Marx and Engels: Getting it right after getting it wrong

Friedrich Engels 1891

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 54

In 1895 Engels wrote that ‘History has proved us wrong, and all who thought like us. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at that time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production . . .’

Until 1857 Marx and Engels expected some sort of “new and revised edition of 1848” wherein the proletarian revolution would follow at some point behind a radicalised bourgeois revolution involving a process of ‘permanent revolution’.  After this, for two decades, “they had hope of imminent and successful proletarian revolution, though Engels maintained his perennial youthful optimism better than Marx.”  Thereafter the growing working class movement became the focus although “they did not consider a successful transfer of power to the proletariat imminent or probable.” (from Eric Hobsbawm, ‘How to Change the World’ p65-6)

The world changed rapidly in the second half of the 19th century and especially Europe, with which Marx and Engels were most engaged.  Marx did not live to see most of the last twenty years.  Many of the tasks of the failed bourgeois revolutions attempted in 1848 were later solved, not from below but from above, by various combinations of existing ruling classes, the state and later by the pressure of imperialist rivalry.

What is remarkable is not only the scope of the error admitted, or that it was admitted, but that despite it and the changes that especially Engels was to live to see, so much of what they had earlier written was not only relevant but was correct.  We have seen this already in previous posts.  What prevented their committing egregious errors arising from their too optimistic outlook was their theoretical commitments to the objective grounds for socialism and their equal commitment to the working class struggle and its success.

The former led to appreciation of the potential of the latter and concern that it should not be endangered by allowing optimism to determine revolutionary strategy and activity.  

In relation to the former, Engels wrote in ‘In modern history at least it is, therefore, proved that all political struggles are class struggles, and all struggles by classes for emancipation, despite their necessarily political form—for every class struggle is a political struggle —turn ultimately on the question of economic emancipation. Therefore, here at least, the state—the political order—is the subordinate factor and civil society—the realm of economic relations—the decisive element.’ (Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Collected Works Vol 26 pp 390-1)

The objective of economic emancipation upon which all emancipation rests requires collective ownership, which requires a working class – ‘A radical social revolution is bound up with definite historical conditions of economic development; these are its premisses. It is only possible, therefore, where alongside capitalist production the industrial proletariat accounts for at least a significant portion of the mass of the people.’ (Marx ‘Notes on Bakunin’s Statehood and Anarchy’, Collected Works, Volume 24 p 518) 

In the first section of the Communist Manifestoentitled “Bourgeois and Proletarians” (see Manifesto, p. ll), it is argued in detail that the economic and, hence too, in one form or another, the political sway of the bourgeoisie is the essential precondition both of the existence of the modern proletariat and of the creation of the “material conditions for its emancipation”. 

Further – ‘The development of the modern proletariat” (see Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Revue, January 1850, p. 15) “is, in general, conditioned by the development of the industrial bourgeoisie. Only under its rule does the proletariat gain that extensive national existence which can raise its revolution to a national one, and does it itself create the modern means of production, which become just so many means of its revolutionary emancipation. Only its rule tears up the material roots of feudal society and levels the ground on which alone a proletarian revolution is possible.’ I declared accordingly in the same “Review” that any revolution in which England did not take part was no more than a ’storm in a teacup”.’ (Marx Herr Vogt, Collected Works Volume 17 p91)

‘The industrial workers can free themselves only by transforming the capital of the bourgeois, that is, the raw materials, machines and tools, and the means of subsistence they need to work in production, into the property of society, that is, into their own property, used by them in common. Similarly, the farm labourers can be rescued from their hideous misery only when, primarily, their chief object of labour, the land itself, is withdrawn from the private ownership of the big peasants and the still bigger feudal lords, transformed into public property and cultivated by cooperative associations of agricultural workers on their common account.’ (Engels Preface to the Peasant War in Germany 1870, Collected Works Vol 21 p 99-100

As noted above, this meant that the future of the revolution rested on ‘England’, or more accurately Britain – ‘ revolutionary initiative will probably come from France, England alone can serve as the lever for a serious economic Revolution. It is the only country where there are no more peasants and where landed property is concentrated in a few hands. It is the only country where the capitalist form, that is to say combined labour on a large scale under capitalist masters, embraces virtually the whole of production. It is the only country where the great majority of the population consists of WAGES-LABOURERS. It is the only country where the class struggle and the organisation of the working class by the TRADES UNIONS have acquired a certain degree of maturity and universality. It is the only country where, because of its domination on the world market, every revolution in economic matters must immediately affect the whole world. If landlordism and capitalism are classical features in England, on the other hand, the material conditions for their destruction are the most mature here.’ (Marx The General Council to the Federal Council of Romance Switzerland, Collected Works Volume 21 pp86-7)

Despite the optimism, their theoretical commitments to these objective grounds for socialism and commitment to the working class struggle and its success, led to concern that it should not be endangered by allowing optimism to determine revolutionary strategy and activity.

In 1884 Engels still maintained that the line of march in The Communist Manifesto was correct:

‘Never has a tactical programme proved its worth as well as this one. Devised on the eve of a revolution, it stood the test of this revolution; whenever, since this period, a workers’ party has deviated from it, the deviation has met its punishment; and today, after almost forty years, it serves as the guiding line of all resolute and self-confident workers’ parties in Europe, from Madrid to St. Petersburg.’ (Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung(1848-49), Marx and Engels Collected Works Vol 26 p120-8).

A few months later Engels was advising the German socialist August Bebel that – ‘As in 1848, we are still the opposition of the future and must, therefore, have the most extreme among the existing parties at the helm before being able to confront it as the opposition of the present’.  In relation to France, he says that ‘the field is being increasingly cleared for the decisive battle, while the position of the parties becomes more distinct and well- defined. This slow but inexorable progress of the French Republic towards its logical conclusion — the confrontation between radical would-be socialist bourgeois and genuinely revolutionary workers — I consider to be a manifestation of the utmost importance, and I hope that nothing will happen to stop it. And I am glad that our people are not yet strong enough in Paris (but all the stronger for that in the provinces) to be misled by the force of revolutionary phrases into attempting a putsch.’ (Engels to Bebel. 6 June 1884, Collected Works Volume 47 p149).

Back to part 53

Forward to part 55

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