Lecture four: Marxism, history and the science of perspective

Part 3


This is the third part of the lecture “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” delivered by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the fourth lecture that was given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, entitled “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, entitled “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. These lectures were also authored by David North.

Lessons of 1848

The Manifesto was published on the eve of the revolutionary eruptions that were to shake much of Europe in 1848. As Marx was later to note, the principal political actors in the drama of that year, particularly the petty-bourgeois leaders of the democratic movement, sought to explain and justify their own actions by invoking the traditions of 1793. But in the half-century that had passed since Robespierre’s Jacobins waged their life and death struggle against feudal reaction, the economic structure and social physiognomy of Europe had changed.

Even as the advanced sections of the bourgeoisie sought to work out the forms of rule appropriate to the development of capitalism, the emergence of the working class as a significant social force fundamentally altered the political equation. However great the tensions between the rising bourgeoisie and the remnants of the aristocracy, with its roots in the feudal past, the discontent and demands of the new proletariat were perceived by the capitalist elite to be a more direct and potentially revolutionary threat to its interests. In France, the bourgeoisie reacted to the specter of socialist revolution by carrying out a massacre in Paris in June 1848.[11] In Germany, the bourgeoisie retreated from its own democratic program, and concluded an agreement with the old aristocracy, in opposition to the people, that left the old autocracy more or less intact.

The Communist Manifesto anticipated and predicted the irreconcilable conflict between the bourgeoisie and the working class. The Revolutions of 1848 substantiated the analysis made by Marx and Engels. In their contemporaneous writings on the unfolding of the events of 1848 in France, in Germany and other parts of Europe, Marx and Engels—in the first practical application of the historical materialist method of analysis—disclosed the socio-economic and political logic that drove the bourgeoisie into the camp of reaction, and which produced the cowardly capitulation of the representatives of the democratic middle class before the offensive of aristocratic and bourgeois reaction.

The revolutions of 1848 did not produce from the ranks of the radical petty bourgeoisie, let alone of the bourgeoisie, new Robespierres, Dantons and Marats. Marx and Engels recognized that the cowardly role played by the democratic representatives of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie was the political expression of the profound change in the social structure of Western Europe since the days of the Jacobin Terror more than a half-century earlier. They analyzed this change and drew from it far-reaching political conclusions that were to influence debates on the character of the Russian Revolution fifty years later. This analysis brought into usage a phrase—Die Revolution in Permanenz—that would reverberate throughout the twentieth century, above all in the writings of Leon Trotsky.

In March 1850, Marx and Engels submitted to the Central Authority of the Communist League a report in which they summed up the major strategic lessons of the revolutionary struggles of 1848-49. They began by pointing out that the bourgeoisie utilized the state power that had fallen into its lap as a result of the uprising of the workers and popular masses against those very forces. It had even been prepared to share or return power to the representatives of the old autocracy in order to safeguard its position against the threat of social revolution from below.

While the representatives of the big bourgeoisie had turned decisively to the right, Marx and Engels warned that the working class could expect the same from the representatives of the democratic petty bourgeoisie. They stressed that there existed fundamental differences in the social position and interests of the democratic petty bourgeoisie and the working class.

“Far from desiring to transform the whole of society for the revolutionary proletarians, the democratic petty bourgeois strive for a change in social conditions by means of which the existing society will be made as tolerable and comfortable as possible for them...

“... While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible, and with the achievement, at most, of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians in these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of existing society but the foundations of a new one.”[12]

Marx and Engels emphasized the need for the working class to maintain its political independence from the representatives of the democratic petty bourgeoisie, and not allow itself to be misled by their seductive rhetoric:

“At the present moment, when the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach in general unity and reconciliation to the proletariat, they offer it their hand and strive for the establishment of a large opposition party which will embrace all shades of opinion in the democratic party, that is, they strive to entangle the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases predominate, and serve to conceal their special interests, and in which the definite demands of the proletariat must not be brought forward for the sake of beloved peace. Such a union would turn solely to their advantage and altogether to the disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose its whole independent, laboriously achieved position and once more be reduced to an appendage of official bourgeois democracy. This union must, therefore, be decisively rejected.”[13]

Even after the passage of 155 years, these words retain extraordinary political relevance. What is the Democratic Party in the United States, not to mention the Greens, except the political means by which the working class is subordinated, through the good offices of the liberal and reform-minded middle class, to the interests of the capitalist ruling elites? Even when it came to discussing the electoral tactics of the working class party, Marx and Engels displayed astonishing political prescience:

“... Even where there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be bribed by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and giving the reactionaries the possibility of victory. The ultimate purpose of such phrases is to dupe the proletariat.”[14]

Marx and Engels concluded their report by emphasizing that the workers themselves “must do the utmost for their final victory by making it clear to themselves what their class interests are, by taking up their position as an independent party as soon as possible and by not allowing themselves to be misled for a single moment by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeois into refraining from the independent organization of the party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence.”[15]

The principal strategic and tactical issues that would confront the international revolutionary socialist movement during the next century—and even up to our own time—were anticipated in this extraordinary document: the relationship between the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie and the working class; the attitude of the working class to the democratic parties of the petty bourgeoisie; the significance of the struggle for the political independence of the working class; the essentially international character of the socialist revolution, and the universal liberating program of socialism—that is, the abolition of all forms of class oppression.

But in an even more profound sense, this document marks a new stage in the development of mankind. As it is through the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens that nature in general achieves consciousness of itself, it is with the development of Marxism that humankind arrives at the point of being, in the deepest sense of the term, historically self-conscious. The making of history by human beings, their conscious rearrangement of the social relations within which they exist, becomes a programmatic question. Having attained a scientific insight into the laws of his own economic, social, and political development, man is able to foresee and construct in his own mind (“teleologically posit”) a realistic image of the future, and adapt his own practice, as required by objective conditions, so that this future can be realized.

To be continued

[11] In the writings of Alexander Herzen, a brilliant account is given of the reaction of the liberal bourgeoisie to the emergence of the working class as a political force during the upheavals of 1848: “Since the Restoration, liberals of all countries have called the people to the destruction of the monarchic and feudal order, in the name of equality, of the tears of the unfortunate, of the suffering of the oppressed, of the hunger of the poor. They have enjoyed hounding down various ministers with a series of impossible demands; they rejoiced when one feudal prop collapsed after another, and in the end became so excited that they outstripped their own desires. They came to their senses when, from behind the half-demolished walls, there emerged the proletarian, the worker with his axe and his blackened hands, hungry and half-naked in rags—not as he appears in books or in parliamentary chatter or in philanthropic verbiage, but in reality. This ‘unfortunate brother’ about whom so much has been said, on whom so much pity has been lavished, finally asked what were his freedom, his equality, his fraternity? The liberals were aghast at the impudence and ingratitude of the worker. They took the streets of Paris by assault, they littered them with corpses, and then they hid from their brother behind the bayonets of martial law in their effort to save civilization and order!” [From the Other Shore (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1956), pp. 59-60.]
[12] Collected Works, Volume 10 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), pp. 280-81.
[13] Ibid, p. 281.
[14] Ibid, p. 284.
[15] Ibid, p. 287.