“Before all else a revolutionist”: Marx and the Question of Strategy

The multiple crises of capitalism go hand in hand with the multiple crises of the left. And amidst these crises, we find ourselves commemorating the 200th birthday of Karl Marx and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Capital. But how are we to treat Marx and his works? How important is he for us today – for our capacity to transform the world in practice?

Reading through the flood of new publications, one cannot help but think that the reception of Marx’s works fails to see the proverbial living forest for all the trees that have been felled. Painting Marx as a lone thinker, seconded by Frederick Engels at best, they fail to trace the why, the driving forces that shaped Marx’s works. As Wolfgang Schieder writes in one of the few books devoted to Marx as a politician, “his entire thinking was essentially geared toward political praxis” (1991, 16). This political praxis was embedded in a pluralistic and often fragmented, but very dynamic Left. Without reconstructing the debates he was involved in, we simply cannot understand Marx. If we begin listening to the voices of those he conversed with, we can stop seeing Marx as the source of infinite quotes and begin to view him instead as a comrade on a common path – a path that he walked before us, always in conversation, and often in dispute, with many of his contemporaries.

Conversations with Marx

In spring 2017, Marx could be seen all across Germany, on advertising columns, poster walls, and in cinemas. Experts on Marx complained about the many errors the film “The Young Karl Marx” contained, ignoring that its portrait had succeeded in capturing what was most essential: that Marx was a young, brilliant intellectual, a spitfire of a man willing to overthrow the world to make it more humane. Writing about the 23-year-old, Moses Hess commented: “Imagine Rousseau, Voltaire, Lessing, Heine, and Hegel united into one character, I tell you: united, not thrown together – and you have Dr. Marx” (quoted in Mönke 1980, XXXV).

In order to read Marx’s works from a politico-strategic perspective, one must take him seriously as the subject of his own intentions and decisions. His writings are far too often treated as revelations, as a channel through which the very “being” of capitalist societies is disclosed to us. But Marx is first and foremost a narrator intent on analyzing, a narrator who wants his narratives to intervene, or, as he writes in one of the letters to Arnold Ruge, his co-editor on the “Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher”, in 1844:

“Our whole object can only be … to give religious and philosophical questions the form corresponding to man who has become conscious of himself. … Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analyzing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.” (Marx 1844b, 144)

For Marx, this consciousness resided in analyzing the real conditions under which individuals develop their own consciousness. His political goal decisively shaped his analyses, and brought him into competition with other socialists and communists who were, like him, working toward and contributing to this consciousness.

In October 1842, Marx had written that the newspaper Rheinische Zeitung “does not admit that communist ideas in their present form possess even theoretical reality, and therefore can still less desire their practical realisation” (Marx 1842, 220). However, he went on to add:

“We are firmly convinced that the real danger lies not in practical attempts, but in the theoretical elaboration of communist ideas, for practical attempts, even mass attempts, can be answered by cannon as soon as they become dangerous, whereas ideas, which have conquered our intellect and taken possession of our minds, ideas to which reason has fettered our conscience, are chains from which one cannot free oneself without a broken heart; they are demons which human beings can vanquish only by submitting to them.” (Marx 1842, 220f.)

If one wants to understand Marx, one must consider both his change of orientation toward communism and his search for a new critical theory. For Marx, proletarian communism offered up a response to two questions: Which alternative to bourgeois society do we want to pursue, and: Who should be the actor to push forward this alternative? It was this idea that he “chained” himself to in the decades after 1843. Critical theory, by contrast, in his eyes served to formulate the tasks of intellectuals in the respective struggles that would ensue.

The escalating crises of the mid-1840s provided the stimulus for Marx’s change of political orientation. Europe was heading into a profound political crisis, which erupted in the European revolutions of 1848-49, marking the overall dominance of the bourgeois industrial age. In England, a broad Owenite socialist and a Chartist labour movement formed; in France, socialist and communist tendencies coalesced with the emerging labour movement, thus adding a new type of revolution to the political agenda. The German radical intelligentsia was at the height of its criticism, but (still) impotent in political terms.

It was Marx’s experiences as the editor in chief of the Rheinische Zeitung and the political discourse that increasingly radicalized in the years leading up to the Revolution of 1848 that caused him to reframe his approach to critical theory in 1843-44. Intellectually, he drew on Left Hegelianism and Feuerbach as well as Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The change of orientation taken by Marx during these months in 1843 was clear and irrevocable: He completed the transition away from radical democracy toward proletarian communism. To this end, he joined forces with those who were expecting the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist societies to be overthrown by a communist revolution, with the proletarians as its driving force. In this sense, Marx took a double decision: for communism and for the industrial working class. These decisions preceded any comprehensive socio-scientific analysis, and were motivated by politico-philosophical concerns. Both will be characterized in brief, along with the problems they raise.

For Communism

Marx’s first decision was to embrace communism. He was intent on solving the problems of his times – radically, by addressing the root of their causes. In doing so, he broke with Hegel’s attempt to consolidate the contradictions between bourgeois society (the individual as a bourgeois) and the state (the individual as citoyen). He was not seeking to find new ways to address these contradictions, but to dissolve them as such. To this end, Marx redefined the concept of emancipation and, in “On the Jewish Question”, stated:

All emancipation is a reduction of the human world and relationships to man himself. … Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his ‘own powers’ as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished” (Marx 1844c, 168).

From this position, he moved on to the standpoint of communism. In the first volume of Capital, he wrote about communist society:

“Let us … picture to ourselves … a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual.” (Marx 1996, 89)

Communist society appears here as a single subject (Monosubjekt) in which the contradiction between social, collective, and individual work does not exist. With the full thrust of its radical momentum, this vision encapsulates what, for Marx, is indispensible: a society that is based on solidarity and in which individual development, rather than coming at the cost of others and the community at large, contributes to the development of the many – especially of those who are the least privileged. This forces us to resolutely question every specific step, and each reform measure, while at the same time constitutes the necessary groundwork toward even conceiving the form of revolutionary realpolitik envisioned by Rosa Luxemburg .

Yet this ideal of communist society coalesced into a single subject (Monosubjekt) has its downsides. For one thing, it allows us to dismiss all reforms, in as far as they merely reshape the contradictions inherent in complex modern society instead of resolving them, as mere sham reforms. This, in turn, gives rise to the impression that the dominance of capital can only be overcome by eliminating all market-based, legal, and political forms of mediation that modern societies have come to rely on. It becomes impossible to envision a socialism that accommodates markets. In discussion above all with Proudhon and his followers, Marx therefore comes to denounce as petty-bourgeois all approaches to post-capitalism that continue to build on markets and money, law and the state. For another, the genuine problems faced by post-capitalist society are only considered in the context of dismantling the contradictions of capitalism, and not of raising awareness for the emergence of new contradictions, for which new forms of approach will need to be found. Marx leaves it entirely up to future generations to solve these issues. His perspective widens only with his later analysis of the Paris Commune, even though this analysis fails to discuss the contradictions of this exceptional political form that owed much to Proudhonism and its followers.

Marx does not face intra-socialist criticisms of communism, and turns a deaf ear to Proudhon’s or Bakunin’s interventions that a society in which all forces are organized by society as a whole would be linked to a new form of authoritarianism. He dismisses the assumption that even the pursuit of such a society of centralized property would give rise to a new form of domination. He is aware of the many communist experiments of his day, aware of their contradictions and their failures. But from all this he draws a single conclusion: Only the dictatorship of the working class and a plan for society as a whole carry within themselves the potential to avoid this type of failure. For this reason, he advocates the concentration of all economic power. For him, the Paris Commune is an example of radical democracy and of a federal reconstitution of society. But it is characteristic of Marx that this does not lead him to develop a categorical framework that would systematically address the contradictions of transformation under the aspect of solidary emancipation.

From 1843 onward, Marx understood human rights only as the rights of private property owners, ignoring their character as rights to oppose all forms of oppression, exploitation, and humiliation. This has proven fateful. As Ernst Bloch wrote, aware of the problems associated with justified communist party rule: “Irrespective of their social class, no individual enjoys having, as Brecht puts it, a boot put in their face” (Bloch 2007, 232). After 1917, the Bolsheviks were not the only ones caught entirely unprepared for those contradictions that emerge when individuals organize their entire social force through society, leaving no room for individuals, autonomous groups, and dissenters in thought or action. The freedom of all individuals is the goal, but their full, even unconditional submission to the common collective will is the means of transition. From the standpoint of communism, in which everybody owns everything together and individuals are expected to retain nothing for themselves (except for a part of the means of consumption), already the mere laying claim to individuality, or dissidence, is interpreted as petty-bourgeois, if not hostile. Yet the socialization of all forces has its drawback: If all individuals delegate all their forces to society, they themselves become impotent. They then find themselves alienated, standing vis-à-vis the very social forces that they have consciously put forth. But this is not a post festum insight following the collapse of party-state socialism; rather, it was considered common sense among Proudhonists and Bakunists. They merely failed to see that without a revolutionary centralization of power, overthrowing the capitalist order is impossible. While Marx, along with Blanqui, preferred supremacy of power (Übermacht) and paid little attention to the property and autonomy rights of individuals and their associations, the Proudhonists, fearing the threat of dictatorship, pursued a politics of powerlessness in cases that surpassed the expansion of niches within the capitalist system.

