Revolutionary Restraint

Paris Commune barricade

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 52

Since the ideas we now consider ‘Marxism’ did not spring whole and fully formed in one go it is necessary to address at least some of the many judgements Marx and Engels made about the proximity of revolution and its prerequisites, notwithstanding their caution and realism as addressed in the previous post.

These included the view that England (by which we should understand Britain as a whole), was by far the most advanced nation and was key to revolutionary prospects on the Continent, while later considering that ‘the English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland.’ (Letter from Marx to Engels December 1869)

In the process of their activism, they set out numerous statements on the preconditions for working class action and socialism.  In 1865 Engels wrote The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers’ Party, in which he set out one basic condition for the struggle:

‘Even if the worst came to the worst and the bourgeoisie was to scurry under the skirts of reaction for fear of the workers, and appeal to the power of those elements hostile to itself for protection against them—even then the workers’ party would have no choice but, notwithstanding the bourgeoisie, to continue its campaign for bourgeois freedom, freedom of the press and rights of assembly and association which the bourgeoisie had betrayed. Without these freedoms it will be unable to move freely itself; in this struggle it is fighting to establish the environment necessary for its existence, for the air it needs to breathe.’  (Collected Works Volume 20, p78)

In fact, it can be said that the strategy and tactics of Marx and Engels in all their struggles are precisely to strengthen and prepare the working class for its social revolution, to create in so far as it can the conditions and prerequisites for its success.  Some, of course, are more fundamental than others and we cannot dig up quotes from over a century ago to justify political positions now without appreciation of the context then and today.

So, Engels advised German socialist August Bebel in 1879 of a principle that:

‘Social-Democratic deputies must always uphold the vital principle of consenting to nothing that increases the power of the government vis-à-vis the people.’ (Collected Works Volume 45, pp423-4)

He wrote to the same German socialist in 1884:

‘No party, unless it was lying, has ever denied the right to armed resistance in certain circumstances. None has ever been able to renounce that ultimate right.

‘But once the debate begins to turn on the circumstances in which a party may reserve that right, the game is already won. The whole thing becomes progressively more nonsensical. Particularly in the case of a party that has been declared illegal and is thus actually reduced by higher authority to resorting to revolution. And such a declaration of illegality, having been made once already, might recur any day. To demand an unconditional statement of this kind from such a party is utterly preposterous.’

‘Nor, for that matter, have the gentlemen anything to worry about. The military position being what it now is, we shall not go into action so long as we have a military power against us. We can bide our time until that military power ceases to be a power against us. Any revolution prior to that, even a victorious one, would bring to power, not ourselves, but the most radical elements of the bourgeoisie and/or petty bourgeoisie.’ (’ Collected Works Volume 47, pp223)

Once again, we have revolutionary strategy grounded on material circumstances and once again a warning of premature action, the result of which would be the success not of the working class party but of its enemy or competitor.

Most famously, Marx counselled revolutionary restraint to French workers regarding its new bourgeois republic following France’s defeat by Bismark’s Germany in 1870, in the prelude to the creation of the Paris Commune:

‘The French working class moves, therefore, under circumstances of extreme difficulty. Any attempt at upsetting the new Government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly. The French workmen must perform their duties as citizens; but, at the same time, they must not allow themselves to be deluded by the ‘national souvenirs’ of 1792 . . .   They have not to recapitulate the past, but to build up the future. Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.’ Karl Marx, Second Address of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association on the Franco-Prussian War 1870 (Collected Works Volume 22 p269)

Engels wrote to Marx: ‘Dupont has just left. He spent the evening here and was furious about this beautiful Paris proclamation. . .  His views on the case are perfectly clear and accurate: make use of the freedoms inevitably granted by the republic to organise the party in France; act when occasion presents itself, once organisation has been completed; the International to be held on a leash in France until after peace has been concluded.’ (Engels to Marx 1870, Collected Works Volume 44, p67)

Of course, as revolutionaries they energetically supported the Commune rising once it had begun but their main contribution was to learn its lessons for the workers that followed, among which we have noted before:  ‘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 a letter to a Dutch socialist in 1881, a decade after the Commune, Marx said that:

‘The forthcoming Zurich Congress’s ‘question’ which you mention would seem to me a mistake.1 What is to be done, and done immediately at any given, particular moment in the future, depends, of course, wholly and entirely on the actual historical circumstances in which action is to be taken. But the said question, being posed out of the blue, in fact poses a fallacious problem to which the only answer can be a critique of the question as such. We cannot solve an equation that does not comprise within its terms the elements of its solution.’

‘Come to that, there is nothing specifically ‘socialist’ about the predicaments of a government that has suddenly come into being as a result of a popular victory. On the contrary. Victorious bourgeois politicians immediately feel constrained by their ‘victory’, whereas a socialist is at least able to intervene without constraint.’

‘Of one thing you may be sure — a socialist government will not come to the helm in a country unless things have reached a stage at which it can, before all else, take such measures as will so intimidate the mass of the bourgeoisie as to achieve the first desideratum — time for effective action.’

