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ISR Issue 52, May–June 2007


Marx, Engels, and Self-emancipation

PART ONE OF TWO From 1932 until his death in 1990, Hal Draper was a prolific Marxist writer and a socialist activist in the United States. During the Cold War, he kept alive the Marxist tradition of socialism from below in the face of Cold War conformism and Stalinism. This article was originally published under the title łThe Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels,˛ in Socialist Register 1971, by the Merlin Press ( The final installment of this article will appear in the next ISR.

THERE CAN be little doubt that Marx and Engels would have agreed with Lenin’s nutshell definition of Marxism as “the theory and practice of the proletarian revolution.” In this violently compressed formula, the key component is not the unity of theory and practice; unfortunately that has become a platitude. Nor is it “revolution”; unfortunately that has become an ambiguity. The key is the word “proletarian”—the class-character component.

But “proletarian revolution” too, very early, took on a considerable element of ambivalence, for it could be and was applied to two different patterns. In one pattern, the proletariat carries out its own liberating revolution. In the other, the proletariat is used to carry out a revolution.

The first pattern is new; the second is ancient. But Marx and Engels were the first socialist thinkers to be sensitive to the distinction. Naturally so: since they were also the first to propose that, for the first time in the history of the world, the exploited bottom stratum of workers in society was in [a] position to impress its own class character on a new social order.

When Marx and Engels were crystallizing their views on this subject, the revolutionary potentialities of the proletariat were already being recognized here and there. It was not Marx who first discovered that the proletariat was a revolutionary class. For example, Robert Owen, disappointed at the failure of his philanthropic bourgeoisie to become enthusiastic about the abolition of their class, turned for help to the beginnings of the working-class and trade-union movement in England; he thought to use them, not to shift power to that class, but as troops to push through his own scheme, in which a philanthropic elite would “do them good.” Saint-Simon, disillusioned with the failure of monarchs, bankers, scientists, etc. to understand the ineffable justice of his plans for humanity, turned, in his very last work The New Christianity, to the workers for the first time—appealing to them to convince their bosses to heed the Saint-Simonian wisdom.

The larger historical pattern

The first socialist view of the revolutionary proletariat was to regard its revolutionary potential as an instrument in others’ hands; as a battering-ram to break down the old system but not as a force fit to build a new one in its own name. These non-proletarian socialisms not only preceded Marxism, but have always been far stronger than Marxism, in the socialist movements of the world today as yesterday.

It must be emphasized that this pattern is not something peculiar to the socialist movement, but extends into socialism. It extends back into all recorded history, far as [the] human eye can read. One section of the propertied classes, beaten on top, becomes desperate enough to resort to arousing the broader masses below both contestants, and therefore sets the plebs into motion, with appropriate promises and slogans, in order to hoist itself into the seats of power.

Hence, for example, the tyrannoi of ancient Greece have become tyrants in modern languages not because they tyrannized over the masses any more than the preceding oligarchy, but because they used the masses to “tyrannize” over that oligarchy itself. The pattern is visible in the story of the Gracchi; it is commonplace in modern history. It is a key to the dynamics of class struggle and intra-class struggle throughout time.

But it is always a gamble; there is a social risk. After you have called the masses from below onto the stage of social action, how are you going to get them off and back to their holes, after they have done the job for you? These animals are dangerous: handle with care. The intoxication of a joint victory may make them forget that you are the Natural Master. They may reach out for something for themselves, or smash things up in the process.

That danger was there even in ages when the broad working masses (slaves, laboring freemen, or serfs) could not and did not have any vision of a new social order which corresponded to their own class interests; when therefore their rule could not in fact mean a reorganization of society from below, but merely chaos. When that changes, what was previously a serious danger to Order becomes a mortal danger to the social order itself.

The proletarian Acheron

This is the change that takes place in history with the rise of capitalism and its shadow, the revolutionary proletariat. For the first time, there is a class below, the class on whose labor society is founded, that inherently does suggest a social program for its own reorganization of society. Once set in motion (in struggle), this class has an historical option: it is not limited to lending its services to one ruling class (or section of a ruling class) or another; it can go into business for itself. To be sure, it can still be controlled: for it is very young, and largely unformed, and often childishly stupid, and ill-educated; but how long can this adolescent giant be kept in short pants?

Because of this new type of danger, the class instinct of the bourgeoisie early made it reluctant to call the working masses into civil conflict even as an ally in its own drive to gain power from the older feudal order, and, since then, made it interested mainly in ways and means of fragmenting and channeling the dangerous mass forces below.

But the case of individual ideologists and political adventurers is another matter; so also political tendencies which look in the direction of an anti-capitalist elite.

