State Socialism and The Communist Manifesto

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 46

In the Communist Manifesto Marx states that ‘the first step in the workers’ revolution is the elevation of the proletariat to the ruling class, the winning of democracy.  The proletariat will use its political rule to wrest bit by bit all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as ruling class . . . ‘

There then follows a set of demands that ‘will naturally be different depending on the different countries.  For the most advanced countries, however the following can be put into effect fairly generally.’  There is then a list of ten demands of which the most relevant for our purposes are –

‘5 Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state through a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.’

‘6. Centralisation of the whole transportation system in the hands of the state.’

‘7. Increase in national factories and instruments of production, reclamation and improvement of land in accordance with a common plan.’

These demands would appear to entail the introduction of socialism through actions of the state – albeit with the vital condition that this is a state in the hands of the workers – with state control of industry etc. under a centralised plan as the objective.  This is in obvious contrast to Marx and Engels antipathy to (capitalist) state ownership and control as noted in previous posts; their opposition to a putative necessary role for the state in sponsoring workers cooperatives; and the prominent role they give to cooperatives in the development of the working class, its movement, and its heralding of a new socialist society.

To anticipate the argument to be presented: the Manifesto was written quickly, in particular circumstances, and, more importantly, at an early part of Marx and Engels’ political careers, including before their experience of the Paris Commune.  However, none of this explains, or rather explains away, these passages since much of what is written in the Manifesto Marx and Engels defended for the rest of their lives.

If we take the opening lines quoted above: ‘the first step in the workers’ revolution is the elevation of the proletariat to the ruling class, the winning of democracy’, it must be said that while control of the state is required to secure the rule of any ruling class, such control does not make a class the rulers of society.  Only in relation to the means of production can a class be constituted as the ruling class.  Even were the working class to ‘win democracy’ it would not yet be a ruling class unless this democracy included its ownership and control of society’s productive powers.

Of course, Marx goes on to say that ‘the proletariat will use its political rule to wrest bit by bit all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state’ but again, the state is a separate body of men and women and cannot be considered to be synonymous with the working class.  So, if the state has its hands on the means of production it means the working class does not, and this is true even if the workers state is democratic.  As noted before, state title to the productive resources of society would only be consistent with effective workers’ ownership if it performed the negative function of preventing alienation of particular factories etc from the collective ownership of society and their appropriation as private capital.

Immediately after the ten demands, Marx states that ‘when, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared and all production is concentrated in the hands of the associated individuals, the public power loses its political character.’

As Marx then says, ‘political power in its proper sense is the organised power of one class for the oppression of another.’  For the ‘public power to lose its political character’ the state would therefore have to cease to exist, but how does production leave its hands and come into the hands of the ‘associated individuals’?

The state, as instrument of ‘oppression’ is unsuitable for control of production and certainly for its exercise by the working class, and it is only by the working class becoming the ruling class can the state ‘wither away’, as it was later put by Lenin.  The working class can therefore only be a ruling class through its role in production and can sustain and defend its position, at least initially, only by having a state of its own.

The socialist scholar, Hal Draper, states that the term ‘winning the battle of democracy’ (in one translation of the Manifesto) was cryptic and reflected Marx’s lack of certainty over whether this meant the victory of the democratic bloc existing in much of Europe at the time, that did not seek to go beyond capitalism or bourgeois rule, or outright proletarian rule as might be thought given the context.

The first edition of the Manifesto was in German and at this time only a bourgeois revolution was immediately anticipated in Germany – “the Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution . . .”  The ten demands can be better understood as the programme of a radical bourgeois revolution that the working class would support in light of its own weakness and inability at that time to achieve its own class rule.  This incapacity did not however mean that the working class was ever to cease for a minute to organise to defend and advance its own particular interests. 

In the later 1872 German preface to the Manifesto Marx makes the following points:

‘However much that state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there, some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II [the ten demands].’

