The role of capitalist crisis in socialist revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 50

Marx notes that commercial crises ‘by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society.’ (Collected Works Vol 6 p 490)

Whether capitalism is then found guilty is a matter of objective conditions and the class struggle, with its own requirements for success.  We know however that it is not the case that crises are each time more threatening.  Like many statements in the Communist Manifesto it is a political declaration, a proclamation of belief and exhortation to action written in broad strokes, not a studied analysis.  In other words, a manifesto.

Capitalist crises nevertheless were considered to play an important role in determining the potential for revolution, even if in themselves they did not answer to the possibility of success.  In a letter to Bernstein in January 1882, Engels wrote:

‘The fact that these crises are one of the most powerful levers in political upheavals has already been stated in the Communist Manifesto and is explained in the review section of the Neue Reinische Zeitung up to and including 1848, but it is also explained that the returning prosperity also breaks revolutions and lays the foundations for the victory of reaction.’

It should be noted that this refers to political revolution, that is those social convulsions causing or attempting to cause more or less important changes to the Government or State, and not to the fundamental class structure that supports them.  That this is under-appreciated is because the former is conflated with the latter since it is assumed that that there is little social transition before capture of state power by the working class and that the new state structure is what will be constitutive of the new social relations of production.

That this is the case is understandable since it is possible to find statements by Marx and Engels about the role of a new workers’ state arising from crisis and revolution that is consistent with this view and we have addressed this before in a number of posts beginning here.

In relation to views on the relation of crises to revolution we can record the view here:

‘The virtual repeal of the act of 1847 will force manufacturers into such a rush of overtrading that revulsions upon revulsions will follow, so that very soon all the expedients and resources of the present system will be exhausted and a revolution, made inevitable, which, uprooting society far deeper than 1793 and 1848 ever did, will speedily lead to the political and social ascendancy of the proletarians . . .’  (The Ten Hours Question, Collected Works Volume 10 p 275-6)

The quotation above, written by Engels in February 1850, betrayed his over-optimistic view at that time, following the 1848 revolutions across much of Europe.  Capitalism proved more dynamic and adaptive than allowed for, and the preconditions for the political and social revolution envisaged were much greater than existed at that point, even in the most advanced society. 

Both Marx and Engels were enthusiasts of revolution and sometimes optimistic about its proximity and success.  But optimism was always tempered by more realistic evaluation when it came to specifying the line of march, and Marx in particular showed remarkable realism in assessing revolutionary opportunities when they appeared to arise. 

He continued after 1848 to analyse economic developments with a view to their potential impact on the potential for revolution, this time from the crisis in 1857:

‘`What the most far- sighted politicians now are sure of is an enlarged edition not only of the crisis of 1847 but also of the revolutions of 1848 … In 1848 the movements which more immediately produced the Revolution were of a merely political character … Now, on the contrary, a social revolution is generally understood, even before the political revolution is proclaimed; and a social revolution brought about by no underground plots of the secret societies among the working classes, but by the public contrivances of the Crédits Mobiliers of the ruling classes.’

Here, Marx not only looks to the potential for political revolution but also argues that the development of capitalism itself is bringing about a social revolution. Of course, much of this speculation was in private correspondence so cannot be presented as considered political statements (to be carried forward as holy writ into the 21st century).

Hal Draper is right when he excoriates those who quote Marx to advance whatever and any purpose they have: ‘I have seen remarks by Marx that were hastily dashed off in a letter to a friend, or a few words jotted down in a note, solemnly quoted (without identification) as if they were long-pondered programmatic statements every syllable of which had been thought out for its exact scientific meaning–indeed, even without regard to other statements on the subject of greater reliability.’

So, in relation to the crisis of 1857 Engels wrote to Marx that ‘this time it is coming properly, now it’s a case of do or die.’  Yet Engels did not want the crisis to develop too quickly, hoping for ‘a period of chronic pressure . . . to get the people’s blood up.’  (Marx to Engels 1857) Yet later Engels noted that ‘there are as yet few signs of revolution . . .’  Marx wrote to Engels drawing comfort from an apparent recovery: `The momentary lull in the crisis is, or so it seems to me, most advantageous to our interests –- party interests, I mean’ (Letter Marx to Engels Jan 1858, CW Vol 40, p243).  You could almost make what you want out of such quotations if you were prepared to be selective.

Reviewing their attitude during this period Simon Clarke (‘Marx’s Theory of Crisis’ p119) says 

‘Marx and Engels were certainly excited by the onset of the crisis of 1857, but despite their optimistic rhetoric, they didn’t really seem to have much expectation that anything would come of it, they didn’t throw themselves into political activity, and did not appear surprised when the crisis passed, leaving only minor dislocations in its wake.  Nevertheless, the crisis, and its failure to develop according to the course anticipated by Marx, provided the stimulus for Marx to return to his economic studies . . .’

This alerts us to awareness that Marx didn’t arrive at ‘Marxism’ at one (relatively early) point in his political life and spend the rest of it setting it out.  He learned, as we all do, as we go along; consider, for example, the lessons he learned as a 53 year-old from the Paris Commune in 1871 when he wrote of ‘the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.’

Clarke goes on to recognise that the ‘ identification of the contradictory foundation of capitalist accumulation and crisis is the basis on which the emphasis of Marx’s theoretical attention moves away from crisis, which has very little part to play in his later works, just as politically Marx moved away from the apocalyptic vision of the revolution as a political event precipitated by a crisis, to the vision of the revolution as the culmination of a longer struggle to build a working class movement’. (Marx’s Theory of Crisis’ p 175). Clarke also makes a similar point in relation to war.1

‘We have seen that through the 1850s Marx looked to the onset of the crisis as the precipitant of an upsurge of working class militancy, which would provide the driving force of the coming revolution. This expectation was based on little more than wishful thinking, for nowhere in their works did Marx or Engels spell out precisely how they saw such a development taking place, and they certainly had little faith in the ability of any of the revolutionary groupings with which they were loosely associated to provide a political focus for such a revolutionary upsurge. They hailed the crisis of 1857 as the herald of the revolution, but when it passed without significant political incident they didn’t express any surprise, nor feel any need for a re-evaluation of their position. Although the rapid recovery from crisis prevented the expected revolutionary upsurge from happening, it also swept Proudhon and his followers from the political stage.’ (Clarke p248 print edition)’ 

‘Thus the theory of crises plays a rapidly diminishing role in Marx’s work after 1862, to be replaced by an emphasis on the secular tendencies of capitalist accumulation, just as the conception of revolution as the culmination of struggles unleashed by economic crisis is replaced by a conception of revolution as the outcome of an extended period of class development.’  (Clarke p 245)

Clarke might be said to summarise his reading of the relationship between Marx’s analysis of capital and politics at the end of his book:

‘The focus of orthodox Marxism on general crises, as opposed to the permanently contradictory and crisis ridden character of capital accumulation, has equally proved a distraction. Although Marx and Engels bolstered their revolutionary faith by appealing to the inevitable crisis, in practice they quietly abandoned the illusion that the revolution would be precipitated by a general crisis when that of 1857 turned out to be a damp squib’

‘By the time that Marx wrote the first volume of Capital the emphasis of his analysis of capitalism was on the secular tendencies of capitalist development, the tendency to the concentration and centralisation of capital, to the polarisation of wealth and poverty, the coexistence of overwork and unemployment, and to the increasing instability of social existence which underlay the development of the organised working class. The crisis is no longer a cataclysmic effect, it is a part of the normal pattern of capitalist accumulation, the pattern of overaccumulation and crisis that underlies the permanence of the class struggle as capitalists seek to resolve the crisis tendencies of accumulation at the expense of the working class.’ (Clarke p 285)

  1. ‘Through the 1860s and early 1870s Marx looked to war rather than economic crisis as the precipitant of the political development of the working class. By the middle 1870s, however, Marx and Engels had come to see war, like crises, as events which divided and demoralised the working class.

Engels wrote to Sorge that the old international was now dead, as national rivalries and differences emerged after the fall of the Paris Commune (04.08.74). Marx clearly regarded a further war as a barrier to the progress of the working class. `A new war is inevitable au peu plus tôt, au peu plus tard, and before its conclusion there are hardly likely to be any violent popular movements anywhere.’ (Marx to Kugelman 18.05.74, CW45, 18)

`General European conditions are such as to increasingly wage a general European war. We shall have to pass through it before there can be any thought of decisive overt activity on the part of the European working class.’ (Marx to Sorge, 12-17.09.74, CW45, 30)’

Back to part 49

Forward to part 51

2 thoughts on “The role of capitalist crisis in socialist revolution

  1. In presenting the thought of Karl Marx or any other important thinker we come up against the language barrier. I don’t mean problems of translation between languages, rather the risks that come with making the thought accessible to others. Marx uses terms that belong to theories rather words that are deployed in ordinary usage. I first noticed the disconnect in regard to the terms used by Trotsky, he had coined a terminology to explain the changes taking place within the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin, the degenerate workers State hypothesis. What I noticed was that those leftists who disliked or opposed Trotsky took the meaning of degenerate workers State from the words as they are used in common English usage and not as belonging to a type of scientific explanation. This disconnect between ordinary or common usage crops up all of the time with respect to Marx just as much as Trotsky and Lenin, his use of the phrase dictatorship of the proletariat is the most obvious example, to only understand the ordinary English meaning of those terms is to conclude Marx favoured Dictatorship. The account of economy in terms of a labour theory of value, departs from the ordinary usage of price and value, today we mostly use words like value in the context of morals, these are the values we espouse sort of thing. One could go on, for example the words proletarian, worker, individual or person have nuances of difference about them but can also be used as equivalents in common use. One can find the ordinary English word definition of imperialism in a dictionary that does not match the way Lenin deploys the term imperialism. How slavish should we be to the ordinary and common usage of words or terms without wondering away from what we find in the books of Marx and others? Should one of our tasks be to change the very language of politics by using a specialised vocabulary drawn from Marx and others? What we typically do is try to set up a blend and mix drawn from common usage with more specialised terms that is potentially misleading.

  2. I will quote a introduction paragraph of the copy of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 by a historian.

    ‘The Manifesto is not one of Marx’s major theoretical works. Rather, it is a concise outline of his theory of historical materialism written at an accessible, simplified level. It includes as well as a statement of the League’s hopes and plans for the impending revolution, a critical overview of rival socialist groups, and an assessment of political developments in a number of countries. Its primary purpose was to unify the divergent factions within the League and to aid members in their agitational work. It was a publication of the League, not of Marx and Engels, and presumably was subject to approval and revision by the League’s leadership.’

    If the Manifesto is not a major theoretical work by Marx, why refer to it at all? Well it makes us understand the ideal standing a ‘Marxist theoretical’ has in relation to the likely receivers of such a work, namely the proletarians. In the case of a standard theoretical work, the receivers are know to be the best educated readers of the work, in our time this is almost exclusively university students and professors. It is taken for granted that a major theoretical work is not to be read by workers as such, university press books are intended for university libraries, and the books published in small numbers.

    The major theoretical work of Marx is Capital Volume one, the French Edition, Marx himself strictly supervised the publication of this work. Marx thought that his major theoretical work was sponsored
    by the workers who he hoped would read it, the reader was intended to be a sort of participant in the work itself, Marx said that his major theoretical work could not have come to pass without the assistance of the workers. In short a major theoretical work by a Marxist is a cooperation between the author and the workers.

    A set of difficulties arise, as to how a make a major theoretical work is made accessible to the very many workers without the over simplification of the major theoretical. The argument of the major theoretical work of Marx is surely difficult to follow and not easy to reduce to a short summary, should it even be attempted if this means a risk of loss of coherence of the comprehensive argument? That there is so little agreement after 150 years of ‘professional reading’ of Capital as to the finished content of the labour theory of value, just look at the various reactions to the professional reading presented by David Harvey surely must make it difficult for non professional readers, day labourers to get to grips with the major theoretical work ‘Marxism’.

    It can be argued that Marx himself provided at least one short summary of his major theoretical in a shortened pamphlet form, ‘Wages, prices and Profit’. However this short summary is very often dismissed by the professional reader. I recall a remark made by Hannah Arendt about another imposing theoretical work, ‘the critique of pure reason’ by E. Kant. She was amused to discover that Kant believed his own major theoretical work could be studied and understood by his very own housemaid as with all enlightenment philosophy. It is a principle of enlightenment philosophy that no major theoretical work is beyond the comprehension of the average house maid, Rousseau pointed out that the school boys of his own time were already well in advance their understanding of mathematics and physics of all of the great minds of the past including Plato and Aristotle and a few had already surpassed Newton. Yet it could be said that mathematics is a special case. I have
    to confess I have never been able to fully understand Kant’s critique or Marx’s labour theory of value, despite having consulted numerous shortened summaries of the material.

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