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Karl Marx: Democrat and Republican

One of the marked features of Irish socialism and radical republicanism has been their contempt for theory, in fact for any attempt to systematically think through received ideas about themselves and the world around them.  Instead, out of context quotes from Marx that ‘every step of a real movement is more important than a dozen programmes’ is sometimes used to glide over the failure.

Those well read enough to quote Marx usually fail to notice it introduces his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ which is all about the theoretical ideas of the German Workers Party in 1875 and Marx’s very particular disagreements with them.  When we realise that the stern criticisms arose at a point when unity of the German left was being consummated we can see how far away Marx’s own method was from many of his present day followers who seek left unity with little or no thought to questions such as, unity around what and what for?

It might seem obvious, but the principal reason for this is that understanding the world is very difficult.  Marx famously said that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’ but this reinforces the difficulty of the latter not the ease of the former.  Since our efforts to change the world largely depend on what we think of it, the importance of our understanding of it can hardly be exaggerated.

No one arrives at a clear and sound understanding of the world without changing their minds, without developing their ideas, and Marx himself was no exception.  It was his ability to think hard about the world that has given us the body of theory and method that we have today and which we must emulate if we are to develop it as it rapidly changes.

Marx the student

In 1843 Marx described existing communism as ‘a dogmatic abstraction;’ but his view that ‘the reform of consciousness [consisted] only in enabling the world to clarify its consciousness, in waking it from its dreams about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its actions’ lead him to radically develop this view.

At Berlin University Marx set himself the task of working out a philosophy of law, having spent much of his time up to then writing romantic poetry.  Informed by the ideas of the philosophers Kant and Fichte, he found he was unable to do so, and in order to advance began looking at the ideas of another German philosopher, Hegel.  ‘I had read fragments of Hegel’s philosophy and had found its grotesque craggy melody unpleasing’ he wrote.  He was consumed by ‘vexation at having to make an idol of a view I detest.  I feel sick.’

This was no metaphorical statement.  He really was sick, and was to be repeatedly ill from the efforts of his studies throughout his life.

These studies resulted in a conversion to Hegelianism and a respect for the philosopher that was to last his whole life.  He dived into the discussion circles of the Hegelians and came under the influence of their leading thinkers.  The main target of the most radical was religion although, like Hegel himself, they took a keen interest in social questions.  One of his lecturers Eduard Gans wrote:

‘Just as once master and slave were opposed to each other, and then later patrician and plebeian, then sovereign and vassal, so are opposed today the man who is idle and the man who works.  One has only to visit the factories to see hundreds of emaciated and miserable men and women who sacrifice their health for the service and profit of a single man and exchange all the pleasures of life for a meagre pittance…Is there no means of remedying this situation? Yes, there is: the free corporation, socialisation’ (Quoted in David McLellan, ‘Marx before Marxism’)

At this time of course Marx was no ‘Marxist’ and was intent on pursuing a university career after his Doctoral thesis.  His association with the Hegelians put paid to that however as his mentor, Bruno Bauer, lost his teaching post at the end of March 1842.

Marx the Journalist

Meanwhile Marx began writing article for newspapers, the first in January 1842, opposing Prussian press censorship.  He supported press freedom not just for its own sake, because censorship of the press was likewise not for its own sake, but because ’with lack of freedom of the press, all other freedoms become illusory…’  In this concern for freedom he followed Hegel and at this time he saw himself as a radical democrat and republican, although on its extreme left wing.

He ridiculed representatives in the Diet (parliament) who rejected ‘outside influences’ rather than ‘inner convictions’ as a guide to their decision making as an open repudiation of rule by the people; such representation is ‘no representation at all.’  Today we still regularly hear parliamentary representatives declare their ‘freedom’ from the views of the people they are supposed to represent.

