“Ruthless Criticism of All That Exists”

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

Paul Kellogg

FRUSTRATED AT WHAT his friend Frederick Engels called the “peculiar product … known as ‘Marxism’ in France,” Karl Marx at one point declared “One thing for sure — me, I’m not a Marxist.”(1) If there were many reasons for Marx to be “not a Marxist” in the 19th century, the decades since have given us many more.

Marx’s name, over several generations, has been associated with real horrors — the Gulag in the former Soviet Union, state-executions on a mass scale in China, secret police regimes in Eastern Europe, the killing fields in Kampuchea (Cambodia) … to name just a few.

It was not supposed to be this way. In October 1864, Marx drafted the inaugural rules for the International Working Men’s Association (First International). Its opening lines were a hymn to freedom and self-activity: “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”(2) Tragically we have witnessed countless moments where this message has been completely perverted.

How does one pick up the threads of freedom and self-activity, and separate them from the dross of crimes committed in Marx’s name? Actually, those threads are all around us. The “March for our Lives” youth uprising comes to mind. Hashtag “MeToo,” Black Lives Matter, and the “taking a knee” movements are others.

I’m writing this from Canada, where we have been witness to the remarkable “Idle No More” mass movement against the long oppression of Indigenous people in this country. These and many other moments of mass mobilization are the threads of self-activity that are at the core of any meaningful movement for democratic socialism — and are at the core of the best of the writings and activities of Karl Marx.

This article is being written to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. In 1913, Vladimir Lenin wrote an article to mark another such anniversary — 30 years since Marx’s death — in which he maintained that “Marx’s teachings” were “the legitimate successor to the best that humanity produced in the nineteenth century, as represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism.”

This interesting and provocative thesis is frequently cited. Not so frequently cited is the phrase which directly precedes it: “Marx’s teachings are all-powerful because they are true.”(3) The official English translation puts this even more bluntly. “The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true.”(4)

To which, one is tempted to respond … really? Marx’s teachings might well help us navigate many aspects of contemporary reality. His passionate defense of the Paris Commune,(5) for instance, would be of value to those trying to understand the actions of various Great Powers — the United States, Russia, Turkey — in their ongoing attempts to strangle the democratic impulse in Syria.

His three volumes of Capital(6) remain required reading for all who wish to unravel the mysteries of 21st century capitalism (although his self-assurance that abstract mathematical formulae could be developed to map the contours of capitalism should be taken with a grain of salt).

But all-powerful? Omnipotent? The great contributions of Marx notwithstanding, this kind of reverence will get us nowhere. I will cite three examples.

Hegel, Morgan, Feuerbach

1) Marx was famously defensive about his relationship to the German philosopher Hegel. In an afterword to the German edition of the first volume of Capital, Marx writes that while he was working on the manuscript, certain of his contemporaries were treating Hegel as if he were a “‘dead dog.’ I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker.”(7)

But this “mighty thinker” was not simply developing ideas about the dialectical method which so exercised Marx and others. In a major work, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel said: “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it — that is in its northern part — belong to the Asiatic or European World.”(8)

This is just a snippet. Rarely has there been a clearer expression of narrow Eurocentrism.

2) Engels, in the preface to his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, has very high praise for Lewis Morgan, on whom Marx leaned for his study of anthropology. Morgan, according to Engels, had “rediscovered in America, in his own way, the materialist conception of history that had been discovered by Marx forty years ago.”(9)

Neither Engels or Marx, however, point out that Morgan’s concluding paragraph in his key work — Ancient Society — contains the following chilling phrase: “The Aryan family represents the central stream of human progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming the control of the earth”(10) — a statement as ill-informed as the one by Hegel, cited above.

3) The young Marx in his famous “Theses on Feurbach” made an impassioned plea for the inseparability of theory and practice. “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism … is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.”

These theses contain many other such nuggets, most famously: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” But what of the first thesis, where Marx criticizes Feuerbach for understanding practice “only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance”?(11)

This offensive portion of the “Theses on Feurbach” is rarely, if ever, referred to. True, it was written in a manuscript never published in Marx’s lifetime. Perhaps had he prepared it for publication, the wording would have been altered. But a complete appreciation of these theses — and of the legacy of Karl Marx — demands that we confront both the insights into social life that he has to offer, as well as the insights into the prejudices of 19th century European society that he at times displays.

Transformation Through Revolution

When still in their twenties, Marx and Engels articulated a profound realism about the human material with which their hoped-for new world would be created.

Both for the production on a mass scale of … communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men [sic] on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical moment, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.(12)

Clearly, it is also the revolutionaries theorizing about and helping to organize that class who need to be conscious of the muck of ages sullying the tools with which we approach these onerous tasks.

In 1843 Marx wrote in a letter to a friend that it was “clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”(13)

That was good advice when Marx wrote it at the age of 25. It remains good advice today.


  1. Quoted in Frederick Engels, “Engels to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich [Letter],” in Marx/Engels Collected Works (MECW), Volume 46, (1882; repr., London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1989), 356 — my translation.
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  2. Karl Marx, “Marx to Engels [Letter],” in MECW, Volume 42 (1866; repr. 1987), 14.
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  3. V. I. Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” in The Complete Collected Works (PSS) Volume 23, Fifth Edition (1913; repr., Moscow: Publishing House of Political Literature, 1973), 43 — my translation.
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  4. Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism,” in Lenin Collected Works (LCW), Volume 19, March – December 1913, ed. Robert Daglish, trans. George Hanna, Translation of the Fourth, Enlarged Russian Edition (1913; repr., Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963), 23.
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  5. Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France. Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association,” in MECW, Volume 22 (1871; repr. 1975), 307-59.
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  6. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, in MECW, Volume 35, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (1867; repr. 1996); Karl Marx, Capital, Volume II, in MECW, Volume 36, ed. Frederick Engels (1885; repr. 1997); Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, in MECW, Volume 37, ed. Friedrich Engels (1894; repr. 1998).
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  7. Karl Marx, “Afterword to the Second German Edition,” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, in MECW, Volume 35 (1873; repr. 1996), 19.
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  8. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, trans. J. (John) Sibree (1837; repr., London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1914), 103.
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  9. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In the Light of the Researches by Lewis H. Morgan, in MECW, Volume 26 (1884; repr. 1990), 131.
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  10. Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society: Or, Researches in the Line of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization (1877; repr., New York: H. Holt and Company, 1907), 562–63.
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  11. Karl Marx, “[Theses on Feuerbach] [Unpublished Manuscript. First Published 1888],” in MECW, Volume 5 (1845; repr. 1976), 3–5.
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  12. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, [Unpublished Manuscript. First Published 1938], in MECW, Volume 5, trans. Clemens Dutt, W. Lough, and C.P. Magill (1846; repr. 1976), 52–53.
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  13. Karl Marx, “M. to R. [Article in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher],” in MECW, Volume 3, (1843; repr. 1973), 143.
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May-June 2018, ATC 194