‘The English have all the material requisites for the revolution. What they lack is the spirit of generalization and revolutionary ardour.’
Marx waged war on classical German philosophy and failed. He failed because he could not claim to be inheritor of the western tradition and its destroyer at the same time. That method of attack; infiltration and then rebellion, had been open to Luther in his assault on the Catholic church, but not open to Marx; Hegel had seen to that through his development of dialectics.
German philosophy (civilisation), learned a lesson from the fate of the Catholic church in the German Reformation and was ready and armed for the day when Marx or another like him emerged. Marx, who saw himself as the ultimate anticipator, had been anticipated by Hegel. The newly emergent political economy as practiced by Smith and Ricardo was not so prepared and payed the price accordingly; it was overrun and devastated by Marxism. Failure in the field of philosophy and success in the field of economic theory defines the nature of Marxism and the relationship between Marxism and capitalist society.
Marx set political economy a trap from which it could not escape; a running noose that progressively tightened the more the victim struggled. Hegel did the same with Marx. Should Marx chose to be revolutionary, he would be forced to accept the arbitrary nature of power undermining the idea of inevitable historical progress he was advocating. Although he liked to think of himself as Lucifer in the Abrahamic tradition, Marx is more like ‘Thor’ the German ‘god’ of thunder whose power mainly consists of a form of ‘Sturm und Drang’ – sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing. Every moment across the earth’s atmosphere there are countless micro electrical discharges from air to earth, returning the air to equilibrium charge. In the same way every time one of countless choices or accommodations is made by ‘proletarian’ or ‘capitalist’, Marxism is grounded by a force it cannot account for. A charge builds up and is then dissipated. Every so often a major lightning strike does occur, but these are rare and only a danger to anything that gets between charge and earth. Mostly these electrical storms only serve to frighten children.
This comparison between Lucifer and Thor is instructive. It was central to Marx’s conception of himself and his project that he would lead opposition forces – i.e. be Lucifer, with all other socialist variants subordinate to Marxism after the form of ‘Paradise Lost’. This struggle to dominate opposition would characterise much of the explicitly political activity that Marx and Engels undertook in the years in which they engaged in active organisation of workers movements. But as Thor is merely one of many German ‘gods’, so Marx is one of a pantheon of 19thC revolutionaries, one whose main job was to scare with lightning and thunder while others sought to pursue a quieter course. Marxism fitted into a niche within Germanic socialism as a whole- as the extreme that less radical elements could use to prompt concessions from bosses and governments and with which bosses could scare workers. Again we return to the idea of Marxism itself being co-opted, and leveraged in a way that Marx was not able to control. The idea that workers, trades union leaders, churchmen and even finally capitalists could choose to pick up or lay down Marxist thought and rhetoric as it suited them, never seemed to seriously occur to Marx.
But again, this is not to deny that where Marxism is blocked in the philosophical sphere it rebounds with double the destructive force against political economy. Despite his philosophical shortcomings, Marx was if anything, a victim of his own intellectual success in the field of economics. Marx saw modern industrial capitalism emerging from the womb, saw the defect on its face at the moment of birth, and realised that the significance of this inherent deformity was that it presaged the inevitability of capitalism’s death, even if Marx could not predict the time and place. And it was not just capitalism itself but one hundred disciplines born out of capitalism that Marx cursed. Sociology, Psychology, Economics, Criminology, were all doomed in the crib by Marx, like the Bad Fairy in Sleeping Beauty. If this is true , how did this curse have power? What was the nature of that power? Where did this power come from?
Marxism is flawed in the sense that it does not belong to mainstream western tradition at all. It is more in the tradition of Diogenes and Socrates, which like ‘democracy’ are claimed by the western mainstream tradition in name but denied in action. Marx’s rhetorical devices are Zen like koans whose purpose is to short circuit thought (philosophy), and lead to action. This shrinking of the philosophical horizon to the impetus for action is fundamental to the revolutionary impulse. In a similar vein, in his ‘Meditations’ Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic philosophy reduces the essence of man’s conscious perspective to the span of a fraction of a fraction of a second because the Stoicism he advocated finds no consolation in the past and no hope in the future. All Stoics have is the moment they are in and the same applied to Marx. His purpose was to maintain balance over the abyss between revolutionary antithesis and post revolutionary synthesis. In the same way a tightrope walker uses a pole, Marx used projection into both past and future as a means of giving himself stability.. For a tightrope walker, the longer the pole the better it works to balance the tightrope walker. Through historical materialism, Marx incrementally balanced both distant past and distant future over time only as a means to stabilise his existence in the present. Marx had no serious interest in the past or the future outside of how they might serve him from one second to another. This is a fundamental insight into Marx and Marxists. They are happy to burn the doors and window frames to heat the house for the week. They are happy to mortgage the gutted building to buy groceries for the day.
Analysis of Marx’s philosophy has brought us to consideration of Marx’s material facts, in particular why Marx decided to spend the bulk of his intellectual career in London. Simply put, in philosophical terms Germany could create a Marx but not sustain him. whereas England could sustain a Marx but not create him. Like a tadpole becoming a frog and moving from water to lilly pad, Marx changed internally according to environment and changed environment according to the dynamic of his personal transformation.
Marx’s defeat at the hands of continental philosophy had brought him to London as a philosophy refugee but it has never been clear by what means Marx could successfully live in London, not least in freedom from the attentions of the British state. Marx’s physical existence in London was characterised by poverty and insecurity. It was only through the sponsorship of Engels that Marx was able to undertake his research. Living in London was not materially advantageous to Marx and it is also clear that London was no more advantageous in terms of the likelihood of revolution occurring there. Anglo Saxons had already clearly emerged as the people in Europe least likely to revolt against the processes that characterised the development of capitalism and the people most likely to compromise with them . In ‘The Condition Of the Working Class in England’ Engels noted the process by which Saxon capitalism was transforming itself through modifying extreme aspects of its development.
Despite the fact that there was no imminent danger of revolution, there would surely have been some desire to remove Marx as a supposedly dangerous revolutionary, and if not that at the very least to neutralise any threat he may come to pose. Or if not even that, then to make him serve the interests of the British state either actively or passively. Since Marx was allowed to remain unmolested we can deduce that the British state clearly felt there was no threat in Marx or saw a positive advantage in having Marx in the capital city of England. We can reasonably draw the conclusion that at some level Marx served the interest of England against the interest of Germany in that England felt it had nothing to fear from Marx’s philosophy whereas it felt Germany had. Germany was increasingly seen by the English state and elite as a competing and potentially dangerous foreign power, but one whose potential weakness for continental radicalism presented both danger and opportunity for England. And here is the kind of irony and humour that Marx would appreciate.
Marx came to England precisely because no-one understood philosophy there. Nobody in England even understood the significance of philosophy. Because no-one understood philosophy in England, no-one understood how Marx had been already been defeated by classic German philosophy by the time he got to London. In as far as they took him at his word, the English elite accepted to a greater or lesser extent the nature and extent of the threat that Marx could pose to the emerging German power. They were happy to have Marx in London on the basis that he could provide advantage to them with regard to destabilising Germany and posed no significant threat to the stability of England. But in fact the exact opposite was true. In actual fact Marx posed no threat to the German elite and every threat to the Saxons…