Marx, that unknown



Excerpt, selected by the author, from the newly released book

Globalization and internationalism: current affairs communist manifesto

O Communist Manifesto It is the best known of all the writings of Marx and Engels. In fact, no other book except the Bible, was so often translated and republished. Naturally, it doesn't have much in common with Bible, except for the prophetic denunciation of social injustice. In the same way as Isaiah or Amos, Marx and Engels raised their voices against the infamies of the rich and powerful, and in solidarity with the poor and humble.

Just like Daniel, they read the writing on the wall of New Babylon: Mene, Mene, Tequel Ufarsim [your days are numbered]. But, contrary to the prophets of the Old Testament, they did not place their hopes in any god, any messiah, any supreme savior: the liberation of the oppressed would be the work of the oppressed themselves.

What remains of The Manifest 150 years later? Some passages or some arguments had already become obsolete during their authors' lifetime, as they themselves acknowledged in their numerous prefaces. Others have emerged over the course of our century and require critical reexamination. But the general purpose of the document, its central core, its spirit – there is such a thing as the “spirit” of a text – has lost none of its strength and vitality.

This spirit results from its simultaneously critical and emancipatory quality, that is, from the indissoluble unity between the analysis of capitalism and the call for its destruction, between the lucid examination of the contradictions of bourgeois society and the revolutionary utopia of a solidary and egalitarian society. , between the realistic explanation of the mechanisms of capitalist expansion and the ethical requirement to “suppress all conditions within which man is a diminished, subjected, abandoned, despised being”.

From many points of view, the Manifesto is not only current, but more current today than it was 150 years ago. Let us take as an example his diagnosis of capitalist globalization. Capitalism, the two young authors insisted, is carrying out a process of economic and cultural unification of the world, subjecting it to its heel.

“By exploiting the world market, the bourgeoisie imparts a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in all countries. To the dismay of reactionaries, it robbed industry of its national base. […] In place of the former isolation of self-sufficient regions and nations, a universal exchange and universal interdependence of nations are developing. And this refers to both material and intellectual production.”[I]

It is not only about expansion, but also about domination: the bourgeoisie “through the rapid improvement of all instruments of production and the enormously facilitated means of communication, transformed even the most barbaric nation into a civilized one. In a word, the bourgeoisie creates the world in its image.”[ii] This was, to a large extent, in 1848, more an anticipation of future trends than a simple description of contemporary reality. This is an analysis that is much truer today, in the era of globalization, than it was 150 years ago, when the text was written. The Manifest.

Never before has capital managed, as at the end of the XNUMXth century, to exercise such complete, absolute, integral, universal and unlimited power over the entire world. Never before has it been able to impose, as it currently does, its rules, its policies, its dogmas and its interests on all the nations of the globe. Never before has there been such a dense network of international institutions – such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the International Trade Organization – designed to control, govern and administer the lives of humanity according to the written rules of the capitalist free market and free profit. capitalist. Never before have all spheres of human life – social relations, culture, art, politics, sexuality, health, education, entertainment – ​​been so completely subjected to capital and so deeply immersed in the “icy waters of selfish calculation”.[iii]

However, the brilliant – and prophetic – analysis of the globalization of capital, outlined in the first pages of The Manifest, suffers from certain limitations, tensions or contradictions that result not from an excess of revolutionary zeal, as stated by most critics of Marxism, but, on the contrary, from an insufficiently critical stance towards modern industrial-bourgeois civilization. Let's look at some of these aspects, which are closely linked to each other.

(1) The ideology of progress typical of the XNUMXth century manifests itself in the visibly Eurocentric way in which Marx and Engels express their admiration for the ability of the bourgeoisie to drag “even the most barbaric nations into the stream of civilization”: thanks to their cheap commodities, “ it forces the most tenaciously xenophobic barbarians to capitulate” (a clear reference to China). They seem to consider the colonial domination of the West as part of the historical “civilizing” role of the bourgeoisie: this class “subordinated the countryside to the city, the barbaric or semi-barbaric countries to the civilized countries, it subordinated the peasant peoples to the bourgeois peoples, the East to the West.” .[iv]

The only restriction on this Eurocentric but colonial distinction between “civilized” and “barbarian” nations is the passage in which he questions “so-called civilization” (founding Zivilisation), regarding the western bourgeois world.[v]

In later writings, Marx would take a much more critical stance towards Western colonialism in India and China, but it was necessary to wait for modern theorists of imperialism – Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin – for a radical Marxist denunciation of “bourgeois civilization” to be formulated. from the point of view of its victims, that is, the people of colonized countries. And only with Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution would the heretical idea appear according to which socialist revolutions will most likely begin on the periphery of the system – in dependent countries. It is true that the founder of the Red Army would hasten to add that, without the extension of the revolution to the advanced industrial centers, notably Western Europe, it would, in time, be destined to fail.

