Friday, June 21, 2013

A world to win

The Communist Manifesto was Marx and Engels' most explicit guide to action yet.
"A SPECTER is haunting Europe--the specter of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter." So warned Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' The Manifesto of the Communist Party [2] as it came off the presses in London in the last days of February 1848, numbering several thousand copies.
High literary drama if ever there was: revolutionary ghosts, holy exorcisms and secret police! As David McNally points out in his book Monsters of the Market [3], the undead were a popular theme at the time. Just a few years prior, Charles Dickens had raised Jacob Marley from the grave to menace the decade's poster child for misanthropic capital, Ebenezer Scrooge. If Dickens hoped his hooded executioner-in-waiting, the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, might frighten the archetypal capitalist into changing course so as to avoid damnation, the Manifesto aimed to rouse good Bob Cratchit and his kind to demand their rights to a well-heated workplace, paid vacations and free family medical coverage--and, eventually, to rise up and overthrow the Scrooge class entirely.
After several years of feverish activity aimed at assembling a (very small) army to carry forth their ideas, life itself appeared to validate Marx and Engels' red-hot prose. The French government ordered the expulsion of Engels from Paris on January 29, 1848, for the crime of political agitation against King Louis Philippe. But Engels lasted longer than the royals. Rebellion exploded on February 23, stoked by brutal repression and economic crisis. The king abdicated, making a run for the border with a pocket full of stocks. Count one for the specters.
Fearing the spread of this contagion, in the first week of March, the Belgian authorities roughly arrested Karl Marx and his wife Jenny and booted them out of Brussels, where they had lived since being exiled from Paris in 1845. Count one for the exorcists.
The aim of this article is to help you read the Manifesto in its own historical terms. If you've kept up with my columns [4], you might think of it as a Greatest Hits album--Marx and Engels: The Paris, London, Brussels Sessions, 1844-48. Many of these songs are going to sound familiar.
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Marx and Engels were not modest. They believed that their ideas would quickly win a place in the proletarian movement; they even imagined [5] that "Communism is already acknowledged by all European Powers to be itself a Power." (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 481)
Alongside this bravado, the essay served a more direct purpose. The Central Authority (committee) of the Communist League commissioned them to write The Manifesto of the Communist Party based on the decisions adopted at its second conference in November 1847 in London. It was intended for use in study groups, lectures and debates within and around the existing radical organizations and currents of their day. Marx and Engels also hoped to serialize it in leftist newspapers so that it might influence broader audiences.
When you read it, you should imagine Marx and Engels trying to recruit you to the League.
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Chapter I: Bourgeois and Proletarians
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freemen and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 482)
Marx (who most likely wrote ">this section and the next himself) condenses nearly the whole of his theory of history into these two sentences, and they are among the most famous of his formulations. Hegel says ideas drive history. Others point to technology, the environment, human nature, religion or political and legal factors. President Obama believes "America remains the one indispensable nation."
Marx proposes a very different motor force: the class struggle. The rise and fall of different civilizations is not guaranteed, but determined by the outcome of this struggle: revolution or common ruin. Marx asserts that capitalism has boiled down the class struggle "into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 485)
The European "discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, the East Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America" (CW, Vol. 6, p. 485) all allowed capitalists to rake in the wealth built up by other societies and, thereby, scrape together the necessary liquidity to launch this new--and vastly more productive--method of exploitation. Meanwhile, their conquest of the modern state, which "is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie," (CW, Vol. 6, p. 486) gave them a tool to defend their system. And once the bourgeoisie comes to power, it:
cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and therefore the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 487)
Money is the new royalty, and anyone who can accumulate it can dominate others. Marx expects this very transparency to speed the development of working-class consciousness. At the same time, the specific social relations that capitalism and its factory system were imposing in England and parts of Europe would race around the world, each year drawing more and more people into its web precisely because it is so rapacious:
Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that is conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the netherworld whom he has called up by his spells. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 489)
Here, Marx is not simply denouncing capital. He draws our attention to the wonders that have been created under its dominion. Today, we are more saturated with advertisement and consumerism than Marx could have imagined. Many people are rightly disgusted by the barrage of meaningless crap we are trained to desire from the day we are born. Speaking as a father of a 10-year-old girl, I say death to Disney!
Yet Marx wants us to understand that capitalism has also, in often sadistic and distorted ways, built up the very means of our liberation. Modern industry, communication, agriculture, medicine and transportation are not, in and of themselves, the problem. Instead, under capitalism, it appears that economic "powers of the netherworld" control us.
Indeed, commentators often speak of recessions, layoffs and free markets as if they were meteorological systems over which humans have no control. Adam Smith's "hidden hand of the market" is not only invisible, it seems bent on destroying the planet. And since this hand appears to move without any coordination, without a brain, all its frenetic energy leads to a very peculiar form of crisis, one which "in all earlier epics would have seemed an absurdity–the epidemic of over production." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 490)
We are living through one such epidemic right now. Millions of foreclosed and empty houses, millions of homeless. Collapsing infrastructure, mass unemployment of construction workers. Overcrowded schools, layoffs for teachers. A desperate need for solar energy development and the bankruptcy of Solyndra, driven out of business by competition from Chinese manufacturers.
