A Protracted, Positive-Sum Struggle (2013)

49 minutes

This is Chapter III of Domenico Losurdo’s Class Struggle (2013). [1] In this book Losurdo focuses on making the case that Marx and Engels advocated for reading class struggles in the plural, as “a general theory of social conflict”:

We must make a tripartite distinction between the struggle whose protagonists are peoples in colonial or semi-colonial conditions; the struggle waged by the working class in the capitalist metropolis (the one on which Marx and Engels were particularly focused); and the struggle of women against “domestic slavery.” Each of these three struggles challenges the prevailing division of labour internationally, nationally, and within the family. [2]

In his capacity as a professional historian of German thought Losurdo produced individual works focusing on Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger (among many other works). This volume is particularly interesting because it is effectively the “Marx and Engels” entry in that series. As with its siblings, a careful read of the source material allows Losurdo to convincingly dismantle a lot of well-entrenched distorsions of their work, distorsions promoted not only by their enemies but also very often by their supporters. All throughout, he also illustrates how these differences are not only of academic interest: theoretical errors have practical consequences.


“Universal Levelling” or “Great Divergence”?

The Communist Manifesto theorizes class struggle on the basis of an analysis of the bourgeois society that was increasingly becoming established in the West. But had such a view not already been refuted by the disappearance of the ancien régime, organized as it was into stable, naturally fixed estates and its replacement by a social order characterized by social mobility? In Tocqueville’s view, the advent of industrial, democratic society rendered struggles belonging to a superseded social stage obsolete. Democracy in America asserts that “castes disappear and the classes of society draw together.” In fact, “so to speak, there are no longer any classes.” At least as regards the West, they belonged to the past; and in any event, societies where “the members of a community are divided into castes and classes” were destined to fade away. [3]

This was not a prediction formulated solely with a view to the USA—a country without a long feudal past behind it. In fact, we are dealing with a sociological analysis conjoined with a discourse in the philosophy of history. According to the French liberal, from the eleventh century onwards “a two-fold revolution … in the state of society” had been underway in the West. Indeed, “[t]he noble has gone down the social ladder, and the commoner has gone up; the one descends as the other rises. Every half-century brings them nearer to each other, and they will soon meet.” Everything was working in concert to this end. Now, not only landed wealth but also “personal property” could “confer influence and power.” This already served to undermine the privileges and domination of the aristocracy. Along with property in its various forms, “the exercise of the intellect became a source of strength and of wealth,” so that “every discovery in the arts, every improvement in commerce [and] manufactures, created so many new elements of equality among men.” All the various factors of the modern world “seemed to co-operate to enrich the poor and impoverish the rich.” In conclusion, the tendency towards “universal levelling” was irreversible; it could not be blocked or even slowed down, especially given that the wealthy were “few and powerless” and therefore incapable of mounting effective resistance. There was no doubt that a higher will was presiding over this: “the gradual development of the principle of equality is … a providential fact. It has all the chief characteristics of such a fact: it is universal, it is lasting, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events, as well as all men contribute to its progress.” [4]

The passages I have just cited are from Volumes One and Two of Democracy in America and thus date from 1835 and 1840, respectively. In subsequent years, with his focus on France and Britain, Tocqueville drew a significantly different picture: “equality is gradually extending its dominion everywhere except industry, which is organized in an ever more aristocratic [and hierarchical] form”; a relationship of “strict dependency” bound the wage worker to the employer. As regards both power relations and the distribution of social wealth, equality was far off: “the organized forces of a multitude produce for the benefit of one man.” In sum, “[h]ere the slave, there the master; here the wealth of a few, there the poverty of the overwhelming majority.” Lying in wait were “slave wars.” [5] Initially ignored, the reality of social classes, and social classes ready to square up in a trial of strength, makes its abrupt appearance. Now, it is no longer equality, but precisely inequality, that has been sanctioned by a higher will, as emerges from the polemic against the “economic and political theories” which would have us “believe that human misfortunes are the effects of laws and not of Providence and that poverty can be abolished by changing the social order.” [6]

However, publishing the twelfth edition of Democracy in America immediately after the 1848 revolution, Tocqueville reiterated the viewpoint expressed “fifteen years” earlier about the irresistible and providential character of the march of equality in the USA and the West as a whole. [7] But how can the thesis of the impoverishment of the wealthy and enrichment of the poor be reconciled with the warning against social polarization so stark as to elicit fears about the eruption of “slave wars”? It remains the case that the French liberal refused to query the view that “universal levelling” was impending in the West. Initially ignored, and then occasionally conceded, the reality of classes and class struggle was now in a sense repressed. In fact, this repression, manifestly prompted by a political concern to cushion and contain the resentment of the subaltern classes, sounds like an involuntary confirmation. [8]

