Marx, an arsonist

Don McCullin, East Berlin, 1961


Birthday of the thinker who fired the imagination of generations

But the greatest contribution to the final victory will be made by the German workers themselves, becoming aware of their class interests, occupying a position independent of the party as soon as possible and preventing the hypocritical phrases of the petty-bourgeois democrats from diverting them for even a moment from the task of organizing the party of the proletariat with complete independence. Their war cry must be: permanent revolution. [1]    Karl Marx

     On May 5, in a middle-class Jewish family in the Rhineland, in the southwest of a divided, backward and despotic Germany, Karl Marx was born. Passionate poet when young, philosopher by training, professional revolutionary, politician and organizer, amateur mathematician, compulsive smoker, his ideas have broadly defined the history of humanity throughout the 20th century and until today.

Many testimonies confirm that Marx was a curious man, open to life and its simple joys, stubborn and intense. He read newspapers, magazines, and books; wrote poetry; wandered through the streets; he followed the science and art of his time; enjoyed eating and drinking; loved to play with children; he loved Jenny, passionately; he liked to hang out with friends and, at the dinners he organized at his home in London, the most distinguished militants of the egalitarian cause, of the most different nationalities, such as Bakunin, for example; and smoked furiously.

But Marx knew the tragedy of the human condition from a young age. He had eight siblings: the eldest had already died when he was born, and four other brothers and sisters died prematurely of tuberculosis. Of Karl and Jenny's six children, only three daughters survive – Jenny, Laura, Eleanor – but the last two eventually committed suicide, and Jenny died young shortly after her own father.

The ruler to assess the stature of individuals must have historical measurements. Nothing would be more anti-Marxist than nurturing a personality cult of Marx himself. Being an honest Marxist obliges us to verify with serenity and seriousness which Marxist hypotheses have passed the test of history. And which ones didn't. Nobody is infallible. No work is above historical criticism. We celebrate this anniversary, because even today we stand on Marx's shoulders, and we are inspired by his work, so that we can see beyond. Above all, Marx was, over the past two hundred years, the main inspirer of the greatest dream and adventure in human history: the struggle for socialism.

Marx fired the imagination of generations with a bet on the anti-capitalist project of a conscious transition to a society in which we will besocially, equal, humanly different and totally free, as Rosa Luxemburg coined. This Marx, the arsonist, is immortal.

This bet was based on hope in the role of workers in this struggle: the presence of the social subject as an objective element in the process of class struggle. The labor movement predated the existence of Marxism as an organized political current. The historical factor needed to defeat capitalism was the potentiality of a revolutionary disposition of the proletariat: a class dispossessed of property and, though heterogeneous, far more homogeneous than all other classes in society.

Grouped together in large masses, with a shocking social force far superior to dispersed peasant crowds; endowed with greater self-confidence than other popular fractions; able to attract the support of the majority of the oppressed; inclined to collective political action; concentrated in huge urban centers; with a higher cultural level; more definite class political impulse; greater capacity for self-organization and solidarity; and higher “power instinct”.

Marx identified in the proletariat the class which, by virtue of its place in the production process, would have the social strength to, in the narrow defense of its “egoistic” class interests, draw most of the other popular classes into the struggle against capital, and defend a program of property socialization and production planning.

Assigned like this historical legitimacy to the socialist revolution. He recognized the universality of the struggle of a class that fighting for its “selfish” interests to the end could, if it were able to conquer power, supported by the relative abundance that capitalism had already generated, and guaranteeing increasing equality and freedom, lead to emancipation. human. By fighting for itself, the working class would pave the way for the eradication of all classes, and the reunification of humanity with itself.

Just as important, he understood the revolution as the opening of a new historical stage in which humanity, despite the countless other conflicts that go beyond class inequalities, would begin to dominate, more consciously, the foundations of the exasperated struggles against the oppressions that tear apart, eradicating all national, religious, racial, sexual, and other persecution and discrimination. There has never been a more beautiful dream than this.

But for this class brutalized by exploitation and alienated by the stripping of its own humanity to be able to rise to the condition of social subject, it is necessary to face the question of “how”: the construction of class consciousness.

The dramatic historical problem that results from the classic analysis of the social place of the proletariat is to know how a class that is exploited, economically, oppressed, socially, and politically, dominated, can be the protagonist of a project of social revolution, in which it is a candidate for conquest of political power, and the general reorganization of the whole society.

Marx's response was a wager on political struggle. He believed that the proletariat, even with all the objective and subjective limitations that conditioned it, sooner or later, would face the path of revolution. He might need a long period of parliamentary union apprenticeship to exhaust all other avenues. To overcome illusions, for example, in the possibilities of reforming capitalism. It could also abbreviate the experience in class collaboration: because the lessons are transmitted in different ways and, more intensely, as the international dynamics of the class struggle is accentuated.

The proletariats learn from each other's class struggle processes, in different countries, and they would not necessarily have to repeat the same paths over and over again. Even in the same country, the “advantages of backwardness” allow detachments of the working classes to learn from the experience of the sectors that launched themselves to the front in a pioneering way.

There are times in history when the masses, exasperated by decades of exploitation and persecution, lose their fear. And then they lean towards the “last alternative”. It is there that the revolution appears in the eyes of millions not only as necessary, but as possible. When and under what circumstances is unpredictable.

But when the proletariat loses its ancestral fear of rebelling, the whole of society is plunged into a turmoil and vertigo from which it cannot emerge without great upheavals and changes. And if that sentiment is shared by millions, then that social force becomes a material force greater than armies, police, media, churches, greater than anything, unbeatable. These moments are the revolutionary crises.

Decisive struggles could be delayed, but they would be certain, Marx predicted; the conquest of power, victory, would be possible, however, uncertain. This dilemma is the key to the greatest criticisms of Marx. One hundred and fifty years would have been more than enough of a historical interval to demonstrate this. The argument is strong, but it is not new. The fears, vacillations and insecurities of the working class in the face of decisive confrontations remain the final argument that sustains dismay, hopelessness and skepticism in the prospects of triumph of a revolutionary strategy: the working class would have missed the encounter with History.

These positions are not surprising in periods of prolonged ebb, or after very serious defeats. Impressionism is, however, dangerous in politics and fatal in theory.

Fears and anxieties in the face of the challenges of the class struggle are fed by the inertial force that acts powerfully towards the preservation of order. The forces of historical inertia are supported, in turn, by many material and cultural factors. They are not to be underestimated. It is because they are great that historical transformations have always been slow and painful. The socialist transition, the passage of power from a privileged class to a dispossessed majority, something very different from the passage from one owning class to another owning class, promised, predictably, to be an extremely difficult process.

Long intervals are needed for the working class to be able to recover from the experience of defeats, and manage to generate a new vanguard, regain confidence in its own forces, and find willingness to risk again through collective organization, class solidarity, and mass mobilization.

What does it mean when one says that Marx made a bet on politics? This meant that capitalism pushed the popular masses, despite their hesitations, through the material experience of life, cyclical crises and catastrophes, in the direction of class struggle. History is full of episodes of political surrender by movements, factions, parties, leaders and chiefs. But the struggling classes “do not surrender”. They retreat, break off hostilities, lessen the intensity of combat, doubt their own strength, but while they exist, they accumulate new experiences, reorganize themselves under new forms and return to the fight.

Classes can act, for a longer or shorter period, against their own interests. But they cannot definitively renounce the defense of their interests: classes do not do “seppuku”. The battles, the combats, each fight are on this scale and in this proportion, in a historical perspective, always partial and transitory battles, momentary victories or defeats.

The power relations change, and may be more or less favorable. Defeats and victories can be political or historical, with more lasting or more superficial consequences. However, there is no historical possibility of political suicide for a social class. As long as it exists, that is, as long as it is economically and socially necessary, it will resist and fight.

Marx had as a premise an appreciation of the political possibilities of the project as a bet on the future. For this reason it has been argued that the socialist project had, from the beginning, a utopian nature, and it seems reasonable to acknowledge it, even if the criticism sounds irritating. It was not to be confused, however, with predestinations or immanences. Uncertainty and risk were always inseparable from error, just as the praise of the will, a new place for revolutionary subjectivity, was indivisible from the danger of defeat. When there is uncertainty, a few grains of utopia are inescapable.

After all, the presence of the counterrevolution also defines the limits of adventure. Adventure? Yes, because these wide margins of uncertainty contain surprises and risks. But Marx thought of the anti-capitalist social revolution as the first conscious transition and, to that extent, attributing meaning to the historical process, as the prelude to a new era of freedom and equality. That most of the revolutions of the XNUMXth century were defeated does not demonstrate that new revolutionary waves will not occur in the future.

Marx was a revolutionary. That was why he gained so many enemies. We can know the place in the history of each one by the friends he left behind, but also by his enemies. His enemies never belittled him. On the contrary, they magnified it.

More importantly, in every fight against injustice, Marx remains present. He is here, in the struggles for agrarian reform against large estates; in the occupations of those who have no home to live in; in workers' strikes demanding wage increases; in manifestations of feminist movements for the right to decriminalize abortion; in the mobilizations of teachers in defense of public education; in resistance against environmental catastrophes; in the camps of indigenous peoples; in student mobilizations; in the fight against the fascists. He is here, in the hearts of those in whom hope beats.

He never left us alone.

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of Revolution meets history (Shaman).



[1] MARX, Karl and ENGELS, Friedrich. "Message from the Central Committee to the League of Communists” In Selected Works.  São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, p.92.

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