The Riddle of History Solved

(The importance of Marx – 2.)

A) A bit of history

It is often overlooked that the anti-capitalist and post-capitalist perspective, radiating from the tradition associated with Karl Marx, is not concerned simply with creating better conditions for the working class and the oppressed, but with the emancipation of the whole of humanity. This perspective argues that the development of previous civilisations, and capitalism in particular, has distorted the natural essence of human relations and for the mass of human beings has stunted their individual human development.

Over successive period’s, increasing numbers of people, have also become alienated from the product of their own economic activity and from each other. How to overcome this seemingly eternal human alienation (also much debated by religions) became something of the historical riddle denoted by the title. Taking what at the time represented a radical and non-religious long view, encompassing the past as well as the future, Marx asked the following searching and revealing questions;

“1. What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of this reduction of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour?” 2. What are the mistakes committed by the piecemeal reformers who either want to raise wages and in this way to improve the situation of the working class or regard equality of wages as the goal of social revolution.” (Marx. ‘1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts‘. Collected Works Vol. 3 p. 241.)

Marx concluded the problems for workers could only be overcome by bringing the means of production under the direct control of the producers. Achieving this grass-roots relationship and democratic control of production would also allow rational and democratic decisions be made as to what is produced and in what quantities. Describing the alienating forms of work under capitalist production, Marx noted that the worker at work;

“…does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working and when he is working he does not feel at home…” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Collected Works. Vol 3 p 274.)

So from Marx’s revolutionary-humanist perspective the future solution to the relative poverty of working people (part of the riddle) was not to achieve full employment under an exploitative capitalist system, or any other, but to attain voluntary employment under a non-exploitative, self-governing, post-capitalist system.

The propensity of capitalism for creating obscene wealth for a minority whilst creating poverty, slump, crisis, colonial expansion and predatory wars, on the other, had long been denounced by many commentators. Marx, however, recognised not only a moral objection but by analysing in detail the economic logic and internal mechanisms he successfully predicted periodic and catastrophic levels of crisis and failure which would create political instability and social unrest.

In the 21st century, we can now add to capitalisms contradictory operations and tendencies, a fuller understanding of its impact upon the ecological balance of the planet. It is increasingly recognised that capitalist societies are already over-developed. Capitalism is in need of reigning in, rather than unleashing further.

 B) A bit on the Riddle

It had also become clear by the 19th century, that the capitalist class would not give up its control of the means of production voluntarily. Accordingly, it was generally accepted that a revolution against the power and privilege of the capitalist class would be necessary. Under the capitalist system, that meant that the working and oppressed classes would indeed be in the front line of that revolution. However, revolutions cannot be simply be created at will – another part of the riddle. They rely upon the coming together of many different strands.

In the article, ‘The Poverty of Philosophy‘, Marx posed a rhetorical question (and answered it) about what follows a successful challenge to the capitalist system.

“Does this mean that after the fall of the old society there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No. The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of all classes…..and there will be no more political power properly so-called,… .” (Marx ’The Poverty of Philosophy’ Collected Works Vol. 6 page 211-212.)

This multi-dimensional understanding was what Marx considered would allow ‘the riddle of history’ to be ‘solved’ – at least – in theory!

During much of the 19th century, there was general agreement among a wide range of anti-capitalists about the nature of post-capitalist social forms. There was agreement it should be made up of self-organising communities of producers. There was agreement that the system of classes should be overturned and the fantastic differences in wealth abolished. Nevertheless, there were divisions among the radicals during the period of the 1st international and among its members.

The anarchist members of the 1st International Working Men’s organisation, for example, considered that politics itself was a hierarchical practice and could never deliver an equal society. Marx and those around him at the time, considered that in the period leading up to a revolutionary situation, workers would and should engage in political struggles to advance their wages and conditions. In Marx’s opinion, a final and adequate answer to overcoming the riddle of revolutionary transformation, was delivered not by theoreticians but by the citizens of Paris.

C) A bit on the solution

After studying the events in and around the Paris Commune of 1870, Marx argued that the ‘greatest measure of the commune was its own existence’. He noted that the form was simple – as all great things. It provided ‘the rational medium’, ‘the political form of social emancipation’, it allowed the return of the powers usurped by the state to the ‘living forces’ of the ‘popular masses’.

Yet some of the anarchists of that period rejected Marx’s report (contained in ‘The Civil War in France’). Bakunin, for example insisted that;

“..the election of people’s representatives and rulers of the state – is a lie, behind which is concealed, the despotism of the governing minority, and only the more dangerous in so far as it appears as expression of the so-called people’s will….They will no longer represent the people, but themselves…” (quoted by Marx from Bakunin’s ‘Statism and Anarchy.)

If we consider the Russian Revolution it becomes clear that the Anarchists around Bakunin, were correct on the ease with which so-called ‘workers’ representatives can become a new ruling elite. If the Bolsheviks were carrying out Marx’s interpretation of the political form for a post-capitalist re-construction, then it would be correct to say – as others have done – that Marx’s position on this matter was fundamentally flawed.

However, a close and careful reading of Marx on this question establishes that the Bolshevik’s were not following Marx on this vitally important issue. If we trawl through Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Bukharin, Zinoviev etc., hierarchical, political domination clearly appears as a recurring given! On the other hand, Marx argued;

“ soon as the functions have ceased to be political ones, there exists 1) no governmental function, 2) the distribution of the general functions has become a business matter, that gives no one domination, 3) election has nothing of its present political character.” (Marx. Conspectus of Bukharin’s Statism and Anarchy‘.)

But who else apart from Marx, Engels and a few others was watching and listening or bothering to read? Certainly not the Bolsheviks! They deliberately created a governmental and bureaucratic functional state out of members of (and directed by) their own political party. As Lenin robustly asserted a number of times;

“Yes it is a dictatorship of one Party! This is what we stand for and shall not shift from that position.” (Lenin. Complete Works. Vol. 29 page 535.)

For Marx, the Paris Commune presented a glimpse into the future. He did not discard, either his earlier criticism of political forms in general, or his advocacy of the commune type form of revolutionary association inspired by the workers of Paris. Replying to anarchist accusation of wishing a form of government over the workers, he replied among other similar points , ‘Non, mon cher‘ ;

“..the whole thing begins with the self-government of the commune….”.(Marx. Conspectus of Bukharin’s Statism and Anarchy‘.)

To sum up. For Marx, a workers and citizens associative self-government, was the ultimate form of defensive association, and in its continuance, the beginning of the revolutionary post-capitalist transformation. Self-government was to be the immediate lever of change, not a future result granted to them by a so-called worker-friendly government or a political party elite after a period of time. This crucial contribution by the Communards of Paris and written up by Marx in his report, was something the Bolsheviks had apparently, not seen, overlooked or simply chose to ignore.

Roy Ratcliffe (April 2012.) [also at]

This is an abbreviated version of a longer article providing more analysis but using the same title at

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