Hence one of the characteristic differences among the bourgeois politicians is willingness to play with this fire, to one degree or another. Marx noted this, for example, in his thumbnail sketch of the French “liberal” politician Thiers who, after serving both Louis Philippe and Bonaparte, carried out the task of massacring the Paris Commune:

A professional “Revolutionist” in that sense, that in his eagerness…of wielding power…he never scrupled, when banished to the ranks of the opposition, to stir the popular passions and provoke a catastrophe to displace a rival…. The working class he reviled as “the vile multitude.”1

This political type had a Virgilian tag, which was well-enough known in Marx’s day to be of interest now. It put the pattern in six vivid words: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo2—“If I cannot change the Powers above, I shall set the Lower Regions [Acheron] into motion.” George Brandes’s book on Lassalle tells us that the would-be workers’ dictator, weighing his political course, “pondering like Achilles in his tent, mentally repeated to himself for nights and days the burden of Virgil’s line.…”3 The motto also came to Engels’ pen as he contemplated the cowardice of the French liberals of a later day:

…the flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo is not their business…. They are afraid of the proletarian Acheron.4
Marx developed a new, third view of the proletariat, basically hostile both to the Olympian view of the ruling class and the Acherontic view of the would-be ruler.

The new principle

The classic formulation of the self-emancipation principle by Marx was written down in 1864 as the first premise of the Rules of the First International—in fact, as its first clause.

CONSIDERING, that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves;…5

And it was from this source that the phrase became famous, being repeated also by various elements who did not believe a word of it.

Later on, Engels rightly predated the conception to “the very beginning”: “our notion, from the very beginning, was that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself,’” he wrote in a preface to the Communist Manifesto, slightly varying the formulation, as did Marx also in his Critique of the Gotha Program.6

From the very beginning of Marxism, he means. But if we sketch Marx and Engels’ course before they arrived at this keystone principle of the self-emancipation of the proletariat, we will put it into context. For it was then an unknown principle, previously almost unthinkable.* There was nobody from whom to adopt it. Marx had to invent it himself—[or] re-invent it. The probability is that it was Marx who straightened Engels out on the subject, in the course of their collaboration in 1845 on The German Ideology.

Engels: From elitism to Marxism

A good biography of Engels would recount the layers of ideas through which he had to fight his way before he could even get within reaching distance of Marx’s approach. There was more standing in his way than in Marx’s case.

We will only mention now that, first, Engels had to revolt against the authoritarian pietist Christianity of his family and home; then came his early intellectual development through the romanticism of “Young Germany,” followed by infatuation with the radical-liberal Ludwig Borne. Involvement in the Young Hegelian (left-Hegelian) circle in Berlin, plus an early dash of Shelley, led to his conversion to a so-called “communism” by Moses Hess, who was then in his period of Schwarmerei over Proudhon’s newfangled “anarchism,” which he understood to be similar to his own sentimental petty-bourgeois socialism. In England in 1843, Engels was at first mainly in contact with the Owenites, for whose New Moral World he began his English writing, although he also made the acquaintance of émigré German communist workers like Karl Schapper. Then he went through a spell of enthusiasm over Wilhelm Weitling’s allegedly “working class” communism, finally making contact with the Chartist movement.

The radical scene was what this sounds like, only more so: a hodgepodge of ideas; a mingle-mangle of movements. And, before Engels got to Chartism, every one of them was basically elitist to the core: “we” will bring salvation to the toilers, and consent to lead them where sheep may safely graze.

Let us pick up Engels toward the end of 1843: he is writing articles for the Owenite New Moral World, as a convert to “philosophical communism” by Hess, and as an admirer of Proudhon’s anarchism. In a key article, he praises Proudhon’s What Is Property? (1840) as the most important “communist” work published (for he is ignorant of the fact that Proudhon denounces “communism,” since this enthusiasm came from Hess, who had adopted that label). The article emphasizes Proudhon’s view—

that every kind of government is alike objectionable, no matter whether it be democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy, all govern by force; and that, in the best of all possible cases, the force of the majority oppresses the weaknesses of the minority, he comes, at last, to the conclusion: “Nous voulons l’anarchie!” What we want is anarchy; the rule of nobody, the responsibility of every one to nobody but himself.8

There is more of this Proudhonism in Engels’ article, radical in sound and reactionary in content. The following is pure Proudhonism:

Democracy is, as I take all forms of government to be, a contradiction in itself, an untruth, nothing but hypocrisy…at the bottom. Political liberty is sham-liberty, the worst possible slavery; the appearance of liberty, and therefore the reality of servitude. Political equality is the same; therefore democracy, as well as every form of government, must ultimately break to pieces…we must have either a regular slavery—that is, an undisguised despotism, or real liberty, and real equality—that is Communism.9

This reflects Proudhon’s virulent hatred of democracy, using truths about sham-democracy to damn democracy itself, not to demand that the sham be exchanged for real democracy.

