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ISR Issue 52, May–June 2007


Marx, Engels, and Self-emancipation


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 ³The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels,² in Socialist Register 1971, by the Merlin Press ( The first installment of this article appeared in ISR 53.

The rejection of humanitarian-philanthropic elitism

THE THIRD Thesis entails, or leads right into, rejection of the whole humanitarian-philanthropic attitude toward the masses of people, which was typical not only of Owen and the utopians, but also of all the other pre-Marxian socialists to one degree or another. There are many reasons why the masses need protection from their friends, “but the greatest of these is charity.” In the long run, a people can be held in subjection most effectively not by brute force but by gutting them of the capacity to fight for themselves.

St. Peter explained it long ago: “For charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” It was explained also in Deuteronomy: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and thy needy, in thy land.” Therefore has been italicized here since it explains the practical reason for this holy injunction.

Marx’s burst of indignation at this sociological strategy of Christianity was directed, in 1847, at a pious Prussian who sermonized that, “If only those whose calling it is to develop the social principles of Christianity do so, the Communists will soon be put to silence”:

The social principles of Christianity have now had eighteen hundred years to develop and need no further development by Prussian councilors.

The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages, and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make a pitiful face over it.

The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and all they have for the latter is the pious wish the former will be charitable.

The social principles of Christianity transfer the councilors’ adjustment of all infamies to heaven and thus justify the further existence of those infamies on earth.

The social principles of Christianity declare all vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either the just punishment of original sin and other sins or trials that the Lord in his infinite wisdom imposes on those redeemed.

The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submission, dejection, in a word all the qualities of the canaille; and the proletariat, not wishing to be treated as canaille, needs its courage, its self-reliance, its pride and its sense of independence more than its bread.

The social principles of Christianity are sneakish and the proletariat is revolutionary.

So much for the social principles of Christianity.48

In this passage, the authentic Promethean spirit of self-reliant defiance is transferred from the bosom of a god filled with “love of mankind” to the proletariat itself.* Prometheus plus Spartacus equals the starting point of Marxism.

The class character of charity

From here on, Marx’s war against humanitarian-philanthropic socialism is unremitting. Engels had anticipated it partly in his earlier Condition of the Working Class in England, in a passage attacking the charity system—“your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy” which gives the victim a hundredth part of what has been plundered from his labor:

Charity which degrades him who gives more than him who takes; charity which treads the downtrodden still deeper in the dust, which demands that the degraded, the pariah cast out of society, shall first surrender the last that remains to him, his very claim to manhood, shall first beg for mercy before your mercy deigns to press, in the shape of an alms, the brand of degradation upon his brow.50

This first book of Engels’ is one of those germinal works of which it can be said, as Rupert Brooke did in another connection, that “thoughts go blowing through them, are wiser than their own.” By 1847 Engels was more direct. An article of his on the literature of the then prominent petty-bourgeois “True-Socialist” tendency starts with a mortal thrust at one of Karl Beck’s Songs of the Poor Man—which begins with a poem addressed to the House of Rothschild:

The poet does not threaten the destruction of the real power of Rothschild, the social conditions on which it is based; no, he wishes only it should be used philanthropically. He laments that the bankers are not socialistic philanthropists, not sentimental visionaries, not benefactors of humanity, but just bankers. Beck sings the praises of this cowardly, petty-bourgeois misère, of the “poor man,” the pauvre honteux, with his poor, pious and contradictory desires, the “little man” in all his forms—not of the proud, menacing and revolutionary proletarian.51

About the same time, in The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx included a pungent page devoted to

the humanitarian school, which…seeks, by way of easing its conscience, to palliate even if slightly the real contrasts; it sincerely deplores the distress of the proletariat, the unbridled competition of the bourgeois among themselves; it counsels the workers to be sober, to work hard and to have few children; it advises the bourgeois to put a reasoned ardor into production…

The philanthropic school is the humanitarian school carried to perfection. It denies the necessity of antagonism; it wants to turn all men into bourgeois…. The philanthropists, then, want to retain the categories which express bourgeois relations, without the antagonism which constitutes them and is inseparable from them. They think they are seriously fighting bourgeois practice, and they are more bourgeois than the others.52

The Communist Manifesto repeats this more concisely,** under the head of “bourgeois socialism,” by which is meant bourgeois social reform; for in the pre-1848 period “socialism” was still a common label simply for reformatory concern with the “social question.” Besides Proudhon, who is specifically mentioned,

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organizers of charity, members of the society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.54

And a little further, it is pointed out that utopian socialism, despite its positive “critical” content, tends to degenerate into this kind of socialism too.55 “Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.” And “the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.”56 In contrast, the Manifesto’s message is that, “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”57

This is the “very beginning” to which Engels later referred, although the self-emancipation principle had not yet received the aphoristic form under which it became famous.

