Karl Marx
Favourite maxim – Nihil humanum a me alienum puto (Nothing human is alien to me)
Favourite motto – De omnibus dubitandum (Doubt everything)

Bob Goupillot examines Marx’s search for new paths to social transformation

Who will mend the hole in the ozone layer? Who will reverse global warming? It is quite clear that it will not be the capitalist class whose world view is dominated by short-termism and the profit motive. Thus to save the world we have to change the form of society in which we live and as part of this process remove the current dominant class and replace it with a democratic, inclusive way of organising ourselves.

How are we to achieve this awesome task of transformation? Where can we look for guidelines and inspiration? Many socialists would point immediately to Karl Marx and his theoretical legacy. However, even if we have managed to grasp the often subtle profundities of Marx’s thought, it seems that on the crucial issue of how capitalist society could be transformed, via socialism into communism, he may have changed his mind during his last 10 years.

Intellectual slow death?

After Capital Vol 1, which was published in 1867, no more major works of Marx were published in his lifetime. The last decade of his life, 1873-1883, was described by an early biographer, Franz Mehring, as an intellectual slow death. Most subsequent biographers have accepted this viewpoint. A recent biographer, Francis Wheen, following in this tradition, wrote,

It was as if he had tacitly accepted defeat and settled down to benign anecdotage, content to observe and reminisce. The years of passionate engagement – pamphlets and petitions, meetings and manoeuvres – were over.
Karl Marx, F. Wheen, 2000 p359

In fact, he was dealing with and trying to intellectually digest a number of important recent events.

First, the Paris Commune had arisen and fallen in 1871. This was the only example of living workers in power that Marx had experienced.

The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule
Civil war in France, Karl Marx

Petr Lavrov, the First Internationalist, prominent Russian Populist and long-term friend of Marx, in his book on the Commune wrote,

At the moment when the historical conjuncture permits the workers of any country, albeit temporarily, to overcome their enemies and control the course of events, the workers must carry through the economic overturn with whatever means may be expedient, and do everything that they can to ensure that it is consolidated.

Secondly, Marx had wound up the First International in 1872 as the revolutionary tide ebbed.

Thirdly, there had been paradigm – shifting theoretical and practical gains in the field of palaeontology. New finds had extended the prehistory of humanity by tens of thousands of years. Archaeology, anthropology and ethnography had brought ancient human societies into the range of historical study. There was much to chew over. Karl Marx spent his last decade or so in intense study. The fruits of this led him to revise and even totally contradict his earlier writings, including some aspects of Das Kapital. In this period Marx delved deeply into anthropology and ethnography, particularly the anthropologist Henry Morgan’s scholarly work Ancient Society

It was only after reading Morgan that anthropology, previously peripheral to Marx’s thought, became its vital centre. His entire conception of historical development, and particularly of pre-capitalist societies, now gained immeasurably in depth and precision. Above all, his introduction to the Iroquois and other tribal societies sharpened his sense of the living presence of indigenous peoples in the world, and their possible role in future revolutions….it added a whole new dimension (italics in the original)
Karl Marx & the Iroquois, F. Rosemont, p. 210.

Marx copied out long passages of Morgan and others with his own substantial commentaries alongside. These were notes for a substantial work left unwritten and although their existence was known at his death in 1883, they were not published as one volume until 1972, 89 years later, and then only in a high priced specialist edition. These Ethnological Notebooks, as they became known were much less than a rough draft, Rather it is a raw substance of a work, a private jumble of jottings intended for no other eyes than Marx’s own Rosemont, p.201, italics in original

Engels summarised these in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, but missed out many of Marx’s most important insights. It was simply a popular digest of the work of Morgan and others. Sadly, Engels’ work has been taken for orthodoxy particularly in the traditional Stalinized version of Marxism. This is not to blame Engels, who himself describes it as but a meagre substitute, for the much larger work that Marx left unwritten.

