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7 May 2017

The conflicted legacy of Karl Marx

A century and a half ago, Das Kapital, the bible of 20th-century revolutionaries, predicted the overthrow of capitalism – but also the rise of globalisation.

By David Reynolds

This year marks the centenary of Russia’s two dramatic revolutions of 1917: February and October. The first overthrew tsarism and established a fragile, reformist Provisional Government. The second, Lenin’s seizure of power in the name of the proletariat and peasantry, plunged Russia into a brutal civil war from which eventually emerged the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Next year will mark the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx, co-author of the Communist Manifesto – the bible of 20th-century revolutionaries across the world. The ideology of Marxism-Leninism became the dogma of the Soviet state and of acolytes such as Mao Zedong in 1949 and Fidel Castro a decade later.

To our own day, however, this all seems like ancient history. More recent revolutions in 1989-91 swept away the Soviet empire and then the USSR itself, shattering the credibility of global communism. So 2017-18 ­offers a platform from which to reflect on the legacies of Marx and Lenin. Should Marx be remembered not as a theorist of revolution, but as an early analyst of global capitalism, whose costs and benefits are the preoccupation of our own “Brumpit” era of Brexit and Trump? And did the dilemma with which Marx wrestled – about capitalist evolution and political revolution – become a leitmotif of the Soviet state and indeed ­Putin’s as well?

Karl Marx was born in the German city of Trier on 5 May 1818, the son of a Jewish lawyer. Recent biographers such as Jonathan Sperber (2013) and Gareth Stedman Jones (2016) have been at pains to position Marx properly in time and space. He grew up in the largely Catholic Rhineland, which had
been emancipated by the Napoleonic Code but then, after the emperor’s defeat in 1814, subjected by the victorious allies to the control of Protestant absolutist Prussia. Marx, radicalised as a student in Bonn and Berlin, spent the 1840s struggling against the Prussian “Christian state” as a journalist and agitator, until forced to flee to London ­after the abortive European revolutions of 1848-49.

The Communist Manifesto, the final draft of which Marx wrote in January 1848, represented the intellectual quintessence of this phase in his life. Although those he called the Reactionists were still haunted by the spectre of 1789, which had “abolished feudal property”, bourgeois society was proving an altogether more formidable obstacle for would-be revolutionaries than the ancien régime because of its inherent dynamic: the “constant revolutionising of production”.

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[See also: Russia’s turbulent century of revolutions, from Lenin to Putin]

The Manifesto described capitalism’s insatiable appetite for “a constantly expanding market for its product” pushing out “over the whole surface of the globe”. This “exploitation of the world-market” had given “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country” and “drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood”. In fact, Marx declared, “the bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together”. In effect, Marx was talking about globalisation, and calling it a revolutionary phenomenon.

Exiled in London, he continued to ponder the chances of political revolution within the context of this dynamic, globalising bourgeois society. While earning a precarious living from journalism, he worked fitfully on his great work about capitalism. The first volume of Das Kapital finally appeared in 1867 during a decade of renewed political ferment, illuminated by national revolutions in Italy (successful) and Poland (abortive) and Abraham Lincoln’s metamorphosis of the “War Between the States” into a struggle to end slavery.

Volume one was vast and often rambling. Marx theorised about commodities and money and sought to explain how “surplus value” (Mehrwert) was extracted from the worker through the value he added to the production process in excess of his wages – profit that the owner then converted into capital. Much of the book engaged in a detailed theoretical analysis of relations between capital and labour, but some vivid passages exposed the horrific alienation of Victorian factories: “. . . they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil . . . they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital”.

And yet, as the historian Tristram Hunt has drily observed, “the funds which kept Marx afloat through Das Kapital’s long ­literary gestation” came ultimately from “the very same exploited labour-power – the mill-hands of Ermen & Engels, that juggernaut of capital”.


