How Marx discovered the working class

Issue section: 


The Silesian weavers’ revolt taught Marx about workers’ agency. Pic: Wikimedia

Workers need to free themselves. Joseph Choonara argues that as we celebrate the bicentenary of Marx’s birth, we should emphasise this hard won and most original contribution to radical politics.

Back in 1999, as the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle was shut down in a cloud of teargas, a global anti-capitalist movement was born. The best of the socialist left sought to engage with this movement, while also showing that it had something to contribute.

I recall being asked to speak at a series of meetings entitled “Marx: The First Anti-capitalist”. The idea was laudable but the pedant in me recognised that whatever Karl Marx was, he certainly could not lay claim to being the first anti-capitalist. Long before Marx, utopian socialists such as Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen expressed their hatred for the realities of capitalist rule. Indeed, they were, for Marx and Frederick Engels, the first great theoreticians of the working class, engaged in what Engels called “the concoction, by means of the imagination, of an ideal society”.

Nor could Marx claim to have discovered class struggle. A range of thinkers had, while not advocating the overthrow of capitalism, already arrived at this notion. François Guizot, who became the French prime minister before being brought down by revolution in 1848, put the struggle between classes at the centre of his historical writings. He traced the rise of an urban class of burghers, forerunners of the bourgeoisie, and their clash with the feudal ruling classes, leading to the French Revolution. Such clashes, he argued, provided the driving force of history.

Already by 1845 Marx was developing a novel understanding of the working class and its struggles. For what Marx, with Engels, recognised, and systematically elaborated for the first time, was the unique revolutionary potential of the proletariat. This was not a discovery in the sense of a principle created from thin air. It was more akin to Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America: there were already people living there. Marx and Engels were not simply teachers of the class; they had to first learn from its struggles.

Marx’s earliest engagement with political questions came in the late 1830s and early 1840s as a student of philosophy. A number of the successors of the philosopher Georg Hegel, known as the Young Hegelians, were at this time drawing radical conclusions from aspects of his writing. Hegel’s philosophical system is complex and its meaning has been contested since its inception, but at its heart was a notion that, as the philosopher put it, “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” This lent itself to conservative and radical interpretations. The rational could be identified with the oppressive Prussian state and its bureaucracy, a very real force in Germany at the time. Alternatively, it could be identified with the radical impulse of the French Revolution that had shattered feudal political structures and spread liberal ideas across the continent.

What seemed rational in one epoch could be overthrown in another as its rationality was exposed as provisional and partial. As Engels argued, “But precisely therein lay the true significance and the revolutionary character of Hegelian philosophy, it at once and for all dealt the death blow to the finality of human thoughts and action.” Furthermore, Hegel saw the contradictions contained in apparently coherent systems as the motor of change.

This held obvious appeal for radicalising intellectuals who jibed against the conservatism and backwardness of Germany, at that time neither a unified nation state nor one witness to the development of industrial capitalism on the scale seen in countries such as Britain. Their radicalism would bring many Young Hegelians into the democracy movement where they were forced to confront a range of political questions.

In 1842 Marx was beginning a career as a journalist at the most radical democratic journal in Prussia, Rheinische Zeitung. Much later he reflected, “In the years 1842-3 I found myself in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests.” This led to a growing recognition of the social tensions at stake within political debates. He began work on a series of articles dealing with issues such as the laws on the theft of wood, poaching and the division of land. Marx increasingly identified the different positions in these debates with the “characteristic outlook of each class”.

The Rheinische Zeitung was by now coming under the attention of the authorities for its radical content. A rival journal accused it of flirting with communism. Marx protested: “The Rheinische Zeitung does not even concede theoretical validity to communist ideas in their present form, let alone desires their practical realisation.” Yet time had run out for the Rheinische Zeitung and its editor, now widely regarded as a dangerous extremist. However, in forcing Marx into exile in Paris the Prussian censor merely placed him in contact with a far more developed socialist movement. He enthusiastically attended meetings of French socialists and German émigré groups.

