Karl Marx and Switzerland

by Henrique Schneider*

karl marx switzerland
Karl Marx and Switzerland

“The key to the intricate and massive system of thought created by Karl Marx … is at bottom simple: Karl Marx was a communist”.

Rothbard (1995, 317) succinctly makes a crucial point for understanding Marx: His ideas are not primarily about economics, sociology, of philosophy – let alone about singular or aggregate law-like relationships such as wage and value, time and investment, household formation and capital accumulation. If Marx dwelt in those issues, it was only to serve his ultimate aim, the definition and institution of a new society, or, his version of communism.

Marxian Communism is not the outcome of some social mechanism. It is a goal to which all social mechanisms should be subservient. This goal equally subdues issues, theories, and frames of reference to its own implementation. While other forms of communism believed that such a system would be the eventual outcome, or, the synthesis, of human evolution, Marxian Communism was revolutionary. It is conceptualized as a synthesis, but one that has to be actively sought by revolution and enforced by the revolutionaries. Marxian Communism was about how to force and enforce the synthesis, thus, his idea of a synthesis was that human evolution as such is and shall be determined by an all-encompassing, synthetic, system.

Where did Marx learn to be a communist? While it would be wrong to claim that it was in Switzerland, it is certain that the alpine country served as an important case study for Marx. When studying Switzerland, Marx realized that:

  • revolutions are possible (in contrast to wars between armies);
  • revolutions can take the form of a goal-oriented movement (in contrast to revolutions reacting against an undesirable state of affairs);
  • it is not the proletariat, but the lower bourgeoisie that revolts.

While a) and b) were welcome indications that his own theories were right, c) was a double-edged sword. He might have wanted to co-opt the lower-bourgeoisie into a revolution against the upper bourgeoisie inspiring the proletariat to do the same. On the other hand, and as his friend Friedrich Engels was always ready to point out, the lower-bourgeoisie, even if coopted, is likely to turn into a conservative force. Hence again, the example of Switzerland. Marx learned these facets as he studied the Swiss industrialization – in fact, the longest sentence in Das Kapital (1867) is about the Swiss watchmaking industry – and as he analyzed the Swiss “liberal” revolutions after 1813 until the formation of the Confederacy in 1848 …

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*Henrique Schneider is a Swiss economist, HoD at the Swiss Trade Association and engaged in adult education.