Marx and socialism: A critical evaluation

The main aim of this article is to present an appreciative and critical account of the contribution of Marx and Engels to the socialist movement. It will not deal with the `Marxism’ that has been developed by various writers, leaders, parties and movements that have used, extended, and in some cases distorted, the writings of Marx and Engels for their own purposes.

The outline is divided into three parts:

(1) History (a review of important events, influences and activities in the lives of Marx and Engels)

(2) Theory (dealing with the salient points of their literary output, separately and in combination),

(3) Evaluation (chiefly of points of similarity and difference between the views of Marx/Engels and those of socialists today)


Karl Marx has been variously described as an economist, philosopher, historian, sociologist and revolutionary. He was born in 1818 in Prussia. His parents were Jewish, his father a successful lawyer.

At the age of eighteen, Marx went to the University of Berlin to study law and philosophy. He was introduced to Hegel’s philosophy and became involved in the activities of the Young Hegelians, who were generally atheistic and talked vaguely of political action. But he did not accept Hegel’s views uncritically. Hegel was an idealist who believed that matter or existence was inferior to and dependent on mind or spirit. Marx was much influenced by Feuerbach, a critic of Hegel, who put forward a materialist view that spirit was a projection of `the real man standing on the foundation of nature’. From then on Marx sought to combine Hegel’s dialectic—the idea that all things are in a continual process of change—with Feuerbach’s materialism, which placed material conditions above ideas.

In 1842 Marx became editor of the Rheinische Zeitung newspaper, and succeeded in trebling its circulation. The Prussian authorities suspended it for being too outspoken. In 1843 he married Jenny, daughter of a Prussian family ‘of military and administrative distinction’, and the couple moved to Paris. Marx co-edited a new review (yearbook) and began to associate with communist societies of French and German workers He also met Friedrich Engels, who was to become his lifelong collaborator. In the yearbook he first raised the call for an ‘uprising of the proletariat’ to realise the conceptions of his philosophy. Consequently he was expelled from France and in 1845 he left for Brussels, followed by Engels.

Marx and Engels combined to write The Holy Family, a criticism of Hegelian idealism, published in 1845. But their next joint work, The German Ideology, expounding their materialist conception of history, did not find a publisher until 1932. An unusual sequence of events led them to write their pamphlet The Communist Manifesto in 1848. A society of mainly German handicraftsmen met in London and decided to formulate a political program. They asked Marx and Engels to join them, changed the name of the society to the Communist League, and entrusted Marx with the task of writing the manifesto. It was a pithy summary of the materialist conception of history (see below), asserting that the forthcoming victory of the proletariat would put an end to class society. The idea of small experiments in community living, ‘social utopias,’ was rejected. It also set forth ten immediate measures as first steps towards communism, ranging from a progressive income tax to free education for all children (Higgins, 1998: 4).

A ‘revolutionary movement’—perhaps better described as a period of industrial and political unrest—erupted in 1848 across all of Western Europe (details in McLellan, 1973: 189ff). The King of France was exiled and a provisional republican government formed. Marx was invited to Paris just in time to avoid expulsion by the Belgian government. He was indicted on several charges, including advocating non-payment of taxes. He was acquitted but banished as an alien in 1849.

Marx went to London, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. He rejoined the Communist League there. In 1850 he wrote, with Engels, an address to the central committee of the League, in which they advocated that in future revolutionary situations the revolution should be made ‘permanent’ by setting up revolutionary workers’ governments alongside any new bourgeois one. When the hope of revolution faded, Marx came into conflict with those who advocated ‘direct revolutionary ventures’ rather than urging workers ‘to change yourselves and become qualified for political power’.

From 1850 to 1864 Marx lived in poverty with his wife and four children. Engels contributed to Marx’s financial support but with only small sums until in 1864 he became a partner in his father’s firm. In 1859 Marx published A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Then he started work on his magnum opus, Capital. His political isolation ended in 1864 with the founding of the International Working Men’s Association. Although he was neither its founder nor its head, he soon became its leading spirit. During the next five years Marx was active as a member of the International’s General Council. The membership of the International in 1869 was estimated at 800,000.