Friedrich Engels was indispensable to Karl Marx. He provided essential funding from the profits of his father’s Manchester cotton factory – amounting to roughly half his annual income in the 1850s and 1860s – to keep Marx and his wife, Jenny, in the bourgeois lifestyle to which they aspired “for the sake of the children”, as she put it defensively. He even stepped in when Marx managed to impregnate both his wife and their live-in housekeeper in quick succession, obliging both women to endure their pregnancies together in a squalid two-room flat in Soho. This ghastly situation was eased only when Engels gamely accepted paternity of the housekeeper’s boy and arranged for young “Freddy” to be adopted by a foster family in the East End.

Cash and cover aside, the most enduring contribution made by this sybaritic socialist – Engels plotted with the radicals of Hyde Road in Manchester but hunted with the Cheshire Hounds – was to Marx’s writing. In correspondence and conversation, Engels helped tease out his friend’s complex ideas and straighten his often knotty prose. He provided many of the government reports and official statistics about working conditions and public health on which volume one relied. Engels also helped educate the intellectual hermit ensconced in the Reading Room of the British Museum into the real world of factory capitalism. “Since practice is better than all theory,” one of Marx’s many begging letters began, “I would ask you to describe to me very precisely (with examples) how you run your business.”

[See also: Britain, Russia and the Cold War]

True to Engels’s nature, however, his literary contribution was a Jekyll-and-Hyde story. In the long term, he distorted Marx through his editing of the rest of Das Kapital, which remained unfinished when Marx died in 1883. Volumes two and three were published in 1885 and 1894, accompanied by prefaces, revisions and neat essays from Engels which reflected the ideological concerns of those later days, not least by yoking Marx to the then fashionable “survival of the fittest” jargon of social Darwinism.

Indeed, Engels was editing Marx from the very moment he laid his friend to rest at Highgate Cemetery on 17 March 1883, informing the other ten people at the graveside that: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc . . .” Engels liked to talk of the law of history as “our” doctrine but in this case paternity was not blurred: “historical materialism” was definitely his child.

“Most people are too idle to read thick books like Capital,” Engels remarked rather smugly in a private letter, “so a little pamphlet does the job much more quickly.” His most successful pamphlet was Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, best known by way of the endlessly reprinted English edition of 1892. This purported to explain how, through the materialist conception of history and the theory of surplus value, Marx had set socialism on a “scientific” basis.

It went on to summarise the three phases of history. In medieval society, production was small-scale and for immediate consumption by the producer or his feudal lord. Then came the “capitalist revolution”, in which the “social product” was “appropriated by the individual capitalist”, condemning the worker to “wage-labour for life”. This could only be overcome through a “proletarian revolution”, whereby the proletariat seizes “public power” and thereby transforms the “means of production” from the private possession of the bourgeoisie into “public property”.

“Engels was the first Marxist,” the political theorist Terrell Carver has observed, “and he had a defining influence on Marxism.” When Engels himself died in 1895, Lenin’s obituary essay yoked him and Marx together as “two friends” who had “devoted their life’s work to a common cause”, and celebrated them as pathfinders of a Russian revolution that Lenin confidently predicted.


From here it might seem an easy quickstep to the Leninist revolution of 1917, but in fact a lot of intellectual fancy footwork was required. Let’s go back for a moment to Marx before Engels, or at least Engels’s makeover of Marx’s ideas.

Why did the author of Das Kapital never complete his magnum opus? Conventionally, this is ascribed to the pressures of journalistic work and deteriorating health. But Gareth Stedman Jones argues that the delay also reflects underlying intellectual doubts. By the 1860s Marx had come to see revolution more as “process” than “event” – less of a “theatrical” moment, such as the fall of the Bastille, and more of what Stedman Jones calls “the political ratification of changes which were already occurring or had already occurred in civil society”. From this perspective Marx worried about whether he had delineated a universal theory of development, or one that was applicable only to the advanced bourgeois societies of ­western Europe.

Worse still for Marx, after the evanescence of the 1860s revolutionary moment and the bounce-back from the 1873 financial crash, global capitalism’s resilience raised troubling questions about whether its collapse would come only from some as yet undiagnosed grand structural contradiction. Marx toyed with the idea that the falling rate of profit as the global economy reached its limits might trigger capitalism’s demise, but he never pulled together his fragmentary musings. What became known as Zusammenbruchstheorie (the theory of collapse) was a product of later Marxist economists.

[See also: The delusions that bind communism and liberalism]

The onset of the First World War in 1914 briefly opened a window of hope for revolutionaries. But the Great Crash did not happen. The powers managed to sustain their apparently suicidal conflict despite vast financial cost and appalling human casualties. Once again, it seemed, capitalism was showing its adaptability.

It was Lenin who offered a way through the intellectual logjam, like Engels using the rapier of a political pamphlet rather than the bludgeon of a scholarly tome. In Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin argued that the world had moved on from Marx’s day and therefore so must socialist theory. What he called “late capitalism” was monopoly capitalism, not a free market; nor was it peaceful, but locked in a life-or-death armed struggle. Socialists could exploit the disorder to foment revolutionary change even in countries not ripe, by Marx’s original analysis, for a proletarian revolution.

Lenin’s Imperialism was published in Petrograd (the wartime name for St Petersburg) in the summer of 1917, when Russia’s half-baked February revolution had toppled the tsar but left the country suspended in anarchic flux between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd soviet of soldiers and workers. In the end, after dithering on into the autumn, Lenin went for the jugular. He drove through the Bolshevik coup against the instincts of most of his colleagues and then accepted the humiliating peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk in order to preserve the new regime and foster revolution abroad. His aim was to turn the imperialist war into a Europe-wide civil war.

In the autumn of 1918 the “theory of ­collapse” seemed finally vindicated. The Habsburg empire and the kaiser’s Reich disintegrated, communists seized power in Munich and Budapest, and revolutionary nationalism exploded from Cairo to Beijing. Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s commissar for foreign relations, saw global revolution as inevitable. What was now needed was to arouse the workers of the world – for instance, by exposing the Allies’ covert agreements to divide up the spoils of victory between them. “I myself took this job so I would have more time for Party work,” he declared only half tongue-in-cheek. “All there is to do is to publish the secret treaties. Then I will close up the shop.” Unfortunately for the new Soviet Union, the 20th century did not prove quite so simple.


In a way, the foreign policy of the USSR throughout its 70-year existence from 1922 to 1991 was still wrestling with Marx’s old conundrum: how to promote communist revolution in a world increasingly defined by capitalism?

In the 1920s, when Trotskyite millennialist hopes fizzled out, this paradox was institutionalised in the Narkomindel and Comintern. The former was a conventional foreign ministry, seeking to build diplomatic and commercial relations with the capitalist world to avoid war and encirclement, while the Third Communist International dedicated itself to spreading revolution, especially in the colonial world.

Stalin was the supreme exponent of the pragmatic side of this dualistic foreign policy. In 1939, to buy time for rearmament, he signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in defiance of all Marxist-Leninist verities. David Low’s celebrated cartoon captured the ideological incredibility of the moment, the two brutal dictators doffing their caps to each other amid rubble and bodies. “The scum of the Earth, I believe?’’ says unctuous Adolf. “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?” replies greasy Joe.

When Hitler reverted to type in June 1941 and threw three million men against the USSR, Stalin – after a brief nervous breakdown – contrived a smooth U-turn to ally with the British empire and then capitalist America. In 1943, as the wartime alliance blossomed, he even abolished the Comintern. Although primarily a public relations gesture, this reflected Stalin’s sense that the world was in flux and that the modalities of Soviet diplomacy must also change. At the end of the war, mulling over the astounding rise of the Labour Party in Britain, he observed that “today socialism is possible even under the English monarchy. Revolution is no longer necessary everywhere.”

When Stalin spoke in November 1944 on the 27th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, he insisted that the wartime alliance rested not on “chance and passing considerations but vitally important and long-term interests”. This was not mere rhetoric. After a ruinous war, in which perhaps one-seventh of the pre-war population had died, the USSR would need international peace and capitalist aid in order to rebuild.