However, if capital cannot coordinate the productive means it has brought into being in order to benefit humanity as a whole, Marx proposes another candidate that can:
Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lie, not any immediate results, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry and place the workers of different localities in contact with one another...This organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continuously being upset again by the competition between workers themselves. But it never rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 493)
This struggle will eventually lead the working class to overthrow the bourgeoisie, answering the "revolution or common ruin" question in the affirmative. And this will lead to something unprecedented in human history:
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 495)
This is bad news for the capitalists, but they can't help but lay the basis for their own downfall. Their own greedy motives build up--in a chaotic and inhuman manner, to be sure--the economic means for providing all people with a decent living standard, even as they enrage workers by flaunting inequalities. As Marx writes: "What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 496)
Marx rages against the ruling class and wants you to as well. Slavery and war, sexism and exploitation. They reap the benefits while we do all the work. Bury them!
But didn't Marx begin the Manifesto saying that victory wasn't inevitable? Revolution or common ruin? I think Marx hasn't quite yet settled this for himself. Or maybe this is simply a rhetorical flourish? However you take this, it is the case that he immediately skips from this passage to a discussion of how to go about organizing the revolution. He is not leaving the inevitable to chance.
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II. Proletarians and Communists
In the first part of this section [6], Marx lays out a strategy aimed at achieving two apparently contradictory goals: to not form a distinct Communist Party and to form a distinct Communist Party. Let's see how this plays out:
In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 496)
You might well ask, "But haven't Marx and Engels spent the last two years intent on creating a 'separate party?' Isn't that what the Communist League is all about? What about all the attacks on Kriege and the Liberals and Proudhon?" Confused? The next lines don't help much:
The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 496)
"Okay," you say. "So now Marx is saying the Communists are distinguished, are separate. And, the two things he mentions seem like precisely the sorts of things that make it very hard for revolutionaries to get a hearing among more conservative or apolitical workers. What the hell does this mean?"
First, Marx and Engels, as we have seen, had grown increasingly hostile to critical critics (remember Bruno Bauer and Co.) who believed their job was to simply proclaim the Truth and then wait for the rest of the world to come to them. This was elitism and sectarianism par excellence, and they wanted nothing to do with it.
Second, as Michael Löwy demonstrates in his wonderful book, The Theory of Revolution in the Young Karl Marx, Marx is here driving at an innovative idea. In short, this attempt to "be or not be" a separate party flows form the 3rd Thesis on Feuerbach where Marx points to "revolutionary practice" as the key to solving the riddle of "who educates the educator."
In the Manifesto, Marx is saying that it is not a question of isolated individuals; rather, a layer or a part of the working class, formed as a party orparties, must simultaneously educate its less radical members while also learning from the general struggle against exploitation and oppression. This is the dialectic of revolutionary working-class politics, as opposed to individual action.
Suffice it to say, this is easier said than done. Merging with the "proletarians as a whole," who are subject to the pressure of bourgeois ideology--as we would say today, sexism, racism, homophobia, nationalism, etc.--while simultaneously standing up for socialist principles gets you into lots of arguments.
To slightly paraphrase the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, "Sectarians have only pointed out the bad ideas in workers' heads; the point, however, is to change those ideas by organizing from the inside of the 'various stages of development' of concrete working-class struggles in order to strengthen those fights, right up to the point of revolutionary confrontations with capital."
Or as Marx puts it with greater panache:
The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 497)
I think you can clearly see what he is getting at. However, it also has to be said that Marx and Engels were still relative novices when it comes to practical organizing, and I think there is a certain ambiguity in these lines.
While Marx and Engels felt confident that the Communist League was the only German organization up to snuff, they were at great pains not to alienate themselves from the left wing of the English Chartists. In fact, as they acknowledge in the Manifesto, left-wing Chartists were, in fact, forming a separate group called the Fraternal Democrats, which aimed to pull the broader movement to the left. This provoked some criticism as they were accused of fomenting dissention and division within the Chartists as a whole. At the same time, Marx and Engels were setting up a group called the Democratic Association to unite revolutionaries from various nations who were members of larger groups.
So in more general terms, are the Communists a separate party, like the League, or merely the "most advanced and resolute section" or bigger working-class or democratic organizations, like the Fraternal Democrats inside the Chartists? Or does it depend on the context? It's hard to say, and that's precisely the point. It's always hard to get this right, and if the Manifesto doesn't provide a complete blueprint, it is because there is no complete blueprint--only a general method which must be adapted to concrete conditions.
Moving on through this section, Marx sarcastically disposes of conservative fears that communism will abolish private property, liberate women and wipe out national boundaries. "Precisely so; that is just what we intend," he retorts. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 500)
Changing tacks, Marx elaborates the general pattern he believes proletarian revolutions will follow:
We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working classes to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 504)
This is one of those paragraphs where you have to practically yell, "Slow down!" It is so packed with big ideas that you can easily miss both the insights it contains and some of the questions it leaves unanswered.
A revolution is not simply a change of government. It is replacing the rule of one class with that of another. The form this will take when the working class wins "the battle of democracy" is not elaborated in great detail, but it seems clear that Marx expects this will come about by some combination of insurrectionary and democratic (electoral) means. The old, rigid state structures tied to the aristocracy will have to be overthrown by force, and then, perhaps, some sort of democratic process can open up where the working class can achieve "political supremacy."