“To walk by himself”

Hence forward the principle weaves through the analyses of Marx and Engels as an integral part of their thought. Here are some examples that come to hand.

During the revolutionary period that followed The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels’ articles in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung continually appealed to action from below by the populace. In this connection Engels wrote at one point: “In Germany there are no longer any ‘subjects,’ ever since the people became so free as to emancipate themselves on the barricades.”58 At the beginning of another article, praising the resistance of the Poles to Prussian conquest, he relates a touching anecdote about a practical philanthropist, picked up from a biography of the priest Joseph Bonavita Blank. The holy man was frequented by birds that hovered on and about him; and the people wondered mightily to see this new St. Francis. No wonder: he had cut off the lower half of their beaks, so that they could get food only from his own charitable hands. Engels comments on his parable:

The birds, says the biographer, loved him as their benefactor.

And the shackled, mangled, branded Poles refuse to love their Prussian benefactors!59

The experience of the revolution was one of the reasons why Marx was sensitized to the necessity of breaking the German people from the habit of obedience to authority from above:

For the German working class the most necessary thing of all is that it should cease conducting its agitation by kind permission of the higher authorities. A race so schooled in bureaucracy must go through a complete course of “self-help.”60
Around the same time he embodied the same idea in a letter, which we have already quoted in the preceding chapter: “Here [in Germany] where the worker’s life is regulated from childhood on by bureaucracy and he himself believes in the authorities, he must be taught before all else to walk by himself.”61

The Octroyal Principle

Of course, this applied not only to the Germans. It was ever present to Marx’s mind when he discussed the phenomenon of the state-sponsored “revolution from above” in connection with Bonapartism. In pre-Bismarck Prussia, there were the Stein-Hardenberg reforms-from-above, designed to rally support against Napoleon; in Russia there was the tsar’s emancipation of the serfs. Marx commented (in English):

In both countries the social daring reform was fettered and limited in character because it was octroyed from the throne and not (instead of being) conquered by the people.62

“Octroyed” is a rare word in English, but deserves to be more widely used. Its connotation—more than merely “grant” or “concede”—is precisely the handing down of changes from above, as against their conquest from below. (In fact, “octroyal socialism” is a fine coinage for the opposite of the Marxist principle of self-emancipation.)

In his book on the 1848 revolution in France, Marx recurs to a characteristic metaphor of the theater (as in “theater of war”): in this case, not the contrast between “above” and “below,” but rather between the active participants on the stage of history and the passive onlookers of the pit or the wings. On the first stage of the revolution:

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!63

On the peasantry who were momentarily set into motion—to give Bonaparte his election victory of December 10, 1848:
For a moment active heroes of the revolutionary drama, they could no longer be forced back into the inactive and spineless role of the chorus.64

This metaphor illuminates Marx’s concept of the revolution from below as self-emancipation. Less figuratively, in another passage, Marx mentions indicia of the proletariat’s immaturity:

As soon as it was risen up, a class in which the revolutionary interests of society are concentrated finds the content and the material for its revolutionary activity directly in its own situation: foes to be laid low, measures dictated by the needs of the straggle to be taken; the consequences of its own deeds drive it on…. The French working class had not attained this level; it was still incapable of accomplishing its own revolution.65

The proletariat was as yet incapable of carrying through a rising from below, under the self-impulsion of its own class drives.
After Bonaparte had consolidated his power, Engels remarked that he hoped the old scoundrel was not assassinated. For in that case the Bonapartist clique would merely make a deal with the Orleanist monarchy and go right on:

Before the workers’ districts could think about it, Morny would have made his palace-revolution, and although a revolution from below would be thereby postponed only briefly, yet its basis would be a different one.66

In the First International

If the principle of self-emancipation had to be spelled out more formally in 1864, it was because of the problem Marx faced in drawing up the program of the new International so as to gain the agreement of a wide variety of political views. What programmatic statement could delimit the organization as a class movement of the proletariat, yet avoid lining up with any of the various ideological tendencies within that class (or outside it)? The very concept of a class program which was not a sect program—not the program of a Marxist sect either—was itself a basic Marxist concept; but for this the movement was ready. “The Preamble to the Rules” was Marx’s solution, beginning with the clause on self-emancipation which we have already quoted.

