Marx on Poland and Ireland: review of ‘Marx at the Margins’ part II

170px-Marx_oldby Belfast Plebian

Marx served as the chief European correspondent of the New York Tribune, the most important newspaper in the United States in the nineteenth century. Anderson believes these articles ‘constitute a far more serious and sustained affair than is generally realised. They fill most of the contents of volumes 12 through 17 of the MECW, each of which runs to over five hundred pages.’ All too often these articles have been seen as mere digressions from the more important economic works Marx was preparing roughly at the same time.

Their relative neglect is due in part to what Marx himself said about them in a letter disparaging his own involvement with political journalism. One letter Marx sent to a German comrade residing in the United States said he found the ‘perpetual scribbling for the newspapers tiresome’ and expressed a wish ‘ to withdraw into solitude for a few months and work at my economy.’

The articles were also ignored because in the beginning the principal students of the works of Marx were non English speaking Europeans who thought of him primarily as a writer of German prose and even as a strictly European intellectual. In more recent times the journalism has been downgraded due to a sarcastic criticism at the hands of some influential post colonial writers who have uncovered in them a so called Marxist justification for progressive colonialism.

Marx’s 1853 articles on India, especially his ‘The British rule in India’, are believed to espouse a doctrine of an enlightened colonialism. Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism’ avers that in ‘article after article he [Marx] returnedwith increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible a realsocial revolution.’ Anderson accepts that some of the early Tribune articles contain Eurocentric generalisations.  In about the time of the communist manifesto Marx tended to extol the benefits of an inventive British capitalism over the cost of massive social dislocation. A dialectic relationship of both is present but not always so, and the neutral idea that all pre-modern societies like in India and China are destined to make an adjustment to a foreign induced capitalist modernisation is powerfully present.

Anderson presents the case that the Tribune articles on pre-modern and ‘barbarous Asian despotism’ register a steady shift in emphasis, becoming more dialectical and if anything the negative side of capitalist progress is emphasised and a critical support for political resistance to colonialism becomes more the norm.

What can be said with Said and others is that their criticism of Marx rests only on a few early Tribune opinion pieces and extrapolations from the general drift of the unrevised versions of the communist Manifesto, without appreciation of Marx’s constant revisions to his own analysis. What changed between 1853 and 1872-83 was his greater understanding and assessments of the various communal relations still dominant at that time.

Marx actually went on to identify at least three types of early communal relationships; the Greco-Roman, Germanic and the Asiatic. In the argument of 1853 the communal social relations present in these societies at the village level created a very repressive control by the village community over the non-free individual and made the basis for a despotic State, hence they were taken to be ‘barbarous.’ Marx then began to assess them differently and in the Grundrisse he states that the ‘The Asiatic form necessarily hangs on most tenaciously and for the longest time.

Already in the Grundrisse of 1857-58 he was beginning to characterise the communal relations as containing both despotic and democratic potential. He also began to think that it was not the supposed common ownership of land that differentiated these pre capitalist social formations but the use of collective labour in working the land that really marked them out. Thus in the 1880s he wrote that the Russian village with its communal social organisation might be able to avoid all of the exploitation typical of capitalist progress by revolutionising itself and overthrowing the landed class and by linking up with the workers movements in the West.  Marx in fact refers to such an alternative in the preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, although it should be borne in mind that he was not proposing a unique Russian road to socialism.


Marx was not defending communal social  relations in their existing forms in any unqualified fashion, for he also argued they needed to be revolutionised from within and linked to technological achievements from without . In this way, these indigenous social forms, and the defence of them against capitalist encroachment, could form the starting point for a wider communist transformation that would involve both large agrarian societies like India or Russia and the revolutionary labour movements of already industrialising ones like England, France and Germany.

In the occasional scribbling on the British colonialists and their actions in India and China Marx became ever more contemptuous of what the British colonial-capitalists were actually achieving: ‘More than that of any other nation, the history of English economic management in India is a history of futile and actually stupid (in practice, infamous) experiments . In Bengal they created a caricature of English large scale landed property; in the south east they created a caricature of peasant smallholdings. In the north-west they did all they could to transform the Indian economic community with communal ownership of the soil into a caricature of itself.’(Grundrisse p. 451)  

The developing journalism of Marx also refutes the widely held idea that he took no interest in the national movements of his own time.  It has been widely trumpeted that Marx raised up the idea of trans-national social class to such a height in his dialectic that the idea of ‘national right’ was completely suppressed altogether in his mind. In textual terms, much of the critique of Marx and Engels on nationalism centres on their early ethnocentric disparagement of some of the Slavic societies of Eastern Europe and the Balkans as “unhistorical” nations.

