Andy Blunden April 2005
Marx Myths and Legends. Introduction
This article was originally drafted as an introduction for the “Marx Myths and Legends” website [ Marx Myths and Legends], but it turned out to be untenable. The attempt to take a position on every aspect of the interpretation of Marx at a rate of almost one paragraph per issue inevitably leads to a theoretical sloppiness worse than any of the sins it criticises. The introduction which needs to be written is the answer to the question: Why now? Nevertheless, as an overview of issues of Marx-exegesis and an expression of personal opinion, it is worth preserving.
A critical reading of the work of Karl Marx requires us to lay to one side the myths and legends which have obscured his ideas over the past 120 years, since only in this way can we read Marx with unprejudiced eyes. In one sense, this is not difficult, because there is enough of his writing preserved, albeit in translation, for any of us to read Marx in his own words. Most of us however have been unwilling or unable to do this. The 50 volumes of the Marx-Engels Collected Works are forbidding, and if you believed some of the myths surrounding his name, there could be little incentive for tackling that task. So it is helpful, we think, to challenge some of those myths in order both to clear the way for a fresh reading of Marx and to demonstrate what many have already discovered — that what Marx had to say over a hundred and twenty years ago is of considerable relevance to an understanding of the problems of today.
The distortion and questionable interpretation of Marx’s work is altogether a direct result of his great success. His name became synonymous with a vast movement which not only changed, but virtually defined the twentieth century. The leaders of the communist parties needed to prove themselves true disciples of Marx, while anti-communists followed suit by attributing everything they hated to Karl Marx.
Thus, the myths and legends about Marx fall from the start into two broad camps, those myths created maliciously or at least tendentiously by opponents of socialism, and those created with equally scant regard for scholarship by those who claimed Marx as their authority.
But both these camps share thereby a common core of myths, namely those which conflate Karl Marx with the Communist International, and its most prominent leaders, especially Lenin and Stalin. The ghastly nature of “real existing socialism” meant that right-wing opponents of socialism could consent to the identification of the ideology of these states with Karl Marx. The first group of myths which we deal with therefore are those which ascribe to Karl Marx political ideas about workers’ states, state-ownership, centralised planning and suppression of individual freedom. (1)
Another group of myths about Marx, coming from opponents of socialism are ad hominem, they seek to call into question Marx’s ideas, by attacking his character. According to these legends, Marx was a megalomaniac, a bully, an anti-Semite and a racist, a snob, a womaniser and a sexist, a boring writer and a plagiarist. (2)
Marx lived in the nineteenth century, and it is hardly surprising that even such a genius as Marx should share many of the illusions and prejudices of his age. Those who feel very pleased with themselves that, living now in the early years of the twenty-first century, they do not suffer from nineteenth century delusions, contribute another category of myths about Karl Marx. While Marx was indeed subject to much of the ethos of Victorian England where he lived most of his life, he also saw way beyond that, but he was very much alone in having such insight. Consequently, from the moment what he wrote left his pen, it was interpreted in the spirit of the ethos of nineteenth century socialism. The critical spirit on which Marx had been raised as a Young Hegelian was lost to the majority of his readers. Thus a third group of myths is also shared by many friends and foes alike, myths which rest on the conflation of Marx with nineteenth century positivism and social-democracy. (3)
His most intelligent interpreters, and those who were to become his principal advocates after his death, were capable of distinguishing between the ideology of the broader socialist movement of the times and the ideas of Karl Marx, even if they did not clearly understand that difference. The fourth and most enduring group of myths about Karl Marx originates from his most illustrious and faithful advocates, Frederick Engels, Georgi Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky, and were continued by both his most able and creative follower Lenin and his most notorious epigone, Stalin. We are talking about the myth of “scientific socialism” — that ideology “cast from a single piece of steel” — dialectical materialism. (4)
To this group we must add myths based on more simplistic interpretations of Marx’s ideas: that Marx was an economic determinist, or for that matter, any kind of determinist or any kind of economist, that Marx declared philosophy to be obsolete, or alternatively, that he was a materialist philosopher. In this group we also place the more recent myth that conflates Marx with Alexandre Kojève and Hegel’s “master-servant dialectic.” (5)
Despite 50 volumes, Marx never expressed himself clearly on a number of important questions, leaving us only hints and suggestions as to what his views may have been if he had had the time and the inclination to formulate them. Marx expressed himself frequently enough, but very dismissively, on the question of morality and ethics, but a closer study of Marx’s work shows that it is not so simple. (6)
(1) Myths Conflating Marx with “State Socialism”
“Lenin and Stalin,” so the myth goes, “put into practice what Marx worked out in theory,” or, in an alternative formulation, “Communism is all very fine in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.” But what basis is there for presuming that Marx would in some way recognise the outcome of the Russian Revolution as the fulfilment of his vision of a communist society, or even, in a more cautious formulation, as a step towards it?
Paresh Chattopadhyay and Marshall Berman show, in their contributions to this collection, that there is nothing about the Soviet state that Marx would have endorsed, other than the elemental struggle of the Russian workers to end the imperialist war and overthrow capitalism in 1917 — for which his support would have been as fulsome as it was for the Paris Commune. But the final outcome of their efforts was antithetical to everything that Marx stood for.
Firstly: did Marx advocate state ownership of the means of production? No. By reference to the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, Paresh Chattopadhyay demonstrates that Marx looked forward to the abolition of the state as an instrument of violence standing above society, inclusive of a state which managed social production on behalf of society. Rather than seeing a “workers’ state” ruling over an extended period of transition to socialist society, he actually saw destruction of the state as a much more immediate task than is usually credited.
