Che on Marx, Engels and the . . . NZ left

Ernesto Che Guevara, Marx and Engels: a biographical introduction, published by Ocean Press, Melbourne.

by Phil Duncan

Ocean Press is a fascinating little publisher, specialising in publishing the work of Cuban revolutionaries in English.  Some years back, while visiting Melbourne, I picked up a book of theirs on Haydee Santamaria, one of my personal revolutionary heroes, so it was gratifying to come across this little book by Che on Marx and Engels late last year.

Che actually wrote this modest, but highly interesting, little work after his involvement in the revolutionary struggle in the Congo in 1965 and before his final misadventure in Bolivia.  It was originally envisaged not as a stand-alone piece but as part of a much larger work on political economy.  Pressing attachments elsewhere, most particularly his decision to go to Bolivia to help foster revolution there, meant his book was not completed, although fragments that were have been published.

The book arose out of Che’s disquiet about the Soviet bloc and his concern that it was headed more towards capitalism than socialism.  He grappled, both in his role as a leading figure in the shaping of the revolutionary Cuban economy and later in Africa and Bolivia, with the problems of the transition from capitalism to socialism, becoming more and more convinced that things in the Soviet Union had taken a wrong turn.

Left in imperialist world

This small book contains many words of wisdom for today’s left, especially those in the imperialist countries who too often turn their noses up at what they see as mere Third World struggles and revolutions, believing that the imperialist countries are the centre of the world and the only ones that really matter.  And, of course, who are blissfully unaware of their imperialist chauvinism and what they’re missing out on.  Certainly every individual on the NZ left should read this.  They will find little gems like Che’s comment that Marx’s “extraordinarily meticulous spirit kept him from indulging in dreams or discussing any topic without basing his argument on unassailable logic”.

Too often, for instance, many NZ leftists base their arguments in emotion, sometimes to the point of virtual hysterics, and on how they would like things to be rather than how they are.  They would like, for instance, Labour to be some kind of workers’ party, so they claim it is; they don’t clinically  investigate its origins and contradictory development, let alone use dialectics to work out how the contradiction between its working class and bourgeois aspects were long ago resolved and it developed into an out-and-out (and fairly socially conservative) capitalist party before eventually becoming the liberal-capitalist party of managerial middle class careerists that it is today.

Writing about that “truly audacious document”, the Communist Manifesto, Che notes, “even today, when so many parties and left groups hide their real aspirations (or what should be their real aspirations) behind an insipid philosophy filled with ‘understanding’ toward the ‘more reasonable’ elements of the exploiting classes, any revolutionary pledging themselves to the Communist Manifesto need not fear they will be considered half-hearted.”

In NZ, 50 years after Che’s murder and almost 170 years after the drafting of the Manifesto, these words should be taken to heart too.  It is a sad commonplace that NZ leftists frequently argue for, commit to, and fight for, far less than what they say they stand for.  People who say they stand for revolution all too often concentrate on rather timid reform platforms on the basis that these are more ‘realistic’.  Such people will never be found at the forefront of a revolution in this country.  Revolutions mess up their nationalist campaigning against the TPPA, their attempts to elect yet another awful Labour government, their attempts to get the capitalist state to grant piecemeal reforms, be a bit nicer and, of course, manage “our assets” better.

Crucial role of Marx and Engels’ critique of political economy

Che notes the crucial importance of political economy – or more specifically Marx and Engels’ critique of the categories through which the most insightful bourgeois intellectuals tried to understand the capitalist system and how, as a result, the founders of scientific socialism, most especially Marx, laid bare the fundamental laws and operations of the capitalist economy.

This is something else that serious leftists in this country need to take on board.  The time wasted in nationalist campaigns around issues like the TPPA would be far better spent in studying Marx’s critique of political economy and applying that understanding to the workings of the NZ economy, an imperialist economy in its own right.

A serious understanding of the laws of motion of the NZ capitalist economy would have enabled the wider left here to make a correct analysis of the Key-English government, instead of making themselves look very foolish by painting Key as a hard-core neo-liberal for years and years, despite the mass of evidence to the contrary and despite the real needs of NZ capital.*

The book begins with some biographical information on Marx and Engels and also the sufferings of the Marx family after they moved to London.  Several of Karl and Jenny Marx’s children died, and the family spent a chunk of their existence in straitened circumstances.  Che points to the importance of early works such as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and rightly rejects Althusser’s attempts to divide Marx into two counterposed periods/existences: an early humanist Marx and a later scientific socialist Marx.  He also notes the importance of Engels’ early The Condition of the Working Class in England.  At the same time he sees Engels work as tending more to polemic and journalism, with Marx being the deeper analyst:

“Marx got there a little later, but his mighty humanity was engaged in traversing the path indefatigably – up and down, down and up, following every offshoot – without losing sight of the main road and never becoming disheartened, an effort eventually crowned with the achievement of Capital.  His entire life and work were preparation for that masterly production.”