The surviving power of wealth, notwithstanding the eclipse of the ancien régime, was also clearly underestimated by J. S. Mill, who in 1861 expressed concern that seems very strange today. He feared that with the extension of the suffrage the “working classes,” much more widespread and numerous in Britain (and Europe) than the USA (at the time still scarcely industrialized), might win an electoral majority and utilize it for the purposes of “substituting the class ascendancy of the poor for that of the rich.” The government of the “numerical majority” would end up enacting “class legislation,” in the sense that it would sanction “collective despotism,” or the uncontested power of a majority of the poor over a minority of the wealthy. [9] To avert this danger, Mill recommended plural voting by those deemed more intelligent and those who performed more demanding tasks — for example, entrepreneurs. This would enable the rich to preserve a presence, albeit an exiguous one, in representative bodies. The English liberal reached the same conclusion as Tocqueville: the wealthy person was now isolated and impotent. Hence, the class struggle of the proletariat was either superfluous or a harbinger of disaster. [10]

Although entangling himself in serious contradictions, Tocqueville prophesied the advent of “universal levelling” in the West. At the same time, he registered and rejoiced at the gulf being created between the West and the rest of the world. The relationship that made “a few million men” — Westerners — “the rulers of their whole species” was “manifestly preordained in the provisions of Providence.” [11] Similarly, while he cautioned against a process of democratization so far advanced in the West as to condemn wealth to isolation and impotence, Mill celebrated the “vigorous despotism” exercised internationally by the West (and its dominant classes). Far from being negative, this relationship of extreme inequality must be extended to embrace the whole globe; “it is already common, and is rapidly tending to become the universal, condition of the more backward populations, to be held … in direct subjection by the more advanced.” [12]

The extremely unequal relationship prevailing internationally did not only concern the distribution of political and military power. Tocqueville wrote: “the discovery of America opened a thousand new paths to fortune and led obscure adventurers to wealth and power.” [13] The same motivation might impel French citizens to transfer to the colonies and, in particular, Algeria: “to get inhabitants to come to such a country, it is first of all necessary to offer them great opportunities to make their fortune”; “the most fertile and best irrigated land” must be reserved for them. [14] In this way, colonial expansion (in America and Algeria) generated remarkable social mobility, opening up access to wealth even to individuals of popular extraction, thereby confirming the process of “universal levelling.” But this was only one side of the coin. It was the French liberal himself who acknowledged that as a result of the process of colonization, the Arab population in Algeria was “literally dying of hunger” while the Native Americans were on the point of being wiped off the face of the earth. [15] That is, if it reduced inequalities in the metropolis and within the white community, the enrichment of “adventurers” and colonists created an ever wider gulf between conquistadors and subject peoples. Constantly, and exclusively, adopting the standpoint of the “Christian world” or the West, Tocqueville did not appreciate the nexus between these contradictory aspects of a single phenomenon and was never induced to problematize his view of the irresistible march of equality of conditions and the disappearance not only of “castes,” but also of “classes.”

The Communist Manifesto seems to answer the two liberal authors: “the modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.” [16] Indeed, with voting rights having been obtained by the popular masses and the abolition of censitary discrimination, wealth lost its immediate political significance, but could henceforth precisely celebrate its triumph: mass poverty now pertained to a private sphere where public power had no right to intervene. This was a triumph which the capitalist bourgeoisie could also celebrate internationally, giving impetus to colonial expansion and enslaving and decimating entire populations.

By way of confirmation of the irresistible tendency to “universal levelling” and equality between “commoner” and “noble,” Tocqueville asserted that “literature became an arsenal open to all.” [17] The German Ideology argues very differently: “the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it.” [18]

Far from being synonymous with “universal levelling,” the bourgeois revolution involved the accentuation of inequalities at many levels. Internationally, what has been called the “great divergence” between the prosperous West and the rest of the planet derived from it. [19] In 1820 China, for centuries or millennia eminently placed in the development of human civilization, still boasted a GDP amounting to 32.4 % of the world GDP, while “Chinese life expectancy (and thus nutrition) was at roughly English levels (and so above Continental ones) even in the late 1700s. At the time of its foundation (1949), the People’s Republic of China was the poorest country in the world or among the poorest. The history of India is not very different. In 1820, it still accounted for 15.7 % of global GDP, before likewise succumbing to desperate poverty.” [20] This is a process that can be understood starting from Marx (and the section of Capital devoted to “primitive accumulation”), but which is far beyond the range of Tocqueville, who tended to offer an apologetic description of the world he inhabited.

In any event, far from rendering class struggle obsolete through “universal levelling,” bourgeois society aggravates national and international inequalities, which can only be contested through class struggle.

Obsolescence of War?

