Marxism and historical predictions

Be­cause Marx­ism ad­dresses it­self prin­cip­ally to his­tory, its ad­her­ents of­ten traffic in his­tor­ic­al pre­dic­tions. This was true of Marx and En­gels no less than their fol­low­ers, and more of­ten than not their pre­dic­tions turned out to be in­ac­cur­ate or mis­taken. Pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion — which Marx some­times called “the re­volu­tion of the nine­teenth cen­tury” — did not ul­ti­mately win out or carry the day. Cap­it­al­ism has not yet col­lapsed, and des­pite the peri­od­ic pro­nounce­ments of Marx­ist pro­fess­ors every time the stock mar­ket dips, none of the crises it’s en­dured has proved ter­min­al.

Karl Pop­per, Ray­mond Aron, and oth­er op­pon­ents of Marxi­an the­ory of­ten raise the fail­ure of such fore­casts as proof that its doc­trine is “un­falsifi­able.” Op­pon­ents of Marx­ism are not the only ones who re­joice at Marx­ism’s frus­trated pro­gnost­ic­a­tions; op­por­tun­ist­ic re­vi­sion­ists have also taken com­fort whenev­er things don’t quite pan out. Georg Lukács ob­served al­most a hun­dred years ago that “the op­por­tun­ist in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx­ism im­me­di­ately fastens on to the so-called er­rors of Marx’s in­di­vidu­al pre­dic­tions in or­der to elim­in­ate re­volu­tion root and branch from Marx­ism as a whole.”

Some of this is rather un­avoid­able. De­bates about wheth­er the cap­it­al­ist break­down is in­ev­it­able, the vagar­ies of Zu­sam­men­bruchs­theo­rie, ne­ces­sar­ily in­volve spec­u­la­tion about the fu­ture res­ults of present dy­nam­ics — wheth­er self-an­ni­hil­a­tion is a built-in fea­ture of cap­it­al­ism, wheth­er the en­tire mode of pro­duc­tion is a tick­ing time-bomb. Yet there have been con­crete in­stances in which the foresight of cer­tain Marx­ists seems al­most proph­et­ic in hind­sight. Not just in broad strokes, either, as for ex­ample the even­tu­al tri­umph of bour­geois eco­nom­ics across the globe.

En­gels’ very de­tailed pre­dic­tion, ori­gin­ally made in 1887, came true al­most to the let­ter:

The only war left for Prus­sia-Ger­many to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an ex­tent and vi­ol­ence hitherto un­ima­gined. Eight to ten mil­lion sol­diers will be at each oth­er’s throats and in the pro­cess they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of lo­custs.

The de­pred­a­tions of the Thirty Years’ War com­pressed in­to three to four years and ex­ten­ded over the en­tire con­tin­ent; fam­ine, dis­ease, the uni­ver­sal lapse in­to bar­bar­ism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; ir­re­triev­able dis­lo­ca­tion of our ar­ti­fi­cial sys­tem of trade, in­dustry, and cred­it, end­ing in uni­ver­sal bank­ruptcy; col­lapse of the old states and their con­ven­tion­al polit­ic­al wis­dom to the point where crowns will roll in­to the gut­ters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the ab­so­lute im­possib­il­ity of fore­see­ing how it will all end and who will emerge as vic­tor from the battle.

Only one con­sequence is ab­so­lutely cer­tain: uni­ver­sal ex­haus­tion and the cre­ation of the con­di­tions for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of the work­ing class.

Re­gard­ing this last line, “the con­di­tions for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of the work­ing class” un­doubtedly were cre­ated by the world war between great cap­it­al­ist powers. Wheth­er these con­di­tions were ac­ted upon is an­oth­er, sad­der story. Coun­ter­fac­tu­als aside, the fact re­mains that things could have been oth­er­wise. His­tor­ic cir­cum­stances con­spired to open up a def­in­ite field of po­ten­tial out­comes, in which in­ter­na­tion­al pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion seemed not just ab­stractly pos­sible but con­cretely prob­able.

Continue reading

MEGA [Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe] on MEGA

Back in the 1920s, the Russian revolutionary and Marxist scholar David Riazanov began to compile a new, more complete edition of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. He was, unfortunately, purged during the 1930s for supposed involvement in an anti-Soviet conspiracy. Riazanov was thus unable to see this project through to the end. Nevertheless, he set the wheels in motion for future Marxologists and exegetes like Maximilien Rubel, Roman Rosdolski, and Michael Heinrich. Work on the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [MEGA] continues today.

