The impact of London on the evolution of Marxism

October 6, 2019 8:50 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Class struggle and its capacity for state transformation were institutionalised by the works of a German philosopher called Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels maintained that social and economic relationships was superior to every other way of analysing society, and according to them the continuous friction among different people, usually stratified on the basis of “class” was bound to create upheaval. The image of Marx and his works is that of a staunch revolutionary, especially because of the direct impact of his theses in transforming the direction of humanity. Marx was quintessentially a philosopher who saw no boundaries amongst academic disciplines. So far as it concerned human interaction it concerned him. Marx was influenced by the various cities and works of various scholars. However, he was most influenced by Britain and in particular the city of London, he would spend the latter part of his life hinged to the bustle of the city.
The intellectual macrocosm within which Marx evolved as a young man in Berlin was dominated by the works of Hegel and Feuerbach. Marx’s early work was an attempt to define his own position in response to their work and by the early 1840’s he had distanced himself intellectually from the young Hegelians. According to Marx the restriction of analysis to religion and the neglect of the society within the state was a sub-standard mode of inquiry. For Marx philosophy was responsible for everything and the point of philosophy is not merely to describe the world but to change it. Marx did not work in isolation and his closest collaborator was fellow German Frederich Engels. Marx and Engels would work together till the end of his life; Engels would become his dearest friend. Seminal texts such as The Communist Manifesto were co-authored and jointly published. The early 1840’s was a tumultuous time for a young Frederich Engels. His parents were concerned about their son’s restless nature and he was sent to Manchester, England to work at their textile factory there. On his way he stopped at Cologne to check on the office of Rheinische Zeitung paper where coincidentally Marx worked as an editor. Marx had decided on a career as a journalist after he was deemed too radical for an academic career. Indeed the conservative University of Berlin refused to grant him his doctorate; he eventually submitted it to the more liberal University of Jena where he was awarded a doctorate in April 1841. He dedicated his PhD thesis to his father-in-law whom he was quite fond of. Marx’s own father was a prosperous lawyer and he intended Karl to follow in his footsteps but he was drawn to literature and philosophy and eventually he was drawn to everything that concerned human collaboration.

Marx’s work at the newspaper ceased as it became heavily censored and Marx left Cologne to Paris where he and Engels met again at the Café de la Régence and then a beautiful friendship was born. Marx would hold Engels in high esteem and they worked on The Holy Family together. Engels and Marx left each other and continued their extensive study of economics, European history and classical philosophy and Engels eventually published The Condition of the Working Class in England inspired by his time in Manchester. They would both re-unite in Brussels after Marx was expelled from Paris by French authorities for his subversive activities. The two men once again worked together, propelled by radical ideals and their affection for frothy beer. While in Brussels, they galvanized the German workers and participated considerably in the affairs of the Communist League. In an effort to define the movement of the League they set out to write The Communist Manifesto. A work with one of the most famous opening lines in history: “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Later in the year a series of rebellions erupted across Europe and both men were very supportive of it, but eventually both men grew weary of the peripatetic lifestyle and eventually sought refuge in London.

Marx arrived in London in August of 1849 and was soon joined by his childhood sweetheart Jenny and their three children. He first settled in Chelsea, but rents proved quite expensive, he then moved to Dean Street in Soho, a place that was then known for its intriguing and fantastic character. I guess the French saying of Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose is in order here. Marx eventually became involved with the German Workers’ Educational Society and moved the headquarters of the Communist League to London after a squabble with an emergent faction was quashed. After the defeat of the 1848 uprisings by authorities, it was decided by Marx that collaboration with certain elements of the bourgeoisie was necessary for a successful upheaval of the current order. Such boisterous conversations usually occurred in typical British pubs, particularly the Red Lion, on Great Windmill Street in London where Marx spent a considerable time arguing his ideas and playing chess with friends and colleagues. Engels reached London in the autumn of 1849 and eventually re-joined his father’s firm in Manchester, rising to the role of partner. He would support Marx financially till his death; Engels didn’t particularly like the work at the factory, but did it for the ‘good of the cause’. Marx would move around London considerably, but his abode would come to be the bookshelves and desk spaces of the British Library. According to the Londonist ‘a few years after he arrived the British Library (then housed in the British Museum) opened a new, circular reading room. With three miles of bookcases and 25 miles of shelves, the room provoked huge excitement; when it opened to the public for a special viewing it attracted over 62,000 visitors over just a few days. It became one of Marx’s favourite places to write and it was here that he penned the first volume of Das Kapital, arguably his magnus opus.
The work of British economist David Ricardo also greatly influenced how Marx understood the evolution of market forces in a capitalist framework. Ricardo analysed the contradiction of wants surrounding employees, employers, and landlords and how this affected the flow of profit and wages. Marx predicted the rise of monopolies and giant corporations and the imminent decline of agricultural activities as the mainstay of the economy at a time where over half of the population were engaged in agriculture in many parts of Europe. He argued that this would lead to strong political consequences, and further maintained that it could occur through violent means. Over the course of his life though his views evolved or changed depending on which side of the divide one sits, he later ‘thought that capitalism might be brought to an end without violent revolution in some countries, and he saw that not all societies would pass through exactly the same sequence of changes’. However he never lost his inherent belief that capitalism would be replaced as the contradictions grew bolder, with more wealth and power accumulated in fewer hands, an observation that was quite palpable for Marx, as he witnessed the stark contradictions of 19th century London.
Marx died in 1883 aged 64 with only 11 people attending his funeral in London at Highgate Cemetery. Engels immediately set out to edit volume II and III of Das Kapital and subsequently published it. Engels died in 1895 aged 74 and his ashes were scattered along the English coast in Sussex. By the end of the 20th century their collective work began to creep through different parts of Europe and would eventually challenge the socio-political landscape of the globe.

Obinna Chukwu is a tutor at the Politics department of the University of York

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This post was written by Obinna Chukwu

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