It is often forgotten that in his preface to the Russian translation of The Manifest (1881), Marx and Engels envisioned the hypothesis that the socialist revolution would begin in Russia – relying on the communal traditions of the peasantry – before extending to Western Europe. This text – in the same way as the letter, written at the same time, to Vera Zasulich – responds in advance to the supposedly “orthodox Marxist” arguments of Kautsky and Plekhanov against the “voluntarism” of the October Revolution of 1917 – arguments that are back in fashion today , after the end of the USSR –, according to which a socialist revolution is only possible where the productive forces have reached “maturity”, that is, in advanced capitalist countries.

(2) Inspired by a “free-trade” optimism, very uncritical of the bourgeoisie, and by a very economistic method, Marx and Engels predicted – wrongly – that “national isolations and antagonisms between peoples increasingly disappear with the development of the bourgeoisie, with freedom of trade, with the world market, with the uniformity of industrial production and the conditions of existence corresponding to it”.[vi]

The history of the XNUMXth century – two world wars and countless brutal conflicts between nations – has in no way confirmed this prediction. It is the very nature of the planetary expansion of capital to incessantly produce and reproduce the confrontation between nations, whether in inter-imperialist conflicts for domination of the world market, in national liberation movements against imperialist oppression, or in a thousand other forms.

Today we observe, once again, the extent to which capitalist globalization nourishes identity panics and tribal nationalisms. The false universality of the world market triggers particularism and reinforces xenophobia: the mercantile cosmopolitanism of capital and aggressive identity drives feed each other.[vii]

Historical experience – particularly that of Ireland, in its struggle against the English imperial yoke – taught Marx and Engels a few years later that the reign of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist market do not suppress, but intensify – to a degree unprecedented in history – the national conflicts.

But only with Lenin's writings on the right to self-determination of nations and Otto Bauer's on cultural national autonomy – two approaches usually considered contradictory, but which can also be seen as complementary – did a more coherent Marxist reflection on the fact emerge. national, its political and cultural nature, and its relative autonomy – in fact, its irreducibility – in relation to the economy.

(3) Paying homage to the bourgeoisie for its unprecedented capacity to develop the productive forces, Marx and Engels unreservedly celebrated the “'subjugation' of the forces of nature” and the “exploitation of entire continents” by modern production. The destruction of the environment by capitalist industry and the danger to the ecological balance posed by the unlimited development of bourgeois productive forces are issues beyond their intellectual horizon.

In more general terms, they seem to have conceived of the revolution mainly as breaking the “barriers” – the existing forms of property – that prevent the free growth of the productive forces created by the bourgeoisie, without raising the question of the need to also revolutionize the structure of the bourgeoisie themselves. productive forces, depending on both social and ecological criteria.

This limitation was partially corrected by Marx in certain later writings, especially in The capital, which includes the issue of the simultaneous depletion of land and labor power by the logic of capital. It is only during the last few decades, with the rise of ecosocialism, that serious attempts have appeared to integrate the fundamental intuitions of ecology into the framework of Marxist theory.

(4) Inspired by what could be called “the fatalistic optimism” of the ideology of progress, Marx and Engels did not hesitate to proclaim that the fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat “are equally ineluctable”. It is useless to insist on the political consequences of this view of history as a process determined in advance, with results guaranteed by science, the laws of history or the contradictions of the system.

Driven to the limit – which is not, let’s be clear, the case of the authors of The Manifest –, this reasoning leaves no room for the subjective factor: consciousness, organization, revolutionary initiative. If, as Plekhanov states, “the victory of our program is as inevitable as the sunrise tomorrow”, why create a political party, fight, risk your life for the cause? No one would think of organizing a movement to guarantee the sunrise tomorrow...