Yet Stalin always viewed “peace” from a Marxist-Leninist perspective. Economic advisers such as Eugen Varga predicted a postwar “crisis of overproduction” in capitalism and renewed rivalry between the imperialist states. That is why Stalin assumed Britain and the US would soon fall out; he failed to anticipate the transatlantic alliance that coalesced in 1947-49 around the Marshall Plan
and Nato. As the Cold War deepened, the Comintern returned in the guise of Cominform – the Communist Information Bureau.

It was under Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev that the USSR came closest to matching US capitalism. At least that was how it seemed for a few heady years around 1960, when the Soviets were humiliating the Americans in the space race. Resolutely unimpressed by a state-of-the-art American kitchen erected at an exhibition in Moscow in 1959, Khrushchev hectored Vice-President Richard Nixon: “This is what America is capable of, and how long has she existed? Three hundred years? A hundred and fifty years of independence and this is her level! We haven’t quite reached 42 years, and in another seven years we’ll be at the level of America, and after that we’ll go farther. As we pass you by, we’ll wave ‘hi’ to you. And then if you want, we’ll stop and say, ‘Please come along behind us.’”

Khrushchev’s braggart bluff was soon called over the Cuban missile crisis, which demonstrated US military and technological superiority. But the Cuban humiliation spurred the USSR into a huge drive to achieve rough nuclear parity with America. In the ensuing détente era of the 1970s, the Soviets interpreted the idea of “peaceful ­coexistence” along Leninist lines, to signify reduced danger of nuclear war and therefore enhanced opportunity for communist revolution. The Horn of Africa and Angola became prime battlegrounds, with the Kremlin using Cuban troops as proxies.

It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary in 1985 that the USSR moved beyond this dualism of pragmatic competition and attempted subversion. Gorbachev was an impatient reformer who recognised that the command economy based on heavy industry and a rigid economic plan was inappropriate for the dawning age of information technology, by which capitalism was rejuvenating itself through the “constant revolutionising” impulse that had bemused Marx. Now it was America, in the person of George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, that offered patronising tutorials in modernisation, with the clear implication that “you’re welcome to come along behind us”.

Gorbachev’s bold reforms had the effect of dismantling the old Soviet order without any idea of how to replace it. Instead of the country evolving towards “socialist democracy”, he and his successor Boris Yeltsin dragged post-Soviet Russia into an economic and political abyss in the 1990s. “Again and again, with our revolutions,” Gorbachev’s policy aide Anatoly Chernyaev confided mournfully to his diary, “we give more to others than to ourselves.”


Yet the old dualism has not disappeared. Russia in 2017 is now firmly part of the global economy, albeit with a version of capitalism that is both oligopolist and statist. Internet penetration has doubled in the past five years, with the web now reaching more than 70 per cent of the population over the age of 16. But Vladimir Putin, though no communist, insists that Russia today – just as in the tsarist and Soviet eras – still needs autocratic leadership to prevent anarchy. Not only has he cracked down on political dissent at home through a sophisticated system of internet surveillance, but he has also engaged in cyber warfare to penetrate and destabilise the internal politics of Western states. In other words, the revolutionary project goes on – by 21st-century methods.

[See also: Why Vladimir Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

And Marx still resonates in the West. After the 2008 crash and the shockwaves of Brumpit, we cannot ignore capitalism’s double-edged capacity to generate economic prosperity at the cost of human alienation.

It’s unlikely that Das Kapital is widely read in Sunderland or Youngstown, Ohio (or, for that matter, in Hampstead or Greenwich Village): we have moved beyond the simplifications of pamphlets into the inanities of Twitter. Yet in some basic ways Marx’s dilemma persists into our own day, a century on from the Bolshevik revolution, two centuries after his birth, and on the threshold of the robotics revolution.

On the one hand: global capitalism’s endless fecundity in wealth creation. On the other: those haunting lines about how it mutilates the worker into a fragment of a man and drags his wife and children beneath the wheels of the juggernaut.

David Reynolds’s books include “One World Divisible: a Global History Since 1945” (Penguin)

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This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution