Marx and Engels learn about revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 53

As we noted in the previous post, since the ideas we now consider ‘Marxism’ did not spring whole and fully formed all at once from their progenitors, these ideas underwent a development from less to more adequate expressions of working class politics.  We have already noted and addressed the penchant of Marx to anticipate the next economic crisis and potential for revolution.  

Similarly, it is argued that Marx and Engels consistently anticipated the imminence of this revolution.  If this was indeed their position it would undermine the argument of the last number of posts which have set out the constraints that bind successful working class revolution.

It would undercut their revolutionary caution and might subvert their early argument with the Willich-Schapper faction in the Communist League, which claimed that revolutions were essentially acts of “will” and that the job of revolutionaries was to ‘make’ the revolution.

Given any inconsistency it would be incumbent to compare when and how over-optimistic revolutionary expectations were expressed and when and how more considered and formal analysis led to the arguments of the last number of posts.  Marx and Engels were once young, and regardless of age were always enthusiasts of revolution, optimism expressed privately is the blood of hope that runs through the veins of all such revolutionaries.

So, when Engels was 24, a newspaper in 1845 reported that at a meeting ‘Mr Engels delivered a speech in which he proved (from the fact, that not a word was offered in reply), that the present state of Germany was such as could not but produce in a very short time a social revolution; that this imminent revolution was not to be averted by any possible measures for promoting commerce and manufacturing industry; to prevent such a revolution — a revolution more terrible than any of the mere subversions of past history — was the introduction of, and the preparation for, the Community system.’

Two years later he was writing that the coming revolution would be bourgeois and this class would have to come to power first before it would become the turn of the working class:

‘Not until only one class—the bourgeoisie—is seen to exploit and oppress, until penury and misery can no longer be blamed now on this estate, now on that, or simply on the absolute monarchy and its bureaucrats—only then will the last decisive battle break out, the battle between the propertied and the propertyless, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.’ 

‘Only then will the field of battle have been swept clean of all unnecessary barriers, of all that is misleading and accessory; the position of the two hostile armies will be clear and visible at a glance.’

‘With the rule of the bourgeoisie, the workers, compelled by circumstances, will also make the infinitely important advance that they will no longer come forward as individuals, as at the most a couple of hundreds or thousands, in rebellion against the established order, but all together, as one class, with its specific interests and principles, with a common plan and united strength, they will launch their attack on the last and the worst of their mortal enemies, the bourgeoisie. ‘

‘There can be no doubt as to the outcome of this battle. The bourgeoisie will and must fall to the ground before the proletariat, just as the aristocracy and the absolute monarchy have received their coup de grâce from the middle class.’

‘With the bourgeoisie, private property will at the same time be overthrown, and the victory of the working class will put an end to all class or caste rule for ever.’ (Engels, Collected Works Volume 6, p94–5) 

To believe that in underdeveloped Germany, its mainly small artisanal working class could carry out a social revolution that could ‘end class rule for ever’ would contradict the basic postulates of Marx and Engels historical analysis and their later lifetimes’ revolutionary activity.  Through both of these they learned about the validity of their view that it was necessary to fight with the bourgeoisie against the remnants of feudalism, and about how far the latter were actually prepared to struggle and not turn away from it or ally with fellow exploiting classes:

‘The workers know that the abolition of bourgeois property relations is not brought about by preserving those of feudalism. They know that the revolutionary movement of the bourgeoisie against the feudal estates and the absolute monarchy can only accelerate their own revolutionary movement. They know that their own struggle against the bourgeoisie can only dawn with the day when the bourgeoisie is victorious.’

‘Despite all this they do not share Herr Heinzen’s bourgeois illusions. They can and must accept the bourgeois revolutions a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment regard it as their ultimate goal.’ (Collected Works Volume 6, p332–3)

The relationship between this struggle against feudalism and the bourgeois revolution on the one hand, and working class revolution on the other, is also a subject of much later debate and shall be taken up in greater depth later. In less developed countries it revolves around the idea of permanent revolution, made more famous by Leon Trotsky, but a term also employed by Marx on a number of occasions.  

