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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William English Walling (1877–1936)

By Karl Marx (1818–1883)

IT is the common belief that modern Socialism owes its principles largely to Karl Marx. But the central idea of Marx’s thought was precisely that every great social movement is based not upon the ideas of any single man or group of men, but upon the economic conditions, the needs and the aspirations of whole populations—or rather of those social classes which are destined to predominate. His first and greatest teaching was that such a movement would come into existence whether or not there were any leaders capable of adequately formulating its thought.

According to the Marxian view, the importance of Karl Marx is not that he created the Socialist Movement or that he laid down its fundamental theoretical principles, but that his many-sided personality was thoroughly (though not completely) representative of that movement. To appreciate this representative character of Marx, it is not necessary to gain more than a rudimentary knowledge of his leading ideas. The briefest glance at his life and at the subject matter and titles of his writings is sufficient.

In the first place, his whole life and thought were thoroughly international; that is to say, his politics and economics did not rest upon the tradition of a single nation, but upon a comparative study of those three countries in which he lived, Germany, France, and England—the three leading countries of the world at the period in which he wrote. Even his descent and birthplace were significant. He was born of Jewish parents in the town of Trier in the year 1818. That is to say, he was born of an international stock within a few miles of the boundary of France and a very short distance from Belgium and Holland. Only his early youth was spent in Germany. During several years of his mature manhood he lived in exile in Paris and he spent the latter half of his life in exile in London. His father having been a banker, Marx was brought up in an atmosphere of business and since he devoted his life chiefly to the study of political economy he continued from his earliest years to his death to take a view of all public questions that was largely based upon an economic foundation. At the same time he was thorough master of all the public discussion of his time, whether from an economic, a philosophical, or a purely political standpoint. In Germany he mastered all the current philosophies of his period, especially those of Hegel and Feuerbach. In France he devoured and assimilated all the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary political thought. In England he not only became an adept in all the political economy of the period from Adam Smith to Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, but his keen powers of criticism soon enabled him to see all around these great economists—at least in many directions, as most later economists have admitted.

The Socialism of Karl Marx was thus essentially of a comparative or scientific character. Not only was it based on a comparative study of the three greatest and most advanced nations of Europe, but it was compounded of ideas drawn from three almost separate sources: German philosophy, French politics, and British economics. It may be admitted that the so-called Utopian Socialists of France and England, Fourier, St. Simon, and Owen, also exerted an influence. Undoubtedly they furnished Marx with an ideal—that of a scientifically organized industrial democracy. But this was only the smaller part of Marx’s thought. He was concerned relatively little with the nature of the future society and concentrated his attention almost wholly on the ways and means of attaining it.

I have indicated the influence of the geographical environment upon the life and work of Karl Marx. It remains to mention the influence of the period in which he lived. His education and his earliest writing were dominated by the French Revolution and its after results. All the progressive political thought of Europe before 1848 was under the same influences: the theory of political democracy was accepted dogmatically and absolutely; consequently all progressive thought which concerned itself with social and economic questions tended to extend the idea of democracy to cover those fields, and the ideal of industrial and social democracy was in the air.

But Marx also drew a more immediate lesson from the French Revolution—in agreement, in this instance, with French political thought, but in disagreement both with the philosophy of Germany and with the economics of England. He held, with the French, that all thorough and radical social progress must be achieved in large part by the method of social revolution. He took from English political economy the idea—prevalent among business men everywhere and at all times—that social progress depends largely, if not chiefly, upon economic progress. But he thought that no very fundamental social progress, and especially no change for the benefit of the democracy, could be brought about without revolution. The old order is always defended to the last ditch by the privileged classes that benefit from it. This creates a “class struggle” between the privileged and the non-privileged, a “class struggle” which can only be terminated successfully by means of a political and social revolution.

