“The Inexorable System of Karl Marx” — an excerpt from the book “The Worldly Philosophers” by Robert L. Heilbroner

Today I’d like to begin transcribing the chapter titled “The Inexorable System of Karl Marx” from the book The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1999, 7th ed.) by Robert L. Heilbroner. Because people love to distort and expand his theories, yet know virtually nothing about the man. So, beginning on page 136:

The Manifesto opened with ominous words: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies.”

The specter certainly existed: 1848 was a year of terror for the old order on the Continent. There was a revolutionary fervor in the air and a rumble underfoot. For a moment—for a brief moment—it looked as if the old order might break down. In France the plodding regime of Louis Philippe, the portly middle-class king, wrestled with a crisis and then collapsed; the king abdicated and fled to the security of a Surrey villa, and the workingmen of Paris rose in a wild uncoordinated surge and ran up the Red Flag over the Hôtel de Ville. In Belgium a frightened monarch offered to submit his resignation. In Berlin the barricades went up and bullets whistled; in Italy mobs rioted; and in Prague and Vienna popular uprisings imitated Paris by seizing control of the cities.

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims,” cried the Manifesto. “They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social relations. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

The ruling classes did tremble, and they saw the threat of communism everywhere. Nor were their fears groundless. In the French foundries the workmen sang radical songs to the accompaniment of blows from their sledgehammers, and the German romantic poet Heinrich Heine, who was touring the factories, reported that “really people in our gentle walk of life can have no idea of the demonic note which runs through these songs.”

But despite the clarion words of the Manifesto, the demonic note was not a call for a revolution of communism; it was a cry born only of frustration and despair. For all of Europe was in the grip of reaction compared with which conditions in England were positively idyllic. The French government had been characterized by John Stuart Mill as “wholly without the spirit of improvement and . . .  wrought almost exclusively through the meaner and more selfish impulses of mankind,” and the French had no monopoly on such a dubious claim to fame. As for Germany, well, here it was, the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, and Prussia still had no parliament, no freedom of speech or right of assembly, no liberty of the press or trial by jury, and no tolerance for any idea that deviated by a hair’s breadth from the antiquated notion of the divine right of kings. Italy was a hodgepodge of anachronistic principalities. Russia under Nicholas I (despite the Tsar’s one-time visit to Robert Owen’s New Lanark) was characterized by the historian de Tocqueville as “the cornerstone of despotism in Europe.”

Had the despair been channeled and directed, the demonic note might have changed into a truly revolutionary one. But, as it was, the uprisings were spontaneous, undisciplined, and aimless; they won initial victories, and then, while they were wondering what next to do, the old order rocked invincibly back into place. The revolutionary fervor abated, and where it did not, it was mercilessly crushed. At the price of ten thousand casualties, the Paris mobs were subdued by the National Guard, and Louis Napoleon took over the nations and soon exchanged the Second Republic for the Second Empire. In Belgium the country decided that it had better ask the king to stay after all; he acknowledged the tribute by abolishing the right of assembly. The Viennese and Hungarian crowds were cannonaded from their strongholds, and in Germany a constitutional assembly that had been bravely debating the question of republicanism broke down into factional bickering and then ignominiously offered the country to Frederick William IV of Prussia. Still more ignominiously, that monarch declared that he would accept no crown proffered by the ignoble hands of commoners.

The revolution was over. It had been fierce, bloody, but inconclusive. There were a few new faces in Europe, but the policies were much the same.

But to a little group of working-class leaders who had just formed the Communist League, there was no cause for deep despair. True, the revolution for which they had entertained high hopes had petered out and the radical movements pocketed throughout Europe were being more ruthlessly hounded than ever before. Yet all that could be regarded with a certain equanimity. For according to their understanding of history, the uprisings of 1848 were only the small-scale dress rehearsals of a gigantic production that was scheduled for the future, and of the eventual success of that awesome spectacle there could be not the shadow of a doubt.

The League had just published its statement of objectives and called it The Communist Manifesto. With all its slogans and its trenchant phrases, the Manifesto had not been written merely too whip up revolutionary sentiment or to add another voice of protest to the clamor of voices that filled the air. The Manifesto had something else in mind: a philosophy of history in which a Communist revolution was not only desirable but demonstrably inevitable. Unlike the Utopians, who also wanted to reorganize society closer to their desires, the Communists did not appeal to men’s sympathies or to their addiction to building castles in the air. Rather, they offered men a chance to hitch their destinies to a star and to watch that star move inexorably across the historical zodiac. There was no longer a contest in which one side or the other ought to win for moral or sentimental reasons or because it thought the existing order was outrageous. Instead there was a cold analysis of which side had to win, and since that side was the proletariat, their leaders had only to wait. In the end, they could not lose.

The Manifesto was a program written for the future. But one thing would have surprised its authors. They were prepared to wait—but not for seventy years. They wee already scanning Europe for the likeliest incubator of revolt. And they never even cast a glance in the direction of Russia.

Needing to stop there for now, on page 139. Time for dinner. To be resumed.

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