Issue 96 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 2002 Copyright © International Socialism

Class struggle under 'Empire': in defence of Marx and Engels


While no one can predict with certainty how the recent conflict between India and Pakistan will be resolved, the tensions there reveal what many who came of political age in the post Second World War détente had thought unlikely--the real possibility of nuclear war, with all its horrors. The fact is that since the end of the Cold War the world we live in is more unstable and prone to war than it has been since the onset of the 20th century. This was true long before the events of 11 September 2001. The wars in the Persian Gulf and the former Yugoslavia foreshadowed this grim reality. Since then this tendency has gained more momentum. The 1 June 2002 speech of President George Bush at West Point in which he revived the policy of 'pre-emptive strikes' for Washington may have qualitatively added to that instability. For the potential victims of imperial aggressiveness, the increasingly urgent question is whether there exists an alternative to this scenario.

This is the context in which I'd like to interrogate and offer what I intend to be a friendly critique of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's much heralded Empire. I should first acknowledge the positive side of the volume--the reason for a 'friendly' critique. Throughout the book the authors are optimistic about the ability of what they call the 'multitude' to resist. In the milieu in which they largely operate--progressive intellectuals--such optimism is welcome. For too long has this social layer wallowed in pessimism about the ability of the oppressed to take their destinies into their own hands. The multitude has been seen mainly as capitalism's victims. When such intellectuals did recognise 'agency' in the 'subalterns', they did so, as Hardt and Negri correctly criticise, by glorifying 'everyday resistance' or the 'localisation of struggles' as almost an end in itself. The most glaring characteristic of today's producers--their global interconnectedness--was all but ignored in quest of some mythical primordiality of the local.1 As today's reality makes increasingly clear, the oppressed will either rise or fall together.

What in my opinion is most problematic about the book is related to its claim that post-industrial capitalism and the 'new economy' have rendered the traditional notion of class struggle obsolete. This new reality, in addition, has also supposedly rendered obsolete the forms of resistance that characterised the earlier stage of capitalism, especially those associated with Marx's project, and requires new forms and methods. The basic argument here is that Hardt and Negri have an uninformed view of that project, and have failed to advance a more efficacious alternative. In today's most dangerous world the need for an alternative to capitalism's world disorder is indisputably a matter of life and death. If the answer Marx and Engels proposed is to be rejected, let it at least be done on an informed basis. The intent here is to present the real Marx and Engels. Contrary to what Hardt and Negri contend, I argue for the continuing relevancy of their project in the age of 'postmodernity'.

Beyond Marx and Engels?

The central claim of Hardt and Negri is that a new world order has emerged, which they call 'Empire', that is unlike any earlier forms of imperial rule. It is deterritorialised, without location but everywhere. Empire, as was true with earlier forms of ruling class dominance, is fundamentally a response to the democratic yearnings of the oppressed, the 'multitude'. Unlike its predecessors Empire is truly global without any spaces 'outside' its domain. Much of Hardt and Negri's tome is a description and explanation of the genealogy of Empire. They see their project as standing on the shoulders not only of Marx and Engels but Lenin as well. Most importantly, they agree with Marx's long term forecast about the fate of the world's producers. The invasion of the capitalist mode of production into every nook and cranny of the world means that 'all forms of labour tend to proletarianised. In each society and across the entire world the proletariat is the ever more general figure of social labour'.2 But on this point they begin to part company with Marx and Engels, with the claim that the 'hegemonic position of the industrial working class' has now 'disappeared'. Later in their exposition it becomes clearer what informs this claim. There has been, according to them, a dramatic shift in contemporary capitalism away from the production of material goods to that of services, especially information and communications. In this 'new economy', 'private property...becomes increasingly nonsensical', and it is more difficult if not impossible to calculate the amount of socially necessary labour that goes into production. In modern capitalism, based primarily on industrial production, such a determination was possible, and thus the reason for the hegemony of industrial workers. In postmodern capitalism or Empire, on the other hand, private ownership of the means of production and the labour theory of value that Marx perfected are no longer applicable.3

The scenario that Hardt and Negri posit, and the reasons for it, have major implications for their understanding of the class struggle today. If the industrial proletariat had once been the revolutionary 'multitude' of modern capitalism, today it is another kind of proletariat that no longer has a base in industrial production. It is a multitude that is more unrooted and more amorphous than the former. It knows, as Marx and Engels foresaw in The Communist Manifesto, no national boundaries. These characteristics, according to Hardt and Negri, are exactly what give power to today's multitude. The changed nature and context of the proletariat today explains, therefore, why what they understand to be the methods of organising that Marx, Engels and Lenin advocated are no longer applicable.

One of the more interesting aspects to their analysis is the attention given to US political history--not unrelated to the centrality of its ruling elite in the ontology of Empire. Hardt and Negri insist, though, that the latter cannot be reduced to the former. Empire has its roots in both the working class and countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which they argue were much more powerful in the US than elsewhere. Washington, therefore, was forced to react sooner than its imperial rivals in constructing a new form of dominance that foreshadowed Empire. As part of this argument, Hardt and Negri make the unorthodox claim that the working class movement in the US is stronger than its counterparts in other advanced capitalist countries because of its low levels of organisation in unions and lack of its own political party. These two deficits allowed the power of the rank and file to flower in a way that didn't occur on the other side of the Atlantic. Though never mentioned, Hardt and Negri no doubt have in mind the failure of the French working class to join effectively with the student movement in 1968 to overthrow not just the de Gaulle government but capital itself. The dead weight of the Stalinist and social democratic parties not only there but elsewhere tied the hands of the working class--the problem, in their view, of working class organisation.

The other interesting reference to US working class politics is their proposal that proletarian resistance to Empire should look to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for inspiration and as a model. What made them effective, according to Hardt and Negri, was that they didn't establish 'fixed and stable structures of rule'. The combination of a lack of a 'centre', 'organisational mobility', and 'ethnic-linguistic hybridity'--that is, a willingness to organise all workers regardless of race and ethnicity--should be emulated by today's multitude.