Marx then argues--and this is important--that not everything will change the day after the revolution. Instead, a new process of reforms will begin, whereby the capitalists lose their economic power "by degrees." Some things ought to be done immediately, like abolishing the right of inheritance, instituting a "heavy progressive" income tax, nationalizing the banks, the means of communication and transportation, and providing free universal education. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 505)
With "just" these reforms, can you imagine how loudly the American ruling class would scream? We can't even get the health insurance companies under control! Yet this would still leave an enormous scope for private property that would only gradually be socialized as the working class becomes more and more capable of running society without managers and without competition.
Only then, would real human history begin, and:
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 506)
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III. Socialist and Communist Literature
In the previous section, Marx argues that Communists should not set up "separate parties opposed to other working-class parties." Yet in this next section [7], Marx--with Engels joining back in--ridicules radical opponents, calling them "reactionary," "conservative," "feudal" and even "bourgeois!"
What is going on here? Doesn't this sound like setting up "principles of their own" and directly opposing other working-class parties or political trends? Not according to Marx and Engels. Simply put, they do not consider their opponents to be part of the working-class movement. Instead, they represent the ideologies of other classes that are attempting to influence workers.
In some instances, this is actually pretty easy to understand. This was especially true in the 1840s as competing factions of the rising bourgeoisie and the declining feudal aristocracy appealed to workers in a sort of "enemy of my enemy is my friend" politics:
The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as soon as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coats of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverent laughter. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 507)
There are also trends which arise from within classes which are themselves victims of capitalism, such as small farmers or small business owners. Marx and Engels give them credit for rightly criticizing aspects of capitalism such as "the misery of the proletariat, anarchy in production [and]...industrial war of extermination between nations." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 509) Yet, like Proudhon, these authors want to retreat to a pre-capitalist economy, in place of looking to a working-class revolution. Marx and Engels assert that these critics "desire the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 513)
In Marx and Engels' opinion, there can be no question of compromise with these ideas. They are not mistaken views which have arisen from insideworking-class reality and struggle. They are alien ideas, originating from outside the working class.
The Manifesto does pay tribute to a trend of thought associated with utopian communists like Count Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. While these thinkers rejected revolution, they did not want to retreat to earlier economic forms. Instead, they aimed to establish communist utopias based on complete equality--in Fourier's case, even extreme gender equality. Marx and Engels criticize their schemes, but argue that much can be learned from their radical visions of the future, including the:
abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, for the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the State into a mere superintendence of production. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 516)
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IV. Position of the Communists to Other Opposition Parties
Marx, who finished off the final section of the Manifesto [8] while Engels was in Paris, concludes by listing movements he considers to be the Communists' natural allies, while reminding us that "they never cease, for a single instant, to instill into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 519):
In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against existing social and political order things. In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time. Finally, they labor everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 519)
Again, Marx is emphasizing the double move we reviewed in Section II: unite with the broadest possible movement to fight for democracy and for concrete reforms, while simultaneously preparing workers to fight for their own liberation and the complete abolition of private property and capitalism.
This tension is present within the Manifesto, but this is the clearest statement of ideas and the most explicit guide to action that Marx and Engels had yet produced.
It represents the crystallization of their research and practical activity, merged with the experience of the best-organized movements of radical workers in Europe at the time. With it, they aimed to win over a layer of thousands of radical workers and intellectuals. All of this in an atmosphere of growing social tension and rising expectations of revolutionary confrontations with Europe's old order. Burning all bridges to his academic past, Marx goes all in at the end:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at the Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
Over the following decades, this call to action would become the most important declaration of principles for the rapidly expanding, and increasingly international, socialist movement. The Manifesto introduced hundreds of thousands to the basic ideas of revolutionary socialism, and it continues to do so today. So don't wait for Jacob Marley to rattle his chains in your attic--pick up a copy today and get to work.
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My next column will offer a critical review of this first period of Marx and Engels' political theory as it developed prior to the revolutions of 1848 with reference to my previous columns [9].
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Columnist: Todd Chretien
Todd ChretienTodd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review [10] and to Socialist Workeron the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.
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Series: Reading Marx [11]
In this series, Todd Chretien provides an accompaniment to the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
All articles in this series [12]
  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]
  5. [5]
  6. [6]
  7. [7]
  8. [8]
  9. [9]
  10. [10]
  11. [11]
  12. [12]
  13. [13]
  14. [14]

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

MARX AND Engels could feel revolution in the air in 1846 and 1847, and they had no intention of being caught flat-footed. The two launched a Communist Correspondence Committee, availing themselves of the cutting-edge technology of their day--overnight mail delivery--to dash off hundreds of letters in to win over fellow activists and excoriate foes. They also joined an international political organization called the Communist League to give their theories life.
Now, we were by no means of the opinion that the new scientific results should be confided in large tomes exclusively to the "learned" world. Quite the contrary...As soon as we found we had become clear in our own minds, we set to work. (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 26. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, pp. 318-19)
This "work" consisted in winning a hearing for their views among a radical substratum of revolutionaries scattered across several countries. Many boasted a decade or more of political organizing, up to and including organizing strikes and unions, failed insurrections and underground societies. As Marx and Engels were newcomers to the scene, their influence was by no means a given. Engels remembers back to London in 1843:
They were the first revolutionary proletarians whom I had seen, and however far apart our views were at that time in details--for I still bore, as against their narrow-minded egalitarian communism, a goodly dose of just as narrow-minded philosophical arrogance--I shall never forget the deep impression that these three real men made upon me, who was still to become a man at that time. (CW, Vol. 26, p. 314)
Their plan was straightforward. As we have seen, Marx and Engels believed that capitalism was rapidly creating an urban proletariat who would become conscious of its own interests against those of their bosses. Revolutionaries ought not short-circuit this process by fomenting secretive conspiracies; rather, they must participate in the practical struggles of working-class people.
