How Marx became a Marxist

In 1882, Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s longtime collaborator, close friend, and ally, wrote a letter to Eduard Bernstein about the problems of the European socialists of the day. Engels recalled how Marx had told his son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, that he wasn’t certain about many things, but if there was one thing he was certain of, it was that he was not a Marxist.1 If anyone ever asks you for a definition of the dialectic, that would be a good place to start. By saying he was not a Marxist, Marx meant something very particular. Even in his own day, many of his would-be followers articulated Marxism as a set of mechanical reductions of his ideas, organizing in very rigid and sectarian organizations, involved in what he called “revolutionary phrase-mongering,” and building up a set of principles and ideas that were utterly hostile to the critical spirit of Marx’s own “Marxism,” which rejected sectarianism, dogmatism, and reductionism.

Marx once wrote that his favorite motto was “doubt everything.”2 And it was a dictum he applied not only to the ruling ideas of his age, but something that he applied to other socialist currents, and even to his own ideas,

which he was constantly questioning, revising, and developing in light of historical circumstances and conditions. Marx consistently rejected any politics based on hero worship and the subjugation of any movement to a savior or god—and he rejected that role for himself, as well.

Marx is often criticized for lacking a concrete program, a blueprint for how a future socialist society would be organized. But he rejected such a blueprint very consciously, for political reasons. Marx considered it antidemocratic for one person or a small group of people to draw up a blueprint of a future socialist society, because he understood that such a future society would only be brought about by an “independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority,” as he put it—and in making that revolution, in transforming capitalism and achieving socialism, they would create possibilities and develop new ideas about how society ought to be run.3 He saw radical democracy as being at the heart of a socialist transformation. So those self-identified Marxists who had built, or those who continue to build, sects, cults of personality, and even gulags in the name of Karl Marx, don’t understand the first thing about Marxism.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels railed against the sectarianism of so many socialists of their day. This is how they put it at the beginning of the Manifesto:

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?

The Communists are not a special party in relation to the other working-class parties.

They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any special principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only:

1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

2. In the various stages of development, which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section, which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. . . .

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.4

Socialism “from below”

Marx and Engels made a point of distinguishing their view of socialism and socialist organization from that of the other, largely émigré socialist groups that existed at the time they were writing the Manifesto. In 1847, Marx and Engels were formally invited to join the League of the Just, an organization of German émigré workers with members in several countries. But they agreed to join this group only on certain conditions. The first condition was that the League of the Just engage in public, open, democratic forms of struggle; that it cease being an underground organization using broadly conspiratorial means of organizing; and that it publicly and openly proclaim its means and goals. They also proposed changing the organization’s name from the League of the Just to the Communist League. They argued for public, democratic, and open forms of organizing, rather than the model of struggle that most socialists before Marx and Engels’s time relied upon, which was that of a small minority acting in the interests of, and on behalf of, the working class or other oppressed classes.

As Marx put it some years later, in the founding rules of the First International, the International Workingmen’s Association, which they helped found in 1864, “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”5 Workers must emancipate themselves. They cannot be emancipated by some other social agent.

This idea of self-emancipation embodies Marx and Engels’s decisive break with previous forms of socialism and continues to distinguish them from countless other socialists and self-proclaimed Marxists to this day. As Hal Draper, the author of Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, explained, writing of the socialists who predated Marx, “without any exception then known, these first socialist ideologists were proponents of a socialism from above. . . . Marx was the first figure to come to an acceptance of the socialist idea through the battle for the consistent extension of democratic control from below.”6 Draper calls these two poles—socialism “from above” and socialism “from below”—the “two souls of socialism.”7 He shows how throughout the history of the socialist movement there have been competing ideas based on whether one has a commitment to socialism from above or from below. As opposed to the many forms of socialism from above, Marx’s commitment was to the “struggle in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”8 There was no other road to socialism.

This is the sense in which the International Socialist Review today calls itself socialist, and in which we’re trying to bring these ideas into the concrete, real struggles of our own time. The point of Marxism is to be practical, revolutionary, and engaged in struggle. The image we so often see of Marx as someone who fundamentally operated in the world of ideas—someone cut off from society and isolated from struggle, reading books, documents, and treatises—completely misses how Karl Marx became a Marxist and what his ideas represent.

Marxism has nothing to do with the academic and intellectual theorists today who identify with Marxism, but whose ideas are completely divorced from struggle. In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” written in 1845, Marx put it very clearly: “Philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”9 This, in its most distilled form, is the idea that Marx struggled toward in his early life and represents one of the decisive moments in his thinking. The point is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it. That doesn’t mean that Marx rejected ideas, that he rejected theorization, or that he was anti-intellectual. He spent a lifetime trying to clarify his ideas, to elucidate the ideas of the socialist movement, to question and revise his ideas in light of historical developments.

Marx also understood that this intellectual work, the theorizing of his own ideas, was historically conditioned and historically shaped. Therefore, as Michael Löwy argues in The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx, we need to apply Marxism to Marx himself—to look at how Marx developed his own system of thinking, his own ideas, and his own practice.10 The reality is that Karl Marx was not born a Marxist or a revolutionary—and no one in history was born a revolutionary. Every one of us, and Marx certainly, has gone through a process of developing a set of ideas conditioned by the historical circumstances around us, circumstances we do not control. As Marx and Engels write in the Manifesto, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”11 The working class and oppressed groups in society have little access to the means of communication and don’t have control over the education system, the churches, or the other major institutions that disseminate ideas. The ideas that dominate, the ideas that we’re bombarded with over and over again, are the ideas of the ruling class—in Marx’s time, and in our time as well.

Left Hegelian

The reality is that Marx started off in very different circumstances from where he ended up. He was born in 1818 in the state of Prussia, now part of northern Germany, into a family that occupied an interesting position. This is how Francis Wheen, a biographer of Marx, puts it:

Marx himself was an outsider from the moment of his birth, on 5 May 1818—a Jewish boy in a predominantly Catholic city, Trier, within a Prussian state whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism. Although the Rhineland had been annexed by France during the Napoleonic wars, three years before his birth it was reincorporated into Imperial Prussia and the Jews of Trier thus became subject to an edict banning them from practicing in the professions: Karl’s father, Heinrich Marx, had to convert to Lutheranism in order to work as an attorney.12

So, Marx was from the beginning an outsider, and by all accounts had a little bit of a rebellious spirit as a young boy. In college, he was prone to drink, to debate, to fight (engaging in some duels), and to romance. In November 1837, when he was at college, his father wrote him a letter, admonishing him with these words:

Alas, your conduct has consisted merely in disorder, meandering in all the fields of knowledge, musty traditions by somber lamplight; degeneration in a learned dressing gown with uncombed hair has replaced degeneration with a beer glass. And a shirking unsociability and a refusal of all conventions and even all respect for your father. Your intercourse with the world is limited to your sordid room, where perhaps lie abandoned in the classical disorder the love letters of a Jenny [Marx’s future wife] and the tear-stained counsels of your father.13

As Marx was finishing up college, he was admonished by the university that he had several times been sued for debt, and that he had changed his address at least ten times during his five-year stay.

Though passionate about those ideas, he was primarily set on a course that would have led him to become a professor or a lawyer. At one point he wanted to be a novelist or a poet, but he quickly realized he lacked the talent for that. At university, Marx was drawn to a group of students who called themselves “Young Hegelians,” after the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. What Marx came to later feel about these often warring and combative currents in the Young Hegelians was that, while they might have rejected this or that aspect of Hegel’s philosophy, both shared the fundamental premise of idealism—which he came to completely reject. By idealism, Marx did not mean having lofty ideals, which is what is commonly meant by the term, or having ideas that can’t work in practice—which is often what Marxists are accused of. He meant instead the belief that ultimately ideas are the driving force of history, and that ideas can determine material reality.

Marx and Engels lampooned this form of idealism in one of their early works marking their break with the Young Hegelians, The German Ideology:

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.14

This was a thumbnail way of distinguishing himself from the idealism of the time, and developing initially a theory of materialism, and ultimately a theory of historical materialism. The fundamental premise, as he put it, of historical materialism, was that being determines consciousness, not that consciousness determines being. Marx came to the idea that it wasn’t enough to just change the ideas in someone’s head, through debate and argument, but that it was necessary to change material circumstances and the institutions that shape us.

One of the most important of these circumstances in Marx’s own formative period was the repression by the Prussian state of the Young Hegelian intellectuals. Had they been allowed to flourish, and study and write freely, Marx’s intellectual trajectory might have taken a completely different course. But, in fact, the Young Hegelians were seen as very threatening to the Prussian state, and a number of the professors associated with them lost their teaching posts, were unable to publish their work, and suffered various forms of censorship and persecution. Marx was frustrated by the fact that many of the people facing this persecution from the state decided to abstain from fighting in the world of actual, practical politics, and instead contained their struggle to the seminar room, to ideas, and intellectual debates. They did not want to contest their persecution in a practical way.

When it became clear that the Prussian state would make it impossible for him to pursue an academic career, Marx increasingly became disillusioned with the academy and decided to move into journalism, taking up a post in 1842 at a liberal newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung. As a young journalist at Rheinische Zeitung, Marx wrote a series of articles about press censorship, where he confronted practical questions of the time. One of the issues that Marx became interested in was wood theft laws: peasants had gathered firewood on public and communal lands for centuries, but were now being arrested and jailed because that land had been declared private property. Marx started identifying the contradictions and the class nature of rights under the Prussian state.

Marx might have continued in the vein of being a liberal journalist, perhaps even a troublemaking one, had not again historical circumstances intervened—in this case in the form of the Prussian state censoring the Rheinische Zeitung, and proving Marx right when he talked about the limits on the freedom of the press. Marx wasn’t just prevented from publishing. He was driven into exile. This was a crucial moment in Marx’s political development and career. Marx left Germany for France, and later Belgium and England, where he was exposed to a completely different set of political currents. In particular, he moved from Germany, which had a relatively underdeveloped working class, to France, where he encountered workers who were engaged in forms of self-organization and struggle far more sophisticated and advanced than he had encountered in Germany.

Another important event occurred when Marx moved to Paris. He spent a week with Frederick Engels, and they began their lifelong collaboration. Frederick Engels was living in Manchester, a city that was in many ways on the cutting edge of the developments of industrial capitalism, the factory system, the congregation of workers in new urban centers. This process brought together a new class of workers who had a different relationship to the city, to their working conditions, and who were beginning to form the early organizations of the working class. Engels was meeting with the leaders of the Chartist movement.15 He was seeing first-hand the brutal conditions in the Manchester factories. And he wrote a book in 1845, The Condition of the Working Class in England, which presented a path-breaking picture of this class. Engels, while describing the horrors of how workers are treated under capitalism, does not see the working class as passive victims, to be pitied, or given charity, or rescued by enlightened liberals. Instead, Engels saw the potential of this class to transform not only its own circumstances, but in transforming its own circumstances, to transform society.

Agents of their own liberation

In this period, Marx and Engels both came to see political economy as central to their thinking—and they began to see the centrality of the working class. As they put it in the Manifesto, for most socialists the working class only exists as “the most suffering class,” as an oppressed class, as a class that needs to be liberated from its conditions of oppression.16 But they came to see the working class as the agents of their own liberation and the transformation of society as a whole. This is how they put it in the Manifesto:

The socialist and communist systems properly so called, those of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, and others, spring into existence in the early undeveloped period, described above, of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie. . . .

The founders of these systems see, indeed, the class antagonisms, as well as the action of the decomposing elements, in the prevailing form of society. But the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.17

Marx and Engels understood the working class quite differently, as a class with its own initiative, and indeed, one unlike all others in history in having the potential to become a “universal class.” This is how they describe it in the Manifesto:

All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.18

A revolution by the working class, they came to see, would be different than any other revolution in history, in that rather than replacing one form of class exploitation with another, it would do away with all class antagonisms and replace them with the free association of producers. Marx and Engels saw that it was vital to participate in and help galvanize workers’ struggles—and they devoted the rest of their lives to doing that.

They saw their ideas as growing out of the generalization of those class struggles. We commonly hear that Marx developed a set of rigid dogmas and fixed ideas. But if you read Marx and Engels, you will see that they constantly revised their ideas in relationship to the class struggle. One example that clearly illustrates this is Marx’s response to the Paris Commune. In 1871, workers in Paris rose up and took control of the city, creating novel forms of working-class self-organization. Marx and Engels responded with tremendous enthusiasm. Not long after, when Marx and Engels were informed that a new edition of the Manifesto was going to be published in Germany, they agreed on the condition that they could add a new preface reflecting on a crucial lesson from the events in France. In 1848 they had drawn up a list of measures that a working-class government might attempt to implement on coming to power. Now they wrote:

In view of the practical experience gained. . . in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this program has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”19

They came to see that the workers, in taking power, would have to create new forms of working-class democracy, new forms of decision-making, new forms of control. They cannot simply take over existing political institutions— parliaments, Congress, the Supreme Court, and so on—that were designed to preserve a certain kind of class power and that are hostile to working-class democracy. It was only through the experience of seeing workers organize themselves in the Paris Commune that Marx and Engels came to clarify their thinking on this critical question.

In his speech after Karl Marx died in 1883, Engels observed:

Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity, and a success such as few could rival.20

That is the spirit in which today we should consider ourselves Marxists, and build a revolutionary socialist current to defend, explore, and develop the ideas of Marxism.


  1. Frederick Engels, Letter to Eduard Bernstein, November 2–3, 1882, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (hereafter MECW), vol. 46 (New York: International Publishers, 1992), 356.
  2. Karl Marx, “Confession,” in MECW, vol. 42 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 567–68.
  3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document, ed. Phil Gasper (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 55.
  4. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, 58–59.
  5. Communist Manifesto, 23.
  6. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 1 (New York: Monthly Review, 1977–90), 58.
  7. Hal Draper, “The Two Souls of Socialism,” New Politics, vol. 5, no.1 (Winter 1966), 57–84.
  8. Communist Manifesto, 71.
  9. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in MECW, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 5.
  10. Michael Löwy, The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx, Historical Materialism Book Series, vol. 2 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005).
  11. Communist Manifesto, 68.
  12. Francis Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography (New York: Grove Press, 2006), 7.
  13. Quoted in David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (London: Papermac, 1995), 40.
  14. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, ed. C. J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1989), 37.
  15. The Chartists were a working-class movement for political reform in Britain from 1838 to 1857.
  16. Communist Manifesto, 84.
  17. Communist Manifesto, 83.
  18. Communist Manifesto, 55–56.
  19. Communist Manifesto, 119.
  20. Frederick Engels, “Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London, March 17, 1883,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....

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March 1, 2018

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