This thesis is challenged in the examples of Poland and Ireland, both primarily rural societies with no organised communist movement. Anderson shows that Marx’s support for Polish independence was one of the great political passions of his life. One source of our confusion stems from the fact that some influential post Marx socialists developed a pronounced opposition to Polish independence and an explicit critique of Marx, especially Rosa Luxembourg and even Karl Kautsky.  Also with Stalin, who partitioned Poland in 1939-41, everything to do with Polish independence was labelled a counterrevolutionary deviation, while most of Marx’s writings on Poland were expunged from the official collections.

The historian of ideas Isiah Berlin is just one of many influential liberals who have charged Marx with a political blindness in respect of the great national movements of the nineteenth century. A study of Marx’s writings on various national struggles, especially those covering Poland and Ireland, showed that he in fact related the workers struggles to the key national struggles without compromising the higher cause of communist revolution.

Anderson shows that the themes of nation and race were intertwined with class analysis and were not relegated to minor matters in his own active political life.  In fact they took up most of his Marx’s time as a leader of the First International and were at the core of his clashes and controversies with rival socialist tendencies (mainly Proudhonist and Bakuninist), covering the entire duration of the First International.

Anderson writes that: ‘In Marx at the Margins, I did try to respond to serious scholarly critiques of Marx on nationalism and ethnicity such as those by Ephraim Nimmi (1994), who carried out a textual analysis of Marx’s voluminous writings on nationalism. I generally eschewed reference to the kinds of peremptory (and textually unsupported critiques of those like Giddens who seem to get a free pass so long as their target is Marx.’

In the document of 1864, the ‘Inaugural Address’ of the International, which in effect became its programme, the main theme was of course the international battle between capital and labour, however even here Marx referred to Ireland, Poland and the American civil war.

The period of the First International was also the period of the first drafts of Capital and all three political struggles feature heavily in the historical side of the economic critique. The importance of the American civil war for International Labour is cited in the very preface of the first edition of volume 1 of 1867. The ideological divisions that caused an eventual split in the First International were over Marx’s insistence that the workers movement should not restrict its own outlook to reductive class questions. At the time of Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s death in 1865, Marx wrote a long article in German in which he repeated his earlier critiques of the French utopian socialist’s economic theories. He also added a stinging rebuke directed against Proudhon’s thoughts on Poland: ‘ his last work, written against Poland, in which for the greater glory of the tsar he expresses moronic cynicism, must be described as…not merely bad but base.’

A year later, opposition to Marx emerged within the International among some of its French-speaking members, most of them influenced by Proudhon. In keeping with the viewpoint that labour should not involve itself in wider political issues, but stick to social and economic ones, they opposed singling out Poland for specific advocacy. In a letter Marx send to Engels dated January 5, 1886 Marx says that Poland is the basis of the dispute ‘A plot has been hatched…it is tied up with that pack ofProudhonists in Brussels. The real crux of the controversy is the political question.’

Marx opened the year 1867 in the midst of his finishing the final draft of Capital with a lengthy, well researched speech to a London meeting commemorating the 1863 Polish uprising sponsored by the International and a Polish exiles group. Marx avers that Poland remains the key to a revolution on Continental Europe because it would undermine the reactionary grip of Russia: ‘There is only one alternative left for Europe, Asiatic barbarism under Muscovite leadership will burst over her head like a lawine (avalanche), or she must restore Poland.’       ` 

After Marx set about constituting the International he became heavily involved with Irish affairs and this was underpinned by a substantial amount of private study. His first interest was following the struggle for land reform and he went more deeply into the class structure of rural Ireland, summarising his findings in a July 11th Tribune article ‘The Indian Question-Irish Tenant Right:

A class of absentee landlords has been enabled to pocket, not merely the labour, but also the capital of whole generations, each generation of Irish peasant sinking a grade lower in the social scale, exactly in proportion to the exertions and sacrifices made for the raising of their condition and that of their families. If a tenant was industrious and enterprising he became taxed in consequence of his industry and enterprise. If on the contrary he grew inert and negligent he was reproached with the “aboriginal faults of the Celtic race”.  He had accordingly no other alternative left but to become a pauper-to pauperise himself by industry or to pauperise by negligence.  In order to oppose this state of things “Tenant Right” was proclaimed in Ireland….England has subverted the conditions of Irish society. At first it confiscated the land, then it suppressed the industry by Parliamentary enactments and lastly it broke the active energy by armed force.  And thus England created those abominable conditions of society which enable a small caste of rapacious lordlings to hold the land and to live upon it. Too weak yet for revolutionising those social conditions the people appeal to Parliament, demanding at least their mitigation and regulation.’ Marx then detailed the vociferous opposition from the land-owning classes to the tenants’ rights law proposed to Parliament in June 1853.

After a break of two years Marx returned to the subject of Ireland with an article called Ireland’s Revenge written for the Neue Order-Zeitung on March 16, 1855 and another eulogising the deceased Irish Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor: ‘he died  as a pauper in the true sense of the word, the burial expenses were met by the working class of London.’ Three years later he wrote another article for the Tribune in January 1859 speaking of the ‘excitement in Ireland about a witch hunt directed against Irish conspirators.’

Kevin Anderson summarises the result of the first phase of the study of social conditions in Ireland covering the 1850s in three propositions:

1. While they (Marx and Engels) enunciated clear support for the struggles of the Irish they always counselled Irish revolutionaries to devote more attention to the internal class dynamics of Irish society. In this they were especially critical of the upper class Catholic nationalism of O’Connell.

2. They urged Irish revolutionaries to develop the firmest unity with British workers particularly the mass-based Chartist movement, pointing out that the Chartists supported the repeal of the Union of Ireland and England.

3. They singled out Irish immigrant labour in Britain, both as an index of Irish oppression at home and as a factor holding down the wages of English workers. Moreover they argued that British rule in Ireland proved that the British State could be just as repressive  as continental regimes like Bonapartist France or Prussia.

to be continued.

So you think you know about Karl Marx? A review of ‘Marx at the Margins’, Kevin B Anderson.

Kevin B AndersonBy Belfast Plebian

To date, no comprehensive intellectual biography has been published in any language. Kevin Anderson.

Every new class consciousness generation is forced by contemporary events to return to the philosophy of Karl Marx, not in a mood of revival but to learn something important that has become forgotten or carelessly overlooked by previous students.

In the past the known side of Karl Marx was represented by the Communist Manifesto, a handful of works by Engels and the first volume of an unfinished study of the capitalist-bourgeois model of the good society, Capital volume 1. The later volumes of Capital economic studies were inaccessible to most readers because they followed a difficult logic and even Engels, the life long friend and editor of at least three of the economic volumes, is frequently accused by contemporary devotees of seriously misunderstanding the logic of value as expounded across its many pages.  In fact the leading lights of the ‘intellectual academy’ seem to have reached a sort of consensus that Engels got the economic critique wrong in his introductions and prefaces of the numerous editions, though it has not yet reached a consensus as to the linking arguments of the exposition, the relationship – to give one central example – of the tendency for the average rate of profit to fall to the sudden outbreak of an economic crisis, which is still hotly disputed.

There is another part of the Karl Marx legacy that has yet to be appreciated.  I will call this, for want of a better expression, the esoteric part: that part of the intellectual legacy that got buried and then neglected by the custodians of the early workers’ parties. Many documents concerning what Karl Marx did and thought during his own lifetime were left unpublished until after the formation of an ‘historic Marxism.’

Marx had frequent disputes with other communists in his own lifetime and they were certainly able to understand him, maybe because the fundamentals of political existence then were stated in common speech in contrast to the specialised language of later social  science.  Marx in fact is famous less for his critique of classical economic science than for his preparation of the communist manifesto in 1848, one of the most accomplished of common language documents ever recorded and distributed. The manifesto was composed as a blend of just rhetoric and historical knowledge, and espoused in the name of a living revolutionary movement, the Communist League.

The act of rendering the dialectical thought of Karl Marx into fluent and accessible pamphlets and journalism is not without a certain risk of vulgar distortion.  Even sections of books approved by Karl Marx himself, like the ‘Anti Duhring’ of Engels, to this day provoke criticism from some ‘Marxists’.

One reason we may well surmise why Karl Marx kept his partnership with Engels strong for so long was that he felt a need for an intellectual accomplice who could speak to the workers about political economy in a less convoluted style than he thought he could do. Marx always maintained that an attack on bourgeois economics as first expressed by Engels was not only his first introduction to the subject matter but a life-long inspiration.  

Marx for sure could write in the style of a campaigning journalist but he certainly preferred to delegate the role of first publicist to his partner in revolution. When Engels committed intellectual blunders Marx usually refrained from excommunicating him.  Engels held frustrations of his own, especially over the esoteric intellectual habits of Marx, complaining in a letter: “as long as you still have an unread book that you think important, you do not get down to writing.”

With the benefit of historical hindsight Marx and Engels may have even ‘over-succeeded’ with their exoteric publications like the Communist Manifesto and the Ani-Duhring because these publications became by the turn of the century the core of what became known as ‘Second International Marxism’.  They published the first version of the great manifesto in February 1848 and then went on to publish several revised versions.

With the very first one they faced a pressure familiar to all those who write for a public purpose: their friends’ impatience (from their comrades in the Communist League of whom we have records from the time). A month before publication the secretary of the Communist League wrote saying ‘The central committee charges its leading circle in Brussels to communicate with Citizen Marx and to tell him if the manifesto of the C. Party, the writing of which he undertook to do at the recent congress, does not reach London by February 1st of the current year, further measures will have to be taken against him.’

The manifesto was the declaration of a hard fought battle of ideas within the Communist League, an early example of a revolutionary united front, so the ideas expressed in the first edition can’t be ascribed without some reservation to Karl Marx alone.

Marx and Engels wrote several prefaces to the later editions that seem to edge closer to something like a genuine historical Marxism.  In the 1872 German edition they say that in view of the gigantic strides taken by modern industry in the preceding twenty-five years, and in view of the political experience gained through workers participation in the Paris Commune of 1870/71, the communist programme of the first edition has in some respect become antiquated.

In point of fact friendly critics of the manifesto like Leon Trotsky and Ernest Mandel point out some serious flaws even in the revised versions from the perspective of a later Marxism. Trotsky says that in showing how capitalism draws along in its wake the backward and barbaric countries the manifesto does not say anything about the struggle of the colonial and semi- colonial peoples for their independence. He also says that the most obsolete part of the manifesto is Marx’s criticism of the socialist literature prevalent at that time.

Ernest Mandel says that the manifesto established the unfortunate myth of the driving down of workers wages to a subsistence level, the iron law of wages, as one of the main tenets of orthodox Marxist thought, something he in fact refuted in his scientific account.

What we learn from this worry over the communist manifesto is that we must be conscious of shifts and developments in the thought of Karl Marx.  We must not even assume that the later books, essays and pamphlets are always an improvement on the earlier ones.  After all we all decline with age.

Marx is unusual in that he has often suffered greater distortion in the hands of his supporters than from his intellectual enemies although these have often stood on common ground. To give just one example, both past friends and enemies typically selected out points 5, 6 and 7 of the Communist Manifesto as the only guide to what Marx argued for by way of an alternative to capitalist arrangements.  Point 5 states that communists are in favour of the centralisation of all credit in the hands of the State by means of a national bank with an exclusive monopoly. Point 6 states that communists are in favour of a monopoly of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State and point 7 calls for an extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State. Nowadays we would call this a programme for state organised capitalism.

It is to the credit of the author of this book about the thought of Karl Marx that he scrupulously tries to avoid a stereotyping of Marx by not resorting to the usual interpretative device of selecting just a handful of well known ‘key passages’ from the better known publications and then referring to this selection as definitive of Marxism . The chief virtue of the book is that it presents to the contemporary militant a serious reading of essays, documents and letters by Karl Marx that are not well known or are seldom thought to be worthy of comparison to the key passages approach.  The good thing is that we are offered a more ‘historical’ account than we are usually given.  We might legitimately call this a dialectical account of the development of the mind of Marx.

Anderson’s method is to split the collected works into a kind of core and a periphery and show how the works of the periphery if studied carefully offer us a more concrete understanding of the abstract core. The core for Anderson consists not so much of a privileged statement or single book but of the concepts of social capital and the exploitation of labour, the theory of alienation and fetishism and finally the notion of dialectics. These ideas are the core because they appear as a seam that is more or less present in all of the primary works.

Anderson does not make an assessment of Marx’s intellectual development on the basis of a definite epistemological break between a young, humanist Marx and a mature, scientific Marx like the French professor Louis Althusser tried to do. 

Anderson is one of those historians participating in the publication of  MEGA2 which began in Moscow and Berlin in 1975, came to a standstill in 1989 with the implosion of the Soviet regimes, and was taken up again mainly by Western funded institutes.  What we now have before us is a much expanded version of the works of Marx and Engels than was previously available.  It is hard to think of another modern thinker with so small a ratio of published writings during their own lifetime to those actually written.  Works now considered central to the canon such as the 1844 manuscripts, the German Ideology, the Grundrisse and the Theories of Surplus Value were largely unknown to the “orthodox Marxists” of 1905.  For the purpose of this review it is useful to be reminded of what new material is included in the complete works, for Anderson makes use of some of them in his study.

The updated complete works are divided into four sections:

Section One: early works, articles and drafts.

Of thirty two volumes now planned, seventeen have appeared.  Especially notable is the inclusion of a rougher but larger version of the influential 1844 manuscripts. Marx appears to be writing two versions at the same time.

Section Two: Capital and Preliminary Studies.

Consisting in 15 volumes, of which as of 2010, 13 have been published.  What has been included are all the editions of volume one of Capital.  Important here is a print of Engels’s 1890 German edition, but with an important addition from a French edition prepared by Marx himself in 1872-1875 with an extra 60 pages not included in the English translation of the standard German edition. This, it turns out, was the edition most favoured by Marx though not by Engels.   Anderson presents some extracts of letters concerning their difference of opinion over what version of Capital volume 1 should be prioritised.  Other volumes offer draft manuscripts for what became Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, which can now be studied to see how Engels edited and arranged them.

Section Three: Correspondence.

Of 35 volumes planned, 12 volumes covering the years up to 1865 have been published.  In the previous complete works most letters from Marx to people other than Engels were usually omitted.

Section Four: Excerpt notebooks.

Of 32 volumes planned, eleven have so far been published.  Here we have many drafts and notes never published before in any language.  These include notebooks from 1844-1847 on political economists such as Jean -Baptiste Say, Jean-Charles Sismondi, Charles Babbage, Andrew Ure and Nassau Senior.  Excerpt notebooks from Marx slated for publication include (1) notes from 1853 and 1880 on Indonesia, (2) notes from 1852 on the history of women and gender relations, (3) notes on the history of agriculture in Russia plus some on prairie farming in the United States, (4) substantial notes on Ireland from the 1860s, (5) notes on agriculture in Roman times, and finally (6) a massive chronology of world history composed during the 1880s.

Kevin Anderson situates his presentation of the development of Marx close to a mode of interpretation associated with the books of Raya Dunayevskaya (his own book is dedicated to her) whose most notable books are Marxism and Freedom (1958,) Philosophy and Revolution: from Hegel to Sartre, and from Marx to Mao (1973) and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1981).

In her own work Dunayevskaya turned to the unpublished ‘Ethnographic’ notebooks of Marx to argue against the thesis that the old Marx(the last ten years) was an unproductive thinker, pointing to some of the different conclusions Marx reached in contrast to Engels in the study of the role of women and class in early societies. This she believed was important owing to the undisputed spell Engel’s ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ held over all later communists.  It was taken on trust that Marx had no thoughts of his own relevant to what was later to be called women’s liberation.

Some of the less well know documents that Anderson mines concern the political journalism, especially those relating to race and class in the United States, the national struggles in Ireland and Poland, and others covering the colonial expansion in India, China and Java.  He then relates some of this material to editions of Capital especially the generally ignored French edition, the one Marx himself preferred.

He also takes us on an excursion through Marx’s late studies of pre-capitalist societies with particular reference to Russia and India and asks what his reasoning was in spending so much time on them, all the while jeopardising the completion of Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

What we end up with is a much more energetic and interesting ‘late Marx.’ It should be noted that David Riazanov and his colleagues at the Moscow institute neglected to publish some of these later documents stating that Marx by 1880 ‘had lost his ability for intensive, independent, intellectual creation….. Sometimes, in reconsidering these notebooks, the question arises; why did he waste so much time on this….that is inexcusable pedantry.’

In the next post we will look at some of what Anderson reveals about these writings, including those on Ireland.