In 1871, Marx had praised the Paris Commune for their “Revolution not against this or that state power … but against thestate itself.” John Holloway makes the same point in his acclaimed book Change the World Without Taking Power — The Meaning of Revolution Today. Far from promoting the capture of state power, there is much evidence that Marx advocated, as Holloway claims, the destruction of state power.
It might be countered however, that the 10-point program in the 1848 Communist Manifesto includes: “Centralisation of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.” But in the first place, the Manifesto was written as a propaganda pamphlet in the emerging revolutionary situation in Europe, and was never intended to become, as it did, a blue-print for 100 years of communist struggle.
Secondly, the same 10-point program refers to a “progressive taxation system” and other elements which look far more like Harold Wilson’s Great Britain than Soviet Russia. In fact, the agitational “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany,”issued by Marx shortly after the Manifesto, was wholly bourgeois-democratic, falling short even of the standards that Harold Wilson would have endorsed. What is reflected in these “reformist” elements of the Manifesto is Marx’s prescient understanding of the direction and aim of workers’ struggles in his time, tendencies which Marx was able to discern and gave expression to in the Manifesto.
Finally, what Marx meant by “the state” in the Manifesto is far from clear “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.” This is a highly ambiguous formulation, as is much of the Manifesto and later speculations on the hoped-for victory of the working class.
In the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx outlined three stages in the development of Communism; the first stage, which he callscrude communism — “envy and the urge to reduce things to a common level” and a second stage which rings true to the experiences of the twentieth century: “Communism (a) still political in nature — democratic or despotic; (b) with the abolition of the state, yet still incomplete, and being still affected by private property, i.e., by the estrangement of man,” and then sketched a third and final stage: “the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement.”  In 1844, Marx had little on which to base these speculations, and even the upheavals which followed the publication of the Manifesto, in 1848, gave only the merest glimpse of what was possible.
Twenty-three years later, after the experience of active participation in the International Workingmen’s Association, and witnessing the greatest ever movement of the working class, in the Paris Commune, in his Third Address on the Commune, Marx applauds “the destruction of the state power” and how the Commune “breaks with the modern state power”. He is even more clear in his drafts for The Civil War in France where, for example, Marx celebrates the Commune’s attempt to “break the instrument of that class rule — the State.” Later, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx expresses himself quite clearly in opposition to notions of a workers’ state in a draft program for the United Workers Party of Germany.
There is of course the famous passage which Lenin took to be the basis of his notion of “dictatorship of the proletariat”:
“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” [Critique of the Gotha Program, Part IV]
But in the context of this and the other documents we have mentioned, there is no basis for reading into this any kind of “special body” other than the entire working population itself, something which Lenin himself recognised in State and Revolution. Nor is there is evidence that Marx foresaw or advocated or intended a “workers’ state” in the sense it is used in relation to the Soviet Union, as a “transitional stage” towards socialism. The ridicule that Marx heaps upon the notion of a “free state” in his Critique of the Gotha Program, is surely demonstrating this. Further, Hal Draper points out in The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” in Marx and Engels, that in Marx’s day, “dictatorship” did not have the meaning it has today, as a form of government antithetical to democracy; the idea of a “democratic dictatorship” was quite commonplace in the mid-19th century. But “dictatorship” was strongly associated with brief periods of emergency or transition, much like “martial law” is used today, or where an unelected “provisional government” is installed to organise elections under a new regime. By the 1870s, not only Marx, but bourgeois writers equated universal suffrage with ‘dictatorship’.
The point is that Marx is writing of a movement which grows out of the relations of bourgeois society itself, not something brought into being by visionaries. Marx was not pushing some kind of blueprint — humanist, despotic or otherwise. The aim of communists as he saw it, was to foster the independence and self-organisation of the working class and learn to understand and give voice to its aims. Lay aside a mountain of manuscripts, drafts and unfinished books, agitational and polemical pamphlets, speeches for the International, journalism and private letters, and in fact Marx completed and published very little. And it had to be so, for in effect, it was not in his head that communism was being worked out, but in the actual struggles of the proletariat, and these were far from complete!
As Paresh shows, although Marx rarely engaged in any kind of speculation about the future at all, and never in his public documents, what Marx looked forward to was not “state socialism” but “free associated labour and social means of production.”
Responding to the proposal for state aid for workers’ cooperatives, for example, Marx retorts:
“That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.”
But Marx was fully aware of how ugly could be the first elemental struggle of the oppressed, what he called “crude communism.” This primary urge of the most oppressed was, for Marx, not something to be condemned or feared, but nor was it a creation of his imagination.
Next, what about individual freedom? As Marshall Berman shows in his article, the kind of world which Marx looked forward to was not a state-run conformist, hyper-egalitarian “1984,” but a world in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Nothing in Marx’s mature works contradicts the explicit humanism of the 1844 Manuscripts, written when Marx was 25, but only published in the 1920s. What Marx objected to about the bourgeois society he knew was not individual freedom, but the cynical denial of any kind of freedom for the overwhelming majority of people.
Marx did not remonstrate on these ideas about individual freedom any more than he attempted to foist any other utopian vision on to the workers movement. In a sense, the fact that Marx wrote so little about “individual freedom” demonstrates how committed he was to such an ideal. Marx, before anyone else, understood that emancipation is in your own hands, and no-one else can tell you how to do it. Most of Marx’s agitational writing and speaking was directed against attempts of other non-proletarian elements to gain influence over the workers movement, and to combat the influence of bourgeois ideologies on the proletariat. On the few occasions when Marx did talk of the future, it was a thoroughly democratic and humanist vision.
