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Susan Green

Karl Marx: Scientist and Man of Action

(5 January 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 1, 5 January 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Most readers of Labor Action know of the great contributions of Karl Marx in the field of political economy, his special field. We attribute to him that conception of history and analysis of capitalist society which gave scientific ground and realistic form to the movement of mankind toward economic and political freedom that is, to the revolutionary socialist movement.

How many of us, though, know of the traits of mind and character that enabled Marx to do his penetrating scientific work and to be also a great revolutionary leader? And, if we do know of these characteristics, how many of us give them a thought, to allow ourselves to be influenced by them?

On this hundredth anniversary of the Communist Manifesto I want to write a few paragraphs not on the works of Marx but on the man himself, on those of his intellectual and spiritual features, at least a family resemblance to which all revolutionists should have.

Worked as Scientist

It is stylish these days among certain intellectuals, who think they have evolved beyond Marxism, to say that Marx wasn’t a scientist at all but a “religionist” seeking only corroboration for his beliefs. I think the best refutation of this smug view is Marx’s great work, Capital – the work itself. A man bent on the narrow objective of proving himself right could never have conceived such a detailed, fact-buttressed, brilliant analysis of commodity production. How Marx dug through to find the commodity at the center of capitalist wealth! How he delved into the secret heart of the commodity to discover the laws of its life and of its relation to other commodities! Only the scientific mind on the scent for discovery could have worked like that. His analysis of commodity production and of the historic system based on it could only be the result of a mind that has a key with which to open doors, regardless of what might be found on the other side.

That Marx started his scientific work with deep sympathy for the working people in his heart is undoubtedly a fact. But this is an earnest that he worked with scientific rigidity, knowing that the cause at his heart could not prosper except on solid factual ground. His labor, therefore, was indefatigable. Twenty pages of Capital, about British labor legislation, was the result of Marx’s reading a whole library of reports of investigating commissions and factory inspectors of England and Scotland. A man with nothing more than preconceived ideas has no need for this kind of research.

It is well known that Marx would not rely on anything but the original sources for facts and figures. With the ethics of a true scientist, he gave credit to all from whom he took facts, figures or ideas, bringing forth obscure names never heard of before. Thinking today would be infinitely better and the results more fruitful and reliable if Marx’s investigating, analytical, venturesome method were taken more to heart.

Man of Action

Nor did Marx arrogate to himself any privileges as an “intellectual.” He was a militant, an active revolutionist, as well as a scientist. He worked for the developing revolutionary movement as a writer, lecturer, organizer and leader.

Driven from his native Germany, hunted and hounded as a “dangerous revolutionary,” wherever he went he was at the hub of the revolutionary movement. In France, in Belgium and finally in England where he settled, his militant activities continued through the formation of the First International in 1864 and until his death in 1883. Here was a man in whom preoccupation in the field of thought was not an excuse for withdrawing from action, but a reason for active participation. His life concretized the interrelation between, the unity of thought and action.

So you see that the picture of Karl Marx with his nose in a book at the British Museum, the world passing him by outside, is false. Equally false is the conception of Marx as a one-track specialist, as a man rutted in his particular field, the field of political economy. On the contrary, he was .a man of wide knowledge, deep interests and many ambitions for intellectual accomplishment.

For instance, this political economist loved poetry, knew the great poetry of all Europe, admired Dante, Burns, the Greek poet Aeschylus and especially Shakespeare. He was a reader of great novels, those of Paul De Koch, Charles Lever, Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott, Cervantes and Balzac headed his list of favorites. It is known that Marx had hoped to write a critique of Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine.

Zest for Life

Among his ambitions outside the field of political, economy was to write a drama based on the Gracchi of ancient Rome, a dissertation on logic, a history of philosophy. His penchant for mathematics was well known; he did produce a work on infinitesimals. His masterly knowledge of history and philosophy was admitted even by his worst opponents. To him language was no barrier; he read all the European languages and wrote in three, German, French and English. At one time he learned the formidable Russian language in order to be able to read reports of official investigations which the Russian government had suppressed but which some friends had procured for him.

Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, copyist, helper and friend, said of Marx: “He stood high above his own works.” John Swinton, an American journalist who interviewed Marx and reported the interview in the New York Sun of September 6, 1880, wrote among other things: “His dialogue reminded me of that of Socrates – so free, so sweeping, so creative, so incisive, so genuine – with its sardonic touches, its gleam of humor and merriment.” I quote the above to indicate to the reader how Marx appeared to the objective observer. He was no habit-bound “specialist” trudging along from an inner compulsion or from blank inertia. He was a man of passion, a passion for his chosen work, for all learning, for all of life.

This is a good place to stop. I did not write the above because of hero worship, I can look at Marx as objectively as at any other human being – possibly just because I’m a Marxist. Neither do I endorse the un-Marxian platitude “Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime.” Only a few of us can be “sublime.” I emphasize the above traits of Marx because many of us have a tendency to remember only the ideological contributions of our revolutionary great men, abstracting the contributions from the personalities involved and forgetting all about the character traits making possible the unique work. It’s good for us to be reminded of these traits. It’s good for our own characters to have a feeling-appreciation of Marx’s scientific passion, of the unity of thought and action in his being, and of his diversified accomplishments and zest for life as a whole.

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