But it was the Paris Commune of 1871 that made Marx into an international figure. When an insurrection broke out in Paris and the Commune was proclaimed, Marx gave it his unswerving support. After the Commune was crushed in 1871, Marx’s name became synonymous throughout Europe with the revolutionary spirit symbolised by the Paris Commune. But the advent of the insurrection exacerbated the antagonisms within the International. The Reform Bill of 1867 enfranchised the British working class and opened opportunities for political action by the trade unions. Union leaders found they could make practical advances by co-operating with the Liberal Party, and they generally regarded Marx’s theoretical justifications as an encumbrance in pursuit of their reformist aims.

Furthermore, Marx was fighting on another front, that of the anarchists and Bakunin in particular. Bakunin felt that Marx was a German authoritarian and an arrogant Jew who wanted to transform the International into a personal dictatorship over the workers. Marx thought that the proletariat should form its own political party and fight against the prevailing parties on the political field. To Bakunin and his supporters the Paris Commune was a model of revolutionary direct action and a refutation of what they considered to be Marx’s ‘authoritarian communism’. After heated debate at the International congress in 1872 the Bakuninists were expelled, but the International languished and was finally disbanded in 1876.

During the rest of his life Marx was in poor health and his creative energies declined. In 1875 he wrote a caustic criticism of the program of the German Social Democratic Party (the Gotha programme), claiming that it made too many compromises with the status quo. Despite his withdrawal from active politics, he still retained influence on working class and socialist movements. Following the death of his wife in 1881 and of his eldest daughter early in 1883, Marx died in London, evidently of a lung abcess, in March 1883.

Friedrich Engels was born in 1820, the son of a wealthy cotton firm owner. In 1842 he took over the management of the Manchester factory belonging to his father’s firm. He observed carefully and critically the lives of the workers in Manchester, which led to the publication in 1845 of his The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels contributed to Marx’s Capital by giving him much technical and economic data and by criticising the successive drafts. The collaboration lasted until Marx’s death and carried on posthumously with the publication of volumes II and III of Capital and manuscripts left by Marx, which Engels edited. He died in 1895.

Although Marx and Engels collaborated on a number of different literary projects, there were notable differences between them. They were dissimilar in background, temperament and outlook. There was an unofficial and loose division of labour between them: Marx devoted himself to political economy, while Engels concentrated on history and the natural sciences. These and other differences between the two men are spelled out by McLellan (1977: 65f) and an account of Marx’s chaotic and unhealthy life style is in Buchan (1997: 192–204).


The term ‘theory’ shall be used here broadly to include ideas, thoughts, values, hypotheses, propositions—even predictions if they are part of a system of thought. It will be convenient to divide the discussion into four separate but related parts: philosophy (the general or world views of Marx and Engels), capitalism (their critical analysis of the profit system, mainly from an economic standpoint), politics (how they saw the revolutionary change from capitalism to socialism/communism taking place), and socialism (their conception of the major features of the new society).

To seek an understanding of Marxist theory is at first sight a formidable task. The sheer size of the project—the total writings of Marx and Engels have been estimated at between 6 and 7 million words—is daunting. When compounded by the fact that much of their expression is far from simple, and translations from the original German not always the best, the project is not an easy one. Yet it may reasonably be claimed that ‘Marxism is not inherently difficult to understand, in either its philosophic or economic aspects’ (Sowell, 1985: 13). We need to sort out the wood from the trees, and to recognise that some of the trees are dead stumps left over from past polemics whose relevance to the world today has long gone.

( 1 ) The central concepts of Marxist philosophy may be seen as scientific socialism, dialectics, materialism (divided into dialectical and historical materialism), and the blending of structure and action. There are other ways of analysing the components of Marxist philosophy, but that is the approach proposed here.

