Originally published in Revue L’Anticapitaliste 142 in January 2023; interview with Hélène Marra.
In your fine book Karl Marx à 20 ans, de la colère au communisme, published last year, you trace the biographical and intellectual stages of the young Marx which led him to forge a revolutionary theory of society, nourished by a critique of Hegelian philosophy but also by other works of his time, such as those of Moses Hess, as well as of his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels.
My first question is about his tortuous intellectual path. Marx began a multitude of projects, literary, poetic, philosophical, which he never completed – to the point of worrying his father, who had great confidence in his abilities. He began studying law and then turned to philosophy. Before starting in journalism, he planned to embark on an academic career, with a doctoral thesis at the University of Jena on the ‘Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’. This subject refers both to the current of materialism and to the idea of questioning a philosophical paradigm of antiquity. While reading your book, I was intrigued by this search for a philosophy in touch with reality and history. In the end, was Marx really a Young Hegelian? Could you go back over this path, over his critique of Hegel and his moving beyond the currents of Young Hegelians, in order to bring out the innovative dimension of Marx’s thought?
I believe that, in order to understand Marx’s path without either making it into a linear trajectory or seeing it as a series of more or less hazardous bifurcations, we must first pause on the historical context in which this trajectory takes shape, because it is a lived experience, indissociably both intellectual and militant. The aim of my little book was to show that his career was the result of his historical roots and social background, of his intellectual reflection, both precocious and immediately political, of his encounters and his choices, but also, of course, of the hazards of life. If you don’t mind, I’d like to clarify things a little on this level before answering your question.
Marx was born in Trier, in the Rhineland, in 1818. The city had been occupied from 1794 by troops of the French Convention, repelling counter-revolutionary forces based in Koblenz, a stone’s throw away. This French influence was to last: Trier was not annexed to Prussia until 1815, after the Congress of Vienna. In the book, I further clarify what is much more than a background: during Marx’s childhood and adolescence, the Rhineland, shaped by this complex history, was traversed by very particular social and cultural fractures, which were groping for forms of political expression.
What the young Marx saw here left a lasting impression on him. In this rural region, which was only just beginning to industrialise, farmers and craftsmen were faced with economic difficulties, sometimes with poverty, and the first rural and working-class proletariat was being formed, as well as a bourgeoisie that aspired to political reforms, calling into question the feudal straitjacket while at the same time fearing the rise of revolutionary ideas. A more radical democratic current began to form as egalitarian ideas slowly began to penetrate in Germany.
At the same time, the situation was blocked: the Prussian government was and remained absolutist and archaic, rejecting liberal and national aspirations. It imposed ever more reactionary measures, constant surveillance, and ferociously repressed social and political protests. This stifling climate exasperated a refractory youth, to which Marx belonged, and which dreamed of a different future. On this side the debate was growing: should one support constitutional reform, champion atheism, build German unity, take refuge in philosophy, fight for equality, combat nascent capitalism? In an unstable world and in a Europe in turmoil, the 1848 revolution showed its first signs very early on, and Marx soon became one of its most attentive seismographers.
His intellectual formation in this context took place on several levels. His father played a decisive role: Heinrich Marx was a lawyer, a great admirer of the Enlightenment and hostile to the authoritarian Prussian monarchy (which, because he was Jewish, forced him to convert). Without being a democrat, he was in favour of liberal reforms in the political sense of the term, like many of his contemporaries. This was also the case with Marx’s future father-in-law, Ludwig von Westphalen, with whom Marx had regular discussions, discovering Dante and Shakespeare. In addition, he was lucky enough to have access to the Trier high school, which was not open to girls (and therefore to Jenny, his future companion), where many teachers developed dissenting ideas and suffered Prussian repression. In this lively and stimulating atmosphere, his passion for knowledge and literature went hand in hand with his growing interest in questions of social and political justice.