The shift in Marx’s thinking is reflected in a series of writings in 1843 and early 1844. Marx began to advocate revolution and identify workers as the key to the struggle in Germany. Yet, even now, he placed the emphasis on workers’ suffering and on the necessity of welding together this abject mass with the intellectual weapon of philosophy: “So where is the real possibility of a German emancipation? We answer: in the formation of a class with radical chains that has a universal character because of its universal sufferings. The head of this emancipation is philosophy; its heart is the proletariat.”

Yet over the coming year or so the most essential notion of Marxism — workers’ self-emancipation — began to crystallise. Existing socialist literature was of little help. Hal Draper, whose outstanding study of the development of Marx’s thought is published as Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, points out: “Without any exception then known, [the] first socialist ideologists were proponents of a socialism from above, the installation of the new order by a more or less benevolent elite who would ‘do good’ for the masses despite the latter’s immaturity.”

Marx had to learn from the workers’ movement. One important occurrence was the outbreak of the Silesian weavers’ revolt in Germany in June 1844, in which workers smashed machinery that had driven down their wages. Soldiers were called in to confront an unarmed crowd of 3,000 who marched on one of the textile merchants’ headquarters; 11 workers were shot dead, 24 more fatally wounded. Initially workers fought back and chased off the soldiers, but the next day a mobilisation of infantry, artillery and cavalry cowed them into submission.

One of Marx’s former radical friends, Arnold Ruge, responded with an article dismissing the workers, writing that “only a few troops were required to deal with the feeble weavers”. Marx, by contrast, leapt to the workers’ defence, praising the militancy and theoretical advances being made by German workers, as compared to the impotency of the democracy movement.

For the first time he emphasised workers’ own activity: “It is only in socialism that a philosophical people can find a corresponding activity, thus only in the proletariat that it finds the active element of its freedom.”

By now Marx identified as a communist and was grappling with his discovery of the workers’ movement. His 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts contain elements of Marx’s old approach fused with the new idea: “In order to supersede the idea of private property communist ideas are sufficient but genuine communist activity is necessary in order to supersede real private property. When French socialist workers meet together the brotherhood of man is no empty phrase but a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their toil-worn bodies.”

Workers were still seen as victims, but they were also a group driven to struggle against their deprivation.

Alongside his support for workers’ struggles, a second crucial factor was Marx’s friendship with Engels, from August 1844. Engels had recently returned from a stint in Manchester, where his textile manufacturer father had entered a partnership with the firm of Peter Ermen.

Engels was, like Marx, well-acquainted with Hegel and the democracy movement, but was more grounded in the realities of industrial capitalism. During his time in Manchester, he attended gatherings of the Chartists, becoming close to one of its leaders in the area, James Leach. Through him, Engels met George Julian Harney, the driving force behind the Northern Star, a workers’ newspaper that, at its height, sold tens of thousands of copies. He also visited London to meet members of the League of the Just, a secret society of radical German émigrés.

The first product of the Marx-Engels partnership, The Holy Family, took aim at their former philosophical co-thinkers precisely on account of their patronising attitude towards workers: “According to Critical Criticism [ie the work of the Young Hegelians] the whole evil lies in workers’ ‘thinking’. But these massy, communist workers, employed, for instance in the Manchester or Lyons workshops, do not believe that ‘pure thinking’ will be able to argue away their industrial masters and their own practical debasement.”

In other words: “the proletariat can and must free itself”. By this stage Marx was attracting the attention of the Parisian authorities. Before The Holy Family saw the light of day, Marx had been expelled from France, moving to Brussels.
Here the two revolutionaries produced the unpublished manuscript The German Ideology. This presents a vision of communism bound up with the actual struggle of workers: “a class is called forth which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness”.

Of this consciousness, he adds that it “may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class”. While in Brussels, Marx would adopt precisely this standpoint, forming his Communist Correspondence Committee, the embryonic form for several later political organisations he would build embodying the principle of workers’ self-emancipation.

So central was this principle that the rules of the International Working Men’s Association, which the two revolutionaries helped launch two decades later, had inscribed in its opening lines: “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”