“Philosophical” elitism

To this Proudhonism is attached Hess’s “philosophical communism,” which Engels, as a disciple of Hess in this article, considers the special glory of the German mind. Unlike the economic-minded English and the political French, the Germans became Communists philosophically, by reasoning upon first principles,” he boasts,10 for “the Germans are a philosophical nation” and will adopt Communism “as soon as it is founded upon sound philosophical principles.” This will surely be done; and so, no doubt—

There is a greater chance in Germany for the establishment of a Communist party among the educated classes of society, than anywhere else. The Germans are a very disinterested nation; if in Germany principle comes into collision with interest, the principle will almost always silence the claims of interest. The same love of abstract principles, the same disregard of reality and self-interest, which have brought the Germans to a state of political nonentity, these very same qualities guarantee the success of a philosophical Communism in that country. It will appear very singular to Englishmen, that a party which aims at the destruction of private property, is chiefly made up by those who have property; and yet this is the case in Germany. We can recruit our ranks from those classes only which have enjoyed a pretty good education; that is, from the universities and from the commercial class; and in neither we have not hitherto met with any considerable difficulty.11

This hash, which is pure Hess, gives a good idea of what some of the better elements of the day were thinking and saying. Engels’ next contribution to the Owenite paper is especially taken from Weitling, who had also been praised in the previous article as the leader of the “working-class” wing of German Communism. Engels now stresses

the chief point in which Weitling is superior to Cabet, namely, the abolition of all government by force and by majority, and the establishment in its stead of a mere administration…[and] the proposal to nominate all officers of this administration…not by a majority of the community at large, but by those only who have a knowledge of the particular kind of work the future officer has to perform; and, one of the most important features of the plan, that the nominators are to select the fittest person, by means of some kind of prize essay.…12

All this* will give an idea of the thinking of the radical world into which Marx came. Engels’ subsequent articles for the Owenites, at the end of 1844 and beginning of 1845, became gradually more ambivalent about the relation between communism and the classes.13

The turning-point comes in late 1845—when Engels is well under way in collaboration with Marx on The German Ideology—and indeed in the very first article which Engels contributes, not to the Owenite organ, but to the left-Chartist paper The Northern Star.

Engels spells out the complete turn he has made by cautioning the Chartists not to expect any revolutionary change from the middle classes:

It is from the very heart of our working people that revolutionary action in Germany will commence. It is true, there are among our middle classes a considerable number of Republicans and even Communists, and young men too, who, if a general outbreak occurred now, would be very useful in the movement, but these men are “bourgeois,” profit-mongers, manufacturers by profession; and who will guarantee us that they will not be demoralized by their trade, by their social position, which forces them to live upon the toil of other people, to grow fat by being the leeches, the “exploiteurs” of the working classes?

Those who remain “proletarian in mind” will be infinitely small in numbers, he goes on: “Fortunately, we do not count on the middle classes at all.”14

Engels is now a Marxist.

Marx: The case of the Savior-Ruler

Marx’s course appears to have been less complicated. Still there are significant stages to be marked. One of the first nodal points showed him what pursuit of an academic career would mean. As it happens, it has to do with the historic opposite of the principle of self-emancipation, viz. the illusion of the Savior-Ruler.

A common form of this illusion has always been hope for salvation from the ascent to the throne of a new, liberal monarch. Marx went through this at an early age along with the left-Hegelian circle. In mid-1840 the old king of Prussia was succeeded by his son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who as Crown Prince had excited great hope in liberal circles that he would grant constitutional reforms; for he had made certain noises about liberty and national unity.15 It seems to be a common habit of royal heirs; the same pattern had been true a century before, when Frederick the Great had uttered similar “nice phrases…shortly or immediately after his accession to the throne.” So remarks Mehring in The Lessing Legend, which observes that this is “the noted liberalism of crown princes.”16 One of the leading lights of the Young Hegelians, Bruno Bauer, seized the opportunity to pay fulsome homage to “the highest idea of our State life.” the spirit of the Hohenzollerns.17

These hopes for democratization from above collapsed quickly. Bauer’s prostrations before the crown earned only a kick in the face: the new king appointed an orthodox reactionary to the university post that Bauer had his eye on.18 Next, Bauer was even ousted from his post at the University of Bonn.19 It was at this point that it was clear to Marx that, doctorate or no, an academic career was closed to him, unless he was ready to bootlick the establishment like academia in general.

Marx and Köppen

There is indirect evidence that, with the rest, Marx had been caught up in the liberal illusion about the new king.

In April 1840, looking to the new reign, Marx’s best friend, K. F. Köppen, also a prominent left-Hegelian though ten years older than Marx,20 had published a book on Frederick the Great and his opponents.21 One biographer of Marx describes the book as follows:

Köppen honored Frederick, “in whose spirit we swore to live and die,” as the enemy of Christian-German reaction. His basic idea was that the state was embodied in its purest form in a monarchy ruled over by a monarch like Frederick, a philosopher, a free servant of the world spirit. Renewal could only come from the top. . .22

Köppen was suggesting that the new monarch should bear the torch of the Savior-Ruler like his great predecessor. Another biographer comments:

The fact that a man like Köppen yearned for “the spiritual resurrection” of the worst despot in Prussian history in order “to exterminate with fire and sword all those who deny us entrance into the land of promise” is sufficient to give us some idea of the peculiar environment in which these Berlin Young Hegelians lived.23

This is unjust: there was nothing “peculiar” about this attitude. It had been dominant for a few thousand years, and essentially it still is. Frederick may have been “the worst despot” but he was a modernizing despot, and this variety still has mass allegiance from well-intentioned people, especially those who would like to become modernizing bureaucrats or mouthpieces for the modernizing despot. Marx’s liberal friends held to the old illusion that, if only power found its way into the hands of a Good Man, he would hand down salvation from his seat of rule—and thus, incidentally, spare one all the inconveniences of having to conquer salvation for oneself in struggle against power.

Köppen’s book was dedicated to “my friend Karl Heinrich Marx of Trier.” There is every reason to believe that at this point Marx saw nothing “peculiar” about his friend’s stance, and probably shared it.24 In addition, the following year Marx returned the compliment with an admiring mention of Köppen’s book in the planned Foreword (dated March I 841) to his doctoral dissertation.25

The new king’s failure to conform to the dream brought about a revulsion of feeling in liberal circles. Engels later described the result:

Indeed, the middle classes, who had partly expected that the new King would at once grant a Constitution, proclaim the Liberty of the Press, Trial by Jury, etc., etc. in short, himself take the lead of that peaceful revolution which they wanted in order to obtain political supremacy—the middle classes had found out their error, and had turned ferociously against the King.26

In the Rhineland (continues Engels) this revulsion or exasperation produced the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, and made its bourgeois sponsors temporarily willing to let Young Hegelian radicals edit it—Marx becoming editor in October 1842.

This is the place to mention that the young Engels also went through his stage of disillusionment in benevolent royalty, before and after Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Just before, though not yet very radical, Engels had written a friend about his disgust with Friedrich Wilhelm’s failure to carry out his promise of a constitution:

The same king who in 1815, beset with fear, promised his subjects in a Cabinet Order that they would get a constitution if they pulled him out of that pickle—this same shabby, lousy, god-damned king now lets it be known…that nobody is going to get a constitution from him…. There is no period richer in royal crimes than 1816–1830; nearly every prince that reigned then deserved the death penalty…. Oh, I could tell you delightful tales about the love that princes bear their subjects—I expect anything good only from the prince whose head is buzzing from the buffets of his people, and whose palace windows are being smashed by a hail of stones of the revolution.27

After the accession of the new king in 1840 and the abovementioned “revulsion,” Engels published an essay attacking the king’s political and social views and warning that a free press and a real parliament would not be granted by the monarch but would have to be won by the people. It closed with a hint that Prussia was nearing its 1789.28

All this merely taught the liberals not to expect much from this particular monarch; by nature, liberalism typically seeks reform by seeking the ear that is connected to the hand that holds the levers of power. But for Marx the lesson bit deeper. It was his last illusion in the Savior-Ruler.

The servile state and academia

Marx later summarized the whole episode in hindsight at a point (May 1843) when he was in midstream of the passage from radical democracy to communism. The king’s “liberal speeches and outpourings” did signify a desire “to bring life into the state,” if only his own variety of backward-looking life (“old German fancies”); but when even this variety of change threatened to open the gates to other changes, the old bureaucratic-despotic system “soon killed these un-German activities.” It was a “miscarried attempt to transcend the philistine-state on its very own basis.”29

One was only mistaken for a while in considering it important which wishes and thoughts the King would come out with. This could not change anything in substance; the philistine is the stuff making up the monarchy, and the monarchy is always only the king of the philistines. He can make neither himself nor his people into free, real men, if both sides remain what they are.30

Since it was impossible for this state “to abandon its own basis and pass over to the human world of democracy,” the inevitable result was—

regression to the old fossilized servile state [Dienerstaat], in which the slave serves in silence and the owner of the land and the people rules as silently as possible simply through a well-trained, quietly obedient servant staff. Neither of the two could say what they wanted—neither the former, that they wanted to become men, nor the latter that he had no use for men in his land. The only recourse, therefore, is to keep silent. Muta pecora, prona et ventri obedientia. [The herd is silent, submissive, and obeys its stomach.]31


The self-reliance of men—freedom—would first have to be reawakened in the hearts of these men. Only this consciousness, which vanished from the world with the Greeks and into the blue mist of heaven with Christianity, can again turn society (Gesellschaft) into a community (Gemeinschaft) of men to achieve their highest purposes, a democratic state.32

For Marx, the freedom of self-reliance meant not only the abandonment of the Savior-Ruler illusion, but also the decision to abandon the road of scholarship in the university world. For that road was possible only by accepting a life of silent submission to the Servile State, refraining from giving battle to ensconced power, burying one’s nose in scholarly busy-work and profound thoughts, while injustice and inhumanity reigned outside the stained-glass windows.

Marx: The promethean spirit

If the course of the professional panderer to power was impossible for Marx, this was by no means simply determined by history or social forces, which do not determine this or that individual. It was demanded by Marx’s total personality, combined with his intellect—the two conditioned by the times.

Marx’s theories, to be sure, can be held by anyone, once developed: but the way they were developed and the form in which they were expressed were all heavily influenced by the impact of Marx’s personal character. The steel core of that character has been portrayed for all time by Marx’s favorite poet-dramatist (alongside Shakespeare): Aeschylus, in Prometheus Bound. Aeschylus does not really attempt to explain why Prometheus, insisting on serving humanity whom the new gods would destroy, refuses to bow the neck to Zeus, to Power like everyone else and as all his well-wishers advise him to do. That is simply the fatality of his character.

It was also Marx’s, and as far as anyone can tell, he seems to have been born with it, as his intelligent father early recognized. Marx himself made the connection in preparing for publication the first child of his thought, his doctrinal dissertation. Although its subject was Democritus and Epicurus, in writing the Foreword Marx handed the center-stage over to Prometheus. The Foreword ends with the invocation of Prometheus’ defiance to authority:

Prometheus’ admission: “In sooth all gods I hate” is [philosophy’s] own admission, its own motto against all gods, heavenly and earthly, who do not acknowledge the consciousness of man as the supreme divinity. There must be no god on a level with it…. [Prometheus says:] “I shall never exchange my fetters for slavish servility. ‘Tis better to be chained to the rock than bound to the service of Zeus.” Prometheus is the noblest of saints and martyrs in the calendar of philosophy.33

The defiance of the closing sentence alarmed friend Bruno Bauer as “unnecessary temerity”34—an unconscious echo of the very counsels of timorous prudence to Prometheus by the Leader of the Chorus. The dissertation itself had not mentioned Prometheus, although in his workbooks for it Marx had written:

…as Prometheus, who stole fire from Heaven, began to build houses and establish himself on the earth, so philosophy which has extended itself into the [real] world turns against the apparent world.35

Prometheus scarcely appears again in Marx’s writings,* and the above passages were never published in Marx’s lifetime. But the comparison was not lost upon those who knew him. When the government closed down the Rheinische Zeitung, a contemporary cartoon depicted Marx as Prometheus Bound to a printing press while the royal Prussian eagle gnaws at his vitals.38 The last issue of the paper carried an unsigned farewell poem, ending on the Promethean note:

Our mast blew down, but we were not affrighted,

The angry gods could never make us bend.

Columbus too at first was scorned and slighted,

And yet he saw the New World in the end.

Ye friends, who cheer us till the timbers rattle

Ye foes, who did us honor with your strife—

We’ll meet again on other fields of battle:

If all is dead, yet courage still is life.39

More amusing but not less indicative is the evidence of the impression which Marx’s character made on his young associates. There is a long satiric “epic,” protesting against the dismissal of Bruno Bauer, which Engels wrote before he knew Marx personally, containing versified portraits of the prominent Young Hegelians. The passage devoted to Marx goes approximately as follows, in limping hexameters:

Then who, with fiercesome rage, comes rushing thereupon?

A swarthy chap from Trier, a real phenomenon.

He neither walks nor skips but springs up in the air,

And storms about with red-hot fury as though to tear

Down to the earth the far-hung tent of the broad sky—

His arms he stretches up to seize the winds on high.

With angry fist up-clenched, he rages without rest

As if ten thousand flaming demons him possessed.40

The portraits in this “epic” are frankly friendly caricatures—the young Engels was a talented cartoonist—but there is no doubt of what kind of character is being caricatured.

Choice and character

And so it was history and the state of society which, in 1841, presented Marx with the choice: submit to Power, or break with Power. But it was Marx’s character which made the choice a foregone conclusion.

Such a character will naturally always excite a variety of reactions. After all, many in the audience are in the position of Hephaestus, who, weeping salt tears very liberally, is the one who actually fetters the hero in chains, protesting it is against his will. “The dirty job must be done,” he whines to Power, “but don’t push me too hard.”

More are in the position of Oceanus, who delivers himself of sage advice: “I would admonish thee to prudence…see what are the wages of too bold a tongue. Thou hast not learned humility, nor to yield to evils….” He will try to negotiate peace with Zeus, but meanwhile: “Do thou keep thy peace, and restrain thy blustering speech.”

Others are in the position of the Leader of the Chorus, who has his own diagnosis of the hero’s sins: “Care not for mortals overmuch, whilst you neglect your own profit.”41 (In other words: get a well-paying job instead of wasting your time in the British Museum).

Then also in the audience are the descendants of Hermes, the “lackey of Zeus,” who thinks anyone who does not cringe before power is simply stark mad—the very best frame of mind for a lackey.

Marx: The education of the educator

But the Promethean rejection of injustice-by-power could be only half of Marx’s road to the principle of self-emancipation; for as we have mentioned, there have been not a few who don the mask of Prometheus in order to replace Zeus as ruler. Aeschylus himself raised the question, long before Lord Acton: “Who could endure you in prosperity?” It is Zeus’ lackey Hermes who directs this sneer to Prometheus.

Even after the collapse of the Savior-Ruler by 1841, Marx must have gone through the next stage, like everyone else: hope in some kind of intellectual elite, who, their hearts bursting with sympathy for the suffering people, would sacrifice themselves in order to lead the flock into a new and better sheepfold. The amazing thing about Marx is that there is only a single, and very ambiguous, scrap of evidence of such a state of mind even transiently, dating to the beginning of 1844. This occurs at the end of the article in which Marx first arrives at the idea that it is the emancipation of the proletariat that means the emancipation of all mankind. Then there is this sentence: “The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat.”42

Taken by itself, this sentence is compatible with the tradition of an intellectual elite which conceives itself to be the head of the movement, with the masses making up the troops. On the other hand, this interpretation is difficult to reconcile with the whole train of thought for pages before, which it merely summarizes. Marx had already explained: “As philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, the proletariat finds its intellectual weapons in philosophy,” and the emancipation in question must be based “on the theory proclaiming that man is the highest essence of man,” etc. These and many other expressions indicate that, by “philosophy,” Marx literally means theory, and not the philosophers, that is, the intellectuals.43

Yet it is certain that even Engels understood this sentence in more or less the traditional elitist sense (which Engels himself still held).*

And certainly it would have been an extraordinary feat if Marx had managed to skip this stage entirely.

But what is not in doubt is that the general trend of Marx’s thinking went the other way “from the very beginning.” As early as his presocialist writings of 1842 for the Rheinische Zeitung—in fact in his first published article, on freedom of the press—we find the following retort to a legislator who argued in the Diet that man is naturally imperfect and immature and needs educational guidance:

For him true education consists in keeping man swaddled in the cradle all his life, since as soon as man learns to walk he also learns to fall, and only through falling does he learn to walk. But if we all remain children in swaddling-clothes, who is to swaddle us? If we all lie in the cradle, who is to cradle us? If we are all in jail, who will be the jailer?45

This extension of Quis custodiet ipos custodes? is already the fundamental answer to all the arguments, old and current, for “educational dictatorships.” It already implies that emancipation is not a form of graduation ceremony (getting the diploma from teacher for passing the exam) but rather it is a process of struggle by people who are not yet “ready” for emancipation, and who can become ready for emancipation only by launching the struggle themselves, before anyone considers them ready for it.*

Theory and the theoretician

This is the principle which Marx set down in the spring of 1845 in the third of his “Theses on Feuerbach”—one of the jottings in which he attempted to clarify a new world-outlook for himself. The crux of the “Third Theses” is that it asks the question: Who will educate the educator?

It goes directly to the elitist concept of the role of the educated “bringer of socialism” to the uneducated masses. Naturally Marx does not question the matter of fact that it is the educated who have raised the idea of socialism before the masses. That is how it begins; but it cannot be merely a one-way relationship. When Engels published his edited version of the “Theses” in 1888, he usefully concretized this meaning by introducing an example, Robert Owen, who was not in Marx’s original note.

It was Owen’s type of materialism which one-sidedly emphasized that men are the products of their environmental circumstances and upbringing, and which concluded that to change men for the better, one had to change the environmental circumstances and upbringing. Marx’s thesis cuts straight to the heart of the difficulty in this reasoning: who are the men who are going to operate this change? These men apparently stand exempt from the very law they enunciate; for they, who are also the product of their environmental conditioning, are going to act to change the world which conditioned them. Prometheus was able to change men from the outside, because he was himself a god; but Owen’s (and Marx’s) problem is harder than his. Who are these “educators” to be, and how do they come into being? Owen’s implied answer is very simple: they are “people like me,” who just happen to get the idea, plus others whom I convince with its inexorable logic…

Against this, Marx’s thesis points out (1) that “it is essential to educate the educator himself,” and (2) that until this “educator” is himself changed (“educated”), one cannot overcome the division of society between rulers and ruled.

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing [that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that therefore changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing] forgets that circumstances are changed by men [themselves], and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. Hence this doctrine must [necessarily have the effect to] divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. [For example, in Robert Owen.] The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.*

How then are the educators to be educated, and, for that matter how do the uneducated become educators? How does this whole two-sided process of “self-changing” take place? Marx’s answer is: by “revolutionary practice,” One learns to revolutionize society even as one revolutionizes oneself; one learns to revolutionize oneself by trying to revolutionize society. For the working class, it is a process in which two sides interpenetrate; a mountain-climber, making his way up a “chimney” formation, can understand it better than a metaphysician.