‘That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organisation of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”’

The Manifesto speaks of the proletariat using its political rule to wrest bit by bit all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as ruling class . . .’  It goes on to say that this involves ‘measures which seem economically inadequate and untenable but which in the course of operation drive beyond their own limits, and are unavoidable as a means of transforming the whole mode of production.’

These might seem to have some correspondence to Trotsky’s approach laid out in the Transitional Programme, but here they relate to measures to be implemented following the already achieved ‘political supremacy’ of the working class and not the programme that precedes it.  In this context it should also be said that a ‘transitional’ approach that substitutes demands for expropriation by the (capitalist) state in place of workers’ expropriation is a very different approach and involves a different transition.

Draper notes that:

‘the Manifesto was one of the few writings in which Marx spoke in terms of state ownership of the means of production.  He usually left open the question of the forms of social ownership, which might include workers’ associations and cooperatives.  The emphasis in the Manifesto reflected the emphasis in the movement for which it was written at the time.  State ownership (by a workers’ state) was, to be sure, one form of social ownership for Marx.’

Draper also endorses the view that the demands were not specifically those of Marx or Engels but already existing and agreed demands of the Communist League, for whom the Manifesto was written.  He also notes the extent that some other specific demands did not represent Marx’s own views, (in The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto).

These demands accord with other programmatic statements such as The Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, which were set out as the programme to be adopted in what was understood to be a radical democratic revolution, but not yet a working class and socialist one.  In the Manifesto Marx employs the argument about their transitional nature in order to cover this (rather wide) gap, but their realisation would not achieve socialism even if it would strengthen the existing position of the working class and its future struggle. 

Marx states in the Manifesto that when the proletariat ‘has become the ruling class by revolution, and as such has destroyed, by force, the old conditions of production, it destroys, necessarily, with these conditions of production, the conditions of existence of all class antagonism, of classes generally, and thus it destroys, also, its own supremacy as a class.’

Like Engels in Anti-Duhring, the prospectus is of the state dying following working class revolution and the means of production becoming the property of the associated producers, i.e. the working class.  Since no capitalist class would now exist, and no other class could have ownership of the means of production, all class distinctions are removed and the division of society into classes disappears.

In this process many questions arise as to sequence, timing and agency and the telescoped summary in the Manifesto can only be properly considered with due regard to the development of Marx’s views at that time.  It is possible to quote Marx and Engels in favour of state ownership but not possible to make this consistent with other major statements of view; with the consistency of their overall perspective and programme, or their foundational beliefs.

Two years after the publication of the Manifesto Marx, when he still had hopes for an approaching revolution, hoped that the communists could “make the revolution permanent until . . . at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers.” (Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League)

Back to part 45

2 thoughts on “State Socialism and The Communist Manifesto

  1. I would like to make another comment. I notice you have started to refer to the writings of Hal Draper more than you did in the past, this may have been because you knew his reputation of being a critic of Lenin ?

    No matter, I too started reading Draper about a dozen years back, I mean his monumental Karl Marx’s theory of Revolution. I began of course with volume one, I liked the promise of the forward. He said some things that I was favourable about, one that the political thought of Marx was little understood in comparison with his philosophic origins and his economic critiques of bourgeois economic. In so far as it existed at all the two intellectual tendencies in presenting the political thought of Marx in order, there had been only two tendencies, the least satisfactory he called the quote mongering tendency, i.e the floating from text to text and the ripping out of context quotes from the ‘master’ to fit a current need. The second intellectual tendency, one that he praised with some reservation was the one undertaken by Lenin in the State and Revolution, the assembling of all the passages together about a given topic, in this case the theme of the dictatorship of the proletariat, with a thoughtful commentary in mind.

    It seemed to me that Draper was founding an authentic hermeneutics in relation to the works of Marx, for those who don’t know hermeneutics is the theory of the proper reading and reconstruction of historical texts.

    Alas I stopped reading Draper before I got to the end. I never went on to read volume 4 and 5. Volume four is supposedly about what Marx had to say about the various brands of Socialism on offer during his own life time.

