The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels

Draper, Hal
Publisher:  Socialist Register
Year Published:  1971
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX7253

For Marx and Engels, there was a direct relationship between the revolutionary (literally subversive) nature of their socialism and the principle of emancipation-from-below, the principle that, as Engels wrote, "there is no concern for ... gracious patronage from above."
Marxism, as the theory and practice of the proletarian revolution, therefore also had to be the theory and practice of the self-emancipation of the proletariat. Its essential originality flows from this source.

The classic formulation of the self-emancipation principle by Marx was written down in 1864 as the first premise of the Rules of the First International- in fact, as its first clause.

CONSIDERING, That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; ...

And it was from this source that the phrase became famous, being repeated also by various elements who did not believe a word of it.

Later on, Engels rightly predated the conception to "the very beginning": "our notion, from the very beginning, was that "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself", he wrote in a preface to the Communist Manifesto, slightly varying the formulation, as did Marx also in his Critique of the Gotha Programme.

From the very beginning of Marxism, he means. But if we sketch Marx and Engels' course before they arrived at this keystone principle of the self-emancipation of the proletariat, we will put it into context. For it was then an unknown principle, previously almost unthinkable. There was nobody from whom to adopt it. Marx had to invent it himself - to re-invent it.


If the principleof Self-Emancipation had to be spelled out more formally in 1864, it was because of the problem Marx faced in drawing up the programme of the new International so as to gain the agreement of a wide variety of political views. What programmatic statement could delimit the organization as a class movement of the proletariat, yet avoid lining up with any of the various ideological tendencies within that class (or outside it)? The very concept of a class programme which was not a sect programme - not the programme of a Marxist sect either - was itself a basic Marxist concept; but for this the movement was ready. The Preamble to the Rules was Marx's solution, beginning with the clause on Self-Emancipation.

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