Section one. Marx, Engels and the perspective of socialism - Claude Bitot

Section one. Marx, Engels and the perspective of socialism - Claude Bitot

First published in 1995 in France: Section One, “The Historical Balance Sheet” includes chapters on: communist movements throughout history; Marx and Engels and communism; “Real” vs. “Formal” domination of capital and the importance of this distinction for understanding the failure of the old workers movements (capitalism was not “obsolete” prior to 1945). Section Two, “Perspectives”, contains an extensive discussion of: the economic roots of capitalism’s current crisis (the “final stage of its cycle”); the communist revolution; and socialism.

Marx, Engels and the Perspective of Socialism (1848-1895)

Reading the Communist Manifesto

The theory of modern socialism arose in the 1840s under the impulse of two German thinkers, Marx and Engels, who were not providential geniuses, but the interpreters of the socialism that then confronted the industrial capitalist era. It is not our intention here to recapitulate this theory, which culminated in a preliminary synthesis with the appearance in 1848 of The Manifesto of the Communist Party. We are only interested in the perspective disseminated by this text. “A specter is haunting Europe: the specter of Communism”, can be read in its first lines. “All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter (. . .). Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?” All this hubbub about communism, all this hatred and this consternation unleashed among the ruling classes furnishes, according to the Manifesto, evidence that “Communism is already acknowledged by all European Powers to be itself a Power”. So its time had come? Reading the Manifesto, it seems that this imminence of communism could not be doubted. Would Marx and Engels have written such balderdash if they thought that it was only true for a distant epoch?

After having recalled that if the old feudal society had collapsed it was because its regime of production and property no longer corresponded to the new development of the productive forces, the authors of the Manifesto wrote: “A similar movement is going on before our own eyes (. . .). For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production....” What had dragged down feudalism, the development of the productive forces, is now threatening the bourgeois regime, whose conditions “are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them”.

But the bourgeoisie has not only forged the weapons that will kill it: “it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians”. It is then explained that as capitalist industry has grown so has the proletariat and at the same time the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat has grown more intense. This struggle now leads to the increasing tendency of the workers to form associations, that is, towards “the organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party”, an organization that is “continually being upset again.... But it ever rises up again....” Another indication of the imminence of communism, this growing role of the proletariat has the effect of causing a “dissolution” “within the ruling class” until “a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands”. The balance of historical forces was shifting.

Finally, the third pillar of the imminence of communism: its program. Since the bourgeoisie and its regime are finding it harder and harder to develop the productive forces, once the proletariat comes to power it “will use its political supremacy” to “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible”. An enumeration then follows, for “the most advanced countries”, of a whole series of measures, among which we find the “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State”, “the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands”, “equal liability of all to labor”, and “the establishment of industrial armies”. After which, “in the course of development”, the class antagonisms will disappear and the public power will lose its political character and give way to “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

The Perspective of 1848: Accelerate the Course of History by Carrying Out the Permanent Revolution

In March, 1850, Marx and Engels could still write: “While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible . . . it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that . . . at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.”1 Thus it is not a question of carrying out the bourgeois revolution. The latter can at most serve as a springboard for a total, communist revolution. What led Marx and Engels to focus on such a perspective?

The starting point of their analysis is the French Revolution. This was the great event that they confronted and attempted to unravel in order to derive a lesson for the present.

Thus it was that Marx, as of 1847, in Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality, came to the conclusion that in the French Revolution it was “the proletariat” (his expression) rather than the bourgeoisie that was the really active element up to the point of the seizure of power in 1794. It is true that this victory was only temporary, because the material conditions had yet to be created that would bring an end to the bourgeois mode of production, which ultimately implies that it was “only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution” that permitted the acceleration and radicalization of its course. Notwithstanding, it is this example of the revolution of 1793-1794 that will continue to provide inspiration: since, in the meantime, bourgeois society and, along with it, the proletariat, have undergone considerable development, now the means exist that can bring the revolutionary process to a conclusion; hence the slogan of “permanent revolution”. From that time on, the entire course of history will be accelerated. The proletariat, once it takes power, will provide an even more vigorous impulse to the productive forces, with the measures that the Manifesto, as we have seen, advocated, and the arrival of communism will be precipitated. This is the view held by Marx and Engels in what could be called their 1848 period.