Hal Draper states that a continued, uninterrupted revolution (the meaning of permanent in this case) was ‘a very widespread, though by no means unanimous view among the radicals of the time.’ (Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Vol II, p 201)

Marx and Engels went through a number of versions of what the transition from bourgeois to workers revolution would look like, learning from the experience of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, and summed up these lessons following the revolutions’ defeat.

Marx had, for example, hoped (at the end of 1848) that sections of the bourgeoisie would join with the Democracy in fighting for a Social Republic, an open-ended agitational slogan ‘referring to a government that takes a socialistic direction.’ (KMTR Vol II p234).  Instead, they learned that even in what was to be a bourgeois revolution, this bourgeoisie did not ally with the Democracy (peasants, urban petty bourgeoisie and working classes) but with ‘the trinity of Crown-aristocracy-bureaucracy’. (KMTR Vol II, 225).

The Communist Manifesto had stated that:

‘The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.’

Following defeat of the 1848 revolutions, especially in France and Germany, Marx drew some important and lasting lessons about the importance of England, as the most advanced country, to future revolutions:

‘A transformation of the relations of political economy in every land of the European continent, on the whole of the European continent, is a tempest in a teapot without England. . . . But every social upheaval in France is necessarily wrecked on the rock of the English bourgeoisies, of the industrial and commercial world domination by Great Britain.  Every partial social reform in France, and on the European continent in general, is and remains an empty pious wish insofar as it aspires to end there [without involving England].  (quoted in KMTR Vol II pp243–4)

The permanence of the revolution would allow the ‘tendency we represented [ to] enter the struggle for the attainment of our real party aims’; the party never imagined itself capable of producing at any time and at its pleasure, that revolution which was to carry its ideas into practice . . .’

This would become possible because ‘only through the increase in power of the bourgeoisie does the proletariat gradually get to the point of becoming the majority . . .’  ‘Only its rule [the rule of the bourgeoisie] tears up the material roots of feudal society and levels the ground on which alone a proletarian revolution is possible.’  In ‘countries where the aristocracy’ must be ‘driven from power’ there was lacking ‘the first premise of a proletarian revolution, namely, an industrial proletariat on a national scale.’ 

(KMTR Vol II p 249, 208, 280 and 284)

Back to part 52

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

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

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

Breakdown, crises and the door to revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 49

Arguments based on Marx’s 1859 Preface are often considered to be ‘reductionist’ or ‘determinist’, robbing the oppressed of their agency. Productive forces are reduced to technology which drives accumulation, while in reality the order is the reverse – it is accumulation that drives technology and this accumulation is the growth of capital, of relations of production that involve the existence primarily of two classes which are involved in struggle.  

People inhabit the forces of production and drive it forward and people inhabit the relations of production and perform the roles appropriate to the classes that are included in them.

The forces and relations of production therefore provide the grounds on which such agency makes sense and can be accounted for.  Of course, they also involve constraints on such agency, but if they didn’t, they wouldn’t provide any sort of explanation at all.

This approach can be contrasted with real determinist arguments based on the idea of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism, which subject it has been said ‘is one which has plagued students of Marx for at least a century . . . veritable rivers of ink have been spent in an effort to fill up this gap in Marx’s theoretical system.” (Martin Nicolaus, The Unknown Marx, New Left Review 1/47 March – April 1968. P55)

Marx does not hold a breakdown theory of capitalism but since as long as capitalism exists it will continue to develop through its contradictions, these contradictions must develop to certain limits.

First, he notes in Capital Volume III, that: 

`As soon as formation of capital were to fall into the hands of a few established big capitals, for which the mass of profit compensates for the falling rate of profit, the vital flame of production would be altogether extinguished. It would die out.’ 

Elsewhere, in the Grundrisse:

‘To the degree that large-scale industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour-time and on the quantity of labour expended, and more on the power of the instruments which are set in motion during labour-time, and whose powerful effectiveness itself is not related to the labour-time immediately expended in their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and the progress of technology…. ‘

‘As soon as labour in its direct form has ceased to be the great wellspring of wealth, labour- time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and therefore exchange-value the measure of use-value. . . . With that, the system of production based on exchange-value collapses. . . . Capital is its own contradiction- in-process, for its urge is to reduce labour-time to a minimum, while at the same time it maintains that labour-time is the only measure and source of wealth.’