It is true that a passage from The Manifest contradicts, at least implicitly, the “inevitabilist” philosophy of history: it is the famous second paragraph of the chapter “Bourgeois and Proletarians”, according to which the class struggle “always ended either by a revolutionary transformation of the entire society, or by the destruction of two classes in conflict”. Marx and Engels do not explicitly state that this alternative could also occur in the future, but this is a possible interpretation of the passage.

In fact, it is Rosa Luxemburg’s “Jones brochure” – The crisis of social democracy (1915) – which will clearly present, for the first time in history, the alternative “socialism or barbarism” as a historical choice for the labor movement and for humanity. It is at this moment that Marxism radically breaks with any linear vision of history and with the illusion of a “guaranteed” future.

And it is only in the writings of Walter Benjamin that we will finally see a profound critique, in the name of historical materialism, of the ideologies of progress, which disarmed the German and European labor movement by feeding the illusion that it would be enough to “swim with the current” of history.

It would be false to conclude from all these critical observations that the The Manifest does not escape the framework of the “progressive” philosophy of history, heir to the thought of the Enlightenment and Hegel. Even though they celebrated the bourgeoisie as the class that revolutionized production and society, that accomplished wonders incomparably more impressive than the pyramids of Egypt or the Gothic cathedrals, Marx and Engels rejected a linear view of history. They incessantly highlighted that the spectacular progression of the forces of production – more impressive and colossal in bourgeois society than in all societies of the past – implied an enormous degradation of the social condition of the direct producers.

This is mainly the case with the analyzes that make of the decline – in terms of quality of life and work – that signifies the modern working condition in relation to that of the artisan, and even, in certain aspects, of the feudal serf: “The servant, in full servitude, managed to become a member of the commune […]. The modern worker, on the contrary, far from rising with the progress of industry, descends more and more, falling below the conditions of his own class.” Likewise, in the system of capitalist machinery, the work of the worker becomes “disgusting” – a concept fourierist taken over by The Manifest; he loses all autonomy and “all his attraction has been taken away”.[viii]

We see an eminently dialectical conception of the historical movement being outlined here, in which certain progress – from the point of view of technique, industry, productivity – are accompanied by regressions in other domains: social, cultural, ethical. In this regard, it is interesting to observe that the bourgeoisie “reduced personal dignity to exchange value” and did not allow any other bond to exist between human beings other than “the bond of cold interest, the harsh demands of 'cash payment' (die gefühllose 'bahre Zahlung'). "[ix]

Let us add to this that the The Manifest It is much more than a diagnosis – so prophetic, so marked by the limits of its time – of the global power of capitalism: it is also, and above all, an urgent call for international combat against this domination. Marx and Engels had understood perfectly that capital, as a world system, can only be defeated by a world-historical action by its victims, the international proletariat and its allies.

Of all the words in The Manifest, the last one is, without a doubt, the one that shocked the imagination and hearts of several generations of worker and socialist activists: “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!”, “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”. It is no coincidence that this interjection became the banner and slogan of the most radical currents of the movement in the last 150 years. It is a cry, a call, a categorical imperative that is both ethical and strategic, which served as a compass in the midst of wars, confusing confrontations and ideological mists.

This calling is also visionary. In 1848, the proletariat was a minority of society in most European countries, not to mention the rest of the world. Today, the mass of salaried workers exploited by capital – workers, employees, workers in the service sector, precarious workers, agricultural workers – is the majority of the world's population. It is, by far, the main force in the class struggle against the world capitalist system, and the axis around which other struggles and other social actors can and should be articulated.