With the advent of industrial democracy, is the phenomenon of war destined to disappear along with class struggle? Kant’s hopes that the end of the ancien régime and the patrimonial conception of the state would lead to an international order marked by peace were dashed by the post-Thermidorian and Napoleonic Wars. But they seemed to enjoy a new lease of life after the July Revolution, with the fading of the antagonism between France and Britain and the consolidation of the Pax Britannica. This is the context in which to locate Tocqueville’s thesis that modern democratic society lacks the objective basis for war, even if the ambition of military men of modest social origin, eager to forge a career by distinguishing themselves on the battlefield, invariably played a role. [21] Other authors, rather than assigning it to the representative regime, entrusted the realization of the ideal of perpetual peace to the development of industrial and commercial society. The world market supposedly rendered state and national borders less significant and bound peoples in ever closer, ultimately indissoluble links of interest, mutual respect, and friendship. Such was the argument of Benjamin Constant and, above all, Herbert Spencer.

At times, the Communist Manifesto betrays the influence of this discourse: “[n]ational differences and antagonisms are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.” It seems to attest to a waning of the phenomenon of war in the wake of the development of capitalism, without having to wait for communism: “[i]n proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.” [22] On the other hand, it is the Manifesto which, as we know, rejects the harmonious vision of what would today be called the process of globalization. A similar oscillation runs through a speech made by Marx in Brussels in January 1848. Free trade “[tears] down the few national barriers which still restrict the free development of capital,” leaving space for nothing but the “antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie,” which paves the way for the “social revolution.” [23] However, the same speech contains the assertion that free trade accentuates contradictions internationally as well:

We have shown what sort of fraternity Free Trade begets between the different classes of one and the same nation. The fraternity which Free Trade would establish between the nations of the earth would not be more real[;] to call cosmopolitan exploitation universal brotherhood is an idea that could only be engendered in the brain of the bourgeoisie. [24]

This became Marx and Engels’ settled view. Only a few months later, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung criticized Arnold Ruge for not having understood that the phenomenon of war did not, in fact, disappear with the feudal regime. Rather than being “natural allies,” countries where the bourgeoisie was dominant were divided by ruthless competition, the outcome of which could be war. [25] Such competition also aimed at despoliation of colonial peoples. Notwithstanding Spencer’s contrary opinion, the advent of industrial capitalist society did not betoken the disappearance of war as a tool of enrichment. It sufficed to glance at “piratical wars” and “piratical expeditions against China, Cochin-China, and so forth.” [26].

Far from being synonymous with peaceful development, Capital subsequently stressed, the capitalist system involved “brute force.” Conjoined with wars (of enslavement and even extermination) against “barbarians” were rivalry and conflict in the “civilized world” between the great powers, who were the protagonists and beneficiaries of colonial expansion and despoliation. Overall, what characterized capitalism was “the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.” It “begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimension in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, etc.” [27] The “commercial war of the European nations” recalls the “industrial war of extermination between nations” alluded to by the Manifesto. In any event, the historical period from the emergence of Holland (the first country to shake off the yoke of the ancien régime) to the rise of liberal (and imperial) Great Britain was quite the reverse of a prelude to the advent of perpetual peace.

For war to be eradicated, it was not enough for one exploiting class to replace another, as in the bourgeois revolution: the system of exploitation and oppression, domestic and global, must be eliminated in its entirety. This is the sense in which, in July 1870, taking a position on the Franco-German war that had just broken out, a text written by Marx for the International Working Men’s Association called for a struggle for “a new society … whose International rule will be Peace, because its national ruler will everywhere be the same — Labour!”. [28]

This analysis is virtually contemporaneous with that of J. S. Mill, who celebrated the British Empire as “a step … towards universal peace, and general friendly co-operation among nations.” In support of this thesis, a peculiar argument is advanced. The gigantic (albeit “unequal”) “federation” that was the British Empire embodied the cause of “liberty” and international “morality” to a greater extent “than any other great nation seems to conceive as possible or recognise as desirable.” Hence, backward populations had an interest in becoming part of it, so as to avoid “being absorbed into a foreign state, and becoming a source of additional aggressive strength to some rival power.” [29] Homage to “universal peace” fails to conceal the reality of colonial wars, set to “absorb” this or that colony, and the rivalry which was a harbinger of larger-scale wars between Great Britain, celebrated as the embodiment of the cause of peace, and “some rival power,” suspected of the worrying design of seeking to enhance its “aggressive strength.”

While Mill sought to demonstrate the disappearance of war on the basis of the imperialist rivalry actually priming it, Tocqueville, in the very title of a key chapter of Volume Two of Democracy in America, claimed that “Great Revolutions Will Become More Rare.” In the event, the century and a half since such predictions were ventured represent what is perhaps the historical period richest in wars and revolutions. And now let us read Marx. A few years after the publication of the text just cited, in a letter of 28 December 1846, starting from “the conflict between the productive forces already acquired by man, and his social relations, which no longer correspond to those productive forces,” he evoked “the terrible wars now imminent between the various classes of a nation and between the various nations.” [30] Shortly thereafter, the Communist Manifesto discerned on the horizon either proletarian revolutions (or “bourgeois revolutions” liable to be transformed into “proletarian revolutions”), or “agrarian revolutions” as a precondition of “national emancipation,” [31] against an order that exuded violence not only because it was based on social and national oppression, but also because it secreted the danger of competition between the various capitalist bourgeoisies issuing in a catastrophic confrontation. On the basis of the theory of class struggle, Marx was in a sense able to foresee the upheavals of the twentieth century.