Marx acknowledges the contribution to his own scientific socialism of the philosophy of Hegel, the economics of Ricardo and the utopian socialism of Fourier, St Simon, Owen and others. He saw utopian socialism as idealistic, not in the popular sense of unselfish thought and action in the service of a better society, but in the sense of an ideal society projected into the future and unconnected with existing social trends.

Marx’s scientific method was to proceed by simplifying concrete and complex manifestations into an abstraction, which becomes less and less complex until we get at the simplest conception. Then, by systematically adding complicating factors, we start on our return journey towards empirical reality ‘as a rich aggregate of many conceptions and realities’ (Marx, 1970: 292–3). In short, Marx was a believer in abstraction, systematic analysis, and successive approximations to a reality too complex to grasp directly (Sowell, 1985: 18).

Concerning dialectical materialism, Venable (1945:4) has a useful summary of Marx and Engels on the question of relating it to other forms of materialism:

‘… dialectical materialism, their naturalistic philosophy of change and interaction; historical materialism, their theory of social and cultural transformation and of the interactive, emergent, and progressive character of history’s movement; economic materialism, an elaborate subdivision of, or rather basis for, their social theory.’ The dialectical component of dialectical materialism concerns recognising the inadequacy of all polar opposites and employing the dialectical method to overcome that inadequacy. A well-known formulation is the confrontation of an initial thesis by an antithesis, resulting in a new synthesis which preserves what is of value in both. Thus capitalism consists of the thesis of social production confronted by the antithesis of individual appropriation and private property, to be overcome by the socialist synthesis of wealth produced socially, distributed according to need, and held in common.

Marx’s theory of historical materialism (the materialist conception of history) is based on the simple proposition that production is ‘the first premise of all human existence… men must be in a position to live in order to be able to “make history”‘ (quoted in Thomas, 1998). The theory attempts to explain the transformations of whole societies from one era to another. It sees the source of these changes in changing technologies (‘productive relations’) which bring changes in the way people are organised (‘social relations’)(Sowell, 1985: 70). Engels expands on this:

‘The materialist conception of history starts from the principle that production, and with production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order; that in every society which has appeared in history the distribution of the products, and with it the division of society into classes or estates, is determined by what is produced and how it is produced, and how the product is exchanged’ (1936: 294).

Marxian theory implies a blending of structure and action. According to Applebaum ( 1988: 15) we need ‘to understand how Marx sought to bridge the concerns of both philosophy and science in developing a theory that operates simultaneously at the levels of structure and action… the philosophic critique of consciousness, the “scientific” analysis of capitalist economic institutions, and the historical study of politics and society.’ Furthermore, the Marxian priority is with action rather than philosophy or the study of structures. One of their most famous aphorisms is that the point is not to study society but to change it.

(2) The second area of Marxist theory is their analysis of capitalism. To examine this thoroughly would be a very complex undertaking indeed. Here we can attempt only to outline three of what are arguably the main concepts of Marxian economics: the labour theory of value, the commodity nature of production, and classes and class struggle. Further Marxian concepts of perhaps less central importance are the thesis of increasing misery, the significance of alienation, and the fetishism of commodities. All of the above except the last two are discussed in more detail in the Socialist Party pamphlet ( 1978).

Marx’s labour theory of value, together with his ideas about the commodity nature of capitalist production, seek to explain how the profit system works and how the working class is exploited under that system. First some (simplified) definitions. Wealth is anything useful produced by human labour from materials found in nature. In capitalism wealth takes the form of an immense accumulation of commodities. A commodity is an article of wealth produced for the purpose of being exchanged for other articles of wealth. The means of production (land, factories, railways, etc) become capital when used to exploit labour (human energy) to produce surplus value (profit). Money is capital in its pure form. The capitalist invests capital and buys labour power (workers selling their energies) to produce commodities to be sold at a profit. Finally price is the monetary expression of value. Some things that are bought and sold are either not products of labour or sell at prices disproportionate to the amount of labour embodied in them, for example land and objects of art. But these exceptions do not invalidate the labour theory of value as of general applicability.