Given their overall analysis, it's not surprising that at the end of their tome, when they address 'what is to be done', Hardt and Negri have little to offer in the way of anticipating what the struggles of the multitude will look like, or concrete suggestions about how to advance that agenda. About all they can say is that they are 'still awaiting...the construction, or rather the insurgence, of a powerful organisation... We do not have any models to offer for this event. Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models and determine when and how the possible becomes real.' Yet they advise individuals to look to the IWW 'militant' as a model, and not 'the sad, ascetic agent of the Third International', nor anyone 'who acts on the basis of duty and discipline, who pretends his or her actions are deduced from an ideal plan'. Though they can't be more concrete, Hardt and Negri are optimistic that 'postmodernity' will bring forth a new kind of militant, a 'communist militant'.4

At this point I want to begin interrogating and criticising Hardt and Negri at a more general level without going into much detail. In the next section I will put forward the perspective of Marx and Engels as an alternative and in the process take up more specific criticisms.

Early in their book, Hardt and Negri state that the 'Marx-Engels manifesto traces a linear and necessary causality', whereas in their manifesto there isn't 'any determinism'. Theirs is 'rather a radical counterpower, ontologically grounded not on any vide pour le futur but on the actual activity of the multitude, its creation, production and power--a materialist teleology'.5 The age-old determinist charge is thus the basis for their justification for going beyond Marx and Engels. Though old, the allegation still lacks merit, and can be easily rebutted on the basis of very accessible facts about Marx and Engels. If their method was so deterministic, how does one explain why they spent most of their political lives trying to shape the revolutionary process? Unless one is willing to argue that they operated on two separate and distinct planes of reality and therefore failed to see the apparent contradiction, then this charge falls flat. There is no evidence that they saw their politics and day to day activism as separate from their theoretical perspectives. I realise of course that it is exactly because their activism is largely ignored--what the next section hopes to rectify--that the charge persists. And herein lies the problem with Hardt and Negri's reading of Marx and Engels, as is true with so many others who make this false charge--either a lack of knowledge or a desire not to know their politics. I'm convinced in their case that it's the former reason.

Hardt and Negri say their method is based 'on the actual activity of the multitude'. The same can be said of that of Marx and Engels. But for the latter that was only the beginning of wisdom. They sought to try to understand the determinants of that 'activity' in order to anticipate the future of the 'multitude' as well as know its past--the alleged 'determinism' of their method. Whereas I argue Hardt and Negri tend to operate at the level of appearances, while Marx and Engels seek out essences. It is their discomfort with such an approach that explains in large part Hardt and Negri's decision to dismiss the law of value and the related labour theory of value of Marx, or to deny their relevance in 'postmodernity'. This in turn explains why they have so little to say about the long term worldwide capitalist crisis of the mid-1970s. It wasn't, contrary to what they argue, just the defeat in Vietnam and the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s that explain US capital's need to restructure. First and foremost it was the long term crisis and the profit crunch that came with it that were decisive. To acknowledge as they do that the crisis was one of overproduction is fine and well. But without the law of value and the labour theory of value capitalist crises cannot be explained. It would appear from a reading of Hardt and Negri that such crises are a thing of the past, or that the law of value is irrelevant in explaining future downturns. If so, they need to make a real case to be convincing, since this is too important an issue. They are right to see the need for a political explanation for long term changes in capitalism. It's just that what they supply is inadequate. For Marx and Engels long term crises were crucial in explaining the 'actual activity of the multitude', and this is why they spent so much of their time trying to make sense of them.

The law of value, I would argue, was reaffirmed with the recent crash of the Nasdaq, the market that specialises in the trade of stocks in the information-communications industry. Contrary, again, to what Hardt and Negri contend, the 'new economy', or what I call the Anna Kournikova economy, is subject to the same law of value as the 'old economy', and its day of reckoning finally arrived. Although the market value of the tennis star, who has seldom if ever won a major tournament, can continue to rise, capital, which once found the 'new economy' also as attractive, eventually demanded a victory on the court of return on investments--just what the 'new economy' couldn't supply. Capital can indeed operate in the postmodern world of 'virtual' profits for a while--at the level of appearances--but the law of value exists just to bring social production back to the material prerequisites of society. The unforgiving logic of the 'old economy of bricks and mortar'--that is, the production of material goods, has asserted itself once again. It may indeed be difficult to measure socially necessary labour in a service-informational economy--again, the level of appearances--but it doesn't mean that such a determination has ceased to be necessary. The history of the capitalist mode of production--and market economies in general--teaches that in the long run prices tend to reflect value or the amount of socially necessary labour in the production of goods and services. To argue otherwise, Hardt and Negri would, again, have to make a more compelling case.

They make another claim which I will only treat briefly, because it flies even more in the face of reality. To say that in today's world 'private property is increasingly nonsensical' is itself without sense. Even in the world of the 'new economy', try telling that to the owners of the record companies who successfully put Napster out of business and are threatening its future wannabes with similar suits. More than three decades ago the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel correctly predicted the trajectory of the communications industry--its transformation from a public to a private good.6 Yes, the imposition of rules of private property over services, information, and communications may be harder to accomplish as current debates around piracy demonstrate (the level of appearances), but as with the law of value that doesn't mean it is less important. In the larger world of Empire, also try telling landlords who carry out violence against activists in the landless movement in Brazil or in struggles elsewhere for land or a place to live that private property is 'nonsensical'. Hardt and Negri's facile dismissal of private property reflects another fundamental problem with their analysis. It is true that in a world where social production is the norm at the global level, private ownership of the means of production is 'nonsensical', in that it is incompatible with humanity's ability to make rational decisions about such production. But at no time should partisans of the multitude confuse what should be with what is, nor conflate a historical tendency with current reality. To do so can be fatal, as history has unfortunately demonstrated all too often.

What is, again, admirable about Hardt and Negri is their optimism about the ability of the oppressed to resist. But their approach implicitly assumes that this can proceed inevitably toward success. Even more problematic, it assumes that resistance translates automatically into the construction of an alternative project. Their thesis of the 'accumulation of struggles'--that as a result of multiple sites of struggle the multitude is able to advance its collective interests--assumes that consciousness about this process is not needed. The multitude, hence, can do its thing without organisation, leadership or discipline. But history has shown repeatedly that revolutionary mobilisation is a process, and a very uneven one at that. Not everyone and every social layer radicalises at the same rate. Some forces go into motion sooner than others. The task becomes, then, how to give direction to this unevenness in order to concentrate its strength. Also, the multitude radicalises usually around immediate issues. The challenge for any social movement is to connect specific struggles with one another, to generalise beyond their own situation, to understand the less visible structural issues at stake, and to forge an alternative project. This is exactly what Marx and Engels, as I hope to show in the next section, addressed in order for the revolutionary party, the communist core, to be prepared to provide leadership when the proverbial shit hits the fan. Hardt and Negri correctly recognise the problem about the lack of communication between struggles--the need, in other words, to make the connections--but fail to offer a solution. If anything, they seem to applaud this by making virtue out of necessity--again, the problem of operating at the level of appearances.

To claim, for example, that US workers are stronger than their counterparts in other advanced capitalist countries because they have lower rates of unionisation and lack a labour party, that is, their own political party--is absurd. To do so is to ignore such realities as longer working weeks (including the common phenomenon of working 'off the clock' á la Wal-Mart), higher accident rates, less holiday time, and less social wages such as unemployment and health benefits for the US working class as a whole. This is an odd oversight for an analysis that is supposedly sensitive to what it calls 'biopolitical power'. The indisputable fact is that US capital has been more successful than its cohorts elsewhere in the world in squeezing more sweat and blood--surplus value--out of its working class. Hardt and Negri's argument, therefore, that the unstructured, unorganised and novel character of the social movements of the 1960s--that is, the counterculture--was a boon to the working class is misleading. Their related claim that the success of the movement required capital to shift from a regime of discipline to one of control is also untenable. What exactly is the death penalty if not a regime of discipline of the working class? That the US ruling class was able to revive the use of this class weapon in 1976 speaks volumes about the limitations of the 1960s social movements.

There should be no illusions about the politics and organising of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the counterculture. It was a radicalisation in the context of affluence that occurred before the onset of the long term economic crisis of the mid-1970s. And it involved a mode of functioning that may have been appropriate to that era but is not the case today. One of the obligations for anyone from those years who does political work with radicalising youth today is to disabuse them of any glorification of that era's modus operandi. Such methods and styles were in many ways a reaction to the bureaucratic non-democratic practices of Stalinism (more about this shortly), and to edify them in any way, as Hardt and Negri tend to do, is a serious political error. All of us who came into politics in that period should be honest and say that we did the best we could under the circumstances, but we make no virtue out of necessity. Today's political reality, in the context of the long term downturn that continues unabated since the mid-1970s, requires just the kind of organisational consciousness and discipline that workers had to muster in previous capitalist crises--wholly contrary, in other words, to what Hardt and Negri contend.

Toward the end of their manifesto Hardt and Negri declare, 'We are not anarchists but communists who have seen how much repression and destruction of humanity have been wrought by liberal and social big governments.' Their protests notwithstanding, it is however the politics of anarchism that inform their project. Their praise of the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s, a multitude that acts without programme, lacks an organisational centre and a disciplined vanguard--in other words, a leadership--and their proffering of the individual militant of the IWW, an anarcho-syndicalist organisation, as a model leave little doubt about their political proclivities. Most importantly, this explains their fundamental disagreement with the kind of theoretical orientation of Marx and Engels, which they describe as determinist--the same complaint lodged by the latter's erstwhile anarchist arch-enemy Mikhail Bakunin more than a century ago.

Hardt and Negri have every right of course to be anarchists. They can be faulted, however, for not owning up to their true political identity. Under the cover of communist identity they can therefore absolve themselves from having to draw a historical balance sheet on the anarchist alternative. This is apparently why they feel no need, for example, to explain why the IWW went out of political business 80 years ago, but yet can express rightful indignation--which borders on self righteousness--about 'socialist big governments'.

As 'communist militants' they are certainly obliged to criticise what was done in the name of Marx and Engels, including both the practice of social democracy and the outcome in the Soviet Union. But again, what they supply is far from adequate. To suggest as they do that Lenin's 'Taylorism' planted the seeds of the counter-revolution that unfolded in the Soviet Union is misplaced. It's still the case that the best explanation, and one that's also grounded in Marx's method, is Trotsky's thesis on Stalinism. Though they appear to cite it approvingly--but only in passing--it's clear that either they don't understand it or that they disagree with it. Not only does Trotsky make a convincing case for explaining what he calls the 'betrayal' of the Russian Revolution, but also why working class movements under Stalinist tutelage in other settings--both the so called Third World and advanced capitalist formations like France in 1968--failed either to take power or made, if they did so, a mockery of communist revolutions. Had Hardt and Negri really grasped Trotsky's argument they would also know why what once had been a real instrument for making connections between various struggles--the Communist International--ceased by about 1928 to play such a role. The Stalinisation of the international communist movement, which helped to breed the 'sad, ascetic agent of the Third International', goes far in explaining what they call the 'paradox of incommunicability' between social struggles in diverse settings. Most importantly, they would know why the demise of Stalinist hegemony on a global basis, in and around 1989, has been the most propitious development for advancing the interests of the multitude than perhaps any event since the Bolshevik triumph in 1917--the real basis for revolutionary optimism today.

Like Marx and Engels, Hardt and Negri begin with the world as their unit of analysis. They are right to criticise the fetishism of the 'localisation of struggles', but in so doing they commit the opposite fallacy. For them it tends to be all global or nothing and, therefore, they miss or fail to see the link between the local and global. All struggles begin locally. The task of communists is to get local participants to understand how their struggles are part and parcel of something global, how to link up with struggles elsewhere--how to help the oppressed to generalise. Marx and Engels understood this well, as will be seen later. It may indeed be Hardt and Negri's anti-determinist stance that explains why they have little or nothing to say about how to make such links. To be prepared to convince activists in local struggles how what they do connects to larger structural issues is no doubt what they find objectionable in Marx and Engels's methodology. For Marx and Engels, again, the 'activity of the multitude', while crucial, is only the beginning of wisdom, whereas for Hardt and Negri it is both beginning and end.

Nevertheless, Hardt and Negri bring their own preconceptions to the table. Their claim that all local struggles are global allows them to impute to national liberation struggles a teleology that is often absent in the self understandings of their participants. To claim, for example, that 'proletarian internationalism was anti-nationalist' is not exactly, as will be seen later, what Marx and Engels thought--Lenin as well.7 All three defended in the name of 'proletarian internationalism' the nationalism of the oppressed, as in the case of the Irish and Polish struggles. To further argue that there are no longer any weak links in the chain of imperialism, since in the age of Empire all is equally global, also ignores reality. Can it really be denied at this moment that Venezuela and Argentina, for example, are more unstable and vulnerable to collapse than Washington's other hemispheric allies? There is indeed at the global level a growing convergence of local struggles, but this should not be confused with a completed process as Hardt and Negri do--another example of their wont for conflating tendencies with reality which, again, can be fatal in politics.

The world in which we live is increasingly fraught with danger for its producers and demands more than what Hardt and Negri have put forward as a manifesto for the multitude. Given what they pretend to be, 'communist militants', and, again, given current reality, they have an elementary revolutionary duty to offer more than just a hope. If it's true, as they claim, that Marx and Engels's programme is outdated, then they must provide something that is qualitatively superior to what the two both proposed and acted on. To end as they do--'We are still awaiting...the construction, or rather the insurgence, of a powerful organisation'--is politically irresponsible. In the absence of a credible alternative, I want to argue that there is still not only more but much more to be learned from Marx and Engels, in spite of their not having lived long enough to witness Hardt and Negri's 'postmodernity'.

Real communist politics: Marx and Engels in action

What follows here pretends in no way to be even an overview of Marx and Engels's politics. The five decades, from 1846 to 1895, that they spent organising politically together is far too complex to lend itself to such a treatment in the confines of this article.8 Neither is there space here to draw a balance sheet on the political activities of those who continued their work, such as Lenin and Trotsky. I will focus on a few key moments in their political careers that address some of the claims in Hardt and Negri about the supposed shortcomings and irrelevancy of their project for the world of Empire.

'What is to be done?'

The alleged determinism of Marx and Engels's method is what they themselves called their 'scientific communism', or their 'materialist conception of history'. But even before its formulation they had concluded that the study of the multitude's age-old democratic quest, 'the real movement of history', pointed the way forward to 'human emancipation'. That history, especially that of the French Revolution, revealed that 'ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force.' As immortalised in Marx's Theses on Feuerbach (1845), revolutionary practice was the means by which not only the oppressed were educated but also by which the 'educator...must be educated'. The 'educator', in other words, had to engage in the same revolutionary activities as the proletariat and other oppressed layers and for the same reasons. To not do so would mean to 'divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society'--Marx's answer, then, to the oft-made charge that their politics inherently assume an enlightened elite vis-à-vis 'dumb masses'. Hal Draper writes, 'The third thesis is the philosophic formulation by Marx of the basis of the principle of self emancipation [of the proletariat]. It represents perhaps the first time in socialist thought that theory turns around to take a hard look at the theoretician'.9 Marx and Engels's lifelong tendency to prioritise political over what they called 'scientific work', whenever there was real motion, was the realisation of the thesis for themselves. The third thesis, along with the more famous eleventh--'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it'--would forever inform their politics. But for revolutionary practice to be efficacious, revolutionary theory was required.

They recognised quite early that if they were to have an impact on the proletariat--the class they determined to have both the interest and capacity in leading the fight for 'human emancipation'--Marx would have to, as Engels kept urging, produce a 'fat book'. As Marx began that task, Engels took up public speaking in order to 'exert influence' on the proletariat: 'Standing up in front of real, live people and holding forth to them directly and straightforwardly, so that they see and hear you, is something quite different from engaging in this devilishly abstract quill-pushing with an abstract audience in one's "mind's eye".'10 Hence, while publications were crucial, they were not sufficient. Directly engaging workers in discussions and participating in public debates were also necessary.

Their first 'fat book', The German Ideology (1846), laid out their 'materialist conception of history', the theory needed to inform their practice. Though never published in their lifetime, its ideas immediately informed their subsequent writings. Armed with their new perspective, Marx and Engels sought immediately to link up with Europe's proletariat. Owing to the strengths of their arguments and active efforts to make their case, they were eventually successful. This meant having to best in debates other socialist or communist currents also seeking the ear of the proletariat. Forty years later Engels explained how this was done: 'We influenced the theoretical views of the most important word of mouth, by letter and through the press. For this purpose we also made use of various lithographed circulars, which we dispatched to our friends and correspondents throughout the world'.11 Impressed with their 'scientific communism', the most politically advanced of these workers invited them in 1847 to lead their organisation--renamed at their urging the League of Communists--and to write a programme for it, The Communist Manifesto. Published on the eve of the 1848 revolutions, it sought to persuade communists who had generally functioned in a conspiratorial fashion to end their sectarian stance toward the working class and to see themselves as the most conscious layer of the proletariat.

It can't be stressed enough that the original connection between Marxists--the 'educators'--and workers came at the initiative of the latter, given the oft-made charge that the former seek to be a new elite to lord over the working class--an implicit criticism in Hardt and Negri. In 1847 Engels addressed the charge of an opponent (Karl Heinzen) that 'communist writers are only using the communist workers... [They act as] prophets, priests or teachers who possess a secret wisdom of their own but deny it to the uneducated in order to keep them on leading strings'.12 Precisely because of the way in which the Marx-Engels team came to be part of the workers' movement earlier that year, Engels could confidently dismiss the charge. Regarding such 'insinuations, we do not take issue with them. We leave it to the communist workers to pass judgement on them themselves.' That is, only the working class had the right to decide if it was being duped by the Marxists. This was good advice not only in 1847 but ever since whenever this charge has been raised.

Two decades later at a congress of the International Working Men's Association (more about this later) Marx was defended by leaders of the English trade union movement, testimony to the esteem in which he was held by the workers' movement and the prescience of his earlier work. The specific issue was whether or not 'mental workers', ie intellectuals, should be permitted to attend the congresses. In successfully opposing the view that they should not, one of the English delegates replied that men like Marx--he was absent--'who devote themselves to the cause of the proletaires are too rare to make it expedient that they should be "snubbed". The middle class only triumphed when it allied itself with men of science and it is the pretended science of middle class political economy which gives it prestige and, through that prestige, ministers to its power. Let those who have studied political economy from a working class standpoint come, by all means, to our congresses, there to shiver the fallacies of middle class political economy'.13 As far as the leaders of what was then the most advanced working class were concerned, there was indeed a clear distinction between ideas that accurately represented social reality--science--and those that didn't (what Marx and Engels understood ideology to be), and they had no doubt that the programme of Marx belonged to the former.

Thus the assumption underlying Marx and Engels's politics was that the successful struggle of the multitude depended on a programme that accurately represented social reality--ie constituted, as they understood it, a science. Such a perspective no doubt smacks of determinism for Hardt and Negri. Learning from and participating in the 'real movement of history' was the means for constructing a science of society. This is the point that Engels was getting at in a polemic, written about the same time, about the communist project: 'Communism is not a doctrine but a movement. It proceeds not from principles but from facts... In so far as it is a theory, [it] is the theoretical expression of the proletariat in this struggle and the theoretical summation of the conditions for the liberation of the proletariat'.14 Or, as it was stated in the Manifesto, 'The theoretical conclusions of the communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes'.15

And from Poverty of Philosophy, also written in the same period:

Clearly for Marx and Engels the efficacious struggle of the multitude depended on the production of scientific ideas, namely propositions based on the real movement--the distillation of the lessons of the class struggle.

Their orientation was the basis for Marx and Engels's famous polemic in 1847 against the aforementioned opponent and newly converted republican, Karl Heinzen, who epitomised all that was wrong with revolutionaries who operated without a scientific programme. On the heels of his overnight conversion to the democratic cause Heinzen, like many an ultra-left who would follow in his stead, issued a call for 'immediate insurrection'. They wrote:

Their 'materialist conception of history', they argued, would assist in 'understanding [the] circumstances' under which revolutionary propaganda would get a serious hearing from the oppressed--in understanding the determinants of what Hardt and Negri claim to base their practice, 'the actual activity of the multitude'.

If Heinzen's tactics were disastrous, then, Engels asked, 'What is the task of a party press? To debate, first and foremost, to explain, to expound, to defend the party's demands, to rebut and refute the claims and assertions of the opposing party.' The specific tasks of the press of the 'democratic party' in Germany, of which the communists, as Marx and Engels frequently pointed out, were simply the most extreme wing, was to 'demonstrate the necessity for democracy by the worthlessness of the present government'.

Engels went on to describe another task which was crucial to their strategy, and which is virtually ignored or denied by friend and foe alike:

Engels's advice anticipated by more than half a century Lenin's call in What Is To Be Done? for 'social democracy' and its press to become the 'tribune of the people'--the multitude. The importance of this alliance of the 'people' for Marx and Engels's strategy cannot be overstated. Until the very end they defended the 'people's alliance', especially in countries such as Germany where the proletariat was still in formation.

On the eve of the 1848 revolutions Marx and Engels expanded the concept of the people's alliance to include other allies of the proletariat, specifically the nationally oppressed. The Irish and Polish struggles for national self determination, in particular, were seen as necessary steps in the liberation of the proletariat in England and Germany respectively. As Engels explained at a banquet in 1847 in solidarity with the Polish struggle, 'We German democrats have a special interest in the liberation of Poland... A nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations'.19 Such advice was also meant for democrats of other oppressor nations. On no issue were they clearer about this than the Irish case. Thus they applauded and reported to democrats in other countries whenever the Chartists opposed British rule in Ireland and reached out to Irish workers. Engels asked the readers of the French republican daily La Réforme to consider the significance of an 'alliance between the peoples of the two islands. British democracy will advance much more quickly when its ranks are swelled by 2 million brave and ardent Irish, and poverty-stricken Ireland will at last have taken an important step towards her liberation'.20 Whereas Hardt and Negri tend to counterpose the proletarian struggle to the national liberation struggle, for Marx and Engels they were intertwined or, as Marx stated at the same banquet, 'the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie is at the same time the signal of liberation for all oppressed nations'.21

One of the things that clearly distinguished them from other self styled socialists and communists within the workers' movement was their view that the fight for communism was intimately linked with the fight for political democracy. Responding in 1892 to the charge--one that still continues until today--that he and Marx ignored democratic forms of governance, Engels countered, 'Marx and I, for 40 years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalised and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat'.22 For many a 20th century would-be Marxist this advice was either unavailable or ignored, with all the tragic consequences.

Contrary to the usual portraits of them as just theorists, Marx and Engels were active organisers--consistent with Marx's Theses. While workers were the revolutionary class they had to be won to a communist programme which required conscious and active leadership. On the basis of the experience of the League of Communists, earlier organising efforts, and their baptism of fire in the revolutions of 1848-1849, they formulated organisational views that remained with them to the end, many of which became part of Lenin's arsenal.

