A prolonged birth for socialism

France (19th c.). Workers’ movement. Strike of miners in Pas-de-Calais. The strikers’s demonstration on the streets of the city. Engraving. FRANCE. Paris. National Library.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 51

Marx was always clear that the creation of socialism following the conquest of political power would be a long-drawn-out process, after emerging through ‘prolonged birth pangs’ from capitalist society (Critique of the Gotha Programme).

In an early idealism-tinged writing in Deutsche-Franz­sische Jahrbrucher he wrote that:

‘[We] must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way.  The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in the womb.’ 

Following the failure of the 1848 revolutions Marx was involved in a dispute inside the Communist League over the remaining potential for revolution. He set out this summary of the issues arising:

‘In the last debate on “the position of the German proletariat in the next revolution” views were expressed by members of the minority on the Central Authority which directly clash with those in the last circular but one and even the Manifesto. A German national standpoint was substituted for the universal outlook of the Manifesto, and the national feelings of the German artisans were pandered to.’

‘The materialist standpoint of the Manifesto has given way to idealism. The revolution is seen not as the product of realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will. Whereas we say to the workers: You have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through in order to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power, it is said: We must take power at once, or else we may as well take to our beds.’

‘. . . As for personal sacrifice, I have given up as much as anyone; but for the class and not for individuals. And as for enthusiasm, not much enthusiasm is needed to belong to a party when you believe that it is on the point of seizing power. I have always defied the momentary opinions of the proletariat. We are devoted to a party which, most fortunately for it, cannot yet come to power. If the proletariat were to come to power the measures it would introduce would be petty-bourgeois and not directly proletarian. Our party can come to power only when the conditions allow it to put its own views into practice. Louis Blanc is the best instance of what happens when you come to power prematurely.’

‘In France, moreover, it isn’t the proletariat alone that gains power but the peasants and the petty bourgeois as well, and it will have to carry out not its, but their measures. The Paris Commune [1792–94] shows that one need not be in the government to accomplish something.’ (Meeting of the Central Authority September 15, 1850, Collected Works p626, 628–9) 

Engels reflected similar concerns when he wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer in April 1853: 

‘This time we shall start off straight away with the Manifesto thanks largely to the Cologne trial in which German communism (most notably through Röser) has passed its matriculation.’

‘All this, of course, relates merely to theory; in practice we shall, as always, be reduced to insisting above all on resolute measures and absolute ruthlessness. And that’s the pity of it. I have a feeling that one fine day, thanks to the helplessness and spinelessness of all the others, our party will find itself forced into power, whereupon it will have to enact things that are not immediately in our own, but rather in the general, revolutionary and specifically petty-bourgeois interest; in which event, spurred on by the proletarian populus and bound by our own published statements and plans—more or less wrongly interpreted and more or less impulsively pushed through in the midst of party strife—we shall find ourselves compelled to make communist experiments and leaps which no one knows better than ourselves to be untimely.’ (Collected Works Volume 39 p308–9)

This concern at the potential for the party of the working class to be exposed to premature revolution might now be seen as an anachronism, but it is not, and arises not just from insufficient development of what are usually understood as subjective conditions (wrongly reduced to the insufficient size of some candidate for a revolutionary party), but also from insufficient attention to the requirements of objective conditions, which have been set out a number of times in these posts, as for example in this one

Much later, in his address on the Paris Commune in 1871, we see Marx also acknowledge the long process of development required of the struggle of the working class, along with the effects of the development of capitalism itself:

‘The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.’  

In the first draft of The Civil War in France he writes that:

‘The working class know that they have to pass through different phases of class struggle. They know that the superseding of the economical conditions of the slavery of labour by the conditions of free and associated labour can only be the progressive work of time (that economical transformation), that they require not only a change of distribution, but a new organisation of production, or rather the delivery (setting free) of the social forms of production in present organised labour (engendered by present industry) . . . . ‘

‘They know that the present “spontaneous action of the natural laws of capital and landed property” can only be superseded by “the spontaneous action of the laws of the social economy of free and associated labour” by a long process of development of new conditions, as was the “spontaneous action of the economic laws of slavery” and the “spontaneous action of the economical laws of serfdom.” But they know at the same time that great strides may be [made] at once through the Communal form of political organization and that the time has come to begin that movement for themselves and mankind.’

The struggle of the working class will therefore involve a long process of development before and after political revolution and these struggles are just as much a precondition for its success as the development of the forces of production from which they cannot really be divorced.

He compared workers’ revolution with the bourgeois one in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, including as a result of conditions that demanded it:

‘Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day – but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long crapulent depression takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly.’

‘On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticise themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:  Hic Rhodus, hic salta!  [Here is the rose, here dance!]’

How much could that model of socialist revolution – the Russian one – be subject to such interrogation given that it was not simply a workers’ revolution but a bourgeois one as well? 

Back to part 50

Forward to part 52

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