‘Productive forces and social relations—both of which are different sides of the development of the social individual—appear to capital only as means, and only means to produce on its limited basis. In fact, however, these are the material conditions to blow this basis sky-high.’ (Marx, Grundrisse pp 592–94, quoted in Nicolaus pp 58–59)

Marx did not expect capitalism to last long enough to get to this stage of its development and anticipated the contradiction between ‘productive forces and social relations’ to precipitate its replacement long before it. The continued expansion of capitalism and growth of what is conventionally called service industries means that neither lack of competition or an approach to the limit of labour in production has resulted in either of these limits being nearly approached.

In 1850, shortly after the failed revolutions of 1848, Marx wrote:

‘While this general prosperity lasts, enabling the productive forces of bourgeois society to develop to the full extent possible within the bourgeois system, there can be no question of a real revolution.  Such a revolution is only possible when two factors come into conflict: the modern productive forces and bourgeois forms of production . . . A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself.’ (The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850’)

These have not been the constraints that successive generations of Marxists have thought placed unwanted boundaries on their objectives. Instead, the contradiction between the forces and relations of production is viewed as objective conditions already being in place with only purely subjective ones required to come into line through the effects of capitalist crises.  These objective crises express the fetters on the development of the forces of production and the social relations in which they are encased and are assumed to rapidly advance the subjective requirements for revolution.

For Marx however, economic crises are ‘always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions. They are violent eruptions which for a time restore the disturbed equilibrium.’  (Capital Vol III). They are therefore not only ‘the most striking form in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production’, but their ‘violent destruction of capital’ is ‘a condition of its self-preservation.’ (Grundrisse)

Far from signalling stagnation of the forces of production, these forces are most developed just as crises erupt.  And as we have noted before, concomitant with the growth of the forces of production is expansion of the relations of production: of the capitalist and working classes, upon which is dependent the struggle for socialism.

Socialism thus becomes more relevant and feasible as crises worsen but not because they get worse but because of what this says for the development of the forces of production.  There is no final crisis and therefore no final breakdown we can look towards as a resolution to capitalism and advent of socialism; even if nothing lasts forever.  Crises allow capitalism to seek an equilibrium, while also demonstrating its historical redundancy and potential for replacement, but neither is automatic, and while the former has occurred often, the latter has unfortunately not.

Crises may therefore be the occasion for political revolution – conquest of state power by the working class – through stimulation, but the success of political revolution does not fundamentally depend on them or on their severity.  The objective conditions for this we have explained and there is no neat dividing line between these and the subjective conditions constituted out of the class struggle and the capacity, readiness and willingness of the working class to defend and advance its interests through political revolution.

The lack of correspondence between the two has not only involved ripeness of objective conditions and backwardness of the subjective, but also the development of some important subjective conditions in advance of objective constraints on successful revolution.

  1. ‘Only once in his life did he speak with a tone of achievement and a sense of accomplishment about one of his works. Only once did he announce that he had written something which not only encompassed the whole of his views, but also presented them in a scientific manner. That occasion was in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. (1859). Martin Nicolaus, The Unknown Marx, New Left Review 1/47 March – April 1968 p42.

Back to part 48

Forward to part 50

Social forms of emancipation 


Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 48

In the previous post I noted that Marx states that solving the problems thrown up by social revolution will be possible when the conditions are present or “in the course of formation” with the implication that if they are not present or insufficiently in formation they cannot be accomplished.

These tasks include the development of the forces of production and of the working class and its movement so that it takes into its own hands these forces.  Only through the massive socialisation of production carried out by capitalism is it possible to make these forces the collective power of the working class.  Individual production such as peasant holdings, guild production, or petty commodity production in general, cannot support collective ownership.  In the terminology of the Preface of 1859, the new relations of production would not be appropriate to the forces of production.