In October he became editor of the new liberal paper Rheinische Zeitung and evidenced his hostility to communist ideas in response to accusations of such sympathies:
‘The Rheinische Zeitung, which cannot even concede theoretical reality to communistic ideas in their present form, and can even less wish or consider possible their practical realization, will submit these ideas to thorough criticism…Because of this disagreement, we have to take such theoretical works all the more seriously.  We are firmly convinced that it is not the practical effort but rather the theoretical explication of communist ideas which is the real danger.  Dangerous practical attempts, even those on a large scale, can be answered with cannon, but ideas won by our intelligence, embodied in our outlook, and forged in our conscience, are chains from which we cannot tear ourselves away from without breaking our hearts; they are demons we can only overcome by submitting to them’(McLellan)

It should be appreciated that it was only in this year that the words socialism and communism appeared in German for the first time.  The ideas were new and Marx was arguing for proper study of them before pronouncing a verdict.  Today’s familiarity with the terms in many ways covers as great an ignorance of their true meaning, as they have been debased and obscured by the claims of Labourism and Stalinism to represent both.

Marx began to deal with social issues in an article on wood theft, which may appear a minor issue today but which accounted for a staggering 97 percent of thefts in the period 1830 to 1836 in and around Marx’s home town of Trier.  The new law was designed assist landowners stop the traditional right of collection of dead wood on their land by peasants in severe economic distress.

In dealing with the issue he came up against the question of private property:
‘If every violation of property, without distinction or closer determination, is theft, then would not all private property be theft?  By my private property, do I not exclude every other person from this property?  Do I not therefore violate this right of property?’(Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol. 1)

Customary law which allowed the collection of wood or berry picking in the forest had been displaced by liberal law which sanctioned private property.  For Marx, as a Hegelian, the state, which should ideally represent the common interest, had been ‘prostituted’ by the influence of purely private interests:

‘Everything that is particular, like landed property, is limited in itself.  Therefore it must be dealt with as something limited, that is, by a general power standing above it, but it cannot deal with this general power in accordance with its own needs.’  Instead however:
’All organs of the state [have] become ears, eyes, arms, and legs with which the interests of the forest owners hear, evaluate, detect, protect, grab, and run.’

The significance of the issue of the wood theft law lay not just in its intrinsic contemporary importance. Marx’s close friend and comrade Frederick Engels later wrote
‘I heard Marx say again and again that it was precisely through concerning himself with the wood-theft law and with the situation of the Moselle peasants that he was shunted from pure politics over to economic conditions, and thus came to socialism.’ (Draper)

Of course Marx was not the first to concern himself with social questions and to draw communist conclusions from his interest; there were many socialist and communist thinkers before him.  It was Marx’s concern with both political and social questions and the way he was able to relate them that allowed the development of a theory and practice that relegated existing ideas to the dustbin.  This reconciliation is still not appreciated today and the economistic concerns of much of existing socialism and their political failures plus republican’s historic inability to unite the two show that, difficult as it may have been for Marx to develop his ideas, they are still beyond many of his followers.  Marx therefore never did accept the existing communism that he so disliked.


Censorship of the Rheinische Zeitung became more and more oppressive and while Marx at first attempted to negotiate this censorship this became more and more difficult.  Finally Wilhelm IV through the provincial governor of the Rhineland closed the Rheinische Zeitung in January 1843, much to Marx’s relief.  ‘The government,’ he declared ‘have given me back my liberty.’

It was not just Marx’s paper that was repressed and all through Germany the liberal press was closed down.  The failure of the liberal movement to respond and fight back against this assault on their liberties was a shock for many.  A similar action in France in 1830 had provoked a revolution yet now there was hardly a protest.

This closure of the means of public criticism threw the Young Hegelian movement into crisis.  How could the rational state act in such a way?  The Hegelian movement split with some retreating from political action into purely intellectual criticism.  Others sought to continue the political struggle in a more practical manner and launch a new publication.

Marx supported a new journal but his priority was to understand why the democratic republican movement had failed and what the roots were of its disintegration.  He therefore withdrew ‘from the public stage into the study.’  ‘The first work which I undertook for a solution of the doubts which assailed me was a critical review of the Hegelian philosophy of right…’ (Draper)

Marx was not yet a communist but it was through grappling with the ideas of Hegel, his followers and that of existing socialists and communists that he moved beyond democratic republicanism to a new communism.  Through studying and criticising Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Marx made the first steps to what we now call Marxism.

Joe Craig



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