Failure, Self-Questioning and Self-Critique

The Manifesto was written on the eve of the events which, from 1848-1849, shook Europe, in Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna and Milan. But, according to the first sentence of The Class Struggles in France, summarizing this whole period: “With the exception of a few short chapters, every important part of the annals of the revolution from 1848 to 1849 carries the heading: Defeat of the Revolution!

Among those chapters that Marx referred to, the formidable armed insurrection of the workers of Paris stands out. But even that uprising was a delusion: in fact, it was the bourgeoisie that encouraged the Parisian proletariat to stage its revolt, thus providing an excellent opportunity for the former to do away with the most active and dangerous elements, which led Engels to make the observation that the June uprising was “a desperate battle” for those elements.2 In other words, the proletariat was by no means in any position to take power and run society. Everywhere else, the revolutions of 1848-1849 were above based on false pretenses. Having presented themselves from the beginning as “bourgeois”, instead of a determined struggle against reaction, they quickly came to an understanding with the latter, going from one commitment to another. In these conditions, it was not difficult for the reactionary forces to regain control over the situation. As for the proletariat, it was certainly incapable of taking over from these pallid “bourgeois” revolutions and raising them to the level of a “permanent revolution”, as the Manifesto had expected.

This failure did not prevent Marx and Engels from undertaking a critical evaluation of the validity of the perspective they had initially outlined.

At the meeting of the Central Council of the German Communist League, on September 15, 1850, Marx, under the guise of explaining the failure of the revolution in Germany, proclaimed the “underdevelopment of the German proletariat” and accused the minority faction in the League (Schapper, Willich), who wanted to continue the struggle regardless of the cost, of not taking this fact into account. In fact, this amounted to accusing them of supporting the position that the Manifesto had previously advocated when it presented, as we have seen, the German proletariat as a class that was developed sufficiently to transform the bourgeois revolution into “the immediate prelude of a proletarian revolution”. As Kostas Papaioannou has pointed out, the firm that would one day become the celebrated Krupp industrial combine employed 4 workers in 1826, 67 in 1835 and barely twice as many in 1846....3 The German Communist League, which counted Marx and Engels as members, was composed primarily of skilled workers who labored in traditional trades, some of whom cultivated a utopian and sometimes mystical vision, like Weitling, of socialism. It was therefore an organization within which a fully pre-capitalist environment still prevailed, with its artisans in the process of proletarianization, so that the minority within the League, according to Marx, did nothing but cater to its “corporative prejudices”. At the League’s meeting on September 17, Marx’s efforts were resolutely directed towards a critical examination of the perspective set forth in the Manifesto and the Address of March 1850: “We are indebted to a party that, precisely for its own good, is still incapable of taking power. If the proletariat were to seize power, it would not implement directly proletarian measures, but petit bourgeois ones. Our party cannot take power until the conditions are ripe for the application of its ideas. Louis Blanc provides the best example of what happens when one takes power too soon.” The dream of 1848 regarding the “permanent revolution” had therefore come to an end. In fact, it suffered from pure and simple political voluntarism: it had considered the historical role of the bourgeoisie as finished, when it had only just begun.4 If such a sleight of hand trick were to have occurred, it would have led to the situation that Engels had already described in the Peasant War (which dates from the summer of 1850 and addresses not only Münzer and his millenarian tendency of 1525, but also must be understood in relation to the debate that was then being carried on within the German Communist League), when he evoked “leader of an extremist party” who seized power when the epoch was not ripe for the application of his program: “He was obliged, in the interest of the movement as a whole, to defend the interests of a class that was not part of the movement and to satisfy his own class with words, promises and the assurance that the interests of this other class were identical to their own interests. Whoever falls into this situation is irremediably lost. We have had recent examples of this. We shall recall only the proposal adopted by the representatives of the proletariat in the most recent French provisional government.” Engels is referring here to the “socialism” of Louis Blanc who, with his “national workshops” in 1848, offered an appetizer of such mystification: given the low level of development of the productive forces, if it were to be necessary to replace the bourgeoisie in this mission to develop those forces, it would have been necessary for him to become like the bourgeoisie, and therefore sacrifice the workers for this task, but in the name of “socialism”, the just enough of the latter being required to gild the bitter pill of a State capitalist accumulation that would replace that of the private entrepreneurs.

