Marxism Is the Product of a Struggle for Political Freedom

It’s important to place the leading figures of Marxism in the context that shaped them. That context has to include the repressive state structures and extreme inequalities of Europe in the early 20th century, which made revolution seem inevitable.

Philosopher Karl Marx circa 1875. (Wikimedia Commons)

Christina Morina’s The Invention of Marxism contains a wealth of material on nine socialist intellectuals who Morina characterizes as key figures in the foundation of Marxism. The most recent trends in historical method inform the book, and it is based on considerable research in a wealth of printed sources in several languages as well as the archival treasures of the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam — if there is a heaven for historians of socialism, it is the IISH.

The book is also highly readable and accessible, perhaps surprisingly so for a work that started life as a German professorial dissertation (credit also to the translator, Elizabeth Janik). The book’s German edition originally appeared in 2017.

Morina has selected nine individuals from four countries: Germany, Austria (or rather the Austro-Hungarian Empire), France, and Russia. The socialist intellectuals whose lives and pathways to embracing Marxism she reconstructs are Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Adler, Jean Jaurès, Jules Guesde, Georgi Plekhanov, Vladimir Lenin, and Peter Struve.

Becoming Revolutionaries

The book takes as its point of departure reflections by the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his essay on “Intellectuals and the Class Struggle,” published in 1971 when the New Left and radical student movements were still a live force in Western societies. Hobsbawm asked: “Why do men and women become revolutionaries?” Part of his answer to the question was this: “In the first instance mostly because they believe that what they want subjectively from life cannot be got without a fundamental change in all society.”

Morina proceeds to construct links between the socialization and life experiences of her “protagonists,” as she calls her selected Marxist founding figures, and their reception and transmission of Marx’s ideas. She draws on recent developments in historical writing such as the history of emotions to present the history of ideas (in this case Marxism) as connected to the life cycles and subjective experiences of the people who espouse them. She deliberately sets out to break with older intellectual histories of the development of Marxism, which she sees as self-referential, and to embed her account in the current mainstream of historical method.

In principle, there should be no objection to the project of historicizing Marxism as a set of ideas. After all, Marxist historians such as Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson have illuminated how widely held ideas such as nationalism have been historically constructed. They have also shown how cultural traditions that people usually assume to be ancient have been subject to conscious and deliberate processes of invention in modern times. Marxism itself should thus be fair game for historicization.

Nor should one object to an attempt to integrate the history of the diffusion of Marx’s ideas among late-nineteenth-century intellectuals and activists into the mainstream of the historiography of the period. Yet the question remains: How useful is Morina’s collective-biography approach to understanding the emergence of Marxism as a coherent body of thought after Karl Marx’s death in 1883, and what are the limitations of her account?

Selection Criteria

One might ask how Morina arrived at her selection of nine formative figures in the history of Marxism. Some (Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg) more or less pick themselves. But if Guesde is to be included, why not also the cofounder of French Marxism, Marx’s own son-in-law Paul Lafargue? If activists qualify as well as theoreticians, why not August Bebel or Wilhelm Liebknecht, key founders and leaders of German Social Democracy?

Does Struve, whose links with Marxism only persisted for several years in the 1890s before he moved to liberalism and gradually more to the right, really deserve to be included here? What about Dutch exponents of Marxism such as Henriette Roland Holst, Herman Gorter, and Anton Pannekoek, or Italians like Antonio Labriola? Did Leon Trotsky arrive too late on the scene to be considered here? (He makes only a fleeting appearance late in the book, in the chapter on the 1905 Russian Revolution.) That said, some process of selection is perhaps inevitable in a work of this kind.

The book is fairly lengthy — just over four hundred pages with seventy pages of endnotes testifying to the author’s substantial research efforts. Covering nine significant individuals in the compass of one volume nonetheless inevitably involves some compromise. Specialists in German Social Democracy may not find much that is novel in the treatment of, say, Kautsky or Bernstein, nor will scholars of the Russian Revolution find too much that is new about Lenin. But Morina has unearthed some lesser-known material about the early lives, education, and pathways to involvement in Marxism of her “protagonists,” and most readers will learn something new about some of these figures.

Karl Kautsky (R) alongside Eduard Bernstein in the late 1920s. (Archiv Gerstenberg / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

At first, the payoff of Morina’s approach is not immediately evident. It is hard to fit the life experiences of the “protagonists” into simple generalizations. A couple were from modest backgrounds (Bernstein and Guesde), while others were from more economically comfortable origins. Some broke with their families when they became politically active, others did not. Three of the nine were Jewish, three were immigrants (although the definition of “immigrants” is a little elastic in the case of citizens of the multinational Austro-Hungarian empire). Most of them experienced periods of exile, and all were multilingual.

Revolt of the Nerds

One point that Morina puts particular stress on is that all of these figures grew up in homes in which education and books were valued and showed above-average academic aptitude. Lenin even aced his final school exams at the very time that his brother was being executed for trying to assassinate the tsar — displaying an impressive if slightly scary capacity for laser-like focus at an early age.

Morina suggests that these school experiences “carry enormous explanatory potential. . . . Most of the protagonists seem to have been outstanding students.” Perhaps it should not be surprising that individuals who gained prominence as exponents of a demanding body of political and economic theory were able students. But at this point, Marxism starts to look like the revolt of the nerds.