In reading the passages of Marx’s writing that Paresh and Marshall draw our attention to, one is inclined to conclude that rather than blaming Marx for the now-defunct “real existing socialism” of the twentieth century, he should be acknowledged as its greatest critic.
(2) Myths about Marx’s Character
Francis Wheen’s autobiography Karl Marx is, to say the least, a “warts-and-all” portrait of Marx. Many who have studied his life would say that Francis goes too far. For example, Terrell Carver presents a convincing case that the myth of Marx’s illegitimate son is inconsistent with the evidence, while Francis accepts the story as factual.
The picture one gets of Marx from Wheen’s biography is of an imperious and obsessive genius, trying to earn a living from his writing, but who wrote illegibly and was almost incapable of finishing a book; while spending almost 40 years of his life getting no closer to completing his magum opus on political economy, he could not manage his own household budget.
It is quite impossible to read Francis’s book, or for that matter to browse Marx’s correspondence, and retain any kind of Marx-the-superman image of the man. Nevertheless, Wheen’s biography allows the reader to see why it is that Marx is so widely regarded as a genius and how it is that his works are still today such a resource for the understanding of modernity. There are many parts of Francis’s book which we would have liked to include here, but we have selected just a short section onMarx and the working-class which deals with the myth that Marx had a dismissive and arrogant attitude towards the self-educated workers he associated with in the early communist movement. According to Wheen’s reading, Marx’s actual personal dealing with working class people was humble, caring and fully consistent with his political and philosophical commitment to their historic mission.
There are in addition many scurrilous myths about Marx’s personal life, foremost of which is the allegation that he fathered a son by the family’s maid, Helene Demuth. Given Helene’s dependence on the Marx household, this is indeed a serious charge. Terrell Carver’s scholarship, in Marx’s ‘Illegitimate Son’,, makes a very strong case that this is a myth. Terrell’s article also sheds further light on Marx’s character and his life-long relationship with Frederick Engels. In considering Marx’s attitude to women and the sexual mores of his day, it is well to remember that the founder of modern communism basically married his childhood sweetheart, was faithful to her till her dying day, and died a little over a year after her. In other words, at least in relation to sexual mores, he lived according to the ideals of his times, in Victorian England, while faithfully foreswearing the vices to which most men of his times succumbed.
Other myths concerning Marx’s character swing on a failure to understand the extent to which modern, progressive consciousness has been altered by the discovery of how language functions to support forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism. Marx was perfectly aware of the unjustness of the subordination of women and ethnic groups by the dominant white-male society of his times. He was in fact a pioneer in exposing the social and historical roots of social stigmatisation.
It would be fair to say that he had not attained the fully-liberated understanding of homosexuality expected of a progressive person today, but this is hardly surprising. In his public writing Marx never promulgates or gives credence to any of the reactionary attitudes associated with sexism, racism and so on, but in his private letters he is less cautious and to modern eyes, the use of words now regarded as “politically incorrect” is unpleasant. But to read this material as racist and sexist would be anachronistic.
Hal Draper’s Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype deals with the most widespread and malicious of myths about Marx’s character. This myth is centred on Marx’s review of Bruno Bauer’s ‘On the Jewish Question’, and a corrupted version of this work is still circulated by right-wingers in order to give substance to the myth.
One serious allegation made against Marx is that he sought a kind of “dictatorship” of his own within the workers movement, and the sole motivation behind his disputes with Ferdinand Lassalle and Mikhail Bakunin was personal. The myth of Marx’s personal antipathy to Lassalle was created by Franz Mehring, a life-long admirer of Lassalle who joined the Social-Democrats near the end of his life and became a founder of the German Communist Party. Mehring’s biography of Marx was published shortly before his death in 1919. In fact, Lassalle’s evolution as a “social Monarchist” alone would have justified Marx’s break with him, let alone the scandals that surrounded his name.
Marx was a great admirer of Bakunin and long regarded him as a comrade, but the fact is that Bakunin was an inveterate “conspirator,” and although he theoretically broke with his mentor Blanqui, he remained within the “secret society” milieu of radical politics long after the Communist Manifesto had declared that “the communists openly declare their aims.” Marx would be the first to recognise that the faction fight between their respective followers destroyed the International, but it was an issue of conspiracy versus class struggle, not a personal dispute between Marx and Bakunin.
This is not to deny that Marx was a fractious personality who clearly enjoyed political fights, but the splits with Lassalle and Bakunin were splits in the working class, and to have provoked such splits for personal reasons would be unforgivable.
Another misconception about Marx by those who have not yet read him, is that he was a unreadable writer. Humphery McQueen has contributed an article on this question, Reading the “unreadable” Marx, which celebrates the colour and humour of Marx’s writing, the use of metaphor, paradox, pun, irony, classical allusion and all the devices of the writer’s art. The satirical sting and mocking parody in some of his works is a joy to read. True, there are passages! the endless manipulation of prices and quantities of coats and cloth in Capital which often add little to the point already made, the obsessive, almost paranoiac bombast of works like Herr Vogt, or the interminable vindictiveness of The Holy Family, but some of his prose, such as his articles for the New-York Tribune, ranks with the best of its kind, and should be enjoyed.
Behind the discussion of Marx’s character must always lie the eternal question of the extent to which a writer’s personal character is relevant to an assessment of their literary heritage. Certainly in “scientific” matters, it seems indisputable that the person and the product are separable. But what of a writer whose work is so imbued with moral outrage and passion, whose writings inspire as well as inform? and of a person who was not just a writer, but actively shaped a social movement of such momentous importance, whose legacy therefore is found not only in his own writing, but in his entire impact on the world around him. Marx’s writing has to be read in the context of what he was trying to do at the time, and generally speaking that was not leaving a kind of literary time-capsule for us, even if we sometimes wish that he had done that!
