This article is another in the series which is aimed a encouraging modern anti-capitalists to engage with the authentic revolutionary-humanist understandings of Karl Marx. Simply accepting the abstractions and assertions of the numerous varieties of so-called ’Marxists‘ at their face value, will not provide a reliable guide, to either the tradition initiated by Marx, nor to a correct anti-capitalist orientation in the coming class struggles. [For further remarks on the discrepancy between Marxism and Marx, see ‘Marxism versus Marx’ or by clicking on that title on the above black banner.]
The ‘muck of ages’ in the title of this article relates to a passage from one of Marx’s early works in the 19th century. It is a extract which if seriously considered clearly identifies the difference between Marx and many other revolutionary anti-capitalists of that important period. It also contains a proposition of general importance and of increasing relevance as the 21st century crisis of capitalism deepens. It is contained within a section of the German Ideology.
“..the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution: the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” (Marx. German Ideology. Coll. Wks Vol. 5 page 53.)
It is tempting to focus on the second proposition within that sentence relating to the necessity of revolution; i.e. the part which includes – ‘because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way’. This proposition has been proven by the last 100 years or so during which people have repeatedly attempted to reform capitalism and appealed to the humanity of the capitalist class to end their war against the oppressed – to no avail!
However, the two propositions which follow; “the alteration of men” and “because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of the muck of ages and become fit to found society anew.” are the ones which should now be carefully considered.
It is important to understand what Marx really getting at in those second and third, crucially important propositions. I suggest this is best tackled by reflecting on what kind of ‘alteration’ and what the ‘muck of ages’ he might have been referring to. We could, also ask ourselves what kind of ‘alteration‘ and ‘muck’ would a class need to undergo and be rid of in order to be ‘fit to found society anew’?
These questions can be approached from a number of angles, but a good one to start with would be to consider at least one of Marx’s fundamental starting points. As he stated also in the German Ideology;
“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals.” (Marx. German Ideology)
Note that Marx’s starting premise for his various studies is not tribes, classes, genders, races, nations, religions, political sects or any other form of partial or local identity. Marx commences with regard to the problems facing humanity as a whole. Very early on he concluded that the economic logic of capitalism was to connect up the world – economically – and therefore, to some extent socially. When he arrived at the conclusion that a post-capitalist form of society was necessary, he saw it as necessary – for the species as a whole! Thus using the vocabulary of the 19th century he noted;
“This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism, equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and man and man. – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence….between the individual and the species.” (Marx. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.)
Despite the now sinister association of the term ‘communism‘, what Marx is concerned with, every humane person should be at one with. Unlike the authoritarian Bolsheviks and others, he considered a post-capitalist society would allow a genuine and humane resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between the various historic divisions of humanity.
Marx’s revolutionary-humanism looked forward to the return of humanity ‘from religion, family, state etc., to his human, ie social existence‘ (ibid). In the 19th century, Marx brought to the economic, social and political spheres of study, the biological understanding that – above all else – humanity is one species. And unlike utopian and religious views he gave this perspective a firm material basis.
An important part of the muck of ages Marx refers to are, I suggest, all those racist, sexist, ageist, nationalist, and sectarian sub-species identities and their attendant animosities, currently distorting our actual and potential social existence. These inherited identities reflect past prejudices and are more often than not, deliberately manipulated to increase the strife between individual members of our species.
Throughout history there has developed a division between our ‘essence’ as human beings and the identities adopted. Divisions have occurred which have distorted this essence, into historically determined tribal, national, religious and other forms of contemporary existence – with their aggressive antagonisms.
Recognising this resolution could not be fully possible, whilst the world and its resources was divided up and controlled by ruling elites, Marx nevertheless argued that in order to reconstitute a society of the future, the modern class which represents that future will need to rid itself of this accumulated muck.
However, whilst that may not be fully possible under the present alienated and distorted social existence of capitalism, getting rid of this ‘muck’ it is at least partially possible. I further suggest this process is essential for those who, in advance of a revolutionary transformation, adopt a revolutionary-humanist position and seek to assist this development.
Yet it is a fact that since the 19th century, the divisive identities have continued. Indeed, the accelerated human alienation brought about by the development of neo-liberal global capital during the 20th and 21st centuries has caused a general reactionary search for earlier or even new forms of specific identity which serve to hide, disguise or negate the essence of the human species.
Despite an abstract recognition at a rhetorical level, of equality for all, there has been a search for and adoption of primary identities in nation, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, politics and even localised football teams. Each of these introspective identities carries within it assertive and even aggressive forms of ideology and conduct which asserts not just primary rights in competition with other identities but superior rights in pursuit of which atrocities of all kinds are perpetrated.
In representing the future, it is generally accepted – within the ranks of revolutionary anti-capitalist workers – that there should be a consistent challenging and erosion of sexism and racism. But in truly representing the future there should also be much more. The revolutionary-humanist perspective of Marx suggests that any elevation of tribal, national, gender, religious, age, sectarian or other forms of identity, over that of human being is reactionary.
If the call for ‘workers of the world to unite’, is not to remain a sterile abstraction, it means workers overcoming this particular ‘muck of ages’ in their revolutionary practice. And if this is the case for workers in general, how much more so should it be within the ranks of those revolutionary anti-capitalists who seek now to play a positive role in that process
Yet as we know, within those anti-capitalist ranks, the most aggressive (occasionally violent), competitive forms of sectarian divisions have taken place and continue to be effective barriers to solidarity. These divisions have not been primarily created around ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender etc., but around ideology.
Most, if not all anti-capitalist sects, have a set of principles and an interpretation of these principles, which they use to distinguish themselves, not only from the working and oppressed classes, but from each other. This practice started, whilst Marx was alive, but really became accelerated and solidified under the later impact of Bolshevism, before becoming an embedded part of the now atrophying heritage industry of the Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyists and Maoists.
Having different understandings and views is part of being human. For many people, so too is having principles. However, in general, non-sectarian working people will support each other when possible even though they have different views. Not so the sectarians. Sectarian anti-capitalists will not only refuse to help other disagreeing anti-capitalists, but will disrespect them, positively stand in their way, character assassinate them and even in the past have physically assassinated them.
Most, if not all, of the above noted sectarian anti-capitalists take their ‘principles’ to the masses and other anti-capitalists. These principles and views are presented to them in the hope of their acceptance. If the workers or other anti-capitalists reject them they are considered backward, ignorant or deluded, with all this implies. This occurs despite Marx’s suggestion in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere, that this sectarian posturing is a sterile, useless and counter-productive activity.
Among revolutionary-humanists in the tradition of Karl Marx, however, principles are not taken to the class struggle and life, but derived from it. Solidarity is also extended to all those in struggle against capital and its symptoms even if they differ in opinions or tactics. Engels, Marx’s friend and collaborator made the first point clearly and succinctly.
“…the principles are not the starting point of the investigation, but its final result; they are not applied to Nature and human history, but abstracted from them; it is not Nature and the realm of humanity which conform to these principles, but the principles are only valid in so far as they are in conformity with Nature and history. (Engels Anti-Duhring. )
The last phrase has particular relevance with regard to the state of the revolutionary, anti-capitalist left in the 21st century. Their principles are only valid insofar as they are in conformity with nature and history. The main principles by which sectarians operate are embodied in their dogma and elitism, and are neither in conformity with nature nor history. Indeed, seen from outside their ranks and from the standpoint of Marx, sectarianism is clearly a part of the ‘muck of ages’ and needs to be got rid of among those who wish to assist the struggle against capital.
]Roy Ratcliffe (June 2012)