To that end, they set about winning over adherents in various organizations and announced a plan at a mass meeting in London for a "congress of nations," which would bring together working-class delegates from across Europe in order to chart a course toward revolution. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 619)
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Revolution in the Air
At the time, they left little doubt as to their understanding of the nature of this coming conflagration.
First, revolution led by the bourgeoisie would sweep away all the aristocratic remnants, as in 1789 in France. During this phase, they argued, that the working class should ally itself with all of those in society, regardless of class, who favored genuine democracy. However, capitalism was developing with such force that almost immediately, this first phase of the revolution would be replaced by a working-class uprising. Engels sums up their analysis in an essay called "The Events of 1847," [3] writing:
We are no friends of the bourgeoisie. That is common knowledge. But this time we do not begrudge the bourgeoisie their triumph...They are so shortsighted as to fancy that through their triumph the world will assume its final configuration. Yet nothing is more clear than that they are everywhere preparing the way for us, for the democrats and Communists; then that they will at most win a few years of troubled enjoyment, only to be then immediately overthrown. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 528)
Previously, I have referred to Marx and Engels' tendency to mistake the generalities of their dialectical categories for the concrete balance of forces, so I will only note here that Engels is persisting in this error. After all, since he wrote those words, the balance between enjoyment and suffering has fallen decidedly in the bourgeoisie's favor. But at least this point of view focused their energy on the need to prepare practically for the upheavals to come, whatever their specific nature.
As I discussed in my last column [4], Marx wrote a book challenging the French anarchist Joseph Pierre Proudhon's ideas, The Poverty of Philosophy, and Engels himself went to Paris to participate in the practical movement. The other two groups to which Marx and Engels turned their attention were the English Chartists and an underground organization of German revolutionaries named the League of the Just.
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Free Trade and the English Working Class
The Chartists were a truly mass phenomenon in the British working class. Their name derived from the charter of six reforms that they demanded from parliament, centering around universal male suffrage. In 1842, the movement gathered some 3.5 million signatures (all without Facebook!), but it was coldly rebuffed by the ruling-class parties, which permitted only 15 percent of adult men to vote in parliamentary elections.
By 1846, Engels had established a close relationship with Julian Harney, the radical editor of the Chartist newspaper The North Star, for which Engels wrote regularly. Marx and Engels were incredibly enthusiastic about the Chartists, believing that if the they won their demands, it would open the door to revolution in England and communist ideas would proliferate.
One of the key ideological questions confronting the Chartists was the question of free trade. In the wake of NAFTA, global justice protests against the World Trade Organization, the Great Recession and a growing movement to unionize Wal-Mart, it might seem odd to us today that free trade advocates could win a hearing among the poor in Britain in the 1840s. However, at the time, free traders posed as friends of the workers, promising lower food prices and more jobs.
In his pamphlet On the Question of Free Trade [5], Marx writes, "Everyone knows that in England the struggle between Liberals and Democrats takes the name of the struggle between Free Traders and Chartists." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 450)
Here, Liberals and Free Traders are the bourgeoisie, while Democrats and Chartists are the proletariat. Marx wants to purge any remaining political influence the bosses have over the workers. To do so, he demonstrates why the economic arguments of the free traders, who promise greater employment, can only mean greater exploitation suffered by the working class. Marx explains that free trade did increase England's national wealth, but [6]:
[t]he reward of labor is less for all, and the burden of labor is increased for some at least. In 1829 there were, in Manchester, 1,088 cotton spinners employed and 36 factories. In 1841 there were but 448, and they tended 55,353 more spindles than the 1,088 spinners did in 1829. If manual labor had increased in the same proportion as productive force, the number of spinners ought to have risen to 1848; improved machinery had therefore, deprived 1,400 workers of employment. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 460)
This argument remains as valid today as it was back in 1847. Not only does it expose the supposed benefits of free trade for the working class, but it also points out that, in our context, most jobs are not "shipped overseas," but lost to technological development and increases in productivity.
For instance, 80 years ago, there were more than 700,000 coal miners in the United States. Today, there are around 80,000, and they produce twice as much coal. Additionally, global markets and transportation systems today are developed to such an extent that capital can seek out cheaper labor costs, creating a race to the bottom for wages. The horrifying tragedy in Bangladesh is only the latest example of the "virtues" of free trade.
Marx then comes to a seemingly bizarre conclusion:
Generally speaking, the Protective system in these days is conservative, while the Free Trade system works destructively. It breaks up old nationalities and carries antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie to the uttermost point. In a word, the Free Trade system hastens the Social Revolution. In this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, I'm in favor Free Trade. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 465)
Insofar as protectionism is often no better than free trade from the point of view of workers, Marx is here trying to point out that neither of these policies can permanently solve the problem of exploitation. That is a valid enough point. Yet I think it also suffers form a certain one-sidedness which I will return to below.
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Love and Capital
Turning to their German audience, Marx and Engels took aim at a trend called "True Socialism." Over the course of 1846-47, both wrote long articles carefully analyzing German literature promoting these ideas--this was a popular way of getting political ideas past the censors.