The massive development of today’s socialised production could only come about through the huge accumulation of means of production and transport etc, which cannot now function without equal development of massive amounts of data and information.  These have developed through accumulation of these means as capital by the capitalist class.  This in turn is simply invested surplus value that could not have been accumulated without the massive growth in the exploitation of the working class.

All this entails certain characteristics that are important to understanding the prerequisites for socialist revolution, understood both in terms of the development of the productive forces, before and after the occurrence of working class political revolution, and for the political revolution itself. 

The advance of the forces of production has involved the prodigious increase in the international division of labour with implications for their continuing development, and how they must develop further under working class control and direction.  It also makes clearer than was the case in Marx’s time that political revolution by the working class cannot succeed on a purely national basis, something that would already be universally accepted had the working class movement succeeded in developing international organisation, which therefore remains a crucial task.

The existing forms of socialisation also inevitably involve enormous increases in the concentration and centralisation of capital, which assists the possibility and potential for collective ownership by the working class.  This has necessarily involved an enormous increase in planning both within and between individual productive forces.  Engels recognised this in his critique of the Erfurt Programme, when referring to paragraph 4 of that programme’s criticism of “the planlessness rooted in the nature of capitalist private production”

Engels suggested that this “needs considerable improvement. I am familiar with capitalist production as a social form, or an economic phase; capitalist private production being a phenomenon which in one form or another is encountered in that phase. What is capitalist private production? Production by separate entrepreneurs, which is increasingly becoming an exception.”

‘Capitalist production by joint-stock companies is no longer private production but production on behalf of many associated people. And when we pass on from joint-stock companies to trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, this puts an end not only to private production but also to planlessness.”

The opposition between capitalism and socialism is not therefore about a simple counter-position of market and plan, since development of the latter within capitalism also helps lay the ground for the new relations of production that define the new working class society. It is the class that rules, that carries out the planning and that determines its scope and character that makes the difference, not the existence of plans themselves.

This also means that whatever role market relations initially have in the transition to cooperative production – before and after political revolution – will arise from the existing planning within capitalism, its degree of development beforehand and the capacity to expand and advance it thereafter.

The material relations of production that herald socialism also therefore refer to the forms of ownership that exist before political revolution, that will serve to help bring it about as well as help progress its success thereafter:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.  They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage.”

As Engels said in a letter to Bebel: 

“Marx and I never doubted that in the transition to the full communist economy we will have to use the cooperative system as an intermediate stage on a large scale.”

It is not therefore simply a question of some quantitative development of the forces of production, which is the limited way that it is often considered, but the necessary characteristics of that development – including the social forms that it takes – that affect the sufficiency of the material preconditions for socialism and the associated requirements for successful political revolution.

So, Marx does not say that just because the forces of production have developed – to whatever level – the new society will emerge out of it. If it does not then it (the old society) may well continue to develop its forces of production.  The creation of the new is a conscious act.

This is because it is the working class itself, as it is organised in production, that is the prime productive force, which comes into conflict within the prevailing relations of production, i.e. the class relations of subordination and exploitation, and which means the contradiction between the forces and relations is not a simple resolution in favour of the forces, as some bourgeois analysis might seek to contend.  An early formulation by Marx appeared in the Poverty of Philosophy:

“For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organisation of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.” 

In Value, Price and Profit Marx explains to workers that ‘They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.’

Thus, the way the social forms of production have developed under capitalism are also part of the material circumstances that face the working class in its task of overthrowing and transforming it.  This includes the international nature of the division of labour and of the classes necessarily based on it; the increased removal of the capitalist class directly from the greatest means of production with the substitution of professional and technical staff that shade into the working class; and the forms of socialised ownership arising, including development of its cooperative forms, which can all act as more direct preparation of the working class for its new role as master of society.

Marx presented no systematic view on how all these elements might come together just as he did not provide a blueprint about how the new society would be planned, as the latter grows out of the former and not from some prior schema.  It has however been stated repeatedly that this would arise directly out of existing society and not from some invented first principles, whether that be a certain plan or state structure; especially as the latter must become subordinated to general society and not its master.

Back to part 47

Forward to part 49

Being ready for socialism

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 47

In Marx’s Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, which we have so far used to signpost the nature of Marx’s alternative to capitalism, he writes that on “the economic structure of society, the real foundation . . . arises a legal and political superstructure . . . to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness . . .” When “the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production . . .” there “begins an era of social revolution.  The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

It is therefore the changes in the economic foundation within capitalism that lead “sooner or later” to the transformation of the “legal and political superstructure.”  It is not that this superstructure, including the state, leads to the era of social revolution.  What is involved are social changes, which in relation to the creation of socialism; the end of class division and disappearance of the state, cannot be the result of the ‘superstructure’ i.e., the state itself, but of the development of the productive forces and appropriately corresponding relations of production.  This might seem obvious when stated after quoting Marx, but this has not prevented a century of claims that a socialist state introduces socialism, the eradication of class division and the withering away of the state itself.

The “superior relations of production” under which this is achieved replace the old when the “material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

Marx then states that “mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”

He has already stated that “in studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

We should therefore know whether and to what extent material conditions are present, “or at least in the course of formation”, for the commencement of the transformation of capitalism.  In a previous post I argued that maturation of these material conditions should not be understood as requiring some absolute value but is a function of historical development.  

When first clarifying their ideas Marx and Engels noted this in general terms; rejecting the idea that the ‘degree of freedom’ to be achieved was a product simply of people’s views of its necessity:

“In reality, of course, what happened was that people won freedom for themselves each time to the extent that was dictated and permitted not by their ideal of man, but by the existing productive forces. All emancipation carried through hitherto has been based, however, on unrestricted productive forces. The production which these productive forces could provide was insufficient for the whole of society and made development possible only if some persons satisfied their needs at the expense of others, and therefore some — the minority — obtained the monopoly of development, while others — the majority — owing to the constant struggle to satisfy their most essential needs, were for the time being (i.e., until the creation of new revolutionary productive forces) excluded from any development.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology)

Given what Marx says in the 1859 Preface about the conditions required for solving the transformation of capitalism, it was open that there may be premature attempts to move to a new society.  Engels notes, in his Peasant War in Germany that the leader of the peasants, Thomas Müntzer, lived in an age which was “not ripe” for his ideas:

“Not only the movement of his time, but the whole century, was not ripe for the realisation of the ideas for which he himself had only begun to grope. The class which he represented not only was not developed enough and incapable of subduing and transforming the whole of society, but it was just beginning to come into existence. The social transformation that he pictured in his fantasy was so little grounded in the then existing economic conditions that the latter were a preparation for a social system diametrically opposed to that of which he dreamt. (page 78-79)

If this was obvious of the 16th century, in the Communist Manifesto Marx summarised the later experience of the young working class:

“the first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation, conditions that had yet to be produced, and could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone.”

The material conditions necessary for a new society include a level of productive forces that are “appropriate” for the creation of new relations of production; but since this requires a “social revolution” the transformation involved also requires that this becomes a conscious struggle that is ‘fought out’.  We have been told in the 1859 Preface that how we understand this transformation, our consciousness of it, must itself be explained:

“Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.” (Preface 1859)

In the Manifesto Marx notes that: 

“The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat had necessarily a reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form.”

“The Socialist and Communist systems, properly so called, those of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, and others, spring into existence in the early undeveloped period, described above, of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie . . .”

“The founders of these systems see, indeed, the class antagonisms, as well as the action of the decomposing elements in the prevailing form of society. But the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.”

“Since the development of class antagonism keeps even pace with the development of industry, the economic situation, as they find it, does not as yet offer to them the material conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Instead, their consciousness reflects their material reality:

“Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action; historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones; and the gradual, spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat to an organisation of society especially contrived by these inventors. Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans.”

“In the formation of their plans, they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working class, as being the most suffering class. Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.” 

As this quotation makes clear, given the requirement of maturation of the conditions that will permit new superior relations of production, it is not possible to leap over the development of these conditions; by attempting to disregard the absence of sufficient productive forces or attempting to replace existing relations of production with new ones when the productive forces will not support them, when the existing exploited class is insufficiently developed to abolish its own exploitation and that of exploitation more generally.