This thought is in no way original with Marx, but was the prevalent one in France even before 1848. The Revolution of 1848 very much strengthened this conception. Like the great French Revolution, it extended itself over Europe, indicating that it was directed not against the superficial political forms of a single nation, but against the fundamental economic and social conditions of a whole period. But the Revolution of 1848 was far more conscious than that of 1789. The earlier revolution was thought of by its partisans merely as a struggle between an old and a new order, the new order being regarded as a final and conclusive settlement of all fundamental social problems. The revolutionary movement of 1848 brought to various countries of Europe complicated class struggles, struggles participated in by several social classes: the land-owning nobilities, the peasantry, the urban middle classes, and the urban working classes, not to mention other social groups and subdivisions of those already named. The existence of these social classes was recognized by nearly all the historians and political and economic writers of the period. But nearly all of these writers were still under the Utopian illusion of the French Revolution, that the impending change would be the last great social upheaval. Karl Marx, realizing how far from Socialism were the ideals of the leading revolutionists of 1848, came to regard this revolution like its predecessor, as marking merely a stage in progress towards Socialism to be followed by a later revolution before a Socialist society could be ushered in.

It is doubtful whether we can say that Marx definitely applied the idea of evolution, which was not yet finally accepted in biology at the time when he wrote, to human society. Possibly a more accurate way of stating his position would be to say that he had advanced from the Utopian concept (which expected the final reorganization of society at a single bound) in the direction of an evolutionary concept which looks forward to endless change and progress in the fundamental organization of society as well as in all other directions. He had not fully attained this evolutionary view, for while he speaks of several fundamental revolutionary changes in the past, he looks forward to only one such change in the future, namely, the social revolution which was to usher in Socialism. On the other hand, his view is evolutionary in one exceedingly important aspect. He does not believe we shall be ready for that great social change with which he is chiefly concerned until a preliminary evolution is passed through with. Here indeed is the kernel of his thought. No great progress is possible except through revolution. But no revolution is possible except when the economic evolution of society has thoroughly prepared the soil by creating new social classes and by making practicable the new social institutions demanded by a new society. In his theory, then, it might be said that Marx was not wholly an evolutionist. In practice and in his attitude towards the existing economic questions his standpoint was entirely evolutionary.

The importance of Karl Marx, as I have said, lies in the fact that he was so thoroughly representative of a great social movement. It is not surprising, then, that he could claim no originality in any of the ideas that have mentioned up to the present point. What he did do was to express these ideas better than others, to connect them in a more logical system, and to discover a larger amount of evidence in support of these views. But Marx did make an original contribution to political thought and to the Socialist Movement—a contribution of the first magnitude. Undoubtedly many other persons in his period, and even before, were idealizing the rôle of “labor” as the social class upon which society rested and the class which would have to reorganize society in the end and establish Socialism. But few attempted to make this thought the fundamental and central thought of a whole social system—and such attempts as were made were unsuccessful; they did not leave a profound impression either upon the educated public generally or upon “labor.” Marx was the first to achieve a brilliant success in both of these directions—a success so brilliant that none of his successors have been able to make a very radical advance in this line of thought. Additions have been made and they have constituted advances, but it may safely be said that all the Marxism since the days of Marx is hardly as important as the writings of Marx himself.

It is impracticable in a brief space even to summarize the contents of the writings of Marx, but we may mention his leading works and indicate their relative importance. It is usual for the disciples of Marx, as well as for professional critics, to regard ‘Das Kapital’ as his chief work. However, this monumental performance is of an exceedingly abstract and theoretical nature. In spite of the high regard in which it is held by the working classes, as well as all disciples and some critics of Marx, it is of such an abstruse character that it has had relatively few readers when compared with his other writings. In ‘Das Kapital’ Marx exposes a new philosophy and logic (based upon Hegel), a new theory of history, and a new political economy. Besides the main theoretical argument, the work contains a vast amount of historical study and observation of the highest interest and value—matter which is merely illustrative, however. Of equal merit as studies of economic history, are Marx’s shorter historical writings about the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. There can be little question that these writings have had a far larger number of readers than his magnum opus. Even if it is possible that the first volume of ‘Das Kapital’ may have had equally large editions, it is certain that a very large number of the volumes purchased have either remained largely unread or have been only partly read and still less understood. Even more important in actual influence on the political development of Europe has been the ‘Communist Manifesto,’ written by Marx together with Frederick Engels in 1847—and therefore among his very earliest writings. This is a relatively short pamphlet outlining very briefly and with the utmost eloquence Marx’s whole system. It would probably be impossible to make even an approximate calculation of the number of readers of this pamphlet. It has certainly circulated by many millions.

