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the end of brotherhood: Marx in London, 1847

Die Kerntruppe des Bundes waren die Schneider
(the militants of the Bund were tailors). – Friedrich Engels, On the History of the Communist League.

Where were we?
Where were we in 1847?
We, the gods of this voice, the gods who float – or so we pretend – slightly above this history. Our divine edge is that we know the fates of the players.

Or so we pretend. The godlike pretense that not only do we know these fates, but that we, ourselves, are fate – that our contemporeneity is the secret to history, and don’t you forget it – is, I think a step too far. And yet it is the step too far that is the premise, so often the premise, of our myths about the world. This step too far definitely has a name. Hubris. I would even go so far as to say – foolishly, with no evidence for this argument, that I will not make in this place – that hubris is just the point in the system in which the system generates, behind its own back, its de-systematization. Hubris is a thing fate deals harshly with – and that is, itself, a question I’ve posed and will pose again a lot in these posts. Nemesis, the goddess excluded from the happiness culture. And who… you have no need to worry on this account… who does not chase you. In the end, you will find that you have been chasing her. In the end, you will even catch up with her.

These are words from myth, but we are approaching a supremely non-mythical moment.

The revolutionary ‘troops” which Marx and Engels were dealing with in 1847 were mostly urban artisans. The proletariat, for one thing, had little time – it was of course difficult to organize under the killing schedule of factory work. The artisans, of course, had been the shocktroops of the trans-Atlantic revolutions for 75 years. Tom Paine, Toussaint L’ouverture, the female artisans – independent seamstresses, many of them – who, as Dominique Godineau has pointed out, were a very important and excitable group in the first wave of disturbances in Paris from 1789-1790; this was especially true of the radical movement in Britain.

However, how serious was this audience from Marx’s point of view?

From Engels account:

“The association soon named itself: the League of Communist Workers. And on the membership card stood written the sentence: All men are brothers in at least twenty languages, if here and there with some linguistic mistakes. Just like the public League, the secret band soon took on a more international character; firstly in a limited sense, practically through the different nationalities of the members, theoretically through the insight, that any revolution that would be victorious, must be European. Further than that, one did not go; but the foundation was given.”

In 1847, at the second congress in London, two things happened. One became world famous – Marx and Engels were commissioned to write a Confession of Faith, which eventually became the communist manifesto. The second was not so full of history. But it leaves a trace that I have been looking at in my last couple of posts. Here’s Engels again:

“The second congress occurred at the end of November and the beginning of December of the same year [1847]. Here, Marx was also present and represented in long debates – the congress went on for at least ten days – the new theory. All contradiction and doubt was finally resolved, the new principles were unanimously affirmed, and Marx and I were deputized to generate the Manifesto. This happened immediately afterwards. Some weeks before the February Revolution it was sent to London for printing. Since then it has traveled around the world, been translated into almost all languages, and yet serves today in different countries as the guideline for the proletarian movement. In place of the Bund motto, all men are brothers, stood the new battle cry, “proletarian of all countries, unite!” which openly proclaimed the international character of the struggle.”

It still does, of course. The workers of the world have still not united, though the corporations of the world have. And we have what we have.

But this is not my real concern in this post. Engels, I think, is as good a witness as we have to what Marx said about this slogan. One of the keys to my reading of Marx is surely this international character, which Marx was always at pains to emphasize. Marx sees the proletariat as Universal history, armed. Although universal history is being made at this point not by the proletariat, but by what made the proletariat possible- the capitalist liquidation of traditional modes of production and the consequent collapse of traditional orders. Secreted by the new order of the exchange of commodities, the proletariat rise up as the universal class precisely in having had their past radically cleared of past relationships. Marx stands at the crossroads, there, trying to get a bearing on this recent history and its radical discarding of history.

There is a dimension of this event that decisively divides the capitalist order – which includes its oppositon – from the enlightenment. The key, here, is the erasure of the family description that once graced the membership cards of the league. Brothers.

Marx, in 1847, is brooding on the ultimate destruction of all patriarchal norms in the forge of capitalism and the substitution of the principle of substitution, money, for previous social relations. His developing understanding of this moment is, I think, related to the notion of alienation as he had worked it out in 1844. But it is a bit misleading to call this a thread. Sometimes, Marx loses the point of view provided by alienation, and sometimes he welcomes alienation as the limit experience of the worker. Sometimes he finds it again. This is natural: Marx waas no fool. He did not perform his Herculean task of research, which took him to the edge of destitution, for the hell of it. He was not a Bakunin, who, at a certain point, stopped deepening and challenging his first impulses. Marx is always repairing, rediscovering, jettisoning. While I am quite certain that the romantic Marx can be seen within all the other figures to the end – old Moor – he is unlike the romantics in that all his search is not for the same thing – as it is for Faust, or Dr. Frankenstein. The search impinges on the object searched for. If the general outline remains the same, its lines can change their valences depending on the content under consideration.

Thus, what may look like a simple tactical move by Marx is, I think, part of the program of gigantically digesting the advances of the bourgeoisie, of being modern. The first modern German. One of the great modernist gestures is not only to subordinate the family to the marketplace, but to conclude, from the point of view given by that subordination, that it has occurred successfully. From that point of view, it is easy to jump to the belief either that the family has no proper economy, or that if there is one – say gift giving – that it is aleatory and ‘not serious’. For an economy must be serious.

Of course, this could sound like nostalgia for warmer ties. It is, I think, not. Since nostalgia implies nostos, return, and there is no question of return here, for the ties continue to exist, and even support the vast bulk of the economy. Any earthquake survivor will tell you as much. At the same time that brotherhood and fraternity is being replaced by class and solidarity, the real players in the economy are wrestling, as they will to this day, with their own sense of what is and what is not fungible – what can be bartered, what can be given, what reciprocity consists of, etc. By a thousand threads, these link feeling to the ‘social life of things’ – to steal a phrase from Simmel scholar, Arjun Appadurai.