An Eternal Conflict between Masters and Slaves?

Adequately to understand Marx’s theory of class struggle, it is not enough to distinguish it from the thesis of those who regard the end of the ancien régime as the start of the disappearance, or dramatic reduction, of socio-political conflict at home and abroad. In a famous letter of 5 March 1852, Marx observed: “as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them.” In their different ways, bourgeois historians and economists had spoken of it long before him. The true novelty of historical materialism lay in its assertion of the historically determinate and transient character of societies based on class struggle and class domination. [32]

The date is the mid-nineteenth century. In the light of subsequent developments, we might undertake a comparison with other authors. While the Communist Manifesto referred to “class struggles,” Nietzsche likewise saw a “struggle between estates and classes” (Stände- und Classenkampf) unfolding in history. [33]

While the authors of the Manifesto repeatedly compared and juxtaposed modern wage slavery with black slavery, on several occasions both Nietzsche and, across the Atlantic, the ideologues of the slave-holding South argued in a similar vein, with a view to demonstrating the inanity of the abolitionist project. If, in Marx and Engels’ view, capitalist society had substituted modern slavery for mediaeval serfdom, which had in its time supplanted the slavery proper of classical antiquity, for Nietzsche in Europe and the southern ideologues in the USA the servile subjection of labour was an essential, ineliminable foundation of civilization. In the words of arguably the most illustrious of them, John C. Calhoun, “I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other […]. There is and always has been, in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital.” [34]

“Struggle between estates and classes”; the permanence of “slavery” even in a social order that has formally abolished it; “conflict between labour and capital” — the conceptual analogies do not stop there. In Nietzsche, we find two more key categories of Marxian discourse. He refers to the “surplus labour” (Mehrarbeit) extracted from slaves and workers, who are thereby subject to “exploitation” (Ausbeutung). [35] Where, then, are the differences?

In the theorist of “aristocratic radicalism,” the extortion of “surplus labour” and “exploitation” are the expression of a general, irrepressible tendency of natural and social reality, of life as such. It should be added that in Marx and Engels not only can slavery in all its forms be overcome, but these forms are not equivalent. Already in an early writing (The Holy Family), they criticized the Jacobins for having confused the “real slavery” (wirkliches Sklaventum) of the ancient world with the “emancipated slavery” (emanzipiertes Sklaventum) of the modern world. [36] The adjective certainly does not cancel the substantive and yet is not devoid of significance either. We subsequently saw The Poverty of Philosophy denouncing the as it were masked slavery prevalent in Europe. The “mask” referred to here is like the “appearance” (Schein) referred to in Hegel’s logic, [37] which expresses a level of reality, albeit a superficial one.

We can now understand why, on the outbreak of the American Civil War, Marx and Engels took a clear position in favour of the Union. From the outset they urged it to wage a revolutionary war against the South to abolish black slavery. And yet in the North the slavery to which wage-labour was subjected was alive and well — the slavery to which Capital, taking up the Declaration of the General Congress of Labour at Baltimore, defined as “capitalistic slavery.” [38] The fact is that the “indirect slavery” (indirekte Sklaverei) of whites in Britain was not the same thing as the “direct slavery [direkte Sklaverei] of the black men on the other side of the Atlantic.” [39] The “direct forced labour” imposed on the slave could not be equated with the indirect economic coercion to which the wage worker, the at least formally “free labourer,” was subject. [40] In fact, when the Civil War exploded in the USA, and there was no shortage of sympathizers with the South in Europe, Marx was concerned to avoid any ambiguity. Shelving traditional denunciation of the “indirect slavery” inherent in the capitalist system, he repeatedly called for a struggle to defend “the system of free labour” against “the system of slavery.” [41]

Certainly, Engels observed in 1885, with the end of the Civil War an attempt was made to replace “open Negro slavery” (formally abolished) with the “disguised slavery of Indian and Chinese coolies.” [42] Here, in the context of a discussion of the slavery affecting labour to different degrees, we find a dual differentiation. On the one hand, there is a distinction between “open” and “disguised” forms of slavery, respectively imposed on blacks and Indians and Chinese, but always on colonial populations or populations with colonial origins. On the other, in the capitalist metropolis, the struggle for the reduction and regulation of the working day seemed to have attenuated what remained slave-like in the condition of labour in capitalist society, and be capable of further attenuating it.