    Why did I stop short with the investigation of what Marx really said about politics? Draper expressed it for me ‘one must remember that most of the states that Marx had occasion to discuss were not capitalist states- as yet even in Europe, let alone throughout the rest of the world.’

    Did Marx have enough material to formulate a political theory of worth? It is reported that Aristotle studied the cons tuitions of 100 city states to formulate his political theory of the Greek city state. Perhaps Marx lived at the wrong time to formulate a theory of the democratic state under modern conditions?

  2. I have a splendid little publication on the communist manifesto in the Norton series of books that is dedicated to making important works available at a low price. It is really very good because it provides us with the original manifesto plus all of the prefaces penned by M and E. It also contains essays on the manifesto by Bernstein, Kautsky, Lenin , Adler Mandel, Draper,Schumpter and some others. One interesting one is by a fellow called Haig A Bosmajian concerning Marx’s use of Rhetoric.

    It should be said the study and learning of Rhetoric used to be taken up as a serious intellectual matter. Aristotle started it and his very large book on the matter was supposed to be used in support of his books on politics and ethics. The study of rhetoric was a university discipline in the middle ages. One of the lasting issues was how to define it in a way that made it distinctive from art and science.

    In modern times partly down to the bad influence of the so called marxist concept of ideology, all of the older and finer distinction got lost in the mix of ideology, which itself became associated with meres lies and propaganda . Almost everyone uses the term ideology to describe just about anything they don’t happen to like. What does it mean to call both religion and art as ideology and bourgeois economics as ideology, and liberalism as ideology and Stalinism as ideology? The obvious reply of course is the stock notion they are ideas that fall below the standard of real science, What science, mathematical science, or maybe physical science or perhaps logical science? What is more Lenin frequently refers to marxism as the ideology of the working class, and bourgeois critics also refer to historical materialism under the nomination of typical pseudo-science., Popper’s ranforced dogmatism.

    All of the above makes for a jumble of half understood conceptions relating to marx, no wonder then is intellectual legacy is so controversial. One problem with the legacy of Marx is that the communist manifesto is what most people think about when it comes down to what they have actually heard and read. I listened to jordan peterson speaking about marxist socialism on youtube and it was the manifesto he quoted exclusively and you may ask where is he going wrong here, when millions of communists were raised up on the basis of the manifesto

    You should get a copy of the Norton translation it is really quite useful to have.

    I have been for a long time convinced that a canon about marx is required. What books are are the best ones, what passages in books are the best in relation to other unfortunate ones, what linguistic expression are more important than others. Marx used the german term aufheben in the context of the dialectic of socialism, google the term and you will get around twenty english expressions ranging from lift above, to cancel, to annual, to supersede and preserve. The term was borrowed from Hegel to announce how the rational gets mixed in with the real. In history some things that belong to the world of the real are dross and are not preserved for the future for they are becoming less rational, the rational in Hegel is also a code word for objective freedom. So you might think that socialism needs to pass to the next level by destroying not everything belonging to the past but only the dross, socialism preserves the rational side of the past.

    This presents a tricky situation, for it is all too easy to think about revolution in terms of a Cartesian rationality, of starting again from scratch or year zero as it was taken up in certain places. A Cartesian comes into an old medieval town and decides that it is not in good order, the streets are too narrow, the houses are too small, better to knock it all down and start from the beginning, make
    it fully rational, this would not be in keeping with what Hegel intended in his presentation of the role of reason. Yet Hegel preserved things in his political theory of State that Marx did not like, namely monarchy and the Estates General to mention only two point. You could say that Marx was more Cartesian than Hegelian, that his mind was concentrated on eliminating the dross of capitalism rather than preserving the good side of capitalism. It can come to pass that one who finds much that is worth preserving in capitalism is cast as a reformer or worse an apologists. this is how it is with the books of Marx, what is his dross and what is his rationality, we have yey to work it out.

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