[Marxism] marxist biographies
Midhurst14 at aol.com
Midhurst14 at aol.com
Thu Sep 10 09:25:06 MDT 2009
John Green‘s book about Frederick Engels, has performed a service to the
international labour movement.
Along with his comrade in arms for many years, Karl Marx, their collective
works are constantly referred to by friend and foe. Now more than ever as
capitalism staggers from one turmoil, and one credit crunch, to another.
Because the creation of surplus value can never be resolved by a society
based on profit. This is the spectre that haunts globalisation.
For it is an accepted truth that Karl Marx, not John Maynard Keynes or
Milton Friedman, has the answer to the dilemmas daily confronting the central
banks of the developed countries.
In a recent Observer article of May 1, for instance, “that the sense of the
grinding of the gears of history, the shifting of the political plates.
And that, along with creeping monopolies, growing inequality and the
all-absorbing momentum of the capital markets, Marx foresaw many of the effects of
globalisation, “which he called “the universal interdependence of
nations', not least the effects of an international 'reserve army of the
unemployed' in disciplining and depressing the wages of workers in the developed
economies”, reveals that Marx’s ideas are never very far away.
A Revolutionary Life, helped me identify more readily with a man I‘ve
greatly admired for years. My reading of his Conditions of the Working Class in
England, made a profound impression on me at the tender age of 18.
John writes in a clear and graphic style, on how Engels, from a very
wealthy business family, graduated from a man of action in the revolution in
1848, taking up arms to overthrow the ruling elite in Germany, to a thinker,
almost equal to Marx.
Indeed, John quite rightly claims, that without Engels’s understanding of
Marx’s brilliant mind, much of the three volumes of Capital would not have
But their most famous work and the introduction to any would be
revolutionary to the ideas of Marxism is of course, the Communist Manifesto. With its
penetrating declaration, “It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal
ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no
other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘
cash payment‘.” ringing true every day of our lives.
Both Engels and Marx however, had to combat both supporters and opponents
who constantly quoted their works as scripture, rather than this or that
quote being an illustration of their method of thinking, that of dialectical
and historical materialism,
Or as Bert Ramelson, the much respected Industrial Organiser of the
Communist Party of Great Britain, advised me, “Gather the information and make a
Also the modern day feminist need go no further for an explanation of
their present and past exploitation, than to read Engels‘s, Origin of the
Family. Where once male possession of property became dominant, the pre-eminence
of the mother figure was over, and exploitation of women in its every form
continues to the present day.
John traces the domestic travails that beset Engels at every turn, in his
struggle to break with convention and to pursue a life of struggle.
Describing how the rupture with his reactionary father, to the point when
Frederick was confronted by Engels senior, even as his son stood on the barricades
in 1848, took place.
How his partner, Mary Burns, together with her sister Lizzie (who became
Engels’s partner soon after Mary’s premature death) both heroic Irish
Fenians in their own right, introduced him to the horrors of the cotton weavers
lives in Manchester, that enabled him to write of working class life in the
satanic mills of that city.
The work of the famous pair is provided in detail, in their response to
the campaign of the Chartists, the formation of the First International, the
Paris Commune, the Indian mutiny, the building of trade unions, in Britain,
Germany and America.
In other words they established their role as the centre of an alternative
international thinking; and in opposition to the capitalist ideas of the
Subsequently taken up by the heroes in the pantheon of revolution, Lenin,
Ho Chi Min, Che Guevara to Fidel Castro, plus millions of others, who, like
me, owe a debt of gratitude to the work of Frederick Engels, so absorbingly
written up in a Revolutionary Life.
In a very moving account, John writes of the simple ceremony undertaken by
Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, Eduard Bernstein and Friedrich Lessner, to
scatter his ashes into the sea off the coast of Eastbourne, because the
great man wanted no grave or monument to mark his final resting place.
We can be grateful to John, for his research and the writing of the story
of Frederick Engels, intellectual giant and great human being.
A Revolutionary Life
A Biography of Friedrich Engels
By John Green Price £10
Both across the social sciences and in popular parlance, there has emerged
what has been termed a plethora of capitals. There is not only economic
capital but also fixed capital, human capital, social capital, environmental
or natural capital, financial capital, and cultural, symbolic, intellectual,
organisational, personal, emotional and many other types of “capital”.
The term is indiscriminately used to cover any resource deployed in any
It is the merit of Marx’s Capital, the three Volumes of his most important
work in political economy, that he both incorporates all of these uses of
capital into has analysis and, yet, equally fundamentally, breaks with them
as well. For this reason alone, his work stands head and shoulders above
any other political economy more than a century after it was penned.
