chance and common trickery: he who in this gamble is able to pocket as quickly as possible the most human value expressed in figures, money. These are the blind and immoral powers which determine the destiny of man!

When the live life-consciousness has awakened in man, the perverted nature of our social relations has of course been felt; but it was not also understood that the perverted life-consciousness, from which men were just beginning to free themselves, was just as much a product of the perverted life, the perverted world within which men have lived until now, as inversely this perverted world was a product of life-consciousness that has not yet attained maturity. The interaction between real social life and the life-consciousness was not seen as well. The latter, religion, politics, Church and State, the theoretical expression of practical egoism were criticised and it was thought that the world could be reformed in this manner, without realising that this would be just as fruitless as a doctor wanting to cure a disease by suppressing its external symptoms. Perverted consciousness and its manifestations, Church and State, are nothing but the symptoms of a perverted life – the picture of a real body which will not change just because a different and more beautiful picture is made of it.

Gentlemen, the era of political and religious revolutions has, however, come to an end. People realise that the egoist life-consciousness and its forms of existence, the Church and State, will disappear of their own accord, but not before the egoist life, working for one’s private account, the traffic in humans disappear. As long as this practical egoism has not disappeared talking to man about philosophy, freedom, reason and love will be fruitless. The mass of men will not believe that human life and life in general is love, truth and freedom. They will see in egoism with its whole train of misfortunes the fundamental characteristic of human nature, which in fact it is as long as men are separated, living and working for themselves. Perhaps you are thinking that I contradict myself and that it is sometimes love and sometimes egoism that I take for the real life, the life of natural man. But, gentlemen, human nature is not a monolith, a single body which is and remains unchanged; human nature has to develop and, at present, it is as little developed as society. You cannot draw any conclusion about human nature from judging the mass of our contemporaries. One thing however is certain: if one man can have a true life-consciousness, then all men can – and if they do not, this is not the fault of human nature, otherwise all of us who are meeting here would not have the slightest idea of the real life since we are ourselves only men – but of external circumstances that have not yet allowed all men to completely develop their nature.

When it is said that communism, as an idea, is a very fine thing but is unrealisable, no more is being said than what the theologians and philosophers, priests and statesmen have always said. This is to consider oneself as superior to the mass of men. If you, gentlemen, consider communism to be a good thing in itself that is because you consider that life in love and reason constitutes the true life. However, you believe that your life-consciousness will not be able to develop in all individuals. Why do you believe this? Because you cannot envisage this consciousness developing other than by theoretical instruction – such as all the priests and philosophers have practised until now without for that banishing brutality and ignorance, wickedness and foolishness from the world. But the development of human nature can also take place in another, in a practical way, and not only can it take place in this way but it will in fact come about only or mainly or essentially in this way. So let us abandon the theoretical form, let us not imagine that we will convert the world by our ideas. Communism is not a theory, not some philosophical system which will be taught us. Communism is the end-result of the historical genesis of society.

Look around you, gentlemen; examine more closely modern society and its industry which is becoming more and more gigantic every day and which penetrates into the most remote parts of the world to find consumers for its products, which today has penetrated a country of 300 million inhabitants with a view to creating new outlets and so as not to be suffocated by its own output, and which, according to the estimates of specialists, in a few years will submerge that country with its products and bring about a new crisis, a new commercial blockage, in which thousands from the middle classes and millions from the working classes will go under. Where will this unorganised industry, a sword in the hands of a child, lead in the end? Do you believe that this modern industry which while hardly half-a-century old has already inundated almost the whole world with its manufactures and which has created an already unbridgeable gulf between rich and poor, between capitalists and proletarians – do you believe that this money-idol which devours its own creations can go on existing for long without massacring everybody except a few? We have in this honourable assembly a number of practising businessmen; they will be able to certify on the basis of their long experience that I am not exaggerating in maintaining that this enormous modern industry is going with giant paces towards its own downfall and that it will plunge along with itself all our civilisation into the gulf of barbarism unless a higher idea than that on which our whole civilisation has been based until now, unless another wisdom than that of private egoism and working for one’s private account, in a word unless communism intervenes for the benefit of the true human life against this impetuous torrent about to submerge and bury everything in its flood. Our task is not to convert the world – a theory has never converted the world unless it was the world, life itself, that engendered the theory – our task is only to point out as widely as possible what is self-evident to every man sufficiently educated to be able to read the book of history, as a means of avoiding perishing helpless one day when this perception can save us. We do not wish to deny and we are not ashamed to admit that our heart, our compassion towards our neighbour immersed in intellectual, moral and physical misery, pushes us towards the idea and the development of communism; but it is not only our heart, it is not a simple dream, it is also reason, it is, to speak like Feuerbach, the heart become reason, which inspires in us the conviction that the time is now no longer far away when men will consider themselves as the members of one and the same family and will work together in community. If modern industry had not been there to first unhinge this egoist society and then give to it, as communist society, its excedent of productive forces – we would not have come to the idea of communism, even less have believed in its realisation. But at the point where science and the industrial art of men now are, it is just as certain that all men, with so little pain that no-one will be put off by it, will be able to lead a comfortable, enjoyable and free life, if they were to unite and to live and work in community, as it is certain that they will go to their destruction with each working for his own private account.

We must often hear the objection that much work is so hard, so repulsive and even so harmful to health that nobody would undertake it unless he was forced to do so by necessity. This remark which is thought to be the greatest objection to communism is rather the most conclusive argument in its favour. Consider, gentlemen, the high level that mechanics has attained today and ask yourself if you can think of any work which men could not perform comfortably, provided that we really wanted to and would not shrink from any cost to make it so. But suppose that despite all the resources of mechanics there should still remain work that was difficult for men, by what right would you impose the burden of this work on some and not on others? Rather, would not our right and our duty be to mutually lighten such tasks by undertaking them together? Have we then the right to treat as pariahs those who have the misfortune to have been born poor and to assure to others the privilege of an easy life? In a society for which the common welfare will be worth more than all the treasure of the world, in a society which will spare no cost to ensure that work is carried out in such a way that men can do it without harming their lives, in a society which will prefer not to have work done which is not justified from the overall human point of view, in such a society, I say, such inhuman work as exists in our society based on robbery with murder, slavery, unreason and injustice will no longer exist. The more you find in our society such work which man only carries out through necessity, which in other words only a slave does, the more you ought to consider communism, without which this work will neither be changed nor abolished, to be the indispensable condition for freedom, justice and humanity.

Hess talks a lot about love in this speech. Over a century later, revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevera will write "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." And yet among the poorly informed (or purposefully by the misinforming), Communism is treated as a synonym for harsh authoritarianism.

Speech on Communism (February 15, 1845; Elberfield)
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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