On the context of Marx's 'I am not a Marxist' quote.

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Joined: 5-03-09
Jun 9 2009 17:55
On the context of Marx's 'I am not a Marxist' quote.

As far as I know, the MIA cites it as opposing Guesde on the matter of the economic section of the program for the French Workers' Party (the section was written by Guesde, and mainly, though not entirely, approved of by Marx). However, as far as I know, the quote is only found quoted by Engels, and I can only find it in two documents:

"Now what is known as ‘Marxism’ in France is, indeed, an altogether peculiar product — so much so that Marx once said to Lafargue: ‘Ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.’"
- Letter to Bernstein, 1882.

"And if this man has not yet discovered that while the material mode of existence is the primum agens [primary agent, prime cause] this does not preclude the ideological spheres from reacting upon it in their turn, though with a secondary effect, he cannot possibly have understood the subject he is writing about. However, as I said, all this is secondhand and little Moritz is a dangerous friend. The materialist conception of history has a lot of them nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French "Marxists" of the late [18]70s: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist.""
-Letter to Schmidt, 1890.

Engels also references it here:

"We have never called you anything but ‘the so-called Marxists’ and I would not know how else to describe you. Should you have some other, equally succinct name, let us know and we shall duly and gladly apply it to you."
-Letter to Lafargue, 1889.

The second seems to imply that the reason for the quote was on people using the materialist theory of history as an excuse not to study history, rather than as a tool for doing so. It's possible that Engels referred to it in some letters not in the MIA, but I really don't see any reason to see a relation between the quote and Guesde, certainly specific ideas of Guesde (I suppose that Guesde could have been involved as a member of the group referred to). An alternative interpretation by Rubel reads too much into the quote, and generally seems to twist the quote into justifying Rubel rather than examining the actual context, it would seem, but nobody's perfect. That is, it would appear that Marx was merely disassociating himself with some French communists who called themselves 'Marxists', rather than anything more interesting. Still, I am curious as to where the interpretation involving Guesde comes from, and the conflict between the two in general. Marx did apparently refer to him as 'Bakuninist', but, rather than this having to do with his position on the economic section, it was probably on the 'general strike', with Engels commenting, "Paul spoke very well — a slight indication of the universal strike dream in it, which nonsense Guesde has retained from his anarchist days — (whenever we are in a position to try the universal strike, we shall be able to get what we want for the mere asking for it, without the roundabout way of the universal strike)." So yeah, I'm just curious as to the historical accuracy of the various claims relating to the significance of the quote. and interested on if anybody can find anything else relevant to the context of the quote. The previous thread on the quote doesn't leave me feeling particularly encouraged, but anyways. Also, if the MIA's reason is true, I'm not sure one could call it an attack on Trot-style 'transitional programs', seeing as Guesde wasn't, it would seem, actually advocating an 'unattainable' (well, supposed to be) program.

Also, just to clarify, the 'political' section of that program was the 'maximum program', while the economic demands were the 'minimum program'. The debate was, I believe, over whether the latter were plausible under capitalism. Anyways, also perhaps of interest, it seems that Engels said that the label of 'Marxism' was made by their opponents (presumably as an insult, like 'De Leonite'). To be honest, it does make debates on whether the label 'Marxism' involves worship of an individual seem rather absurd, or more absurd than originally, rather, seeing as it was meant to suggest that as an insult, and then presumably adopted as a counter to said insult (or to nullify its use as an insult and annoy the people using it as one, I suppose). But anyways, while it may have some relevance to Rubel, it's mainly off-topic, so never mind.

Alf's picture
Joined: 6-07-05
Jun 10 2009 08:09

There was a thread about this a year or so ago:


Joined: 5-03-09
Sep 16 2009 07:09

Yes, and I had referred to it as the 'previous thread'. Also, I seem to have referred to the 'materialist theory of history', which is, on reflection, a rather misleading term.

Joined: 25-11-06
Sep 18 2009 03:36


I think that the "I am not a Marxist" term is generally used to imply that Marx was not aiming to create a large-scale, systematic movement that looked to his theories and writings. The context of the original quote, that it merely involved Marx denying agreement with the French so-called 'Marxists', seems to indicate that it cannot be used in this way.

Certainly, one can critique later day Marxists on in any number of ways. The Second International, for example, evolving quickly into a group who allegiance to revolution was questionable at best.

At the same time, I think that there are schools of thought which effectively removes Marx's writings from his context as an avid revolutionist, maker of systems and participation in the building of movements, and instead studies Marx's writings as philosophy, literature or revelation. I think that kind of approach (for example, the wretched "Invaders From Marx"), loses crucial aspects of Marx, not necessarily as a Marxist but as communist. A critique of later day Marxism, indeed requires more than the semi-religious "return to the real Marx". It requires a critique of the development of both capitalism and revolutionary movements from Marx's time to the present (not that I'm advocating some whole-cloth revamping of revolutionary theory, I think that the analyses of Bilan, the ICC, Dauve, Debord, Theorie Communiste, and others are 'in the ball park' despite contradicting each other to an extent...).

jura's picture
Joined: 25-07-08
Sep 18 2009 07:43

RedHughs, why do you think Michael Heinrich's text is a good example of what you described? Sure, Heinrich's interpretation of Marx has its problems, but he certainly does not view Marx's writings as "philosophy, literature or revelation". His main concern is a modern approach to Marx's value theory (so it's no "return to the real Marx", and not at all semi-religious - quite the contrary, but you'd have to actually read one of his books). True, he doesn't deal with the history of revolutionary movements, but it's not like he pretends that his own work is the only thing that marxists should be doing. The tasks you mention are not irreconcilable with what people like Heinrich are doing.

Personally I think that Heinrich and some other contemporary German Marxists are doing a good job at helping people read Marx and understand capitalism - and they're doing it more rigorously and critically than the celebrated David Harvey for example. I don't know much about their politics and I wouldn't be surprised if they were really shite (Die Linke or whatnot) by my standards... but I. I. Rubin was a Menshevik after all. The important thing is that their understanding of value theory can be incorporated into what we're doing (after all, things like Open Marxism would be very different had it not been for the debates in Germany in the 60s and 70s - and I mean specifically debates on value theory and state-derivation).

Joined: 3-05-07
Sep 18 2009 19:22

I'd always assumed that Marx's objection was to the term "Marxist" itself, this being originally coined by Bakunin and his followers as a derogatory term to describe Marx and his supporters in the famous clash in the IWMA between the two points of view (with Engels returning the compliment by talking of "Bakuninists"). When some of Marx's supporters in France, notably Lafargue, started calling themselves "Marxists" he repudiated the term (though not necessarily the ideas that Lafargue was putting forward).

And it is true that for him personally to have accepted the term "Marxist" would have been rather arrogant. More importantly, it would also have been contrary to his own theory about the origin of the theory of the working class movement : that it was a product of the material conditions in which workers found themselves not the idea of some Great Man and so would have come into being even if he himself had never been born.