Marx saw aspects of these ancient societies as progressive and worthy of preservation during the socialist transition to Communism. He felt that they were in some ways superior to societies based on alienated labour and commodity production. Iroquois society, in particular, impressed him. Marx admired not just their democratic culture but also their whole way of life: egalitarianism, independence, reverence for life and personal dignity.

Marx praised Iroquois participatory democracy as expressed in their councils as a democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it.

He quotes a letter from a missionary sent to Morgan,

The women were the great power among the clans as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, to knock off the horns, as it was technically called from the head of a chief, and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with them…………. women were free to to express their opinions, through an orator of their own choosing
Rosemont, p.205, italics in original

However, an all male council made decisions. Nevertheless, Iroquois women experienced freedom and social power beyond that experienced by women and men in so called advanced civilizations.

The Iroquois red skin hunter was, in some ways, more essentially human and liberated than a clerk in the City and in that sense closer to the man of the socialist future.
Late Marx and the Russian Road, T. Shanin, p.15

From Marx’s perspective to be in Iroquois society was a higher level of humanity than to exist in capitalist society no matter how awash with commodities. This does not mean that Marx was, or that we should be, backward looking. Rather comparison with the Iroquois illustrates how our humanity is degraded by capitalism. It also points towards the higher social relations that humanity might achieve in a socialist society, resting on the technological achievements inherited from capitalism, rather than bows and arrows. Through Morgan, Marx became vividly aware of the reality of an actually existing non-capitalist human society. This wasn’t just interesting anthropology, but part of Marx’s search for new paths to social transformation. Reading about the Iroquois,

….gave him a vivid awareness of the actuality of indigenous peoples and perhaps even a glimpse of the then – undreamed – of possibility that such peoples could make their own contributions to the global struggle for human emancipation.
Rosemont, p.207

Whither Russia?

Around this time, the Russian revolutionaries were much vexed by the question as to whether their country must pass through the stages that Marx had outlined for Western Europe i.e.

Primitive Communism, Feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism

or whether it was possible to skip stages in certain circumstances. A group of Russian Marxists the Emancipation of Labour Group, which included Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich (later on the editorial board of Iskra) believed that the success of socialism in Russia necessitated a capitalist stage before it could move towards communism. They looked forward to the destruction of the peasant commune and the proletarianisation of the peasantry. This had been the orthodoxy. In 1868, in a letter to Engels, Marx had celebrated all that trash (i.e. the peasant commune) coming now to its end.

Vera Zasulich wrote to Marx asking for his opinion. In her letter of 16th February 1881, she stresses the importance of the agrarian question in Russia,

For there are only two possibilities. Either the rural commune, freed of exorbitant tax demands, payment to the nobility and arbitrary administration, is capable of developing in a socialist direction, that is gradually organising its production and distribution on a collective basis. In that case, the revolutionary socialist must devote all his strength to the liberation and development of the commune.

If, however, the commune is destined to perish, all that remains for the socialist, as such, is more or less ill-founded calculations as to how many decades it will take for the Russian peasants land to pass into the hands of the bourgeoisie, and how many centuries it will take for capitalism in Russia to reach something like the level of development already attained in western Europe. Their task will then be to conduct propaganda solely among the urban workers, while these workers will be continually drowned in the peasant mass which, following the dissolution of the commune, will be thrown on to the streets of the large towns in search of a wage.

She goes on to say,

So you will understand, Citizen, how interested we are in Your opinion. You would be doing us a very great favour if you were to set forth Your ideas on the possible fate of our rural commune, and on the theory that it is historically necessary for every country in the world to pass through all the phases of capitalist production.

Underlying this debate was the serious question of a revolutionary political strategy, what constituted progress from a socialist perspective, who were the allies and who were the enemies of the revolutionary movement. It was a debate about different roads to freedom and more importantly if there existed more than one way forward – a multi linear perspective.

Marx’s answer

Marx produced four drafts of his reply, totalling 25 book pages in all. In his final version, Marx stressed that the analysis contained in Capital applied only to the countries of Western Europe who had already undergone or were in the process of undergoing the transformation to capitalism. He added that he was now convinced,

that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia. But in order that it might function as such, the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development.

Around the same time, Marx wrote to the editorial board of Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland) a journal of the Emancipation of Labour Group. In his letter he mentions a great Russian scholar and critic (the Populist theorist, Nikolai Chernyshevskii) who,

In an outstanding series of articles, he discussed whether Russia, as its liberal economists would have it, must begin by destroying the rural commune in order to pass on to the capitalist regime, or whether on the contrary, it may develop its own historical foundations and thus, without experiencing all the of this regime, nevertheless appropriate all its fruits. He, himself, pronounces for the second solution. And my respected critic would have had at least as much reason to infer from my regard for this great Russian scholar and critic that I shared his views on this matter.

Marx goes on to say,

Finally, as I do not like to leave anything to guesswork, I shall be direct and to the point…I have come to the conclusion that if Russia continues along the path it has followed since 1861, it will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a people and undergo all the fateful vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.

This is not the response that Zasulich and co expected. The letter to Otechestvennye Zapiski remained unpublished until 1887 and the letter to Zasulich until 1924.

Marx (and Engels) confirmed their revised views in the preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto (1882), where they wrote,

If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, then Russia’s peasant communal landownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.

Marx’s suggestion that revolution in backward underdeveloped Russia with its peasant based economy might provide the spark for revolution in industrialised Western Europe was an anti- Marxist heresy. It was recognised as such by the Russian Marxists around Zasulich and Plekhanov. They thought themselves better Marxists than Marx himself.

Russian Populism

It was clear from his correspondence and the new preface to the Communist Manifesto that Marx had changed his mind. Marx who had been hostile to Russian populism in the 1860’s was by 1880 a supporter of the revolutionary Populist Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). During 1870-71, Marx taught himself Russian by reading their revolutionary literature. He even defended the tactic of revolutionary terror and the assassination of representatives of the Russian state (they assassinated the czar in 1881). He particularly admired Nikolai Chernyshevskii, their main theorist.

There was a growing interdependence between Marx’s analysis, the realities of Russia, and the Russian revolutionary movement – an uncanny forerunner of what was to come in 1917
Shanin, p.4

Lenin’s use of the term populist can mislead. When using it he meant a small group on the extreme right wing of the populists. It is the equivalent to using the term Marxist to refer to the legal Marxists of Russia whilst ignoring more revolutionary trends. This has damaged the reputation of the Populists in the eyes of Lenin’s readers for over a century.

Populism was Russia’s main indigenous revolutionary tradition. The peak of its activity was during the period 1879-83. It was broken by arrests executions and exile, finally being smashed by 1887. The Populists did not accept that capitalism offered a rosy future for Russia. They theorised that because capitalism already existed in Western Europe, along with potential allies in the European proletariat, that Russia could avoid the capitalist stage and proceed straight to socialism based upon an emancipated peasant commune. This was similar to Trotsky’s concept of combined and uneven development.

The populists of the People’s Will further saw the Russian state as an oppressive and parasitic growth on the people. The state itself promoted capitalist development and was therefore the main enemy. Their conclusion was that the state must be overthrown by armed force. The revolutionary subject was the labouring classes of Russia, peasants, part-time workers and wage workers. Marx agreed. A revolution was necessary and there was in fact no economic answer to Zasulich’s question. In addition, he had become more aware of the negative aspects of capitalist development and its relationship with the role of the state in Russia. He criticised the orthodox Russian Marxists as defenders of capitalism.

Revolutionary Transition and Marx’s conclusions

In opposition to his earlier view, that in the capitalist development of England lay the inevitable future of all nations, Marx concluded that there were different roads to the socialist transition of particular societies, depending on their starting points. He seemed to be saying that capitalism is progressive only to the extent that it:

  • develops the productive forces especially human labour.
  • brings the proletariat together, increases our ability to organise and unifies the class.
  • engenders progressive revolts against itself.

Thus once capitalism has become the dominant form of society its further spread is not necessarily progressive but resistance to it usually has progressive aspects. He was also clear that peasants were not inherently reactionary, but could, in the right circumstances, as in Russia, prove vital allies of the proletariat.

Late Marx emphasized as never before the subjective factor as the decisive force in revolution. The socialist transition can only come through the organised, conscious intervention of a revolutionary subject (workers, peasants).

Our Theory and Practice Today

The insights of Marx’s final years and his acceptance that there was more than one road to socialism can help guide us in our struggles today. Looking at those, still existing, societies that have a large peasant section and/or native peoples not fully integrated into capitalism allows us, quite excitingly, to see them as potential allies rather than enemies or remnants of a bygone age that should be done away with through capitalist progress.

Indeed, history shows that resistance to capitalism is often fiercest in the transition from feudalism to capitalist society, peasant to proletariat eg. Russia 1917, Spain 1936, Vietnam, and the Zapatistas today. Following Marx I would argue that struggles against the imposition of capitalism, by non-proletarian forces linked to socialist struggles in the capitalist ‘West’ can create a path to socialism.

Incidentally this does not require romanticising pre-capitalist or peasant life, but what I am urging is that we do not dismiss all such societies as lost to rural idiocy and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Socialism will grow out of the best of native traditions. All societies have positive elements that revolutionary forces can use as a basis for forward movement and might wish to preserve in a future socialist/communist form of society. Not all socialisms emerging from capitalism will look the same.

Finding our way

A multiplicity of roads means that we have no need to assume that all societies must follow the 1917 Russian road to revolution. The Bolsheviks made this error when they interpreted events through the lens of the French revolution and so tended to underplay the uniqueness of their own situation and experience. However, that does not mean that we can’t learn from the Bolsheviks’ struggle.

We need to work out our own way forward. This requires a concrete analysis of the society and culture in which we live, looking at its strengths and weaknesses from a socialist perspective. We need the confidence and clarity to go beyond dogmatic formulations. Each one of us has a responsibility to participate to the best of our ability in the democratic decision making of our working class parties, trade unions and other organisations. This means overcoming the narrow anti – intellectualism which has been a constant feature of the British Left. We all have the potential to become organic intellectuals, that is thinking activists.

What is progress?

An important part of this process will be redefining, as Marx did, what constitutes progress. What is progressive is determined by our vision of a post – capitalist, Communist society. Such a society will certainly be one of abundance. However it should be as much about an abundance of free time to spend in unalienated activity as much as an abundance of life’s material necessities. We need bread – and time to smell the roses too. What should we seek to preserve as progressive of our contemporary world? The guidelines are few but we could start with that which is ecologically sustainable, collective and democratically controlled by those it affects.

Marx’s Marxism was an open philosophy in two senses. Open to the impact of new political developments like the Paris Commune, open to theoretical advances outside the political sphere in the social and natural sciences. His philosophical method excluded dogmatic political recipes that had to be rigidly applied to every situation. He was a subtle thinker and materialist recognising that each new situation required a new analysis of its specific features. Along with Lenin he recognised that the truth is concrete. Like Marx, we too aspire to an open socialist philosophy that can take on board and integrate new insights from other fields such psychoanalysis, feminism, ecology and even rival philosophies such as Anarchism.

For Marx studying and engaging with other viewpoints was not about defending his own sacred texts but was about clarifying, deepening and correcting his world view, to the point of abandoning or reversing, if necessary, long held opinions. As the man said, doubt everything!

Bob Goupillot


Rosemont F. Karl Marx and the Iroquois in Arsenal – Surrealist Subversion, page 201, Black Swan Press.

Shanin, T. Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and The Peripheries of Capitalism London:Routledge and Kegan Paul (1984)

Wheen, F. Karl Marx, Fourth Estate, London, paperback (2000)