Anyway, I recently happened across a trove of full-text PDFs of the MEGA stored on the New Zealand cloud service known as MEGA, appropriately enough. You can download the files as a .zip file by clicking here. Quietly amused that this arrived to me indirectly via a certain oversharing Francophile lefty editor type. Makes me wonder what all his posturing over “pirate scab PDFs” was really about.


Speaking of which, Budgen — Lars Ulrich of the online left — is apparently upset with me yet again. Class act that he is, Sebastian associated me with the disgusting rape advocate Roosh V. (an antisemitic conspiracy theorist and extreme misogynist) and the disgusting pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shrkeli (who jacked up the price of vital medicines once he’d secured exclusive rights over the drugs). If anyone resembles a douchebag who sells stuff he didn’t develop himself for obscenely inflated prices while monopolizing said product… you would think it was Budgen. Especially considering the company he keeps: people who make fun of others with physical deformities or who have a darker complexion on account of their ethnic background. Roosh V. and Simon Weston are reactionaries, to be sure, but that should hardly be seen as giving one license to make racist or ableist comments about them. Continue reading

Cartoon commies

For as long as there have been communists, so also have there been cartoonists. At times, cartoonists and communists have been one and the same. The young Friedrich Engels observed this in a letter written to his friend Karl Marx in October 1844:

I have been in Elberfeld, where I once again came across several communists I had never heard of before. Turn where you will, go where you may, you’ll stumble on a communist. A very impassioned communist, a cartoonist, and aspiring historical painter by the name of Seel will be going to Paris in two months’ time. I’ll direct him to you…[H]e may very well come in useful as a cartoonist.

Engels was something of a cartoonist himself. His caricatures of the Young Hegelians in »Die Berliner Freien« and of the anarchist Max Stirner have been reproduced down to the present. On the back of E. Voswinkel’s letter to Marx from January 1849, Engels drew a cartoon of Frederick William IV and the Prussian bourgeoisie apropos the elections to the Prussian Diet. Marx tried to get it published in the Brüsseler-Zeitung.

Engels' caricature of "The Free," the Berlin group of Young Hegelians (Words in the drawing, Ruge, Buhl, Nauwerck, Bauer, Wigand, Edgar [Bauer], Stirner, Meyen, stranger, Koppen the Lieutenant. The squirrel is the Prussian Minister Eichhorn

Lenin appreciated the odd cartoon here and there as well. Yelena Stasova sent him a cartoon in honor of his fiftieth birthday, which depicted the Marxists as children who came to congratulate the Narodnik Mikhailovsky on his fiftieth birthday in 1900. Stasova wrote that at the time of Mikhailovsky’s birthday the RSDLP had been in its childhood, whereas it had since matured. “This is the result of your work, your mind and talent,” she explained.

Upon receiving it, the Bolshevik leader decided to share it with his fellow celebrants and guests:

Comrades, I must naturally begin by thanking you for two things: firstly, for the congratulations addressed to me today, and secondly, even more for having spared me congratulatory speeches (Applause.) I think that perhaps in this way we may gradually, not all at once, of course, devise a more suitable method of celebrating anniversaries than the one hitherto in vogue, which has sometimes formed the subject of remarkably good cartoons. Here is one such cartoon drawn by a prominent artist in celebration of such a jubilee. I received it today with an extremely cordial letter. And as the comrades have been kind enough to spare me congratulatory speeches, I will hand this cartoon round for all to see, so as to save us in future from such jubilee celebrations altogether.

Nikolai Bukharin — the party’s favorite, and its leading economist — was also a quite talented caricaturist. Zinoviev, Lenin, and Dzerzhinsky all show up in his sketches. Bukharin made a few drawings of Stalin, the man who would later send him to be executed, during their brief alliance in the 1920s. Krzhizhanovsky and Mezhiauk contribute a few doodles as well. Have a look.

