Marx and the “Battle of Democracy”

13 posts / 0 new
Last post
Lucky Black Cat's picture
Lucky Black Cat
Offline
Joined: 11-02-18
Jun 29 2021 01:40
Marx and the “Battle of Democracy”

I recently reread The Communist Manifesto (https://libcom.org/library/communist-manifesto-marx-engels-0) and am struggling with how to interpret this quote:

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels wrote:
We have seen above that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.

It seems Marx is suggesting that the working class can become the ruling class by winning an election. But I’m hesitant to believe this is what he meant because I know Marx was a revolutionary. Although it’s true that Marx advocated forming workers’ parties that participate in elections, I thought he saw this as supplementary, and that he believed workers could only take power by a revolution.

But was this not yet what he believed in 1848, when The Communist Manifesto was published? Is Marx in fact saying here that the proletariat can become the ruling class through electoralism?

If so, at what point did Marx change his opinion on this issue and is there any specific text where he makes it clear that he has rejected this opinion?

Reddebrek's picture
Reddebrek
Offline
Joined: 4-01-12
Jun 29 2021 10:13

From the Engel's Communist Principles written shortly before the manifesto

Quote:
Above all, it will establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat.

Marx very much is saying in the manifesto that the working class can achieve power through elections. Shortly after writing the Communist league's manifesto revolution broke out in the German states, Marx and Engels left the league and joined the liberal Cologne democratic association because its aims were uniting Germany and creating a more modern constitutional monarchy with a stronger parliament.

Much of both Marx and Engels criticism of the revolution in Germany was on the failure of the liberal constituent assembly to build a lasting democratic German nation

Quote:
“Since two weeks ago, Germany has a national constituent assembly which is the product of a vote by the whole German people.
“The German people had won its sovereignty in the streets of almost all the big and little cities of the country, especially on the barricades of Vienna and Berlin. It had exercised this sovereignty in the elections for the National Assembly.
“The first act of the National Assembly had to be to proclaim this sovereignty of the German people loudly and publicly.
“Its second act had to be to work out a German constitution on the basis of the sovereignty of the people, and to get rid of everything in the actually existing state of affairs in Germany which contradicts the principle of the sovereignty of the people.
“All during its session it had to take the necessary measures to thwart all efforts by the reaction, to maintain the revolutionary grounds on which it stands, to secure the revolution’s conquest, the sovereignty of the people, against all attacks.
“The German National Assembly has now already held a dozen sessions and has done nothing of all this.”

Engels in the New Rhein Zeitung

Quote:
If so, at what point did Marx change his opinion on this issue and is there any specific text where he makes it clear that he has rejected this opinion?

He never really deviated from this stance, you'll find constant references throughout the years from Marx on the importance of workers candidates. He did spend the last decades of his life supporting the establishment of the German Social Democratic party.

He does talk about the necessity of force, but there's usually a lot of nuance to those utterings that gets lost or deliberately misinterpreted. In the 1840s he had become interested in the Blanqui, there's an infamous passage from the Rhine Zeitung where he declares in red ink that he supports a terror against the princes, but that was written in response to the authorities shutting down his newspaper and kicking him and his family out of the country. It reads like an outburst by an enraged person and the language used is more Jacobin than socialist.

Other times he states that violence is necessary because the lack of democracy means peaceful methods aren't possible

Quote:
"You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries – such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland – where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognise the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must some day appeal to erect the rule of labour."

And the origins of his famous "Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary." Is a much longer work that talks about how the proletariat needs to form an independent democratic organisation to resist bourgeois democrats after they've successfully established a democratic government, and this is defensive in the face of military attack. He goes on in the very next section to outline that the way to proletarian victory lies in an efficient electioneering machine.

darren p's picture
darren p
Offline
Joined: 5-07-06
Jun 29 2021 10:57
Quote:
It seems Marx is suggesting that the working class can become the ruling class by winning an election. But I’m hesitant to believe this is what he meant because I know Marx was a revolutionary. Although it’s true that Marx advocated forming workers’ parties that participate in elections, I thought he saw this as supplementary, and that he believed workers could only take power by a revolution.

Why think that winning an election cannot be a part of a revolution? I don't think the two things are mutually exclusive.

R Totale's picture
R Totale
Offline
Joined: 15-02-18
Jun 29 2021 11:15
Lucky Black Cat wrote:
It seems Marx is suggesting that the working class can become the ruling class by winning an election. But I’m hesitant to believe this is what he meant because I know Marx was a revolutionary. Although it’s true that Marx advocated forming workers’ parties that participate in elections, I thought he saw this as supplementary, and that he believed workers could only take power by a revolution.

But was this not yet what he believed in 1848, when The Communist Manifesto was published? Is Marx in fact saying here that the proletariat can become the ruling class through electoralism?

If so, at what point did Marx change his opinion on this issue and is there any specific text where he makes it clear that he has rejected this opinion?

I think the preface to the 1872 German edition is important here:

Quote:
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. 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 organization 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.” (See The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’ s Association, 1871, where this point is further developed.)

