What Is Marxism?. Emile Burns 1939


In Chapter II Marx’s general theory of class struggle was described. Class struggles arise out of a form of production which divides society into classes, one of which carries out the actual process of production (slave, serf, wage-worker), while the other (slave-owner, lord, capitalist employer) enjoys a part of the product without having to work to produce it. But in addition to the two main classes in each epoch there are also other classes – in the main, survivals of earlier forms of production, like the rulers of the Indian states and the peasant-producer of today; or, as the early artisans in the feudal period, the forerunners of the dominant capitalist class of later period.

The struggle between the classes helps man forward to a higher stage of production. When a successful revolution takes place, the higher form of production is brought in or widely extended. The way for the further development of capitalism in Britain was opened by the Cromwell revolution and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689; the same service was rendered to France by the Great Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent revolutions.

Marx, however, was not content to state the facts in general terms: he closely examined the struggles of his day, in order to discover the laws of the struggle between classes.

This is not a question of the technical details of fighting. Marx saw that what was important for an understanding of social development was the analysis of the class forces which take part in the revolutionary movement that develops a new form of production. And it was possible for him to show, by examining particularly the revolutionary events of 1848 in many countries of Europe, that certain general features applied to all.

What are these general features or laws evident in revolutions?

In the first place, the revolutionary struggle is always conducted by the class which is coming to power in the new system of production, but not by it alone. For example, alongside of the rising capitalist class in the Great French Revolution of 1789, there were the peasantry – the producing class of feudalism – small traders, independent artisans and the rudiments of the working class of the future. All of these sections of the population took part in the revolutionary struggle against the ruling class of tile old order, because, in spite of divergent interests, all of them realised that the old order meant continued repression, continued and increasing difficulties for them.

It was much the same in the other European revolutions which came later, overthrowing the absolute power of the feudal monarch in many countries and clearing the road for capitalist production. All other sections of the people were more or less united against the former ruling class. And in the early stages it was always the new ruling class – the rising capitalist class – which led the revolution. In the course of the struggle, particularly where the working class had already reached a certain stage of development, new alliances were formed. The working sections of the people, which entered the struggle in their own interests, put forward claims which the new capitalist rulers were not prepared to grant. In such cases the working sections of the people would try to enforce its claims, and the capitalists would turn to the more reactionary sections for help against the workers. Something very much like this happened even in Cromwell’s day, and happened in France repeatedly up to 1848.

In June, 1848, the Paris workers attempted to defend their newly-won rights. but were defeated by the new capitalist government set up by the February revolution; Marx, however, noted that the working class of Paris was already so developed that in the next revolution it would lead, and not merely follow the lead of the capitalists. This actually occurred in 1871, when the Paris workers took the lead in establishing the Commune, which held Paris for ten weeks. But the fact that for the first time the working class led the revolutionary action did not mean that the working class fought alone. They rose against the Government of large landowners and capitalists who had plunged France into war and were trying to enrich themselves out of defeat and the starvation of the Paris people. And alongside of the workers in the fight against the large landowners and capitalists stood: small shopkeepers who were threatened with ruin by the Government’s refusal of a moratorium on debts and rent; patriots from all classes who were disgusted with the German victory in the war and the terms accepted by the Government; even capitalist republicans who feared that the Government would restore the monarchy. One of the chief weaknesses in the position of the Paris workers was that they did not seriously attempt to bring the peasantry also to their side.

But the important point remained: every real revolution which aims at overthrowing an existing ruling class is not a revolution only of the class which is to succeed it in power, but a revolution of all who are oppressed or restricted by the existing ruling class. At a certain stage of development the revolution is led by the capitalists against the feudal monarchy and landowners; but when the working class has developed it is able to lead all the sections taking part in the revolution. In other words, history shows that in every revolution wide sections of the people form an alliance against the main enemy; what is new is that in the revolution against the large landowners and capitalists the working class takes the lead in such an alliance.

The revolution which puts a new class in power to bring in a new system of production is only the high point of the continuous struggle between the classes, which is due to their conflicting interests in production. In the early stages of industrial capitalism, the conflicts are scattered, and are almost entirely on issues of wages and conditions in a particular factory. “But with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more” (Marx, Communist Manifesto, 1848, Handbook of Marxism, p 32). The workers form trade unions, which develop into great organisations capable of carrying on the conflict on a national scale. They form co-operative societies to protect their interests as consumers. And at a relatively advanced stage they form their own political party, which is able to represent and lead the fight for their interests as a class.

How is this fight conducted?

Marx saw the aim of the working-class party as the preparation for and organisation of revolution – the overthrow of the ruling class of capitalist – and the organisation of a new system of production, socialism.

