karl marx and the french revolution -- 8/21/18

Today's selection -- from A World to Win by Sven-Eric Liedman. Like those of his contemporaries in the early-to-mid 1800s, the political thoughts of Karl Marx -- author of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital -- were formed in the long shadow of the French Revolution, which had started in 1789 and carried on in different mutations through at least 1795, if not longer:

"Marx grew to manhood in the shadow of the Great French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1794. The revolu­tion did not only entail political upheavals, it paved the way for Napoleon and the violent reaction that followed the Battle of Waterloo, and gave us the metre and the kilogramme. The French Revolution also became the background against which nearly all European thinking on society, all political ideals, and most ideas about development, progress, or degeneration took place for more than a half-century.

"With a few exceptions, the political ideologies we talk about today are reactions to the French Revolution. Conservatism is usually derived from the Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke's 1790 book Reflections on the Revolution in France, and the name itself was fixed in the French newspaper Le Conservateur. The paper began publication in 1818, and its best-known con­tributor was the French poet and diplomat Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand. 'Liberal' and 'liberalism' made their debut as designations of a political ideology in Spain in 1812, where a grouping that called themselves los liberales played a crucial role for the constitution in Cadiz. Their success was brief, but the term spread quickly.

"Socialism and communism became political ideologies a few decades later, still with the French Revolution as the most import­ant historical reference. It is scarcely different with anarchism, to which Pierre-Joseph Proudhon gave the name in 1840. Even this took its colours from what happened in 1789 and the years after.

"The purely reactionary ideology, which wanted to recreate the society that was shattered during the years going forward from 1789, also belongs to this group. Reactionaries -- those people pushing purely backwards -- were strong in France after the fall of Napoleon; they have of course turned up again and again in later periods and other countries, even if it was not precisely the pre-revolutionary French state but some other imagined paradise from the past that they were dreaming about.

Commemorates the French Revolution of 1830

"Only fascism and Nazism are children of a later period -- to be precise, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when nationalist mass movements began to take shape. Marx did not live to see their first great demonstration, which took place in France in 1889. At the time, a coup d'etat was very close at hand. Its figurehead was general Boulanger, a pathetic figure who wanted revenge for the defeat in the Franco-German war of 1870-71. The ideology only emerged fully with Mussolini and Hitler.

"The French Revolution also determined a great deal of Marx's political horizon. Through his father, Heinrich Marx, he had got a positive image of what it meant early on, especially for the per­sonal liberation that Heinrich himself had experienced. When Karl's own political interests had been awakened, the French Revolution was one of the areas he studied the most assiduously. For him as well, it provided a paradigm for future revolutions. He applied its various forms -- and especially its party designations -- to the current course of events. Marx took the inspiration for his idea on the divided revolution -- bourgeois and political first, then proletarian and social -- from it.

"The revolutions in Europe during 1848 and 1849, in his eyes, were continuations of the upheavals sixty years earlier. Europe had developed, technology had made new conquests, and indus­trialism was establishing itself more and more firmly with two new, rapidly expanding social classes: industrial capitalists and industrial workers. When a relatively calm situation once again settled upon Europe at the end of 1849, Marx -- like many others --­ thought it was only the calm before the real storm."

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 Sven-Eric Liedman


A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx




Copyright Albert Bonniers Förlag 2015


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