Marx and Proudhon

In the second half of the 19th century, Marxism and Proudhonism were the two major representatives of the opposing poles in living socialism. However, Marx’s view of Proudhon as a “false brother” of communism who had to be “demolished” (Marx 1859b, 377) clouded Marx’s cognitive abilities – along with those of his followers. Rather than imagining a future society bleached of all contradictions, our conclusion for socialist politics in the 21st century should be to understand socialism as a movement and a goal, even in its fundamental contradictoriness. Individual emancipation and conscious social transformation are its constitutive extremes, and cannot be consolidated easily. The focus should lie on non-capitalist and non-statist forms of approaching these contradictions – beginning in the here and now. However, we should not delude ourselves: Especially non-antagonistic contradictions, which address issues of individual character, collectivity, and solidarity across society as a whole, can be particularly painful.

Marx is renowned primarily as a critical analyst of the capitalist mode of production. Εxactly how political this analysis was becοmes clear when, following the publication of “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”, he asks Engels: “Should you write something, don’t forget, 1. that it extirpates Proudhonism root and branch, 2. that the specifically social, by no means absolute, character of bourgeois production is analysed straight away in its simplest form, that of the commodity.” (Marx 1859a, 473) The political goal ranks before the scientific, and together, they form an inextricable linkage! There were, at the time, two alternative socialist politico-economic responses – the first coming from Proudhon, who had put forward a coherent, in-depth analysis, while the second, from Marx, was in 1859 still in its early stages. The intra-socialist front against the Proudhonists greatly shaped Marx’s Capital. Its focus on the representation of workers’ struggles for shorter working hours and higher wages, as well as their union organizing, remains entirely incomprehensible if it is not read alongside the documents from the consultations of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA). The criticism directed at Proudhonist conceptions of socialist commodity production also influenced Marx in defining the central point of his work, namely the commodity as an elementary category.

IWA consultations honed in on strategic issues: Can union struggles for higher wages be successful in the long term? How are they related to the political emancipation of the working classes and the goal of seizing power as a path toward emancipation? But ultimately, they were concerned with one question: Is there the possibility of a reform-based transformation of bourgeois-capitalist societies that can simultaneously preserve these societies’ economic institutions (private property, markets, competition, credit, banks, pensions, etc.) while also pushing them further, toward socialist forms of association? This was Proudhon’s position. For him, the new would emerge from the old, on the basis of voluntary agreements between workers themselves. The task of socialist politics would be to create the necessary conditions to facilitate this emergence. It is an enabling strategy (Strategie der Ermöglichung). Marx, by contrast, had opted for a revolutionary approach: a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat that would, by socializing productive property, transform the modes of production and living to pave the way for a communist society. Marx believed that the centralized cooperation of all individuals, their collective dictatorship, would bring forth this new society. This is a coercive strategy (Strategie der Erzwingung).

Marx as a Connective Intellectual

The documents that Marx produced after 1864 on behalf of the IWA’s general council reveal how much of a connective socialist intellectual he was at the time. Even though he disagreed with many of the positions put forward by Proudhonists, British union leaders or Blanquists, he did examine and consolidate several of them into a comprehensive, forward-looking strategy (see Musto 2014). Each of the IWA congresses led to highly productive discussions, which focused on the relationship with peasants, issues concerning the state and workers’ struggles, and on inheritance issues and property struggles. Marx’s unofficial leading role in the IWA grew from this ability to isolate the progressive and strategically valuable elements contained in each of the respective positions. This secured him a broad approval, for which the open discussions prior to and during the congresses, as well as the weekly General Council meetings in London were instrumental. In the face of growing disparities within the group and Marx’s simultaneous attempts to impose his own views on the organization, the IWA fell apart after 1871 (see Neuhaus 2018). This is the fate suffered by every socialist or labour movement that aspires to be entirely Marxian (or Proudhonist or Bernsteinian). It eradicates those indispensable contradictions that make up the very vitality of these movements. Sometimes divisions are inevitable, and can lead the movement forward. And yet, each new organization will hardly be able to avoid reproducing the fundamental contradictions lying at the core of every socialist or communist movement.

The Proletariat as Revolutionary Class

The second decision taken by Marx in 1843-44 was to endorse the proletariat as the socially dynamic force that would bring about radical emancipation, because it was a “class with radical chains” (Marx 1844a, 186) that would only be able to liberate itself by simultaneously liberating all other classes in the process. Building on his extensive reception of French historians and their analyses of the revolution of 1789, he concluded: “The role of emancipator therefore passes in dramatic motion to the various classes of the French nation one after the other until it finally comes to the class which implements social freedom no longer with the provision of certain conditions lying outside man and yet created by human society, but rather organizes all conditions of human existence on the premises of social freedom” (ibid.). And for Marx, this “dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat” (ibid.).

