Journal Articles

War and the Left: Considerations on a Chequered History

The economic causes of war
While the science of politics has probed the ideological, political, economic and even psychological motivations behind the drive to war, socialist theory has made one of its most compelling contributions by highlighting the nexus between the development of capitalism and the spread of wars.

In the debates of the International Working Men’s Association (1864-1872), César de Paepe, one of its principal leaders, formulated what would become the classical position of the workers’ movement on the question: namely, that wars are inevitable under the regime of capitalist production. In contemporary society, they are brought about not by the ambitions of monarchs or other individuals but by the dominant social-economic model (De Paepe, 2014a; 2014b; Musto, 2014). The socialist movement also showed which sections of the population were struck hardest by the dire consequences of war. At the congress of the International held in 1868, the delegates adopted a motion that called upon workers to pursue “the final abolition of all war”, since they were the ones who would pay – economically or with their own blood, whether they were among the victors or the defeated – for the decisions of their ruling classes and the governments representing them. The lesson for the workers’ movement came from the belief that any war should be considered “a civil war” (Freymond, 1962: 403; Musto 2014: 49), a ferocious clash between workers that deprived them of the means necessary for their survival. They needed to act resolutely against any war, by resisting conscription and taking strike action. Internationalism thus became a cardinal point of the future society, which, with the end of capitalism and the rivalry among bourgeois states on the world market, would have eliminated the main underlying causes of war.

Among the precursors of socialism, Claude Henri de Saint-Simon had taken a decisive stand against both war and social conflict, regarding both as obstacles to the fundamental progress of industrial production. Karl Marx did not develop in any of his writings his views – fragmentary and sometimes contradictory – on war, nor did he put forward guidelines for the correct attitude to be taken towards it. When he chose between opposing camps, his only constant was his opposition to Tsarist Russia, which he saw as the outpost of counter-revolution and one of the main barriers to working-class emancipation. In Capital (1867) he argued that violence was an economic force, “the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one” (Marx, 1996: 739). But he did not think of war as a crucial shortcut for the revolutionary transformation of society, and a major aim of his political activity was to commit workers to the principle of international solidarity. As Friedrich Engels also argued, they should act resolutely in individual countries against the dampening of class struggle that the propagandistic invention of an external enemy threatened to bring about at any outbreak of war. In various letters to leaders of the workers’ movement, Engels stressed the ideological power of the snare of patriotism and the delay to the proletarian revolution resulting from waves of chauvinism. Moreover, in Anti-Dühring (1878), following an analysis of the effects of ever more deadly weaponry, he declared that the task of socialism was “to blow up militarism and all standing armies” (Engels, 1987: 158).

War was such an important question for Engels that he devoted one of his last writings to it. In “Can Europe Disarm?” (1893), he noted that in the previous twenty-five years every major power had tried to outdo its rivals militarily and in terms of war preparations. This had involved unprecedented levels of arms production and brought the Old Continent closer to “a war of destruction such as the world has never seen” (Engels, 1990: 372). According to the co-author of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), “The system of standing armies has been carried to such extremes throughout Europe that it must either bring economic ruin to the peoples on account of the military burden, or else degenerate into a general war of extermination”. In his analysis, Engels did not forget to highlight that standing armies were maintained chiefly for internal political as much as external military purposes. They were intended “to provide protection not so much against the external enemy as the internal one”, by strengthening the forces to repress the proletariat and workers’ struggles. As popular layers paid more than anyone else the costs of war, through the provision of troops to the state and taxes, the workers’ movement should fight for “the gradual reduction of the term of [military] service by international treaty” and for disarmament as the only effective “guarantee of peace” (Engels, 1990: 371).

Tests and collapse
It was not long before a peacetime theoretical debate turned into the foremost political issue of the age, when the workers’ movement had to face real situations in which their representatives initially opposed any support for war. In the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870 (which preceded the Paris Commune), the Social Democrat deputies Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel condemned the annexationist objectives of Bismarck’s Germany and voted against war credits. Their decision to “reject the bill for additional funding to continue the war” (Pelz, 2016: 50) earned them a two-year prison sentence for high treason, but it helped to show the working class an alternative way to build on the crisis.

As the major European powers kept up their imperialist expansion, the controversy on war acquired ever greater weight in the debates of the Second International (1889-1916). A resolution adopted at its founding congress had enshrined peace as “the indispensable precondition of any emancipation of the workers” (Dominick 1982: 343). The supposed peace policy of the bourgeoisie was mocked and characterized as one of “armed peace” and, in 1895, Jean Jaurès, the leader of the French Socialist Party (SFIO), gave a speech in parliament in which he famously summed up the apprehensions of the Left: “Your violent and chaotic society still, even when it wants peace, even when it is in a state of apparent repose, bears war within itself, just as a sleeping cloud bears a storm” (Jaurès, 1982: 32).

As the Weltpolitik – the aggressive policy of Imperial Germany to extend its power in the international arena – changed the geopolitical setting, anti-militarist principles sank deeper roots in the workers’ movement and influenced the discussions on armed conflicts. War was no longer seen only as opening up revolutionary opportunities and hastening the breakdown of the system (an idea on the Left since the Revolutionary War of 1792). It was now viewed as a danger because of its grievous consequences for the proletariat in the shape of hunger, destitution and unemployment. It thus posed a serious threat for progressive forces, and, as Karl Kautsky wrote in The Social Revolution (1902), they would in case of war be “heavily loaded with tasks that are not essential” (Kautsky, 1904: 77) to them, and which would make the final victory more distant rather than bring it closer.

The resolution “On Militarism and International Conflicts”, adopted by the Second International at its Stuttgart Congress in 1907, recapitulated all the key points that had become the common heritage of the workers’ movement. Among these were: a vote against budgets that increased military spending, antipathy to standing armies and a preference for a system of people’s militias, and support for the plan to create courts of arbitration to settle international conflicts peacefully. This excluded a resort to general strikes against any kind of wars, as proposed by Gustave Hervé, since a majority of those present deemed this too radical and too Manichaean. The resolution ended with an amendment drafted by Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin and Yulii Martov, which stated that

“in case war should break out […], it is the duty [of socialists] to intervene in favour of its speedy termination, and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war, to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule” (Vv. Aa., 1972: 80).

Since this did not, however, compel the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) to make any change of political line, its representatives also voted in favour of it. The text, as amended, was the last document on war that secured unanimous support from the Second International.

More intense competition among capitalist states on the world market, together with the outbreak of a number of international conflicts, made the general picture even more alarming. The publication of Jaurès’s The New Army (1911) encouraged discussion of another central theme of the period: the distinction between offensive and defensive wars and the attitude to be taken to the latter, including in cases where a country’s independence was threatened (see Marcobelli, 2021: 155-227). For Jaurès, the only task of the army should be to defend the nation against any offensive aggression, or any aggressor that did not accept resolution of the dispute through mediation. All military action that came under this category should be considered legitimate. Luxemburg’s clear-sighted critique of this position pointed out that “historical phenomena such as modern wars cannot be measured with the yardstick of ‘justice’, or through a paper schema of defence and aggression” (Luxemburg, 1911). In her view, it was necessary to bear in mind the difficulty of establishing whether a war was really offensive or defensive, or whether the state that started it had deliberately decided to attack or had been forced to do so because of the stratagems adopted by the country that opposed it. She therefore thought that the distinction should be discarded, and further criticized Jaurès’s idea of the “armed nation”, on the grounds that it ultimately tended to fuel the growing militarization in society.

As the years passed, the Second International committed itself less and less to a policy of action in favour of peace. Its opposition to rearmament and war preparations was very lacklustre, and an increasingly moderate and legalistic wing of the SPD traded its support for military credits – and then even for colonial expansion – in return for the granting of greater political freedoms in Germany. Important leaders and eminent theorists, such as Gustav Noske, Henry Hyndman and Arturo Labriola, were among the first to arrive at these positions. Subsequently, a majority of German Social Democrats, French Socialists, British Labour Party leaders and other European reformists ended up supporting the First World War (1914-1918). This course had disastrous consequences. With the idea that the “benefits of progress” should not be monopolized by the capitalists, the workers’ movement came to share the expansionist aims of the ruling classes and was swamped by nationalist ideology. The Second International proved completely impotent in the face of the war, failing in one of its main objectives: the preservation of peace.

Lenin and other delegates at the Zimmerwald conference (1915) – including Leon Trotsky, who drafted the final manifesto – foresaw that “for decades war spending will absorb the best energies of peoples, undermining social improvements and impeding any progress”. In their eyes the war revealed the “naked form of modern capitalism, which has become irreconcilable, not only with the interests of the working masses […] but even with the first conditions of human communal existence” (Vv. Aa., 1915). The warning was heeded by only a minority in the workers’ movement, as was the call to all European workers at the Kienthal Conference (1916):

“Your governments and their newspapers tell you that the war must be continued to kill militarism. They are deceiving you! War has never killed war. Indeed, it sparks feelings and wishes for revenge. In this way in marking you for sacrifice, they enclose you in an infernal circle”.

Finally breaking with the approach of the Stuttgart Congress, which had called for international courts of arbitration, the final document at Kienthal declared that “the illusions of bourgeois pacifism” (Vv. Aa., 1977: 371) would not interrupt the spiral of war but would help to preserve the existing social-economic system. The only way to prevent future military conflicts was for the popular masses to conquer political power and overthrow capitalist property.

Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin were the two most vigorous opponents of the war. Luxemburg extended the theoretical understanding of the Left and showed how militarism was a key vertebra of the state. Displaying a conviction and effectiveness with few equals among other communist leaders, she argued that the “War on war!” slogan should become “the cornerstone of working-class politics”. As she wrote in the Theses on the Tasks of International Social-Democracy (1915), the Second International had imploded because it failed “to achieve a common tactic and action by the proletariat in all countries”. From then on, the “main goal” of the proletariat should therefore be “fighting imperialism and preventing wars, in peace as in war” (Luxemburg, 1915).

In Socialism and War (1915) and many other writings during the First World War, Lenin’s great merit was to identify two fundamental questions. The first concerned the “historical falsification” whenever the bourgeoisie tried to attribute a “progressive sense of national liberation” to what were in reality wars of “plunder” (Lenin, 1971: 299-300), waged with the sole aim of deciding which belligerents were this time to oppress the most foreign peoples and to increase the inequalities of capitalism. The second was the masking of contradictions by the social reformists – or “social-chauvinists”, as he (1971: 306) called them – who ultimately endorsed the justifications for war despite their having defined it as a “criminal” activity in the resolutions adopted by the Second International. Behind their claim to be “defending the fatherland” lay the right that certain great powers had given themselves to “pillage the colonies and to oppress foreign peoples”. Wars were not fought to safeguard “the existence of nations” but “to defend the privileges, domination, plunder and violence” of the various “imperialist bourgeoisies” (Lenin, 1971: 307). The socialists who had capitulated to patriotism had replaced the class struggle with a claim on “morsels of the profits obtained by their national bourgeoisie through the looting of other countries”. Accordingly, Lenin (1971: 314) was in favor of “defensive wars” – not, that is, the national defense of European countries à la Jaurès, but the “just wars” of “oppressed and subjugated peoples” who had been “plundered and deprived of their rights” by the “great slave owning powers”. The most celebrated thesis of this pamphlet – that revolutionaries should seek to “turn imperialist war into civil war” (1971: 315) – implied that those who really wanted a “lasting democratic peace” had to wage “civil war against their governments and the bourgeoisie” (1971: 315). Lenin was convinced of what history would later show to be imprecise: that any class struggle consistently waged in time of war would “inevitably” create a revolutionary spirit among the masses.