There are nine major sources for his originality and insight. First and
foremost, capital is seen to be the result of historically contained social
relations of production, those attached to capitalism, as opposed to
generally available resources.
Second, this mode of production, in contrast to feudalism, for example, is
based on specific class relations, those dividing capitalists from wage
workers. Capital is not merely a resource, individual or collective, but is
attached to social relations and organisation.
Third, capitalist production always takes the form of production of
commodities, for the market and for profit. Capital is not a resource available
for individual or collective satisfaction in general.
Fourth, capitalist commodity production involves the production of value,
again not as a thing or as a subjective evaluation as for utility or
consumer satisfaction. Rather it is a relationship between producers themselves
in which their specific labours are brought into equivalence with, or
measured against, one another through the medium of exchange in monetary form, as
opposed to any old exchange or interaction of any old thing as with the
plethora of capitals.
Fifth, capital involves not only the production of value but also of
surplus value. The class relations attached to capital mean that labour is
primarily free of feudal-type obligations but also free of independent access to
means of production and livelihood. There is only freedom of exchange to a
greater or lesser extent over who will be your employer. But it is not
labour as a thing or resource that is sold, although this appearance is a form
of capitalist alienation, but the capacity to labour, or labour power as
Marx terms it. How much value is produced with that capacity is a matter of
individual workplace and social conflict concerning terms and conditions of
employment. And the capacity of capital to extract more (surplus) value than
that paid for the commodity labour power is a precondition for both
individual and total capital to prosper; it is the form taken by exploitation
under capitalism and is the major source, directly and indirectly, of conflict
between capital and labour, at the point of production as well as
elsewhere. The power and violence attached to capital is revealed in acute form
once conflict against its fundamental relations and interests are raised or,
see below, whilst those relations and interests are in the process of
Not surprisingly, then, Marx sees his distinction between labour and
labour power as one of his two most important discoveries. The other, sixth, is
his analysis of how surplus value is produced prior to addressing how it is
distributed in monetary form to the recipients of profit, interest and
rent. Marx’s Capital is a detailed theoretical and empirical account of how
surplus value is produced in practice, highlighting its extreme dependence,
individually and systemically, upon the accumulation of capital as a
condition of survival let alone precarious success. Production, not exchange, is
the key to capital as a social and not just a technical relationship.
Seventh, then, capital is both highly dynamic in nature, reproducing and
transforming both itself in the production process and through the other
economic and social relations to which it is attached but which cannot be
reduced to it. The plethora of capitals offer not capitals as such but these are
both influenced by and influence the accumulation process, and need to be
situated relative to it. But the perception of a plethora of capitals as
resources, stripped of their historically specific social relations, breeds
illusions about both the virtues of the “market” and of the potential for
it to be corrected by non-market reform. On this basis, Marx is able to
address, however partially and relative to the conditions of his own time,
fundamental features of the capitalist economy such as the factory system,
monopolisation, division between town and country, combined and uneven
development, the emergence of a sophisticated financial system, the necessity of
unemployment and poverty to the functioning of capitalism, the appropriation
of nature, proletarianisation, economic and social legislation, and the
formation of trade unions and political organisations in defence of the
Eighth, he also argues that the monetary forms and economic and social
implications assumed by capital are from time to time incompatible with its
continued accumulation, giving rise to economic and social crises of greater
or lesser depth and breadth before accumulation can be resumed. These
insights, together with account of their implications for non-economic factors
such as the state and society and the world economy and order, or “
globalisation” more generally remain the enduring legacy of Marx’s Capital.
Last, to reiterate, capital as a social relation is historically bounded.
How did it come about? Not through the selfless accrual of resources but
through the forcible creation of wage-labour from what were previously
non-capitalist relations of production. This is the light in which to understand
the current collapse of Soviet socialism and the Chinese market reforms,
each an ill-disguised rush to capitalism involving violent appropriation. At
the other end of history, however, Marx admires capital for its
unprecedented levels of productivity. These though are achieved through increasing
socialisation of life albeit on a distorted privatised basis. Capital itself
creates the material resources for socialism, the conscious and democratic
planning of the economy in place of the anarchy of the market, and also the
class of wage-labourers that can bring socialism about through revolutionary
appropriation of the means of production.
Ben Fine is co-author, with Alfredo Saad-Filho, of Marx’s Capital, Pluto
Press, fourth edition, 2003.
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