Anyone who has read the opening chapters of volume 1 in which Marx grapples with the commodity – or, for that matter, the chapters on ground rent put together by Engels for volume three – can’t help but agree with Che on Marx’s “traversing the path indefatigably”.

Social relations and social change

Che also cites one of Marx’s chief criticisms of Proudhon, as Marx deals with the dialectical relationship between the development of the forces of production and especially the way in which humans make their own history and are not simply conditioned like machines by the technological development of the means of production.   Moreover, both the social relations and the categories through which they are expressed are transitory.  Indeed, this is one of the key differences between a Marxist and a bourgeois understanding of capitalist society.  Stuff like money, means of production and our ability to work are not inherently capital; they only become capital under specific historical-social conditions – and those conditions can be changed.  We are not their prisoner.

Che goes on to next look at the revolutions – and counter-revolutions – of 1848-9 and then Marx and Engels’ relationship with Ferdinand Lassalle.  They admired Lassalle for his leadership capacities – he was a genuine mass leader in the German working class – but were strong critics of his lack of economic understanding and his tendency to elevate tactics, all leading to revisionism.

New tasks

The failure of these early revolutions were examined in depth by Engels and Marx in newspapers such as their own Neue Rheinische Zeitung (published in London) and in a series of larger works such as The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850; The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; The Peasant War in Germany;  and Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany.  The defeat of the revolutions led Marx and Engels to decide on new tasks, rather than simply dogmatically continuing the same organisation and activities.  In 1852 they dissolved the Communist League and concentrated on theoretical and propagandistic work.

While continuing his studies of political economy, and his wider researches, Marx attempted to earn enough to live by journalism, but it rarely provided sufficient work and pay.  And, when the US civil war broke out in 1861, he lost his chief source of income as it came from the New York Tribune.  In 1867 he wrote that he “was constantly hovering at the edge of the grave” and had “sacrificed my health, happiness and family” to the major book he was working on – this was the first volume of Capital.  Despite the immense sacrifices, he wrote “I laugh at the so-called ‘practical’ men with their wisdom.  If one chose to be an ox, one could of course turn one’s back on the sufferings of mankind and look after one’s own skin.”  As Che points out repeatedly, Marx’s great humanism continually showed through.

The road to Capital

Che discusses Marx’s plan of work and exposition leading up to the eventual publication of Capital in 1867, a course of work which bears study today as well.  In 1864, Marx and Engels had also taken part in the formation of the First International; unfortunately, Che notes, “its demise was due to lack of support from organised European workers – some of whom, especially the English working class, began to receive the crumbs which imperialism distributed to the exploited class of its own country when it found other places in which to engage in unbridled plundering.”

Nevertheless, the International had raised the banner of the working class as a class and scared the powers-that-be.  While it played little role in the emergence of the Paris Commune, it played a key role in the defence of the Communards when they were viciously repressed by the French state.  And, as Che notes here, the experience of the Commune clarified Marx and Engels’ thinking on the question of the state.   Che writes, “One of the most important consequences of the Commune was the light it shed on the need to destroy the old governmental apparatus in order to consolidate the people’s power.”

It’s not surprising that Che should pick out the importance of the Commune in the development of Marx and Engels’ views of the state.  Radical movements in Latin America before the Cuban revolution had repeatedly attempted to use existing state apparatuses to carry out reforms – one of the major differences in Cuba was that the July 26 Movement and its Rebel Army, with Fidel, Raul and Che at their head, didn’t just overthrow Batista; they broke up the old capitalist state.  This allowed them to carry out their ambitious socio-economic reforms and prevented the bourgeoisie from using this weapon (the capitalist state apparatus) to stop them and/or overthrow them.  Che rams home the revolutionary view of the state, noting how “many leaders of communist parties and even socialist nations” (he’s clearly talking about the Soviet bloc) had replaced this view with a kind of “aggressive pacifism”!

He notes the final period of Marx’s concentrated work in the late 1860s/early 1870s, which produced the basis for the other two volumes of Capital (put together by Engels after Marx’s death) and Theories of Surplus-Value, also published after Marx’s death.  Che gives particular importance to the Critique of the Gotha Programme, pointing to Marx’s indignation about ostensible revolutionaries promoting reformist politics.  (Needless to say, this work of Marx is not popular with many of NZ’s ostensible Marxists.)