Lines of demarcation
The First World War produced divisions not only in the Second International but also in the anarchist movement. In an article published shortly after the outbreak of the conflict, Kropotkin (1914: 76-77) wrote that “the task of any person holding dear the idea of human progress is to squash the German invasion in Western Europe”. This statement, seen by many as ditching the principles for which he had fought all his life, was an attempt to move beyond the slogan of “a general strike against the war” – which had gone unheeded by the working masses – and to avoid the general regression of European politics that would result from a German victory. In Kropotkin’s view, if anti-militarists remained inert, they would indirectly assist the invaders’ plans of conquest, and the resulting obstacle would be even more difficult to overcome for those fighting for a social revolution.

In a reply to Kropotkin, the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta argued that, although he was not a pacifist and thought it legitimate to take up arms in a war of liberation, the world war was not – as bourgeois propaganda asserted – a struggle “for the general good against the common enemy” of democracy, but yet another example of the ruling-class subjugation of the working masses. He was aware that “a German victory would certainly spell the triumph of militarism, but also that a triumph for the Allies would mean Russian-British domination in Europe and Asia” (Malatesta, 1993: 230).

In the Manifesto of the Sixteen, Kropotkin (et al., 1916) upheld the need “to resist an aggressor who represents the destruction of all our hopes of liberation”. Victory for the Triple Entente against Germany would be the lesser evil and do less to undermine the existing liberties. On the other side, Malatesta and his fellow-signatories (1998: 388) of the anti-war manifesto of the Anarchist International (1915) declared: “No distinction is possible between offensive and defensive wars”. Moreover, they added that “None of the belligerents has any right to lay claim to civilization, just as none of them is entitled to claim legitimate self-defence”. The First World War, they insisted, was a further episode in the conflict among capitalists of various imperialist powers, which was being waged at the expense of the working class. Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Ferdinand Nieuwenhuis and the great majority of the anarchist movement were convinced that it would an unforgivable error to support the bourgeois governments. Instead, with no ifs or buts, they stuck with the slogan “no man and no penny for the army”, firmly rejecting even any indirect support for the pursuit of war.

Attitudes to the war also aroused debate in the feminist movement. The need for women to replace conscripted men in jobs that had long been a male monopoly – for a much lower wage, in conditions of overexploitation – encouraged the spread of chauvinist ideology in a sizeable part of the new-born suffragette movement. Some of its leaders went so far as to petition for laws allowing the enlistment of women in the armed forces. Exposure of duplicitous governments – which, in evoking the enemy at the gates, used the war to roll back fundamental social reforms – was one of the most important achievements of the main women communist leaders of the time. Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Sylvia Pankhurst and, of course, Rosa Luxemburg were among the first to embark lucidly and courageously on the path that would show successive generations how the struggle against militarism was essential to the struggle against patriarchy. Later, the rejection of war became a distinctive part of International Women’s Day, and opposition to war budgets on the outbreak of any new conflict featured prominently in many platforms of the international feminist movement.

The end does not justify the means and wrong means damage the end
The deep split between revolutionaries and reformists, widening into a strategic gulf after the birth of the Soviet Union and the growth of ideological dogmatism in the 1920s and 1930s, ruled out any alliance against militarism between the Communist International (1919-1943) and the European Socialist and Social Democratic parties. Having supported the war, the parties making up the Labour and Socialist International (1923-1940) had lost all credit in the eyes of the communists. The Leninist idea of “turning imperialist war into civil war” still had currency in Moscow, where leading politicians and theorists thought a “new 1914” was inevitable. On both sides, then, the talk was more of what to do if a new war broke out than of how to prevent one from beginning. The slogans and declarations of principle differed substantially from what was expected to happen and from what then turned into political action. Among the critical voices in the Communist camp were those of Nikolai Bukharin, a proponent of the slogan “struggle for peace”, and among the Russian leaders more convinced that it was “one of the key issues of the contemporary world”; and Georgi Dimitrov, who argued that not all the great powers were equally responsible for the threat of war, and who favoured a rapprochement with the reformist parties to build a broad popular front against it. Both these views contrasted with the litany of Soviet orthodoxy, which, far from updating theoretical analysis, repeated that the danger of war was built equally, and without distinction, into all the imperialist powers .

Mao Zedong’s (1966: 15) views on the matter were quite different. At the head of the liberation movement against the Japanese invasion, he wrote in On Protracted War (1938) that “just wars” – in which communists should actively participate – are “endowed with tremendous power, which can transform many things or clear the way for their transformation” (1966: 26-27). Mao’s (1966: 53) proposed strategy, therefore, was “to oppose unjust war with just war”, and furthermore to “continue the war until its political objective [is] achieved”. Arguments for the “omnipotence of revolutionary war” recur in Problems of War and Strategy (1938), where he argues that “only with guns can the whole world be transformed” (1965: 219), and that “the seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution” (1965: 225).

In Europe, the escalating violence of the Nazi-Fascist front, at home as well as abroad, and the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945) created an even more nefarious scenario than the 1914-18 war. After Hitler’s troops attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the Great Patriotic War that ended with the defeat of Nazism became such a central element in Russian national unity that it survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and has lasted until our own days.

With the post-war division of the world into two blocs, Joseph Stalin taught that the main task of the international Communist movement was to safeguard the Soviet Union. The creation of a buffer zone of eight countries in Eastern Europe (seven after the exit of Yugoslavia) was a central pillar of this policy. In the same period, the Truman Doctrine marked the advent of a new type of war: the Cold War. In its support of anti-communist forces in Greece, in the Marshall Plan (1948) and the creation of NATO (1949), the United States of America contributed to avoid the advance of progressive forces in Western Europe. The Soviet Union responded with the Warsaw Pact (1955). This configuration led to a huge arms race, which, despite the fresh memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also involved a proliferation of nuclear bomb tests.

From 1961, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union began a new political course that came to be known as “peaceful coexistence”. This turn, with its emphasis on non-interference and respect for national sovereignty, as well as economic cooperation with capitalist countries, was supposed to avert the danger of a third world war (which the Cuban missiles crisis showed to be a possibility in 1962) and to support the argument that war was not inevitable. However, this attempt at constructive cooperation was geared only to the USA, not the countries of “actually existing socialism”. In 1956, the Soviet Union had already crushed a revolt in Hungary, and the Communist parties of Western Europe had not condemned but justified the military intervention in the name of protecting the socialist bloc. Palmiro Togliatti, for example, the secretary of the Italian Communist Party, declared: “We stand with our own side even when it makes a mistake” (cit. in Vittoria, 2015: 219). Most of those who shared this position regretted it bitterly in later years, when they understood the devastating effects of the Soviet operation.

Similar events took place at the height of peaceful coexistence, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Faced with demands for democratization and economic decentralization during the Prague Spring, the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided unanimously to send in half a million soldiers and thousands of tanks. At the congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party in 1968, Leonid Brezhnev explained the action by referring to what he called the “limited sovereignty” of Warsaw Pact countries: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries”. According to this anti-democratic logic, the definition of what was and was not “socialism” naturally fell to the arbitrary decision of the Soviet leaders. But this time critics on the Left were more forthcoming and even represented the majority. Although disapproval of the Soviet action was expressed not only by New Left movements but by a majority of Communist parties, including the Chinese, the Russians did not pull back but carried through a process that they called “normalization”. The Soviet Union continued to earmark a sizeable part of its economic resources for military spending, and this helped to reinforce an authoritarian culture in society. In this way, it lost forever the goodwill of the peace movement, which had become even larger through the extraordinary mobilizations against the war in Vietnam.

One of the most important wars in the next decade began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1979, the Red Army again became a major instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy, which continued to claim the right to intervene in what it described as its own “security zone”. The ill-starred decision turned into an exhausting adventure that stretched over more than ten years, causing a huge number of deaths and creating millions of refugees. On this occasion the international Communist movement was much less reticent than it had been in relation to the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Yet this new war revealed even more clearly to international public opinion the split between “actually existing socialism” and a political alternative based on peace and opposition to militarism.

Taken as a whole, these military interventions not only worked against a general arms reduction but served to discredit and globally weaken socialism. The Soviet Union was increasingly seen as an imperial power acting in ways not unlike those of the United States, which, since the onset of the Cold War, had more or less secretly backed coups d’état and helped to overthrow democratically elected governments in more than twenty countries around the world. Lastly, the “socialist wars” in 1977-1979 between Cambodia and Vietnam and China and Vietnam, against the backdrop of the Sino-Soviet conflict, dissipated whatever leverage “Marxist-Leninist” ideology (already remote from the original foundations laid by Marx and Engels) had in attributing war exclusively to the economic imbalances of capitalism.

To be on the left is to be against war
The end of the Cold War did not lessen the amount of interference in other countries’ affairs, nor did it increase the freedom of every people to choose the political regime under which it lives. The numerous wars– even without a UN mandate and defined, absurdly, as “humanitarian” – carried out by the USA in the past twenty-five years, to which should be added new forms of conflict, illegal sanctions, and political, economic and media conditioning, demonstrate that the bipolar division of the world between two superpowers did not give way to the era of liberty and progress promised by the neoliberal mantra of the “New World Order”. In this context, many political forces that once lay claim to the values of the Left have joined in a number of wars. From Kosovo to Iraq and Afghanistan – to mention only the main wars waged by NATO since the fall of the Berlin Wall – these forces have each time given their support to armed intervention and made themselves less and less distinguishable from the Right.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has again faced the Left with the dilemma of how to react when a country’s sovereignty is under attack. The failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a political mistake on the part of the government of Venezuela, and it makes denunciations of possible future acts of aggression committed by the United States appear less credible. It is true that, as Marx wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle in 1860 (Marx, 1985: 154; Musto, 2018: 132), “in foreign policy, there’s little to be gained by using such catchwords as ‘reactionary’ and ‘revolutionary’” – that what is “subjectively reactionary [may prove to be] objectively revolutionary in foreign policy”. But left-wing forces should have learned from the twentieth century that alliances “with my enemy’s enemy” often lead to counterproductive agreements, especially when, as in our times, the progressive front is politically weak and theoretically confused and lacks the support of mass mobilizations.

Recalling Lenin’s (1964b: 148) words in The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination:

“The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain circumstances, be utilized by another ‘Great’ Power in its equally imperialist interests should have no more weight in inducing Social Democracy to renounce its recognition of the right of nations to self-determination”.

Beyond the geopolitical interests and intrigues that are usually also in play, the forces of the Left have historically supported the principle of national self-determination and defended the right of individual states to establish their frontiers on the basis of the express will of the population. The Left has fought against wars and “annexations” because it is aware that these lead to dramatic conflicts between the workers of the dominant nation and the oppressed nation, creating the conditions for the latter to unite with their own bourgeoisie in considering the former as their enemy. In Results of the Discussion on Self-Determination (1916), Lenin (1964a: 329-330) wrote: “If the socialist revolution were to be victorious in Petrograd, Berlin and Warsaw, the Polish socialist government, like the Russian and German socialist governments, would renounce the ‘forcible retention’ of, say, the Ukrainians within the frontiers of the Polish state”. Why suggest, then, that anything different should be conceded to the nationalist government led by Vladimir Putin?

On the other hand, all too many on the Left have yielded to the temptation to become – directly or indirectly – co-belligerents, fuelling a new union sacrée (expression coined in 1914, just to greet the abjuration of the forces of the French left that, at the outbreak of World War I, decided to endorse the war choices of the government). Such a position today serves increasingly to blur the distinction between Atlanticism and pacifism. History shows that, when they do not oppose war, progressive forces lose an essential part of their reason for existence and end up swallowing the ideology of the opposite camp. This happens whenever parties of the Left make their presence in government the fundamental way of measuring their political action – as the Italian Communists did in supporting the NATO interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, or as does much of today’s Unidas Podemos, which joins its voice to the unanimous chorus of the entire Spanish parliamentary spectrum, in favour of sending weapons to the Ukrainian army. Such subaltern conduct has been punished many times in the past, including at the polls as soon as the occasion has arisen.