Honestly, it's difficult to read today, but if you must, try Moralizing Criticism and Critical Morality [7]. I will concentrate on one short piece called the "Circular Against Kriege," [8] in which Marx and Engels and their closest allies denounce a series of articles written by a German emigré living in the United States by the name of Hermann Kriege.
Marx and Engels ridiculed Kriege as "an apostle of love" because he asserted a universal humanism--reaching back to Feuerbach's philosophy--especially emphasizing the role that femininity would supposedly play in softening social contradictions. Kriege writes that, "We have no wish to lay hands on the private property of any man; what the usurer now has, let him keep; we merely wish to forestall the further pillaging." (CW, Vol. 6, 39) Marx and Engels and the other signatories of the Communist Correspondence Committee attacked this notion as replacing the necessity of class struggle with a sort of religious appeal to the rich to reform themselves--the "confusion of communism with communion." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 45)
Kriege's economic plan for communism supported the American National Reformers, a movement which principally demanded the provision of 160 acres of Western lands to any workingman, but also called for the abolition of slavery and the standing army, and a 10-hour working day. Marx criticized the agricultural aspects of this plan as merely postponing the inevitable development of class conflict in the United States, arguing that even if all the land were to be shared out on the basis of small private farms, population growth would soon make land scarce, and competition would revive.
But what really got Marx's goat was Kriege's conception of enlightened leaders and passive followers. Kriege writes, "[O]ur aim will be to unitemankind by love, our aim will be to teach men to work communally and enjoy communally until the long-promised kingdom of joy eventually comes about." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 47) If you remember Marx's third thesis on Feuerbach [9], where he answers the question of "who will educate the educator" by asserting the need for revolutionary practice, you will see why Marx objects so strongly to Kriege's formulations here.
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Just Plain Wrong
These essays on True Socialism demonstrate the power of the insights Marx and Engels achieved with their method of "materialist history" and their political strategy of proletarian revolution. But they also created some problems.
As we have seen above in the pamphlet On the Question of Free Trade, Marx insists that "Free Trade hastens the Social Revolution." This is far too categorical a statement. First, it leads him to see the "destructive" work of capitalism penetrating into new areas--for example, India, and the corresponding ruin of its social relations--as almost entirely positive, as it lays the basis for future workers struggles. Second, he seems almost entirely ignorant of how this "destruction" takes place in terms of the annihilation of indigenous peoples. Third, he ignores the potential democratic struggles for national self-determination that may arise in resistance to capitalism's offensive. Finally, he cannot yet imagine how capitalism can proceed "destructively" without simultaneously producing massive centers of proletarian resistance. In fact, it did so ingeniously for long periods, leaving only destruction.
Marx is so taken with one aspect of capitalism that he sees developing before his eyes--that is, the rapid creation of urban centers of proletarian resistance as a product of the development of capitalist industry in Northern Europe--that he expects it to spread evenly to all parts of the world. He has no idea of how contradictory that process will be. Hence, he is "[i]n this revolutionary sense favor Free Trade."
Though the manner in which brutal soldiers have carried on the war is highly blamable, the conquest of Algeria is an important unfortunate fact of the progress of civilization...and if we may regret that the liberty of the Bedouins of the desert has been destroyed, we must not forget that the same Bedouins were a nation of robbers." (CW, Vol. 6, p. 471)
And in "The Events of 1847," he proclaims:
In America, we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it. It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in the future be placed under the tutelage of the United States. The evolution of the whole of America will profit by the fact that the United States, by the possession of California, obtains command of the Pacific. CW, Vol. 6, p. 527)
Since some people like to claim that Engels sometimes said foolish things, but Marx never did, it's worth pointing out that Marx signed off on a very similar claim in the "Circular Against Kriege," which champions the American Reform Association's claim to Western lands in the United States with no thought at all to the Native Americans then living on the vast majority of that territory. While he does not celebrate capital's victory, as Engels does in the case of Algeria and Mexico, Marx is either entirely ignorant of the centuries-long struggle against the white settlers or he does not consider it worthy of consideration.
At the same time, Marx and Engels were sympathetic to certain rebellions for national self-determination. In 1846, an uprising took place in Kraków, Poland against the domination of Tsarist Russia [11]. Both Marx and Engels hailed this movement because, in Marx's words, it identified the "national cause with the democratic cause and the emancipation of the oppressed class."
In essence, Marx believed that, like in Ireland at the time, the rebellion, if successful, would sweep away foreign domination, so exposing the domination of the local ruling classes and opening up the possibility of a direct struggle between domestic oppressors and oppressed. (CW, Vol 6, p. 549) That neither he nor Engels could see the same potential in Algeria or Mexico or among Native Americans was, I think we have to say, based on ignorance of the forces involved and a teleological, even non-dialectical, enthusiasm for the supposedly creatively destructive work of capitalism.
Some people will naturally see these erroneous positions as evidence that Marx and Marxism are Eurocentric or even racist.
This is dead wrong, in my opinion. While Marx and Engels are way off base on these specific questions, it is not out of any allegiance to racial or cultural notions of superiority. Rather, they are badly overgeneralizing from what they see in front of them in northern Europe--and they do not yet know much, as 20-somethings, about the rest of the world. After all, Marx also supported free trade in Germany, even though it could only, in the short term, do nothing but entrench capitalist domination.