Twentieth-century history, in the shape of the Soviet Union and China (the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution for example), is testament to the accuracy of these claims. These experiences threw up struggles, organisations, programmes and slogans that reflected their precocity but which unfortunately have been unthinkingly repeated without adequate consideration of their original circumstances and therefore their limitations.

Marx makes clear that solving the problems thrown up by such transformation will be possible when the conditions are present or “in the course of formation” with the implication that if they are not present or insufficiently in formation then the requisite tasks necessary for transformation cannot be accomplished.

In such circumstances the tasks revolve around existing development of the forces of production and class relations such that the working class is prepared and made ready to take into its own hands these forces.  As we have noted, Marx believed that the material conditions “could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone.”

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels state that the abolition of exploitation “presuppose(s) a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.”

“. . . Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

There is no blueprint, there is no ideal state of affairs to be aimed at, and there is no master plan.  The movement begins where it is and involves the working class emancipating itself through changing its conditions, and changing itself, based on circumstances that already exist but are constantly developed, along the lines analysed and presented by Marx in Capital, and which we have extensively discussed in previous posts.

This movement does not stop after political revolution, and Marx states that “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to . . . increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (Communist Manifesto). Only in this way can humanity move from the want and inequality continually and necessarily reproduced under capitalism to society being able to “inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Critique of the Gotha Programme)

Back to part 46

Forward to part 48

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

Forward to part 47

State support for the workers?

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 45

The first premise to the rules of the First International, written by Marx in 1864 as the first clause, was that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves . . .’

In 1882 Engels in London wrote to the German socialist August Bebel:

‘The development of the proletariat proceeds everywhere amidst internal struggles and France, which is now forming a workers’ party for the first time, is no exception. We in Germany have got beyond the first phase of the internal struggle, other phases still lie before us. Unity is quite a good thing so long as it is possible, but there are things which stand higher than unity. And when, like Marx and myself, one has fought harder all one’s life long against the alleged Socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois), one cannot greatly grieve that the inevitable struggle has broken out.’

One such famous internal struggle was against the draft programme of the United Workers’ Party of Germany. The Critique of the Gotha Programme is a document based on a letter by Marx written in early May 1875 to the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP), with whom he and Engels were in close association. 

The Critique, published after his death, was among Marx’s last major writings and is named after the proposed platform for the new united party to be created at the forthcoming congress, to take place in the town of Gotha. At the congress, the SDAP (“Eisenachers”, based in Eisenach) planned to unite with the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV), followers of the deceased Ferdinand Lassalle.

The Eisenachers sent the draft programme for the united party to Marx for comment. He found it negatively influenced by Lassalle, whom Marx regarded as an opportunist, and Marx’s response offers perhaps his last extended summary on programmatic strategy.

In a letter to Wilhelm Bracke, Marx states that “After the Unity Congress has been held, Engels and I will publish a short statement to the effect that our position is altogether remote from the said programme of principle and that we have nothing to do with it.’  Describing it as a ‘thoroughly objectionable programme that demoralises the Party’, he vowed not to ‘give [it] recognition, even by diplomatic silence.’ 

The document discusses numerous questions but it is particularly useful in presenting Marx’s views on strategy before working class conquest of political power, including the two questions at issue in our latest posts – on the cooperative movement and the role of the state.

It should be noted that Marx was not against socialist unity but did not support the abandonment of political principle in order to achieve it:

‘If, therefore, it was not possible — and the conditions of the item did not permit it — to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy. But by drawing up a programme of principles (instead of postponing this until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity) one sets up before the whole world landmarks by which it measures the level of the Party movement.’

Marx prefaced these remarks by saying that ‘every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes’, and he undoubtedly saw the cooperative movement as involving just such steps.  Following the experience of the Paris Commune just a few years before he had also learned lessons from the real movement of the working class in relation to the role of the state.

The offending paragraph of the proposed united German Party stated:

‘The German Workers’ party, in order to pave the way to the solution of the social question, demands the establishment of producers’ co-operative societies with state aid under the democratic control of the toiling people. The producers’ co-operative societies are to be called into being for industry and agriculture on such a scale that the socialist organization of the total labour will arise from them.”