In fact, this does not only concern the proletariat: it is the set of victims of capitalism, the set of oppressed social categories and groups – women (somewhat absent from the The Manifest), dominated nations and ethnicities, unemployed and excluded (the “povertariat”) – from all countries that are interested in social change. Not to mention the ecological issue, which does not affect this or that group, but the human species as a whole.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of socialism, the end of the class struggle and even the end of history was decreed. The social movements of recent years, in France, Italy, South Korea, Brazil or the United States – in fact, all over the world – have offered a severe refutation of this type of pseudo-Hegelian lucubration. What, on the contrary, is dramatically absent in the subaltern classes is a minimum of international coordination.[X]

For Marx and Engels, internationalism was simultaneously a centerpiece of the proletariat's strategy of organization and struggle against global capital, and the expression of a revolutionary humanist objective, for which the emancipation of humanity was the supreme ethical value and ultimate goal. of combat. They were communist “cosmopolitans”, in that the entire world, without national borders or limits, was the horizon of their thought and action, as well as the content of their revolutionary utopia. In the german ideology, written just two years before the The Manifest, they highlighted: it is only thanks to a communist revolution, which will necessarily be a world-historical process, that singular individuals are freed from various national and local limitations, are brought into practical contact with the production (including spiritual production) of the entire world and in a position to acquire the capacity to enjoy this multifaceted production of the entire earth (creations of men).[xi]

Marx and Engels did not limit themselves to preaching proletarian unity without borders. They also tried, for a good part of their lives, to give a concrete and organized form to internationalist solidarity. At first, bringing together German, French and English revolutionaries in the Communist League of 1847-1848, and, later, contributing to the construction of the International Workers' Association, founded in 1864. Successive Internationals – from the First to the Fourth – suffered crises, bureaucratic deformations or isolation.

But this did not prevent internationalism from being one of the powerful driving forces of emancipatory actions throughout the 1936th century. During the first years after the October Revolution, an impressive wave of active internationalism took place in Europe and throughout the world. In the years of Stalinism, this internationalism was manipulated to serve the great power interests of the Soviet Union. But even during the period of bureaucratic degeneration of the Communist International, authentic manifestations of internationalism occurred, such as the international brigades in Spain from 1938-1968. More recently, a new internationalist generation has rediscovered its taste for internationalist action, in the XNUMX uprisings or in solidarity with Third World revolutions.

In our day, more than at any time in the past – and much more than in 1848 –, The pressing problems of the moment are international. The challenges represented by capitalist globalization, by neoliberalism, by the uncontrolled game of financial markets, by the monstrous debt and impoverishment of the Third World, by the degradation of the environment, by the threat of ecological crisis – to mention just a few examples – require global solutions.

We are forced to see that, faced with the regional – Europe – or global unification of big capital, that of its opponents is losing strength. If in the XNUMXth century the most conscious sectors of the labor movement, organized in the Internationals, were more advanced than the bourgeoisie, today they are dramatically behind the former. Never has the need for association, coordination, common international action – from the trade union point of view, around common demands, and from the point of view of the fight for socialism – been so urgent, and never has it been so weak, fragile and precarious.

This does not mean that the movement for social change should not begin at the level of one, or a few, nations, or that national liberation movements are not legitimate. But contemporary struggles are, to an unprecedented degree, interdependent and interrelated, from one end of the planet to the other. The only rational and effective response to the capitalist blackmail of relocation and “competitiveness” – wages and “charges” in Paris must be lowered to be able to compete with products from Bangkok – is the organized and effective international solidarity of workers.

Today it appears, more clearly than in the past, in relation to the point at which the interests of workers from the North and South are convergent: the increase in the wages of workers in South Asia is of direct interest to European workers; the struggle of peasants and indigenous people to protect the Amazon Forest against the destructive attacks of agro-industry is of close concern to environmental defenders in the United States; The rejection of neoliberalism is common to social and popular movements in all countries. Examples can be multiplied.

What internationalism is this about? The old “internationalism” of the blocs and “guide countries” – such as the Soviet Union, China, Albania, etc. – is dead and buried. It was the instrument of petty national bureaucracies, which used it to legitimize their political state power. The time has come for a new beginning, which at the same time preserves the best of the internationalist traditions of the past.

One can currently observe, here and there, the seeds of a new internationalism, independent of any State. Combative trade unionists, left-wing socialists, de-Stalinized communists, non-dogmatic Trotskyists and non-sectarian anarchists are looking for ways to renew the tradition of proletarian internationalism.

An interesting initiative, even if it remains limited to a single region of the world, is the São Paulo Forum, a space for debate and common action of the main Latin American left-wing forces created in 1990, which sets as its objective the fight against neoliberalism and the search for alternative paths, depending on the interests and needs of the large popular majority.