Marx and Engels were never indifferent to the suffering capitalism causes--far from it. They actively condemned it. Yet they can only imagine one way out of capitalism, and that is for everyone to be forced to first go all the way through it, and all the horrors it entails, and then overthrow it based on the social relations that modern industry will inevitably produce. They would soon realize that this model did not fit easily in all circumstances.
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Get Ready, Get Set...
Despite these very real problems in their writing, Marx and Engels soon took their radically new way of understand the world "Out of the tomes and into the streets!" to mash up Engels and an old ACT-UP chant.
The two exiles were not as well known in the political movements around Europe as either their friends or foes, but their radical journalism, their books on philosophy and economics, and their innumerable letters and personal discussions helped sharpen up the conception of the coming revolution for a growing layer of activists. And if their influence remained modest in London and Paris, they did win over a key layer of German working-class leaders in a group called the League of the Just. As Engels recounts:
We entertained no doubt that an organization within the German working class was necessary. If only for propaganda purposes...there already existed exactly such an organization in the shape of the League. What we previously objected to in this League was now relinquished as erroneous by the representatives of the League themselves; we were invited to cooperate in the work of reorganization. How could we say no? (CW, Vol. 26, p. 321)
It's hard to say exactly how many members made up the underground League and its affiliated German Workers Educational Societies, which operated publicly in Paris, London and Brussels. Probably there were no more than a couple hundred in the League and perhaps a few thousand in the affiliated Societies. Nonetheless, Marx and Engels' leadership in the League and their newly won control over a German-language newspaper gave them the biggest bully pulpit they enjoyed since Marx's Rheinische Zeitung newspaper was shut down by the German authorities in the fall of 1843.
The reorganization that Engels refers to had to do with the democratization of the League's statutes over the course of 1847, so that local organizations could elect and recall its central authority as well as the transformation of its political goals. For instance, before Marx and Engels joined the League, its opening statement proclaimed [12]:
The League aims at the emancipation of humanity by spreading the theory of the community of property and its speediest possible practical introduction. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 586)
Under Marx and Engels' influence, this was reworked to read [13]:
The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society which rests on the antagonism of classes, and the foundation of a new society without classes and without private property. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 633)
Marx and Engels also demanded a name change as a precondition of their membership. And it was for this newly minted Communist League that Marx and Engels were commissioned to draft a statement of principles to popularize the organization's ideas and recruit new members. After suffering through several false starts, that essay became The Communist Manifesto [14]. It will be the subject of my next column.
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The Manifesto itself is just 38 pages long. I suggest you tackle it all at once. Phil Gasper has edited an indispensable edition, with a treasure trove of supplemental writings--it's available from Haymarket Books [15]. You might want to take a look at a previous column I wrote about the Manifesto's continuing relevance in the 21st century [16].
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Columnist: Todd Chretien
Todd ChretienTodd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review [17] and to Socialist Workeron the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.
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Friday, May 10, 2013

The poverty of Proudhon's anarchism

Todd Chretien

The title of the book may have been undiplomatic, but Marx was able to offer a clear contrast of his political strategy with that of Joseph Pierre Proudhon.
"So when Proudhon wrote his book The Philosophy of Poverty. I responded with The Poverty of Philosophy. I thought that was clever. Jenny thought it was insulting. Maybe she was right."
-- Marx in Soho, by Howard Zinn [2]
AFTER THE German Ideology, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels turned their backs on philosophers and threw themselves into political organizing in the spring of 1846.
Marx had been kicked out of Paris the previous year, settling in Brussels with his family, soon to be joined by Engels. They hatched plans to start a Communist Correspondence Committee, aimed at establishing ties between radicals among English Chartists, German exiles and Parisian workers. Their timing was superb, as Europe experienced a rising tide of social conflict beginning in 1846.
Late in 1845, Engels reported on a 1,000-strong workers' meeting billed as "The Festival of Nations" in London. Representing the left wing of the Chartist working-class reform movement, George Julian Harney proclaims "that the principles of equality will have a glorious resurrection, I cannot doubt; indeed, the resurrection they have already had, [is] not merely in the shape of Republicanism, but Communism..." (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 11)
Engels interpreted these speeches as signs that working-class demands for economic reforms and electoral democracy (the poor were not allowed to vote in any European country) were developing quickly into communist consciousness. As he writes [3]:
No special arrangement had been made to attract a particular kind of audience; there was nothing to indicate that anything would be expressed other than what the London Chartists understood by democracy. We can therefore certainly assume that the majority of the meeting represented the mass of London Chartist proletarians fairly well. And this meeting accepted communist principles, the word communism itself, with unanimous enthusiasm... Am I right when I say that democracy nowadays is communism? (CW, Vol. 6, p. 14)
Engels certainly was justified in pointing to the potential for international solidarity on display at this meeting. However, his assertion that "no special arrangements" had been made is more than a little disingenuous as both he and Marx had been intimately involved with its planning. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable fact that 1,000 workers cheered avowedly revolutionary and communist speeches in the heart of global capital.
How are we to assess Engels' claim that "democracy nowadays is communism?" On the one hand, I think this can safely be understood as the over-exuberance of a 25-year-old revolutionary. Anyone who has ever overestimated the number of people they expected to turn out to a protest or march can relate.
On the other hand, Marx and Engels, to put it bluntly, telescoped the process by which the complexities of nationalism, the division between skilled and unskilled, and other social realities would have to be taken up and challenged. The two tended to draw a straight line between almost any sort of working-class protest and communism. If this optimism was naïve and typical of freshly minted revolutionaries, Marx and Engels soon confronted a battleground littered with older and more popular radical ideas. They faced the question of winning a hearing.