Between 1848 and 1850 Marx and Engels attempted to force history. The events, the ideas and the propaganda of those years led them to think in this manner. But the final defeat of the revolutions of 1848 obliged them to return to reality and to acknowledge, if not yet openly then at least implicitly, their error: “We are indebted to a party that, precisely for its own good, is still incapable of taking power”, Marx declared. The lesson would not be understood. Later, in Russia, an economically backward country, the revolutionaries would embrace the old dream of 1848 of the “permanent revolution” and this would lead to the Stalinist imposture of a “socialism” thoughtlessly confused with nationalizations a la Louis Blanc, the nationalization of the economy, all in the name of productive emulation, of the exaltation of production for the sake of production. But this is another history that we shall address later.

When he reconsidered this whole period a little later, Marx would be even more explicit: “The so-called revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents — small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society.... Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbés, Raspail and Blanqui.”5 The only “revolutionary” was therefore capitalism and its “industrial revolution”, which never ceased to turn everything upside down—men, things, nature—the real monster of modern times that liquidates entire categories of masses of small producers working at their benches or in their fields, in order to thrust them into its industrial maw. The social revolution? That comes later!

Finally, Engels, in his 1895 preface to The Class Struggles in France, would confess all by admitting that history had “proven [them] wrong” (Marx and Engels) and that their point of view in 1848 was an “illusion”: “History has proven us, and all those who thought in the same way, wrong. It has clearly shown that the state of economic development on the continent was still far from being ripe for the suppression of capitalist production; it demonstrated this by means of the economic revolution that, since 1848, has conquered the entire continent.”

History Viewed through the Lens of the French Revolution

We have seen that Marx and Engels had come to view the French Revolution as something more than a simple “bourgeois revolution”. In any case, they insisted on the fact that the bourgeoisie, throughout the whole revolutionary episode, was continuously timorous; Engels even accused it of being “too cowardly” to defend its own interests and claimed that it was absent during the great days of the Revolution, leaving the “plebs” to do all the work in its place.6 Which illustrates the exact nature of such a movement.

In reality it was a vast social explosion of the proletarian, semi-proletarian, indigent and peasant masses, provoked by the pre-capitalist crisis of underproduction that affected Europe, and France especially, after the 1770s.7 This movement was at first directed against the aristocracy, the most visible exploiters whom they vowed to hang “from the lampposts”; later, under the influence of events, it was turned against the bourgeoisie themselves, those less visible and more clever exploiters, but who were quickly recognized as enemies, despite their beautiful slogans about “equal rights”, by the “sans-culottes”, who demanded real equality. After 1793, two utopias were born which completely broke away from the bourgeoisie: on the one hand, the Robespierreist utopia, and on the other, the socialist or semi-socialist utopia of the Enragés and the Hebertists, which finally assumed the form of the Conspiracy of Equals of Gracchus Babeuf in 1796. These two utopias soon came into conflict and the Robespierreists were victorious. What was the nature of the Robespierreist utopia? Many Marxists have seen Robespierreism as the perfect expression of the radical and committed fraction of the “revolutionary bourgeoisie”. This assessment is inexact. Not even Marx went so far. In his view, as he explains in The Holy Family (1844), it was above all an illusion: the illusion of desiring to impose on bourgeois society in the process of formation, and thus a society of generalized competition, private interests and individualism, a “political morality” derived from the ancients—virtus—that transcends that society. In reality, Robespierreism was not so much about moralizing bourgeois society as about preventing its birth. Like ancient socialism, it was a kind of “revolutionary-reactionary” movement that sought to return to a golden age, as symbolized by the Roman Republic (“The world is empty after the Romans”, said Saint-Just) or the world of the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus. A good example of this can be obtained by glancing at Saint-Just’s Fragments of the Republican Institutions: it was by no means a society of merchants that was proposed for the French people; instead, Saint-Just hearkened back to a Spartan ideal in which frugality and simplicity would compete with warlike valor and heroism, all of which would later serve as a major inspiration for Buonarroti when he wrote Babeuf’s So-Called Conspiracy of Equals. Because this utopia was completely out of tune with history, the Robespierreists were overthrown in the Thermidor of 1794 and bourgeois society, directly opposed to the Robespierreist utopia, was reborn on that date and proceeded to celebrate the fall of such extravagances in the Bacchanals of the Directory. The dream of Robespierreism was the dream of the petit bourgeoisie of the Ancien Regime, composed of artisans, peasants and provincial lawyers, who preferred to remain poor, virtuous and “incorruptible”, like their model Robespierre, rather than become like the social climbers and careerists, sensing in a confused way that the bourgeois world that was just then being inaugurated would tend to push them towards the proletariat, a proletariat that, although still embryonic, constituted for them a social degradation and human humiliation, which explains their fury at the proletariat when the latter began to show some independence, not even hesitating to sacrifice it as an ally, which precipitated their downfall. Hence their project of “revolution-regeneration”, that sort of absolute towards which its Jacobin-Robespierreist fraction inclined (“Those who make a revolution half-way are only digging their own graves”, said Saint-Just); hence also their terrorist resolve, which went beyond the necessity of fighting against monarchist counterrevolution: as a result of the atmosphere generated by this terror, everyone who did not share Robespierre’s idea of virtue finally felt threatened (“virtue or death”, said Saint-Just), which explains the cowardly relief of the nouveau-riche and corrupt bourgeoisie after Thermidor. This marked the historical debut of that unhealthy combination of the utopian and the neurotic revolution, the reaction to which, whether monarchist or bourgeois, has proven irresistible, using it as a pretext to denounce all revolutionary projects, which can only lead to the guillotine or to the more modern “gulag”.... Engels, in order to distance himself from the kind of terrorist delirium that characterized the revolutionary culture derived from the French Revolution, nonetheless wrote, with reference to the Terror: “We think of this as the reign of people who inspire terror; on the contrary, it is the reign of people who are themselves terrified. Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves. I am convinced that the blame for the Reign of Terror in 1793 lies almost exclusively with the over-nervous bourgeois, demeaning himself as a patriot, the small petty bourgeois beside themselves with fright and the mob of riff-raff who know how to profit from the terror.”8 This explanation is right on the money, but it does not justify the excesses of the Terror. Therefore, if the French Revolution was the beneficiary of such great prestige or was the target for such hatred, its renown derived from the fact that, in reality, it was not bourgeois, for the very good reason that there was no bourgeois revolution.