The Marxian theory of class and class struggle is a vital part of the explanation of capitalist production. A class is made up of people who are in the same position in relation to the ownership and control of the means of wealth production. For Marx and Engels the class struggle between the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) and the proletariat (working class) is the great lever of modern social change. Originally Marx identified three classes on the basis of source of income: wage for labour, profit for the capitalist and rent for the landowner (Knox, 1988: 160). But capitalism has now succeeded in absorbing the landlord class, leaving society polarised between two classes: capitalists and workers. The Marxian theory of class is opposed by those academics who explain class not in terms of ownership or nonownership of the means of wealth production, but in terms of prestige and style of life. Society is said to consist of a hierarchy of non-conflicting classes, with names such as upper, middle, working and under. Such a theory tends to gloss over the fact that only about 2 percent of the population own enough capital to live comfortably on the income it provides; the other 98 percent have to find an employer or live off state benefit.

Brief mention should be made of a few other Marxian ideas relating to the analysis of capitalism. Marx is sometimes associated with the belief that as capitalism continues it will lead to the increasing misery of the working class. His use of the term ‘misery’ should be taken as relative to that of the capitalist class, not absolute:

‘… although the enjoyments of the worker have risen, the social satisfaction that they give has fallen in comparison with the increased enjoyments of the capitalist… Our desires and pleasures spring from society, we measure them, therefore, by society and not by the objects which serve for their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature’ (Marx and Engels, 1968: 94).

Alienation is a concept much discussed by Marx but relatively neglected in commentaries on Marxism, including those by the World Socialist Movement. Alienation means the subjugation of man by his own works (excuse the sexist language), which have assumed the guise of independent things (Kolakwski, 1978: 178).

“Estranged labor”—that is, labor performed not freely but as a means of subsistence, the products of which are taken from the laborer—turns “Man’s species being… into a being alien to him.” Under capitalism, man is alienated from other men and from himself… Man can only overcome alienation by doing away with private property and creating communist society’ (Stratman, n.d.: 164, with quotations from Marx).

A concept allied to that of alienation is that of what Marx called the fetishism of commodities. People are dominated by the products of their own activities but do not realise this and attribute an independent existence and power to those products:

‘… the existence of things as commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There is a definite social relation between men that assumes in their eyes the fantastic form of a relation between things… This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities’ (Marx, 1954: 71–83).

For a discussion of Marx’s distinctive views on other economic concepts and processes—such as capital accumulation, the (falling) rate of profit, and inflation—see the Socialist Party pamphlet (1978).

(3) The third area of Marxist theory is that of politics, or how the change from capitalism to socialism can be implemented. Marxian views on the nature of the socialist revolution—how we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ – may be divided into three sub-topics: the use of coercive measures, leadership or self education, and the attitude to non-socialist revolution.

Much has been made of Marx’s use of the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. A close study of his references to this idea shows that he meant something very different from our modern understanding of dictatorship as totalitarianism exemplified by Hitler and Stalin. To understand Marx’s use of the term we must ‘return to the original Roman institution of dictatura… the classic dictator held extensive but not unlimited powers, powers to cope with an emergency but not to be left entirely unchecked’ (Hunt, 1974: 286). With this interpretation in mind we may note Marx’s remarks in a speech on the 7th anniversary of the International in 1871:

‘the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat… In destroying the existing conditions of oppression by transferring all the means of labour to the productive labourer, and thereby compelling every able-bodied individual to work for a living, the only basis for class rule and oppression would be removed. But before such a change could be effected a proletarian dictature [Fr. Dictatorship] would be necessary, and the first condition of that was a proletarian army’ (Marx, Engels and Lenin, 1975).