Bonaparte is not democracy
In the 1850s, Marx composed a brilliant series of articles on the Crimean War that contain many interesting and useful parallels with the present day. In Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the 18th Century (1857), speaking of the great Muscovite monarch of the fifteenth century – the one considered to have unified Russia and laid the ground for its autocracy – Marx (1986: 86) stated: “One merely needs to replace one series of names and dates with others and it becomes clear that the policies of Ivan III […], and those of Russia today, are not merely similar but identical”. In a piece for the New-York Daily Tribune, however, in opposition to liberal democrats who exalted the anti-Russian coalition, he wrote:

“It is a mistake to describe the war against Russia as a war between liberty and despotism. Apart from the fact that if such be the case, liberty would be for the nonce represented by a Bonaparte, the whole avowed object of the war is the maintenance […] of the Vienna treaties — those very treaties which annul the liberty and independence of nations” (1980: 228).

If we replace Bonaparte with the United States of America and the Vienna treaties with NATO, these observations seem as if written for today.

The thinking of those who oppose both Russian and Ukrainian nationalism, as well as the expansion of NATO, does not show proof of political indecision or theoretical ambiguity. In recent weeks, a number of experts have provided explanations of the roots of the conflict (which in no way reduce the barbarity of the Russian invasion), and the position of those who propose a policy of non-alignment is the most effective way of ending the war as soon as possible and ensuring the smallest number of victims. It is not a question of behaving like the “beautiful souls” drenched in abstract idealism, whom Hegel thought incapable of addressing the actual reality of earthly contradictions. On the contrary: the point is to give reality to the only true antidote to an unlimited expansion of the war. There is no end to the voices calling for higher military spending and further conscription, or to those who, like the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, think it is Europe’s task to supply the Ukrainians with “the necessary weapons for war” (Borrell, 2022). But in contrast to these positions, it is necessary to pursue ceaseless diplomatic activity based on two firm points: de-escalation and the neutrality of independent Ukraine.

Despite the increased support for NATO following the Russian moves, it is necessary to work harder to ensure that public opinion does not see the largest and most aggressive war machine in the world – NATO – as the solution to the problems of global security. It must be shown that it is a dangerous and ineffectual organization, which, in its drive for expansion and unipolar domination, serves to fuel tensions leading to war in the world.

In Socialism and War, Lenin argued that Marxists differ from pacifists and anarchists in that they “deem it necessary historically (from the standpoint of Marx’s dialectical materialism [sic!]) to study each war separately”. Continuing, he asserted that: “In history there have been numerous wars which, in spite of all the horrors, atrocities, distress and suffering that inevitably accompany all wars, were progressive, i.e., benefited the development of mankind” (1971: 299). If that was true in the past, it would be short-sighted to simply repeat it in contemporary societies where weapons of mass destruction are continually spreading. Rarely have wars – not to be confused with revolutions – had the democratizing effect that the theorists of socialism hoped for. Indeed, they have often proved to be the worst way of carrying out a revolution, both because of the cost in human lives and because of the destruction of the productive forces that they entail. Indeed, wars disseminate an ideology of violence, often combined with the nationalist sentiments that have torn the workers’ movement apart. Rarely favouring practices of self-management and direct democracy, they increase instead the power of authoritarian institutions. This is a lesson that the moderate Left, too, should never forget.

In one of the most fertile passages of Reflections on War (1933), Simone Weil (2021: 101) wonders if it is possible that “a revolution can avoid war”. In her view, this is the only “feeble possibility” that we have if we do not want to “abandon all hope”. Revolutionary war often turns into the “tomb of the revolution”, since “the armed citizenry are not given the means of waging war without a controlling apparatus, without police pressure, without a special court, without punishment for desertion”. More than any other social phenomenon, war swells the military, bureaucratic and police apparatus. “It leads to the total effacement of the individual before state bureaucracy”. Hence, “if the war does not end immediately and permanently […] the result will be merely one of those revolutions that, in Marx’s words, perfect the state apparatus instead of shattering it” or, more clearly still, “it would even mean extending under another form the regime we want to suppress”. In the event of war, then, “we must choose between obstructing the functioning of the military machine in which we ourselves constitute the cogs, or helping that machine to blindly crush human lives” (2021: 101-102).

For the Left, war cannot be “the continuation of politics by other means”, to quote Clausewitz’s famous dictum. In reality, it merely certifies the failure of politics. If the Left wishes to become hegemonic and to show itself capable of using its history for the tasks of today, it needs to write indelibly on its banners the words “anti-militarism” and “No to war!”


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Josep Recasens Subias, Marx & Philosophy. Review of Books

The publication in 1933 of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 originated a debate around what place this text had in the work of Marx. The usage of ‘alienation’ that has a minor role in Capital rapidly established the belief of a split between the early and the late Marx. This split was defended by those who considered the early writings to be more essential than the late ones as they allegedly constitute the philosophical basis of Marxism. On the opposite camp, Althusser regarded the early writings as a residue of ‘Hegelianism’ that Marx had to get rid of before developing his relevant, ‘scientific’ thought on capitalist societies. A third position denied the existence of such a break and argued that there is a continuity in Marx’s thought, specifically on that of alienation. Nonetheless, this position was usually defended with a poor philological analysis of texts and quotations, mixing Marx’s early and late writings without caution.

In Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation, Marcello Musto distinguishes these three positions and embraces the last one, trying to pay its pending debt, and gives a very complete selection of Marx’s writings on alienation from his main works. Musto’s central thesis is that Marx developed a theory of alienation that has a continuity in all his writings, from the Manuscripts of 1844 to Capital. This is true regardless of its progression and use of different expressions such as ‘alienation’, ‘dead (or objectified) labour over living labour’, and ‘reification’ or ‘fetishism’ (4) to explain the same phenomenon, or at least some aspects of it.

The book comprises two parts: the first is an introduction by Musto to the last century debates around alienation and the second consists of his careful selection of Marx’s writings on alienation. The latter is chronologically ordered and divided into three chapters (not treated as three different positions or stages Marx passed through), starting with the Manuscripts of 1844 and other early writings up until 1856. The second chapter contains the relevant passages from the Grundrisse (1857) and the Theories of Surplus Value (1861-63). The third chapter includes some parts of Capital and its preparatory notes (1863-1875). Each selected writings has an important introductory note by the editor that explains when and with what intention it was written, but also when it was published, by Marx or posthumously.

Musto’s introduction (almost a third of the book) has a twofold function. On the one hand, it sketches an interpretation of what Marx meant by alienation, giving indications on how to approach his work. On the other hand, Musto contrasts Marx’s theory of alienation to other philosophical theories that are supposed to treat the same phenomenon (French existentialists, Heidegger, Debord, American sociology, etc.), and also to other interpretations of Marx’s texts that were developed during the last century (Lukács, Althusser, Marcuse, etc.).

Musto reminds us that, contra Hegel’s transhistorical-ontological notion of alienation as objectification, alienation for Marx is not an ‘ontological’ conception of human beings or the condition of human labour in general. Rather, it is a phenomenon specific to the ‘capitalist, epoch of production’ (7). Central to Marx’s theory of alienation is the alienation of labour, which has a priority over the alienation from political or religious spheres. That is the reason why there are no fragments in this selection of the philosophical writings on alienation written before Marx started to study political economy. Marx accepts that ‘Labour’s realisation is its objectification’, but also adds that, ‘in the conditions dealt with by political economy this realisation of labour appears as loss of reality for the workers […] as alienation’ (52). Given that Marx ‘always discussed alienation from a historical, not a natural, point of view’ (7), his theory is not only different from Hegel’s, but also those who embraced Hegel’s conception of alienation as a phenomenon related to labour (e.g. Marcuse) and the French existentialists like Sartre who treat alienation as a kind of general human condition and not specifically in relation to labour.

Marx’s theory of alienation can be read in two different but related ways. The first emphasises the alienation of the worker from her conditions of production. Under capitalist conditions, labour takes the form of wage labour. The worker has no control over the products of her labour. Thus, ‘objectified labour, value as such, confronts him as an entity in its own right, as capital’ (102), as Marx notes. In this exchange between labour and capital, the capitalist appropriates surplus-value and invest it as capital again. If the worker is alien to the object of labour, then she becomes also alienated from the activity of labour, her species-being, and other human beings. Musto shows that Arendt and Fromm’s readings of Marx focused only on this type of self-alienation, developed in the early writings. Nonetheless, Musto correctly indicates that this subjective side of alienation is inseparable from the objective one that Marx fully developed later as the fetish-character of the commodity. With this Marx focuses on how the products of labour under capitalism dominate social relations between individuals. The editor concludes that ‘commodity fetishism did not replace alienation but was one aspect of it’ (34).

While Musto subscribes to the continuity thesis, nonetheless, he does not accept that there is a strict continuity in Marx’s theoretical position on alienation. The late works, compared with the earlier ones, offer ‘greater understanding of economic categories’ and ‘more rigorous social analysis’ (30). For example, they establish the link ‘between alienation and exchange value’ and provide critical insights on the ‘opposition between capital and ‘living labour-power’’ (ibid). The late works also demonstrate the emancipatory potentialities of the theory of alienation where ‘the path to a society free of alienation’ becomes ‘much more complicated in Capital’ (35), whereas in the early writings the philosophical conception of unalienated society remains to a large extent indeterminate and vague.

The second part of the book contains Marx’s well-known passages on alienation that are often discussed by the interpreters, including that of the Manuscripts of 1844. However, the major innovation of this editorial work lies in selecting the texts that are given less attention when the question of alienation is considered, despite some of them being the most extensive. Specifically, this omission usually excluded some late texts. One example is the Economic Manuscripts (1863-1865), written as preparatory manuscripts for Capital, whose selected paragraphs are translated by Patrick Camiller into English for the first time.

One of the main points of contestation in the debates around the theory of alienation is the apparent incompatibility or tension between Marx’s idea of workers being alienated from their ‘species-being’ and his thesis of not assuming a certain transhistorical conception of human essence. This incompatibility would raise two problems. The first, internal to Marx’s theory, relates to the incoherence of its premises. It seems inconsistent to deny the existence of a human essence but at the same time assume that workers are alienated from their ‘species-being’ (the term that can be regarded as another name for ‘human essence’). The second is ‘external’ and argues that, if one does not share Marx’s conception of human essence, then the critique of alienation cannot be accepted. This incompatibility could be solved by denying the continuation thesis and establishing that the later Marx abandoned the idea of species-being. As we have seen, Musto proposes another solution to the problem. He argues that Marx does not approach alienation from an ontological point of view, not even in the early writings, because Marx always discusses alienation in relation to a historical specific form of production. This idea allows Musto to shift the debate from the confusing philosophical and terminological debates of what human essence or ontology are, to the understanding of the specific functioning of capitalist mode of production. Nevertheless, Musto does not critically engage with the category of ‘species-being’ and its relation, if any, to Capital. Nor does Musto accept that discussing alienation in relation to a specific form of production could be compatible with the ontological point of view. The analysis of the relationship between alienation and ontology, marked with tensions and contradictions, requires further elucidation in the book.