Hence, in Nietzsche (as in Calhoun) we can indeed find key categories of Marx’s discourse. In the latter, however, analysis of the conflict between capital and labour is a history of the progressive emancipation of labour which, albeit partially, does occur and which it is possible to achieve through class struggle in the framework of existing society. In Nietzsche, by contrast, the conflict is schematically reduced — sometimes in a heavily naturalistically sense, outside any concrete historical dialectic — to the antagonism eternally pitting masters and slaves against one another. Consequently, the class struggle of those who are subject to slavery in its ancient or modern, open or disguised, form—the revolt of a “barbaric caste of slaves” — cannot accomplish any real emancipation, but only mean disaster for civilization.

The Proletariat, Class Interest, and its Transcendence

In Marx and Engels, not only is there no eternal clash between masters and slaves, but the latter, definitively abolishing social relations based on domination and exploitation, create an order which, from a strategic perspective, yields richer, more fulfilling forms of existence for the ex-masters as well.

Let us first see what happens to the development of the productive forces. By terminating the crises of the over-production characteristic of bourgeois society, the socialist revolution promotes the development of the productive forces. The proletarian is the first, most direct beneficiary of the supersession of a system that seeks to transform him or her into an “ascetic but productive slave.” [43] But she is not the sole beneficiary of the overall growth in social wealth.

Of particular importance is what occurs intellectually and morally. The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 stress that the capitalist system involves the dehumanization of the agents of the exploitation of labour: “[p]roduction does not simply produce man as a commodity, the human commodity, man in the role of commodity; it produces him in keeping with this role as a mentally and physically dehumanised being. — Immorality, deformity, and dulling of the workers and capitalists.” [44] Along with the exploited, the process of stupefaction and commodification ends up engulfing the exploiters themselves. This is a thesis reiterated in The Holy Family:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognises estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. [45]

Although primarily and especially afflicting the worker, who “is less than a human being to the bourgeois,” and who is exploited and “used as mere material, a mere chattel,” the processes of impoverishment of social relations and reification invest capitalist society as a whole: “people regard each other only as useful objects.” [46] No one — not even the bourgeois — is spared.

It is not a thesis restricted to the early works. In describing the horror of primitive capitalist accumulation, Capital invites readers “to see what the bourgeoisie makes of itself and of the labourer, wherever it can, without restraint, model the world after its own image.” [47] The capitalist master “is rooted in that alienation process and finds in it his absolute satisfaction, whereas the worker, as its victim, stands from the outset in a relation of rebellion towards it and perceives it as a process of enslavement” (Knechtungsproceß). [48] Once victory has been obtained, however, the workers’ “rebellion” ends up liberating the capitalist boss himself from alienation.

This also applies to individual reforms imposed by the workers’ class struggle in bourgeois society. In some respects, the reduction of the working day may prove beneficial for those who do everything in their power to prevent it. Let us read Capital: “[w]ith suppressed irony, and in very well weighed words, the Factory Inspectors hint that the actual law also frees the capitalist from some of the brutality natural to a man who is a mere embodiment of capital, and that it has given him time for a little ‘culture’.” [49] In other words, if the proletariat has a material interest, as well as an intellectual and moral one, in overthrowing capitalist class rule, individuals and sections of the exploiting class itself could develop an intellectual and moral interest in being rid of the existing order. This is a point stressed above all by Engels, who was himself a “capitalist.” To be precise, he suggested that the more farsighted bourgeois could have an interest in the transformation of society that goes beyond the intellectual and moral level proper. Take the consequences in England of the terrible degradation of working-class and popular districts, which were structured like ghettos. Attempts were made “to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement of their wealth.” But however sophisticated this “hypocritical plan,” this “shameful method of construction,” it could not erase the disfigurement of the urban landscape, which remained an eyesore for everyone. [50]

Working-class and popular districts-ghettos were also repugnant when it came to hygiene and hence, were liable to epidemics. With the spread of cholera in Manchester, “a universal terror seized the bourgeoisie of the city. People remembered the unwholesome dwellings of the poor, and trembled before the certainty that each of these slums would become a centre for the plague, whence it would spread desolation in all directions through the houses of the propertied classes.” [51] Although reserving its most serious consequences for the workers massed and confined in factories and unhealthy districts, the logic of capitalist profit wreaked general devastation.

This also applied to other aspects of social existence. No one should be indifferent to the polarization of wealth and poverty inherent in bourgeois society. It was the source of “the social war, the war of each against all” and general insecurity, which placed “every man’s house in a state of siege.” [52] In this case too, the existing social order involved negative consequences for the dominant class itself.