In 1789 the goal of the bourgeoisie was by no means to carry out a clean break (a revolution) with the monarchist political regime, but to bring the latter to the negotiating table. What the French bourgeoisie was thinking of at the time was the reformist English model of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, that is, a constitutional monarchy and not a democratic republic. They tried to achieve this objective by utilizing a feature of the Ancien Regime: by convoking a session of the Estates General that would allow them to place all their weight on the scales and thus force the nobility and the clergy to make concessions. After July 14, however, the plebs of the suburbs, driven to extremes by the food crisis, appeared on the stage and succeeded in altering this clever horse-trading calculation, and the revolutionary “slide” began that would not abate until the Thermidor of 1794, with a few surprises in Germinal and Pradial of 1795.

But this “slide” would find no further echoes. In 1848, everything would take place just as the French bourgeoisie of 1789 had originally planned; no popular movement on the scale of that which took place in 1789-1794 would confound the tactic of the European bourgeoisie, who would carry on to make compromises with the old monarchies. This allows one to conclude that the bourgeoisie has always proceeded, in its conflicts with feudal and aristocratic power, by means of evolution rather than revolution. And one could review the history of the most important countries in Europe and always come to the same conclusion. The English revolution of 1648? It was primarily the work of plebian elements like the Levelers, and the bourgeoisie, and especially Cromwell, strove to control the movement. It would be the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that would become their model: a “proper revolution” from which the people are excluded, the exclusive preserve of the big bourgeoisie and the Lords, who reached a compromise agreement. The American “revolution” of 1776? Where was the feudal class or the Ancien Regime against which a struggle could be waged in this New World? All of its political achievements would be reduced to enunciating the leading principles of modern bourgeois democracy. The German “revolution” of 1848? The Germans would have to wait until 1918 to see the proclamation of the bourgeois republic (and, moreover, not by the bourgeoisie, but by Ebert’s reformist social democratic party). This turned out to be a consummately fragile republic, collapsing in 1933, so it would not be until after 1945 that the very bourgeois and conservative German Federal Republic would finally be established. As for the Italian “revolution”, the whole world knows that the Risorgimiento was a farce, and that the expedition of Garibaldi’s Thousand was a distraction, while the fascist episode that began in the 1920s had the effect of postponing the proclamation of the Republic until 1945, and even then by a very slim margin. Spain breaks all records in this regard. Its long march began in 1812 with the liberal Constitution of Cadiz, only to end after the death of Franco in 1975, when bourgeois democracy was finally victorious after so many troubles. As for the rest of Europe, even France, with a whole revolutionary epoch of 1793 and 1794, had to wait a century to see the republic truly established (with the inauguration of the Third Republic). This quick review presents us with an evolutionary process punctuated by discontinuities that gave rise to partial setbacks. In its beginnings, in the Middle Ages, the bourgeoisie commenced by wresting certain political privileges from the feudal lords and established itself in its free communes; later, when it was confident of its growing economic power, it sought to reach a compromise at the level of the State which led, at first, to absolute monarchy (the latter acting to maintain an equilibrium between bourgeoisie and nobility, which caused it to assume a position above these two classes) and, afterwards, to an English-style constitutional monarchy, the model of the French bourgeoisie of 1789; finally, once all the economic, social and ideological elements of the pre-bourgeois world had been dissolved, which takes a certain amount of time, a democratic republic or something similar is established. Such is the trajectory of the bourgeois political process. This process, in tandem with the economic development of capital—not automatically, but often with setbacks—finally reaches complete maturity once the latter has established its complete domination over society.