We should add that Marx developed early on a passion for poetry. From the age of fifteen, he sometimes spent whole nights writing. But the plan to become a poet soon came up against the evidence that his work was not very good. His numerous literary projects remained unfinished, while philosophy and politics began to interest him more and more. Above all, he had to find and practise a gainful occupation as soon as possible in order to be able to marry, having been secretly engaged to his childhood friend Jenny von Westphalen.
A legal career seemed the most direct route. His legal studies were therefore not entirely a choice, even though Marx had a genuine interest in legal matters, despite soon taking a critical view of them. After studying in Bonn, he discovered in Berlin a political and intellectual capital that was under heavy surveillance, very different from his hometown. At what is now the Humboldt University, he took numerous courses in law, literature, and philosophy. A tireless student, he was fascinated by Hegelian philosophy, the dominant thought of the time. He assiduously frequented the circles of young critical intellectuals, the Young Hegelians. The latter used philosophy as a means of challenging the reactionary Prussian monarchy and its state religion. He very soon appeared as a very promising and combative young intellectual.
The young Marx then approached Bruno Bauer, who was already a teacher and who urged him to write his own thesis: Marx chose to deal with the philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus, materialist thinkers of antiquity. In addition to its academic dimension, his subject presented other issues, more pressing in his eyes: he was preoccupied by the question of the relationship between ideas and reality. Moreover, materialism was also beginning to interest him, and this would be one of the axes of his critique of Hegel. Marx went on to propose an original version of this (often in caricature), which he was just discovering at this time, though rooted in a long history of ancient origin.
As for his closeness to the Young Hegelians, it was very real, but unlike the latter, he did not focus on the religious question and continued to have great admiration for Hegel. Hegel had died a decade earlier, and remained the major philosopher of the time, his legacy being hotly contested between very conservative disciples on the one hand and young atheistic and critical epigones on the other. The originality of Marx’s critique of Hegel is that it continued throughout his work and was part of a dialogue that could be said to be never-ending.
In 1842, Marx’s critique focused on the Hegelian conception of the state and turned towards the demand for a democracy extended to the whole of social life, a ‘true democracy’, as Marx wrote. He would always denounce politics in the purely institutional and state sense of the term, and this redefinition of a politics restored to the popular classes would not disappear from his work: this first critique of Hegel is an important milestone in his evolution towards communist and revolutionary convictions which were gradually taking shape.
All in all, this early period (the book goes up to the age of 26) was decisive. This was the moment of his formation, of his first encounters and first reflections, for Marx was incredibly precocious and creative, bubbling with energy and projects. His anger at injustice was combined with his passion for theory and politics. He would never separate the desire to understand from the desire to actively intervene in the reality of his time. It is important to remember this, because Marx has long been iconised, and a whole imagery obscures his dense and eventful life, his incessant questioning and doubts, his activity as a journalist and activist that accompanied his theoretical work throughout his life. Understanding ideas from life and not the other way round, without neglecting them, is after all one of the great theses of Marx himself!
Among the historical events that marked the young Marx’s thinking and trajectory were the ‘Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood’. His article appeared in the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842. Daniel Bensaïd has devoted a small book to it. It was through this work by Daniel that I was able to consult Marx’s original text. He writes: ‘There exist objects of property which, by their very nature, can never acquire the character of predetermined private property, objects which, by their elemental nature and their accidental mode of existence, belong to the sphere of occupation rights, and therefore of the occupation right of that class which, precisely because of these occupation rights, is excluded from all other property and which has the same position in civil society the same position as these objects have in nature.’ The dead branches and twigs are here a physical representation of the peasants’ poverty, while the living tree full of sap represents wealth. The poorest class instinctively derives its right to property from its immediate and contingent need. The recognition of this ‘customary right’, which is not recognised by bourgeois law, is the object of a struggle.
Can we draw lessons from this for contemporary debates around the ‘commons’, the ZADs and, more generally, the experiences of occupation, which were very present in the Gilets Jaunes, and also in the recent movement against mega-reservoirs? Can these democratic struggles be transformed into proletarian struggles against the bourgeoisie?