The fact that the term ‘alienation’ is dropped altogether by Marx in his late writings could potentially call into question Musto’s thesis that the fetish-character of the commodity is an integral aspect of the theory of alienation. However, the usage of ‘alienation’ in the Grundrisse and other preparatory writings of Capital may confirm Musto’s idea that this absence was just to avoid unnecessary philosophical words in a work published for the public. Furthermore, Musto’s selection of Marx’s writings on commodity fetishism in chapter four helps us to elucidate the importance Marx gave to the theory of alienation in his magnum opus. It is true that there is no specific chapter allocated to the question of fetishism in Capital, but only a section that is considered by many as ‘unessential’ to the rest of the book. This led to the idea that fetishism, even if it is part of the theory of alienation, is not relevant to the understanding of the late Marx. Nonetheless, the so-called ‘drafts’ of Capital from 1857 onwards, mainly included in chapter three (the largest chapter of the selection and maybe the most elucidating one, despite being partially repetitive), demonstrate well that fetishism is viewed as an essential phenomenon of capitalist production and, thus, that of the critique of capitalism.

To conclude, Marx never wrote a developed account of his theory of alienation. This makes it difficult to say if there is a complete theory of alienation in Marx or just some fragmentary sketches of a possible theory that needs to be critically reconstructed. In any case, Musto’s editorial work offers an exhaustive collection of writings that allow the reader to form her own opinion without having to read the seemingly endless works of Marx. Musto does not offer a systematic exposition of Marx’s theory of alienation. Nonetheless, this is not his intention in editing this book. As he brilliantly shows in his introduction, the debate around Marx’s notion of alienation has been so distorted that it almost had nothing to do anymore with what Marx wrote. Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation is one of the best resources we have to overcome past misinterpretations and to keep the ongoing debates on alienation close to Marx’s true emancipatory thought.


War and the Left: Considerations on a Chequered History (Talk)


Carlos L. Garrido, Midwestern Marx

Marcello Musto’s anthology of Karl Marx’s Writings on Alienation[1] is both comprehensive and concise, containing within the span of 100 pages the three decades long development of the theory through more than a dozen published works and posthumously published manuscripts. Additionally, Musto’s introduction to the anthology exceptionally captures: 1) the deviations the concept suffered in its 20th century popularization (both by friends and foes of Marxism); and 2) the bifurcation in Marxism which was depicted in the 1960s debate around the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (EPM), which created what Musto rightly depicts as “one of the principal misunderstandings in the history of Marxism: the myth of the ’Young Marx’” (20).[2]

The concept of alienation can be traced back to G.W.F. Hegel’s 1807 text, The Phenomenology of Spirit, where the terms entäusserung (self-externalization) and entfremdung (estrangement) are used to describe the moments wherein spirit’s “essential being is present to it in the form of an ‘other.’”[3] After Hegel’s death, the concept retained vitality through the Young Hegelians, who shifted its focus to the realm of religious alienation.[4] A leading text in this tradition is Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841), where alienation depicts the process through which the human species essence is projected onto God.[5] While shifting the focus from religion to political economy, it is from this tradition from which Marx and Engels would blossom in the early to mid-1840s.[6]

However, since the concept rarely saw the light of day in their published work, it was “entirely absent from the Marxism of the Second International,” and from general philosophical reflection in the second half of the 19th century (4). In this time, concepts that would later be associated with alienation were developed by Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber, but in each instance they “thought they were describing unstoppable tendencies, and their reflections were often guided by a wish to improve the existing social and political order – certainly not to replace it with a different one” (4).[7]
​Stemming primarily from Marx’s analysis of the fetishism of commodities in Capital Vol I, Georg Lükacs’ 1923 text, History and Class Consciousness, reintroduces the theory of alienation into Marxism through his concept of ‘reification’ (verdinglichung, versachlichung). For Lükacs, reification described the “phenomenon whereby labour activity confronts human beings as something objective and independent, dominating them through external autonomous laws” (4-5). However, as Musto notes, and as Lükacs rectifies in the preface to the 1967 French republication of his text, “History and Class Consciousness follows Hegel in that it too equates alienation with objectification” (5).

The equation of alienation and objectification is the central philosophical error which creates the grounds for the ontologizing of alienation. For Marx, objectification is simply “labor’s realization,” the process wherein labor gets “congealed in an object.”[8] When human labor produces an object, we have objectification. Only under certain historically determined conditions does objectification become alienating. As Marx writes in the EPM,

The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object [i.e., objectification] an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him; it means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.[9]

​​This distinction between objectification and alienation is retouched more thoroughly in the Grundrisse, where Marx says that

Social wealth confronts labour in more powerful portions as an alien and dominant power. The emphasis comes to be placed not on the state of being objectified, but on the state of being alienated, dispossessed, sold; on the condition that the monstrous objective power which social labour itself erected opposite itself as one of its moments belongs not to the worker, but to the personified conditions of production, i.e. to capital.[10]

The bourgeois economists are so much cooped up within the notions belonging to a specific historic stage of social development that the necessity of the objectification of the powers of social labour appears to them as inseparable from the necessity of their alienation vis-à-vis living labour… [But] the conditions which allow them to exist in this way in the reproduction of their life, in their productive life’s process, have been posited only by the historic economic process itself… [These] are fundamental conditions of the bourgeois mode of production, in no way accidents irrelevant to it. [11]

As I have argued in relation to the fetishism of commodities, alienation is also not simply a subjective illusion which one can overcome through becoming conscious of it. It isn’t merely a problem of how one observes the world. Instead, in a mode of life wherein the relations of production are necessarily governed by this condition of estrangement, alienation sustains an objective, albeit historically bound, existence. The ontologizing and/or subjectivizing of the theory of alienation purport key philosophical and political deviations from how Marx conceived of the phenomenon. These deviations naturalize the phenomenon and blunt the revolutionary edge in the Marxist analysis of how it can be overcome.

Musto wonderfully shows how the 20th centuries’ popularization of the term resulted in Marxist (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm, Sartre, Debord, etc.) and Non-Marxist (Baudrillard, Arendt, Melman, Nettler, Seeman, Blauner, etc.) deviations along the lines of an ontologizing or subjectivizing of the phenomenon of alienation. In some instances (e.g., US sociologists), even the critical spirit with which the theory of alienation was formulated was removed and “skillfully dressed up… by defenders of the very social classes against which it had for so long been directed” (28). In the case of the ‘Marxist’ deviations of the theory, these often ended up in a pessimism and utopianism foreign and at times antagonistic to the writings of Marx and Engels. As Adam Schaff argued in Marxism and the Human Individual, these classical forms of revisionism “lead in fact to an elimination of everything known as scientific socialism.”[12]
From this historical and objective understanding of alienation, Marx formulates in the EPM four ways in which alienation occurs in the capitalist form of life: 1) alienation of the product, wherein the object of labor confronts the laborer as something hostile and alien; 2) alienation in the process of production, i.e., in the social relations through which the work takes place; 3) alienation from the ‘species-being’ of man as an animal with the unique ability to consciously, creatively, and socially exert mental and physical labor (as a homo faber and sapien) upon nature to create objects of need and aesthetic enjoyment; and 4) alienation from other humans and their objects of labor. Apart from the Feuerbachian essentialism in the language of number 3 (e.g., species-being, species-essence), the pith of this 1844 formulation of the theory will be enriched in his later work, especially in the Grundrisse, where it is given its most systematic consideration.

Along with what Kaan Kangal has called the ‘Engels debate,’ the 1960s debate around the EPM depicted the great bifurcation that existed in Marxism.[13] On the one hand, the Western humanist tradition “stress[ed] the theoretical pre-eminence” of Marx’s early work. On the other, the Eastern socialist (and Althusserian) tradition downplayed it as the writing of a pre-Marxist Marx, still entrapped by Hegelian idealism or a Feuerbachian problematic (18).[14] Both of these traditions create an “arbitrary and artificial opposition” between an “early Marx” and a “mature Marx” (15). Those who held on to the early writings as containing the ‘key’ to Marxism were, as Musto rightly argues, “so obviously wrong that it demonstrated no more than ignorance of his work” (16). However, those who dismissed these early writings often landed in a “decidedly anti-humanist conception” (e.g., Althusser’s theoretical anti-humanism) (ibid). These two sides mirror one another on the basis of an artificial and arbitrary division of a ‘young’ and ‘mature’ Marx.

Musto rejects this dichotomy, and in line with the Polish Marxist Adam Schaff (along with Iring Fetscher, István Mészáros, and others), provides a third interpretation which identifies a “substantive continuity in Marx’s work” (20). This continuity, however, is not based on a “collection of quotations” pulled indiscriminately from works three decades apart, “as if Marx’s work were a single timeless and undifferentiated text” (ibid). This tendency, which dominated the discourse around the continuum interpretation, is grounded on a metaphysical (in the traditional Marxist sense) and fixated understanding of Marx’s life’s work. It finds itself unable to tarry with a difference mediated understanding of identity, that is, with the understanding that the unity of Marx’s corpus is based on its continuous development, not an artificially foisted textual uniformity. It would be a Quixotic delusion to read the youthful Manuscripts of 44 as identical to the works which were produced as fruits of Marx’s laborious studies of political economy in the 1850-60s. The comprehensive, concrete, and scientific character of Marx’s understanding of political economy and the capitalist mode of life achieved by the 1860s makes the indiscriminate treatment of these works seem all the more foolish.

Instead, the continuity interpretation sees what a careful reading of Musto’s anthology shows, namely, that the theory of alienation constantly develops, sharpens, and concretizes beyond the limitations inherent in the ”vagueness and eclecticism” of its initial stages (21). As Schaff and Musto argued, “if Marx had stopped writing in 1845-46, he would not – in spite of those who hold the young Marx to be the only ‘true’ one – have found a place in history,” and if he did, it would probably be in a demoted “place alongside Bruno Bauer and Feuerbach in the sections of philosophy manuals devoted to the Hegelian Left” (ibid).[15]

It is impossible to stamp out hard and fast ‘stages’ or ‘epistemological breaks’ in Marx’s thought; he was constantly evolving his thinking according to new research and new concrete experiences.[16] Such a stagist approach can only lead to a confused nominalist reading of Marx, for every time he read or wrote something new, a ‘new’ Marx would have to be postulated. Marx’s life work must be understood as a dynamic, evolving unity, wherein, as Schaff argued, “the first period is genetically linked to the later ones.”[17] The same could be said, in my view, of his theory of alienation. As his understanding of political economy and the capitalist mode of life concretizes, his understanding of the phenomenon of alienation does as well.
Concerning the global split in Marxism manifested through these debates on alienation, I would like to add that although some prominent ‘orthodox’ or ‘official’ Soviet thinkers dismissed the theory of alienation, we cannot synecdochally apply the flaws of these on all Marxist thinkers in the Soviet Union, or on Marxism-Leninism in general. For instance, in the Soviet tradition of creative Marxism, the theme of alienation is not so easily dismissed as in Althusser or the more orthodox Soviet Marxists. Evald Ilyenkov, one of the prominent thinkers in this tradition, says in 1966 that he “personally approves” of the EPM’s theory of alienation and sees it as “a healthy and fruitful tendency in Marxist theoretical thought.”[18] In addition, his reading of the EPM and the theory of alienation with respect to the rest of Marx’s life’s work falls in line with Musto’s and Schaff’s continuum interpretation. As Ilyenkov argues,

If anything has been lost in this process, it is only that some parts of the specifically philosophical phraseology of the Manuscripts have been replaced by a more concrete phraseology, and in this sense, a more exact and stronger one. What occurs here is not a loss of concepts but only the loss of a few terms connected with these concepts. For me this is so unquestionable that all the problems of the early works are actually rendered more fully later, and moreover, in a more definitive form. It is quite obvious that the process of the “human alienation” under the conditions of an unhindered development of “private property” (in the course of its becoming private-capitalistic) is viewed here more concretely and in more detail.[19]
Concerning the relation of EPM to Capital Vol I Ilyenkov adds that

The Manuscripts can be a help in the text of Das Kapital itself in scrutinizing those passages that could otherwise be overlooked. If such passages are overlooked, Das Kapital easily appears as an “economic work” only, and in a very narrow meaning of the term. Das Kapital is then seen as a dryly objective economic scheme free from any trace of “humanism” – but this is not Das Kapital, it is only a coarsely shallow interpretation.[20]

​This tendency, however, is not limited to the tradition of Soviet creative Marxism. Even in famous manuals such as the Konstantinov edited Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, the theory of alienation is treated with great care, and critiques akin to Musto’s and Schaff’s are provided for the 20th century revisionist formulations of the theory.

