Karl Marx RIP

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

We have already had the 200th anniversaries of the births of two of the founding figures of modern anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (2009) and Michael Bakunin (2014). Now has come the turn of their younger and more famous contemporary, Karl Marx. Even some of the mainstream media have published articles on Marx’s revolutionary ideas, how prophetic his writings were, and how relevant his politics continue to be. Over the years, I have posted various anarchist critiques of Marx and Marxism, and will continue to do so. The first anarchist to criticize Marx’s approach was Proudhon himself, in a letter that he wrote to Marx in 1846, the year before Marx wrote his scathing (and unfair) critique of Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy. Proudhon sensed even then Marx’s tendency toward intellectual intolerance of conceptions of socialism contrary to his own, an intolerance that came to the fore in the International Workingmen’s Association, where Marx did everything he could to neutralize Proudhon’s followers, and the more explicitly revolutionary federalists and anti-authoritarians associated with Bakunin, engineering the expulsion of Bakunin and his comrade, James Guillaume, from the International in 1872 (something which I cover in more detail in my book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement).

Proudhon (1809-1865)

Proudhon’s Letter to Marx

My dear Monsieur Marx,

I gladly agree to become one of the recipients of your correspondence, whose aims and organization seem to me most useful. Yet I cannot promise to write often or at great length: my varied occupations, combined with a natural idleness, do not favour such epistolary efforts. I must also take the liberty of making certain qualifications which are suggested by various passages of your letter.

First, although my ideas in the matter of organization and realization are at this moment more or less settled, at least as regards principles, I believe it is my duty, as it is the duty of all socialists, to maintain for some time yet the critical or dubitive form; in short, I make profession in public of an almost absolute economic anti-dogmatism.

Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I will gladly enter your association. Otherwise — no!

I have also some observations to make on this phrase of your letter: at the moment of action. Perhaps you still retain the opinion that no reform is at present possible without a coup de main, without what was formerly called a revolution and is really nothing but a shock. That opinion, which I understand, which I excuse, and would willingly discuss, having myself shared it for a long time, my most recent studies have made me abandon completely. I believe we have no need of it in order to succeed; and that consequently we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction. I myself put the problem in this way: to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination. In other words, through Political Economy to turn the theory of Property against Property in such a way as to engender what you German socialists call community and what I will limit myself for the moment to calling liberty or equality. But I believe that I know the means of solving this problem with only a short delay; I would therefore prefer to burn Property by a slow fire, rather than give it new strength by making a St Bartholomew’s night of the proprietors …

Your very devoted,

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

May 17, 1846

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  1. […] emphasize the anarchist influences in the May-June events, because with the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth coming in the same year as the 50th anniversary of May 1968, much commentary has focused on […]


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