There is no doubt that Karl Marx was a bundle of contradictions, but perhaps the reader will find that there is nothing petty or malicious, nothing dishonest or inauthentic in Marx’s character, and he would hardly be the first genius to combine exceptional virtues and abilities with somewhat unusual personal characteristics! Marx was a fallible human being (he fell out with almost every friend he had at some point, even Engels wasn’t speaking to him at one point), he made mistakes (his dismissal of the entirety of moral philosophy is a one example), there were gaps in his knowledge (the “marginal revolution” in economics happened almost simultaneous with the publication of Capital, but there is no evidence that Marx was even aware of it), but he was nevertheless a genius. The recovery of Marx’s original insights is one of the most productive enterprises in which we can engage today.
The collection does not on the whole address itself to the issue of Engels’ contribution. Our topic is Karl Marx. Perhaps once Marx’s own essential contribution has been clarified, it will create better circumstances for Engels’ specific contribution to be re-evaluated.
(3) Myths conflating Marx with 19th Century socialism and positivism
One the most widespread misconceptions conflates Marx with the general outlook of the nineteenth century, that is, the positivistic orientation to social progress and what is sometimes called “the scientific world outlook.” Present day thinking breaks not only with the notion of “progress” but reflects the hallmark of science, scepticism, being turned on to science itself. From this point of view, the entire legacy of social-democracy and communism is tainted with conceptions of the inevitability of progress and a worship of the methods and standpoint of natural science. Many who take this view, of course, are unaware of how much modern and postmodern critical theory owes to Karl Marx himself.
John Holloway’s contribution to this collection, The Tradition of Scientific Marxism, tackles this myth, a myth which is doggedly promoted by some who count themselves as followers of Karl Marx.
The collapse of Hegelianism in 1841 provided the context in which the young Marx became a communist; this was the same historical juncture in which positivism, existentialism, theoretical anarchism and “irrationalism” have their roots. Marx was already trying to work out his own critique of Hegel in his PhD thesis on Greek philosophy before he met Ludwig Feuerbach, and within a few months had gone past Feuerbach in his critique of existing philosophy. But unlike the others, Marx was trying to retain the critical edge of Hegel’s philosophy. To imagine that Marx was uncritical in relation to the soon-dominant positivist philosophy is missing the mark by a long way; Marx could be blamed if anything, for failing to devote sufficient energy to a systematic, public critique of positivism, more frequently simply contenting himself with off-hand dismissals of its main spokespeople.
Nevertheless, the workers movement of his lifetime was utterly caught up in the ethos of the Enlightenment — progress, science, education, philosophical materialism and the inevitable onward march of history. Everything that Marx wrote was interpreted in this spirit. And of course, this spirit was real. Marx was ruthlessly dismissive of its philosophical mouthpieces, but insofar as this spirit penetrated the workers’ movement, he had to deal with it.
While he treated people like Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, the philosophical exponents of progress and science, with utter contempt, Marx was quite justifiably fascinated with the unfolding discoveries of mathematics, natural science and historiography, and followed developments in as wide a domain as was possible for him.
His observation that every improvement in the productivity of labour only impoverished the labourer, is characteristic of Marx’s attitude to “progress,” however. At the same time, it should be remarked that it is a myth that Marx regarded the continual impoverishment of the working class an inevitability. His lectures on wages to the English trade unionists in the International Workingmen’s Association were directed precisely at convincing them of the opposite, that the wages strugglecould gain for the workers a larger share of the products of labour. Marx was insistent from the beginning that standard of living was not, as Adam Smith evidently believed, something determined by Nature, but rather a social and historical construct which could be improved by the struggle of the workers themselves.
The vexed question as to whether Marx regarded his own work on political economy as critique and in no sense also a “contribution” to political economy, is dealt with by John Holloway, Harry Cleaver and others. A reading of Marx’s correspondence with Engels and others does not support the thesis that Marx did not in any sense view his own work as a contribution to science. See for example his letter to Kugelmann of 28th December 1862 as well as the collected Letters on Capital. This does not actually negate the fact that Marx aimed at exposing the theories of the political economists as an ideological representation or “apology” for the practical activity of capitalists, and not worthy of being regarded as the exposition of objective quasi-natural laws of history and society. He intended not only to expose bourgeois society as an social-historical construct capable of being surpassed, but to simultaneously elucidate the actual dynamics of capitalist social relations as such. Capital was never finished, and in a sense this was hardly surprising, as the task Marx had set himself could hardly be completed while capitalism itself was still in its early stages of development, and still expanding and conquering new territories.
While on the subject of “critique,” in Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1844), Marx says: “criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” So what was Marx’s attitude to God and religion? As Hegel pointed out in The Phenomenology, “matter” for the materialists of Marx’s time had the same meaning as “God” had for 18th century Deists; likewise, abstractions like “laws of history.” So Marx’s critique of political economy and the positivism of which it was a part, is a direct continuation of the critique of religion.
Marx makes it clear in the 1844 Manuscripts that he is not an atheist; to positively assert that God does not exist is senseless. — “Man makes religion, religion does not make man. … The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, theexpression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world.” Political economy therefore cannot be abolished other than by abolishing the world of which it is the “aroma.” “Critique” therefore, is for the purpose of abolishing.