It is also important to note that Schaff himself was largely aligned politically with Marxism-Leninism, and when criticizing the Soviet dismissals of the theory of alienation he emphasizes his political proximity to those Marxist-Leninists he is arguing against.[21] Additionally, he openly criticizes those in the West which have weaponized the theory of alienation to attack socialism, and which have reduced Marxism, through their interpretation of alienation, to moralistic discourse devoid of its scientific core.[22] There is nothing, in my view, incompatible about a non-dogmatic Marxism-Leninism and the militant humanism of the early Marx’s theory of alienation, or of this theories’ further concretization throughout his life.
​To return to the continuity thesis, Musto’s selection of Marx’s writings eloquently demonstrates the theoretical superiority of this third interpretation. Musto classifies the writings into three key generations: 1) from 1844 to 1856; 2) from 1857 to 1863; and 3) from 1863 to 1875. What becomes clear in these selections, especially in the transition from the first to the second generation, is the immense development in the categories of political economy which would ground Marx’s discourse of the phenomenon of alienation (which, as occurs throughout his work, sometimes takes place without using the term ‘alienation’ itself). By the time the Grundrisse is written (1857-58), it is as if the 1844 EPM’s theory of alienation returned with theoretical steroids, “enriched by a greater understanding of economic categories and by a more rigorous social analysis” (30). In this second generation, the two manuscripts Marx writes after he publishes A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), namely, On the Critique of Political Economy (1861-63) and Theories of Surplus Value (1862-63), will also elaborate and sharpen the understanding of the categories developed in the Grundrisse, subsequently enrichening the theory of alienation as well.

The third generation consists of Capital Vol I, its preparatory manuscripts, and the manuscripts of Capital Vol III which Engels would edit and publish after Marx’s death. Of specific importance here is the famous “Results on the Immediate Process of Production,” also known as the “Unpublished Chapter VI.” This 1863-4 manuscript was omitted from Capital Vol I for largely unknown reasons. Ernest Mandel, who wrote the introduction to the 1976 English publication of Volume one, which included this manuscript as an appendix, said that

​For the time being, it is impossible to give a definitive answer to that question… Possibly the reason lay in Marx’s wish to present Capital as a ‘ dialectically articulated artistic whole’. He may have felt that, in such a totality,’ ‘Chapter Six’ would be out of place, since it had a double didactic function: as a summary of Volume 1 and as a bridge between Volumes 1 and 2.[23]

​Nonetheless, as Musto notes, this manuscript enhances the theory of alienation by “linking [Marx’s] economic and political analysis more closely to each other” (126). Beyond this manuscript, the theory of alienation takes on a new shape in the formulation of the fetishism of commodities in section four of Capital Vol I’s first chapter. The fetishism of commodities is a new term, but not a new concept, it describes a phenomenon which the theory of alienation already explained. For instance, as stated in Capital, the fetishism of commodities describes the conditions wherein “definite social relations between men” assume “ the fantastic form of a relation between things.”[24] This same wording is used in one of the Grundrisse’s formulation of alienation:

The general exchange of activities and products, which has become a vital condition for each individual – their mutual interconnection – here appears as something alien to them, autonomous, as a thing. In exchange value, the social connection between persons is transformed into a social relation between things.[25]

​Besides section four of chapter one, Capital Vol I is scattered with commentary on the inversion of dead and living labor (especially in chapter 11 and 15), a theme which is central to the theory of alienation. These themes are also present in various passages from Capital Vol. III (1864-75), which is the last text Musto pulls from for the third generation of writings on alienation.

Lastly, the theory of alienation has always been inextricably linked with how Marx conceived of communism. As the theory concretizes, the idea of communism does as well. Under a communist mode of life, the conditions which perpetuated an alienated form of objectification would be overcome. Here, the “social character of production is presupposed” and makes the product of labor “not an exchange value,” but “a specific share of the communal production.”[26] The mediational character of commodity production and the exchange value dominated mode of life would be destroyed. Production and the mode of life in general will be aimed at creating the conditions for qualitative human flourishing. As Marx writes in Capital Vol. III,

The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time. Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.[27]

If I may add something to Marcello’s superb analysis in the introduction, it would be the ecological dimension the theory of alienation acquires in Marx’s analysis of the metabolism between human society and nature, and subsequently, of the alienating ‘rifts’ capitalist production creates in this metabolic relation. The quote referenced above shows how a rational governance of the human metabolism with nature is central to Marx’s idea of communism.

As John Bellamy Foster has argued, “the concept of metabolism provided Marx with a concrete way of expressing the notion of alienation of nature (and its relation to the alienation of labor) that was central to his critique from his earliest writings on,” and in so doing, it “allowed him to give a more solid and scientific expression of this fundamental relation.”[28] Hence, if the alienation of labor is tied to the alienation of nature, a non-alienated communist mode of life must necessarily seek to overcome this alienation of nature through the aforementioned rational governance of human society’s metabolism with nature.

Although grounded scientifically on Justus von Liebig’s work on the depletion of the soil, this ecological dimension can be traced philosophically to the EPM and the central role nature has in the alienation of labor. Faced with the existential crisis of climate change, this ecological dimension in Marx’s theory of alienation and critique of capitalist production acquires a heightened sense of immediacy.

Additionally, if we consider Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift within the theory of alienation, then its rediscovery did not have to wait until Lükacs’ 1923 History and Class Consciousness, for a part of it could be seen in the ecological dimension of August Bebel’s 1884 text Women Under Socialism, in Karl Kautsky’s 1899 text on The Agrarian Question, in Lenin’s 1901 The Agrarian Question and the “Critics of Marx,” and more directly in the work of Bukharin, Vernadsky, and others in the 1920/30s tradition of Soviet ecology.[29]

In sum, Musto’s anthology is an essential requirement for all interested in Marx’s theory of alienation, and his introduction to the selection displays that great erudition of Marxist history and theory which those that are familiar with his work hold in the highest esteem.

Notes and References

[1] The parenthetical numbers which appear throughout this review refer to pages from Musto’s book.

[2] For a more detailed assessment of this ‘myth’ see: Marcello Musto, “The Myth of the ‘Young Marx’ in the Interpretation of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Critique 43, no 2 (2015)., pp. 233-60.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, 1977., pp. 114.

[4] For more on the Young Hegelians see: Lawrence S. Stepenlevich, The Young Hegelians: An Anthology, Humanity Books, 1999.

[5] My video for Midwestern Marx, “Alienation – Feuerbach to Marx,” describes the concept’s transition from Feuerbach to Marx’s Manuscripts of 44.

[6] The Feuerbachian influence which the younger Engels was under is usually understated. I would direct the reader to Engels’ 1843 review of Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present (written before The Conditions of the Working Class in England), where this influence is as, or if not more, evident then than in the writings of the younger Marx.

[7] I would add to the list Max Scheler’s 1913 book Ressentiment and Edmund Husserl’s 1936 book, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, which expands on the arguments of his 1935 lectures on “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man.”

[8] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Great Books in Philosophy, 1988., pp. 71.

[9] Ibid., 72.

[10] The Grundrisse is an unfinished manuscript not intended for publication, in passages like these, where editing could’ve improved what was said, its manuscript character shines forth.

[11] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin Books, 1973., pp. 831-2.

[12] Adam Schaff, Marxism and the Human Individual, McGraw-Hill, 1970., pp. 16. I was excited to see Musto’s frequent usage of Schaff, a thinker far too undervalued in our tradition.

[13] I use ‘depicted’ instead of ‘produced’ because the split originated well before the 1960s debate, the debate simply manifested what was already a previous split. For more on this split see Domenico Losurdo, El Marxismo Occidental, Editorial Trotta, 2019.

[14] ‘Feuerbachian problematic’ is how Althusser describes it in his essay “On the Young Marx.” For more see Louis Althusser, For Marx, Verso, 1979., pp. 66-70.

[15] Schaff, Marxism and the Human Individual., pp. 28.

[16] To see how this was done in his later years see: Marcello Musto, The Last Years of Karl Marx, Stanford, 2020. For a shortened version of some of the points made in this text, my review article might be helpful.

[17] Ibid., pp. 24.

[18] Evald Ilyenkov, “From the Marxist-Leninist Point of View,” In Marx and the Western World, ed. Nicholas Lobkowicz, University of Notre Dame Press, 1967., pp. 401.

[19] Ibid., pp. 402.

[20] Ibid., pp. 404.

[21] Schaff, Marxism and the Human Individual., pp. 21.

[22] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[23] Marx, Capital Vol 1, Penguin Books, 1982., pp. 944.

[24] Ibid., pp. 165.

[25] Marx, Grundrisse., pp. 157.

[26] Marx, Grundrisse., pp. 172.

[27] Karl Marx, Capital Vol III, Penguin Books, 1981., pp. 958-9.

[28] John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology, Monthly Review, 2000., pp. 158.

[29] For all the flaws Bukharin’s Historical Materialism textbook has, chapter five on “The Equilibrium between Society and Nature” provides a laudable reintroduction of Marx’s concept of metabolism and metabolic rifts.


The Left & War: A History – with Mitch Jeserich (Interview)

Journal Articles

Algiers 1882: The Last Journey of Marx

I. Why Algiers
In 1882, Marx’s bronchitis was becoming chronic and his doctor, Mr. Donkin, suggested that a period of rest in a warm place was advisable for a complete recovery.1 The Isle of Wight had not worked. Gibraltar was ruled out because Marx would have needed a passport to enter the territory, and as a stateless person he was not in possession of one. The Bismarckian empire was covered in snow and anyway still forbidden to him, while Italy was out of the question, since, as Friedrich Engels put it, “the first proviso where convalescents are concerned is that there should be no harassment by the police.”2

With the support of Dr. Donkin and Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, Engels convinced the patient to head for Algiers, which at the time enjoyed a good reputation among English people who could afford to escape the rigors of winter.3 As Marx’s daughter Eleanor Marx later recalled, what pushed Marx into making this unusual trip was his old obsession: to complete Capital.4 She wrote that

His general state keeps getting worse. If he had been more egoistic, he would have simply allowed things to take their course. But for him one thing stood above all else: devotion to the cause. He wanted to see his great work through to the end and therefore agreed once more to make a journey to recover his health.5

Marx left for the Mediterranean on 9 February, stopping on the way at Argenteuil, a Parisian suburb, where his eldest daughter Jenny Marx Longuet lived. When his health did not improve, he decided after scarcely one week to continue alone to Marseilles, having persuaded Eleanor that it was unnecessary for her to accompany him. To Engels he confided, “Not for anything in the world would I have the girl think she is to be sacrificed as an old man’s ‘nurse’ on the altar of family.”6

After crossing the whole of France by train, he reached the great Provençal seaport on 17 February. He immediately obtained a ticket for the first ship bound for Africa,7 and the next day, on a windy wintry afternoon, he was in the harbor queuing up with other passengers to go on board. He had a couple of suitcases crammed with heavy clothing, medicines, and a few books. At 5:00 p.m., the steamer Said left for Algiers, where Marx would stay for 72 days. This was the only time in his life that he spent outside Europe.8

II. Resisting the Disease in the Algerian Capital
After a stormy 34-hour crossing, Karl Marx reached his destination on 20 February. The next day he wrote to Engels, and a week later he recalled that his “corpus delecti” had been “frozen to the marrow.” He found an ideally situated room, with a port view, at the Hôtel-Pension Victoria, in the Upper Mustapha zone. It was a “magical panorama,” which allowed him to appreciate the “wonderful combination of Europe and Africa.”9

The only person who knew the identity of the newly arrived polyglot gentleman was Albert Fermé, a justice of the peace and follower of Charles Fourier, who had landed in Algiers in 1870 after a period of imprisonment on account of his opposition to the Second Empire. He was the only real company Marx had there, serving as his guide on various excursions and attempting to satisfy his curiosity about the new world.