It is the slowness of this historical process that concerned Marx and Engels in 1848 and led them to advocate “the permanent revolution”, so as to accelerate the course of events. But this path is in fact impracticable and if it were ever to be followed, it would lead to a dead end: it would lead the proletariat, upon the assumption of power, to carry out tasks that are not its own (not abolishing wage labor but generalizing it, promoting the development of the productive forces in every possible way) and, therefore, condemning it to self-betrayal. Even when it is slow, vacillating, and full of delays, the historical role of the bourgeoisie cannot be bypassed in this way.

The New Perspective

The debacle of 1848 could only lead Marx to an analysis of the objective factors that had made the revolution impossible. We know what happened next: Marx spending his evenings in the British Museum writing Capital. “The ultimate goal of this work,” Marx would specify in his 1867 preface, “is to reveal the economic laws of motion of modern society.” “England is the classical country of this system of production”, he continues, and, as “the most industrially developed country only shows the others that are following in its path the image of their own future”, one therefore had to wait for the countries of the European continent to follow in the footsteps of England. Henceforth, it is clear that it is not time for the revolution but for the development of capitalist production.

A question arises, however: how long can capitalism continue to grow and spread? In a letter to Engels dated October 10, 1858, Marx considered the revolution on the continent to be “imminent”, but added, “will it not be overwhelmed in this little corner of the world? On a much larger scale, the movement of bourgeois society is still on the rise”. As early as 1853 he had already assigned England with a “mission”: spreading capitalism throughout the entire world, especially in Asia (in an article that appeared in the New York Tribune on August 8, 1853). Finally, in his 1859 preface to The Critique of Political Economy, he wrote that, “a social form does not disappear until all the productive forces which it is capable of containing have developed”. In other words, one has to wait for capitalism to reach the end of its possibilities for expansion for the time to arrive when it will be suppressed by the revolution. From that time on, there is the risk that a lot of water will flow under the bridge in the meantime. In fact, in 1870 Marx thought that only England is economically mature enough for socialism: “Although the revolutionary initiative will probably start from France, only England can act as a lever in any seriously economic revolution.”9 Capitalism thus still had some good days ahead of it. But is there nevertheless any way to cut short its historic course? It is true that “the development of an economic form of society is comparable to the evolution of nature and its history” (1867 Preface to Capital), but if a subjective element is added to this objective process, that is, a factor of consciousness and will, would it not be possible to accelerate the disappearance of capitalism and, consequently, to hasten the advent of socialism? This is what Marx seems to be suggesting when, in his 1867 Preface to Capital, he wrote: “When a society discovers the course of the natural law that presides over its movement—and the final goal of this work is to reveal the economic law of motion of modern society—it can neither overcome in one leap nor abolish by decree the stages of its natural development; but it can shorten the gestation period and reduce the pains that accompany its birth.”