Towards the end of the summer of 1850 Marx and Engels concluded, based on Marx's research on developments in the world capitalist economy, that the revolutionary wave that began in 1848 had come to an end, and that the socialist revolution was not on the immediate agenda anywhere in Europe. A major upturn in Western European economies was under way, which meant that the grievances of Europe's working masses which fed the 1848 upsurge were likely to diminish. Such a conclusion required organisational as well as political adjustments. Thus, beginning in the autumn of the same year, they began to reorient their party activities to this new reality.

What the league confronted is perhaps the most difficult challenge for a revolutionary organisation--knowing when a revolutionary moment has opened and when it has closed, 'What is to be done?' If such moments were determinate, as Marx and Engels held, then it was possible and necessary to make adjustments in the political work. A significant minority of the league disagreed that the era had come to an end, and even questioned whether it was possible to make such a determination. They argued that, regardless of what Marx and Engels's research showed, revolution was still on the agenda in Germany and they would act accordingly-continuing to issue, therefore, calls for revolution. In the debate Marx sharply criticised this view: 'A German national standpoint was substituted for the universal outlook of the Manifesto, and the national feelings of the German artisans were pandered to. The materialist standpoint of the Manifesto has given away to idealism. The revolution is not seen as the product of realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will... The actual revolutionary process would have to be replaced by revolutionary catchwords'.23 Reminiscent of their critique of Heinzen three years earlier, Marx and Engels concluded that such a line would not get a hearing among Germany's producers. Events soon proved them to have been correct.

In addition to the German emigres, petty bourgeois democrats from Europe's failed revolutions also gathered in London. There they formed in June 1850 the Central Committee for European Democracy, which eventually attracted the minority wing of the League of Communists, to direct an expected new revolutionary upsurge. On the basis of their new findings, Marx and Engels criticised their July 'Manifesto' as an 'appeal to mindlessness', because it denied the class struggle, discounted revolutionary theory and sought to reduce the revolutionary process to simply an organisational problem. Within two years the body folded, as they had predicted. It would be more than a decade before Europe would experience another revolutionary moment.

If it is difficult to determine when a revolutionary era has ended, it is no less easy to determine when one has begun. For at least a decade Marx and Engels had to grapple with this problem. The lull in the class struggle offered their tendency the opportunity to carry out the requisite research--what they called 'swotting' (from the verb 'to sweat')--in order to make such a determination. One of the newer recruits to the party in the early 1850s in London, Wilhelm Liebknecht, was impressed by the seriousness with which Marx took research not only for himself but for other members. As he recalled many years later:

Swotting, in fact, distinguished the Marx party from other revolutionary currents--as Engels explained in his review in 1859 of Marx's A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the first instalment of the long-awaited political economy project:

A few months before the book's publication, Marx left no doubt, as he explained to another comrade, as to its purpose: 'I hope to win a scientific victory for our party'.26 In a comment to another party member about the next book in the project--which eventually would be Capital--Marx said that it would 'take a somewhat different form, more popular to some degree...because [it] has an expressly revolutionary function'.27 Marx and Engels's greatest fear during this period was that they would not have the scientific 'ammunition' in place 'for the future fight'--again, the importance of the scientific work for the political struggle.

While convinced that the ups and downs of capitalist business cycles were crucial, especially when the downs were unusually deep, they learned that no political repercussions necessarily flowed from such crises, such as the one in 1857--at least not immediately. In England, where Marx and Engels had pinned their hopes on a modern industrial proletarian movement, the situation appeared no brighter--especially as it became clear by the end of 1858 that the economic crisis had ebbed. Yet Marx was convinced by then that a new revolutionary wave was in the making.

In this context Marx raised, in a comment to Engels, a most intriguing question that has been ignored since by friend and foe alike. Although they were convinced that the capitalist mode of production had outworn its welcome, was it really in 1858 fated for extinction given that it had certainly by now created a 'world market, at least in outline, and production...based on that market'?

It would only be in hindsight, four decades later, that Engels would be able to provide the answer to this question. The problem, of course, as he later wrote, was that the premise was faulty--capitalism had not expended its potential by any means in 1858, and neither was socialist revolution anywhere on the agenda, as they had concluded in the balance sheets they drew on the 1848 events: 'History had proved us, and all who thought like us wrong. It has made clear that the state of economic development on the continent at that time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production'.29 That the era of socialist revolution had opened with the defeat of the 1848 revolutions did not in the least imply that such revolutions were imminent. This is the importance of not doing what Hardt and Negri tend to--conflating historical tendencies with current reality.

When, as Marx and Engels correctly anticipated, a new revolutionary era opened in the early 1860s Marx saw this as the opportunity to implement the lessons of 1848. Under his leadership, the International Working Men's Association (IWMA), founded in 1864--organisationally very different from the League of Communists--made independent working class political action a reality for the first time in European politics. Critical of trade unions for having 'kept too much aloof from the general social and political movements' (what Lenin would later call in his What Is To Be Done in 1902 the problem of 'economism') he led the fight, through the organisation, to convince unions to 'learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interests of its complete emancipation'--in other words, to think socially and act politically. Marx's efforts, with Engels's crucial assistance, and against the opposition of currents in the workers' movement that dismissed political action like the anarchists, laid the basis for what would eventually be the mass workers' parties of Europe--for example, the present-day Socialists and Social Democrats respectively in France and Germany.

Were Marx and Engels Eurocentrists?