As the days passed, however, Marx’s health did not improve. He was still troubled by the bronchitis, and an uncontrollable cough kept him awake at night. The unusually cold, damp, and rainy weather—it was the worst winter for ten years in Algiers—also favored another attack of pleurisy. “The only difference between my clothing in the Isle of Wight and my clothing in the city of Algiers,” he wrote to Engels, “is that in the villa I have up till now simply replaced the rhinoceros greatcoat with my light greatcoat.” He even contemplated moving 400 kilometres further south, to the village of Biskra on the edge of the Sahara, but the poor physical conditions dissuaded him from such a taxing journey. He therefore embarked on a lengthy period of complicated treatment in Algiers.

Dr. Charles Stephann, the best in the city, prescribed sodium arsenate during the day and a codeine-based opiate syrup to help him sleep at night. He also ordered Marx to reduce physical exertion to a minimum and to abstain from “real intellectual work except some reading for [his] distraction.” Nevertheless, on 6 March the cough became even more violent and brought about repeated haemorrhaging. Marx was therefore forbidden to leave the hotel and even to engage in conversation: “rest, solitude and silence” were now “duties incumbent on [him] as a citizen.”10 At least, he wrote to Engels, “Dr. Stephann, like my dear Dr. Donkin [in London], does not forget—the cognac.”11

The most painful treatment proved to be a course of ten vesicatories, a therapy popular at the time that used agents to blister the skin in order to release subcutaneous toxins. Marx managed to complete these with the help of a young pharmacist. Little by little, by repeatedly painting his chest and back with collodion and opening the resulting blisters, Mr. Maurice Casthelaz succeeded in drawing off the excess fluid from his lungs.

Not surprisingly, Marx began to regret his chosen destination: as he wrote to Paul Lafargue, “from the moment of [his] departure for Marseilles” there had been “the finest weather in both Nice and Menton,” two other possibilities he had considered.12 In the second half of March, he confided to his daughter Jenny: “in this foolish, ill-calculated expedition, I am now just arrived again at that standard of health when I possessed it on leaving” London. He also told her that he had had his doubts about travelling such a long way, but that Engels and Bryan Donkin fired each other mutually into African furor, neither one nor the other getting any special information” about the weather that year.13 In his view, “the thing was to inform oneself before starting on such a wild goose chase.”.14

On 20 March, Marx wrote to Lafargue that the treatment had been stopped for the time being since there was no longer “‘a single dry place either on [his] back or [his] chest.”. The sight of his body reminded him of “a kitchen garden in miniature planted with melons.” To his great relief, however, his sleep was “gradually returning”: “someone who has not suffered from insomnia cannot appreciate that blissful state when the terror of sleepless nights begins to give way.”15

On the other hand, Marx’s breathing was more labored as a result of the nocturnal drawing of blisters, the need to remain bandaged, and the strict ban on scratching. Having learned that the weather in France had been “wonderful” since his departure from London, and bearing in mind the initial prediction of a rapid cure, he wrote to Engels that “a man ought never [to] delude himself by too sanguine views!”16 Clearly there was “some way to go to sana mens in sano corpore.”17

Marx’s suffering was not only bodily. He felt lonely and wrote on 16 March to his daughter Jenny: “Nothing could be more magical than the city of Algiers, unless it be the countryside outside that city (…); it would be like the Arabian Nights—given good health—with all my dear ones (in particular not forgetting my grandsons).”18 And on 27 March he added that he would have liked “by magic” to have Johnny, the eldest, there too—“to wonder […] at Moors, Berbers, Turks, negroes, in one word this Babel and costumes (most of them poetic) of this oriental world, mixed with the ‘civilized’ French etc. and the dull Britons.”19

To Engels, a comrade with whom he was used to sharing everything, he wrote of “an occasional bout of profound melancholy, like the great Don Quixote.” His thoughts kept returning to the loss of his life-companion: “You know that few people are more averse to demonstrative pathos; still, it would be a lie [not] to confess that my thoughts are to a great part absorbed by reminiscence of my wife, such a part of my best part of life!”20 One distraction from the pain of mourning was the spectacle of nature around him. Early in April he wrote that there was “wonderful moonlight on the bay,” and he could “never stop feasting [his] eyes on the sea in front of [his] balcony.”21
Marx also suffered from the enforced lack of serious intellectual activity. Since the start of the trip, he had been aware that it would be “a time-wasting operation,” but he had eventually agreed to it when he realized that the “accursed disease” also “impairs one’s intellect.”22

He told Jenny that “any working” was “out of the question” in Algiers—even “the correction of Capital for a [third German] edition.”23 As to the current political situation, he limited himself to reading the telegraphic reports of a small local paper, The Little Settler [Le Petit Colon], and the only workers’ sheet received from Europe, The Equality [L’Égalité], about which he noted sarcastically that “you can’t call it a newspaper.”24

Marx’s letters of Spring 1882 show that he was “eager to be again active and to drop that invalid’s stupid métier,”25 “a pointless, arid, not to say expensive, existence.”26 To Lafargue he even said he was so busy doing nothing that he felt close to imbecility27—which suggests a fear on his part that he was no longer capable of taking up his usual existence where he had left off.

This progression of unfavorable events did not allow Marx to get to the bottom of Algerian reality, nor—as Engels foresaw—was it really possible for him to study the characteristics of “common ownership among the Arabs.”28 In 1879 he had already taken an interest in the land question in French-ruled Algeria, in the course of his studies in ethnology, landed property, and precapitalist societies. In that circumstance, Marx had transcribed from Maksim Kovalevsky’s Communal Landownership: Causes, Course and Consequences that the “individualization of land ownership” would bring huge benefits to the invaders, but it would also favor the “political aim” of “destroying the foundation of this society.”29

On 22 February 1882, an article in the Algiers daily The News [L’Akhbar] documented the injustices of the newly crafted system. Theoretically, any French citizen at that time could acquire a concession of more than 100 hectares of Algerian land, without even leaving his country, and he could then resell it to a native for 40,000 francs. On average, the colons sold every parcel of land they had bought for 20-30 francs at the price of 300 francs.30

Owing to his ill health, Marx was unable to return to these problems; nor was the article in The News brought to his attention. But his permanent desire for knowledge did not fade even in the most adverse circumstances. After exploring the area around his hotel, where housing reconstruction was under way on a vast scale, he noted that “although the workers engaged in this activity are healthy people and local residents they go down with fever after the first three days. Part of their wages, therefore, consists of a daily dose of quinine supplied by the employers.”31

III. Reflections on the Arab World
From the southern rim of the Mediterranean Marx made a number of interesting observations in his sixteen letters,32 some of which display a still partly colonial vision. The ones that really stand out are those dealing with social relations among Muslims. Marx was profoundly struck by the bearing of the Arabs: “even the poorest Moor,” he wrote, “surpasses the greatest European comedian in the art of wrapping himself in his hood and showing natural, graceful and dignified attitudes.”33 Noting how their social classes mixed, he wrote to his daughter Laura Lafargue in mid-April that he had observed a group of Arabs playing cards, “some of them dressed pretentiously, even richly,” others in, for once I dare call it blouses, sometime of white woollen appearance, now in rags and tatters.” For a ‘true Muslim’, he commented:

such accidents, good or bad luck, do not distinguish Mahomet’s children. Absolute equality in their social intercourse, not affected; on the contrary, only when demoralized, they become aware of it; as to the hatred against Christians and the hope of an ultimate victory over these infidels, their politicians justly consider this same feeling and practice of absolute equality (not of wealth or position but of personality) a guarantee of keeping up the one, of not giving up the latter. (Nevertheless, they will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement.)34 Marx also marveled at the scant presence of the state:

In no town elsewhere, which is at the same time the seat of the central government, is there such laisser faire, laisser passer; police reduced to a bare minimum; unparalleled lack of embarrassment in public; the Moorish element is responsible for this. For Muslims there is no such thing as subordination; they are neither “subjects” nor “citizens” [administrés]; no authority, save in politics, something which Europeans have totally failed to understand.35

Marx scornfully attacked the Europeans’ violent abuses and constant provocations, and not least their “bare-faced arrogance and presumptuousness vis-à-vis the ‘lesser breeds,’ [and] grisly, Moloch-like obsession with atonement” with regard to any act of rebellion. He also emphasized that, in the comparative history of colonial occupation, “the British and Dutch outdo the French.” In Algiers itself, he reported to Engels, his friend the judge Fermé had regularly seen in the course of his career “a form of torture […] to extract confessions from Arabs, naturally done […] (like the English in India) by the “police.”

When, for example, a murder is committed by an Arab gang, usually with robbery in view, and the actual miscreants are in the course of time duly apprehended, tried and executed, this is not regarded as sufficient atonement by the injured colonist family. They demand into the bargain the “pulling in” of at least half a dozen innocent Arabs. […] When a European colonist dwells among the “lesser breeds,” either as a settler or simply on business, he generally regards himself as even more inviolable than handsome William I.36

Marx returned to the theme in another context when he told Engels of the brutality of the French authorities toward “a poor, thieving Arab, a poor, multiple assassin by profession.” Shortly before his execution, he learned that “he wasn’t going to be shot but guillotined! This, in defiance of prior arrangements!” Nor was that all:

His relatives had expected the head and body to be handed over to them so that they could sew the former to the latter and then bury the “whole.” Which it is not! Howls, imprecations and gnashing of teeth; the French authorities dug their heels in, the first time they had done so! Now, when the body arrives in paradise, Mohammed will ask, “Where have you left your head? Or, how did the head come to be parted from its body? You’re not fit to enter paradise. Go and join those dogs of Christians in hell!” And that’s why his relations were so upset.37

Along with these political and social observations, Marx’s letters also include material on Arab customs. In one, he told his daughter Laura a story that had greatly appealed to his practical side:

A ferryman is ready and waiting, with his small boat, on the tempestuous waters of a river. A philosopher, wishing to get to the other side, climbs aboard. There ensues the following dialogue:
Philosopher: Do you know anything of history, ferryman?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted half your life!
And again: The Philosopher: Have you studied mathematics?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted more than half your life.
Hardly were these words out of the philosopher’s mouth when the wind capsized the boat, precipitating both ferryman and philosopher into the water. Whereupon, Ferryman shouts: Can you swim?
Philosopher: No!
Ferryman: Then you’ve wasted your whole life.