Until now men have made their history even without knowing the history they have made. They have seen their ambitions, their passions and their subjective plans as the motive forces of their actions, while all these ideological representations that animate them have hardly anything to do with objective reality, and they very rarely realize the goals they have set for themselves.10 This has not prevented them, however, even at the cost of an incredible degree of spiritual confusion, from carrying out the tasks they had to accomplish in the specific material conditions of their time. If, however, one has access to a real science of history—and Marxism is supposed to be such a science—and thus knows its laws and its objective tendencies, then one could consciously intervene in them and make them turn out in one’s favor. In this way, if the proletariat is theoretically imbued with the mechanisms of the bourgeois economy, sees its contradictions as well as the tendencies favorable proletarian liberation, it will be possible for it to effectively “alleviate” the pains induced by capitalism by “abbreviating” its lifespan by means of a revolution. But this requires that the proletariat proceeds otherwise than the English proletariat which, Marx notes, has “all that is needed materially for social revolution. What they lack is the sense of generalization and revolutionary passion”.11
For despite the fact that England may be the country where the conditions required for bringing about socialism are all present, the English workers are incapable of taking advantage of such a situation, and restrict their efforts to engaging in day-to-day activities with a view towards improving their living conditions within capitalism, but do not concern themselves very much with socialism. As a result, it is vital for the proletariat of other countries not to follow this example that consists of accepting capitalist rule, but to the contrary they should acquire consciousness, organize accordingly and take action at the right moment with full knowledge for the purpose of overthrowing this rule.

Henceforth, with such a viewpoint, the conditions for revolution are not only objective but also subjective: “It is necessary for” the proletariat to be imbued with “its mission”. This is what Marx expresses very clearly in his second message dated September 9, 1870 and published in the name of the General Council of the I.W.A. The task of the French proletariat is not to raise an insurrection, but to first organize itself as a class. After the debacle of the Commune, Marx would continue to make this same recommendation: “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. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant. In the full consciousness of their historic mission....”12 Evidently, in 1871 the working class did not know all this, but this is what it must be imbued with, Marx intended to say. If not, it is condemned to endure the long capitalist historical cycle, the perspective of the revolution therefore not coming into view until this cycle comes to an end, according to a determinism that holds that there is no other resolution than socialism. Such a historical course would constitute the worst case; the best case would be for the revolution to take place before this deadline. Such is the perspective of Marx and Engels after the 1860s. This can be demonstrated.

Constitution of the Proletariat in an Autonomous Class Party

Marx’s participation in the First International and the central role he played in that organization testify to this fact: for Marx, the necessary precondition for the revolution is the constitution of the proletariat in an autonomous party, that is, as a conscious and organized class. This is what he clearly asserted in a letter to Bolte dated November 29, 1871, for otherwise, he pointed out, it would continue to be “a plaything” in the hands of the ruling class. In Marx’s use of the term, “party” was not understood as a small conscious minority, but the working class itself that, in its trade unions as well as its cooperatives and other organizations, asserts its opposition to the bourgeois class more and more clearly. Thus, he told Hamann: “The trade unions are the schools for Socialism, the workers are there educated up to Socialism by means of the incessant struggle against capitalism which is being carried on before their eyes.... The greater mass of the workers conceive the necessity of bettering their material position whatever political party they may belong to. Once the material position of the worker has improved, he can then devote himself to the better education of his children; his wife and children need not go to the factory, and he himself can pay some attention to his own mental education, he can the better see to his physique. He becomes a Socialist without knowing it.”13 Always from the same perspective, Marx discerned the possibility for the working class to constitute itself as a counter-power within bourgeois society. And he saw this possibility with respect to not only the trade unions “as focal points of organization of the working class”, but also to the workers production cooperatives, through which Marx was pleased to see the proletariat inaugurate “its own political economy” and thus “has shown that, like slave labor and serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind and a joyous heart”.14 For his part, Engels was no less enthusiastic. Noting “the indifference to theory which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly”, he called upon the German proletariat, and especially its leaders, “to gain an ever clearer insight into all theoretical questions (. . .) and constantly keep in mind that socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, that is, that it be studied. The task will be to spread with increased zeal among the masses of workers the ever more lucid understanding thus acquired and to knit together ever more strongly the organization both of the party and of the trade unions”.15 Even in 1895, after having emphasized that “the time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past”, he returned to the theme of the necessity for instructing the masses concerning the complete transformation of society: “the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going for [with body and soul].”16 It is not, therefore, a revolution of unconscious individuals that he is calling for, since it is a question of cutting short capitalism’s career by means of a voluntary intervention of the proletariat, and the latter cannot be achieved by spontaneity alone, as on other occasions when insurrections were launched with hardly any preparation (1831, 1834, 1839, 1848).