Marx had already been exposed to Hegel’s reception of bourgeois political economists, i.e. Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith. Engels’ “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy”, which he included in the Jahrbücher, provided the ultimate impulse for him to give up the critique of politics and law and turn to the critique of political economy, because it became obvious that the situation of workers was conditioned by economic structures. From there, he then moved on to develop his materialist conception of history, his political strategy that was aimed at promoting an independent and self-confident labour movement, his capital. His focus always lay on substantiating the historical role of the proletariat.

But even this endorsement of the industrial working class as the main agent of a revolution to overthrow capitalism is so reductionist that it has given rise to endless theoretical and strategic debates. On the one hand, throughout the 19th century and beyond, the labour movement repeatedly found itself betrayed by the bourgeois classes, along with its legitimate social and democratic goals. The labour movement’s political autonomy grew as a response to the waning progressivity of the bourgeoisie. But the stronger the labour movement grew, the more relevant the question of alliances became. Flora Tristan set out to campaign for a proletarian women’s movement as early as 1843, proclaiming:

“I protest for women’s rights because I am convinced that all the world’s misfortunes derive from this scornful ignorance shown to this very day toward the natural and imprescriptible rights of the female person. … I claim certain rights for women because there lies the sole means of obtaining her rehabilitation before the Church, the law and society. This rehabilitation must occur so that the workers themselves may be rehabilitated.” (Tristan 1983, 123)

Here, women’s emancipation is made the prerequisite for the emancipation of the workers as a class.

However, the labour movement’s relationship with the middle classes, which toward the end of the 18th century were not in decline, but in fact growing in number, was also thematized. In today’s highly developed countries, the industrial proletariat makes up a relevant, albeit relatively small minority of 10 to 20 per cent. The relationship to the peasantry was a further issue of debate. The great socialist revolutions of the 20th century were joined workers’ and peasant revolutions, such as in Russia, or exclusively peasant revolutions, such as in China – albeit under communist leadership. In the IWA, Marx demanded the labour movement become politically autonomous, while being simultaneously confronted with demands to forge an alliance with the petty bourgeois and peasant classes. The Paris Commune had once again made clear that without this type of alliance, victory would be impossible. The possibility of an anti-feudal, anti-Tsarist revolution in Russia and the anti-colonial struggles in Asia opened Marx’s perspective to the possibility of connecting a socialist revolution in Western and Central Europe led by workers’ parties with anti-colonial and anti-feudal revolutions in the East. It is these attempts to extend his focus on the working class to integrate broad anti-capitalist alliances that we can learn from today. Lenin had already learned this lesson, stating: “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is” (Lenin 1916, 356).

Reading Marx Strategically

Marx has to be read strategically because he intended his writings to have a political impact. But for that, we have to shatter the cosmos of text-immanent interpretation that has come to eclipse his works. At Marx’s funeral, Friedrich Engels said:

“Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.” (Engels 1883, 468)

Marx’s fighting nature was embedded in the strong tide of socialist and workers’ movements of his time from which he drew most of his ideas, and which he wanted to infuse with consciousness and direction. He was part of the socialist, the workers’, and the revolutionary movement of his day. But he was not the movement as a whole, and should not be taken as such. To read Marx strategically therefore means to read him as an agent disrupting the strategic discourses of the contemporary Left. Without re-reading Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Michail Bakunin, Flora Tristan and Ferdinand Lassalle, John Stuart Mill and Louise Michel, Louise Otto-Peters and Nikolay Chernyshevsky, this task will prove impossible. Understanding Marx’s text in their entirety also means taking his opponents seriously in their autonomy and achievements. Looking back, his “false brothers” – and his still too often overlooked “sisters” – prove to be comrades treading a common path.

Only in solidary dispute were the socialist and communist forces of the 19th century able to give birth to the indispensable contradictoriness of a living socialism – or forced to admit their defeat. Within this contradictoriness, Marx identified and succinctly characterized some of the most poignant features of its opposing poles. His successes managed to highlight these features as indispensable elements of the whole, and instilled upon them a sense of direction in the context of revolutionary realpolitik. His political failures constitute his attempts to impose his analyses as autocratic ideas and “demolish” his opponents. Today’s Left must be prepared to exploit upcoming events as opportunities for strategic change (Demirovic 2014). In the early 21st century, reading Marx strategically therefore also requires the Left to grow aware of the opportunities for and the limits of its own strategic interventions. Driven by solidarity and following a clear direction, it can then develop its interventionist potential in regard to a break from neoliberal financial market capitalism and a move toward a double transformation (see Klein and Candeias in LuXemburg 1/2017). •

This article first published on the Zeitschrift LuXemburg website. Translation and revision: Lyam Bittar and Joanna Mitchell for lingua•trans•fair.


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Michael Brie is a social philosopher at the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin.