Marx’s vision of how to solve the ills of society underwent a major change between 1843 and 1845. At the beginning of this period, he was editor of the Rheinische Zeitung– attempting to apply the ideas of the philosopher Georg Hegel to the struggle for a more liberal and democratic Prussian state. In the end, he was a communist, convinced of the potential of the working class to overthrow capitalism and build a new, more equal and free society in its place.
The prohibition of the newspaper by the Prussian authorities in March 1843 marked a turning point. Seeing little prospect for political activity in such a climate of repression, in October of the same year Marx moved to Paris. There he engaged with socialist and radical labor circles – his first direct experience of a labor movement that was still in its infancy. It was also in Paris in 1844 that Marx struck up a lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels, who had traveled there from Manchester, where he had collected material for his book The condition of the working class in Englandpublished in 1845, and forging links with the Chartists.
A selection of Marx’s notes from this period – based on his intensive study of the mechanisms of contemporary society, and in particular of the position of labor in the emerging system of industrial capitalism – was later published under the title 1844 manuscripts. The first note in the published collection indicates how far its focus had already shifted. “Wages are determined,” he wrote, “through the antagonistic struggle between capitalist and worker.”
In 1845 and 1846 Marx collaborated with Engels on the texts which were later published as German ideology. In Chapter I, they explain their new perspective of “historical materialism.” Seeking to understand human society and history, they write: “the premises from which we start are not arbitrary… They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions in which they live”.
This approach was in stark contrast to the type of idealist philosophy that dominated in the radical liberal circles of which Marx had previously been a part. “Men must be able to live, they continued, to be able to ‘make history’. But life is above all about eating and drinking, a home, clothes and many other things. The first historical act is therefore the production of the means of satisfying these needs, the production of material life itself.
The key to understanding society and social change therefore lay not in the abstract theorizing of philosophers, but in the realm of the material conditions of life and the daily production and reproduction of those conditions. According to the historical materialist view, how people produce their means of subsistence (the food, shelter, etc. they need to survive) is the foundation on which the whole of what we call “society” rests. “. Understanding any aspect of society therefore had to begin with an understanding of the particular “mode of production” on which it was based.
This is where class has become central. People, of course, can be grouped by workplace, locality, specialty, or any number of things. However, according to Marx and Engels, the most important way of grouping them is how they access their livelihoods, or the money to do so. Is it mainly from working for someone else or from having others work for you? The answer to this question – which class you belong to – is the most important aspect of the many elements that condition an individual’s consciousness and worldview. And the existence of such fundamentally different viewpoints within the same society points to something that Marx and Engels came to regard as the fundamental driver of social change throughout history: class conflict.
The fundamental opposition at the heart of production between worker and boss had been present in various forms, they said, from the first emergence of class societies until their time. “The history of any hitherto existing society”, as Marx so aptly put it in the opening passage of communist manifestopublished in 1848, “is the history of class struggles.
“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and companion, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, constantly opposed each other, led an uninterrupted fight, sometimes hidden, sometimes open, a fight which each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society as a whole, or in the common ruin of the classes in struggle.
Any time you consider in history after the emergence of class societies, you find, on the one hand, a ruling class that enjoys its role in society and the rewards of its social position. On the other side, we find the workers (or peasants, slaves, etc.), for whom the situation is completely different. The “good life” enjoyed by those above is won over the misery and impoverishment of those below.
This is not, and never can be, a stable situation. It’s not just that those at the top will always be looking for ways to turn the screw and extract even more wealth from those they consider their “right” to rule. Nor that the miserable existence imposed on those below warrants rebellion. It is also that over time, what Marx and Engels called the “forces of production” – which include the workers themselves, their knowledge and skills, the tools and machines they use, etc. – gradually develop in such a way that, in the end, they begin to be suffocated by the existing “production relations” that the rulers want to maintain.
However stable and permanent a particular class society may be, the fundamental conflict at its heart ensures that change will eventually come whether the ruling class likes it or not.