Che also usefully cites an 1867 letter from Marx to Engels in which then author of Capital outlines the “best points” of his magnum opus:

“The best points in my book are: 1. The two-fold character of labor, according to whether it is expressed in use value or exchange value.  (All understanding of the facts depends upon this.)  It is emphasised immediately, in the first chapter; 2. The treatment of surplus value independently of its particular forms as profit, interest, rent etc.  This will be seen especially in the second volume.  The treatment of the particular forms by classical economy, which always mixes them up with the general forms, is a regular hash.”

Above all, they were revolutionaries

On the personal side, the early 1880s, Che notes, brought more tragedy for Marx with the death of his beloved wife Jenny von Westphalen in December 1881 and daughter Jenny in early 1883.  Che then reprints Engels’ wonderful speech at Marx’s grave.  In summing up the most important thing about Marx, Engels said – and this could be applied to Che as well:

“Marx was above all a revolutionary, and his great aim in life was to co-operate in this or that fashion in the overthrow of capitalist society and the state institutions which it has created, to co-operate in the emancipation of the modern proletariat, to whom he was the first to give a consciousness of its class position and its class needs, a knowledge of the conditions necessary for its emancipation.”

When asked ‘What is to be done?’ today, I don’t think those of us who stand for thoroughgoing anti-capitalist politics and human emancipation in NZ today could do better than repeat those words of Engels about Marx.  Imparting to workers what Marx attempted to remains our key task.

Che ends his little book by dealing with the work/s of Engels in the 1870s and then after the death of Marx.  He singles out Dialectics of Nature as “a very useful complement to Capital”, but notes that Engels’ “greatest concern” was “the enormous task of completing Capital”.  Engels spent years on this task – while volume 2 appeared in 1885, volume 3 didn’t appear until just a few months before Engels’ own death almost a decade later.

Engels’ 1884 work, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State – an examination of the three key institutions of class society – is described by Che as “a brilliant exposition of the development of society which cleared up the historical origins of the social categories, showing that they had specific beginnings – which presupposed their end in certain circumstances.”  In his works, his substantial correspondence and his actions, Engels held high the banner of proletarian revolution and fought revisionism.

Che also writes, “Engels never evinced any enthusiasm over the projected creation of the Second International (in 1881), because he did not consider the time was ripe.”  Nevertheless, he participated in it, “his pen ready to join the fray to defend the purity of theory and, we must stress, a revolutionary stand”.  Engels left instructions that he was to be cremated and his ashes thrown into the North Sea at one of his favourite places on the coast.

Che’s treatment of Engels stands in stark contrast with what became fashionable in certain snooty left-intellectual circles a few years later.  In the 1970s a fairly sustained assault began on Engels by left opponents of revolutionary politics.  Engels was presented as being a wooden, mechanistic thinker who simply wasn’t up to the task of carrying on Marx’s work or actually representing it.  In more recent years there has been a new assault on Engels by a layer of supposedly radical intellectuals who reject Marx’s theory of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall but who claim that the theory was really just a product of Engels putting together the second and third volumes of Capital and was not any important part of Marx’s own essential analysis.

TRPF theory, of course, has revolutionary implications – it shows that capitalism is inherently crisis-ridden and there is no solution to this short of its overthrow.  A layer of intellectuals who want to appear to be politically radical and critical thinkers are inherently scared of the class struggle and the overthrow of capitalism, so undermining TRPF theory allows them to pose as radical while continuing to enjoy their privileged middle class position in society.

By contrast, Che gives Engels his due and notes how Marx and Engels were at one in their analysis of the evolution of class society, the structure of capitalism and the kind of programme necessary to see it off.

Che spent the last 11 years (1956-1967) of his too-short life as a Marxist revolutionary.  In October 1956, while living in Mexico and becoming part of the Cuban revolutionary force, the July 26 Movement, Che wrote to his mother, “Now St Karl is paramount, the axis, as he will be for all the years I remain on the face of the earth. . .”  Leaving aside the sainthood, not a bad way to approach living a meaningful life.  And certainly one of the themes of the book is Marx and Engels as not mere bookish sideline commentators but profound humanists and activists.

*I exclude from this ourselves at Redline, a small milieu of class-struggle anarchists and a small layer of independent Marxists.

Further reading:
When is it time for revolutionary politics? 
What are anti-capitalist politics? 
The legacy of Che