In Engels, as we have seen, this took on a highly voluntaristic tone (“The workers must” understand, teach themselves, etc.); in Marx as well (“they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation17), this voluntarism is intensified by a beautiful optimism as he thought that the simple improvement of the material conditions of the workers would allow them to teach themselves, to reflect, and thus to become “socialists without realizing it”.

The Terms of this Perspective

Thus, Engels thought that it was possible for the whole proletariat to attain consciousness; Marx thought that the trade unions would become “schools of socialism” and the workers cooperatives would provide an anticipation of the communist economy. A question arises, however: will this agitation reach maturity at the very moment when the revolution commences? In 1870, Marx clearly judged that it would be premature to launch a revolutionary action. This is what he declared to the Parisian workers in September of 1870 when he advised them, instead of an insurrection, which would be “desperate folly”, that they should “calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of republican liberty, for the work of their own class organization”.18 A revolutionary attempt, when the Prussians were knocking on the doors of Paris, would be too risky, would depend too much on chance, and could only end in a bloody defeat, bringing disorganization and demoralization to the proletariat for many years. What happened next is well-known: the proclamation of the Commune in March of 1871, but also, a few weeks later, the bloody week, the horrible massacre, the St. Bartholomew’s night of the proletarians. Marx, in The Civil War in France (May 30, 1871), would write an apology for the Commune, celebrating its valor and castigating those who defeated it. He also tried to derive a certain number of lessons concerning the dictatorship of the proletariat and the operation of a future “working class government”. Ten years later, however, in a letter to Domela Nieuwenhuis dated February 22, 1881, he acknowledged that “the Commune was by no means socialist and could not have been socialist” and that with a minimum of common sense “it could have reached a compromise with Versailles”. Everything has been said. Drawing things out to their logical conclusion, the communards would have been better off just lying down and going to sleep! This way at least they would have saved themselves from being massacred. In exceptional circumstances, one may be tempted to throw the dice and thus to change the course of history. But beware! This effort could be extremely dangerous if one has not taken a minimum of precautions before doing so. Otherwise, the sanction of history is always terrible: the bold are caught out in the open and they are made to pay with a cruel punishment. In short, the Commune was premature. Isolated in one city, because the international proletariat, insufficiently prepared, could not come to its aid, it had no possibility of victory. The requisite period of time for the proletariat to obtain “full consciousness of its historical mission” (Marx) and therefore to become ready to launch a revolutionary action against capitalism, could very well be too long. Everything depends on its degree of theoretical and political maturity; once it is sufficiently elevated, it will not have to wait any longer; everything will be reduced to the question of the right opportunity to stage a decisive action, the final struggle—one of capitalism’s periodic economic crises, for example—in accordance with circumstances which could vary. In the meantime, we are still far from this reality. After the Commune, it could be said that the International ceased to exist. It was therefore only ephemeral, and with regard to the organization of the proletariat it was necessary to start all over from scratch. Engels, however, declared that the German proletariat belonged to the “most theoretical people of Europe”19 and “the heir of classical German philosophy”20 and thereby did not hesitate to make the latter irresistible to the bourgeoisie. He therefore saw the increasing number of votes for the candidates of the German socialist party as so many proofs of that higher level of political consciousness that he assumed the workers of that country possessed. Engels had no doubt: they would soon be called upon to play a great role. According to his calculations, as the votes—supposedly red, revolutionary and socialist votes—multiplied—concerning which there appears to be no doubt—“it is possible to determine the date when [the socialist party] will come to power almost by mathematical calculation”.21 According to Engels, it would be around 1900, it will be a done deal, since “one solid party able to muster two and a half million votes will be strong enough to force any government to capitulate”; all the more so because the latter will not even be able to rely on the army to defend it, due to the army’s ongoing contamination by socialism: “by 1900 the army, hitherto the most outstandingly Prussian element in Germany, will have a socialist majority. That is coming about as if by fate. The Berlin government can see it happening just as clearly as we can, but it is powerless. The army is slipping away from it.” The one thing that nonetheless tempered Engels’s enthusiasm was the danger of the outbreak of a European war. But not to worry, he concludes optimistically, “the social revolution, set back by ten or fifteen years, would only be all the more radical and more rapidly implemented”.22

Obviously, this is only a forecast by Engels, and subject to chance, like all forecasts. It remains to be seen, however, whether the perspective that he and Marx had advocated for the more or less long term was vindicated: to hasten the historical advent of socialism by bringing the factors of consciousness and will within the proletariat into play. Is the real workers movement capable of raising itself up to the level of this perspective? In addition, is the bourgeoisie not, for its part, threatening to make this impossible?