Marx notes sarcastically that:

‘Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the “socialist organisation of the total labour” “arises” from “state aid”; that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, “calls into being”. It is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!’

He goes on, quoting the programme’s own words:

‘Second, “democratic” means in German “Volksherrschaftlich” [by the rule of the people] But what does “control by the rule of the people of the toiling people” mean? And particularly in the case of a toiling people which, through these demands that it puts to the state, expresses its full consciousness that it neither rules nor is ripe for ruling! . . .  The chief offense does not lie in having inscribed this specific nostrum in the program, but in taking, in general, a retrograde step from the standpoint of a class movement to that of a sectarian movement.’

The socialist scholar Hal Draper has argued that ‘Marx’s objection to the “state aid” nostrum was not to “state aid” per se but to its place in the programme.’  What it had become in the hands of their ex-leader Lassalle was ‘a universal panacea’ and substitute for a rounded programme because the programme had no other socialist plank within it.  The state-aid plank was already in the existing Eisenachers’ programme but only as one of many measures.  On its own the demand was acceptable as part of a larger strategy as Engels argued:

‘that the universal panacea of state aid should be, if not entirely relinquished, at any rate recognised . . . as a subordinate transitional measure, one among and alongside of many other possible ones.’

But not as the strategy as a whole, which would make the working class dependent on state support: in effect with the same sort of result as today’s demands for widespread ‘public ownership’ and ‘nationalisation’; plus much of the approach to state redistribution of income. 

Draper turns the issue into an aspect of Marx’s support for reforms but not for reformism; a question of what place reforms have in the programme, and not of reforms being assigned a certain all-encompassing role as the be-all and end-all.  He also notes that holding up this single point in the programme is sectarian – holding aloft a particular demand that differentiates the Party from the working class movement.  An approach that does not seek to marry the understanding of socialists to the real struggles of the working class and its organisations.

Marx goes on to say in his Critique:

‘That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.’

So, it is not the case that the Party’s support for workers’ cooperatives could routinely and always supplement support with calls for state assistance, rather in the way that today nationalisation is often accompanied with the call for ‘workers’ control’; but that such state support can be acceptable and may not on its own invalidate the workers’ efforts.  However – ‘they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers.’

This need for independence of the workers from the state is highlighted in the following section of the Gotha Critique, beginning by him quoting the programme that ‘according to [section] II, the German Workers’ the party strives for “the free state.” 

Marx says of this that:

‘Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state.”

‘The German Workers’ party—at least if it adopts the program—shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.’

This reminds us of Engels’ remark in an earlier post that the state represents society and the conclusion we drew that ‘In each case the state represented those classes that owned and controlled the means of production (at least of the social surplus), so that the capitalist state defends the ownership of the means of production of the capitalist class.  The analogous role of the workers’ state is not to direct and manage its own ownership of the means of production but to defend the ownership by the working class of the means of production.’

For Marx ‘the whole programme, for all its democratic clang, is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state . . .’

The Critique of the Gotha Programme, published after his death, was among Marx’s last major writings but at the time German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht, who supported the unity initiative, attempted to censor his criticism.  Only in 1891, after threats by Engels, was the Critique published.  Much of today’s Marxist movement gives every indication that this censorship was, in fact, successful.

Back to part 44

Forward to part 46

The role of the workers’ state

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 44

In the previous post we noted that state ownership appeared an inevitable progression of the capitalist mode of production and could be read as a tendency to complete its development, with ‘the partial recognition of the social character of the productive forces forced upon the capitalists themselves. Taking over of the great institutions for production and communication, first by joint-stock companies, later in by trusts, then by the State. (All quotations from Engels’ Socialism Utopian and Scientific)

Such an outcome would not be socialism as some political tendencies might suggest with their programmes for widespread nationalisation: ‘the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces.’ 

The state guarantees (including ownership in many cases) of the financial system after the financial crash in 2008 illustrated almost perfectly the growing role of the state in supporting the whole constitution of the existing mode of production.  The world-wide assumption of guarantees of employment and business survival during the Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed this.  It is unfortunate that rather than highlight this, much of the left has called for even greater state intervention, further sowing illusions in its potentially progressive role.