This, the “Third Thesis,” is the “philosophic” formulation by Marx of the basis of the principle of self-emancipation. It represents the first time in socialist thought that theory turns around to take a hard look at the theoretician.

* This essay is one chapter of a larger work in progress, on Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, and concerns itself with only one aspect of Marx’s views on the nature of proletarian revolution. [Published in altered form in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. II: The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978.] Taken by itself, isolatedly, there is a danger that it may be interpreted in a one-sided way, as counterposing “self-emancipation” to class organization and political leadership. Such a conclusion is utterly baseless, in my own opinion. And that such a counterposition has nothing in common with Marx’s approach is, I think, proved to the hilt by Monty Johnstone’s admirable study, “Marx and Engels and the concept of the party” (Socialist Register 1967). I agree unreservedly with Johnstone’s passing remark: “Marx’s famous principle that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,’ on which he and Engels insisted again and again, is complemented, not contradicted, by their concept of the Party.”

What is true, certainly, is that the “principle of self-emancipation” conditions, and interacts with, one’s concept of class, party, and vanguard organization. What is true is that the principle does contradict, is quite incompatible with, a number of well-known party concepts held by self-styled “Marxist” parties, including both the classic and contemporary social-democratic parties and the Stalinist-type parties, both of which types are elitist in different ways. But this is a question which requires a separate and extensive treatment of its own.

* As usual, there are possible exceptions. A prominent candidate is the remarkable Gerrard Winstanley ("Diggers," left wing of the English Revolution); but he was entirely unknown to the early socialists, completely forgotten. Then there was Thomas Miinzer (who was therefore the subject of Engels' first serious work after the 1848 revolution); and Spartacus—"the most splendid fellow that all ancient history has to show; great general—no Garibaldi—noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat," wrote Marx.7 But we know too little about the last two. * It is amusing to find Fabianism’s Bernard Shaw, in the next century, rediscovering Weitling’s idea of “civil service” examinations to select an oligarchy: Shaw’s pet suggestion on how to replace democracy.

* The only significant reference comes soon, in Marx’s 1844 manuscripts.36 In his Poverty of Philosophy, Marx has to handle Proudhon’s use of Prometheus as a sort of economic Robinson Crusoe, but he does not make any Promethean analogies himself.37 Later come only passing references of no present interest. One might wonder if Marx knew Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1819), but there is no sign of it; in fact, Marx never mentioned Shelley in writing; it is Engels who was a Shelley fan from youth to old age.

* In March 1845 Engels referred, in the Owenite paper, to the prediction of Marx’s “a year ago” of the union of “the German philosophers” and the German workers, a union now “all but accomplished.” He adds: “With the philosophers to think, and the working men to fight for us, will any earthly power be strong enough to resist our progress?”44

*In the same article, here is how Marx refutes the opponents of a free press who imply that only the government—i.e. themselves—are inspired by God sufficiently to be guardians of the press: “But English history has quite sufficiently proved that the assertion of divine inspiration from above begets the counter-assertion of divine inspiration from below, and Charles I mounted the scaffold as a result of divine inspiration from below.”46

* If read without the bracketed italics, this is Marx’s formulation of 1845. The bracketed italics are some of the editorial explanations introduced by Engels in his 1888 edited version.47

Reference Notes

English translations are cited, wherever possible, from the two-volume Marx-Engels Selected Works (Moscow: FLPH, 1955), abbreviated ME:SW. Untranslated German texts are cited, wherever possible, from the Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, 1961–68), abbreviated ME:W. In other cases, full bibliographic data are given on first appearance of a title, and abbreviated afterwards. Volume and page number are abbreviated as follows: e.g. 2: 107 = Vol. 2, page 107. In all abbreviations, M = Marx, E = Engels, and ME = Marx Engels.

1 M: First Draft of The Civil War in France, in Arkhiu Marksa i Engel’sa, v.3 (8), 1934, 270.

2 From the Aeneid, VII, 312.

3 George Brandes, Ferdinand Lassalle (New York: Macmillan, 1911 ), 108. The Virgilian line is also used as the title-page motto for the whole book.

4 Letter, Engels to Paul Lafargue. 16 Feb. 1886; in Engels-Lafargue: Correspondence (Moscow, FLPH, 1g5g), I: 338–39.

5 M: Provisional Rules of the Association, in The General Council of the First International; Minutes, 1864–66 [v. 11, 288. This remained the same in the later revisions; the 1871 version is in ME:SW I: 386.

6 E: Pref. to 1888 English ed. of Communist Manifesto, in ME:SW I: 28; M: Critique of the Gotha Program, in ME:SW 2: 25.

7 Letter, Marx to Engels, 27 Feb. 1861, in ME:W 30.160; on Spartacus, see also Marx’s well-known “Confession” (question game) in which Spartacus and Kepler are listed as his “favorite heroes”; in D. Riazanov, ed. Karl Marx, Man, Thinker and Revolutionist (New York: International Pub., 1927), 269. 277-78; or ME:W 31: 597.

