Marx and Organization

Against the Current, No. 195, July/August 2018

Mark A. Lause

KARL MARX JOINED and helped to lead various organizations, although he never chose to be an “organizer.” He emerged with an academic degree to a terribly tight job market further crimped by the political restrictions imposed by the authorities.

In 1842, he took up a pen at Cologne for a frustrating attempt to sustain a severely censored radical newspaper Rheinische Zeitung. When the Prussians banned it, he assumed editorial responsibilities in Paris, working on the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, an attempt for German and French radicals to engage each other.

Then in his mid-twenties, Marx struggled to get his bearings in the French capital. Most of the million or more residents of the city had come from the French countryside or from abroad to eke out a life in that crucible of unencumbered cutthroat competition. The rivalries of ideas that unfolded there reflected this dynamic.

The inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the capitalist structuring of democratic rights and representative government naturally inspired an array of anticapitalist critiques, ranging from radical versions of Catholicism to the lofty philosophical constructs of “True Socialism.” On one level, the scholarly Marx proved right at home in that cerebral universe.

Nevertheless, life in the greatest metropolis of the continent tended to make materialists, whether fully conscious or less so. The struggle for existence had already given rise to organization among workers. Artisans had sustained associations for centuries, and the rise of new trades and industries with new functions encouraged the organization of their practitioners.

Paris had long drawn upon labor from across the western world. Much of its working class, in places, tended to be German-speaking and grappling with the same kinds of concerns the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher hoped to address.

Secret Society Tradition

Four decades earlier, during the French Revolution, François-Noël Babeuf sought to launch what was later claimed as a “communist” revolution by replicating the quasi-masonic secret organizations of the Jacobins and other bourgeois political currents.

Babeuf’s lieutenant, Filippo Giuseppe Maria Ludovico Buonarroti (Philippe Buonarroti) became the chronicler of the revolt with his Conspiration pour l’Egalité dite de Babeuf. Perhaps more importantly, he spent the rest of his life — he lived until 1837 — launching a series of clandestine revolutionary organizations, such as Les Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits and La Charbonnerie Démocratique Universelle.

The desire to sustain the flames of a revolutionary faith inspired a new kind of Babouvism with its secret societies. Such clandestine organizations per se had no appeal for Marx, but some of the younger participants in those traditions, notably Louis Auguste Blanqui, understood the futility of moral appeals and the class character of the state.

Blanqui sought to root his efforts in underclass of Paris. His Société des Saisons, organized into years, months and weeks, tapped into a genuinely plebeian sentiment for revolution, including the émigrés.

In 1834, radical Germans in Paris had started their Bund der Geächteten. Two years later, it reorganized into a more radical and political Bund der Gerechten. Members of this League of the Just joined the attempted coup of May 1839 by several hundred Blanquists.

Marx arrived only a few years later. He encountered a yet dogmatic unwillingness to reexamine the secret society tradition critically, but recognized the kind of revolutionary working class current with the potential for serious action. After the collapse of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, he developed his anticapitalist ideas through 1844 in the more popular format of Vorwärts!

In August of that year, Marx met Fried­rich Engels, the German author of The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 at Le Café de la Régence near the Palais Royale. The two began a great historic partnership that lasted until Marx’s death nearly 40 years later.

Through Engels, Marx became familiar with the English working-class movement to win the right to vote through the People’s Charter. With the repression of Vorwärts!, they moved to Brussels and became more seriously involved in sustaining the organization of the Communist Correspondence Committee among German workers.

Their concerns finally merged into that of the old League of the Just. It reorganized in June 1847 as the League of Comunists, Bund der Kommunisten. In doing so, it broke from its origins in the old secret society tradition to advocate open and public mass organization.

On February 21, 1848, they issued the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels. It offered a clear measure of how philosophers could solve the world: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” However, it also ended with an appeal about how to change it: “Workers of the World, Unite!”

Marx and Engels plunged into the insurrectionary movements of 1848-49. In the summer of 1849, Marx ended up in London, while Engels remained in the backwater of Baden. The following winter, the old insurrectionist strategy resurged within the League. August Willich and Karl Schapper argued that an immediate uprising by the revolutionaries and their allies would draw in ever larger circles, believing that the rest of the working class would follow the League’s initiative.

The all-consuming internal struggle essentially destroyed the League. It voted to sustain Marx, but the insurrectionist strategy prevailed in the broader German Workers’ Educational Society, from which, in September 1850, Marx and Engels resigned.

The old secularists Marx and Engels never viewed affiliation with a group as a kind of church membership, something essential to defining themselves. For example, they remained largely aloof from leading the subsequent efforts of Chartists and allied émigrés to launch a new “International Association” in 1855.

With the revolutionary tide still ebbing, the isolation of that International fostered its resurrection of the old insurrectionist strategy, particularly in an effort to restart the Italian revolution. The partial victory of Italian independence and the establishment of a unified nation under a crowned monarchy once more demonstrated the shortcomings of this approach.