The hard line expressed in those words can scarcely be denied. Engels, too, foresaw a violent revolution, though he wrote of English workers being driven to the use of violence rather than choosing it:

‘A revolution by a peaceful path is an impossibility, and only a forcible overthrow of the existing unnatural conditions, a radical ouster of the titled as well as the industrial aristocracy, can improve the material situation of the proletarians. They are still held back from this violent revolution by their peculiarly English respect for the law; but the conditions in England described above cannot fail shortly to produce general hunger among the workers, and then their fears of starvation will be stronger than their fear of the law. This revolution was an inevitable one for England (Werke, German version of Collected Works, quoted in Hunt, 1974: 111 ).

The revolution wasn’t inevitable, of course. A socialist speaker was nearer the mark in claiming that a starving man doesn’t want socialism—he wants a hot meal. The last word on this subject may be left to Marx himself

‘As long as other classes, and the capitalist class in particular, still exist; and as long as the proletariat fights against them… it must employ coercive measures, that is, governmental measures; so long it is still a class itself, and the economic conditions which give rise to the class struggle and the existence of classes have not yet disappeared and must be forcibly removed… With its complete victory, therefore, its rule also comes to an end’ (Collected Works I: 321–3).

Strong measures, then, but temporary and no doubt contemplated with the best of intentions. We must remember that Marx and Engels were men of their time, and that time was one when the use of force by workers against authority for political purposes was much more thinkable than today. Having said that, we should add that no kind of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, no matter how watered down and temporary, should form any part of the socialist programme at the end of the 20th century or beyond. The socialist goal will be achieved by force of argument, by democratic methods, not by force of arms or authoritarian methods.

A second major Marxian political theme is that of leadership versus self-education of the working class. Here we have a much clearer consensus that power invested in leaders is the wrong way to go, and that workers educating themselves for the revolutionary task is the right way:

‘Communism rises above the enmity of classes, for it is a movement that embraces all humanity and not merely the working classes. Of course no communist proposes to avenge himself against any particular individuals who are members of the bourgeoisie… Should the proletariat become more Socialist in character its opposition to the middle classes will be less unbridled and less savage… It may be expected that by the time the rising comes the English working classes will understand basic social problems sufficiently clearly for the more brutal elements of the revolution to be eventually overcome—with the help of the appearance of the Communist Party’ (Engels, 1958: 335).

This is a very interesting and revealing passage. It shows a progression of Marxist thought from a capitalist present that is in many ways divisive and brutal, to a communist/socialist movement that is in a transitional stage from divisiveness/brutality, to a future society that will embrace all of humanity. Clearly Engels quite reasonably expected workers to become less brutal as they adopted socialist ideas. Reference to the help of the Communist Party should not be taken as meaning the vanguardist CP or other movements of the 20th century, rather the general movement of those in favour of communism (another name for socialism).

Hunt’s interpretation of Marxian views on workers’ self education is also closer to the Socialist Party’s approach to this question rather than that of the Communist or any other Party:

‘Their [Marx and Engels’] own vision of communist revolution did not rest on the fundamental postulate of mass immaturity, bur rather pre-supposed the masses’ prior self education… Perhaps the key distinguishing feature of Marx and Engels’ thinking… was precisely their conviction, their ultimate democratic faith, that the masses could and would educate themselves, organize themselves, liberate themselves, and rule themselves’ (1974: 290,341).

Sowell agrees with Hunt’s interpretation of the Marxian concept of socialist revolution, especially its democratic character and opposition to leadership:

‘The nature of a revolutionary movement was seen by Marx and Engels as crucial for the kind of postrevolutionary society that could be expected to emerge. A mass movement of workers meant that a democratic regime was feasible after the overthrow of bourgeois rule. A small conspiracy of professional revolutionaries implied a dictatorial post-revolutionary regime (1985: 163).

We shall return to this question in the Evaluation section below.