  • 1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, London, March 1850.Available online at the website of the Marx & Engels Internet Archive:

  • 2. Frederick Engels, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, June 28, 1848. Available online at the website of the Marx & Engels Internet Archive:

  • 3. Kostas Papaioannou, Les marxistes, J’ai lu, Paris, 1965, p. 220.
  • 4. Kostas Papaioannou correctly notes that, “during the time when Marx and Engels wrote the obituary, so to speak, in the form of a dithyramb to the bourgeoisie, capitalism and the workers movement were only in their earliest stage. Nine-tenths of the world’s population remained outside the ‘capitalist mode of production’ and the industrial revolution; England was ‘the manufacturer for the world’, the only country where capitalism effectively embraced the whole economy and population. In France and Germany, on the other hand, pre-capitalist peasants and petit bourgeoisie still comprised the great majority of the population. America was still in its pioneer stage”. Kostas Papaioannou, op. cit., p. 253.
  • 5. Karl Marx, “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper”, originally presented in London on April 14, 1856. In The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Edition, Ed. Robert C. Tucker, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978, p. 577.
  • 6. Letter from Frederick Engels to Victor Adler, dated December 4, 1889. In the English translation posted online at the Marx & Engels Internet Archive, the words, “too cowardly” do not appear in this letter (Translator’s note). See:
  • 7. Jacques Godechot, The Taking of the Bastille: July 14, 1789, Scribner, New York, 1970, 368 p.
  • 8. Letter from Engels to Marx, dated September 4, 1870. Available online at the website of the Marx & Engels Internet Archive:

  • 9. Karl Marx, The Federal Council of the International Workingmen’s Association to the Federal Council of French Switzerland; written ca. January 1, 1870. Available online at the website of the Marx & Engels Internet Archive:

  • 10. Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, International Publishers, New York, 1978, 95 p.
  • 11. Karl Marx, The Federal Council of the International Workingmen’s Association to the Federal Council of French Switzerland; written ca. January 1, 1870. Available online at the website of the Marx & Engels Internet Archive:

  • 12. Karl Marx, Address of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association on the Civil War in France, 1871; written April-May 1871. See Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1970, p. 73. Available online at the website of the Marx & Engels Internet Archive at:

  • 13. See Karl Kautsky, “Sects or Class Parties”, Die Neue Zeit, July 1909, Vol. 13, No. 7, pp. 316-328, for an account of this interview between Marx and Hamann, which was originally published by Hamann in the Volksstaat, No. 17 (1869). According to Kautsky: “This quotation is only an interview, not a signed article by Marx, consequently it is possible that it does not altogether accurately represent Marx’s meaning. However, it is probable that Marx saw it in print, for it appeared in the Volksstaat, and, if so, he would have corrected it had he found it to be erroneous. Thus, although we cannot vouch for its absolute accuracy, it is yet worthy of attention, and although such an attitude seems very strange to us now, it is yet readily explained by the position of affairs at that time.” (Note added to English translation.) An English translation of Kautsky’s article is available online at the website of the Marx & Engels Internet Archive:

  • 14. Karl Marx, Inaugural Address of the Working Men’s International Association (1864), in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Edition, Ed. Robert C. Tucker, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978, p. 518.
  • 15. Frederick Engels, 1874 Preface to The Peasant War in Germany, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1956, pages 22 and 23.
  • 16. Frederick Engels, Introduction to The Class Struggles in France (1895), in Karl Marx: Selected Works, Vol. II, International Publishers, New York, n.d., p.187.
  • 17. Karl Marx, Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council: The Different Questions, Point Six, International Workingmen’s Association (1866). Available at the website of the Marx-Engels Internet Archive:
  • 18. Karl Marx, “Second Address of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association on the Franco-Prussian War” (September 9, 1870), in Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1970, pp. 35-36. Available online at the website of the Marx & Engels Internet Archive at:

  • 19. Frederick Engels, 1874 Preface to The Peasant War in Germany, op. cit.
  • 20. Frederick Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, op. cit.
  • 21. Frederick Engels, Socialism in Germany, available at the Marx-Engels Internet Archive:

  • 22. Ibid.