Can the working class shape politics?

Written by vivek monteiro | Published on: November 8, 2017

Excerpts from a lecture by Dr. Vivek Monteiro


Karl Marx and Frederick Engels answer this question emphatically in the affirmative in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, published in 1848.
In the ‘Manifesto’, they make a number of assertions- about  inevitable crisis in capitalism, that capitalism  produces its own gravedigger- the working class, that the working class needs its own party - a communist party, and that as a first step , the working class must win the battle for democracy.
The working class attempting to shape politics preceded Marx and Engels. In the 1830’s, the working people of England, Scotland and Wales were mobilizing en masse in what is called today the Chartist movement, to make democratic political demands. In 1838 they published the People's Charter, setting out the main aims of the movement. Working men should be able to vote in parliamentary elections , voting should be by secret ballot, workers should be eligible to stand for election , property qualifications should be abolished and MPs should be paid a salary.
The massive marches in support of these democratic demands were sought to be suppressed and dispersed, resulting in fierce clashes, arrests and jail terms for the leaders.  One of the slogans of the chartists,  emblazoned on a banner of the Boiler makers, came from the pen of the Roman writer Terence, a former slave himself,  written two thousand years earlier- “Humani Nihil Alienum”.Marx, when asked his favorite maxim, also wrote the same words- Humani Nihil Alienum.  “Nothing human is alien to me.”
So we see that Marx and Engels were not the first assert a role for the working class in democratic politics.  This, the working class in Britain did for itself. But three years before the ‘Communist Manifesto’, in 1845, Marx and Engels were the first to make an assertion of a different kind.
This was a statement about the scope of science and the scientific method.
What do we mean by science?
D.D. Kosambi gives an answer which is as profound as it is brief: “Science is the cognition of necessity”
In the 5th century BC, the Greek materialist philosopher Democritus, with incredible foresight, writes: “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity”. 
In his doctoral thesis of 1841, Marx chose to compare the philosophy of Democritus with that of his follower Epicurus. For young Marx, the problem was of finding a space for human activism. If everything is determined by chance and necessity, then where is the space for human freedom- for conscious human action? In this early writing, Marx, striving to keep a space open for activism, argues his preference for Epicurus, though in terms that are distant from his later Marxism.  In 1841 Marx is not yet a Marxist.
The year 1845 is a milestone in the history of science.  In this year Marx and Engels asserted that changing society is a valid subject for scientific investigation. The method for doing this they termed as “the materialist conception of history”.
Neither Marx nor Engels were born as Marxists. They arrived at what we today term ‘marxism’, through a process of activism, study and criticism of contemporary philosophical trends , culminating in  their path-breaking  formulation of ‘a materialist conception of history’ in two documents, the “Theses on Feuerbach”, and “The German Ideology” in 1845.
“We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men.”
“The history of nature, called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole ideology amounts either to a distorted conception of this history or to a complete abstraction from it.”
In the history of science the idea of a ‘materialist conception of history’ (the science of history referred to in the previous paragraph) does not begin with social science, but in the natural sciences.  A conception of biology as a historical science begins well before Darwin (whose Origin of Species was published only in 1859). From the preceding century it was being recognized that two sciences- geology, and biology, could only be rationally understood as historical sciences. The fossil record, where geology met biology, were the pages of a history book, with a strong thread of causation linking the later pages of this book to the earlier ones.
By the early 19th century, through the works of geologists like James Hutton and Charles Lyell, and biologists like Leclerc (Buffon) and Lamarck, it was being asserted that all of nature had a history, that this history could be understood, and that moreover, the human species, as a biological species, was a product of this natural history. The threads of necessity running through natural science in the form of a natural history were becoming evident.  Biological science was taking shape as a program of cognizing this necessity.