A third Marxian political theme is their questionable support for bourgeois revolution as a supposed step towards socialist revolution. There is no doubt that Marx and Engels gained a great deal of popularity in their own time—and since—by being openly on the side of the workers in their struggle for better wages and conditions. In the Communist Manifesto, their most persuasive and appealing call to revolutionary action, Marx and Engels leave no doubt about the breadth of their support for working class action: ‘… the communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing society and political order of things’ (1952: 94). This is not a reference to trade union action or to bread riots, etc. but to bourgeois, anti-feudal movements

Yet, away from the battlefield of class struggle, Marx and Engels were far less sanguine about the growth of socialist ideas within the working class movement. Enthusiastic though they were about the Paris Commune, Marx had later to admit that it was ‘merely the rising of a city under exceptional conditions’ and that ‘the majority of the Commune was in no wise socialist, nor could it be’ (quoted in Bottomore, 1983: 130). The lack of socialist ideas among revolutionary movements such as the Paris Commune must have been a bitter pill for Marx and Engels to swallow, but it is right that they—and we—should do so.

(4) The final area of Marxist theory is that of socialism/communism, the future form of society that will replace capitalism. Marx and Engels had relatively little to say about the future, partly because they ‘held the drawing up of blueprints for an ideal society to be the very essence of utopianism’ (Hunt, 1974: 212). Nevertheless, what they did say was usually positive and in line with their generally optimistic view of human nature and the capacity of workers to build a better, more equal and more truly human society than that of capitalism. In particular, Marx wrote of the variety of useful and pleasurable work that would be available to people, in this well-known passage:

‘In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic’ (Collected Works, vol.5: 47).

On another page he summed up the same thought as follows: ‘In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities’ (p.394).

Commentators sympathetic to Marxism discuss his other ideas about the socialist future, sometimes pointing out that Marx was an idealist in his own way:

‘The picture of a harmonious community, a society without conflict in which all human needs are satisfied, and so forth—all this can be found in Marx in similar formulations to those of the utopians. But socialism means more to Marx than a welfare society, the abolition of competition and want, the removal of conditions that make man an enemy to man: it is also, and above all, the abolition of the estrangement between man and the world, the assimilation of the world by the human subject’ (Kolakowski, 1978: 224). ‘Communism, as envisioned by Marx, was to be “a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”, a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”… This was even more important than the material standard of living’ (Sowell 1985:25):

‘What [Marx and Engels] envisaged for the future society, from its very beginning, was a kind of participatory democracy organized without any political leaders or administrators at all, which has nowhere been established in a national government, and which requires some effort of imagination and historical understanding for the present-day reader to grasp’ (Hunt, 1974: xiii).

But some statements by Marx and Engels about the socialist/communist future seem to show that they were not entirely immune from a conception of that future still rooted in the capitalist past. Engels, arguably out of character with the bulk of his writings, let the following slip in one of his letters:

‘… we still lack the technicians, agronomists, engineers, chemists, architects, etc. But if worse comes to worst we can buy these just as well as the capitalists do; and if a stern example is made of a few traitors which are sure to crop up among this lot—then they will find it in their own interest to stop robbing us. But outside of such specialists, we can get along very well without the rest of the “educated people”… ‘ (Werke, quoted in Draper, vol. 2: 543).

Engels does seem to have suffered from a kind of inverted intellectual snobbery, a characteristic that is of doubtful value to a project designed to unite the whole of humanity: ‘… the “academically educated people” have far more to learn from the workers, all in all, than the latter have to learn from them’ (p.515).

Some Marxist writing on the future socialist/communist society is concerned with what will happen, and what will be possible, in its early and later stages. A particular worry about scarcity of goods in the early stages led Marx to consider labour time vouchers or certificates: ‘What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; and which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society—after the deductions have been made, exactly what he contributes to it. What he has contributed to it is his individual quantum of labour’ (1970: 15).