The First International

On the other hand, Marx, Engels and their comrades moved to the fore when the growing importance of working class organizations in France and Britain inspired efforts to revive an international organization from 1862.

When these forces converged in the International Workingmen’s Association — the “First International” — in September 1864, it elected Marx to the General Council, and its concerns preoccupied him for the next eight years.

Once more they found themselves in a frustrating internal battle, which is often misrepresented as the struggle of Marx and his followers against the anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin.Although Marx and Bakunin certainly had conflicting perspectives, the situation in the International was much more complex.

The British affiliates allied with Marx were largely led by veteran Chartists, and had a heavy trade union component. Even as German émigrés in London clustered around Marx and Engels, they remained increasingly drawn to Ferdinand Lassalle’s Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiter-Verein, which had begun to organize large numbers of workers back home.

Lassalle’s socialism centered on the inherent dynamic of a centralizing state power, a perspective that jibed less with the ideas of Marx than with the social welfare legislation of the emerging Prussian state.

On the other hand, those allied with Bakunin — or seen as such — were a complex mix of their own. The French elements of the IWA drew more from Pierre Joseph Proudhon or Blanqui more than from Bakunin, and combined these in very different measures, depending on where they were.

The predisposition of the Italians to secret societies and to armed insurgency certainly owed less to Bakunin than to, respectively, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. The American IWA represented a diverse coalition of land reformers, socialists and woman suffragists, who drew nothing from Bakunin.

More fundamentally, all elements of the IWA responded fundamentally the same to the outbreak of war between France and Prussia in 1870, the subsequent implosion of the French empire into a nominal republic, and especially the rise of the Paris Commune in March-May 1871.

The Commune finally exploded the old hope that the capitalists — unlike their aristocratic predecessors — would peacefully yield to public opinion, if it turned against them. In the aftermath of the bloody suppression of the Commune, older ideas about working around the capitalist state through a clandestine order seemed to regain some of their old luster.

After Marx

Marx, who died in 1883, never had an opportunity to address the implications of this fully. As far as that goes, Engels, who survived into 1895, devoted most of his later years to finishing and editing Marx’s massive scholarship, and contributing much himself. Radicals in various countries continued to make their way forward as best they could within their varying contexts.

The various currents of the German movement that emerged during the 1860s regrouped into what became a large social democratic party in 1875. After a period of illegality, it emerged in 1890 as the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands. A global influence, the SPD provided a model for replication elsewhere and for the 1889 establishment of a new Socialist International.

Not only was the universal application of the German SPD model questionable, but even in Germany, it ultimately seemed to have retained much of the old Lassallean confidence in the state that ultimately disserved it in 1914.

For many years, Russian radicals would vie with the German social democrats in defining the legacy of Marx as an organizer, as well as a thinker. On the eastern edge of Europe, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is To Be Done? suggested that intellectuals could assist the emergence of socialist cooperatives from the values of the Russian peasant commune, inspiring the formation of the Land and Liberty Society.

Pyotr Nikitich Tkachev combined this perspective with Blanquism to advocate the organization of small centralized vanguard aiming at the seizure of power. The Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) organized in 1879, partly around his views, and made an attempt to assassinate Czar Alexander II in March 1881.

Five years later a successor organization to the Narodnaya, including Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov, made another attempt to kill the Czar. His brother Vladimir Ilyich later became involved in the revolutionary movements, writing under the pen name “N. Lenin.”

The post-Lenin universal application of the Bolshevik model may have been questionable itself, and may have partly contributed to the rationalization of Soviet isolation after the Russian Revolution. Particularly in places such as the United States, where the movement has long remained terribly isolated, radicals have often structured organizations that rationalize their own isolation.

What We Learn from Marx

Any lessons we can draw from Marx’s role in successive organizations have to be rooted in their historical context. Indeed, he seems never to have had a problem not being in an organization — not because he accorded organization no importance, but rather that the importance he accorded it depended entirely on the demands of the class struggle around him.

On the other hand, his involvement with the International and the broader corresponding and educational work of the Communist League reflected an appreciation that the importance of organization turned on its place in the wider society. What was important was not his membership in the League, but its potential in expressing the broader needs and concerns of the German working class.

Marx and Engels explicitly declared that they aspired to no party separate and apart from those of working class movements generally, specifically the Blanquists in France, Chartists in Britain, and National Reformers in the United States, with which they had become familiar through the Chartists.

When Marx and Engels engineered what amounted to the destruction of the International, they did so by removing its headquarters to New York. They preferred its legacy to survive without a loss or dilution of its meaning. However, they also hoped that the shift might find a new importance in sparking the growth of working class politics in America.

On this bicentennial of his birth, we remember Karl Marx not for his efforts to help us to understand the world, but for his admonition that the point must be to change it — and for his example in defining ourselves not by our abstract aspirations but by an organic relationship to the dynamics of history.

His conclusions should remain the key guide to action and organization: Workers of the world, unite!

July-August 2018, ATC 195