At the end of his years of study, Marx eventually became a journalist. Indeed, once his chosen path of teaching philosophy at the university was blocked, he wrote his first articles and soon began to play a central role in the Rheinische Zeitung, the organ of the liberal bourgeoisie. However, the newspaper was soon threatened by Prussian censorship, which did not tolerate any criticism. At some point, closure was unavoidable. Considering that there was nothing left to lose, Marx decided to tackle economic and social issues head on. His article on thefts of wood, published in the autumn of 1842, deals with the recent ban on the collection of dead wood in the forests by the poorest peasants, an old feudal customary right. But since that time, the Rhineland forests had been privatised and this wood collection had become a crime that was severely punished.
At first sight, one thing is surprising: feudal law seems to be ‘fairer’ than modern law! But this is not Marx’s point: it was the question of poverty and its suppression that was important to him, as well as the specific role of law. How can we understand that this collection, once tolerated to allow the poorest people to survive, is suddenly strictly forbidden? It was reclassified as a crime, in the name of modern property right, which could not tolerate the poor peasants acting as if they were also proprietors.
The revolutionary idea of a right to subsistence was no longer relevant. What Marx denounced was therefore the legislative intervention of the state – a capitalist state in the making – in favour of the private interests of forest owners, even though his thinking remained at this time on the terrain of law itself. Marx was well aware that the problem remained insoluble at this level. His analysis is thus complex, and has to be situated in its context, which has become difficult for us to understand. Daniel Bensaïd’s book illuminates this very clearly.
In his article, Marx remains trapped in this juridical logic, while remarkably describing the social and political contradictions that would force him to go beyond these limits. It was the examination of this very particular case of wood theft, Marx would later say, that opened his eyes to the new social and economic relations in formation, to domination and exploitation as a means for the ruling classes to seize collective wealth by violence – including legal violence – and accumulate capital. This accumulation is fundamental: it is the condition for the expansion and reproduction of capitalism over time, and it is the task of law to make it possible.
Years later, after having analysed capitalist social relations in depth on the terrain of production, forms of property would continue to interest Marx and he would look at ancestral forms of common property. This was particularly the case in 1881, towards the end of his life, when he entered into a dialogue with the Russian populists and studied traditional rural communities in the perspective of a possible revolution in Russia, which he foresaw would break out. For Marx, these collective forms of property were not the opposite of individual property, with which they coexist, but rather the opposite of private appropriation of the means of production and existence. He thought at this time that they could supply resources to trace an original path towards communism.
Rereading these texts, we can better appreciate both the importance and the limits of a strictly legal debate about property: as long as social relations of production are not transformed, it is not the distribution alone that is unjust, but rather the capitalist ownership of the means of production that generates, reproduces and preserves this injustice. It is the organisation of work and the control of production that are confiscated, and it is this radical dispossession that poses a problem.
Today, the theme of the commons, because of its strictly legal anchorage, remains fairly innocuous. On the other hand, this is not the case with the contemporary struggles you mention, even if they have other limitations. Starting from local or specific questions, they go far beyond the question of property rights and sometimes call into question, at least tendentially, an entire mode of production and a social order that is as destructive as ever. These atypical, transversal, composite mobilisations are certainly destined to multiply, although they run the risk of remaining isolated and sporadic.
They are closely related with struggles against the formidable dispossession effected by the privatisation of public services. The question is how to combine these struggles in the face of a capitalism that remains powerful and unified despite its contradictions and the hostility it arouses. This is why these struggles should not be evaluated from the outside, from a distance, but should be joined and politicised by all those who consider radical social transformation urgent. The reconstruction of a common anti-capitalist political culture is one of its conditions and, from this point of view, the reading of Marx as well as the knowledge of our history are absolutely not a waste of time.
You describe the Paris moment as a stage of radicalisation for the young Marx. Can you go back to his encounter with the proletariat and its organisations (documented in the Introduction of 1844) and its role in the construction of his revolutionary theory?