But to what extent could individual members of the capitalist bourgeoisie be held responsible? Having drawn attention to the ruinous consequences for the proletariat of the unbridled hunt for “profit” (“premature death,” “torture of overwork,” etc.), Capital feels the need to add: “looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of ‘external coercive laws’ having power over every individual capitalist.” [53] While it mainly impacted upon the proletarian, the “relation of compulsion” between capital and labour did not spare the individual capitalist, likewise subject to a “coercive law” imposed on him from without. [54] He was “but one of the wheels … of the social mechanism.” [55] Going yet further, the young Engels wrote that socialism/communism applies the principle of “the irresponsibility of the individual” when analysing the modus operandi of the social order. For this very reason, “the more the English workers absorb communistic ideas, the more superfluous becomes their present bitterness” towards their oppressors as individuals (with a commensurate reduction in the violent charge of the anti-capitalist revolution). [56]

For Marx and Engels it was a question of abolishing not only class exploitation in a single country, but also national oppression. And we once again encounter the base line with which we are already familiar: while they primarily and directly addressed the oppressed, they not only called upon the proletariat of the oppressor country not to make common cause with the privileged classes, but did not even close the door to the most enlightened members of those classes. We shall find the thesis that “a people which oppresses another people is not free” repeatedly formulated. Like the “social war” inside a country, a fortiori the latent or open state of war between peoples induces a more or less general “state of emergency” and hence, a restriction of liberty for the oppressor too.

So it is the overwhelming majority of humanity that has an interest in the impending social revolution. The sections and members of the exploiting class and oppressor nation most inclined to theoretical study and moral reflection are invited not to lose sight of the grave practical drawbacks and general human devastation created by the social system, of which they are nevertheless beneficiaries in immediate material terms. Being a communist certainly means appealing to the class struggle waged by the oppressed (internationally, nationally, and within the family). But it also means having developed the capacity to see things in their totality. In this sense, the young Engels asserted that “[c]ommunism stands above the strife between bourgeoisie and proletariat” and thus was different from “purely proletarian Chartism,” which contained residues of corporatism. [57]

Marx “against” Nietzsche (and Foucault)

Something remarkable has emerged: on the one hand, there is no escaping the class struggle; on the other, it has a tendency to transcend itself, pursuing and realizing objectives liable to be universally welcomed. How is this possible? The authors of the Communist Manifesto evinced an ethos of reason and science throughout their careers: “truth is general, it does not belong to me alone, it belongs to all, it owns me.” [58] When he expressed himself thus, in manifestly Hegelian accents, Marx was only 24 years old, but he remained loyal to this view to the end. Capital forcefully asserts that the “outward appearance” or “delusive appearance” of a phenomenon does not coincide with its “essence”; and hence, a prolonged, laborious intellectual engagement was required to achieve “science,” “scientific truth.” [59]

Has conflict disappeared? That is not the point. The ethos of reason and scientific truth does not prevent Marx from stressing that in bourgeois society science is pressed into “the service of capital.” The history and critique of “the capitalist employment of machinery” in Capital are precisely the history and critique of the capitalist use of science. [60] In 1854, Engels declared that he sought to respect “the principle that military science, like mathematics or geography, has no particular political opinion.” [61] Obviously, in saying this, he was not unaware that “military science” played a key role in the class struggle, be it in wars between opposed capitalist bourgeoisies or civil wars and colonial wars. But those capable of analysing and evaluating the logic, internal consistency and efficacy of the various sciences could also condemn their utilization in the service of capitalism and colonialism (or other causes).

This is a discourse that does not only hold good for the applied sciences. As is clear from their critique of what I have characterized as court Enlightenment, Marx and Engels were perfectly well aware that reason and the light of reason can be employed to justify domination and oppression. However, this can be highlighted and refuted only through a new, more cogent and compelling recourse to reason and the light of reason. In other words, we are dealing with a critique of Enlightenment very different from that which has found expression in our day in Hans-Georg Gadamer. He writes: “the fundamental prejudice of the Enlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself, which denies tradition its power.” [62] In this way, Gadamer equates two very different attitudes. Appealing to reason and submitting to its control, Enlightenment “prejudice” is capable of challenging itself; not so anti-Enlightenment prejudice. Reason can understand what is rational in prejudice and how much prejudice there is in the historically and socially determinate forms taken by reason. Prejudice is incapable of an analogous operation: it refuses to submit itself, and the tradition to which it pertains, to the authority of reason.

While for Gadamer everything is affected by “prejudice,” for Nietzsche everything is profoundly marked by conflict. No cultural expression can claim an even relative and partial autonomy. Take the science of physics: the attempt to discover in nature regularity, law, equality, the alleged “conformity of nature to law,” goes hand in hand with alleged “equality before the law” (which governs the judicial order deriving from the fall of the ancien régime). This is “a nice example of ulterior motives, disguising once again the plebeian hostility against everything privileged and aristocratic.” Ultimately, to cry “long live natural law!” in the manner of physicists, is merely another way of crying “Ni Dieu, ni maître” in the manner of anarchists. Indeed, modernity and the reason cherished by it are characterized by “resistance to every special claim, special right and privilege.” [63]