Similarly, Morina searches for biographical explanations for divergent currents within Marxism. For example, she poses the question of whether Lenin’s path toward a career as a professional revolutionary “might be explained by the ambivalent influences of his family legacy.” Ultimately, however, the sources on Lenin’s inner life during his youth aren’t sufficient for us to answer that question.

Morina argues that we know too little about Bernstein’s transformation from having been a revolutionary follower of Marx during the period in which the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was outlawed and immediately afterward, when Bernstein himself was exiled from Germany. She suggests that “such factors as exhaustion, homesickness, or growing older . . . might explain his suddenly pointed commentary on SPD tactics and his emphasis on the idea of a political homeland.”

So revisionism was a form of midlife crisis? Yet exile and the onset of middle age did not mellow some of the other revolutionaries who appear in this book.

Unsavory Circumstances

Perhaps the least satisfying chapter for this reader was the one dealing with Rosa Luxemburg. Morina criticizes tendencies toward hagiography and sentimentalism in depictions of Luxemburg, pointing to the contrast between the tender expressions of emotion in her private correspondence and her tough-minded, often biting and acerbic, political writing.

However, while Morina searches for evidence of Luxemburg’s subjective life experience in the available sources about her early life, she provides little sense of how Luxemburg became such a significant figure in the German and European labor movement or of the nature of her achievements as a thinker. The way in which Luxemburg quickly achieved prominence among the leading figures of Germany’s SPD despite her outsider status as a woman and a Polish Jew testifies both to her formidable intellectual gifts and to a relatively open party culture at that point in time.

Rosa Luxemburg addressing a crowd in Stuttgart, 1907. (ullstein bildullstein bild via Getty Images)

Morina quotes Luxemburg’s expressions of “distaste for unsavory circumstances” and aversion to overcrowded cities, depicting her as having distanced herself from too much contact with “the masses.” Morina stresses the distance of her “protagonists” from the actual proletariat, with the exception of Bernstein and Guesde. Yet like Bernstein — and unlike Kautsky, for example — Luxemburg was a frequent and effective speaker in workers’ meetings. Morina’s own account only devotes a chapter to the working class as viewed through the prism of the writings of her “protagonists.”

There are plenty of references to the political and social context of the time, but these are a little brief and unsystematic. While Morina acknowledges the “explanatory power” of Marx’s ideas for the labor movement by the late 1870s, she seems to deplore the politicization of the “quest for bread” (citing Hannah Arendt on this point). There is little discussion of the imperialism of this era, which Morina’s “protagonists” sharply criticized — I could find only one direct reference to imperialism.

Nor is there any discussion of the socialist critique of the pervasive militarism of societies like Imperial Germany. Luxemburg, for example, was sentenced to jail for exhorting German workers not to fire on their French brothers in the event of war. On the eve of World War I, she was also put on trial for speaking out against the abuse of army recruits in Germany. Criticisms of the tone and language of the revolutionary left in this era need to be viewed in the context of the extreme economic inequality and repressive state structures against which socialists were struggling.


Morina provides an interesting last chapter (before her conclusion) on the revolution of 1905–6 in the Russian Empire as a case study of how early Marxists responded to the challenge of an actual revolution. She seems surprised at the diversity of their reactions, “given that all belonged to the same discursive community of politically like-minded activists who felt responsible to Marxism.” In view of the vigorous internal debates, not to say polemics, within the Second International, this diversity should not really come as a surprise.

Perhaps this surprise derives from Morina’s conception of Marxism as a worldview that is “ultimately hermetic.” Given her own method of drawing on life experience to help explain intellectual trajectories, it may be worth noting that Morina was born in East Germany in 1976, and this may have influenced her view of Marxism as leading to state socialism and “totalitarian oppression.”

She views Marxism as simultaneously a product of “political romanticism” — a controversial concept taken from Carl Schmitt — and as the product of a “science-obsessed age.” There is more that could be said about Marxism’s lineage from the Enlightenment, but that might require a more conventional history-of-ideas analysis than is given here.

Had Morina continued her collective biographical account past 1905–6 to consider responses to the 1917 Russian Revolution, even greater divergences within the Marxist tradition would have become apparent. Beyond 1917, the Marxist tradition diversified further, with one line ossifying under Stalinism (helping to form the likes of East German leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, among others). But there were many other, anti-Stalinist strands of Marxist thought as well, some of which even remained active within post-1945 social democratic parties, at least for a time.

Emancipatory Impulses

In Hobsbawm’s 1971 essay, which was reprinted in his book Revolutionaries, he went on to add the following thoughts after the sentences quoted by Morina. For Hobsbawm, in addition to the subjective discontents of individual revolutionaries, there was “of course that substratum of idealism, or if we prefer the term utopianism.” This went not just for individuals, but for whole societies at “occasional historical moments.” Hobsbawm also pointed to other dimensions of the history of revolutionary movements, including an emancipatory impulse and drive for political freedom, that get rather short shrift in Morina’s account.

Readers interested in the history of the European left and the early years of Marxism will find much useful and interesting material in Morina’s book. Many will no doubt be provoked to disagree with some of her arguments. If that stimulates some to engage in further research into these thinkers, that can only be a good thing.