Exiled in Paris, following the censorship of the newspaper he was directing, Marx started to write a famous text, the Introduction of 1844. This introduction, which remained unfinished, was supposed to precede his analysis of the Hegelian philosophy of law. It is in every respect a transitional text: a transition between Germany and Paris, between a world that remained feudal and a capitalism in formation, where the workers’ movement was developing, between democratic options and a commitment to revolution, between philosophy and a completely different theoretical approach, which Marx would call the ‘critique of political economy’. This brief but incendiary text corresponds to his discovery of the proletariat and its historic role, a discovery that was initially theoretical, but led on to a concrete encounter in Paris with the first workers’ organisations.
In Paris, Marx consolidated but also modified his previous orientations by confronting them with a historical reality that was very different from what he had known until then. He met working-class activists, he read French socialists and communists as well as English economists, and he pursued his previous reflections as well as his work as a journalist. From this point of view, if his passage to communism does indeed date from this period, it was not a sudden conversion but a revolutionary choice, asserting itself to the degree that circumstances blocked any other path towards a truly emancipatory perspective.
Unlike Moses Hess, Marx was not immediately seduced by the emerging communist current of his time. You quote his letter to Arnold Ruge in 1843 about their plans for a critical journal. He says: ‘We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles.’
This seems to me to be a very important teaching for every revolutionary activist. Isn't there a link here with the idea of Trotsky's transitional programme? The idea of a militant activity, practical and theoretical, which aims to bridge the gap between the appreciation of social injustice formulated by the exploited and oppressed and the project of a communist society? Should we take inspiration from Marx’s own trajectory, make, and unmake our tools, our mediations and our discourses, to the rhythm of social struggles, their aspirations and political and organisational forms?
Yes, the communism as it existed then was not really that of Marx. The word had a rather vague, literary meaning, centred on the abolition of private property. Marx was to clarify this while reflecting on the proper role of communists within a broader and more diverse workers’ movement, thus gradually tackling the question of alliances and organisation.
It should be remembered that socialist and communist ideas were developed mainly in France, and particularly from the 1830s onwards (although their roots go back further). Before Marx, Moses Hess, then close to Friedrich Engels, was one of the first to take an interest in them and popularise them. Marx was initially very sceptical towards what he considered as rather hollow literary propaganda and French ideas that he admitted to knowing little about. It should be added that Hess and Engels were then committed to a communism conceived above all as a social doctrine: for Marx, that was a narrow approach, bypassing the question of the state and that of the mode of production, which he had not yet undertaken to study closely.
It is this concern to avoid generalities that we find in the text you mention. This letter is a reply to Arnold Ruge, who has just confided to him his fundamental pessimism about the historical fate of Germany, no less. Marx considers these remarks to be out of touch. His conviction is that theory and action must be closely combined. That said, we are still far from his subsequent strategic reflection, once he became involved in the existing political organisations, their structures and their strategic orientation.
It is in this further analysis that we can find a link with Trotsky’s later reflections on the transitional programme, of course under concrete conditions which had again changed considerably. If the idea does not exist as such in Marx, he nevertheless increasingly reflects, in the course of his life, on the question of the programme and of social mobilisations, on their political translation and thus on the question of the actual transition. But let’s not forget that it’s not Marx who is a Trotskyist, it’s Trotsky who is a Marxist.
Marx devoted a lot of work to the strategic dimension of the revolutionary project without clearly defining the contours of a communist society that could arouse desire today and offer an alternative to the mortifying perspective of capitalist society. Was this simply unconsidered, or rather a function of the historical context?
Your question is very important. It is precisely because Marx does not paint a detailed picture of communism, while nevertheless defining its main features, that he conceives it as a concrete construction, in a historical context and in perpetual readjustment. If ‘the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves’, of all the exploited and the dominated, then one cannot write the music before having played it!