The interpretation of philosophical and scientific arguments in an anti-aristocratic key is thus not as new as it might first seem. Let us glance at the intellectual tradition behind Marx. It was Kant who noted that “rigorous universality,” peculiar to reason, precluded “any exception.” [64] In his turn, Hegel asserted that philosophy, “as the science of reason, on account of the universal mode of its being and in accordance with its nature, is a science for everyone.” [65] Granted the different (opposite) value judgement, Nietzsche concurred with this thesis. He was not wrong to stress that the “syllogism” dear to Socrates is apparently merely a formal rule of discourse that does not pursue particular political objectives. In reality, however, inherent in recourse to the “syllogism,” to logical-rational discourse in which all human beings can participate, and which is thereby distinguished from the esoteric, aristocratic revelation of a sapient truth, is the lethal plebeian “knife-thrust.” [66] That is to say, the “syllogism,” or logical-rational discourse, is not politically more pure than sapient discourse. A comparison of these two types of discourse yields the same result as emerged from the contrast between two different types of “prejudice” (Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment): logical-rational discourse is capable of refuting itself and understanding what might be valid in another kind of discourse; sapient discourse is incapable of any such operation. Not coincidentally, in order to measure up to Socrates polemically, Nietzsche lapses into a performative contradiction. He seeks to demonstrate the beneficent character of aristocratic privilege by himself resorting to logical argument, which by definition places all interlocutors on the same level and excludes any privilege. Availing himself of logical-rational arguments, the champion of “aristocratic radicalism” in a sense discredits sapient discourse and makes the plebeian “knife-thrust” he condemns in Socrates.

If Nietzsche runs into a blatant performative contradiction, how can Marx and Engels combine an ethos of class struggle with an ethos of reason and science? Reason can certainly be employed to justify privilege, domination and oppression. Yet, as Nietzsche recognizes, inherent in it is the tendency to assert relations of equality, and hence, to delegitimize privilege, domination, and oppression. Emancipatory class struggle and reason have a tendency to converge.

In addition, far from being the eternal clash between masters and slaves referred to by Nietzsche and Calhoun, class struggle involves constant developments and mutations. The result of this is what might be defined as processes of objectification. Although manifestly “bound up with certain forms of social development” (observes Marx), “Greek art and epic poetry … still give us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable model.” [67] The political and social conflicts that inspired these masterpieces are now in the past. Not only does aesthetic enjoyment remain, however, but men and women from the most diverse social backgrounds and political positions partake of it or tend to. A process of objectification has occurred.

This does not apply only to art. The Ptolemaic vision of the universe was refuted and defeated during a bitter ideological confrontation. Yet even the heirs of those who condemned Galileo some centuries ago wound up identifying with heliocentrism. What has just been observed of the Ptolemaic system might easily be extended to the so-called “Donation of Constantine.” The alleged testament of the Roman Emperor, which legitimized the temporal power of the Catholic Church, is no longer taken seriously even by those most loyal to the Catholic Church. We might argue in similar fashion for the Socratic syllogism and science of physics targeted by Nietzsche. In our day, however aristocratic, and however great its admiration for the philosopher of “aristocratic radicalism,” a political movement or government may affect an air of superiority towards the plebeianism of the syllogism, but it will find it difficult to banish physical science as anarchical. We might sum up Marx’s viewpoint thus: everything is prey to conflict, but not in the same way and, in any event, not in a way that is immutable over time.

However, we must go further if we wish to understand the relationship between reason and power established by the champion of “aristocratic radicalism,” on the one hand, and the theorist of emancipatory class struggle, on the other. Over and above reason, the former sought to challenge the concept of man as such. There is not, and cannot be, a community of the concept and reason because there is not, and cannot be, a human community in the true sense. The condemnation of the plebeianism inherent in logical science, as in physical science, goes hand in hand in Nietzsche with a nominalist deconstruction of the universal concept of man, with a critique of “the bloodless abstraction ‘man’,” that “general pale fiction,” [68] with affirmation of the thesis that “most are no one,” and cannot be subsumed under the category of man or the individual, given that they are “bearers, tools of transmission,” exactly like Aristotle’s slaves. [69] The opposite is true for Marx: the ethos of the community of the concept and reason goes hand in hand with the ethos of human community, which is the inspiration for emancipatory class struggle.

Those (one thinks particularly of Michel Foucault) who have discovered a more radical critique of domination in Nietzsche than Marx (who supposedly stopped half-way, as demonstrated by his genuflection to reason and science), argue in mistaken and misleading fashion. In reality, in the theorist of aristocratic radicalism, the non-transcendability of conflict through reason ultimately refers to the irreparable naturalistic rift splitting the human community into masters and slaves, successes and failures.

Marx and Engels’ attitude to the relationship between class struggle and reason proves all the more persuasive if we glance at the history of the political movement inspired by them. In the course of that history, prompted by horror at the carnage of the First World War and the need to break radically with the past, a kind of spontaneous Foucaultianism avant la lettre emerged, which set off in search of power relations to unmask and condemn in any and every context. The result was far from positive. The direct identification of reason with domination encouraged the emergence of a hermeneutic of universal suspicion and greatly compromised the space of inter-subjective communication. Ignoring its argumentative basis and logical structure, it interpreted any proposition as an expression of class struggle. Furthermore, the construction of post-capitalist society was rendered even more difficult by a “microphysics of power” that denounced the advent of new forms of power and domination in the regulation of any relationship or institution, in the judicial order as such. This basically anarchistic attitude created an enormous void, without rules, which could only be filled by direct violence and the indefinite continuation of the direct violence contained in the revolution.