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Engels Organizing in Paris
Back in 1844, Marx and Engels had hoped to build an alliance with popular French anarchist Joseph Pierre Proudhon and had defended some of his economic ideas in their book The Holy Family.
However, it soon became clear that sharp differences existed. In the summer of 1846, Engels went in person to Paris to win German-speaking immigrants away from Proudhon's version of anarchism as he had spelled out in his best-known work, The Philosophy of Poverty. For his part, Marx believed Proudhon's ideas were such an obstacle to the communist cause that he responded with a short book, in French, titled The Poverty of Philosophy.
If Engels made progress in winning over a handful of German activists to his basic views of class struggle and the need for the abolition of private property and a "democratic revolution by force," he did so in his own words only by "dint of a little patience and some terrorism" in competition with Proudhon's advocates. In truth, Marx and Engels' influence among the radical French workers was nearly nonexistent. (CW, Vol. 38, pp. 80-82)
Why was Proudhon so popular?
First, the ugly. Proudhon openly supported patriarchal family forms and held stridently anti-Semitic views, writing, for example [4], "The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated. By steel or by fire or by expulsion the Jew must disappear."
These certainly are despicable views, but they are not what made Proudhon popular, nor are they the views he most openly popularized. Instead, he became known as a critic of private property and an advocate of workers cooperatives and credit unions. He championed the ideal of independent journeymen (of whom there were still many in France), working for themselves and receiving the full value of their products, freed from parasitic middlemen.
Proudhon hoped these reforms and institutions could grow up within capitalism and eventually replace it by a sort of decentralized reform process. If you have come across the concept of "changing the world without taking power," popularized by the authors Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, aspects of Proudhon's thinking will sound familiar to you.
Marx, of course, disagreed sharply with these notions and proceeded to dismantle them on three fronts: economic analysis, theoretical methodology and political practice. If the book was not a large commercial success, it did help Engels win some sympathy among immigrant German workers in Paris and, crucially, a layer of French worker activists and intellectuals grouped around La Reforme newspaper.
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Proudhon's Economics
We saw in The German Ideology [5] how Marx was at great pains to describe the history of economic development in the increasingly complex division of labor that eventually gave rise to industrial capitalism. Marx begins his critique by arguing that Proudhon gives no sense of how labor and technology change over time, castigating him for the faulty view that [6]:
each day's labor is worth as much as another day's labor; that is to say, if the quantities are equal, one man's labor is worth as much as another man's labor: there is no qualitative difference. With the same quantity of labor, one man's product can be given in exchange for another man's product. All men are wage workers getting equal pay for equal labor time. Perfect equality rules exchanges. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 124)
On the face of it, Proudhon's analysis seems to point toward a sort of natural equality existing between all workers. There is a way in which this may be a valid moral statement, but Marx points out that it is simply not true under capitalist production in an economic sense. Instead, Marx points out: [7]
It is important to emphasize the point that what determines value is not the time taken to produce a thing, but the minimum time it could possibly be produced in, and this minimum is ascertained by competition. Suppose for a moment that there is no more competition and consequently no longer any means to ascertain the minimum of labor necessary for the production of a commodity; what will happen? It will suffice to spend six hours work on the production of an object, in order to have the right, according to M. Proudhon, to demand in exchange six times as much as he who has taken only one hour to produce the same object. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 136)
In other words, if I take a whole six-hour day to make one shirt, sewing it by hand, while you, using a sewing machine, can make six very similar shirts in that same time, when we go to market, no one in their right mind would pay me six times as much for my shirt as they will pay you for yours. That is, the conditions of production and how they change by time and place are governed by competition and technology, making labor unequal at an individual level.
Since Proudhon does not see this, he believes that an egalitarian society can be built upon the premise of equal exchanges between independent producers: whatever I make in six hours I can exchange with you for whatever you make in six hours. This would lead to intractable problems if it were ever tried in practice (in fact, it would only be a new form of inequality).
In large-scale industry, Peter is not free to fix for himself the time of his labor, for Peter's labor is nothing without the cooperation of all the Peters and all the Pauls who make up the workshop...What is today the result of capital and the competition of workers among themselves will be tomorrow, if you sever the relation between labor and capital [that is, if you abolish bourgeois class rule], an actual agreement based upon the relation between the sum of productive forces and the sum of existing needs. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 143, my emphasis)
Here, Marx is arguing that Proudhon's focus on equal exchange between independent producers is a utopia, and that a socialist economy could only operate on the basis of the sum total of production--and, by implication, a democratic discussion, an agreement, among all workers, no matter their particular insertion into the division of labor, as to how to direct the total social product. This is the only way that workers in vastly different jobs (teachers, custodians, factory workers, truckers, nurses, etc.) could begin to democratically plan an economy.
It is worth pointing out that Marx is still trying to figure out for himself exactly how capitalism extracts surplus value and, consequently, profits from the labor process. At this point, he does not have anything like the fully developed concepts he will use in his later economic writings and is still primarily concerned with pointing out the shortcomings of other theorists.
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Repeating Hegel's Mistakes
Marx argues that Proudhon adopted some of the worst habits in the Hegelian tradition. Insofar as this is a critique of the specifics of Proudhon's analysis, I don't think this is exactly an enduring point. However, as Marx here lays out one of his clearest critiques of Hegel's method, it's worth a brief look.
