This is the beginning of a series exploring the legacies, lives, and ideas of revolutionary ancestral figures.
Probably no theorist in the Western, Capitalist world has been more vilified than Karl Marx.
Like Emmanuel Goldstein in George Orwell’s 1984, “Marx” has become a container for hatred, for fear, the imaginal embodiment for the terrors of European wars, the discontented saboteur, the exhausted worker, the violent uprising. But bleak totalitarianism, artless society, relentless drudgery–these are the legacies gifted us through the filters of time, fear, and the over-confidence of state propaganda, all constructions which evoke such emotional reaction that most people–even those who might otherwise agree with his ideas–do not know who he was.
That the ideas of one human inspired massive uprisings throughout the world, bloody revolutions (and a few bloodless ones) should be enough to pique our curiousity. That the authorities of entire nation-states evoked his ideas as justifications for their actions (be it the USSR’s state murder in the name of Communism or the USA’s violent wars against Communism) is even more curious. But that a Pagan anarchist druid who worships Welsh gods and hates Authority of all kinds carries around the dirt from Karl Marx’s grave?
That’s no curious matter at all.
Let me tell you ’bout Karl Marx, and why you should care about his ideas and maybe, like I do, name him among the Ancestors.
A World in Upheaval
Karl Marx lived from 1818 to 1883, square in the middle of the 19th century during some the greatest upheavals of the industrial period and the height of capitalist expansion. This was a time of extreme government censorship and state violence, Authority struggling to keep people from revolting during the great economic and social violence capitalism wrought in society.
The Enclosing of commonly-held land, which started in force in England during the 1700’s, had just become the norm also on the continent of Europe. Enclosure forced commoners and the poor off the land their families had lived on for hundreds of years, severing their ancestral ties and exiling them from places they’d found sacred.
These exiles fled into the towns and cities, looking for a way to survie. In those urban centers, merchants and factory owners took advantage of the disorientation, desperation, and starvation of the newly-displaced by employing them (including children) for low wages, exploiting this new social order towards their own benefit. This industrialised production sped up the breakdown in the social order, as it became increasingly impossible for the poor to produce anything of value in the Markets because industrialists did it for much cheaper.
Of course, there was backlash.
Just before Karl Marx was born, the followers of the ghostly (and quasi-mythical) King Ludd broke into factories in England to destroy the machines the rich used to destroy the livelihood of others. Framebreakers, Chartists, Levelers, Whitboys, Rebeccas, and many other forms of worker-revolts arose against this entirely new system, many of them similarly invoking divine or mystic champions.
On the continent arose other forms of sabotage; literally, throwing one’s sabots (wooden shoes) into the gears of machines in order to break them. Large uprisings by other workers were put down by government troops, most notably the weaver’s revolts in Lyon, France (the ‘Canut Revolts‘).
Everywhere, there was social upheaval, and everywhere, there was increasing government repression of the poor on behalf of a new class gaining power: the Bourgeoisie.
Lots of people knew something was wrong with this new economic and social order. Besides the aforementioned revolts, many writers and theorists tried to find ways to unravel the nightmare of industrialism. The Romantics (whom some credit as either the founders or poetic ancestors of Modern Paganism) attempted to resurrect the idea of Nature as a sacred, endless thing, positioning it against the social turmoil of the urban centers. Utopian Socialists, on the other hand, accepted many of the premises of industrialisation but thought societies could be ordered more fairly through common ownership and more protections for the poor.
But what both groups of critics lacked was a clear understanding of precisely how the whole system worked. Capitalism was new; there was no precedent, and it seemed to be a machine as inscrutable as the factory might have been to the rural peasant. Fortunately, a man devoted his entire life to understanding it.
An Idea So Threatening…
Starting his adulthood as an academic, Karl Marx became radicalised when he was 19 through his association with a group called the Young Hegelians, devoted to discussing the ideas of the German philosopher, Hegel.
Hegel’s ideas (and the leftist interpretation of them by students) were considered dangerous to governments for a very good reason. Hegel argued that civil society (that is, culture, community, and all the things we think of as human civilization) exists independent of the government. At a time when rulers were trying increasingly authoritarian means to quell the unrest that Capitalism was causing, suggesting that the State wasn’t the cause of social good opened the way towards questioning the usefulness of rulers altogether.
At a time when rulers were trying increasingly authoritarian means to quell the unrest that Capitalism was causing, suggesting that the State wasn’t the cause of social good opened the way towards questioning the usefulness of rulers altogether.
While universities now largely function as training-centers for mentally-skilled workers and advance (rather than challenge) capitalism and government, Marx went to university at a time when this was not yet the case. External pressure on academics was more pronounced precisely because of their potential threat to the powerful, and Marx found himself having to switch universities for his PhD–his ideas were too radical to be accepted by the government officials influencing the university. Rather than change his ideas, though, Marx instead became a journalist for radical newspapers and eventually started his own.
Government officials repeatedly closed down the newspapers he wrote for, and his involvement in journalism and publishing eventually led to his expulsion from first Germany and then from France. When he settled in Belgium, he was under state orders not to publish anything to do with the political situation in Europe (rulers wrote each other demanding this censorship), and so Marx began writing for an American newspaper popular with workers in New York City.
Everywhere he went, Karl Marx was seen as a threat to the powerful. Few humans have ever achieved such notoriety before or since, and we should remember, this was because of the danger of his ideas which still haunt the powerful today. The Spectre of Marx is powerful, inhabiting a space otherwise reserved for religious figures (Jesus, Mohammed) or slaughtering tyrants (Hitler, Stalin), yet Marx founded no religion, nor did he ever hold political power. Even other ‘dangerous thinkers’ like Charles Darwin don’t compare, for Darwin was never exiled and only challenged religious views about our origins, not the entire political and economic orders which ruled the daily lives of billions.
The New Power in The Cities
As mentioned previously, all the societies touched by Capitalism were in various states of unrest. Enclosure, the destruction of common-lands, and the increasing power of rich industrialists created refugees in every land. Many of the new poor moved into towns and cities, some traveled across oceans to North America, Australia, and other colonized lands in search of what is now called, ironically, ‘opportunity.’
As more people came to rely on cities for their survival, the people with wealth waiting for them gained increasing power. These people were called the Bourgeoisie, city-dwellers (from bourg, as in Strasbourg) who, with their increasing wealth, influenced the decisions of mayors, aristocrats, and kings who relied on their support and tax-revenue.
The Bourgeoisie were a new economic class, defined not just by their position in the towns and cities, but also their particular interests. These interests ran counter to the poor workers they exploited, but parallel to the clergy and the rulers. For them, order was of paramount importance; it’s really difficult to run a factory when the workers go on strike, sabotage the machinery, steal, or can provide for themselves.
Also, they were predominantly Protestant. The Catholic Church was slow to embrace Capitalism, was still against usury, extracted tithes, stood philosophically against many of the interests of the Bourgeoisie. Also, Catholicism still represented an old order where the sacred (including, to some degree, Nature) was more important than the secular, where the rhythm of life was the church bell and the feast day, not the factory bell and daily work.
In fact, one of the banes of Capitalist production for centuries was the plethora of saints days and other observances, during which even the least devout stayed home from work, choosing religion (or just revelry) over industriousness. This can be seen quite well in the diverging development of the United States (founded by Protestants, many of them Puritans) and France (Catholic for centuries): French workers take many more days from work for holy days (even if they’re atheists) than American workers who only have a handful of holidays.
The Bourgeoisie needed orderly, secular societies with strong laws to punish theft, strikes, and sabotage. They needed strong governments who could create ‘peaceful’ societies but would not interfere with their hunger for profit. They embraced Liberalism in most places (remember, if you’re American: Liberalism isn’t leftist) and particularly Secularism, since public displays of religion (be it a Catholic feast-day or Pagan celebrations like Beltane, Halloween, or Carnival) distracted their workers and stopped the factories.
If you’re drawing parallels between the Bourgeoisie of the 18th and 19th centuries to what we call ‘middle-class’ or ‘yuppie’ society today, you’re on the right track. The same interests prevail amongst the (predominantly white) gentrifiers in cities like San Francisco, Portland, and New York City: strong laws against theft and homelessness and petty-crimes, demands for strong property protections, and an ‘enlightened’ Secular/Liberalism which opposes public displays of ecstatic fervor are all essential Bourgeois traits.
The Bourgeoisie never went away.
Revealing the Human Cost of Capital
Marx correctly identified the Bourgeoisie as an epic force in modern history, and sought to eradicate their influences on Utopian Socialism and other liberatory ideas. Even in the radicalism of Anarchists like Proudhon, Marx saw the taint of Bourgeois ethics, particularly a peculiar sort of self-deception.
Consider the ‘urban professional’ of today, working at a tech company. Though their wealth and values directly affect the lower classes they displace, though their organic and free-range foods are produced by immigrants working in near-slave (and sometimes full-slave) conditions, they might consider themselves free, ‘progressive,’ enlightened, and even caring. That is, they create an ideal about themselves, and live in a world of idealism, completely ignoring the physical (that is, material) conditions which bring about their world.
When people think of Materialism, they might think of consumerism or an obsession with the physical. Likewise, Materialism is often presented as a complete disavowal of the spiritual, mental, emotional, or social elements of the world.
Marx’s Materialism, however, is not that at all.
Rather, it’s a revelation of the true physical conditions of Capitalist society, the poverty, the physical suffering, and a great light shone on the machinery which runs the entire system. By creating idealistic notions of themselves, the Bourgeoisie are able to deny their physical exploitation of workers, just as slave-owners were able to convince themselves that they were really nice and enlightened people.
Materialism exposes the raw, violent, and very physical manifestations of Bourgeois society, and argues that, rather than selling the poor a dream of social progress, equality, and better lives, the poor should be shown the truth: that their lives are made physically miserable by working for other people’s wealth.
Like the Democrats in the United States and the Labor Party in Britain, Utopian Socialists had argued that a better world would come if there were just more education, more idealism, and more focus on rights and equality. In that way, they were not much different from the Bourgeoisie (in fact, many were beneficiaries of Capitalism themselves, as is the case now). Marx saw through these ideas immediately, and helped create a new political movement which demanded both a return to the logic of The Commons as well as a refusal to deny the material–that is, the embodied–existence of the poor.
Marx’s insistence that, beyond the ideological and cultural conceptions of existence our physical conditions must be acknowledged, echoes heavily in many Pagan and witch traditions today. If the witch is her body as much as the body is the witch, then Marx’s Materialism lives on in traditions such as Reclaiming, Feri, and even to some degree Wicca. That is, the insistence of the primacy of embodied experience (be that in nature, in sex, or in everyday life), regardless of whether a person believes in gods & spirits, is essentially Materialist.
I’ll write more about the influence of his ideas in part two of this series, as well as an introduction to Marxist understanding of Capitalism and other ways Marx influenced Modern Paganism, as well as how Paganism is essential to reforging Marx’s ideas into something that can create the world we know is possible.
Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest and a columnist for The Wild Hunt. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men.
His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon