The real originality of Marx and Engels lies in the field of politics, not in economics or philosophy. They were the first to discover the historical potential of the new class that capitalism had brought into existence—the modern proletariat, a class that could encompass a universal liberation from all prevailing forms of oppression and exploitation. The modern workers’ movement, capable of self-determination and self-emancipation, able to draw on the best of bourgeois culture and science, would have no need of utopias or religious exaltation. The political capacity of the proletariat sprang from its objective position within bourgeois society. Thus the analysis of capitalism, and of its historical antecedents and consequences, to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels—however necessarily partial its initial formulations—was a necessary underpinning for their political theory. But the decisive contribution made by the founders of historical materialism was the theory of proletarian revolution. Unfortunately, there has been an increasing tendency in twentieth-century Marxism to identify the philosophical method or epistemology employed by Marx or Engels as their crucial contribution, and to represent these as the touchstone of Marxist orthodoxy. In different ways this is done by the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, the exponents of Soviet Diamat and Louis Althusser and his collaborators in Reading Capital. There is little equivalent insistence on the originality of the political conceptions of Marx and Engels. Indeed, often attempts are made to suggest that their political ideas are essentially a continuation or development of those of Machiavelli or Montesquieu or Rousseau. This is especially curious since in no domain has Marxism been more original than in that of political theory. Historical materialism either discovered or thoroughly reworked every important political concept: class, party, state, nation, revolution, bureaucracy, programme and so on. Such concepts have developed in conjunction with Marxist political practice and in the course of vigorous political polemics. Moreover, it is evident that all the major divisions of Marxism have arisen over directly political questions, which have thereby furnished the critical determinants of Marxist ‘orthodoxy’. This does not mean that philosophical or epistemological disputes have had no significance for Marxism. It does mean that they have emerged as secondary byproducts of conflicts over substantive political questions. Since Marxism adopts a completely consequent and complete materialism, this should not be so surprising. No standpoint in philosophy can produce proletarian revolutionary politics—but in the long run only materialism is fully consistent with them. footnote1

The theory of proletarian revolution developed by Marx and Engels sets them quite apart from those who have been claimed as their precursors in matters of political science. The fact that their political theory was deeply grounded in an analysis of social and economic forces is in the greatest contrast to Machiavelli’s arbitrary and self-sufficient notion of politics. Their insistence that the working class could emancipate itself and all other oppressed groups is sharply at variance with the Machiavellian conception of the state as a simple instrument of princely manipulation, with its peremptory maxim to the effect that, as Machiavelli writes in the Discourses, ‘in all states, whatever their type of Government, the real rulers are never more than forty or fifty citizens’. There is no valid analogy between the Marxist conception of the party of proletarian revolution and Machiavelli’s Prince. Rousseau’s political ideas, based on a profound critique of social inequality, are discrepant with Marxism in a quite different way. With Rousseau, the critique of all political institutions is so radical and sweeping that the very notion of valid political representation or delegation is denied. Thus the sovereignty of the people is only possible if there are no parties or factions within the state and no communication between its citizens. Rousseau declares in the Social Contract: ‘It is therefore essential, if the general will is to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the state, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts.’ Again, as we shall see, there is no valid analogy between Rousseau’s vision of the General Will, inaugurated by the Wise Legislator, and proletarian democracy forged in class struggle. footnote2

Marxist politics could not possibly spring fully armed from the heads of Marx and Engels, but required decades of participation in the workers’ movement. The development of capitalism and of the class struggle was constantly presenting them with new problems and new solutions. In those texts written by Marx or Engels as interventions in the workers’ movement, it is possible to trace their increasing awareness of the great variety of tactics and instruments of struggle that the working class would need if it was to carry through a successful socialist revolution against such a powerful antagonist as the world capitalist system. These works by Marx and Engels lack the brilliant paradoxes of their philosophy, the literary polish of their journalism or the intricate abstraction of their economics, but they are unsurpassed in clarity and vigour: they have proved to be the iron rations of revolutionary socialism. It is hoped that this account of the origins of Marxist politics, although unavoidably cursory and selective in its reference to the historical context of the writings of Marx and Engels, will nevertheless underline their crucial significance within the Marxist corpus.

If the definitive tenet of Marxism is the proletarian revolution, then it is possible to give a precise date to Marx’s first announcement that he had become a Marxist. In the early part of 1844 Marx published his last text as a critical philosopher and radical nationalist: ‘The Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’. In this he declares war on the stifling conditions that prevail in Germany in the name of philosophy and the proletariat. The material base, the ‘passive element’, in this revolution will be supplied by the proletariat, the radically oppressed class, while philosophy will determine the revolution’s goals. ‘Just as philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its intellectual weapons in philosophy . . . The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of man. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat.’ footnote3

Marx spent the first part of 1844 studying political economy and filling his notebooks with the ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’. In June 1844 there was an armed revolt by the weavers in Silesia. It was to be dismissed as an event of little consequence by Marx’s closest collaborator, Arnold Ruge, writing under the name ‘A Prussian’ in the Paris émigré newspaper Vorwarts. Marx was provoked into an instant response: ‘Our so-called Prussian denies that the King “panicked” for a number of reasons, among them being the fact that few troops were needed to deal with the feeble weavers. . . . In a country where banquets with liberal toasts and liberal champagne froth provoke Royal Orders in Council . . . where the burning desire of the entire liberal bourgeoisie for freedom of the press and a constitution could be suppressed without a single soldier, in a country where passive obedience is the order of the day, can it be anything but an event, indeed a terrifying event, when armed troops have to be called out against feeble weavers? And in the first encounter the feeble weavers even gained a victory. They were only suppressed when reinforcements were brought up. Is the uprising of a mass of workers less dangerous because it can be defeated without the aid of a whole army? Our sharp-witted Prussian should compare the revolt of the Silesian weavers with the uprisings of the English workers. The Silesians will then stand revealed as strong weavers.’ Much of this article is still written in the old philosophical jargon and concerns an argument about the nature of the German revolution. But Marx concludes from the weavers’ revolt that the proletariat is the ‘active agent’ of the revolution and the political consciousness they revealed is greatly superior to ‘the meek, sober mediocrity’ of the political literature of the German bourgeoisie, ‘for all their philosophers and scholars’. Marx points out that ‘however limited an industrial revolt may be it contains within itself a universal soul’. Ruge had maintained that Germany needed ‘a social revolution with a political soul’. Marx in conclusion replies: ‘whether the idea of a social revolution with a political soul is paraphrase or nonsense, there is no doubt about the rationality of a political revolution with a social soul. All revolution—the overthrow of the existing ruling power and the dissolution of the old order —is a political act. But without revolution socialism cannot be made possible.’ footnote4

Marx’s reply to the article by ‘A Prussian’ is dated Paris, 31 July 1844. Naturally, it ended Marx’s collaboration with Ruge and the other critical philosophers. Some days after publication of the article, on 26 August 1844, Marx met Engels in Paris and talked at length with him for the first time. They discovered a profound community of views and interests. Engels, who had been living in Manchester, was deeply impressed by the Chartist movement and the working-class politics it represented. They both rejected the vacillation and vapourings of the critical philosophers and looked upon the working class as a potent revolutionary force. The fully fledged idea of proletarian revolution was to develop subsequently during the course of extensive practical experience in the workers’ movement in Brussels, Paris, London and Manchester.

Although the encounter with the workers’ movement was to be decisive for Marx and Engels, they certainly did not simply adopt its politics. Within the workers’ movement at this time, it was held that the emancipation of the labouring classes would be accomplished essentially by some external agency. For the disciples of Proudhon or Robert Owen, co-operative schemes devised by enlightened reformers were to be the salvation of the workers: this was the resolution of the ‘social’ question. For the followers of Blanqui or Weitling, it was the revolutionary conspiracy that would deliver the proletarian masses from their bondage: this was the path of ‘political’ revolution. None of these thinkers advanced the idea of the working class as the conscious, leading force in a revolution that would unite the ‘social’ and the ‘political’. Indeed, they lacked a precise conception of the proletariat as a class: for Blanqui the term covered all those who worked, including the mass of the peasantry, while for Weitling the most revolutionary social category was the lumpen proletarians or ‘dangerous classes’. For Marx and Engels the emergence of the propertyless industrial working class opened up the possibility of a new type of politics no longer subordinated to conspiracy or utopia. The workers were organized into giant industrial armies by capitalism itself. They participated in a global system of production and exchange. A conscious movement of this class could alone destroy capitalism and establish a new society, free from exploitation and oppression, because based on mastery of the new social forces of production. Marx and Engels first presented an integrated account of these ideas in the Communist Manifesto.