Was Karl Marx a Poor Advocate of His Own Ideas?

As Patrick King and I recently discussed, Marxism left Karl Marx with a dual legacy.

On one level, Marx is remembered for advocating a socialist political system. So, for example, The Communist Manifesto, which represents Marxism’s original formulation, was a piece of propaganda. Composed as the charter for the German Communist League in 1848, the Manifesto was meant to provide a coherent foundation for the party’s theretofore undefined platform.

Like any political program, it outlined the organizational principles on which the party was founded: to call for the unification of the wage-earning proletariat class in its struggle to abolish private property. But Marx’s genius lay in his rationale for this platform. In the process of calling for the “workers of the world” to unite, the Manifesto also provided an alternative framework for interpreting history, which not only justified the abolition of private property, but threw behind that cause the weight of historical determinism: The revolution was inevitable and it would be the proletariat to carry it out.

Further proving the ingenuity of this latter innovation, later scholars were able to apply it to literary and historical analysis in contexts unrelated to the advocacy of socialism. Thus, Marx’s duality: as a political advocate, he inspired generations of socialists; as a “scientific socialist,” he reinterpreted human history as the history of class struggles.

Despite the historical inevitability contained within his theories, however, there was no inevitability in the fact that Marx’s particular advocacy of communism was to become the dominant one. At the time of the convening of the First Communist International in 1864, Marxism represented but one of many viable conceptions of a communist state. Marx and his theory well-known, to be sure, but Marxism had yet to reach its later unrivaled supremacy as a program for carrying out the communist revolution.

Marx and Marxism

Ironically enough, historians have had difficulty analyzing Marx the politician apart from Marx the theoretician. Though his political legacy has proven its importance on the stage of history, discussions about Marx’s political endeavors tend to be dismissed as insignificant so far as they exist apart from his writing.

The underlying reason for this is a general consensus that he was an unskilled political leader. As a result, Marx the failed politician pales in comparison to Marx the father of the seminally important Marxism. In most, if not all, cases, historians imply that Marx became the most significant socialist theorist of his age despite the fact that he was a failed political figure.

Isaiah Berlin provides a typical summary of this conclusion. “Marx totally lacked the qualities of a great popular leader,” he wrote. “He was not a publicist of genius…nor did he possess…spell-binding eloquence; the greater part of his working life was spent in comparative obscurity.” And yet, his theory “remains the most powerful among the intellectual forces which are today [c. 1935] permanently transforming the ways in which men act and think.” Berlin’s message is clear: Marx’s politicking left plenty to be desired; it was a flaw rescued only by such an important theoretical mind.

But consider the living, breathing Marx, who retreated from politics in the 1850s and relentlessly politicked in the service of his brand of socialism after the convening of the International Working Men’s Association (more commonly known as the First International) in 1864. In this, we can move beyond these hasty dismissals of his political actions and the reduction of his relevance to his success as a theoretician.

To be clear, Marx did not experience unmitigated success as a political actor; to make such a revision would require a more overarching investigation than I will provide here (and some significant new findings). By focusing on the First International, first convened in 1864 and formally disbanded in 1876, we will see a crisis of leadership in the proletarian revolution in Marx’s time, as the promulgator of a theory about the inevitability of a certain kind of revolution struggled to lead this ill-fated iteration of it.

Marx played no part in the events leading to the formation of the First International. Though there seems to be a dispute in the historiography about the occasion for which the many participating groups were brought together,1 what is clear is that a French delegation of workers met with the English labor organization in London in 1863. Afterwards, the Council’s head, wrote his “Address to the Workmen of France from the Working Men of England,” to propose the formalization of solidarity between the groups, the result of which was the first meeting of the International in September 1864 in London.

Biographer Francis Wheen has aptly described the constituency of the First International as a “muddled mélange,” not just because French, English, German, Italian, Polish, American, and Belgian labor leaders attended that first event, but more to the point, because these leaders represented a vast array of political interests. Among its members were non-socialist English trade unionists seeking collectivization rights and an assortment of more radical thinkers. As Isaiah Berlin has it, the group admitted “anyone who desired the fall of the existing order.”

A Leader Behind the Scenes

Marx’s political skills were apparent from the very beginning of his involvement in the International. This involvement began the week before the first meeting when Victor Le Lubez, who was coordinating speeches, asked Marx to suggest a representative of the German workers to speak. Rather than speak himself, Marx selected a minor figured named Eccarius, his longtime ally and a working-class tailor whose political reputation Marx had nurtured by helping to get his work published on several occasions.

