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Sunday, January 18, 2015


After promising to talk about my reactions to the MANIFESTO, it occurred to me that some of my students might be reading this blog [stranger things have been known to happen], and I do not want to tip my hand, as it were, so I shall reserve most of my thoughts until after my lecture.  One thing that struck me powerfully is that the MANIFESTO is very much the work of a young man.  It is full of conceptual flip-flops and linguistic inversions that  come directly out of the Hegelian tradition in which Marx was raised, philosophically speaking.  Phrases like "the worker is at home when he is not at work and when he is at work he is not at home," or "the more powerful become the products of his labor, the weaker the worker becomes," and so on.  Some of these turns of phrase actually articulate important ideas --  he is Karl Marx, after all.  But when Marx wrote the MANIFESTO, he did not yet have the deep knowledge of the details of capitalism that fill Volume One of CAPITAL.  He was at this point enchanted with the play of ideas.

Another striking characteristic of the MANIFESTO, of course, is its irrepressible optimism.  Europe was on fire when Marx wrote, and he and his comrades were confident that a revolutionary change was at hand.  By the time he emigrated to England a year  later, those hopes had been dashed.  In reaction, Marx carried through a complete transformation of his understanding of capitalism, with the most profound and far-reaching theoretical implications.  I plan to spend some time at the end of the lecture explicating some of that transformation.


Jerry Fresia said...

The language aspect of the Manifesto and who read it in a timely fashion (while "Europe was on fire") puzzles me. According to Wikipedia, it wasn't translated into other European languages, for the most part, until well after 1848. Seems to me that the Communist League would have dug up some good translators so the thing could have had a timely impact - or am I misinformed?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good question. I do not know -- save that in the text, Marx indicates that he thinks Germany is going to lead the way.

classtruggle said...

The year 1848 was marked by a few important events -- democratic movement in Germany, the disappearance of peasant serfdom in Europe outside Russia, a proletarian insurrection in France and the failure of Chartism in England and the publication of the CM.

Marx and Engels, from what I understand, were counting on a successful national democratic movement in Germany, would would then hook up with Chartism in Britain and then 'communism' in France. None of these came to fruition and as a consequence, the Communist League split up in 1850 and its members disillusioned by the events of 1848-51 dispersed.

If I'm not mistaken, it was Engels (whose influence on Marx is underestimated and who also happens to the father of Social Democratic orthodoxy and of Leninist sentiments towards industrialisation) who persuaded Marx in 1844-5 to regard Britain as the place where the first genuinely proletarian socialist revolution would take place. Engels did so in the document 'Grundsaetze des Kommunismus' which Marx used in the drafting of the final text of the Manifesto which bore the imprint of not only Hegel as you have already mentioned Professor Wolff (and Feuerbach too) but also more importantly, of French revolutionary thinking (it is thus as much a French as it is a German document and one of the reasons why it does not translate too well into English, I think).

In Europe in the 1840s no one -- least of all in Germany -- would take such formulations literally, however. The German proletariat Marx refers to in the CM scarcely existed. It would have been ludicrous to talk about a revolutionary proletariat in Germany in 1848 since no German city even closely resembled Paris in terms of a significant revolutionary movement.
It was also difficult to justify the assumption that European capitalism in the mid 1800s was outmoded and ready for socialisation. This kind of thinking was only possible in an era when the memory of the French Revolution was ingrained in the minds of believers who expected the collapse of their then existing order.

One can also make the case that Marx imposes a particular notion of class conflict back into earlier situations in the CM when it was not really applicable (he corrected this in his later writings).

And my last observation would be that Marx's CM published just before the 1848 rising in Paris hardly had an effect on young revolutionaries at the time and was hardly noticed when it appeared in English in Julian Harney's 'Red Republican' in 1850. It went unread for years. Probably difficult for his admirers to accept but Marx was not very well known to the general public then (Moses Hess was probably one of the first to recognise Marx's unique characteristics) not even to the workers' movement outside Germany and certainly not more than Proudhon, Blanqui, Mazzini and Bakunin. A fact we take for granted today when reading the CM.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A marvelously valuable comment -- it says much that I plan to include in my lecture on Wednesday, and adds details I shall shamelessly steal and use. Thank you. From my point of view, the crucial point is the deep impact on Marx's thinking of the failure of the revolutionary moment of '48 and the way in which it forced him to deepen and rethink his fundamental understanding of the nature of historical change. I plan to end with the famous passage from the 1959 Contribution in which Marx says that the new order grows in the womb of the old.

classtruggle said...

Perhaps you could favour us with some of those statements after your class tomorrow and possibly in the future, record and upload (onto YouTube?) some of your lectures, that is, if it's not too much trouble.

I think it goes without saying that they would be very well-received and appreciated.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am going to write about what I say in my lecture [some of it] after the lecture. I went through a whole long deliberation on this blog a while back about whether to try to podcast the lectures, and decided not to do so. Look back to very late August and early September 2014.