ABSTRACT

Karl Marx was the greatest thinker in the history of socialism. He gave socialism its intellectual respectability and its theoretical self-confidence. From divers sources and materials, from phrases in radical pamphlets and slogans at socialist meetings, from German philosophy, French politics and English economics, he created a socialist system of thought, a total socialist critique of modern society. He refined and systematised the language of socialism; he explained and expounded the place of socialism in history; he reconciled, or seemed to reconcile, its conflicting hopes and theoretical contradictions. His work – itself a process of self-clarification – set the seal upon the transition from the romantic revolutionism of the 1840s to the working-class movement that spanned the 1860s to 1880s. It fused into a single body of connected doctrine moral criticism and economic analysis, revolutionary activism and social science, the longing for community and the acceptance of economic rationality and industrial progress. It clothed the interests and demands of a still largely nascent and despised working class in the dignity of a categorical imperative pronounced by history itself. It laid the foundations for a critical account of the birth and development of modern society. For Marx correctly recognised the world-historical importance of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. He saw that, in Europe at least, they were part and parcel of one development. He realised that they had inaugurated a new era in history, an era in which civil society – the world of industry and trade – had moved to the centre of the stage and was being driven by violent internal compulsions to ever more rapid change and expansion. Marx recognised more clearly than others the birth of modern society and the tensions and conflicts involved in its internal dynamic. Since the Napoleonic wars set the seal of destruction upon the old order and the old regime in Europe, we have been living through a continuing crisis which has spread outward from Europe until it engulfs the world. Marx was the first and in many respects greatest student of that crisis. His predictions have proved at least partly false; his presentation of the issues may now seem far too simple; but he saw where the issues lay, not only of his time but of ours. The study of modern society still cannot bypass the work of Karl Marx. 1