The principle was so deceptively simple that naturally academic historians of socialism never got the point until years afterwards. Thus the eminent Belgian historian Emile de Laveleye (one of those who, Engels rightly remarked, spread nothing but “lies and legends” about the history of the International67) wrote in Le Socialisme Contemporain in 1881:

The International also affirmed that “the emancipation of the laborers must be the work of the laborers themselves.” This idea seemed an application of the principle of “self-help”; it enlisted for the new association, even in France, the sympathies of many distinguished men who little suspected how it was to be interpreted later on. This affords a new proof of the fact frequently observed, that revolutionary movements always go on increasing in violence. The originators of the movement…are replaced by the more fanatical, who, in their turn, are pushed aside, until the final abyss is reached to which wild revolutionary logic inevitably leads.68

In contrast to this liberal ignoramus, the viciously reactionary historian of the International, Edmond Villetard, understood very quickly that the militants of the International were so wildly fanatical as to believe exactly what the principle of self-emancipation said. “No idea, without excepting perhaps their hatred of capital,” he charges, “entered more passionately into their heads and hearts.” He quotes one of the French militants who were arrested as Internationalists by the Bonaparte government:

We have proclaimed sufficiently…that we no longer wanted deliverers, that we no longer wished to serve as instruments, and that we had the pretension to have knowledge of the situation, to understand our interests as well as any one.69
Once launched, the principle kept recurring in the documents of the International, whether written by Marx or others. In an official manifesto addressed to the National Labor Union of the U.S., Marx went back to the “stage” metaphor:

On you, then, devolves the glorious task to prove to the world that now at last the working classes are bestriding the scene of history no longer as servile retainers, but as independent actors, conscious of their own responsibility.70

In a manifesto denouncing the shooting of strikers in Belgium, Marx granted that the Belgian capitalist was so liberty loving,
that he has always indignantly repulsed any factory law encroaching upon that liberty. He shudders at the very idea that a common workman should be wicked enough to claim any higher destiny than that of enriching his master and natural superior. He wants his workman not only to remain a miserable drudge, overworked and underpaid, but, like every other slaveholder, he wants him to be a cringing, servile broken-hearted, morally prostrate, religiously humble drudge. Hence his frantic fury at strikes. With him, a strike is a blasphemy, a slave’s revolt, the signal of a social cataclysm.71

At a General Council discussion on the Irish question, in the course of a long speech attacking English policy, Marx put it sententiously: “The old English leaven of the conqueror comes out in the [government] statement: we will grant but you must ask.”72 In other words, the octroyal attitude of the master.

Do-it-yourself movement

Not drafted by Marx but by other members of the council was an address calling for an independent labor press:

Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, “If you want a thing done, and well done, do it yourself,” and this is precisely what we must do…we must take the work of salvation into our own hands…. In order to guard against deceitful friends, we require a press of our own.73

The historian Royden Harrison remarks that “the influence of the International and of Marx himself upon the Land and Labor League is nowhere more clearly in evidence” than in its address, modeled after Marx’s, which appealed:

There is one, and only one, remedy. Help yourselves. Determine that you will not endure this abominable state of things any longer; act up to your determination, and it will vanish…. We are many; our opponents are few. Then working men and women of all creeds and occupations claim your conquer your own emancipation!74

That combines Marx with Shelley.

Aside from manifestoes, the General Council of the International was made unaccustomedly sensitive to the question of who acted in their name. A small but symbolic point was worked out in the General Council meeting after it had adopted its well-known address to Abraham Lincoln, which was to be presented to the U.S. embassy. The minutes record:

A long discussion then took place as to the mode of presenting the address and the propriety of having an M.P. with the deputation; this was strongly opposed by many members who said working men should rely on themselves and not seek for extraneous aid.75

The motion that was passed limited the delegation to council members. Marx related to Engels:

…part of the Englishmen on the Committee wanted to have the deputation introduced by a member of Parliament since it was customary. This hankering was defeated by the majority of the English and the unanimity of the Continentals, and it was declared, on the contrary, that such old English customs ought to be abolished.76

There were other symbolic tests. In 1865 the General Council announced it had refused the proposal of a rich English lord who had offered an annual subsidy to be the organization’s “protector.”77 The question of “Tory gold” was going to be an issue of self-emancipation all through the century.

Anticipations of future problems

The outbreak of war in 1870 and the Paris Commune in 1871 brought the question of self-emancipation out of the manifestoes and into reality. Later this is reflected in Marx’s analysis of the nature of the commune state. Here we mention some smaller but anticipatory reflections.