At the same time, new internationalist sensibilities appear in social movements with a planetary vocation, such as feminism and ecology, in anti-racist movements, in liberation theology, in associations defending human rights or in solidarity with the Third World.

All these currents are not satisfied with existing organizations, such as the Socialist International, which has the merit of existing, but which is very committed to the existing order of things.

A sample of the most active representatives of these different tendencies, coming from both the North and the South, gathered, in a unitary and fraternal spirit, at the “Intergalactic” Conference for Humanity and against Neoliberalism convened in the mountains of Chiapas in July 1996 by the Army Zapatista de Libertação Nacional (EZLN) – a revolutionary movement that knew how to combine, in an original and successful way, the local, that is, the indigenous struggles in Chiapas, the national, that is, the fight for democracy in Mexico, and the international, that is, the global struggle against neoliberalism. This is a first step, still modest, but going in a good direction: the reconstruction of international solidarity.

It is evident that, in this global fight against capitalist globalization, the struggles in the advanced industrial countries, which dominate the world economy, have a decisive role: a profound change in the international relationship of forces is impossible without the very “center” of the capitalist system be touched. The revival of a combative trade union movement in the United States is an encouraging sign, but it is in Europe that resistance movements to neoliberalism are most powerful, even if their coordination on a continental scale is still very poorly developed.

The convergence between the renewal of the socialist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist tradition, of proletarian internationalism – founded by Marx in Communist Manifesto – and from the universalist, humanist, libertarian, ecological, feminist and democratic aspirations of new social movements, the internationalism of the XNUMXst century may emerge.

*Michae Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Author, among other books, of What is Ecosocialism?Cortez). []


Michael Lowy. Marx, that unknown. Translation: Fabio Mascaro Querido. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2023, 180 pages. []


[I] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Parti Communiste (Paris, Livre de Poche, 1973), p. 10-1 [ed. bras.: Communist Manifesto, trans. Álvaro Pina and Ivana Jinkings, São Paulo, Boitempo, 1998, p. 43].

[ii] Ibidem, p. 10-1 [ed. bras.: Communist Manifesto, cit., p. 244).

[iii] Ibidem, p. 10-1 [ed. bras.: ibidem, p. 42)].

[iv] Ibidem, p. 10-1 [ed. bras.: ibidem, p. 44]. For an in-depth discussion of this issue, we refer to Nestor Kohan’s excellent text, “Marx en su (tercer) mundo”, House of the Americas, n. 207, Apr.-Jun. 1977.

[v] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifest der kommunistichen Partei (Berlin, Dietz, 1968),

P. 17 [ed. bras.: Communist Manifesto, cit., p. 44, with modifications].

[vi] Ibidem, p. 31 [ed. bras.: ibidem p. 56]. This statement from The Manifest is partially denied, a few lines later, when the authors seem to link the end of national antagonisms to that of capitalism: “As the exploitation of one individual by another is abolished, the exploitation of one nation by another is equally abolished”.

[vii] We take up on our own the analyzes of Daniel Bensaïd in his remarkable book Bet

melancholy (Paris, Fayard, 1997).

[viii] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Party Manifesto, cit., p. 14-5, 21 [ed. bras.:

Communist Manifesto, cit., p. 50, 55, 46].

[ix] Ibidem, p. 8 [ed. bras., ibidem, p. 42]

[X] What do the Germans themselves think about this issue eight years after the fall of the Wall? They believe that “today the class struggle is outdated. Bosses and employees must treat each other as partners” or, rather, “it is correct to talk about class struggle. Employers and employees have fundamentally incompatible interests”? Here is an interesting piece of research, published on December 10th by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper little suspected of Marxist sympathies: while, in 1980, 58% of West German citizens opted for the first answer and 25% for the second, in 1997 the trend was reversed: 41% still considered the class struggle to be obsolete, and 44% considered it the order of the day. In the former GDR – that is, among the people who tore down the Berlin Wall – the majority was even clearer: 58% of class struggle supporters versus 26%! To see The Diplomatic World, n. 526, Jan. 1998, p. 8.

[xi] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, L'Ideologie allemande (Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968), p. 67 [ed. bras.: the german ideology, trans. Rubens Enderle, Nélio Schneider and Luciano Cavini Martorano, São Paulo, Boitempo, 2007, p. 41].

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