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)

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