At Deane’s request: was Marx a vulgar ‘Marxist’?

The answer is yes and no. Marx could be as vulgar as the best of them. Let us take the example of religion. He writes in The Holy Family:

The figments of his brain assume corporeal form. A world of tangible, palpable ghosts is begotten within his mind. That is the secret of all pious visions and at the same time it is the general form of insanity (MECW vol. 4, p. 184; MEW vol. 2, pp. 195–6).

Then in Capital I, Marx makes the much-cited crass and ‘vulgar’ point that the ‘religious world is but the reflex of the real world’. He is talking about Roman-Catholicism, which is an external religion and appropriate for a monetary system, in contrast to Protestantism, which is the appropriate reflex of the internalised world of credit and commodities (MECW vol. 35, p. 90; MEW, vol. 23, p. 93). This opposition also turns up in the third volume and Capital and Engels follows suit (MECW vol. 20, p. 267; MEW vol. 16, p. 247). It is in fact an old argument, appearing first in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (MECW vol. 3, pp. 290–1; MEW vol. 40, pp. 530–1).

Too many have cited such passages as though they expressed Marx’s quintessential position, in which the ‘base is to blame’ (a slogan once used for a ‘Vulgar Marxist’ group I organised). But Marx can also turn out the most dialectical assessment, which seems to stand in stark opposition to the vulgar Marx. Once again, on religion:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering but also the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people (MECW vol. 3, p. 175; MEW vol. 1, p. 378).

Of course, the last sentence, the famous opium statement is usually taken as an example of Marx’s vulgar approach to religion. So it is worth noting that in contrast to our own associations of opium with drugs, altered states, addicts, organised crime, wily Taliban insurgents, and desperate farmers making a living the only way they can, opium was a much more ambivalent item in nineteenth-century Europe. Widely regarded as a beneficial, useful and cheap medicine at the beginning of the century, it was gradually vilified by its end by a coalition of medical and religious forces. In between debates raged: it was the subject of defences and parliamentary enquiries; its trade was immensely profitable; it was used for all manner of ills and to calm children; it was one of the only medicines available for the working poor; it was a source of utopian visions for artists and poets; it was increasingly stigmatised as a source of addiction and illness. In effect, it ran all the way from blessed medicine to recreational curse.

Marx too was a regular user, along with those other useful medicines, arsenic and creosote. As he slowly killed himself through a punishing schedule of too much writing and smoking, too little sleep, and an inadequate diet, Marx would use it for his carbuncles, toothaches, liver problems, bronchial coughs and so on. As Jenny wrote in a letter to Engels in 1857:

Dear Mr Engels, One invalid is writing for another by ordre du mufti. Chaley’s head hurts him almost everywhere, terrible tooth-ache, pains in the ears, head, eyes, throat and God knows what else. Neither opium pills nor creosote do any good. The tooth has got to come out and he jibs at the idea (MECW vol. 40, p. 563; MEW vol. 29, p. 643).

All of which means that a Marxist approach plays off vulgar and dialectical dimensions, as Lenin saw so well. Lose the vulgarity and you lose the Marxism; but so also with the dialectics.