The failure of the 1848 revolutions allowed Marx and Engels to give more detailed attention to developments beyond Europe. Three settings are instructive for purposes here--Algeria, India and Mexico. Regarding the first, a month before the Manifesto was published Engels applauded the French conquest of Algeria and defeat of the uprising led by the religious leader Abd-el Kader, saying that it was 'an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation'.30 Nine years later in 1857 he had completely reversed his stance, and now severely denounced French colonial rule and expressed sympathy for religious-led Arab resistance to the imperial power.31 Their historical materialist perspective explains Engels's initial position. However, the real movement of history, especially the lessons of 1848, had taught that however progressive French imperialism may have been prior to then, it had outworn its usefulness--the opposition of the colonial subjects was now the movement to be supported. Shortly before his death in 1883 Marx visited Algeria in the hope that its climate would improve his health. A comment to his daughter Laura about the situation of the colonised reveals that his identification with them as fellow fighters had not waned: 'They will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement'.32

Marx's first sustained writing on India strikes a similar tone to that sounded by Engels about Algeria in 1848. He described in 1853 Britain's undermining of local industries and social structures as 'causing a social revolution', however ' must be to human feeling to witness' the effects of such policies.33 But by the time of the Sepoy Mutiny against British rule in 1857-1859, Marx and Engels's sympathy for the anti-colonial struggle was unquestionable. As Marx told his partner: 'In view of the drain of men and bullion which she will cost the English, India is now our best ally'.34 For both of them, therefore, the uprisings in these countries were exactly what Marx had forecast at the end of 1848 about the global interdependency of the revolutionary movement. Later in 1871, the International Working Men's Association, which Marx effectively headed, reported that a request had come to it from Calcutta to establish a branch of the body in the city. The secretary for the organisation's executive committee in London, the General Council, 'was urge the necessity of enrolling natives in the association', thus making clear that the new affiliate was not to be an exclusively expatriate branch.35

Finally, there is the case of Mexico. For Engels in 1849 the US conquest of northern Mexico was 'waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilisation', particularly because the 'energetic Yankees'--unlike the 'lazy Mexicans'--would bring about the 'rapid exploitation of the California goldmines', and hence for the 'third time in history give world trade a new direction'.36 Subsequent history and research forced them to qualify this assessment. With the American Civil War looming, Marx wrote in 1861 that in 'the foreign, as in domestic, policy of the United States, the interests of the slaveholders served as the guiding star'. The seizure of northern Mexico had in fact made it possible to 'impose slavery and with it the rule of the slaveholders' not only in Texas but later in what are now New Mexico and Arizona.37 The benefits that came with California were compromised by the 'barbarity' of slavery's extension.

Hardt and Negri's failure to acknowledge Marx's embrace of the Sepoy mutineers allows them to point to his earlier position in 1853 on India as symptomatic of his 'Eurocentrism'. According to them, 'Marx can conceive of history outside of Europe only as moving strictly along the path already travelled by Europe itself'.38 If the suggestion is that Marx intended his description of the emergence of capitalism in Western Europe to be a model for elsewhere, they should know better. In his well known letter to Russian revolutionaries in 1877 Marx rejected just such a spin on his analysis made by a critic who 'insists on transforming my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the general path of development prescribed by fate to all nations, whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves'. He then stressed the importance of treating social formations as concrete entities with 'different historical surroundings'. The comparison of these formations can yield key insights but, as Marx warned, 'one will never arrive there by using as one's master key a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being supra-historical'.39 Marx's point, therefore, constitutes another rejoinder to Hardt and Negri's 'deterministic' Marx.

If implicit in their criticism is the frequently made charge that Marx and Engels prioritised developments in Europe over the rest of the world, then again they are wrong. Though Hegel's philosophy of world history no doubt prepared Marx and Engels to think globally, it was when they became conscious communists and formed their revolutionary partnership in 1844 that they concretised their own position. In The German Ideology they argued that only with the 'universal development of productive forces' would it be possible for 'a universal intercourse between men [to be] established...making each nation dependent on the revolution of others, and finally [putting] world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones'. Thus 'communism...can only have a "world-historical" existence'.40 Shortly afterwards, this and other fundamental premises of their new perspective would find their way into the Manifesto. The draft from which Marx worked, Engels's catechised Principles of Communism, was more explicit. To the question, 'Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?' the reply is: 'No... It is a worldwide revolution and will therefore be worldwide in scope'.41 Written on the eve of the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels clearly understood that only the 'real movement' could provide the actual answer to the question. Nevertheless, the global orientation with which they entered those upheavals served as their frame of reference in making political assessments along the way.

As early as the end of 1848 Marx and Engels concluded that the outcome of the German revolution was as inextricably linked to struggles 'waged in Canada as in Italy, in East Indies as in Prussia, in Africa as on the Danube'. In the relative calm of London and the British Museum in 1849-1850 they undertook research that allowed them to strengthen this judgment. Their findings made clear that the world's economic centre had by then shifted from Western Europe to the United States:

This assessment, apparently the first ever made,43 would, they predicted, have revolutionary implications for the peoples of Asia, especially the Chinese. News of the Taiping Rebellion in 1850, the result in part of British commercial penetration into coastal areas, suggested that 'the oldest and least perturbable kingdom on earth [was on] the eve of a social upheaval, which, in any event, is bound to have the most significant results for civilisation'.44 The possibility of a bourgeois democratic revolution in China and it having world shaking repercussions was an outcome about which they could barely conceal their joy. If Western Europe had once been at the centre of Marx and Engels's world view, this was certainly no longer true after 1850. Their newly acquired global perspective allowed them in 1858 to see beyond 'this little corner of the earth' without a hint of nostalgia. It explains why they could accurately predict in 1882 that Russia, an overwhelmingly peasant country that had only one foot in Europe and not the Europe that the Eurocentric charge refers to--its most developed western flank--formed 'the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe'.45