Under the emerging system of capitalism, Marx realized, this fundamental class conflict was growing both in scope and intensity. The whole world was drawn into one system – building, on the one hand, a capitalist ruling class destined to surpass all its predecessors in wealth and power, and on the other a working class of enormous proportions and capabilities.
The emergence and growth of the system in Europe from the 14th century destroyed old ways of life and eroded the ideological and material basis of reactionary monarchies. These developments paved the way for an explosion of economic productivity and hoisted, in the French Revolution of the late 18th century, the (illusory, but nonetheless significant) banner of “liberty, equality and fraternity” as the new ideal. towards which society should strive. .
Understanding these developments did not make Marx anything like a system cheerleader. There has never been, according to him, a “heroic” phase of capitalist development. The immense productivity of capitalism has created the possibility of the creation of a society of genuine freedom and abundance. But that possibility was threatened from the outset by the ever-increasing scale of barbarism and destruction that was the flip side of the system’s relentless drive to conquer and accumulate.
The technological advance was immense, but it was used in destructive ways. Marx would not live to see atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, millions slaughtered in industrial wars and holocausts or the climate catastrophe unfolding today. But he saw enough to know that while capitalism could conjure up gigantic forces of production and incredible technological feats, it could not control them or put them at the service of humanity as a whole, rather than profits alone. of the rich. The periodic economic crises, wars, genocides and other “unnatural” disasters that the system has brought about have provided a periodic reminder of its fundamentally destructive core.
The hope of escaping all this rested, according to Marx, with the working class. This class, with all its latent power and knowledge, the class which contained within itself all the grievances of society and which had no interest in the survival of capitalism, could become, as Marx said in the communist manifestothe “gravedigger” of the system.
He could do this not only because of his potential to resist his exploitation and oppression – a potential he shared with previous working classes like the peasantry under feudalism. He was able to do this because his role as the producer of all the profits and wealth that is the cornerstone of capitalism gave him the power both to bring the whole system to its knees and to build an alternative, socialist, in its place. The more capitalism grew – Marx realized this – and the more gigantic the productive forces it created, the more numerous and potentially powerful the working class would become. The only ingredient that was still missing from the “revolutionary reconstitution of society” along communist lines was the kind of class consciousness necessary for the workers to exercise their power collectively.
It is here, for Marx, that the revolution intervenes. “The revolution is necessary”, he writes in German ideology“not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class which overthrows it can only in a revolution succeed in throwing off all the mud of the centuries and becoming fit to found society again “.
No ruling class in history has ever graciously accepted that its time in power was over. The capitalist class itself had to face the structures that emerged and defended from feudal society and the power of the aristocracy. The working class, in turn, has to face the capitalists and the governmental powers, the police, the army, the right-wing media and all the other structures that come out of and defend capitalist society. Only a mass workers’ revolution offers the hope of successfully overthrowing this imposing edifice of reaction.
At the same time, it is only through the direct participation of the mass of workers in the process of struggle and revolution that they can acquire the consciousness and confidence in their power necessary to begin to lead society by themselves. The reality of daily life under capitalism is (quite consciously, considering the role of the education system, mass media, etc.) unlikely to produce this kind of consciousness on a large scale. The rupture in the fabric of this reality that occurs when workers collectively fight against the system is like a window through which the “new world” of communism breaks through.
By the mid-1840s, the main elements of Marx’s theory of society, social change, and revolution were in place. Unlike his idealist and “utopian socialist” predecessors, Marx’s socialism was grounded in an understanding of the fundamental material basis of class society and the contradictions of capitalism that point to its own demise. Being a communist did not just mean snatching up a vision of a better society and supporting it against contemporary reality. Doing this only meant writing, in Marx’s famous quip, “recipes for the kitchens of the future.” Instead, it meant determining what processes in contemporary society pointed to a better future and dedicating your life to their success.
Historical materialism became, as the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács later put it, “the theory of proletarian revolution”. The rest of Marx’s life will be devoted to putting this theory into practice.