‘You may, perhaps, refer me to the Paris Commune but, aside from the fact that this was merely an uprising of one city in exceptional circumstances, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it have been. With a modicum of COMMON SENSE, it could, however, have obtained the utmost that was then obtainable — a compromise with Versailles beneficial to the people as a whole. The appropriation of the Banque de France alone would have rapidly put an end to the vainglory of Versailles, etc., etc.’  (Marx letter to Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis London, 22 February 1881 (Collected Works Volume 46, p66) 

  1. This refers to an International Socialist Congress to be convened in Switzerland to discuss the establishment of a new International. The congress took place not in Zurich (the Zurich cantonal council forbade it), but in Chur between 2 and 4 October 1881. It was attended by delegates of socialist parties from 12 countries. The congress decided against forming a new International. In his letter to Marx of 6 January 1881 Nieuwenhuis expressed the intention of the Dutch Social Democrats to discuss at the congress the immediate laws to be passed in the political and economic fields by the socialists should they come to power (footnote 100 to Marx and Engels Collected Works Volume 46, p 489)

Back to part 51

Forward to part 53

2 thoughts on “Revolutionary Restraint

  1. Interesting that you should quote the letter concerning the failings of the Paris Commune, ten years after Marx had appeared to support the activities of the leadership of the city uprising. A strong critic of Marx, called Alan Carter questioned the sincerity of the author of the 1971 publication ‘The Civil War in France’ like it appeared to confirm the view of Marx was indeed a libertarian, an egalitarian, a decentralist and a radical democrat in his book ‘Marx a radical critique’ making use of the same letters some of which you have just quoted. See his essay ‘The real politics of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ in studies in Marxism 6 1999 p1-30.

    Carter summaries in his essay about Karl Marx : ‘Karl Marx has been portrayed as a libertarian, an egalitarian, a decentralist and a radical democratic. However, such interpretations have been disputed. By examining his private correspondence, as well that of Frederick Engels, and taking into account Marx’s various addresses to and from the central committee’s he headed, it is possible to confirm the real political views of Marx and Engels- views which are closer to Lenin’s than is often appreciated.’

    Carter’s mission is to debunk the four good pillars of the Marx edifice from an anarchist point of view, he makes use of the generally unread private correspondence of Marx, letters often at variance with the public statements of Marx. This takes is back to the issue of what should take precedence, public statements or private ones, propaganda and practical journalism or theoretical publications, semi complete books like the so called ‘philosophical manuscripts’ or the rediscovered Grundrisse or a genuine finished book like ‘Capital’ volume one.

    Nearly all of the works of Marx that are in some way canonical are in fact unfinished notes, maybe this explains the historical role of Engels? He added more to ‘marxism’ than he is usually credited with, I believe that nearly all of the Marxists up to and including Lenin took their understanding of what constituted historical materialism from the Anti-During work of Engels. In more recent times the German Ideology, (post second world war) featured heavily in the presentation of historical materialism, but recent study has argued that this text too was never rally a proper book at all, what we got was at best was a reconstruction from a jumbled set of notes. Maybe we just can’t make the real Karl Marx stand up in the class room because of the dishevelled nature of the intellectual tradition that is now called ‘marxism’.

    Just to say this state of affairs is not unique to the understanding of Marx, the philosophy of Nietzsche was reconstructed out of notes and presented as the great work yet to be published called the ‘Will to power’. The most influential study about the philosophy of Nietzsche in the academy is the lectures once offered by Heidegger, who uses the notes on ‘the will to power’ a non book more than on the published works of Nietzsche. Also there are many books published and attributed to Wittgenstein that are even more tenuous, the man himself finished and published just one book not dozens, and he hoped his musings and notes would be forgotten or even better destroyed. He would be amazed by the number of books currently attributed to his pen.

    • Hal Draper wrote about the reliability of the sources for Marx and Engels’ views, with published books and articles at the top and notes and notebooks at the bottom, with private letters just before that. To this could be added their date of writing, context and purpose.

      I went to the library to read the article you mention. I can’t remember the last time I read a more tendentious reading of Marx and Engels. Half of it consists of such reading and the other a defence of Bakunin anarchism. Marx is quoted as supporting terrorism when what that word meant when he wrote it is not how it is understood today. He is reproached for being dictatorial, condemned by Engels’ own words, and of dishonestly hiding his own views. His support for the Paris Commune is characterised as dishonest.

      When I looked up some of the references to Marx and Engels’ Collected Works contained in the article I find that Engels was in ironic mode when he ‘criticised’ Marx’s dominance and his letter argues for the widest agreement on principles within the First International with the ability to develop them further, as against the Bakuninist attempt to turn it into a sect. Marx admitted that he did not put all his views into the founding statement of the International because he would not get agreement to them but made sure that there was nothing in it that he and Engels could not support. There is nothing dishonest about this approach.

      Marx did not publish his criticism of the leadership of the Paris Commune while it was still fighting for its life but he did diagnose its failure as well as its positive lessons for the future. Marx did indeed favour centralised states against federation in line with his struggle to overcome local and national division and their consequences. The article criticises his view that the state rests on the material base of production and its form rather than the other way round but this is what is called Marxism and its consequences for political action are illustrated by some of the writings of Marx quoted in the article but without this being properly brought out. The article also quotes Marx’s support for state control of production and this issue is dealt with extensively earlier in this series of posts.

      The problem with article is not the unfinished nature of what Marx wrote but incomprehension and opposition to what he did write. While a lot of Marx’s political writings were critiques of other socialisms it is indeed a pity that so many of today’s writings have to take up the “dishevelled nature of the intellectual tradition that is now called ‘marxism’.” Marx would not be surprised that this is necessary because he faced this problem when he was alive.

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