The myth that Marx thought that the study of philosophy was “obsolete,” based on the famous Theses 11, “philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world, the point is to change it,” misses the meaning of critique in the same way. Criticism of political economy, philosophy and other domains of theory, where the relations of society are worked out within socially regulated, scientific discourses, allowed Marx a window of exceptional clarity into the contradictions of bourgeois society, contradictions which manifest themselves quite differently in social movements. Philosophy, as a specialised pursuit for professional theorists, divorced from the life-activity of society as a whole, was indeed outmoded, but it continued to offer a unique window into bourgeois society.
On a related topic, there is the myth of the “Young Marx” and the “mature Marx” which was enlivened with the publication of the 1844 Manuscripts, which called into question so many of the myths of “orthodox Marxism,” and which was promoted in particular by the anti-humanist, structuralist, Louis Althusser.
It goes without saying that as a youth, the character of Marx’s thinking differed from that of the older Marx, but according to the myth, the Marx who wrote Capital (1867) was fundamentally different from and antagonistic to the Marx who wroteComments on James Mill (1843), the “critical” Marx who played with Hegelian categories had been replaced by the “scientific” Marx.
The publication of the English translation of The Grundrisse in 1973, in which Marx is clearly seen developing the categories of Capital on an ‘Hegelian’ basis as late as 1857, put up some obstacles to this myth. The myth rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx’s “mature” works, the purpose of which is none but to fulfil in the most rigorous way possible, the project begun in the 1844 Manuscripts. John Holloway’s essay amply demonstrates this.
Also, as late as 1881, Marx turned to Hegel for his critique of the calculus in his Mathematical Manuscripts. One would have thought that, given Marx’s anxiety to apply the calculus to political economy, he would have been better off with a standard text, but Marx preferred to begin with Hegel’s critique of calculus.
Under this category we should also mention a range of sins which are attributed to Karl Marx by postmodern thinkers, who in their enthusiasm, group Marx together with the modernity he criticised: “grand narrative,” “essentialism” and “false consciousness.”
A “Grand Narrative” is one “story” and one “subject of history” which “totalises” the narratives of all other subjects, thereby consigned to minor roles in the drama of history. In Hegel, this grand narrative is the work of Geist or Spirit. Interpreted in an Hegelian sense then, Marx’s idea that the emancipation of the working class represented human emancipation in general, that the proletariat was thus a “universal class,” could lead to the accusation that Marx elaborated such a “grand narrative,” in which women, for example, are consigned to a place of secondary importance. However, there is no evidence that Marx understood history in such a metaphysical way. “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals,” says Marx in the German Ideology. In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, it is clear that Marx’s view of social action meant, by its very nature, a multiplicity of subjects, not a single subject. The problem of a single subject of history and the totalisation of history was a problem raised by Lukács, long after Marx’s death. As early as 1843, Marx rejected Hegel’s metaphysical totalisation of History, at that time, admittedly, from the standpoint of a “Feuerbachian,” humanism.
“[For Hegel] the real subject appears to be the result; whereas one has to start from the real subject and examine its objectification. The mystical substance becomes the real subject and the real subject appears to be something else, namely a moment of the mystical substance.” [Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right]
“Essentialism” is the charge of finding in a category of people something “essential” to their being, which is not a social construct. Such a charge against Marx is an absurdity. “A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave,” says Marx in Wage Labour and Capital, in a passage which is typical of his view. That is, “race,” and all the stereotypes associated with it, is a social construct, not anything inherent in biology. All the discoveries of late twentieth century social criticism, in fact, owe a debt to Marx, for these kinds of insight.
“Teleology” is a related charge, i.e., that Marx believed in a purpose driving historical development to some pre-ordained End. The charge comes from positivists and post-structuralists who actually reject the intelligibility of history holus bolus. Marx had dealt with this before he became a communist, in his study of Epicurus’s philosophy of nature, but his comments welcoming the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species make his view very clear:
“Darwin, by the way, whom I’m reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done.” [Marx to Engels, 11 December 1859]
“False consciousness” is a concept attributed to Marx, but which was in fact never used by him, and used only once, in a private letter, by Engels near the end of his life. Lukács used the term, in inverted commas, in contrast to “imputed consciousness” — what someone could be expected to know, given their situation, if they had sufficient information and the opportunity to reflect. For his part, Marx, criticised the implications of ideas like “false consciousness” in his third Thesis on Feuerbach, saying “This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.”
Finally, Marx and women’s emancipation. The following remarks in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann encapsulate the problems of understanding Marx’s position here:
“Tell your dear wife that I never ‘suspected’ her of serving under Madame General Geck. I queried only in jest. Incidentally, the ladies cannot complain about the ‘International’, since it has appointed a lady, Madame Law, as a member of the General Council. Joking aside, very great progress was demonstrated at the last congress of the American ‘Labor Union’, inter alia, by the fact that it treated the women workers with full parity; by contrast, the English, and to an even greater extent the gallant French, are displaying a marked narrowness of spirit in this respect. Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of the fair sex (plain ones included).”
So in the same sentence that Marx offers a profound observation about the necessity for women’s emancipation and disposes of any “after the revolution” nonsense, he utters several remarks which to today’s reader appear sexist. But such a reading would be nonsensical, the letter being dated exactly one hundred years before the invention of the word “sexist.” .
(4) The Myth of Dialectical Materialism
The daddy of all the myths about Karl Marx is “dialectical materialism.” We have included Zbigniew Jordan’s article, The Origins of Dialectical Materialism (1967), because Jordan initiated the challenge to the myth of “dialectical materialism” in his critique of official Marxism in Poland, over 40 years ago, though there have been more recent articles on this theme as well.
Maximilien Rubel The Legend of Marx, or “Engels the founder”  (1970), aims somewhat more widely at the doctrine of “Marxism,” and endeavours to separate Marx’s original contribution from what may have been contributed by Engels.
