Tuesday 12 May 2009

The Red Doctor

Karl Marx arrived in England in August 1849 with high expectations that the 'British Revolution', long in gestation, was shortly to be born. After all, this was the most industrialised country in Europe with the biggest proletariat. He placed particular faith in the Chartists, a mass movement which aimed at the democratic reform of the whole British political process.

Before arriving he had written "The most civilized land, the land whose industry is the most developed, whose bourgeoisie is the most powerful, where the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are divided in the sharpest fashion and stand most decisively opposed to one another, will be the first to witness the emancipation of the workers of all lands. That land is England.". Chartism, however, was not to be the vehicle of emancipation. Already in decline when Marx arrived, he held on to his unrealistic hopes as long as he could, but eventually agreed with Engels, who had a far better understanding of English politics, that the proletarian movement "...in its old traditional Chartist form must perish completely before it can develop in a new vital form."

This, in fact, is a key moment in Marx's personal and intellectual evolution; of the transformation of the young optimist into the ponderous critic of capitalism. A new crisis would come, that was always his belief, but if the revolutionary phoenix was to arise it would only do so through a proper understanding of the "law of motion of capitalist society." Das Kapital, volume one of which appeared in 1867, is not an analysis of capitalism in general: it is an analysis of English capitalism, or at least it is from this that he draws most of his practical examples.

However, just as the English economy encouraged Marx in his model of historical development, his observations of English politics made him increasingly pessimistic. And here we have the key to the very thing that was to perplex not just Marx but generations of Marxists thereafter: namely, what was the precise relationship between objective economic forces and subjective revolutionary action? English capitalism may have been 'classic'; but English politics and the English working class was 'unclassic' in every degree!

The greatest puzzle for Marx was that England's political clothes simply did not fit its economic body, at least in the terms his theory prescribed. For Marx parliamentary republicanism was the political form best suited to advanced capitalism; but England retained not just a monarchy but a powerful aristocracy, which should have passed away with feudalism. It was the capacity of the English to absorb change without revolution that perplexed him most. England had a capacity for reform which;

...neither creates anything new, nor abolishes anything old, but merely aims at confirming the old system by giving it a more reasonable form and teaching it, so to say, new manners. This is the mystery of the 'hereditary wisdom' of the English oligarchical legislation. It simply consists in making abuses hereditary, by refreshing them, as it were, from time to time, by the infusion of new blood.

It was the English working class, which preferred to work within the existing system, that was to cause him his greatest annoyance, particularly in its support for the bourgeois Liberal party, parliamentary reform, moderate trade unions and the co-operative movement. The English had all the material necessary for a revolution but what they lacked was "the spirit of generalisation and revolutionary fervour."

He became ever more pessimistic, towards the end of his life, seeing the English working class as no more than the 'tail' of the Liberal Party. Worse still, he came to agree with Engels that the English proletariat "was becoming more and more bourgeois, so that the most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie."

Alas the 'Red Doctor', as he came to be referred to in the British press after the Paris Commune, never understood the country he lived in for over thirty years of his life. His last recorded words were "To the devil with the British." Ah, well; Marx is dead, but capitalism lives...just!


  1. very interesting! red doctor really should live in "red china"!
    after the failure of communism in china, china has been trying to follow the same path (peaceful transform) but i don't know if it's possible because china simply doesn't have such a huge population of working class. the difference between rich and poor is greater than ever in chinese hisotry.

  2. Yun yi, I've ordered a copy of a new book on the Great Leap Forward. I'll add a review in due course.

  3. have a good read ana! and welcome to the most absurd era of mankind history! can't wait to read your review:-)

  4. It's called Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe by Frank Dikotter. I ordered it straight after reading a review in the Sunday press. Some of the details are both horrific and heart-breaking.