[1] This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 International License [web], which permits any noncommercial use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and indicate if changes were made. 

[2] Domenico Losurdo, 2013. Class Struggles, p. 44. 

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, London: Everyman’s Library, 1994, Vol. 2, pp. 32, 4, 282 n. 

[4] Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 5–6; Vol. 2, p. 252. 

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Jacob-Peter Mayer, Paris: Gallimard, 1951–, Vol. 5, pt. 2, pp. 80–82; Vol. 3, pt. 2, p. 727. 

[6] Ibid., Vol. 12, pp. 92–4, 84. 

[7] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, p. lxiii. 

[8] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government, ed. Harry B. Acton, London: Dent, 1972, p. 269. 

[9] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government, ed. Harry B. Acton, London: Dent, 1972, p. 269. 

[10] Tocqueville, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 9, pp. 243–4. 

[11] Tocqueville, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 9, pp. 243–4. 

[12] Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government, p. 382. 

[13] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, p. 6. 

[14] Tocqueville, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. 259, 321–2. 

[15] Ibid., Vol. 15, pt. 1, pp. 224–5; Democracy in America, Vol. 1, pp. 339, 355. 

[16] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975–2004, Vol. 6, p. 485. 

[17] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, p. 5. 

[18] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 59. 

[19] See Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton and Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2000. 

[20] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, London and New York: Verso, 2001, p. 293. 

[21] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, p. 264ff. 

[22] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 503. 

[23] Ibid., Vol. 6, pp. 463, 465. 

[24] Ibid., Vol. 6, p. 464. 

[25] Ibid., Vol. 7, pp. 372–6. 

[26] Ibid., Vol. 20, p. 13; Vol. 19, p. 30. 

[27] Ibid., Vol. 35, p. 739. 

[28] Ibid., Vol. 22, p. 7. 

[29] Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government, p. 380. 

[30] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 103. 

[31] Ibid., Vol. 6, pp. 518–19. 

[32] Ibid., Vol. 39, pp. 62, 65. 

[33] Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke, Kritische Studienausgabe, ed., Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Munich: DTV-de Gruyter, 1988, Vol. 12, p. 493. 

[34] John C. Calhoun, Union and Liberty, ed. R.M. Lence, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1992, pp. 474–5. 

[35] See Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico. Biografia intellettuale e bilancio critico, Turin: Bollatti Boringhieri, 2002, Chapter 12, §7 and Chapter 20, §8. 

[36] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 122. 

[37] G.W.F. Hegel, Werke in zwanzig Bänden, ed. E. Moldenhauer and K.M. Michel, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969–79, Vol. 6, pp. 17–24. 

[38] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 35, p. 305. 

[39] Ibid., Vol. 19, p. 20. 

[40] Ibid., Vol. 28, pp. 176, 522. 

[41] Ibid., Vol. 19, pp. 44, 50. 

[42] Ibid., Vol. 6, p. 168 n. 

[43] Ibid., Vol. 3, p. 309. 

[44] Ibid., Vol. 3, p. 284. 

[45] Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 36. 

[46] Ibid., Vol. 4, pp. 420, 355, 329. 

[47] Ibid., Vol. 35, p. 740 n. 

[48] Ibid., Vol. 34, p. 399. 

[49] Ibid., Vol. 35, p. 307 n. 

[50] Ibid., Vol. 4, pp. 348–9. 

[51] Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 365. 

[52] Ibid., Vol. 4, pp. 329–30. 

[53] Ibid., Vol. 35, pp. 275–6. 

[54] Ibid., Vol. 34, p. 426. 

[55] Ibid., Vol. 35, p. 588. 

[56] Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 582. 

[57] Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 582. 

[58] Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 112. 

[59] Ibid., Vol. 37, p. 804; Vol. 20, p. 127. 

[60] Ibid., Vol. 35, pp. 366, 444. 

[61] Ibid., Vol. 39, p. 425. 

[62] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 283. 

[63] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil,” in Beyond Good and Evil/On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Adrian Del Caro, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014, 22, pp. 24–5 and 202, p. 98. 

[64] Immanuel Kant, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Academy of Sciences, Berlin and Leipzig, 1900–, Vol. 3, pp. 28–9. 

[65] Quoted in Johannes Hoffmeister (ed.), Dokumente zu Hegels Entwicklung, Stuttgart: Frommann, 1936, p. 242. 

[66] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, ed. Michael Tanner and trans. R.J. Hollingdale, London: Penguin, 1990, p. 42. 

[67] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 28, p. 47. 

[68] Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 106. 

[69] Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 12, p. 492.