Two points here. One is that modern production is social, not individual. It is doubtful whether the value of the ‘individual quantum of labour’ could have been measured in Marx’s time except in the crudest terms of time. It is even more doubtful whether such a measure could be made today. The second point is adequately dealt with in the Socialist Party ( 1978) publication of the article ‘Labour time vouchers’. Marx made it quite clear that, if labour time vouchers were used in socialism, this would be a temporary measure resulting from the comparatively low level of technology. Today potential abundance resulting from improved technology has made the idea of labour time vouchers quite outdated. It will no doubt become even more outdated in future.


Some evaluation, as well as straight reporting, of Marxist writing has been presented above. Here we shall extend this by discussing how far socialists today can usefully draw on the work of Marx and Engels, and in what ways we should frankly admit that their ideas are either now outdated or were misguided in the first place.

First philosophy or world view. There is no doubt in my mind that socialists should continue today, as our comrades have done in the past, to regard the immense sweep and authority of Marxist thought as extremely valuable to the task of replacing capitalism with socialism. Neither Marx nor Engels were specialists in the sense of concentrating on any one aspect of the socialist movement. They wrote, sometimes in a very detailed way, on economics but they were not primarily economists. They were interested in the history of humankind through all its stages of development from primitive communism to capitalism, but their history was not merely academic—it was for a revolutionary purpose.

Sometimes a writer sympathetic to the ideas of Marx and Engels can interpret them in a novel way, one that brings out the best in what they had to say and perhaps sees in their words a meaning that the original authors may not have intended but would very probably have agreed with. Thus Kolakowski:

`Communism puts an end to the division of life into public and private spheres, and to the difference between civil society and the state; it does away with the need for political institutions, political authority, and governments, private property and its source in the division of labour. It destroys the class system and exploitation; it heals the split in man’s nature and the crippled, one-sided development of the individual… social harmony is to be sought not by a legislative reform that will reconcile the egoism of each individual with the collective interest, but by removing the causes of antagonism. The individual will absorb society into himself thanks to de-alienation, he will recognize humanity as his own internalized nature. Voluntary solidarity, not compulsion or the legal regulation of interests, will ensure the smooth harmony of human relations… the powers of the individual cam only flourish when he regards them as social forces, valuable and effective within a human community and not in isolation. Communism alone makes possible the proper use of human abilities’ (1978: 179).

This is communism/socialism in its most profound and all-embracing conception. Though it can be shown to relate to everyday life, now and in a future society that we can help to shape, it is a highly intellectual approach. We should not be afraid to combine it with a more emotive, more artistic approach, such as that of William Morris. But this is not the place to pursue that thought.

To some extent the debate between materialism and idealism, in which Marx and Engels engaged so prominently, is an artificial one. Yes, we should never lose sight of the basic material nature of life. But the Hegelian dialectic, which Marx sensibly reversed, serves to remind us that ideas and ideals are also an essential part of human life. The debate between structure and action, which some philosophers and sociologists carry on today, is also not a matter of either-or but of both-and. We need society to have developed structures of (potential) production to meet all reasonable human needs, but we also need informed and educated action on the part of a majority of the world’s population to change those structures.

A second Marxist concern was with the analysis of capitalism. In the more than hundred years since Marx and Engels were writing, capitalism has changed drastically, though not fundamentally. It is still a system of exploitation, still one in which commodity production alienates us from what we produce—and even, in a sense, from ourselves. With some justification it is argued that Marx and Engels were less concerned about poverty than about alienation. Without downplaying the suffering and deprivation caused by poverty, we should also recognise the abjectly poor quality of life that capitalism offers its supporters. Think of rush-hour sardine-tinlike mass transport, the eminently throw-away Sun newspaper, the excruciatingly dumbed-down Noel Edmunds TV show—and much more.

Most critics of Marxist economics believe in capitalism. Some of them—like Cassidy ( 1997), discussed in Donnelly (1998)—are happy to applaud Marx’s analysis of where power lies in capitalist society but are opposed to overthrowing that society. However, it is possible to criticise some of Marx’s views on capitalism while supporting his call to abolish it. Thus Stratman criticises Marx for relying on the self interest of the working class:

‘Though it is destined to act as the agent of revolution, in Marx’s paradigm the working class puts and end to human exploitation not as a conscious goal on behalf of all humanity, but as the inevitable by-product of ending its own exploitation. It accomplishes the general interest of humanity by acting in its own self interest’ (n. d. : 166).