The world we live in today is, again, more unstable than it has been since the end of the Cold War. That the world's producers, the multitude itself, have not gone into battle to oppose this is no excuse for those who pretend to have more insight. To even suggest order, which is what Hardt and Negri's central thesis about Empire does, is to disarm the potential vanguard fighters of the multitude. Though Marx and Engels put forward their perspective more than 150 years ago, it has more currency now than then. Nothing offered since then, including Empire's 'manifesto', has superior explanatory and political power. Exactly because Marx and Engels were not inevitabilists, as a determinist reading of them would suggest, they understood all too well the choices that confront humanity now more than ever--between socialism or barbarism. Not only the frightful imbroglio in South Asia, but the elections in Europe in which fascist forces have come forward in a way not seen since the decades that preceded the Second World War, offer striking confirmation of these fateful choices. Those who understand what's at stake have an obligation to take steps now to forge an alternative. Hardt and Negri's advice to wait is exactly what is not needed. To think that Empire will be successfully contested by a viable alternative without consciousness, organisation and disciplined action--that is, a revolutionary party--is absurd. Lenin, who understood the revolutionary process better than anyone, long ago recognised that to try to forge a revolutionary leadership in the heat of the battle would be fatal. The fate of Rosa Luxemburg, for whom Hardt and Negri express greater sympathy, offers tragic evidence of what happens when sincere revolutionaries try to do just that. Unless that leadership is already in place to provide direction--something that the masses, in the final analysis, will decide on--it is already too late.

History has repeatedly shown that the masses will indeed go into action--Hardt and Negri would endorse this. History has also shown that unless that energy is channelled in the most effective way, then such opportunities can be lost for decades, with horrible consequences. History has yet to show any more effective way for achieving this other than with a conscious, organised and disciplined leadership--a revolutionary party. One need only ponder the current reality in Venezuela and Argentina, two situations crying out for revolutionary leadership, to realise the truth of this claim. To discard prematurely the lessons of history and the method that Marx and Engels used to distil them without an effective replacement, as do Hardt and Negri, is again politically irresponsible--especially for those calling themselves 'communist militants'.

There is no suggestion here that Marx and Engels cannot be improved on. Exactly because they were materialists they understood the communist project to be the quintessential work in progress. But to do so requires what they had--direct involvement with or an organic link to the living struggles of the multitude, the proletariat, the laboratory of the class struggle. There is nothing in what Hardt and Negri have presented so far to indicate that they are so connected.


  1. M Hardt and A Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass, 2000), pp44-46.

  2. Ibid, p256.

  3. Ibid, pp302, 354-359.

  4. Ibid, pp411-413.

  5. Ibid, pp64, 66.

  6. E Mandel, Late Capitalism (New York, 1972), pp402, 406.

  7. Ibid, p49.

  8. A Nimtz, Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany, 2000) does present such an overview and analysis.

  9. H Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, vol 1 (New York, 1977), p234.

  10. K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works, vol 38 (London, 1975), p23. Hereafter, citations from the Collected Works will be designated by MECW.

  11. MECW, vol 26, pp319-320.

  12. MECW, vol 6, p303.

  13. Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (new edition, Berlin, 1975) Bd 20, 1, pp706-707.

  14. MECW, vol 6, pp303-304.

  15. Ibid, p498.

  16. Ibid, pp177-178.

  17. Ibid, p294.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid, p389.

  20. Ibid. At this time Marx and Engels looked for the initiative to come from the English proletariat for Ireland's independence. They later reversed that view. In a letter to Engels in 1869 Marx explained, 'For a long time I believed it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy... Deeper study has convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland' (MECW, vol 43, p398).

  21. MECW, vol 6, p388.

  22. MECW, vol 27, p271.

  23. MECW, vol 10, pp626-627.

  24. Marx and Engels Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries (Moscow, 1978), p71. One of the best examples of how Marx encouraged party members in scientific work was his relationship with Johann Eccarius, a tailor, who with Marx's assistance became a proletarian intellectual. For the details on their relationship, which is also a powerful refutation of Avineri's claim that Eccarius came in for 'unearned contempt' from Marx, see 'Two Adventures in Sophisticated Marxology', in H Draper, op cit, vol 2, pp644-653.

  25. MECW, vol 16, pp470-471. The 'great men of the exile' comes from the title of the manuscript by the same name that Marx and Engels wrote in 1852 that exposes in satirical form the reformist émigré would-be revolutionaries.

  26. MECW, vol 40, p377.

  27. MECW, vol 41, p193.

  28. Ibid, p347.

  29. MECW, vol 27, p512.

  30. MECW, vol 6, p471.

  31. MECW, vol 18, pp67-69.

  32. MECW, vol 46, p242. Though the visit was only for recuperative purposes, it's instructive to note that Marx couldn't help but take an interest in learning about'communal ownership among the Arabs' (MECW, vol 46, pp210-211). Lastly, about a half year before his death in 1883, Marx reported favourably on anti-imperialist activities in France against British moves in Egypt (ibid, p298).

  33. MECW, vol 12, p132.

  34. MECW, vol 40, p249.

  35. General Council of the First International, vol 2 (Moscow, 1963-1968), p258.

  36. MECW, vol 8, p365.

  37. MECW, vol 19, pp36-37.

  38. M Hardt and A Negri, op cit, p120.

  39. K Marx and F Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow 1975), pp293-294; MECW, vol 24, pp200-201. Leon Trotsky addressed this issue many years ago: '"The country that is more developed industrially," Marx wrote in the preface to the first edition of his Capital, "only shows to the less developed the image of its own future." Under no circumstances can this thought be taken literally. The growth of productive forces and the deepening of social inconsistencies is undoubtedly the lot of every country that has set out on the road of bourgeois development. However, the disproportion of tempos and standards, which goes through all of mankind's development, not only became especially acute under capitalism, but gave rise to the complex interdependence of subordination, exploitation, and oppression between countries of different economic type'. L Trotsky, The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx (London, 1946), pp40-41.

  40. MECW, vol 5, p49.

  41. MECW, vol 6, pp351-352.

  42. MECW, vol 10, p265.

  43. In a subsequent issue of their NRZ Revue Marx and Engels wrote, 'We have already pointed out, before any other European periodical, the importance of the discovery and the consequences it is bound to have for the whole world trade.' Ibid, p504.


  45. Ibid, p267.

  46. MECW, vol 24, p426.

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