Similarly, Marx declared his interest in participating in the International precisely because of its substantial working-class representation, even declining nomination for the organization’s presidency on the grounds that he was “a head worker and not a hand worker.” Nonetheless, Marx defended the inclusion of non-working class representatives in the International’s leadership, known as the General Council (a group that included Marx), on the condition that “the great majority of the Council was composed of workers.” The result of this stipulation was that Marx could both legitimately defend against claims of elitism (which would become one criticism against him) and remain consistent with the long-standing tenet of his theory calling on the workers to carry out their revolution, all without having to sacrifice his tightening grip on the International.

Marx’s maneuvering also displayed itself in less subtle forms. It was no coincidence that the International’s “Rules and Inaugural Address” conformed to Marxist principles; Marx had drafted them. In Marx’s absence, the task of crafting a constitution had fallen to the International Committee, composed of French and Italian members. Marx was unsatisfied with this group’s original product, which “had failed to produce anything but the usual faded democratic principles,” but he devised a plan to remedy this potential affront to his sensibilities. He instructed Eccarius to propose that the constitution be returned to the Committee for editing. Eccarius complied, promising such editing would not alter the document’s “sentiments.” Marx then arranged for the drafting committee to reconvene at his home. When it did so, he filibustered late into the night, until his more inebriated and tired guests agreed to let him draft the edit, which was subsequently adopted unanimously.

Even the content of Marx’s revamped Rules bore the marks of politicking. Marx did re-orient the substance of the International’s official guiding principles toward his system. Thus, his version called for the International to fight, subvert, and overthrow the capitalist system through political action (e.g., participation in elections) and for the working class, whose “great duty” it was “to conquer political power,” to control its own emancipation.

What’s more it blamed bourgeois monopolization over the means of production for the proletariat’s “social misery, mental degradation and political dependence” and it called upon international (that is, non-nationalist) working-class solidarity as the necessary remedy to society’s ills. In contrast to the Manifesto, Marx noticeably toned down his revolutionary rhetoric and even preserved a few of the original vague democratic references, though in such a way that “they could do no possible harm.” This compromise allowed the group to attract a much wider membership, which is in fact what happened,2 without actually contradicting his theoretical principles.

According to Berlin, Marx insisted on strict adherence to the rules, leading with such singular control as to minimize open dissent in a group that “disagreed about just about everything.” This appears to be something of an exaggeration as the coalition’s diversity rendered it fragile and virtually any declaration invited some constituency’s discontent.

However, the International endured in a generally Marxist direction (i.e., emphasizing class and socialist revolution), passing a resolution as late as the 1867 Lausanne conference which accepted “the emancipation of the working class and its liberation from the power and influence of capital.”

Marx’s success would not last, as, according to more than one historian, the authoritarianism on display in these early days of the International laid the tracks for the irreparable split to be wrought by Mikhail Bakunin when he joined the group in 1868. Despite intermittent grumblings, however, Marx’s grip did not loosen until that time and irrespective of the First International’s coherence or impact, he was elected by the delegates to the General Council in every year of its existence, serving as its de facto leader until at least 1868.3

Marx’s Socialist Rivals

To understand the significance of this feat, it is necessary to explore a few primary examples of Marx’s political sparring. Fellow German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle generally shared Marx’s political objectives. Like Marx, he denounced the capitalist system of wage labor for its unequal treatment of the working class and called for the abolition of the wage system and of all other forms of exploitation. Unlike Marx, he was a fervent nationalist who believed that the state was the “highest form of human organization,” which was thus meant to serve as the vehicle for the liberation of the working class. In short, Lassalle wanted socialism through legal reform, not revolution.4

Lassalle experienced far more popular support in his brief lifetime than did Marx. He is considered to be the father of German Social Democracy and his primary legacy is the socialist political party — the “Verein” — which would eventually form the basis of the unified German Socialist Worker’s Party. Marx’s most influential interaction with Lassalleanism came in the form of his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program, which, on the occasion of the newly unified German socialist party, condemned the Gotha Program’s Lassalleanist reforms. Yet, Marx could not slow the party’s progress, as it claimed nearly 500,000 votes in its first Reichstag election in 1877.

Two outcomes of this rivalry bolster the conventional notion that Marx the theoretician was superior to Marx the politician: the Critique was ineffectual in an immediate sense, but would later become significant for its formulation of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”; and furthermore, Lassalle’s cult of personality was so strong that even after the German Social Democratic Party purged his theoretical program in favor of a more Marxist rationale years after both men’s passing, it continued to revere Lassalle as a political figure.

Still, even this episode reveals that Marx was not a complete lost cause of a politician. He and Lassalle did not have the chance to face-off at the First International, owing to the latter’s untimely death just a few weeks prior to its inaugural convention in 1864. But despite the fact that Lassalle continued to influence German socialism after his demise, to the extent that most German workers did not support the International at the outset, on several occasions between 1867 and 1871 the Verein openly supported the Marx-led International. Marx’s group had some pull.

Within the confines of the First International, Marx faced perhaps his most famous rivalry with the anarcho-syndicalist Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin was an anti-Semite who is said to have regarded Marx as what he saw as the stereotypical Jew: well-read, but disloyal, jealous, and power-hungry.

The Power Struggle

It might be best to refrain from hyperbolizing their personal animosity. There seemed to be at least a modicum of mutual respect after their 1863 meeting, which resulted in Marx commenting to Engels, “I like him very much…he is one of the few people whom after sixteen years I find to have moved forwards and not backwards” and considering that Bakunin wrote to Marx a few weeks later, addressing him as “my dearest friend” and praising the Rules and Inaugural Address of the First International.

But ideologically, they butted heads over the role of the state in the future socialist society. To Bakunin, the state was inherently evil and corrupt. Therefore, a Marxist state would result in merely a new form of despotism. He also charged Marxism with being elitist — in contrast to Bakunin’s appeal to “the ragged paupers,” Marx attracted those who were financially better-off. Marx and Bakunin also simply possessed diametrically opposed temperaments. While Marx was a fastidious and disciplined theoretician, Bakunin was a man of “impulse and passion and pure will” who deplored the notion that intellectuals could devise a path to a more perfect society and who could care less whether his (comparatively limited) writings contradicted themselves.

Whatever their antagonisms, Marx and Bakunin began a game of political one-upmanship in 1868, before which Bakunin had not been an official member of the International. At the same time that he enrolled in the group, Bakunin also sent a proposal to the General Council, suggesting that the International to acquire his League of Peace and Freedom in such a manner that the League would become the political arm of the International. Marx successfully led the charge against this bold plan, which would have essentially placed the International’s newest member on equal footing with Marx. The congress of delegates rejected Bakunin’s proposal at the Brussels Conference in 1868.

Bakunin then formed the International Social-Democratic alliance, which claimed a membership of about twenty as compared to the International’s tens of thousands, but whose sole purpose was to merge with the International in such a way that Bakunin would become its co-president. This attempt was also denied. Not until Bakunin formally dissolved the Alliance in February 1869 was it admitted as a new section of the International with the same standing as its other affiliates. As a consequence of the formal admission of so many of Bakunin’s followers, though, Bakunin immediately gained a strong voice in the International. At the Bâle Conference in September 1869, Bakuninists won their first political victory against Marx, as the congress passed a proposal endorsing the abolition of inheritance rights, which Marx had opposed. Bakunin gained increasing support within the International over the next three years.5

To resolve the International’s internal division, a new conference was convened at The Hague in 1872. There, Marx had the final word, successfully exiling the International to the United States as a deliberate death sentence for what had become an interminably divided group. In his biography of Marx, Francis Wheen contends that Marx knew that the International at that point had the potential to “do serious damage to communism” (though it is unclear how Wheen knows this). Even so, Marx’s coup de grace has yet to be revealed. Before the Hague Conference, Marx also obtained the so-called Netchayev letters, which implicated Bakunin in a death threat against a publisher to whom he owed money. Marx presented it to the congress which then voted to expel Bakunin from the International.

The story of Marx and Bakunin’s feud is a source of significant dispute in the historical scholarship and has been told with many different slants.6 One overarching tendency, however, is to dismiss the successes of Marx’s politicking at the First International. Bakunin biographer E.H. Carr has suggested that Bakunin’s expulsion was a Pyrrhic victory for Marx, given the latter’s loss of control and the demise of the International.

Famed philosopher Leszek Kolakowski buries Marx further, pointing out that irrespective of who headed the International, the “General Council had no executive powers over its members” and that Marx’s attempts to centralize its leadership and impose his ideology on its constituents not only failed, they were responsible for the International’s collapse.

A Political Legacy Ignored

Yet, the International’s failure obscures the evidence of Marx’s political successes during its existence. Bakunin relentlessly and craftily attempted to overtake the International, but Marx successfully rebuffed his lofty attempts to merge his groups with the International, and ultimately asserted his dominance over Bakunin by excommunicating him — even if the act was irrelevant from a practical standpoint.

It is undeniable that Karl Marx the political actor was incapable of sustaining this unwieldy coalition, or, for that matter, of bringing about the proletarian revolution, but neither act would have amounted to a small task. The fact remains that he demonstrated the political know-how to assume power over and influence the direction of the First International.

