Karl Marx: Revolutionary Heretic

David McNally

LET US CELEBRATE Marx the heretic. In a global moment in which “the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born” (Gramsci), let us embrace the Karl Marx who, fully immersed in his historical moment, treated every question as, at best, provisionally resolved. That Marx who calls to us in this moment is the prophet of permanent rethinking, insistent on revisiting old problems in light of new evidence and experience.

Our Marx is the anti-doctrinaire thinker who, in his “Confession” of 1865, proclaimed his favorite motto to be De omnibus dubitandum (Doubt Everything).(1)

It is in this spirit that I return to one of Marx’s earliest texts: his letter to Arnold Ruge of May 1843, published in the Franco-German Yearbooks. This was the first text in which Marx set out his program for a new kind of revolutionary theory grounded in history and politics. I wish to highlight four compelling themes from that letter.

Consider first the theoretical program set out in the letter to Ruge.(2) Marx makes the case for historically immanent criticism, as opposed to abstract commentary or dogmatic pronouncement. The young radical theorist describes his new outlook as follows:

“it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. . . But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

This anti-dogmatic protocol informs the rest of his life: to learn from the social dynamics of actual struggles in order to articulate a real (as opposed to abstractly utopian) program. Whether it is his changed views in the 1860s on Irish liberation, whose national independence he came to support, or his reconsideration of the need to dismantle the state in light of the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx the revolutionist is oriented on finding “the new world through criticism of the old.”

The second vital theme is his reminder that the radical project is human emancipation, not merely the overcoming of private property. Since the liberated society will be one of freedom and radical democracy among dis-alienated people, it includes much more than a change in the form of ownership: “The abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical.”

If there is to be a future for revolutionary socialism, part of it will lie in this focus on the content of social relations, rather than the mere form of property.

Equally important, thirdly, is the turn from philosophy to politics, a turn conducted in the spirit of anti-dogmatism sketched above:

“Just as religion is a register of the theoretical struggles of mankind, so the political state is a register of the practical struggles of mankind. . . . Therefore the critic not only can, but must deal with these political questions.

“Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for.”

Here again we see the insistence that revolutionary politics cannot counterpose its preferred state of things to reality. There is no point in telling the world, “this is how it should be.” Instead, emancipatory politics begins with the actual struggles that, however elementally, point beyond the existing state of affairs.

 It then seeks to deepen and generalize those struggles, to radicalize their most liberatory elements. But it never informs those engaged in real struggles that “they are foolish.” Rather than dismissing them, it seeks their inner deepening and development in revolutionary directions.

Finally, Marx comes to the dialectical interweaving of the future with the past: “It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realizing the thoughts of the past.”

Here is a non-linear conception of historical time, one in which unrealized struggles for freedom are not dead and gone. Instead, they are incomplete, awaiting realization in new circumstances. It is in this sense that the Haitian Revolution, the Paris Commune, the October Revolution, the global upheavals of 1968 are still alive, the embodiments of dreams of liberation that continue to inspire protagonists today.

However, to realize is not to repeat. There is no “playbook” from Marx, Lenin or anyone else waiting to be applied to our age. To realize the thought and struggles of the past is to actualize them in new conditions, in conditions that are in some respects more appropriate to the struggles of the past.

This requires attending to the changed circumstances in which we operate, while nourishing past dreams of liberation. And this too can only mean nurturing the dialectical core of Marxism as emancipatory theory and practice.

At the heart of Marx’s political thinking is dialectical criticism. And genuine criticism of this sort must ever be historical in his view.

To tackle a political problem is to work through its history — how it has come to be and how it might come to be no more. And since our historical knowledge can only ever be incomplete, it is — or ought to be — in a constant process of development, amendment, and revision. Marx’s commitment to revisiting earlier problems and old formulations in the light of new experience is an invaluable legacy for the left today.

New Scenario for World Revolution

This approach was also decisive for Marx himself, particularly after the defeated revolutions of 1848, as he reconsidered the dynamics of world revolution.

It is clear that by the mid-1850s, Marx had moved toward the multilinear conception of history that is on display in his Grundrisse notebooks of 1857. Kevin Anderson has insightfully explored many of the intellectual sources for Marx’s shift from a unilinear (and Eurocentric) philosophy of history to this multilinear (and increasingly anti-colonial) one.(3)

Recently, Thierry Drapeau has added to our understanding of this shift by highlighting the influence on Marx during these years of the Chartist radical, Ernest Jones. Drapeau notes Jones’ fierce support for Irish independence (also shared by Marx’s daughter, Eleanor), for which the Chartist radical spent two years in prison.

Drapeau also reveals Jones’ intransigent opposition to British colonialism, particularly manifest in his verses “The New World, a Democratic Poem,” which envisions a world revolution that breaks out in India before spreading to Africa and then the Americas. Drapeau traces compelling influences of Jones’ revolutionary anti-colonialism on Marx throughout the 1850s, during which his politics became increasingly anti-colonial.

 Across these years, Marx contributed about 30 articles to Jones’ papers, often co-writing them with his Chartist comrade.(4) Marx was learning, in other words, from a leading representative of the most militant wing of the British working-class movement.(5)

Through this process, he was absorbing lessons from anti-colonial struggles in Ireland, India and China. In the coming decades he would equally learn, as he himself acknowledged, from the movements of African-American slaves and of Russian peasants and workers. In the process, he began to entertain scenarios in which world revolution might begin outside the capitalist core, though the working classes there would remain crucial for its completion.

Indeed, in Capital (1867), Marx slyly referenced the Taiping Rebellion in China from 1850-64 as just such an event. “One may recall,” he writes, “that China and the tables began to dance when the rest of the world appeared to be standing still — pour encourager les autres.”(6)

To encourage the others — this alludes to the initiating role of revolutions outside the capitalist heartlands. In this scenario, world socialist revolution becomes a complex process involving anti-colonial rebellions, peasant revolts and working-class uprisings — all converging into a global unitary process.

In short, Marx was entertaining a new view of world revolution in which non-European social agents played a driving role. Marx’s new perspectives on world revolution are testimony to his allergy to confronting “the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle.”

They indicate his insistence on learning from the actual social struggles of one’s age. In an era in when the left is struggling to reinvent itself in opposition to new configurations of global capitalism and in the midst of new mass struggles, this is the Marx we need.

Let us celebrate Marx the heretic!


  1. See Karl Marx’s “Confession,” available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/04/01.htm
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  2. See Marx to Arnold Ruge (1843), available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09-alt.htm
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  3. Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
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  4. Thierry Drapeau, “’Look at our Colonial Struggles’: Ernest Jones and the Anti-Colonialist Challenge to Marx’s Conception of History,” Critical Sociology, 2017.
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  5. Jones’s politics would later shift in a less radical direction and this would bring to an end Marx’s close collaboration with the Chartist organizer.
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  6. Karl Marx, Capital, v. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books), p. 164n27.
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November-December 2018, ATC 197