And Marx added to Laura: “That will tickle your appetite for things Arabic.”38 After more than two months of suffering, Marx’s condition improved and he was at last able to return to France. First, however, he had a final surprise for Engels: “Apropos; because of the sun, I have done away with my prophet’s beard and my crowning glory but (in deference to my daughters) had myself photographed before offering up my hair on the altar of an Algerian barber.”39 This would be the last snapshot of him. And it is utterly unlike the granite profile to be found on the squares of “actually existing socialism,” which the régimes of the day ordered to represent him. His moustache, rather like his ideas, has not lost the color of youth—and his smiling face, for all life’s trials and disappointments, still appears kindly and unassuming.40

IV. Final Note: A Republican in the Principality
Bad weather continued to pester Marx. During his “last days in Africa,”41 his health was sorely tested by the arrival of the sirocco, and the crossing to Marseilles—where he landed on 5 May, on his sixty-fourth birthday—was particularly rough. As he wrote later to Eleanor: “A violent storm […] turned [his] cabin into a veritable wind tunnel.” And once at their destination, the steamer did not actually enter the harbor, so that the passengers had to be taken off by boat, spending “several hours in a cold, draughty customs-hall-cum-purgatory until the time came for them to depart for Nice.” These tribulations, he quipped, “more or less threw [his] machine out of gear” and “precipitated [him] into the hands of an Aesculapius” as soon as they reached Monte Carlo.42

The trusted Aesculapius was Dr. Kunemann, an excellent doctor from Alsace who specialized in lung diseases.43 It was discovered that the bronchitis had become chronic and, to Marx’s “horror,” that “the pleurisy had returned.”44 All the moving around had done further damage, and Marx used his customary literary references to joke about it with Engels: “Fate” would seem on this occasion to have displayed an alarming consistency—almost, one might say, as in the tragedies of Amandus Müllner,” where “fate” does indeed play an important role in human existence. Another course of four vesicatories was therefore necessary, and these took place between 9 and 30 May.

Since he had to get better before continuing on his way, Marx spent three weeks in the principality of Monaco. His descriptions of the atmosphere there mix shrewdness with social criticism: for example, he compared Monte Carlo to Gérolstein, the imaginary statelet in which Jacques Offenbach placed his opera The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (1867). Marx went a few times to the reading room at the famous casino, which offered a good selection of international newspapers. But he told Engels that his “table d’hôte companions at the Hôtel de Russie” and, more generally, the public in the city were “more interested in what goes on in the Casino’s gaming rooms.” His letters from this period alternate between amused observations about people he came across—e.g., “‘a son of Albion, sulky, ill-tempered and bewildered […] because he had lost a certain number of yellow boys, whereas he had been absolutely intent on ‘copping’ the same”—and mordant comments such as: “he couldn’t understand that not even British boorishness is able ‘to bully’ fortune.”45 The most trenchant description of this alien world was offered to his daughter Eleanor, in a letter written shortly before his departure:

At the table d’hôte, in the cafés, etc., almost the only topic that is talked or whispered about is the roulette and the trente et quarante tables. Every now and again something is won, as for instance 100 francs by a young Russian lady (wife of a Russian diplomat-cum-agent) […], who, in return, loses 6,000 frs, while someone else can’t keep enough for the journey home; others gamble away the whole of large family fortunes; very few take away a share of the plunder—few of the gamblers, I mean, and those that do are almost without exception rich. There can be no question of intelligence or calculation here; no one can count with any probability on being favoured by “chance” unless he can venture a considerable sum.46

The frenzy in the air was not confined to the gaming rooms or the evening hours; it pervaded the whole city and entire day of those who visited it. For example, there was a kiosk right next door to the casino.

This is daily adorned with a placard, not printed, but handwritten and signed with the initials of the quill-pusher; for 600 francs he will provide, in black and white, the secret of the science of winning a million francs with a 1,000. […] Nor, or so it is said, is it by any means rare for people to fall victim to this confidence trick. Indeed, most of the gamblers, both male and female, believe there is a science in what are pure games of chance; the ladies and gentlemen sit outside the said Café de Paris, in front of, or on the seats in, the wonderful garden that belongs to the casino, heads bent over little [printed] tables, scribbling and doing sums, while one of them may earnestly expound to another “‘what system’ he prefers, whether one should play in series,” etc., etc. It’s like watching a bunch of lunatics.47

In short, it became clear to Marx that ‘the economic basis of Monaco-Gerolstein is the casino; if it were to close tomorrow it would be all up with Monaco-Gerolstein—the whole of it!’ Without it not even Nice, ‘the rendez-vous in the winter months of the quality and of fortune-hunters alike, could continue to subsist as a fashionable centre (…). And withal, how childish is the casino by comparison with the Bourse!’. After the last in the series of vesicatories, Dr. Kunemann discharged Marx and gave him permission to continue his journey. But he did advise him to stop off “in Cannes for a day or two” to allow the wounds to “dry out,” after which he could move on up to Paris. Once in the exclusive French resort, Marx drew a balance-sheet of his time on the Côte d’Azur:

I have spent an entire month vegetating in this lair of aristocratic idlers or adventurers. Nature superb, in other respects a dreary hole; […] no plebeian “masses” here, apart from the hotel and café waiters, etc., and domestics, who belong to the Lumpenproletariat.48

The weather continued to do its worst and to weigh heavily on him. During the three days in Cannes, there was an exceptionally “strong (if warm) wind and eddies of dust,” talk of which filled “the Riviera’s local press.” Marx responded with self-irony, joking to Engels that “Nature, too, can evince a certain philistine humour (after the manner, already humorously anticipated in the Old Testament, of the serpent feeding on dust, cf. the dusty diet of Darwin’s worms).”

In the same letter, Marx dwelled on the doctor’s final recommendations: “to eat well and amply even if it goes against the grain, and ‘accustom’ oneself to so doing; [to] drink ‘decent’ stuff and go for drives, etc. […] [to] think as little as possible, etc.” He could not fail to remark that “having followed these ‘directions,’ I am well on the way to ‘idiocy,’ and for all that have not rid myself of the bronchial catarrh. A consoling thought for me is that it was bronchitis that sent old Garibaldi to his ‘eternal rest.’” In any case, he was convinced that “at a certain age it becomes completely indifferent how one is ‘launched into eternity’”49

On 7 June, some four months after his departure from London, Marx was finally in a position to take the train back to his daughter’s house in Argenteuil. He advised her not to bother about his arrival—“Till now, I have always found that nothing has done me more harm than people, at the station, waiting for me”—and not to tell any of the comrades, even Lafargue, that he was expected. He still needed “absolute quietness,” 50 and, as he said to Engels too, “he felt it [was] still necessary […] to have as little ‘intercourse with people’ as possible.”51 The giant was weary and felt he was close to the end of the road. The words he wrote to Jenny were much the same as those of any other mortal: “By ‘quietness’ I mean the ‘family life,’ ‘the children’s noise,’ that ‘microscopic world’ more interesting than the ‘macroscopic.’”52 Karl Marx died nine months after this letter, on 14 March 1883. A few days later, Engels wrote to Friedrich Sorge, the comrade who had become secretary of the International Working Men’s Association after it moved to the United States in 1872:

Mankind is the poorer for the loss of this intellect—the most important intellect, indeed, which it could boast today. The movement of the proletariat will continue on its course but it has lost its focal point, the point to which Frenchmen, Russians, Americans and Germans would automatically turn at moments of crisis, on every occasion receiving clear, indisputable advice such as only genius and consummate expertise can give.53


1. Sections of this article are based on Marcello Musto, The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).
2. Friedrich Engels to Eduard Bernstein, 25 January 1882, MECW 46:186-87. In his view, “Italy [could] hold out fewer guarantees than anywhere else—save, of course, Bismarck’s empire.”
3. See Gilbert Badia, “Marx en Algérie,” in Karl Marx, Lettres d’Alger et de la Côte d’Azur (Paris: Le Temps des Cerises, 1997), 17.
4. See Marcello Musto, Another Marx: Early Manuscripts to the International (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), and Marx’s Capital after 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, ed. Marcello Musto (London-New York: Routledge, 2019). Marx started to write his critique to political economy in 1857, see Marcello Musto, “Marx’s Life at the Time of the Grundrisse: Biographical Notes on 1857-8,” in Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later, ed. Marcello Musto (London–New York: Routledge, 2008). 147-161.
5. Eleanor Marx, in Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Gespräche mit Marx und Engels (Frankfurt: Insel-Verlag, 1973), 577-78.
6. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 12 January 1882, MECW 46:176. On Eleanor Marx and her special relationship with her father, see Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx (London: Verso, 2018); Chushichi Tsuzuki, The Life of Eleanor Marx, 1855-1898: A Socialist Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967); Eva Weissweiler, Tussy Marx: Das Drama der Vatertochter (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2002); and Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
7. See Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 17 February 1882: “No question of passports and such like. Nothing is entered on the passengers’ tickets save Christian and surnames” MECW 46:200.
8. The trip to the Algerian capital has not received much attention from Marx’s biographers. Even Jacques Attali, himself born in Algiers, devoted only half a page to it in his Karl Marx, ou l’Esprit du monde (Paris: Fayard, 2005), 410; despite some inexactitudes about Marx’s stay, he notes that he was ignorant of the Oran uprising between Summer 1881 and Spring 1883. Marlene Vesper’s Marx in Algier (Bonn: Pahl-Rugenstein Nachfolger, 1995) traces with great precision all the events that Marx witnessed at first hand during his visit to Algiers. Also of interest is René Gallissot, ed., Marxisme et Algérie (Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1976). The novel by Hans Jürgen Krysmanski, Die letzte Reise des Karl Marx (Frankfurt: Westend, 2014), was originally intended as the screenplay for a film on Marx’s stay in Algiers, but was never produced because of a lack of funding.
9. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 1 March 1882, MECW 46:213-14.
10. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 16 March 1882, MECW 46:219.
11. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 1 March 1882, MECW 46:215.
12. Karl Marx to Paul Lafargue, 20 March 1882, MECW 46:221. He added: “But there was this insistent ideamfor which I was not responsible—of the African sun and the wonder-working air out here!,” ibid.
13. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 16 March 1882, MECW 46:218.
14. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 27 March 1882, MECW 46:224. He added: “Between us: Though in the Isle of Wight the weather was unfavourable, but still my health improved so greatly that people wondered. […] at London, on the contrary, Engels’ excitement […] in fact has upset me: I felt, I could no longer stand it; hence my impatience to get from London away on any condition whatever!” People may kill someone out of real most sincere love; with all that nothing more dangerous in such cases for a reconvalescent!” ibid.
15. Karl Marx to Paul Lafargue, 20 March 1882, MECW 46:221-22.
16. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 1 March 1882, MECW 46:215.
17. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 28-31 March 1882, MECW 46:226.
18. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 16 March 1882, MECW 46:219.
19. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 27 March 1882, MECW 46:225.
20. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 1 March 1882, MECW 46:213, 215.
21. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 4 April 1882, MECW 46:229.
22. Karl Marx to Pyotr Lavrov, 23 January 1882, MECW 46:184.
23. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 27 March 1882, MECW 46:225. In October 1881, the publisher Otto Meissner had asked Marx to make any necessary corrections or additions to Volume One of his magnum opus in preparation for a new edition. On the making of Capital see Marcello Musto, “The Writing of Capital: Genesis and Structure of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy,” Critique, Vol., No. 46 (season? 2018), n. 1: 11-26.
24. Karl Marx to Paul Lafargue, 20 March 1882, MECW 46:221; MEW 35:293.
25. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 6-7 April 1882, MECW 46:230; MEW 35:298.
26. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 20 May 1882, MECW 46:210; MEW 35:65.
27. See Paul Lafargue to Friedrich Engels, 19 June 1882, in Frederick Engels, Paul Lafargue, and Laura Lafargue, Correspondence, Vol. 1, 1868-1886 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959), 87.
28. Cf. Friedrich Engels to Eduard Bernstein, 22-25 February 1882, MECW 46:210-11. Lafargue was later certainly exaggerating when he said that “Marx has come back with his head full of Africa and the Arabs; he took advantage of his stay in Algiers to devour its library, it seems to me that he has read a great number of works on the condition of the Arabs,” Paul Lafargue to Friedrich Engels, 16 June 1882, in Engels, Lafargue, and Lafargue, Correspondence, 83. As Badia has pointed out, it is much more likely that Marx was unable to “learn much about the social and political situation in the French colony,” although his “letters from Algiers testify to his many-sided curiosity,” in Gilbert Badia, “Marx en Algérie”, in Karl Marx, Lettres d’Alger, 13.
29. Karl Marx, “Excerpts from M.M. Kovalevskij [Kovalevsky], Obschinnoe zemlevladenie. Prichiny, khod i posledstviya ego razlozheniya [Communal landownership: The causes, course and consequences of its decline]” In Lawrence Krader, The Asiatic Mode of Production: Sources, Development and Critique in the Writings of Karl Marx (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1975), 412.
30. See Marlene Vesper, Marx in Algier, 33-34, which reproduces passages from the article “The Concessions” in the local daily.
31. Karl Marx to Paul Lafargue, 20 March 1882, MECW 46:220. Marx added that “the same practice can be observed in various places in South America,” ibid.
32. This total refers only to his surviving correspondence. In reality, Marx wrote more letters, including some to his daughter Eleanor, but these have been lost over time: “He wrote me long letters from Algiers. Many of these I no longer possess, since at his request I sent them on to Jenny and she gave only a few back to me,” Eleanor Marx, in Gespräche mit Marx und Engels, 578.
33. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 6-7 April 1882, MECW 46:231-32.
34. Karl Marx to Laura Lafargue, 13-14 April 1882, MECW 46:242.
35. Ibid., 238.
36. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 8 April 1882, MECW 46:234.
37. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 18 April 1882, MECW, 46:246-47.
38. Karl Marx to Laura Lafargue, 13-14 April 1882, MECW 46:243.
39. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 28 April 1882, MECW 46:249.
40. Marx himself said that, although he had not had “one day of complete repose” in the eight weeks before the photograph, he was “still putting a good face on things,” ibid. Engels was very happy with what his friend had told him. “He had his photograph taken in Algiers,” he wrote to August Bebel, “and is looking quite his old self again,” Friedrich Engels to August Bebel, 16 May 1882, MECW 46:259. Cf. Vesper, Marx in Algier, 130-35.
41. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 8 May 1882, MECW 46:253.
42. Karl Marx to Eleanor Marx, 28 May 1882, MECW 46:267.
43. Cf. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 5 June 1882, MECW 46:272.
44. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 20 May 1882, MECW 46:262. Marx did not write to his daughters of this development, since “it would alarm them unnecessarily,” ibid., 264.
45. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 8 May 1882, MECW 46:254.
46. Karl Marx to Eleanor Marx, 28 May 1882, MECW 46:268.
47. Ibid., 269. The English engineer Joseph Jaggers did discover a way of breaking the bank—not by any scientific system, however, but simply by studying a mechanical dysfunction. In 1873, he realized that one roulette wheel was more unbalanced than the others, so that it came up with nine numbers more often than others. He managed to win one and a half million francs, before the casino became aware of the defect and repaired it without difficulty.
48. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 5 June 1882, MECW 46:272.
49. Ibid., 274.
50. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 4 June 1882, MECW 46:271.
51. Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, 5 June 1882, MECW 46:274. The literary reference here is to a work by Adolph von Knigge, entitled precisely On Intercourse with People (1788).
52. Karl Marx to Jenny Longuet, 4 June 1882, MECW 46:272.
53. Friedrich Engels to Friedrich Sorge, 15 March 1883, MECW 46:462-63. On the contemporary relevance of Marx, see The Marx Revival: Key Concepts and New Interpretations, ed. Marcello Musto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Attali, Jacques. Karl Marx, ou l’Esprit du monde. Paris: Fayard, 2005.
Badia, Gilbert. “Marx en Algérie”. In Karl Marx, Lettres d’Alger et de la Côte d’Azur, 7-39. Paris: Le Temps des Cerises, 1997.
Engels, Frederick, Paul Lafargue, and Laura Lafargue. Correspondence, Vol. 1, 1868-1886. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959.
Gallissot, René, ed. Marxisme et Algérie. Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1976.
Gespräche mit Marx und Engels, ed. Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Frankfurt: Insel-Verlag, 1973.
Holmes, Rachel. Eleanor Marx: A Life. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Kapp, Yvonne. Eleanor Marx. London: Verso, 2018.
Krysmanski, Hans Jürgen. Die letzte Reise des Karl Marx. Frankfurt: Westend, 2014.
Marx, Karl. “Excerpts from M.M. Kovalevskij [Kovalevsky], Obschinnoe zemlevladenie. Prichiny, khod i posledstviya ego razlozheniya [Communal landownership: The causes, course and consequences of its decline]”. In Lawrence Krader, The Asiatic Mode of Production: Sources, Development and Critique in the Writings of Karl MarxAssen: Van Gorcum, 1975. 343–412.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Letters 1880-83, MECW Vol. 46. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1992.
Musto, Marcello. “Marx’s Life at the Time of the Grundrisse: Biographical Notes on 1857-8.” In Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later. Ed. Marcello Musto. London–New York: Routledge, 2008. 147-161.
———. “The Writing of Capital: Genesis and Structure of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy.” Critique, Vol. 46, No. 1 (2018), 11-26.
———. Another Marx: Early Manuscripts to the International. London: Bloomsbury, 2018.
———, ed. Marx’s Capital after 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism. London-New York: Routledge, 2019.
———, ed. The Marx Revival: Key Concepts and New Interpretations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
———. The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020.
Tsuzuki, Chushichi. The Life of Eleanor Marx, 1855-1898: A Socialist Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
Vesper, Marlene. Marx in Algier. Bonn: Pahl-Rugenstein Nachfolger, 1995.
Weissweiler, Eva. Tussy Marx: Das Drama der Vatertochter. Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2002.


Meeting with professor Marcello Musto – hosted by Vietnam Marxist (Interview)

Past talks

War and the Left: Considerations on a Chequered History

While political science has probed the ideological, political, economic and even psychological motivations behind the drive to war, socialist theory has made a unique contribution by highlighting the relationship between the development of capitalism and war. There’s a long and rich tradition of the Left’s opposition to militarism that dates back to the International Working Men’s Association. It is an excellent resource for understanding the origins of war under capitalism and helping leftists maintain our clear opposition to it. In this article, the author examines the position of all the main currents (socialist, socialdemocratic, communist, anarchist and feminist) intellectuals (Engels, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Jaurès, Luxemburg, Lenin, Mao and Khrushchev) of the Left on the war and its different declinations (‘war of defence’, ‘just war’, ‘revolutionary war’).


War and the Left (Interview)


The Marx Revival (Book Launch)


The Marx Revival: Musto & Foster in Conversation (Talk)


The Marx Revival: Marcello Musto on Communism (Talk)


A culture of war from the Soviets to Russia

The escalating violence of the Nazi-Fascist front in the 1930s brought the outbreak of the Second World War and created an even more nefarious scenario than the one that destroyed Europe between 1914 and 1918. After Hitler’s troops attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin called for a Great Patriotic War that ended on May 9 with the defeat of Germany, Italy and Japan. This date became such a central element in Russian national unity that it survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and has lasted until our own days. Under the guise of the fight against Nazism, a dangerous ideology of nationalism and militarism is hidden – today more than ever.

With the post-war division of the world into two blocs, the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) decided that the main task of the international Communist movement was to safeguard the existence of the Soviet Union. In the same period, the Truman Doctrine marked the advent of a new type of war: the Cold War. In its support of anti-communist forces in Greece, in the Marshall Plan (1948) and the creation of Nato (1949), the United States of America contributed to avoiding the advance of progressive forces in Western Europe. The Soviet Union responded with the Warsaw Pact (1955). This configuration led to a huge arms race, which, despite the fresh memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also involved a proliferation of nuclear bomb tests.

With a political turn decided by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, the Soviet Union began a period of “peaceful coexistence”. This change, with its emphasis on non-interference and respect for national sovereignty, as well as economic cooperation with capitalist countries, was supposed to avert the danger of a third world war (which the Cuban missiles crisis showed to be a possibility in 1962) and to support the argument that war was not inevitable. However, this attempt at constructive cooperation was full of contradictions.

In 1956, the Soviet Union had already violently crushed a revolt in Hungary. The Communist parties of Western Europe had not condemned but justified the military intervention in the name of protecting the socialist bloc and Palmiro Togliatti, the secretary of the Italian Communist Party, declared: “We stand with our own side even when it makes a mistake”. Most of those who shared this position regretted it bitterly in later years when they understood the devastating effects of the Soviet operation.

Similar events took place at the height of peaceful coexistence, in 1968, in Czechoslovakia. The Politburo of the CPSU sent in half a million soldiers and thousands of tanks to suppress the demands for democratization of the “Prague Spring”. This time critics on the Left were more forthcoming and even represented the majority. Nevertheless, although disapproval of the Soviet action was expressed not only by New Left movements but by a majority of Communist parties,

including the Chinese, the Russians did not pull back but carried through a process that they called “normalization”. The Soviet Union continued to earmark a sizable part of its economic resources for military spending, and this helped to reinforce an authoritarian culture in society. In this way, it lost forever the goodwill of the peace movement, which had become even larger through the extraordinary mobilizations against the war in Vietnam.

One of the most important wars in the next decade began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1979, the Red Army again became a major instrument of Russian foreign policy, which continued to claim the right to intervene in “their security zone”. The ill-starred decision turned into an exhausting adventure that stretched over more than ten years, causing a huge number of deaths and creating millions of refugees. On this occasion, the international Communist movement was much less reticent than it had been in relation to previous Soviet invasions. Yet this new war revealed even more clearly to international public opinion the split between “actually existing socialism” and a political alternative based on peace and opposition to militarism.

Taken as a whole, these military interventions worked against a general arms reduction and served to discredit socialism. The Soviet Union was increasingly seen as an imperial power acting in ways, not unlike those of the United States, which, since the onset of the Cold War, had more or less secretly backed coups d’état and helped to overthrow democratically elected governments in more than twenty countries around the world.

Lastly, the “socialist wars” in 1977-1979 between Cambodia and Vietnam and China and Vietnam, against the backdrop of the Sino- Soviet conflict, dissipated whatever

leverage “Marxist-Leninist” ideology (already remote from the original foundations laid by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) had in attributing war exclusively to the economic imbalances of capitalism.

Marx did not develop in any of his writings a coherent theory of war, nor did he put forward guidelines for the correct attitude to be taken towards it. However, when he chose between opposing camps, his only constant was his opposition to Tsarist Russia, which he saw as the outpost of counter-revolution and one of the main barriers to working-class emancipation.

In Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the 18th Century – a book published by Marx in 1857 but never translated into the Soviet Union –, speaking of Ivan III, the aggressive Muscovite monarch of the fifteenth century who unified Russia and laid the ground for its autocracy, he stated: “one merely needs to replace one series of names and dates with others and it becomes clear that the policies of Ivan III, and those of Russia today, are not merely similar but identical”. Unfortunately, these observations seem as if written for today, in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Wars disseminate an ideology of violence, often combined with the nationalist sentiments that have torn the workers’ movement apart. Rarely favouring practices of democracy, they instead increase the power of authoritarian institutions. Wars swell the military, bureaucratic and police apparatus. They lead to the effacement of society before state bureaucracy. In Reflections on War, the philosopher Simone Weil argued that: “no matter what name it may take – fascism, democracy, or dictatorship of the proletariat – the principal enemy remains the administrative, police, and military apparatus; not the enemy across the border, who is our enemy only to the extent that they are our brothers and sisters’ enemy, but the one who claims to be our defender while making us its slaves”. This is a dramatic lesson that the Left should never forget.