Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Karl Marx on the historic role of the working class

I am aware that the current debate raging in the blogosphere is all about the Enlightenment, but since when has this blog ever bothered to keep up with contemporary intellectual fashion? Anyway, one hundred and fifty years ago this month, on 14 April 1856, Karl Marx gave a speech in London to a banquet commemorating the fourth anniversary of the Chartist People’s Paper. So what, you might well ask? Well, in his speech Marx explained why it is Marxists bang on about the 'working class' the whole time - and he did so in a very clear and succinct fashion (he knew he was addressing mainly English people after all). Marx's speech was subsequently reported by a newspaper under the heading: 'Fourth Anniversary Banquet of The People’s Paper':

'On Monday last at the Bell Hotel, Strand, Ernest Jones entertained the compositors of The People’s Paper and the other gentlemen connected with its office, at a supper, which was joined by a large number of the leading Democrats of England, France and Germany now in London. The entertainment was of the choicest description, and reflected the greatest credit on the enterprising proprietor of the Hotel, Mr. Hunter; the choicest viands and condiments of the season being supplied in profusion. The tables were well filled with a numerous company of both sexes, Ernest Jones occupying the chair, and Mr. Fowley, manager of The People’s Paper office, the vice-chair. The banquet commenced at seven, and at nine o’clock the cloth was cleared, when a series of sentiments was given from the chair. The Chairman then proposed the toast: "The proletarians of Europe", which was responded to by Dr. Marx as follows:'

'The so-called revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents — small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society. However, they denounced the abyss. Beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments continents of hard rock. Noisily and confusedly they proclaimed the emancipation of the Proletarian, i.e. the secret of the 19th century, and of the revolution of that century.

That social revolution, it is true, was no novelty invented in 1848. Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbés, Raspail and Blanqui. But, although the atmosphere in which we live, weighs upon every one with a 20,000 lb. force, do you feel it? No more than European society before 1848 felt the revolutionary atmosphere enveloping and pressing it from all sides. There is one great fact, characteristic of this our 19th century, a fact which no party dares deny.

On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it; The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want; The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.

At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.

This antagonism between modern industry and science on the one hand, modern misery and dissolution on the other hand; this antagonism between the productive powers and the social relations of our epoch is a fact, palpable, overwhelming, and not to be controverted. Some parties may wail over it; others may wish to get rid of modern arts, in order to get rid of modern conflicts. Or they may imagine that so signal a progress in industry wants to be completed by as signal a regress in politics. On our part, we do not mistake the shape of the shrewd spirit that continues to mark all these contradictions. We know that to work well the newfangled forces of society, they only want to be mastered by newfangled men — and such are the working men. They are as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself.

In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognise our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, [1] the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer — the Revolution. The English working men are the firstborn sons of modern industry. They will then, certainly, not be the last in aiding the social revolution produced by that industry, a revolution, which means the emancipation of their own class all over the world, which is as universal as capital-rule and wages-slavery. I know the heroic struggles the English working class have gone through since the middle of the last century — struggles less glorious, because they are shrouded in obscurity, and burked by the middleclass historian. To revenge the misdeeds of the ruling class, there existed in the middle ages, in Germany, a secret tribunal, called the “Vehmgericht.” [2] If a red cross was seen marked on a house, people knew that its owner was doomed by the “Vehm.” All the houses of Europe are now marked with the mysterious red cross.

History is the judge — its executioner, the proletarian.'

[1]. A character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
[2]. The Vehmgericht, derived from Vehme (judgment, punishment) and Gericht (court), was a secret tribunal which exercised great power in Westphalia from the end of the twelfth to the middle of the sixteenth century.

In his speech, Marx, as he explained a few days later to his friend Frederick Engels, was trying to win round the Chartist movement (well, what was left of it) to understanding his thinking, about how capitalism created 'newfangled men...the working men...as much the invention of modern time as machinery itself'. As he reported to Engels, 'I alone of the whole emigration was invited, and the first toast also fell to me, i.e. I was asked to propose one to the souveraineté du prolétariat dans tous les pays. So I made a short speech in English, which, however, I shall not allow to appear in print. The end I sought has been achieved. Mr Talandier — who had to pay 2/6d for his ticket — is now convinced, like the rest of the French and other émigré crews, that we are the Chartists’ only ‘intimate’ allies and that, though we may hold aloof from public demonstrations and leave it to the Frenchmen to flirt openly with Chartism, it is always in our power to resume the position already allotted to us by history.'

For an accessible introduction to Marx, perhaps check out Mike Gonzalez's new short little Rebel's Guide to Marx, available here.

Edited to add: An article by Matt Perry, author of Marxism and History and a recent history of the Jarrow Crusade on Marx's theory of History.

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At 12:22 pm, Blogger maps said...

Unfortunately this speech has all too much to do with the rubbish about the Enlightenment bouncing around the pro-war blogosphere. It's a tragic document, more than anything, and certainly something that Marx was able to transcend.

At 2:50 pm, Blogger Snowball said...


However - what on earth has Marx's speech got to do with the pro-war blogosphere and their interpretation of the Enlightenment? Marx's vision is of a system wrapped up in contradictions, but producing a universal product - the working class - which is destined to struggle against that system and be transformed in the process.

I can see it is limited in one sense - it was a short speech and probably only partly reported - as opposed to being a full length serious study of capitalism. And of course it is Eurocentric...but why is it 'tragic'? I see it as a quite optimistic speech - given the circumstances he gave it in (the period of reaction after the 1848 revolutions)...

At 8:46 am, Blogger maps said...

Sorry - that was a thoroughly unhelpful comment! I think that the Marx of the late 40s and 50s was in danger of accepting all sorts of Eurocentric ideas about the progress of history and the superiority of 'advanced' to 'backward' societies, with the proviso that the working class rather than the capitalist class was the engine of merry progress. That's why that part of Marx has always been appropriated by the type of people your post begins by condemning.

At 5:18 am, Blogger maps said...

This post explains things a bit more:


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