In the “Second Address” of the International on the war, Marx already points to that fact about the newly formed republic of liberal politicians which excites his “misgivings.” It is the fact that it has been engineered from above; that Bonapartism was not subverted (which means overturned from below) but only replaced:

That Republic has not subverted the throne, but only taken its place become vacant. It has been proclaimed, not as a social conquest, but as a national measure of defense.78

The great thing for Marx about the commune was that it was just the opposite: the working class of Paris took over.
It is a strange fact. In spite of all the tall talk and all the immense literature, for the last sixty years, about Emancipation of Labor, no sooner do the working men anywhere take the subject into their own hands with a will, then up rises at once all the apologetic phraseology of the mouthpieces of present society…79

(In fact, that very republic of the bourgeoisie about which Marx expressed instant suspicion was the instrument for smashing the republic of workers who took things into their own hands.)

We hear more from Marx about this in his writings on the commune state. Here let us turn to some less familiar language, written by Marx in his first draft for The Civil War in France. It is a passage in which he asks: What is it that is new about this revolution? True, the workers have home the brunt; but that has been true in all French revolutions. Then there is a second feature which is not new:

That the revolution is made in the name and confessedly for the popular masses, that is, the producing masses, is a feature this Revolution has in common with all its predecessors. The new feature is that the people, after the first rise [rising], have not disarmed themselves and surrendered their power into the hands at the Republican mountebanks of the ruling classes, that, by the constitution of the Commune, they have taken the actual management of their Revolution into their own hands and found at the time, in the case of success, the means to hold it in the hands of the People itself, displacing the State machinery, the governmental machinery of the ruling classes by a governmental machinery of their own. This is their ineffable crime! Workmen infringing upon the governmental privilege of the upper 10,000 and proclaiming their will to break the economical basis of that class despotism which for its own sake wielded the organized State force of society! This is it that has thrown the respectable classes in Europe as in the United States into the paroxysms of convulsions.80

There follows the statement, which was effectively expanded in the final version: “But the actual ‘social’ character of their Republic consists only in this, that workmen govern the Paris Commune!”81

“Some patronizing friends of the working class,” writes Marx,*** ask sympathy for the commune because it did not undertake any (utopian) “socialist enterprises.” He replies:

These benevolent patronizers, profoundly ignorant of the real aspirations and the real movement of the working classes, forget one thing. All the socialist founders of Sects belong to a period in which the working class themselves were neither sufficiently trained and organized by the march of capitalist society itself to enter as historical agents upon the world’s stage.83

But (he goes on) it is no defect of the commune that it refused to set up a Fourierist phalanstere or a little Icaria à la Cabet. What it did set up was the condition of its own emancipation, “No longer clouded in utopian fables—for
the government of the working class can only save France and do the national business, by working for its own emancipation, the conditions of that emancipation being at the same time the conditions of the regeneration of France.84

For Marx and Engels, there was a direct relationship between the revolutionary (literally subversive) nature of their socialism and the principle of emancipation from below, the principle that, as Engels wrote, “There is no concern for…gracious patronage from above.”85 By the same token, only a movement looking to class struggle from below could be a genuinely proletarian movement. For it was the proletariat that was “below—” “the lowest stratum of our present society,” which “cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung up into the air.”86

Marxism, as the theory and practice of the proletarian revolution, therefore also had to be the theory and practice of the self-emancipation of the proletariat. Its essential originality flows from this source.

* In the same article, Marx included a powerful echo of the revulsion against the Savior-Ruler, as he attacked the pious Prussian¹s appeal for ³a monarchy relying on the support of the people²‹unaware, of course, that this was going to be, two decades later, the subject of Lassalle¹s pourparlers with Bismarck:
³We shall make but a few well-meaning remarks to those gentlemen who wish to save the imperiled Prussian monarchy by a Somersault into the people.
³Of all political elements the people is the most dangerous for a kingŠ. But the real people, the proletariat, the small peasants and the populace, there you have, as Hobbes said, puer robustus, sed matitiosus, a sturdy but knavish boy, who will not let himself be made a fool of either by thin kings or fat ones.
³This people would first and foremost force His Majesty to grant a constitution with universal suffrage, freedom of association, freedom of the press and other unpleasant things.
³And having obtained all that, it would use it to show as quickly as possible how it understands the power...of the monarchy.²49

** But note that Engels¹ draft for the Manifesto (³Principles of Communism²) does not suggest that there is any incompatibility; it is simply not taken up. Nor does it appear in the Schapper-Wolff draft (published under the title The Communist Credo and ascribed by some to Engels) which preceded Engels¹ ³Principles of Communism.²53