There are numerous fragments where Marx refers to his “method” and his “dialectic” as “materialist,” such as in a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann: “[Dühring] knows full well that my method of exposition is not Hegelian, since I am a materialist, and Hegel an idealist. Hegel’s dialectic is the basic form of all dialectic, but only after being stripped of its mystical form, and it is precisely this which distinguishes my method.” And as a generalisation aimed at understanding Marx’s approach there is nothing wrong with observations of this kind.
However, the implication of the term “dialectical materialism,” especially in the way it has been developed by Marxists, is that there is some systematic method, which can be learned and reproduced, some “key” by which to unlock all the mysteries of life, a set of rules and principles which if only one follows correctly, can lead to truth. How far from Marx this is! Marx sweated blood, ruined his health and drove himself to distraction, burning candles late into countless nights poring over tracts of political economy for 40 years, struggling to grasp the dynamics of bourgeois society. If there ever was such a magic formula, then Karl Marx certainly did not discover it!
As Jordan and Rubel and others show, the term itself was invented by Plekhanov and Kautsky. Even Engels only went as far as “materialist dialectic” and “historical materialism.” These people cannot be blamed in a sense; it was not so much a distortion of Marx as a failed attempt to systematise his work and make it accessible to others. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is now possible see the damage that can be done by such an effort to reduce the labour of criticism to a “repeatable experiment.”
We will not labour this point any further, other than to ask readers who have been raised on the doctrine of “dialectical materialism” to take the trouble to re-read Marx and try to get closer to what he was struggling with, resisting the temptation to reduce the problem to a series of recipes and formulae.
(5) Other Myths of Orthodox Marxism
In addition to the myth of “dialectical materialism,” the other persistent myth about Marx is that he was an economic determinist, by which can be meant either that the economy develops according to unchangeable, quasi-natural laws, or that the entirety of social life is determined without residue by activity in the domain of production and reproduction of life.
There is of course a strong sense in which economic law confronts every individual or organisation as a “fact” which has to be reckoned with and which it would be only foolhardy to ignore. Recognition of this fact is hardly something for which Marx should be singled out. Even in this sense, within bourgeois society, there is plenty of room for the collective action to make very significant changes in social life by conscious intervention in the economy (something Marx actively promoted among trade unionists, as we have already mentioned) or by the placing of values on one good rather than another (something which Marx drew attention to very early on), or by changes in the labour process, family, political life etc., impinging on matters economic. Lumbering Marx with special blame in regard to the recognition of “hard necessity” in economic life is somewhat unfair given Marx’s original contribution in demonstrating how economic laws, as such, are products of human activity, and not eternal, whose apparent necessity characterises just one epoch in the history of humankind.
More important is the charge that Marx thought that “being determines thought.” There is no doubt that Marx believed that one must eat before one can write poetry, have a job before one can go on strike, etc., etc., that is, that the production and reproduction of social life is the pre-requisite for everything else … “in the last instance.” There is no doubt that Marx sought an understanding of the mysteries of social and political life in the sphere of the production and production of material life. His task here was a pioneering one.
Even this view is not unique to Marx. Hegel, at least in his early work and at least in relation to early stages of culture, tied the development of thinking to the underlying development of labour; Adam Smith and other political economists, sought to understand history through the lens of political economy, although it was not systematically worked out. What the political economists did not consider was that the very categories by means of which they sought to understand history, were themselves historical products.
In any case, what is Capital about? Isn’t it actually the first serious attempt to get to the bottom of why it is that people’s lives are dominated by economics? Isn’t it actually the first real effort to demonstrate how the determination of social life by economics is a product of a certain way of living, which could be otherwise? Isn’t it in fact the first serious challenge to the determination of all social and political life by economics?
Harry Cleaver’s contribution to this collection, Karl Marx: Economist or Revolutionary? as well as his recent bookReading Capital Politically, show that Capital has to be read not as a work of economics at all, but as a work about politics. Nevertheless, many may not be aware that Marx makes no mention at all of “communism” in Capital, the work being entirely devoted to the anatomy of bourgeois society. (We do not include here some references to “primitive communism,” understood as an early stage in the development of human society, which is obviously a different question altogether.)
Peter Stillman’s essay, Marx and Economic Determinism challenges the notion that Marx is a determinist, that is to say, some kind of fatalist.
The overcoming of economic determinism is not in the first place a theoretical task, but rather the work of history. The working class had first to form itself into a subject before it could enter politics. A work like The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon is a drama in which, to be sure, the actors have their ultimate roots and their bargaining power, so to speak, in political economy, but it is a drama played out on a stage which encompasses the whole of social and cultural life, not the economy.
“But,” it may be rejoined, “doesn’t Marx declare in Chapter One of the Communist Manifesto that ‘the victory of the proletariat is inevitable”? Yes, in exactly the same way that many a martyr has faced the firing squad declaring that ‘Final victory is inevitable.’ The Communist Manifesto was a rallying-cry that helped bring a previously non-existing communist movement into being, not a philosophical or social-theoretical text.
Many Marxists would agree with the above, but Cyril Smith goes further in his contribution, Marx and Materialism, in which the claim that Marx was a philosophical materialist is brought into question. Already in Theses on Feuerbach we see Marx’s critical attitude to materialist philosophy in particular, and philosophy in general. Marx was a communist, and critique of philosophy was a part of the job of unlocking problems in society.
There are innumerable myths arising from careless reading of Capital, many of which will not be taken up here. One though is worth dealing with and is addressed by Chris Arthur in his contribution on Simple Commodity Production. This is a myth which seems to have been initiated by Ernest Mandel and Paul Sweezy, both widely regarded as authorities on “Marxist economics.” Evidently unfamiliar with the Hegelian dialectic lying behind the structure of Capital, they assert that “Marx begins by analysing ‘simple commodity production’.” In fact, as Chris Arthur shows, the term ‘simple commodity production’ is never used by Marx. Marx begins, in fact, with capital, the relation which determines all others! Or using Marx’s words in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “It is as though light of a particular hue were cast upon everything, tingeing all other colours and modifying their specific features.”
Other myths swinging on the misunderstanding of the Hegelian aspects of Capital include the myth propagated by Tony Smith, that Capital (like Hegel’s Logic) begins with “Being,” ignoring the fundamental re-shaping of the structure of his critique between the writing the Introduction to the Grundrisse in August 1857, which began with “Production,” andContribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859, which (contrary to Hegel) began with the “Notion” — the commodity, the germ of all relations in capitalist society. Marx informed Engels of his progress with the Critique in January 1859:
“The manuscript amounts to about 12 sheets of print (3 instalments) and — don’t be bowled over by this — although entitled Capital in General, these instalments contain nothing as yet on the subject of capital, but only the two chapters: 1. The Commodity, 2. Money or Simple Circulation.” [Marx to Engels, 14th January 1859]
Also, one frequently hears mention of “Marx’s labour theory of value” — forgetting that it was Adam Smith, and not Marx who discovered the “law of value” inclusive of the determination of the value of wages by the costs of production of wage-labour. Marx’s contribution was to subject this theory to critique, to bring out it inherent contradictions, and trace its social and historical roots.
Andrew Kliman and Andrew Chitty have also drawn our attention to the myth of the “transformation problem.” These issues really become technical matters which we prefer to leave to the expert discussions among those specialists who are involved in the development of economic science.
Finally, Chris Arthur contributes a refutation of a relatively recent addition to myths about Marx. Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic and a Myth of Marxology deals with a myth that reflects the prominence given to the teaching of Kojève, French structuralism and postmodernism in the universities. In this myth, Marx is conflated with Alexandre Kojève, building his philosophy on “Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.”
(6) Marx’s Ethics
At the time Marx joined the Communist movement, Communism was seen by its advocates as essentially an ethical task, to prove the moral superiority of communism as against capitalism. The practical conquest of power by communism seemed impossibly remote; lacking even an agent for its realisation, communism was pursued via secret societies. It is in this context, together with the dominance of the postivistic ethos in that time, that it is understandable that Marx consistently dismissed all talk of ethics and morality as “moralism.” After his death, up until the triumph of Stalin the Soviet Union, communists wrote quite a bit about “socialist ethics,” but Marx understood himself as having transcended the need for any moral theory or consistently worked-out position on questions of ethics.
Subsequent history has caused us to regret this. His twentieth century followers, as we have shown, were able to build myths around Marx’s name in spite of what Marx himself had said. But leaders who denied the need for any moral or ethical justification for the most inhuman acts, seemed to be able to claim Marx as an ally.
However, the situation is not just as it seems. Beginning with Eugene Kamenka’s work in the early 1960s, there has been a growing literature demonstrating that contrary to Marx’s own self-understanding, he had a moral theory and a definite moral standpoint. Even if one were to accept the problematic thesis that science and ethics are separable, Capital is as much a work of ethics than of science.
Lawrence Wilde is one of those writers who has contributed to the growing literature on Marx’s ethics and his contribution to this collection, Marx and the Animal/Human distinction, introduces a surprising new slant to this study. Exactly how Marx’s ethics should be characterised is a matter of dispute and may remain so; however, what is demonstrated convincingly by these writers is that despite what Marx himself said, Marx had an ethical theory, albeit not consistent and not fully worked out. As George Brenkert shows, Capital bristles with words from the moral vocabulary: ‘human,’ ‘inhuman,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘slavery,’ ‘dependence,’ ‘subjugation,’ ‘imperfection,’ ‘defect,’ ‘brutalization,’ ‘venality,’ ‘corruption,’ ‘prostitution,’ ‘money-relation,’ ‘self-interest,’ ‘despotism,’ ‘repulsiveness,’ ‘suffering,’ ‘impotent,’ ‘involuntary,’ none of which really have any place in a work of “science.”
There are other “gaps” in Marx’s writing. Not only did he not have a “philosophy” such as “dialectical materialism,” he never wrote a theory of the state — his marginal notes on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1843 and the excerpts we have referred to above, which are highly ambiguous and vague, are the best we have. Rousseau, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Paine, Burke, Mill and so on never got the treatment he gave to the political economists.
He had no theory of linguistics, or psychology, something which is not surprising, since such sciences were in their infancy in his day. But that is not the case today; psychology and linguistics are at least a hundred years old now, and we have the benefit of the knowledge that has been acquired through such sciences. But we cannot call on Marx to offer guidance in these or many other areas. Even economic science has gone way beyond the political economy criticised by Marx.
In other words, Marx was a genius, but he was not a prophet. Marx never faced a situation like the Bolsheviks faced in 1918, or Taylorism, Fordism, Monetarism and Toyotism, etc., etc. To recapture Marx’s original ideas is not thereby to solveanything for today, but for we communists, it is a necessary self-clarification.
We have tried to deal with the most important and persistent of Marx Myths and Legends, but new myths are created every week. For example, Axel Honneth, the current representative of the Frankfurt School, in his 1996 Struggle for Recognition, after recycling the myth mentioned above, which has the “young” Marx a follower of Alexander Kojève (p. 146), within a couple of pages has the “mature” Marx a utilitarian.
Or Moishe Postone, who goes from some very good observations about “immanent critique” to claim that for Marx, capital is the “historical Subject” and the “identical subject-object” — in other words, God.
Or the myth of minor importance initiated, probably as a simple mistake, by István Mészáros, that Marx was present at Schelling’s December 1841Berlin lecture denouncing Hegel, while in fact it was Engels, whose notes of the lecture have been preserved. A mistake of minor importance, but when repeated innocently by Jon Stewart in Hegel Myths and Legends, it has now passed into the Hegel community as a matter of fact.
To repeat though, nothing we have said above is intended to create a new orthodoxy of the “real Marx” or in any sense to close the book on any of the questions raised. As we remarked, the role of this collection is essentially a negative one: to call into question the “received wisdom” about Marx and encourage a fresh and critical reading of Marx’s own life and work. Where we have felt confident enough, we have not held back from stating the case as we see it, but no-one has the last word on these questions.
If anyone is stimulated to return to a reading of Marx in order to find out whether their understanding of Marx stands the test, then our work has been done. In the meantime, we invite readers to contribute to the blog and/or rejoinders to specific articles.
1. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Chapter 6, Lenin 1908;
2. A Manifesto of Emancipation, Paresh Chattopadhyay;
3. Marx and Individual Freedom, Marshall Berman;
4. Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875;
6. Change the World Without Taking Power — The Meaning of Revolution Today, John Holloway;
7. The Communist Manifesto, 1848;
9. See Francis Wheen, Karl Marx, p.124, and The Communist Manifesto After 150 Years, Cyril Smith 1998, for more on theManifesto;
10. Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, March 1848;
12. The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2, 1848;
13. Private Property and Communism, 1844;
14. Private Property and Communism, Marx 1844;
15. Third Address on the Paris Commune, Marx May 1871;
16. Civil War in France, First Draft, Marx 1871;
17. Critique of the Gotha Program, Chapter 4, Marx 1875;
18. State and Revolution, Chapter 3, Lenin 1917. Lenin goes on: “It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do this with sufficient determination.” Hal Draper deals with this in his study of “dictatorship of the proletariat.”;
19. The “dictatorship of the Proletariat” in Marx and Engels, Hal Draper;
20. Civil War in France, First Draft, Marx 1871;
21. Critique of the Gotha Program, Part III, Marx 1875
22. See Freedom and Fetishism, Marshall Berman 1963;
24. Marx and the Working Class, Francis Wheen;
25. Marx’s ‘Illegitmate Son’, Terrell Carver;
26. Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype, Hal Draper;
27. On the Jewish Question, Marx 1843;
28. Karl Marx. The Story of His Life, Mehring 1918;
30. See Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume IV, Note B. Bakunin and the International: A ‘Libertarian’ Fable. Francis Wheen deals with Marx’s relationship with both Lassalle and Bakunin in his biography as well;
31. Reading the ‘unreadable’ Marx, Humphrey McQueen;
32. The Holy Family, Marx 1845. Herr Vogt is the only significant work by Marx which has not been transcribed for the Marxists Internet Archive;
33. The Tradition of Scientific Marxism, John Holloway;
35. Value, Price and Profit, 1865;
36. Estranged Labour, 1844;
37. Karl Marx: Economist or Revolutionary? , Harry Cleaver;
39. Value, Price and Profit, 1865;
40. Human Needs and the Division of Labour, 1844;
41. The Phenomenology, Hegel;
42. Private Property and Communism, 1844;
44. Theses on Feuerbach, 1845;
45. Spectres of Hegel, Louis Althusser, 1953;
47. The German Ideology, I.A, 1845;
48. Wage Labour and Capital, Part V, 1847;
49. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843;
50. 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, 1845;
52. Theses on Feuerbach, 1845;
54. The Origins of Dialectical Materialism, Zbigniew Jordan, 1967;
55. See for example, Cyril Smith’s Marx at the Millennium, 1998;
56. The Legend of Marx, or “Engels the founder” , Maximilien Rubel, 1970;
58. Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx 1859;
60. Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter 2, Marx 1847;
61. System of Ethical Life, Hegel 1802;
62. Karl Marx: Economist or Revolutionary?, Harry Cleaver;
63. Marx and Economic Determinism?, Peter Stillman;
64. Theses on Feuerbach, 1845;
65. Theses on Feuerbach, 1845;
66. Simple Commodity Production, Chris Arthur;
68. The Logic of Marx’s Capital. Replies to Hegelian Criticisms, Tony Smith, 1990;
69. Grundrisse, Marx 1859;
70. The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital, Ilyenkov 1960;
73. Marx and the Animal/Human distinction, by Lawrence Wilde;
74. See Marx’s ethics of freedom, George Brenkert, 1983.
75. The Struggle for Recognition. The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Axel Honneth 1996, MIT Press. p. 147-149. Chris Arthur’s essay, Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic and a Myth of Marxology, deals with the myth about Marx reading Hegel according to Kojève. The myth about Marx-the-utilitarian is not a new one, but has got new currency thanks to Honneth.
76. Time, Labour and Social Domination. A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory. Moishe Postone. Cambridge UP, 1993, p. 157. Marx never uses terms like “identical subject-object” except for a couple of occasions by way of mockery of Hegel, in fact he never uses the term “Subject” in the sense of moral agency. But more than that, Marx never claims the kind of “totalisation” these writers ascribe to him.
77. Beyond Capital, István Mészáros, Merlin 1995, p. 2, and Hegel Myths and Legends, Jon Stewart, Northwestern University Press, 1996, p. 7.