Marx is best represented by the ‘Communist Manifesto,’ for several reasons. In the first place this document was, in a sense, the cause of the formation of the first International Working Men’s Association, a body which for fifteen years played an important rôle in the history of labor in Europe and even in America. Then the Manifesto displays the true secret of Marx’s power, his masterly grasp of social conditions, his thorough-going democracy, and his self-evident and absolute intellectual honesty. Incidentally, the Manifesto exhibits all the chief strength and weakness of Marxism as it has developed since its publication. It shows—intimately connected together—a deeply philosophical interest in social progress and an extraordinary grasp of practical politics. At the same time there is visible both the rigid dogmatism and the extreme partisanship of Marxism as the world has known it ever since that time.

The most original doctrine of Karl Marx is, of course, the doctrine which has created the most controversy, namely “the class-struggle.” The fact that it has created the most controversy is by no means a paradox, for all great new systems of thought, in whatever field, arouse opposition in proportion to their originality. We may even go farther and say that it is usually found, after a lapse of time, that the more original and more valuable a new idea is, the more serious and profound is the error that is discovered to be an essential part of it. We have discovered that Marx’s very concept of “labor” is necessarily vague, and vague to such a degree that it is never employed without leading to a large measure of confusion, perhaps to almost as much confusion as clarity of thought. For example, a larger and larger proportion of the population is growing to be employed by governments. These governments are still chiefly under the control of Capitalism, as all Marxists or Socialists of whatever school agree. Government employees of the lower ranks are treated like laborers and their condition is similar to that of the laborer in every way. On the other hand, the higher employees are drawn from privileged classes and their position is exceedingly similar in every way to that of the privileged classes from which they are drawn. Between these two groups there is a steady gradation, and it is utterly impossible to sharply define “labor” in government employment, though this definition is absolutely indispensable in all the generalizations of Karl Marx. And this is only one of the difficulties with the concept “labor.”

Not only is the concept “labor” vague, but the concept “capital” is equally so, and perhaps the idea of “struggle” is still more impossible to define. What Marx had in mind was undoubtedly a struggle leading gradually to a revolutionary climax, but the majority of Marxists have already agreed to apply the term also to practically every struggle between employers and employed, no matter how small its area and without regard to the fact that sometimes a group of laborers may aim at its own advantage at the expense of other groups of laborers. Of course the strictly orthodox Marxists could not call the ordinary strike an example of class struggle, but this merely proves that the number of genuinely orthodox Marxists is so small as to be utterly insignificant—for the great majority do speak of practically every strike as an example of the class struggle, and of every labor union as an example of the economic organization of “labor” as a class struggling against capital. In politics it is still more difficult to define what is meant by the term “struggle” in the class struggle theory. There are all shades of Socialist co-operation with middle class parties, and even with the government of one’s own nation in conflict with the government of another nation. In fact, a large majority of the Socialist parties of the world are now supporting their governments, and not a few of them—including those of several neutral nations—have actually become a part of the government by sending official representatives of the party into coalition ministries.

Marx expected that the period of industrial competition would bring itself to an end by creating monopolies in all the important fields of industry. However, he concluded that this period of industrial monopolies would be exceedingly short, as it would at once evolve into government ownership and government ownership would in turn evolve into Socialism. We now find ourselves in the period of monopoly, or very nearly in it. We also find ourselves approaching the period of government ownership. But the present order of society shows many signs of considerable stability. Therefore the writings of Marx have little application to the present time. His whole attack is against competition and his whole argument is that we can and should take advantage of the ending of competition to transform the existing order into a Socialist society. He throws no light upon, and gives no direction with regard to, the intervening stages—that is to say, his references to the period in which we now live are entirely incidental and almost casual.

Marx did not foresee a long intervening period of State Socialism. Hence, he did not credit social reform with the power of making any of those radical improvements in conditions which we see taking place all about us to-day. All the weaknesses of the period of industrial competition he supposed would be continued up to the very moment of social revolution and Socialism—especially pauperism or poverty in an extreme form.

