Basic principles of Marxism — Part One: The lives and times of Marx and Engels

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Karl Marx was born 171 years ago on 5 May 1818 in the German town of Trier. Frederick Engels, two years younger, was also born in Germany, in Barmen, on 28 November 1820. EDDIE ABRAHAMS opens the series of articles on the basic principles of Marxism with a biographical sketch of two communists who shook the world.

These were stormy times. The French Revolution was just three decades into the past. In 1789 the French bourgeoisie had seized political power and under the leadership of Robespierre ruthlessly destroyed the feudal aristocracy. Despite the modern bourgeois distaste for ‘exporting revolution’, Napoleon successfully did this, until his defeat in Russia in 1812. The path was thus opened for capitalist development. Capitalism which had developed substantially only in Britain, began to make rapid progress throughout Western Europe.

The years preceding and immediately following the French Revolution were also marked by a major ideological challenge to the dogmas and prejudices of feudalism. To mobilise the social and political forces necessary for the defeat of feudalism, the bourgeoisie and its allies subjected feudal ideology to a devastating criticism. Rousseau, Holbach , Helvetius, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Adam Smith, Ricardo, are a few of the great minds of the progressive era of bourgeois society in revolutionary combat against feudalism.

The Germany into which Marx and Engels were born was influenced by these economic, political and intellectual developments. The progressive and democratic movement in the country, encompassing the sections of the bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie and the still-tiny working class, had as its main slogan the unification of Germany. At the time Germany was divided into 38 separate states whose petty divisions and differences were obstacles to the development of capitalism. In addition the reactionary political and ideological sway of the ruling nobility and top bureaucracy was a frustrating fetter upon the progressive and democratic forces.


From their early youth, both participated actively in the democratic movement. In 1835 Marx entered university, first in Bonn and then Berlin. Engels had no formal higher education and by 1837 was working in his father's textile business. But he was an avid reader and what Marx studied in university Engels studied in his spare time. With enormous enthusiasm they engaged in a critical study of the great bourgeois and classical thinkers. They subjected philosophy, history, religion and politics to a thoroughgoing revolutionary scrutiny. They also began contributing articles and pamphlets to the democratic press.

Fired by a desire to attain political justice and human liberation, Marx and Engels had an aversion for any sort of academicism, for knowledge for its own sake. Knowledge and criticism was useful only in so far as it had a practical expression and contributed to liberating humanity. Political action in the revolutionary democratic movement was always their first concern. In 1843 Marx, in a brilliant article, wrote: ‘. . . criticism of the speculative philosophy of law finds its progression not within itself but in tasks which can only be solved in one way – through practice.’ (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Introduction in Marx and Engels Collected Works Volume 3.)

And the aim of practice is to liberate humanity. The matter is put this way, in the same article: ‘The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that for man the supreme being is man, and thus with the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected and contemptible creature.’

In his famous criticism of Feuerbach, a materialist philosopher who influenced Marx and Engels, Marx said: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however is to change it.’


Being committed to political action as the only true human action, Marx and Engels joined the Young Hegelians – the ideological representatives of German petit-bourgeois democracy. They were quickly sickened by its empty, bombastic phrase-mongering and its refusal to engage in serious political activity.

Witnessing the cowardly, vacillating and feeble postures of the German bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels saw in the emerging working class, the most oppressed class, the only serious and consistent agency for attaining liberty and justice. Their studies and experience also led them to the conclusion that private property and capitalist exploitation were the source of human suffering in the modern age. In 1844 Marx and Engels wrote: ‘... private property drives itself, in its economic movement towards its own dissolution . . . it produces the proletariat . . . The proletariat executes the sentence that private property pronounces on itself by producing the proletariat . . .

The working class in the fight to liberate itself liberates all of humanity. It . . . ‘is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity [of capitalism] . . . the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.’

Their entire experience and study led them to see in the working class the force of the future. In 1842 Engels had travelled to Britain and came under the influence of the English working class and the Chartists in particular. On returning to Germany, not yet 25, he wrote The Condition of the English Working Class (1844) – a splendid document exposing the terrible exploitation and oppression of the working class. In its preface Engels writes: ‘I accuse the English bourgeoisie before the entire world of murder, robbery, and all sorts of other crimes on a mass scale . . . Those fellows shall have to remember me in the future.’

While Engels was being influenced in the direction of communism in Britain, Marx was moving in the same direction through his own studies. The two, though they had met in passing, established their life-long collaboration in 1844 when after extensive discussions they realised they both shared the same outlook – that of Communism.


By 1845, Marx and Engels were ready to split from the Young Hegelians. Absolute idealists, the Young Hegelians had contempt for the masses, they denied the role of the people in history and believed that chatter-boxes were the real saviours of humanity. Seeking to stand above the class struggle they ‘criticised’ both the bourgeoisie and the working class. Marx and Engels agreed to collaborate in a battle against them. They took up the battle with astounding energy, verve and wit. In 1845 Engels wrote: ‘A war has been declared against those of the German philosophers, who refuse to draw from their mere theories practical inferences and who contend that man has nothing to do but to speculate upon metaphysical questions ... [these] representatives of abstract German philosophy [are] ... the only important philosophical opponents of socialism – or rather Communism.’

Marx and Engels were aware of the damage that opportunists and wind-bags were capable of doing to the revolutionary and democratic movement. Conscious of the need to destroy their influence, they wrote dozens of polemical articles, pamphlets and books. It was in this war against the Young Hegelians that they first set forth the basic principles of historical materialism, of dialectical materialism and scientific socialism. Jointly written, The Holy Family (1844) and The German Ideology (1845-6) exposed the ideological poverty and pettiness of the enemies of communism and the working class. In these books they set out the principles of communism which would be later transformed into a mighty force in the Communist Manifesto.

Responding to the idealism of the Young Hegelians, they write in The German Ideology: ‘Our conception of history . . . does not explain practice from the idea, but explains the foundation of ideas from material practice [and we conclude] . . . that all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism . . . but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug . . . not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history . . . '

Many years later, in 1859, Marx succinctly expressed the new world outlook they developed some 15 years earlier: ‘In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

Beginning from these materialist premises, Marx and Engels were able to demonstrate that communism was not some product of a few fantastic brains but a real movement determined by real social, material and productive forces. In The German Ideology they write: ‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’

In 1847 in a polemic against the anti-communist Heinzen, Engels was writing: ‘Communism, insofar as it is a theory, is the theoretical expression of the position of the proletariat in this struggle and the theoretical summation of the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat.’

But both understood that this liberation could be achieved only in practice through political action. Both understood that ‘theory becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses’. So in 1847 they both joined the League of the Just, formed by Blanqui in 1836. It was a communist organisation. Under their influence it was renamed the Communist League at its 1847 Congress and accepted the scientific principles argued for by Marx and Engels. They were asked to write the League's programme. They produced The Manifesto of the Communist Party which was published in February 1848, the month when the European revolutions of 1848 began. ■