It is true that working-class pursuit of its own self interest has so far led only to trade unionism, not socialism. As we have seen, Marx and Engels did offer to ‘support any revolutionary movement against the existing society and political order of things.’ They did not qualify this support by insisting that it be based on socialist/communist understanding rather than on mere physical reaction against a class of exploiters. They paid the price for this in disillusion when uprisings such as the Paris Commune failed to spark the introduction of classless society.

Which brings us to the third theoretical issue of politics. Marx and Engels were spectacularly wrong in their prediction of when the communist revolution would take place. In 1845 Engels prophesied the end of capitalism by 1852–3, and he greeted the depression of 1847 in a way that leaves little doubt he believed it to be the death knell of capitalism (Hunt, 1974:141 ). It is not a great crime to be guilty of over-optimism about when socialism will come (though it is unwise, to say the least, to set a target date for its achievement). What is much more worrying is the misplaced confidence Marx and Engels had in the workers’ self education leading fairly rapidly to their adopting socialist ideas.

Of course it may be that Marx and Engels actually equated self education with the process of becoming a socialist. But a more plausible explanation may be that they were tinged with the idea, common among Trotskyists, some anarchists and others today, that the immediate steps to be taken by those who want revolutionary change are to encourage the workers to be ‘active’ in some way. Never mind that the ‘activity’ (‘stop the closures’, ‘oppose the cuts’, ‘reclaim the streets’, or whatever) is only defensive activity within the profit system—it is at least doing something and not just talking. One can imagine Marx and Engels poring over drafts of Capital and saying something like ‘The workers will never understand all this stuff. What they need is something rousing but simple. Let’s give them a Manifesto that has a few good slogans and includes a list of immediate demands.’

Perhaps the biggest difference between capitalism then and now is the enormous growth in the scope and pervasiveness of the mass media of communication and persuasion. And in the growth of hegemony, a concept not used by Marx and Engels, but one which is a logical extension of alienation, which they did recognise. Hegemony has different meanings, but the one most relevant to this discussion is class domination through the active participation of the subordinate class. In our daily activities we as producers and consumers participate in creating the conditions and social relations that shape our lives. A practice is hegemonic to the degree that its structure is defined by elites, by centralised social structures, rather than being controlled by its users.

The capitalism of the Marxist era was more openly class-divided and coercive than the capitalism of today. Then it was more obviously their system—now it is too often our system, if it is seen as a system at all. Marx and Engels were right to insist that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself (1952: 19). They were no doubt sincere in urging members of the working class to educate themselves for the revolutionary task. But they failed to foresee the extent to which workers would educate themselves to run capitalism rather than overthrow it.

This leads us finally to what is probably the weakest element in the Marxist exposition: the nature of the socialist/communist society that is to replace capitalism. By refusing to write recipes for future cookshops, by failing to talk about the future society except in very general terms for fear of being dubbed ‘idealist’, they in fact signaled that the building of socialism—as distinct from the opposition to capitalism—was not high on their agenda. Yet for socialists the building of the new society, by spelling out what common ownership, democratic control, production solely for use, and free access mean as a practical alternative that people can support now, must be at the top of our agenda.

I’ll end with a hypothetical but hopefully not valueless question. Do we need a Marx and Engels today? The answer is mainly yes but partly no. We need people of the intellectual stature of Marx and Engels to help put across our ideas. It would be splendid if we could publish a paperback edition of something like Capital, with an updated, critical and unputdownable account of the contemporary profit system. Less desirable would be a Communist Manifesto for the New Millennium, though one without immediate demands for the reform of capitalism could find a place in our list of publications.