A closely related error is that “labor” can gain no radical advance except through its own effort, “the class struggle,” and that, as soon as it gains anything very important, this is a sign that it is getting the upper hand over capital and that the social revolution is at hand. Until that moment arrives, Marx held little, if any gain is theoretically possible. On the contrary, we see the governments all tending in the direction of the adoption of a policy of national efficiency—which requires that the individual efficiency of “labor” shall be raised by means of radical social reforms. This policy is being adopted not only because of competition between nations, but because the upper and privileged classes find that a policy of enlightened selfishness may produce far larger profits than to allow the working class to stagnate or decay. At the same time the advances of the privileged still remain far greater proportionately than the advances of the non-privileged. In other words, the relative power of the working classes is not increasing, and we are therefore not at present approaching a revolution. Whether we shall ever do so is a question for the future to decide. It is certain that the tendency of the present moment is not in that direction. On the contrary, the best hope of a social revolution which might establish social and industrial democracy is precisely that the physical and mental condition of “labor” is being rapidly improved—in spite of the fact that it has no power to compel such improvements. Thus “labor” is becoming stronger decade by decade. In spite of the fact that the condition of the other classes is improving still more rapidly, the time may come when, by virtue of its own organized power, “labor” will be able to compel radical changes in society in the direction of Socialism—possibly even to the extent of introducing a Socialist society—one in which their children will have equal economic opportunity with the children of other social classes.

Up to this point we have considered Marx as the formulator of a political doctrine and the organizer of a political movement. But it would be a great mistake, and a gross injustice to Marx, to gauge his value solely by the nature and influence of his purely intellectual achievements. Intellectually he was limited by the thought of his time. Fundamentally he held to the philosophy, the logic and the political economy of his period. His conclusions were radically different from those of his contemporaries, but his starting-point, his fundamental assumptions and methods of thought were the same. The immense influence he still wields, both over the working classes and over a large part of the educated classes of the world to-day, is due in large measure to another aspect of his character. It may be doubted if any individual has ever been more passionately devoted to the cause of social progress or has ever been able to bring a greater capacity to its service. The vigor of Marx’s personality and the immense literary power and propaganda value of his writings are due at least as much to his social sympathies as to the clarity and accuracy of his thinking. Few historians would question the fact that he had a larger and more thorough grasp on the social conditions of his time than any other living man. He not only realized these conditions, but he made an encyclopædic review of all the remedies that had been offered and all the hopes that had been held before the masses of mankind. From this review he then succeeded—unquestionably—in picking out those social facts and tendencies and those remedies which promised the best for the future. Later history has shown that he was very radically wrong in many of his predictions and conceptions—but it still remains true that he was probably less wrong than any of his contemporaries. If his predictions have proved partly false they have proved partly true—and in larger measure than those of any other social philosopher or statesman of his period.

When Marx first wrote, “labor” was disunited and doubtful of its own future. He succeeded, in large measure, in uniting labor—in so far as this could be done by giving it a single point of view. Moreover, he popularized politics and economics among the masses, largely because of the hope he offered to democracy in all of his writings. Every orderly discussion requires a working hypothesis. Marx provided working hypotheses so excellent that some of them remain more or less serviceable even to-day. At any rate, they were well in advance of the prevailing hypotheses of his time and they served their purpose of fixing in the workers’ minds an orderly and logical picture—largely accurate—of economic and social progress.

The social sympathy and absolute intellectual honesty of Karl Marx are chiefly responsible for the enormous following he has gained. If his intellectual achievement loses in value, this does not in any way lessen the stupendous contribution he made to social progress. Moreover the negative value of his work is lasting and cannot be overestimated. He overthrew the reign in the minds of the people of every manner of obsolete theory, from theology to a social philosophy, a political economy and a political science which were almost consciously formulated for the purpose of preventing social change and deceiving the masses.

As far as his popular influence is concerned, it may even be said that Marx succeeded too well. Possibly he planted hope so firmly in the hearts of the working classes as to produce a form of optimistic fatalism. Possibly he so weakened the theory of individualism as to aid materially in the upgrowth of a tyrannical State Socialism. Again, it may be held that he popularized history to such a degree that he has brought the working people of Continental Europe—for example, those of Germany and France—to fix their attention too firmly upon the past, and especially upon its revolutions and upon a class alignment which after all may be destined to play only a limited rôle in history.