Cartoons are primarily illustrative. That is to say, they convey their meaning by means of pictures and not words. But text often accompanies cartoons and comic strips, either as a description of that which is depicted or as dialogue (the speech bubble between characters or the thought bubble for internal monologue). Continue reading

The theory of “reification”

A re­sponse to Georg Lukács

Izrail’ Vain­shtein
Un­der the Ban­ner of
10 (1924)


The philo­soph­ic­al ex­plan­a­tions present among people claim­ing to be Marx­ists mani­fest a haphaz­ard­ness of spec­u­lat­ive philo­soph­iz­ing that must meet their nemes­is in the philo­sophy of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

The his­tory of hu­man thought, from the dia­lect­ic­al stand­point, is least of all a ground for con­struct­ing hy­po­theses, con­coct­ing du­bi­ous con­cepts that bear on their face the im­print of tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic­al striv­ings. True and deep thought, thought that opens a new epoch in his­tory, of­ten be­comes a pole of at­trac­tion for philo­soph­iz­ing per­sons whose con­cep­tu­al fancy seizes upon such thought only to cov­er it over with their own ques­tion­able designs. Such a ques­tion­able design is the the­ory of re­ific­a­tion of Georg Lukács.1

Marx, as is known, dis­closed the fet­ish char­ac­ter of the com­mod­ity. He showed that value is not a fet­ish in­vis­ibly resid­ing in the com­mod­ity, but a pro­duc­tion re­la­tion in a so­ci­ety based on in­di­vidu­al ex­change between com­mod­ity pro­du­cers. The struc­ture of com­mod­ity so­ci­ety in gen­er­al, and cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in par­tic­u­lar, is such that a thing be­comes a point of in­ter­sec­tion in a nex­us of in­ter­link­ing labors. The com­mod­ity es­tab­lishes links in such a so­ci­ety, where there is no planned reg­u­lat­ory con­trol over pro­duc­tion and where a thing, dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cer that made it, des­cends on to the mar­ket as a com­mod­ity unit, obed­i­ent to the spe­cif­ic laws of cir­cu­la­tion: “The labor of the private in­di­vidu­al mani­fests it­self as an ele­ment of the total labor of so­ci­ety only through the re­la­tions which the act of ex­change es­tab­lishes between the products, and, through their me­di­ation, between the pro­du­cers.”2 A thing is dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cers be­cause they them­selves are dis­con­nec­ted from each oth­er. The over­com­ing of this sep­ar­a­tion is car­ried out in com­mod­ity cir­cu­la­tion, through which things es­tab­lish so­cial ties. To un­der­stand the con­scious­ness of such a so­ci­ety and its con­stitutive classes (a means in the struggle) it is ne­ces­sary to go bey­ond the lim­its of thing­hood and to ad­dress the liv­ing con­crete act­ors in struggle. Things do not struggle amongst them­selves. If the so­cial con­scious­ness is a crit­ic­al factor in this mu­tu­al his­tor­ic­al rivalry, then, of course, it is ne­ces­sary to un­der­stand it in terms of so­cial class in­terest, which only finds ex­pres­sion in liv­ing agents of the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess. The geni­us of Marx’s dis­clos­ure con­sisted in re­veal­ing be­hind re­la­tions of things the re­la­tions of people and, con­versely, in es­tab­lish­ing the ne­ces­sity of the re­ific­a­tion of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in a com­mod­ity so­ci­ety. Lukács, pro­ceed­ing from the fact of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism — which Marx so bril­liantly dis­sec­ted hav­ing seen be­hind this oc­cult idol hu­man re­la­tions — at­tempts to con­struct an en­tire “mon­ist­ic” the­ory of re­ific­a­tion in whose im­age and like­ness all phe­nom­ena of this so­ci­ety are for­mu­lated, in­clud­ing con­scious­ness. However, Lukács’s con­struc­tion stands in sharp con­tra­dic­tion to the sense of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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First of all, when Marx speaks about cap­it­al “as auto­mat­ic gen­er­a­tion”3 in which all traces of its ori­gin dis­ap­pear, he in this case does not at all de­scribe, as Lukács thinks, “the in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness to­ward re­ific­a­tion.”4 Rather, Marx is speak­ing about the re­frac­tion of de­term­in­ate forms of so­cial re­la­tions, op­er­at­ing as re­la­tions of things in the con­scious­ness of bour­geois the­ory and rep­res­ent­a­tion. Polit­ic­al eco­nomy is the sci­ence of re­la­tions between people rep­res­en­ted as re­la­tions between things. The cap­it­al­ist eco­nomy is a com­mod­ity eco­nomy, the single cell of which — the private busi­ness en­ter­prise — is man­aged by form­ally in­de­pend­ent com­mod­ity pro­du­cers, between whom an in­dir­ect link is es­tab­lished in the pro­cess of ex­change. Speak­ing about com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism and all its modi­fic­a­tions in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, Marx least of all psy­cho­lo­gizes. He is de­scrib­ing an in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness, but he spe­cifies it in re­la­tion to the pro­duct­ive re­la­tions of people char­ac­ter­ist­ic of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. Ru­bin is com­pletely right to say that the the­ory of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism could be bet­ter called “a gen­er­al the­ory of the pro­duc­tion re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”5 Continue reading

Mapping the “bloody week”: The last days of the Paris Commune in a cartographic narrative

Originally posted by Fosco Lucarelli over at Socks-Studio. A couple of grammatical and formatting edits have been made, and Friedrich Engels’ 1891 reflection on the Paris Commune has been further appended. Check out Socks-Studio’s website for more great posts and information.