*** Marx is here doubtlessly referring to the followers of Comte; for the English Comtists, while anti-socialist, did defend the commune against the press slander campaign; especially Prof Edward Beesly (who had chaired the meeting that founded the First International). In a caustic paragraph just before this, Marx had distinguished the English Comtists from the French ³co-religionists,² and attacked Comtism as follows: ³Comte is known to the Parisian workmen as the prophet in politics of Imperialism [Bonapartism] (of personal Dictatorship), of capitalist rule in political economy, of hierarchy in all spheres of human action, even in the sphere of science, and as the author of a new catechism with a new pope and new saints in place of the old ones.82 This attack did not appear in the final version, either because of respect for the courage of the English Comtists in defending tile commune, or because of space, or both.

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:o 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=Marks & Engels.

48 M: “The communism of the paper Rheinischer Beobachter,” in ME: On Religion, 82–83; transl. mod. after ME:W4:200.

49 Ibid., 85; trans., mod. after ME:W 4: 202.

50 In ME: On Britain, 2nd ed. (Moscow, FLPH, 1962), 315.

51 E: “Deutscher Sozialismus in Versen und Prosa,” pub. September 1847; in ME:W 4:207.

52 M: The Poverty of Philosophy, 124–25.

53 Der Bund der Kommunisten. Dokument (Berlin: Dietz, 1970) I: 470 ff.

54 In ME:SW 1: 60.

55 Ibid., 63–64.

56 Ibid., 62.

57 Ibid., 44.

58 E: “Berliner Vereinbarungsdebatten.” New Rheinische Zeitung, June 7, 1848. In ME: W 5: 45.

59 E: “Die Poldendebatte in Frankfort,” Neue Rheinische Zeitung, August 9, 1848; in ME:W 5: 319.

60 Letter, Marx to Engels, September 26, 1868; in ME: Selected Correspondence (NY: International Publishers, 1935), 249.

61 Letter, Marx to J. B. Schweitzer, October 13, 1868; in ME: Selected Correspondence (Moscow: FLPH, n.d.), 259.

62 M: First Draft of Civil War in France, 280.

63 M: Class Struggles in France 1848–1850, in ME:SW I: 146.

64 Ibid., 174.

65 Ibid., 148.

66 Letter, Engels to Marx, March 17, 1858; in ME:W 29: 305.

67 Letter, Engels to Wl. J. Schmuilow, February 7, 1893; in ME:W 29: 305.

68 Quoted here from the English trans., The Socialism of Today (London: Leadenhall Press, n.d.), 152. (Trans. first published 1884).

69 Edmond Villetard de Prunières, History of the Internationl, trans. By S. M. Day (New Haven: 1874), 65–66. The speaker quoted was Chalain. The original, Historie de l’Internationale, was published in Paris, 1872.

70 “The International Working Men’s Association to the National Labor Union of the United States,” dated May 12, 1869; writ. By Marx; adopted by the General Council; in General Council. F.Z. 1868–70 [v. 3], 102, 321. “The Belgian Massacres,” dated May 4, 1869; manifesto written by Marx, approved by the General Council; in ibid. 314–15.

71 At meeting of the General Council, Nov. 16, 1869; in ibid., 182.

72 “On the policy of theBritish government with respectd to Irish prisoners,” ME:W Vol. 21, 407.

73 “To the Working Men of Great Britain and Ireland,” pub. Sept. 1865; in General Council. F.Z. 1864–66 [v. I.], 299.

74 R. Harrison: “The Land and Labor League,” International Institute for Social History, Bulletin, v. 8, 1953, no. 3, 174, 195.

75 Minutes of November 29, 1864, in General Council F.Z. 1864–66 [v. I], 54.

76 Letter, Marx to Engels, December 2, 1864, in ME: The Civil War in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1937), 273.

77 Jules L. Puech: Le Proudhonisme dans l’Association Internationale des Travailleurs (Paris: Alcan, 1907), 103n.

78 M: “Second Address of the General Council…,” dated September 9, 1870; in ME:SW I: 496.

79 M: Civil War in France, in ME:SW I: 522–23.

80 M: First Draft of Civil War in France, 346–48.

81 Ibid., 348. Cf. Civil War in France, in ME:SW I: 522.

82 Ibid., 346.

83 Ibid., 348.

84 Ibid., 352.

85 E: Ludwig Feuerback, in ME:SW 2: 400–01.

86 ME: The Communist Manifesto, in ME:SW I: 44.

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