What if Karl Marx had died in June 1844?

Tragically, two months before he met Engels, Karl Marx was killed when he was kicked by a spooked horse on a busy Paris street. This of course resulted in no Communist Manifesto, no Das Kapital, and the loss of the principal face, voice, and theoretical justification of the Communist movement.

What would have been the outcome? Could Communism have grown into the same force without him? Would it’s theoretical underpinnings have been stronger or weaker without Marx, and especially the “cult of Marx” that followed (plagued?) the movement for the next 100 years? Would the 1917 Russian Revolution have resulted in a Communist government?


You wouldn’t have had communism. Utopian socialism still would have been around, and trade unionism probably would have still developed, but there wouldn’t have been communism. You can’t seperate communism from Marx.

I think that the lack of a “cult of Marx” (assuming the Communist Movement didn’t develop another personality cult) would have both slowed down its rapid ascent as a world power (less than 70 years from the Manifesto to the Soviet Union), but, possibly paradoxically, given the Communist movement time to better develop its ideology, arguments, and assumptions.

Though there were splinter groups, too soon did the main movement assume a reflexive instransigence towards anything that smacked of “heresy” towards the writings of Marx - from my (limited) readings, it seemed that too much had to be explained in terms of how it correlated with true Marxist thought: this doctrinal approach destroyed all truth in the claim of Communism being a science and largely stifled the development of arguments and solutions that could have worked. With more time to develop Communist theory and less insistence that future developments of the theory had to correspond perfectly to past arguments, perhaps the movement could have created a system that worked better in implementation than Marxism did.

Or maybe not.

OTOH, the loss of Marx would have deprived the movement of what I think of as its most readily identifiable figure and its single greatest unifying voice, especially in the beginning. Without a cohesive voice and leader, “Communism” would likely have taken longer to organize itself into a movement that inspired millions and took over countries within the span of a lifetime. Lenin, who was going to always be anti-Tsar, would have had to choose a different argument. He probably would have stayed with Communisim but perhaps he would have rallied under a branch that was more Russia-centric and not so much “Workers of the World, unite!”, which would then made Russia far less overtly threatening to the West (at least until it developed nuclear weapons).

His general point, that being the political and social effects of the disconnect between the laborers and the owners of the means of production, has been a central pillar in the history of humanity. Consequently, someone else would’ve pointed out its existence and a theoretical outcome of such a disconnect in the age of industrialization and nascent democracy if he wasn’t around.

Rumor_Watkins is dead on the money. Marxism didn’t need Marx specifically; like everyone else in the radical movements of the time, he was drawing on other philosophical traditions (such as Hegelianism) and practical experience to form his revolutionary conclusions. Engels was an excellent dialectical materialist in his own right and no doubt would have ably filled Marx’ shoes. Aside from calling myself an Engelsist, I can’t speculate how world history would have turned out, but the premature death of Karl Marx would not have eliminated the foundations of revolutionary socialism from the world.

Engels probably would have ended up a chartist or a syndicalist without Marx. I think the premature death of Marx would have “eliminated the foundations of revolutionary socialism from the world.” Who else was there, really? The Young Hegelians had fallen apart, Weitling had been suppressed and didn’t write much after he ended up in America, Cabet had given up on politics and was founding Utopian communes in the US. Who was really left who could have successfully led a communist movement like Marx did? Blanqui? The League of the Just?

Without Marx, the dominant voices on the left would have been Proudhon and Bakunin, and the dominant leftist philosophy would have been anarchism (which, even with Marx in the picture, had a pretty good run).

No, it wouldn’t have. Marx’ analysis of the world and capitalism is thoroughly materialist - it’s drawn from observations of society and events. For example, his arguments that workers cannot just take hold of the capitalist state and use it for its own interests but instead need to smash it and create their own comes from his following the Paris Commune very closely.

Revolutionary socialism being a materialist political analysis, the only thing really necessary to elaborate it is an intellect of sufficient caliber, of which Marx was not a unique possessor. In other words - if Marx hadn’t been around to come up with it, someone else would have.

Engels was an excellent dialectician; he wrote the precursor to what was to become the Communist Manifesto, and works like The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State and The Dialectics of Nature show him to be of equal intellectual and political caliber to Marx. He was not otherwise hopelessly lost politically, nor would he have been if Marx had died young.

Both of which he wrote after knowing and working with Marx developing Communist ideology for 35 years. As far as I know, the only political text he wrote before knowing Marx was “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, which contains some of the ideas that would develop into Marxism, but is hardly identical. Besides, Engels was neither as charismatic nor as aggressive as Marx.

You’re assuming that revolutionary socialism is, first of all, really a materialist political analysis, and secondly, that its a self evident one. It’s neither. It’s an idiosyncratic economic philosophy based on a bunch of unproven assumptions.

I think you’re right Captain Amazing but I give Olentzero points for crafting a Marxist analysis of Karl Marx. :slight_smile:

Thank you, Dorothea.

Spoken like someone who’s never read much of it. Although I’d never argue it’s self-evident. I’m saying that the intellect required to work out the conclusions was not the sole property of Karl Marx alone.

Oh, and Engels wrote Working Class in England in 1845, three years after his collaboration with Marx on the Rheinische Zeitung.

Well, ok. I’ve read the Communist Manifesto. I’ve read The Holy Family. I’ve read fairly large portions of Capital, I’ve read The 18th Brumaire, I’ve read The German Ideology, I’ve read On the Jewish Question. I’ve read large portions of Marx, actually.

All right, fair enough - snark retracted. Give me an example of what you view to be an unproven assumption, then.

I don’t mean this as a hijack away from the specifics you’ve been discussing but I think that a certain kind of collectivism was in the air in the late nineteenth century and after, which had both good and ill effects. Though I don’t think communism would have developed in the exact form that it did without Marx’s intervention, I think large-scale collectivist political thinking, in some instances tied to a Hegelian view of history, would have come about on both the left and the right. My suspicion is that rightwing forms of Hegelianism were even more immanent (in the air) than leftwing, and would have remained so but for the catalyzing effect of Marx.

I don’t have time to say why in detail, so sorry if this seems cryptic, but I think Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism is one way of thinking about these immanent conditions–that is, as an analysis that doesn’t see Marx at the center of Stalinism (or, of course, its rightwing counterpart, fascism).

With all respect, I’d rather not. You’re not going to be able to convince me of the correctness of Marxism, I’m not going to be able to convince you of the incorrectness, and a debate on the topic will undoubtedly be time consuming and unproductive for either of us.

In my opinion, Marx took a existing field of proto-revolutionary feeling and, by virtue of his skills as a writer, was able to shape a large share of it into a particular direction. So there would still have been some kind of popular revolutionary economic movement in the 19th and 20th centuries but it wouldn’t have been communism as we know it. My guess would be that some version of syndicalism would have filled the void.

IMO, the socialist movement would have been better off – and more successful – without the pseudoscientific, quasi-religious intellectual substructure Marx gave it. Hegelian idealism in any form is fundamentally worthless.

Ah, but Marx took the idealism out of Hegelianism and put materialism in its place. Instead of ideas being the motive force of history, as Hegel asserted, Marx posited the actions of humanity and the organization of society into mutually conflicting classes. While extensive critical study and research, as well as practical involvement in the movements and questions of the day, aren’t a complete guarantee against pseudo-scientific thought, it’s a damn good defense against it.

Dorothea, you’re absolutely correct, and it’s from those movements with a collectivist aim that Marx drew his observations and conclusions. You’re also right in that what we call the Marxist mode of thinking needed a catalyst like Marx in the middle of all that, but again, the catalyst did not need to be Marx himself.

As it is, though, we got Marx and IMO he was just what we needed.

Still something of a hijack…

Olentzero, yes, Marx was a materialist, observing social movements as concrete manifestations of historical forces. But he was also idealist in at least one key respect: he believed in a unifying supra-individual agency, working-class consciousness. This turned out to be a problem (as Marx would have observed had he lived long enough to witness the unfolding of later social movements) in part because working-class consciousness isn’t a strong enough glue to bind people in progressive movements; one must also take account, in ways that Marx never did, of the counter-pull of national and religious identities and the fissuring effects of gender, ethnicity and race. (Engels made interesting observations about gender in the The Origins of the Family but Marx never did and neither fully foresaw how social constructs like race, religion, and ethnicity would become impediments to the organization of collective social movements inside as well as across national boundaries, nor foresaw that global capital would find ways to make make use of the nationalism that some thought (and still think) would resist it.)

So there is, IMO, a significant Hegelian residue in Marx’s outlook: a readiness to believe in a universal form of concrete human agency against the complexity of human plurality. As a critic of nineteenth-century capitalism there is no better materialist; but as an analyst of future possibility for democracy and socialism Marx has limitations which require one to take other kinds of liberal thinking into account including especially pluralists of various kinds like JS Mill, Gramsci, Arendt or, more recently, Laclau and Mouffe (and which make it important to consider the insights of postcolonial and posstructuralist thinkers).

As you doubtless know, Marx also, and once again in quasi-Hegelian fashion, thought that human technology would eliminate the problem of scarcity and while I think there could be 21-st century variants of that optimistic view, they require significant environmental and “green” thinking that Marx could not have anticipated (though near contemporaries like William Morris came closer).

Overall I agree that Marx was just what the later 19th century needed to provide a strong left alternative to its increasingly corporatist, technocratic and proto-fascist collectivizing tendencies. But he wasn’t (and doubtless no one individual thinker or cluster of thinkers could have been) sufficiently far-seeing in his materialist analysis of the social conditions of capitalist modernity at that time to imagine all the complexities that would unfold in the postcolonial era.

My two cents!