The mature Marx would considerably develop his reflection on this point and his questions are still ours today. What are the contradictions of capitalism and how to intervene? How can we build organisations that take social struggles to their revolutionary conclusion? How to confront the question of the state and democracy? How to combine and mobilise various social forces whose projects that are not necessarily the same? The revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries stumbled over all these questions. Returning to Marx from this angle is certainly not to look for ready-made answers, but for questions that still concern us and analyses that in some respects remain unparalleled in their fruitfulness, provided that we reactivate their political significance, and pursue their impetus and approach rather than simply recite their conclusions.
It is at this precise point that communist intervention takes on its full meaning, as the politicisation and collective organisation of the social anger which we see reappearing everywhere today, and which takes contradictory forms, regressive as well as emancipatory, and not spontaneously convergent or anti-capitalist. All struggles are important – anti-racist, feminist, environmental, social, political, etc. But their dispersion and even their competition must be urgently overcome, in the face of neoliberal policies that are causing despair and fascism to rise. How can we rebuild a mobilising communism today, rather than an old nightmare or simply another utopia?
One of Marx’s great ideas, very powerful and fruitful, is that capitalist social relations involve a confiscation of human activity and its products, this alienation and fundamental dispossession hitting the human subject with full force. The associated producers have to reappropriate what belongs to them – not material goods, but above all the collective control of their working conditions, of the production and distribution of the wealth produced. This large-scale reappropriation requires the development of a different relationship to work, to needs, to nature, in order to make it a credible and mobilising political objective placed at the heart of revolutionary strategy: this is also the question that Marx tackles both in Capital and in his political texts, always interweaving the question of ends with that of mediations.
In this sense, a communist programme outside and prior to actual struggles is not all that useful. But social struggles are not enough in themselves, as experience has shown a thousand times, and we must also ask questions about forms of organisation, about the state, alliances, electoral logic and its limits, etc. Even if we don’t lack a compass, we can say that everything remains to be built and even rebuilt, in the very unfavourable conditions of a radical left in deep crisis, while the crisis of capitalism feeds the rise of new fascisms, imperialist confrontations and the accelerated devastation of the planet. Reading or re-reading Marx and the others is not a waste of time, nor is it an end in itself: it is a way of thinking about these questions with the critical weapons that are and remain ours, with a view to renewing them and readjusting them permanently.
Daniel Bensaïd chose to devote his last efforts to writing, almost a hundred years later, a new ‘ABC of communism’, addressed to the new militant generations, to convince them of the ‘topicality of Marx’. In his introduction to this book, he explains that he does not claim to re-establish the true thought of an authentic and little-known Marx, but rather to ‘propose one possible mode of use, by showing how Marx’s radical critique, reticent to any orthodoxy, to any doctrinaire bigotry, always ready for its own self-criticism, its own transformation or its own overcoming, lives off questions left open and unresolved contradictions’.
Do you share this concern of Daniel’s? What message would you like to pass on to young activists who are trying to approach Marx’s work?
Daniel Bensaïd was well placed to know both the cost of being doctrinaire and the cost of abandoning Marx to the dustbin of history! The persistent lack of the real strategic debate that he called for is currently abetting the dispersion of the forces of protest, as well as the proliferation of competing political sects and of theoretical solutions which claim to be ultimate, all panaceas that can prosper on the lack of concrete alternatives.
The construction of the alternative lies in our capacity to connect a project of radical transformation with collective mobilisations and individual aspirations as they exist today. The construction of this articulation is the political task par excellence. It requires the invention of mediations, which are not simply means, let alone stages, but living forms, truly democratic and attractive forms of organisation, mobilisation, struggle, and reflection.
The task is enormous – how to combat both delegation of struggles and spontaneous movements with no future? How to avoid the double pitfall of utopia without struggle and struggles without hope? Our militant culture is not dead, but has largely to be rebuilt. We need to start again from the multiple forms taken today by a class struggle that needs to be made aware of itself and its stakes. Revisiting the best of what the socialist and communist traditions have bequeathed to us is necessary to pursue its construction.
Translated by David Fernbach