Marx 200How British capitalism gave birth to Marxism
Living in 19th century Britain put Marx in the best possible position to observe and expose the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production, writes DAVID McLELLAN
IF HE had not spent the second half of his life in Britain, Marx would not have been able to produce his magnum opus.
Marx arrived in London in August 1849 and remained there until his death.
British capitalism was at its zenith during this period and Britain was the world’s leading industrial nation.
Marx was thus in the best possible position to observe and expose the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production.
If, as he said, “the country which is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future,” then his view from Britain could be said to be truly global.
It was in Britain too that Marx found the theoretical tools with which to construct his analysis of the origins, present state, and future demise of capitalism.
In his native Germany, he started out as a philosopher and the influence of Hegel never left him.
Emigrating to France, he was impressed by French socialist political theory.
But his materialist conception of history demanded an economic basis and it was in British economic theory that he found the material to compose Das Kapital.
Adam Smith and, more importantly, David Ricardo were the theorists who were most important to him.
His critique of their works formed the basis of his own economic theory.
But it was not only British theory that was essential to Marx.
He found in the Library of the British Museum an unrivalled source of information.
This was particularly the case with the famous parliamentary blue books.
These contained information compiled by diligent civil servants that touched on practically every aspect of national life.
Especially cherished by Marx were the six-monthly reports by the Inspectors of Factories concerning the enforcement of the Factory Acts which regulated hours and conditions of work in the textile industry.
They were the source of some of the most excoriating condemnations found in Das Kapital.
Engels too provided essential information from his position in the big family textile firm of Ermen & Engels in Manchester.
The correspondence between Marx and Engels contains repeated queries from Marx as to how the capitalist enterprise in which Engels was engaged actually worked.
And Marx incorporated a lot of this first-hand information into his published work.
But it has to be said that, however much Britain contributed to Marx’s economic thought, its political contribution was not so successful.
London was, of course, the seat of the First International of which Marx was general secretary, but his thought made little headway in Britain.
This was partly because the British had an ingrained distrust of any “grand theory,” as the Marxism systematised by Engels and later Kautsky was increasingly becoming.
A British trade unionist leader said that, on being given a copy of Das Kapital, he felt that he had been given an elephant and did not know what to do with it.
British insularity, both literal and metaphorical, played its part.
Das Kapital was translated into Russian and French well before an English version was available.
There was also the fact that the incipient socialist movement in Britain had strong roots in nonconformist Christianity and was thus unreceptive to a materialist and atheist Marxism.
Most importantly, however, it was the very factor that provided Marx with such a fertile ground in which to develop his ideas that also impeded their political growth.
Because Britain was the first nation to industrialise, it was the first also to produce organised and effective workers’ movements.
These were well established before Marxism arrived on the scene.
Thus, paradoxically, although Britain provided the seedbed for Marx’s ideas, it was Germany and Russia that harvested them.
David McLellan is visiting professor of political theory at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, and president of the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School.
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