8 E: Progress of Social Reform on the Continent.” New Moral World. 4 and 18 Nov. 1843; in ME: Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) I, 2:442.

9 Ibid., 436.

10 Ibid., 435.

11 Ibid., 449.

12 E: “The ‘Times’ on German Communism,” New Moral World, 20 Jan. 1844, in ME: Gesamtausgabe I, 2: 452.

13 This change can be followed through several steps in the English-language articles reprinted in ME: Gesamtausgabe I, vol. 4.

14 E: “The late Butchery at Leipzig-The German Working Men’s Movement,” Northern Star, 13 Sept. 1845, in ME: Gesamtausgabe I, 4:477.

15 Boris Nicolaievsky & 0. Maenchen-Helfen: Karl Marx; Man and Fighter (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1936), 43.

16 Franz Mehring: The Lessing Legend (New York: Critics Group, 19-38), 29.

17 Franz Mehring: Karl Marx (New York: Covici Friede, 1935), 50.

18 Mehring: Karl Marx, 5 I ; Nicolaievsky, 44.

19 Nicolaievsky, 45-46.

20 Cf. Helmut Hirsch, “Karl Friedrich Koppen, der intimste Berliner Freund Marxens,” International Review for Social History (Amsterdam), v. i.

21 Karl Friedrich Koppen: Friedrich der Grosse und seine Widersacher (Leipzig, I 840).

22 Nicolaievsky, 39.

23 Mehring, Karl Marx, 47.

24 Ibid., 49; Nicolaievsky, 39.

25 In ME: On Religion (Moscow, FLPH, 1957), 14.

26 E: Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1933; Marxist Lib., v. 13). 22–23.

27 Letter, Engels to F. Graeber, g Dec. 1839/5 Feb. 1840; in ME:W Erg. Bd. 2: 443.

28 E: “Freidrich Wilhelm IV, Konig von Preussen,” writ. ab. Oct. 1842; pub. I 843; in ME: W I .446ff, esp. 453.

29 M: Second letter, dated May 1843, in the “Exchange of Letters,” pub. in Deutsch-FranzBsischer Jahrbiicher, I 844; in ME: W I: 341–42 ; transl. largely based on M: Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. Easton & Guddat (Garden City, Doubleday, 1967), 209-10.

30 Ibid., ME: W I: 341 ; M: Writgs. Yg. Mx., 208.

31 Ibid., ME:W I: 342; M: Writgs. Yg. Mx., 210.

32 Ibid., ME: W I: 338-39; M: Writgs. Yg. Mx, 206.

33 In ME: On Religion, 15.

34 Mehring, Karl Marx, 59.

35 InME:WErg.Bd.I:215.

36 M: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow, FLPH, n.d.), I I 7.

37 M: The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow: FLPH, n.d.), 98–102. There is an echo of this in M: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, tr. N. I . Stone (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1904) Appendix, “Introduction,” 268. (This “Introduction” is a section of the Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Economie.)

38 The cartoon may be seen in Mehring, Karl Marx, facing p. 296, with a detailed explanation of the verso. (Not in the later paperback edition.)

39 From the German text as given in Nicolaievsky, 60. Since the author seems to be thoroughly anonymous (cf. Auguste Cornu, Karl Marx et Fr. Engels (Paris, P.U.F., 1958), 2: 102), one might wonder whether this was not a last flare-up of Marx’s temptation to write verse. Seven years later, when Marx’s Neue Rheinische Zeitung was closed up in the same city in 1849, a farewell poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath was published in the final issue, naturally striking the same note.

40 The poem has a long title, usually shortened to Der Triumph der Glaubens, writ. and pub. in 1842; here transl. from ME:W Erg. Bd. 2: 301.

41 Most of the quotations are from the Paul Elmer More translation of Prometheus Bound. The first (Hephaestus) is a colloquialized adaption.

42 M: “Toward the Critique of Hegel’s Philosphy of Law: Introduction,” Deutsch-Franeosischer lahrbiicher, 1844; writ. end of 1843 to Jan. 1844; in M: Writgs. Yg. Mx., 264.

43 Ibid., 260-64.

44 E: “Communism in Germany,” 2nd article, New Moral World, 8 March 1845; in ME: Gesamtausgabe I. 4: 344.

45 M: “Debatte iiber Pressfreiheit [Src.],” Rheinische Zeitung, 5 May 1842; in ME:W I: 49.

46 Ibid., 51.

47 For the two versions in English. see ME: The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 646, 651–52; for the two in German, see ME:W 3: 5–6, 533–34. In the second paragraph of the thesis, Engels introduced two changes which we have omitted entirely, as unnecessary or misguided. He deleted the words “or self-changing,” and altered “revolutionary practice” [revolutionare Praxis] to “transformatory [or revolutionizing] practice” [umwalzende Praxis].

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