Marx explains that the basic logical pattern of Hegel's method can be described as a process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis--or affirmation, negation and negation of the negation. The strength of this method is to emphasize transformation and conflict in place of static and unchanging structures. Yet in order to set up these transformations, Hegel creates abstract categories which describe a thing or a society's essence, divorced from its concrete existence--a very old philosophical trick going all the way back to Plato. As Marx writes [9]:
Just as by dint of abstraction, we have transformed everything into a logical category, so one has only to make an abstraction of every characteristic distinctive of different movements to attain movement in its abstract condition--purely formal movement, the purely logical formula of a movement. If one finds in logical categories the substance of all things, one imagines one has found in the logical formula of movement the absolute method, which not only explains all things, but also implies the movement of things. It is of this absolute method that Hegel speaks in these terms: "method is the absolute, unique, supreme, infinite force, which no object can resist; it is the tendency of reason to find itself again, to recognize itself in every object." (CW, Vol. 6, pp. 163-164, my italics)
You will remember Absolute Spirit from previous columns about Hegel [10]. Here, Marx substitutes "reason" for the spirit force that makes everything go. Marx says that this is what Proudhon does with his economic analysis (Proudhon replaces Absolute Spirit with a tendency toward equality), and this danger is latent in any attempt to employ a dialectal method which does not pay sufficient attention to concrete reality.
That is, Hegel says that his own logic--how he thinks about things and the abstract categories he uses to help him think--is itself an "infinite force," which moves history; "no object can resist" it. Marx describes the implications for Proudhon following Hegel in this error [11], writing:
M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by man as linen, flax, etc.
Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand mill gives you society with the feudal Lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist. The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with their material productivity, produce also principles, ideas and categories, in conformity with their social relations but these ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products. (CW, Vol. 6, pp. 165-166)
In other words, if Hegel reduces history to a set of abstract categories moved along by Spirit, Proudhon does the same with economic categories and then animates them with his notion of the tendency toward equality. Neither Hegel nor Proudhon pay close enough attention to the nitty-gritty content of those categories. Rather than using those categories to help organize concrete evidence and material in order to analyze it, they mistake the categories for the concrete reality.
Worse, according to Marx, rather than recognizing the transitory nature of economic categories and the ideas that grow up within them, Proudhon wants tofreeze these developments at a certain stage--skilled production in small-scale workshops--rather than grasping the potential liberatory aspects of large-scale industrial cooperation and proletarian revolution.
Remember from The German Ideology Marx's emphasis on the necessity of having first achieved a sufficient level of productivity and technology beforesocialism is possible. Proudhon's desire to return to, or stop at, the stage of small-scale production is still very common today. I am all for shopping at your local farmers' market, but Marx would argue that this doesn't really address the problem of global capitalism.
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Proudhon Against Strikes
All of this sets up Marx's central attack on Proudhon. Surprisingly for an anarchist, Proudhon believed that workers' strikes were futile and even counterproductive, writing that [12] "it is impossible, I declare, for strikes followed by an increase in wages not to culminate in a general rise in prices: this is as certain as two and two make four."
This position flows from his belief that all products ought to exchange equally because they are created by labor that supposedly imparts equal value to them. Thus, one group of workers attaining a raise in their pay could only come at the expense of another group of workers by means of inflation.
Marx will have none of this. "We deny all these assertions, except that two and two make four." If Proudhon primarily saw exchange as taking place between independent small producers (not large corporations) with the main enemy being "middlemen," Marx emphasizes the divide between capitalists and workers: "The rise and fall of profits and wages express merely the proportion in which capitalists and workers share in the product of a day's work, without influencing in most instances the price of the product." (CW Vol 6, pp. 206-207)
Marx then reviews the history of strikes and union organization in England, noting that mainstream economists oppose union organization because it hinders profits. Surprisingly, this opinion was shared by many utopian socialists who, says Marx, "want the workers to leave the old society alone, the better to be able to enter the new society they have prepared for them with so much foresight."
By contrast, Marx argues that not only are strikes and union organization a positive development because in the struggle for "the maintenance of wages, this common interest which [workers] have against their boss unites them in a common thought of resistance," and "in this struggle--a veritable civil war--all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character." (CW, Vol. 6, pp. 210-211)
Jenny Marx may have been right that the title of Marx's book was insulting, but it at least offers a clear counter-position of Marx's political strategy versus that of Proudhon.
If Proudhon centered his hopes for social transformation on a relatively homogenous layer of independent producers who could peacefully create cooperatives and credit unions as an alternative to capitalism, Marx looked to struggles of the great mass of workers against their bosses.
There could be no individual or partial solution to exploitation under capitalism. The working class itself must develop revolutionary consciousness and overturn the totality of capitalist social relations, thereby appropriating the means of production collectively as a class, or capitalism will make a mockery of any partial attempts to reform it.
For the moment, The Poverty of Philosophy faced a generally skeptical audience and won only a small handful of followers for Marx and Engels. But it was a start.
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Next time, I will examine Marx and Engels' attitude to a very popular version of radicalism in Germany called True Socialism in a short essay of about 15 pages called "The Circular Against Kriege." [13]
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Columnist: Todd Chretien
Todd ChretienTodd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review [14] and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.
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Series: Reading Marx [15]
In this series, Todd Chretien provides an accompaniment to the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
All articles in this series [16]
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