In the words of Isaiah Berlin, “[Marx’s] later years are occupied almost exclusively with the task of gathering evidence for, and disseminating, the truths which he had discovered, until they filled the entire horizon of his followers, and became consciously woven into the texture of their every thought and word and act.” The living, breathing Marx did not sit back and wait for history to accept his prolific theory; he joined the fray and campaigned for the revolution he thought bound to occur. This, too, is part of the man’s political legacy.


E.H. Carr, Michael Bakunin, (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1937).

Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life, (Great Britain: HarperCollins E-Books, Nook ed., 2012).

Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, Fourth Edition, (London: Oxford University Press, third ed., 1963).

Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution Volume 1: The Founders (Oxford Paperbacks), (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), transl. P.S. Falla.

Mark Leier, Bakunin: The Creative Passion#A Biography, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006).

Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism. Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx., (New York: Collier Books, 1962).

For specific page references, see the endnoted version of this essay.



1. Francis Wheen is particularly misleading about the origins of the First International. He begins his narrative of its formation with the London Trades Council, which held a welcoming for Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860 and a demonstration in March 1863 as a show of support for Lincoln in the Civil War, the latter being an event that Marx attended. He then notes that the French workers’ delegation visited London during the “Exhibition of 1862,” which is never described, leaving the hasty reader to connect this event to the London Trade Council’s political demonstrations. He then resumes a chronological telling of the London Trade Council, describing the French delegation as returning to London for a July 1863 demonstration on behalf of a Polish insurrection. Wheen concludes that it was this event that led to George Odger’s “Address to the Workmen of France from the Working Men of England,” proposing the formation of the International (Wheen, 262). According to Isaiah Berlin, the “Exhibition” referred to by Wheen was not a London Trade Council event but rather the Exhibition of Modern Industry, occurring in 1863 (not 1862), and the French delegation was there to learn about “the latest industrial developments.” It was on this trip that the French and English delegations gathered, discussing issues of hours, wages, and immigrant labor and resulting in Odger’s letter. (Berlin, 222.) The significance of these different versions principally concerns whether Napoleon III had funded the French delegation to attend two separate political demonstrations or on one occasion and for industry-related purposes.

2. According to Berlin, the organization rapidly grew in the first few years, attracting “union after union” all of which were attracted by the idea of labor rights and political representation (Berlin, 227).

3. According to the 1864 “General Rules of the Association,” the Congress elects the representatives of the General Council, and according to subsequent “Annual Reports,” Marx was re-elected each year. See: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/index.htm (accessed December 10, 2012).

4. There were other ideological differences as well. Lassalle subscribed to the “law of iron wages,” which held that any rise in wages would be accompanied by a rise in family size. This meant that Lassalleanists opposed trade unionism in principle for its primary platform of increased wages, which Lassalleanists believed would not ameliorate working class struggles. Marx criticized Lassalle’s reliance on such presumptuous demographics. Marx also denounced as “utopian” Lassalle’s contention that workers could be emancipated through the provision of wages equal to the goods they produce. (See: Gay, 91; Kolakowski, 241.)

5. In 1870, Bakunin formed yet another rogue organization, the Jurassian Federation, which met in Sonvillier, Switzerland in 1870 and issued a statement denouncing the leadership of the General Council, i.e., Marx, for dictatorially preserving only their own ideas and passing them off as the sentiments of the International.  After this and several more months of Bakunin issuing anti-Semitic rants claiming and endorsing a racial split in the International, Marx responded with an official International pamphlet entitled The Fictitious Split in the International which accused Bakunin of attempting to undermine the organization. (Wheen, 323).

6. For Kolakowski, Marx’s “charge that Bakunin was using the International for personal advantage was groundless,” and the episode “did not show [Marx] in a favorable light” (248). Berlin downplays Bakunin’s threat to Marx, as Marx apparently effortlessly (as Berlin provides no details) has Bakunin excommunicated from the International (235). What he fails to mention is that this act also marked the de facto termination of the International. Francis Wheen’s version similarly relies on Marx’s authoritarian leanings, but complicates the narrative by emphasizing the fractious nature of the International. Still, “we should not be too hard on old Marx” because Bakunin’s “vainglorious buffoonery” is to blame for all his troubles (308). Carr, who was Bakunin’s biographer, perhaps not surprisingly, sympathizes with Bakunin’s role in the International. According to Carr, Bakunin “read and admired the inaugural manifesto written by Marx” and he “expressed sympathy and professed assistance” to him, but was misunderstood by Marx who “had no use for the collaboration of anyone who did not offer unquestioning loyalty and obedience” (307).