So, if Engels made it clear that capitalist state ownership is not socialism, a second question was nevertheless raised: is ownership by a workers’ state socialist even if ownership by the capitalist state is not?

Engels says: ‘Whilst the capitalist mode of production more and more completely transforms the great majority of the population into proletarians, it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution. Whilst it forces on more and more of the transformation of the vast means of production, already socialized, into State property, it shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property.’

So, it would appear that the seizure of the means of production by the workers’ state constitutes the decisive opening of the road to socialism, and some form of state socialism may indeed be the genuine article. (Although the wording here is rather peculiar, for while capitalism more and more transforms the ‘vast means of production . . . into state property’ the proletariat through its revolution is to turn it ‘into state property’–to complete the transformation?)

Except Engels immediately goes on to say this:         

‘But, in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinction and class antagonisms, abolishes also the State as State. Society, thus far, based upon class antagonisms, had need of the State. That is, of an organization of the particular class which was, pro tempore, the exploiting class, an organization for the purpose of preventing any interference from without with the existing conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited classes in the condition of oppression corresponding with the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom, wage-labour).’

‘The State was the official representative of society as a whole; the gathering of it together into a visible embodiment. But, it was this only in so far as it was the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, society as a whole: in ancient times, the State of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, the feudal lords; in our own times, the bourgeoisie.’

‘When, at last, it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a State, is no longer necessary. The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State.’

‘State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not “abolished”. It dies out.  This gives the measure of the value of the phrase: “a free State”, both as to its justifiable use at times by agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific inefficiency; and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the State out of hand.’

How do we avoid the conclusion that what is being proposed is that upon the socialist political revolution the new workers’ state that has gained ownership and control of the means of production through that revolution begins to disappear?  Does this mean workers should struggle to enormously expand the power and scope of the state only in order for it to then more or less rapidly shrink and disappear?

To jump straight to a conclusion–the alternative is not to demand state ownership under capitalism, or to seek it under a workers’ state, but to struggle for workers’ ownership, that is for cooperative production by the working class and this ownership and control to encompass the whole economy.

It is the workers organised as producers that represents ‘society as a whole’, as required by Engels, and which can ‘openly and directly take possession’ of the productive forces and manage them, not any sort of state.  Even a democratic workers’ state is an organised body of repression separate from the working class; any other definition simply mistakes what a state is.  Whatever legal and administrative arrangements required to maintain the collective ownership of individual productive forces will either require a minimal role for the state or none at all, e.g. to prevent the alienation of particular productive forces owned by the class as a whole.

Capitalism has so developed the intellectual and social powers of the working class that it can direct the economy without capitalists; provided we do not stupidly restrict definition of the working class in such a way that it excludes its most educated layers, for example because they are normally significantly better off in terms of income than many other workers.

If we read Engels he speaks of ‘the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, society as a whole: in ancient times, the State of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, the feudal lords; in our own times, the bourgeoisie.’

In each case the state represented those classes that owned and controlled the means of production (at least of the social surplus), so that the capitalist state defends the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class.  The analogous role of the workers’ state is not to direct and manage its own ownership of the means of production but to defend the ownership by the working class of the means of production.

Only upon these grounds can the class nature of society be radically changed such that, as Engels argued, the working class abolishes itself and all classes and in so doing abolishes the state.  It makes no sense to believe that the state through its ownership of the forces of production will employ its political power to abolish itself, including its direction of society’s productive powers.

Socialism is not the granting of the productive powers of society to the working class by any sort of benevolent state.  In Engels terms, the workers’ state can more and more be the representative of society under socialism to the extent that it disappears, reflecting the disappearance of classes themselves.

The socialist political revolution is the capture of political power by the working class in order to defend, and to extend, its social gains as the rising class in society, with its own ownership and control of society’s productive powers central to this.  The struggle for workers’ cooperatives is the most direct way to make this a reality under capitalism, as both ideological and practical example of the power of the working class to create a new society.

Such a view is consistent with the other expressed views of Marx and Engels, including ‘seizing the means of production by society’, which we shall review in the next post.

Back to part 43

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