Communism: A Bad Idea Even in 1844


Throughout the twentieth century, Karl Marx’s visage often appeared on communist banners in the guise of a mighty, bearded prophet, the first and greatest in an array of great thinkers that also included Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. So it may be slightly odd and amusing to think of him in his mid-twenties living in Paris as the editor of a magazine. Digging into the letters and writings that Marx produced in those years, and the writings of those who knew him, always turns up something interesting—and occasionally something utterly fascinating.

The year was 1844. Hoping to unite German and French radicals, Marx and his colleague Arnold Ruge moved with their wives to Paris in order to found a new theoretical journal, the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (German-French Annals). Paris was an exciting and cosmopolitan city, but the intellectual climate was unfamiliar to the two Germans. “Marx and Ruge were simply unfamiliar both with popular politics and with the world outside Germany,” says Gareth Stedman Jones in his new biography of Marx.

Marx’s intellectual formation had taken place in Berlin under the influence of radical, atheistic Hegelianism, which was locked in battle against the conservative, Christian Prussia of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. In Paris, on the other hand, the most important streams of radical socialism were strongly influenced by Christianity. This was incomprehensible to Marx, who assumed that all this would need to change. He thought that “the whole culture of present-day France must disappear,” in the words of his co-editor Ruge.

Marx and Ruge also had personal problems. In an amusing demonstration of the dubious applicability of their ideas to real life, the co-editors decided to form a Fourierist Phalanstery (a utopian socialist commune) with their wives, but had to call it off after living together for only two weeks. This fiasco in collective living was not the only dispute that arose between Marx and Ruge. The journal they had set out to establish folded after one issue. The two men began to argue. Marx thought Ruge’s conventional views of marriage were “philistine.” More importantly, Marx was drifting towards communism.

Ruge was less than pleased—especially because Marx began to shun him socially. In a letter to the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach from May 1844, Ruge complains of the vicious infighting to which he’d fallen victim: “For a few weeks I haven’t heard anything more about the work of Mr. Guerrier, who, it seems, has become a communist, and through the influence of Marx along with the other German communists is completely up in arms against me and isn’t visiting me anymore. I prefer to avoid the cafés these men visit in order not to be mistreated, since their love for me has turned into the complete opposite ever since they have seen that I’m apparently not a communist, but nothing more than a ‘bourgeois’...”

No one who is familiar with the stories of Marx and Bakunin, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, the Stalinists and the Trotskyists, revisionists and anti-revisionists, and the thousand other factions of squabbling revolutionaries that communism has birthed over the last century will be very surprised to hear that this factionalism goes back to the 1840s. However, Ruge’s letter to Feuerbach does contain something surprising—and prescient and portentous: a rudimentary sketch of the problems that communism would—and did—cause in practice.

Here is Ruge’s analysis:

“What I’ve recently read, Fourier and the communists, has much to say in the critical realm—in the organic realm it is always highly problematic; and you are completely right, before one sees the “how,” there is not much to be said for the idea of a new reality. Heads are confused, and the socialist parties don’t speak much more clearly than they think. Neither the complicated proposals of the Fourierists nor the abolition of private property of the communists can be formulated clearly. Both amount in the end to a veritable police state or slave state. In order to free the proletarians both spiritually and physically from need and the pressure of need, they think of an organization that would make all people experience this need and this pressure. One must accept the challenge of ending the neglect of man at any price, and if it is necessary that the privileged suffer for this, one must accept this too. But is the practical problem even solved in this case? Is freedom achieved when both need for and abundance from the state is evenly distributed? And would men become more humane if some are relieved and some are burdened in that way? The communists say ‘yes’ and dream of a paradise as soon as the next revolution brings them to the helm, as they believe will happen. The communists are so far removed from humanity and from actual communism that living with them presents no intellectual or social attraction.”

Communism will create a police state—check. In order to free the proletarians from need, communism will universalize need—check. Communism will cause the privileged to suffer without actual solving the practical problems of the neglect of mankind—check. Communism will create universal dependency on the state—check. Ruge’s diagnosis—so casually inserted into a letter that ranges from philosophy to politics to the newest developments of émigré society—was tragically accurate.