The events that occurred in the last month of La Commune — the socialist government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871 — are mapped out in this extraordinary plan, drawn up by Mr. L. Meunier and P. Rouillier in 1871 in a simple yet informative manner.

Paris en Mai 1871. Plan indiquant les opérations de l’Armée contre l’Insurrection. Dressée par L. Meunier et P. Rouillier. Échelle de 1 : 32,000

Cartography is used here as a narrative device to display the military movements of the Versailles army, its general strategy, the countermeasures taken by the insurgents, and the rapidly unfolding events taking place in space and time across the urban territory.

For more information about the events of La Commune and some related texts, we leave you with: “La Commune Project by Raspouteam” (2011), an entire site (only in French) dedicated to the events during the insurrection, Le Funambulist’s “Paris 1871 Commune recounted by Raspouteam” and “Processes of smoothing and striation of space in urban warfare.”

We thank our friend Mike Ma for letting us use his photographic reproductions of the plan.

In blue: Versailles army lines
In red: elements of the insurgents or destroyed buildings

Click the following image for a hi-def of the whole plan:


Click any of the following thumbnails to see the images close-up:

The plan also includes an historical summary of military events:

The plan also includes an hystorical summary of military events from March, 18th to Mai, 29th

1891 introduction to The Civil War in France

Friedrich Engels
On the 20th anniversary
of the Paris Commune

If today, we look back at the activity and historical significance of the Paris Commune of 1871, we shall find it necessary to make a few additions to the account given in [Marx’s] The Civil War in France.

The members of the Commune were divided into a majority of the Blanquists, who had also been predominant in the Central Committee of the National Guard; and a minority, members of the International Working Men’s Association, chiefly consisting of adherents of the Proudhon school of socialism. The great majority of the Blanquists at that time were socialist only by revolutionary and proletarian instinct; only a few had attained greater clarity on the essential principles, through Vaillant, who was familiar with German scientific socialism. It is therefore comprehensible that in the economic sphere much was left undone which, according to our view today, the Commune ought to have done. Continue reading

All that exists deserves to perish

Against the Proudhonian
popery of Père Naphtha

Père Naphtha is a delightful contradiction: a self-identified papist with pretensions to Marxism. Specifically, he belongs to the Maoist/Stalinist persuasion. It’s possible that he, like Roland Boer, thinks his religiosity adds some sort of unexpected “twist” or nuance to his otherwise pedestrian “heartthrob for the welfare of humanity,” to quote Hegel. Recently his tempers have been roused by the controversy over Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article and identity politics on the Left, and by the flurry of responses (some okay, most bad) that issued from it. He has thus seen fit to pen his own reply “On Identitarianism: A Defense of a Strawman.”

Though it’s probably poor form to dismiss an entire article and its argument out of hand, in one sweeping gesture, I feel confident in characterizing Naphtha’s “response” as basically an excuse to bang on about Nietzsche‘s pernicious influence on the Left. Obviously, this has been getting a lot of play lately, with Malcolm Bull‘s book Anti-Nietzsche having come out recently, followed by a long and seemingly interminable debate on Doug Henwood’s wall about the (un)salvageability of Nietzsche, which has since been reprised several times in other contexts. Evidently Père Naphtha had a horse in the race here, though the main knight tilting at the Antichrist was Harrison Fluss, an Hegelian and HM groupie. (Fluss is, for the record, a far more worthy opponent than Naphtha in this debate). For Naphtha, the true problem plaguing the Left is not identity politics, as authors such as Fisher, Dean, and Rectenwald believe, but rather the ominous silhouette lurking behind their haughty denunciation of ressentiment: Friedrich Nietzsche.

If for nothing else, however, we should thank Père Naphtha for proffering yet more proof of Nietzsche’s suspicion that most self-proclaimed socialists are in fact Christians in disguise. As if any more proof was needed given the maudlin, moralizing sentimentality of most leftists today. Naphtha’s brand of anti-Nietzscheanism seems to be lifted from the standard Stalinist sources: Georg Lukács and Domenico Losurdo.

Continuing our narrative: In the comment thread below his article, Naphtha took exception to the harsh rhetoric I slung his way, describing his own position as “an egalitarian argument against elitism.” Nietzsche was anti-egalitarian, to be sure, and anti-moralistic. Most pointedly so in his polemics against those famous anti-semites who were for him exemplars of socialism: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (also by extension, the 1848 Proudhonist Richard Wagner), Bakunin, and Eugen Dühring. Continue reading

Contra Comte

In Aspects of Sociology, a primer in social theory released by the Institute for Social Research (often referred to as the Frankfurt School), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer explain the bastard etymology of the term “sociology” and its origin in the positive philosophy of Auguste Comte:

The word “sociology” — science of society — is a malformation, half Latin, half Greek. The arbitrariness and artificiality of the term point to the recent character of the discipline. It cannot be found as a separate discipline within the traditional edifice of science. The term itself was originated by Auguste Comte, who is generally regarded as the founder of sociology. His main sociological work, Cours de philosophie positive, appeared in 1830-1842.The word “positive” puts precisely that stress which sociology, as a science in the specific sense, has borne ever since. It is a child of positivism, which has made it its aim to free knowledge from religious belief and metaphysical speculation. By keeping rigorously to the facts, it was hoped that on the model of the natural sciences, mathematical on the one hand, empirical on the other, objectivity could be attained. According to Comte, the doctrine of society had lagged far behind this ideal. He sought to raise it to a scientific level. Sociology was to fulfill and to realize what philosophy had striven for from its earliest origins. (Aspects of Sociology, pg. 1)

Somewhere I remember hearing the quip that the term “sociology” was such an ugly combination that only a Frenchman could have concocted it. Not sure who was supposed to have said it, or if it factually took place, but there seems to be a ring of truth to the assertion. Anyway, Adorno points out in his lecture course Introduction to Sociology that “Marx had a violent aversion to the word ‘sociology,’ an aversion that may have been connected to his very justified distaste for Auguste Comte, on whom he pronounced the most annihilating judgment” (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 143). Continue reading

Marx’s liberalism? An interview with Jonathan Sperber 

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.

Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask: Why bother writing a new biography of him?

Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings — stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations — we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy. Continue reading

“…a monster, a huge mass of flesh and fat…”

Marx on Bakunin, from a letter to Engels written in Manchester dated 1863:

Bakunin has become a monster, a huge mass of flesh and fat, and is barely capable of walking any more. To crown it all, he is sexually perverse and jealous of the seventeen year-old Polish girl who married him in Siberia because of his martyrdom. He is presently in Sweden, where he is hatching “revolution” with the Finns.

They just don’t make insults like they used to.

The humanization of nature

A sorely-needed corrective 


The socialist revolution calls for terrifying windowless towers, desolated lots and plazas, massive concrete slabs thrown into the earth.

It goes without saying that people ought only live in buildings that they might once have feared. Someday we may all feel so free and at ease in the world we have built as to dwell in buildings that would have formerly dwarfed and intimidated us.

This requires absolute atmospheric agency: the conquest of gravity, victory over the sun, fantastic weather machines, a translucent vault or dome to seal off the heavens (when need be). Inside the enclosed space, an architecture of the well-tempered environment, with universal ventilation and air purification [respiration exacte] to accommodate the human lung. Mosquitoes will have been abolished.

Not only this, however. The socialist reconstruction of nature [социалистической реконструкции природы] also demands total geological dominion: vast terraforming projects that effortlessly tunnel through tough silicate and shruggingly shear off the sides of mountains, complete orthogonality, a Vernean clockwork at the center of the Earth. No longer Níðhöggr gnawing at the roots of the world-tree — the wyrm instead replaced by gears and wires stemming from the centrifuge. Tectonic plates will still shift following the revolution, but only when they are compelled or granted permission.


From this it clearly follows that the dictatorship of the proletariat [Diktatur des Proletariats] heralded by Marx would at the same time simultaneously constitute the dictatorship of the right angle [dictature de l’angle droit] attributed to Corbusier by Lefebvre. A common demiurgic impulse thus seems to underlie both the Ricostruzione futurista dell’universo envisioned by the Italian futurists (future fascists) Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero and some of Trotsky’s closing lines in Literature and Revolution: Continue reading