Red Marriott's picture
Red Marriott
Offline
Joined: 7-05-06
Jun 29 2021 17:07

In the comments of myself and others below the article here; http://libcom.org/blog/we-are-against-all-institutional-parties-21052020 you'll find ample evidence in quotes from 1840s-1880s of Marx & Engels consistently advocating parliamentary participation for the working class movement as a way of achieving a communist society. But some marxists, as seen in that article, try to distort and gloss over this in attempts to portray themselves as 'true heirs' of an idealised ultra-radical Marx.

comradeEmma's picture
comradeEmma
Offline
Joined: 27-04-18
Jun 29 2021 19:36

Marx and Engels, like most socialists and "radical republicans", at the time thought the struggle for universal suffrage was very important for the organization of the working-class. It is seen as a precondition for seizing political power. The question of elections themselves as a question of tactics and strategy is a bit more varied, as stated.

Marx on the Chartists and their struggle on the struggle for democracy in 1852:

Quote:
We now come to the Chartists, the politically active portion of the British working class. The six points of the Charter which they contend for contain nothing but the demand of universal suffrage and of the conditions without which universal suffrage would be illusory for the working class: such as the ballot, payment of members, annual general elections. But universal suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat form the large majority of the population, where, in a long, though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class, and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants, but landlords, industrial capitalists (farmers) and hired labourers. The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent.

Engels also writes in his critique of the Erfurt program:

Quote:
If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution [the Paris Commune] has already shown. It would be inconceivable for our best people to become ministers under an emperor, as Miquel. It would seem that from a legal point of view it is inadvisable to include the demand for a republic directly in the programme, although this was possible even under Louis Phillippe in France, and is now in Italy. But the fact that in Germany it is not permitted to advance even a republican party programme openly, proves how totally mistaken is the belief that a republic, and not only a republic, but also communist society, can be established in a cosy, peaceful way.

There is also Engels introduction from 1895 for Karl Marx' Class struggle in France 1848-1850 that talks about the change in tactics for the period, the move away from urban barricade warfare and coups and towards revolutionary mass movements. One of the tools he focuses on is how the German Social-Democratic Party has grown with the help of universal suffrage and parliamentary work. Luxemburg would later during the war and the split in Social-democracy write about how this text by Engels was partially to blame for the "only-parliamentarian" of the Social-democratic labor movement.

I agree that the "left-communists" over idealize Marx and Engels in this respect(even if they probably justify it through historical periodization), but I also think that Marx and Engels were right on democracy.

Quote:
Marx very much is saying in the manifesto that the working class can achieve power through elections. Shortly after writing the Communist league's manifesto revolution broke out in the German states, Marx and Engels left the league and joined the liberal Cologne democratic association because its aims were uniting Germany and creating a more modern constitutional monarchy with a stronger parliament.

I don't really think that is exactly what he is saying, and I don't know where you have read that they left the Communist League to join this. A core part of the League's strategy in most of its international sections was to be active in these types of associations/societies/study groups. This is also laid out in the manifesto: the Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties! In Sweden the Communist League members were also ironically enough at a reform society banquet during the brief 1848 uprising in Stockholm.

ajjohnstone
Offline
Joined: 20-04-08
Jun 29 2021 20:31

I'm sure all here are well-acquainted with the SPGB's case for capturing political power through Parliament and its argument that an electoral strategy is in accordance with the ideas of Marx and Engels and I needn't go over it all over again.

But as reminders

https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/pamphlet/whats-wrong-with-using-parl...

And further reading Marx, Guesde and The Parti Ouvrier

https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/1980/1980s/no-909...

https://www.worldsocialism.org/wsm/2020/11/24/the-wsm-and-the-guesdists/

ajjohnstone
Offline
Joined: 20-04-08
Jun 30 2021 05:42

Related is the min-max programme debate

ALB's response

https://cosmonautmag.com/2021/06/letter-for-a-maximum-program/

to Donald Parkinson defense for the format of the minimum-maximum program

https://cosmonautmag.com/2021/05/the-revolutionary-minimum-maximum-progr...

Reddebrek's picture
Reddebrek
Offline
Joined: 4-01-12
Jun 30 2021 05:52
comradeEmma wrote:
I don't really think that is exactly what he is saying, and I don't know where you have read that they left the Communist League to join this. A core part of the League's strategy in most of its international sections was to be active in these types of associations/societies/study groups. This is also laid out in the manifesto: the Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties! In Sweden the Communist League members were also ironically enough at a reform society banquet during the brief 1848 uprising in Stockholm.

The Cologne Democratic Association wasn't working class so that isn't really relevant. I've read about the pair ditching the league to join that body in several histories of 1848 over the years. most recently in this https://libcom.org/files/interview_bicentenaire_de_marx_16-12-2020_tradu...

Lucky Black Cat's picture
Lucky Black Cat
Offline
Joined: 11-02-18
Jun 30 2021 07:06

Thanks everyone for sharing your knowledge, this has all been helpful.

Dyjbas
Offline
Joined: 15-05-15
Jun 30 2021 08:41

You have to keep in mind this was 1848. The Manifesto was a harbringer of class struggles yet to come. Marx and Engels kept their options open as to how exactly things would proceed. While talking about "winning the battle of democracy" in the same document they also spoke of the "violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie". As they later wrote, it was "in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution (1848), and then, still more, in the Paris Commune (1871)" that parts of the Manifesto were now antiquated, particularly regarding the fact that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes." That said, even after that, depending on circumstances, they still saw the utility of parliamentary propaganda and the possibility that in a few particular countries "workers may be able to attain their ends by peaceful means." According to revolutionary Marxists this possibility was dashed with the arrival of the imperialist epoch (social democrats disagreed, even in countries where Marx and Engels didn't think peaceful development was possible in the first place).

Some of the ahistorical comments here are implying Marx and Engels were reformists and what not. As opposed to who? In 1848 Proudhon was a parliamentary deputy (and opposed the June Days uprising), Bakunin was a pan-Slavist and Blanqui a republican. Rather than judging them all by today's standards, you have to understand that at the time the working class was only just entering the historical stage properly. Very few, Marx and Engels among them, actually understood the role the working class would have to play in the days to come.

Red Marriott's picture
Red Marriott
Offline
Joined: 7-05-06
Jun 30 2021 10:26

The problem with M&E's views is that they tended to base their conceptions of a revolutionary process on the bourgeois model (the only one that ever won). So it could include, as applicable, both insurrectionary force, parliamentary contest and political state conquest. The pitfalls of attempting to create a classless society by trying to beat the ruling class at their own game were fatally underestimated.

comradeEmma's picture
comradeEmma
Offline
Joined: 27-04-18
Jun 30 2021 16:57
Quote:
The Cologne Democratic Association wasn't working class so that isn't really relevant. I've read about the pair ditching the league to join that body in several histories of 1848 over the years. most recently in this https://libcom.org/files/interview_bicentenaire_de_marx_16-12-2020_tradu...

I think that part of the manifesto does say something about how the League operated even what organisation is considerd "working-class" is a bit dubious, at the time liberal associations did manage to sometimes drag working-class groups to it even if they weren't able to really act as a subject. That Democratic Association was only one of the associations Marx was active in at the time.

This part from the work you linked seems to get it but takes an issue with it for some reason:

Quote:
It also lies in the fact that in 1848 Marx had no idea what a political party in the modern sense of the word could be. The “communist party” in question is not an organisation, it is the group of people who take sides in the communist cause. Marx actually had no intention of creating an organisation, because he considered that since freedom of the press and propaganda was now established, it was no longer necessary. For him, the need to organise was only justified in clandestinity. According to one of the members of the League of Communists, quoted by Fernando Claudin, Marx considered that “the existence of the League was no longer necessary since it was a propaganda organisation and not an organisation to conspire and that, in the new conditions of freedom of the press and propaganda, it could be done openly, without going through a secret organisation”.

The Communist League was at its core a secret society and not a Communist Party as we know a party today. Engels says this in his history of the Communist League:

Quote:
As could easily be foreseen, the League proved to be much too weak a lever as against the popular mass movement that had now broken out. Three-quarters of the League members who had previously lived abroad had changed their domicile by returning to their homeland; their previous communities were thus to a great extent dissolved and they lost all contact with the League. One part, the more ambitious among them, did not even try to resume this contact, but each one began a small separate movement on his own account in his own locality. Finally, the conditions in each separate petty state, each province and each town were so different that the League would have been incapable of giving more than the most general directives; such directives were, however, much better disseminated through the press. In short, from the moment when the causes which had made the secret League necessary ceased to exist, the secret League as such ceased to mean anything. But this could least of all surprise the persons who had just stripped this same secret League of the last vestige of its conspiratorial character.

[...]

With June 13, 1849, the defeat of the May insurrections in Germany and the suppression of the Hungarian revolution by the Russians, a great period of the 1848 Revolution came to a close. But the victory of the reaction was as yet by no means final. A reorganziation of the scattered revolutionary forces was required, and hence also of the League. The situation again forbade, as in 1848, any open organization of the proletariat; hence one had to organize again in secret.

[...]

Hence, the League was organized afresh; the Address of march 1850 was issued and Heinrich bauer sent as an emissary to Germany. The Address, composed by Marx and myself, is still of interest today, because petite-bourgeois democracy is even now the party which must certainly be the first to come to power in Germany as the savior of society from the communist workers on the occasion of the next European upheaval now soon due (the European revolutions, 1815, 1830, 1848-52, 1870, have occurred at intervals of 15 to 18 years in our century). Much of what is said there is, therefore, still applicable today. Heinrich Bauer’s mission was crowned with complete success. The trusty little shoemaker was a born diplomat. He brought the former members of the League, who had partly become laggards and partly were acting on their own account, back into the active organization, and particularly also the then leaders of the Workers’ Brotherhood. The League began to play the dominant role in the workers’, peasants’ and athletic associations to a far greater extent than before 1848, so that the next quarterly address to the communities, in June 1850, could already report that the student Schurz from Bonn (later on American ex-minister), who was touring Germany in the interest of petty-bourgeois democracy, “had found all fit forces already in the hands of the League”. The League was undoutbedly the only revolutionary organization that had any significance in Germany.