Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were not only active revolutionaries, they were philosophers, sociologists, & historians. For the Revolutionaries Reviewed series, Paul le Blanc discusses the founders of Marxism & the core concepts they developed.
Some people make a big point about separating Karl Marx and Frederick Engels from each other, although both were central to the development of what has been called scientific socialism. After all, some note, each is an individual person deserving individual attention. Some add that they were different in the way they thought. Some celebrate Marx for being a more profound thinker or Engels for being a more lucid thinker.
Before considering that, it might be helpful first to unpack what Marx and Engels termed “scientific socialism.” By socialism (which they saw as synonymous with communism) they envisioned the working-class majority “winning the battle for democracy” – politically and economically – to create “a free association of the producers” in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” By scientific, they meant the hoped-for future should be grounded in the disciplined use of existing knowledge: a grasp of philosophy, economics, sociology, political science, and history.
Individuals in Collectivity
Whatever their differences, Marx and Engels shared this approach and worked together to develop it – which is why one of their best biographers, David Riazanov, chose to write a dual biography: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Work.
Mary Gabriel has taken this further in her recent study Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution. She explains that in order to make sense of Marx and his ideas, she felt a need to focus as well “on the lives of his wife, Jenny, and the children, and their extended family—Friedrich Engels and Helene Demuth,” and she also places them all in a larger context involving dozens of other people. She writes:
The story I discovered was of a love between a husband and wife that remained passionate and consuming despite the deaths of four children, poverty, illness, social ostracism, and the ultimate betrayal, when Marx fathered another woman’s child. It was the story of three young women who adored their father and dedicated themselves to his grand idea, even at the cost of their own dreams, even at the cost of their own children. It was the story of a group of brilliant, combative, exasperating, funny, passionate, and ultimately tragic figures caught up in the revolutions sweeping nineteenth-century Europe.
All of this took place within the framework of what some historians have tagged a dual revolution: (1) the wave of democratic revolutions (English, American, French, and more), and (2) the relentless and amazing Industrial Revolution which has been dramatically transforming our world, over and over again, for the past 250 years.
Marx and Engels came from privileged backgrounds (Marx’s father was a well-to-do lawyer; Engels’s father was a wealthy factory owner). But they strongly identified with the growing working-class, consisting of factory workers and others who made their living by selling their ability to work (their labor-power) to capitalist employers. This was becoming the majority class under capitalism and had the potential to “win the battle of democracy.”
The growth of an organized labor movement was seen by Marx and Engels as providing the force that might be capable of bringing into being a new and better world. This included the development of trade unions that united workers in their workplaces to struggle for better pay and working conditions.
It also included the Chartist movement in Britain that mobilized workers to fight for the right to vote, and it involved the effort to create working-class political parties. It also encompassed a variety of social movements to improve the quality of life of working-class people – whether it be gaining rights for women, opposing racism and national oppression, ending child labor while establishing public schools, securing an eight-hour workday, and more.
The powerful influence of this multi-faceted labor movement helped shape the thinking of the two revolutionaries – as did many contributions from prominent philosophers, economists, sociologists, historians and others that Marx and Engels absorbed. According to Engels, however, it was Marx who played the essential role in crafting the “scientific socialism” they were developing. Consequently, after Marx died in 1883, it was increasingly tagged as Marxism. It has provided intellectual tools that, down through the years, innumerable working-class activists have found to be useful.
There are five components of what came to be known as Marxism. We’ll briefly look at each.
A way of seeing reality
The philosophical orientation, or methodology, of Marx and Engels first of all sees reality as ever-changing, growing and developing. This occurs through the ‘dialectical’ interaction of contradictory elements. That is, it requires us to see everything in its interconnections and evolving contexts. The world doesn’t stand still, and you cannot study it as if it does.
At the same time, it involves a ‘materialism’ in two senses. Firstly, it sees matter and energy as the physical basis of ideas. That is, ideas don’t fall from the sky – they are based in the physical world from which we come. And secondly, Marxist materialism insists on people’s way of life as being a key to understanding their way of thinking.
Finally, a Marxist methodology is humanistic – seeing drives toward freedom (self-determination), community, creative labor in each person, and determined to overcome all realities and conditions that undermine, stunt or repress these qualities.
A theory of history
Economic development (the means through which humanity creates what people need and want) shapes historical development, according to the “historical materialism” of Marx and Engels. The development of tools and technology generates growing productivity. With the shift from hunting-and-gathering to agriculture, an economic surplus is created. Now the labor of the many can better sustain them, as well as some who do not labor.
This is the basis for the rise of civilizations, and the rise of classes and inequality, with powerful minorities enriching themselves through the exploitation of laboring majorities – accompanied by domination of political and cultural life as well. Tension and conflict between classes become a force in the of shaping history. There has been the growth and decline of a succession of economy-shaped societies – in Europe proceeding from primitive tribal communism to ancient slave civilizations to feudalism to capitalism.
An analysis of capitalism
The most dynamic economic system in history is capitalism. The economy is owned and controlled by a wealthy and powerful minority and utilized to maximize their profits through a buying and selling economy (a market economy). Within this, more and more things that are needed and desired become commodities, that is, things created for the purpose of being sold. Even essential human qualities of a majority of people (strength, intelligence, skills, etc.), adding up to their ability to work (labor-power), are transformed into commodities which they sell to capitalists (businessmen), in order to get money to buy other commodities (food, clothing, shelter, little luxuries) that they need and want.
The profit motive of business owners – the need to accumulate larger and larger profits (wealth, capital) – drives them to invest greater and greater amounts of capital into the creation and sale of more and more commodities. Often this is at the expense of the well-being of the laborers, the quality of life of large numbers of people, the cultures of peoples throughout the world, and the natural environment that we are all part of.
This single-minded and voracious drive for capital accumulation has resulted in spectacular rises in productivity and wealth that could provide a good life for all people – but is funneled into the pockets of the super-rich minority.
This system is governed by business cycles involving periods of tremendous production and profit-making and relative prosperity which then (due to an over-production of commodities that exceed the capacity of the markets to absorb them) lead to economic crises: growing business failures and massive unemployment.
A program for the working class
Capitalism’s global development turns a majority of people into a growing working class – those selling their labor-power to secure the payment they need in order to live (plus family members dependent on that payment). This workforce is essential for the existence of the capitalist economy, but it is also being exploited and hurt by that economy.
Marx and Engels outlined a program highlighting the positive aspects and directions of workers’ actual struggles. Workers must join together and support each other in resisting capitalist oppression. They should form a strong trade union movement as well as strong social movements, and their own independent political party – fighting for reforms in the here-and-now, but also bringing about a revolution that would “win the battle of democracy” politically, socially, and economically.
A vision of a socialist future
No form of economy has existed forever. Marx and Engels envisioned a future economic system that would be socially owned and democratically controlled, an economic democracy that would be dedicated to ensuring a good life for all – based on the human drives for freedom, genuine community, and creative labor.
The details could not be blue-printed in advance, but would have to be worked out by the actual people who would be bringing about this socialist future, based on the fundamental principle of human liberation: a free association of the producers, in which the free development of each would be the condition for the free development of all.
Reality is always more complicated than theories about reality. The “scientific socialism” of Marx and Engels doesn’t tell us all we need to know – no theoretical system can do that. But it can contribute to our understanding so that we can better deal with reality, and perhaps change it for the better. This is why Karl Marx and Frederick Engels have continued to have influence down to our own time today.