Max Shachtman

Introduction to
Franz Mehring’s Karl Marx


Source: Introduction dated 1962 to Franz Mehring, Karl Marx, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 1962.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxists’ Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Interest in economics and politics, indeed, in the trend and problems of social development in general, cannot be enlightened without an understanding – regardless of the conclusions drawn from it – of the ideas of Karl Marx. Ignorance of Marxism, or even indifference to it, is as inexcusable in the fields of social science and politics as ignorance of Newton and Darwin would be (to use a loose but adequate comparison) in the fields of physics and biology. The belief that Marxism has been outlived, or that it is irrelevant to events and problems of our day, or that it has failed in this or that or in all respects, is nowhere so widely held as in the United States. It would be more appropriate to hold that this belief itself, and in all its forms, has been outlived and is irrelevant to the need to know Marx’s ideas.

Marx is unique among all the social thinkers of his time. If ‘his time’ is extravagantly broadened to include the centuries that have marked the passage from the feudal world to the modern, his distinction is only enhanced. To the name of Marx, as to that of no one else in his field, are attached enduring interest, passion, controversy and great political movements in almost every part of the world. This alone invites thoughtful consideration. But there is more.

The governments of some one-third of the world proclaim Marxism as their official doctrine and guide. The relations between these governments and the rest of the world form the principal axis of world politics today; and the kind of relations that are established largely determine the direction in which the axis revolves. To seek such relations without understanding the doctrine nominally avowed by the forces these governments represent is at best parochialism. The legitimacy of the communist governments’ claim to Marxism is debatable. The claim of Marxism to be studied is not.

In the countries of the West outside the communist world, the political life and destiny of the most important countries – the United States appears to be the outstanding exception – are decisively influenced by socialist movements which enjoy the allegiance of millions. Unlike the communist movement, the socialist movement today is not Marxist in name. Despite its substantially Marxist origins, contemporary European socialism has either disavowed Marxism or has significantly revised many of its ideas. The importance of this disavowal and revision cannot be disregarded. It does not follow that Marxism can be disregarded.

What Marxism means has been interpreted to the satisfaction of literally hundreds of writers on the subject, by supporters as well as opponents, by those who have studied it, and by those who regard a study of it as an unnecessary impediment. Whatever Marxism may mean to others, Marx himself took pains to set forth what he considered his own central thought. He made it clear in 1852 in a famous letter to a party friend, Georg Weydemeyer, a former Prussian artillery officer who was later active in the American Civil War as a Northern regimental colonel:

... as for myself, no credit is due me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society nor yet the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historic phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. [1]

The old term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has long ago been discarded by all socialists, understandably and wisely. It had acquired abhorrent connotations with the rise of the Stalinist regime, which was nothing but a dictatorship over the proletariat and against it. Ambiguity and misconception have been reduced to a minimum by using the terms ‘labour’ or ‘socialist’ government. In any case, by that harsh Latinic phrase, Marx had in mind, as he put it in his classical statement of the Communist Manifesto, ‘the first step in the workers’ revolution’ which ‘is to make the proletariat the ruling class, to establish democracy’.

The value of knowing Marxism is difficult to reject. The validity of Marxism is not so difficult to reject. It is indeed far more widely rejected than accepted. And where, as in the communist world, it is honoured in the word it is outraged in the deed. It is hardly necessary to go much further than to compare the reality of the so-called communist societies of today with what was explicitly set forth as the view of the early communists of Marx’s time. Only a few weeks before Marx wrote his Manifesto in 1847, the first English journal published in London by the German communist society which sponsored the Manifesto declared:

We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality ...

The present communist regimes may draw their inspiration from ‘some communists’ of a century ago, but not from Marx. They are no more a confirmation of Marxism than they are its realisation – except perhaps in the sense in which Marx wrote that where the struggle of the classes does not end in a ‘revolutionary change in the whole structure of society’, it ends ‘in the common ruin of the contending classes’. [2]

It is said that whatever may be the merit of explaining the ‘failure of Marxism’ in backward countries like tsarist Russia or China, its failure in the capitalistically developed Western countries cannot be explained away. This is undoubtedly true. The incontestable fact that the class struggle has not – in any case, has not yet – led to the rule of the working class that was to be transitional to a classless society (the perspective that Marx himself held to be his unique contribution) is a challenge to all Marxists, most of whom have been too occupied with committing blunders in Marx’s name to leave time for reflecting on this difficult and complex problem.

To meet this challenge, however, other facts also deserve consideration, and by critics of Marxism as well. Outstanding is the fact that even those continuing socialist parties of Europe that have abjured or extensively modified Marxism, and even officially renounced the class struggle, do not seem able to make a fundamental change in their own class character. Their appeals to middle-class elements, entirely proper within limits, have not eliminated the essential fact that they remain the organised working class in politics. Their programme and aims may be formulated ever so moderately and modestly, but so long as they continue to strive for political power in the hands of an organised working-class force, they remain a confirmation of the basic historical and social movement that Marx foresaw.

In this respect, even the United States may prove before too long that its exceptional position is less reality than form and appearance. Marxism, as a theoretical system, has never found great popularity in this country. Class struggle, even the existence of classes, is almost universally denied. It is repeatedly repudiated not only by spokesmen of government, but by leaders of labour and capital. Class harmony, identity, or at least mutuality of interests – that is the American way of life. Yet the most conservative labour leader does not propose to abandon the strictly working-class character of the unions; the most liberal capitalist has a correspondingly rigid attitude with regard to the unions of capital and commerce. Neither side has yet vigorously proposed the merger of the two types of class organisations into one as a living testimonial to the identity of interests they espouse so ceremoniously. Moreover, the class organisations of both sides have been increasingly and antagonistically active in politics in recent years. Each seeks to increase its power and influence in government, each seeks to reduce not only the political influence but the political activity of the others. Thoughtful, or at least instinctive, capitalist judgement more or less grasps the objective implications of labour’s organised, class intervention into political life, even if it is still not as advanced, open-faced and assertive as it is in other countries. This is not the confirmation of Marxism, to be sure. Neither is it the refutation. But it, too, is a challenging development, certainly not to supporters of Marxism alone. Once again, a knowledge of what Marx thought and wrote and did is a valuable aid to understanding.

Franz Mehring once recalled that the philosopher Fichte scolded the German reader for his refusal to read a book because he first wanted to read a book about the book. We Americans deserve the same or a stronger scolding, because we first want to read an authoritative review of a book about the book. That being the case, and reform of habits being a long way off, Mehring’s biography of Marx is to be recommended – as it always has been by serious scholars and students – as the best introduction to the works, to the life and struggle of the most eminent figure in world socialism.


1. See Marx to J. Weydemeyer in New York, 5 March 1852 – MIA.

2. See Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter 1 – MIA.

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