The process of preparation involved helping all forms of working-class organisation to develop, especially the trade unions, which increased the strength of the working class and made it “feel that strength more.” It also involved helping every section of the workers which entered into any struggle for its immediate interests – for higher wages, better working conditions and so on. Through these struggles the workers often win better conditions; but these are not secure – “the real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.” In the course of these struggles the workers become conscious of the fact that they are a class, with common interests as against the capitalist class. The working-class political Party helps forward that development, and explains why, so long as capitalist production, continues, the struggle between classes must also go on, while economic crises and wars inflict terrible sufferings on the workers; but that the conflict and sufferings can be ended by changing the system of production, which, however, involves the forcible overthrow of the capitalist class.

Why did Marx consider the “forcible overthrow” necessary? In Chapter II his analysis of history has been explained, with the conclusion that new systems of production only come into operation when a new class, by forcible means, takes power from the former ruling class. The conclusion to be drawn from history is therefore that the working class is not able to change production on to a socialist basis without the forcible overthrow of the ruling class. This general historical conclusion is reinforced by Marx’s study of the State.

The State is sometimes thought of as parliament. But Marx showed that the historical development of the State had little to do with representative institutions; on the contrary, the State was something through which the will of the ruling class was imposed on the rest of the people. In primitive society there was no State; but when human society became divided into classes, the conflict of interests between the classes made it impossible for the privileged class to maintain its privileges without an armed force directly controlled by it and protecting its interests. “This public force exists in every State; it consists not merely of armed men, but of material appendages, prisons and repressive institutions of all kinds” (Engels, Handbook of Marxism, p 726). This public force always has the function of maintaining the existing order, which means the existing class division and class privilege; it is always represented as something above society, something “impartial,” whose only purpose is to “maintain law and order,” but in maintaining law and order it is maintaining the existing system. It comes into operation against any attempt to change the system; in its normal, everyday working, the State machine arrests and imprisons “seditious” people, stops “seditious” literature, and so on, by apparently peaceful means; but when the movement is of a wider character, force is used openly by the police and, if necessary, the armed forces. It is this apparatus of force, acting in the interests of the ruling class, which is the State.

Is the State machine controlled by the Parliament or other representative institution of the country? So long as the representative institution of the country represents only the ruling class, it may be in control of the State machine. But when the Parliament or other institution does not adequately represent the ruling class, and attempts to carry through any measure disturbing to the ruling class, the fact that it does not control the State machine soon becomes obvious. History is full of representative institutions which have attempted to serve the interests of a class other than the ruling class; they have been closed down, or dispersed by armed force where necessary. Whereas, for example, in Britain in Cromwell’s time – the rising class has triumphed over the old order, it has not done so by mere votes in Parliament, but by organising a new armed force against the State, against the armed force of the old ruling class.

It was obvious to Marx that the extension of the vote did not in any way alter this situation. Real power rests with the class which is dominant in the system of production; it maintains its control of the State machine, no matter what happens in the representative institution. A change of real power therefore involves the use of force against the old State machine, whose whole apparatus of force is turned against the new class which is trying to change the system.

This conclusion reached by Marx has been confirmed by more recent historical events. The whole basis of fascism is the destruction by armed force of all forms of representative institution. The fact that the fascist organisation is a new form, and not merely the old form of State force, alters nothing in the main analysis. The Franco rebellion against a constitutionally ,elected parliamentary government shows how little control a representative institution has over the State machine.

But how does the ruling class maintain its separate control of the State machine, and especially the armed forces which, on the surface and “constitutionally,” are controlled by Parliament? The answer is to be found in the character of the State machine itself. In every country, the higher posts in the armed forces, in the judicial system, and in the administrative services generally, are held by members or trusted servants of the ruling class. This is assured by the system of appointment and promotion. However far democracy may go in the representative institution, it is unable to penetrate into the tough core of the State machine. So long as no serious issues arise, the fact that the State machine is separated from the democratic Parliament is not obvious; but even in Britain we have the example of the mutiny at the Curragh in 1914, when officers refused to carry out an order to garrison Northern Ireland in view of the threatened reactionary rebellion against the Irish Home Rule Act.

But if the State machine works only to preserve the status quo and not against it, it is clear that no advance to a higher form of production is possible without the defeat of the State machine, no matter what representative institutions exist.

Nevertheless, Marx was always a supporter of democratic institutions. He saw them historically as one of the fields of the class struggle. Just as Parliament in the days of Charles I served as a sounding-board for the rising capitalist class, through which it won concessions while at the same time it roused support for the fight against the feudal monarchy, so also the Parliaments of today can serve as instruments for winning concessions and at the same time rousing the workers for the decisive struggle for power. Therefore the struggle for parliamentary democracy is not purposeless, even if it is only a part of the whole struggle and cannot by itself bring the new order of society. (It is significant that fascism everywhere destroys parliamentary institutions, just because of the opportunities they give to the people’s opposition).

That is why Marx always stressed the importance of the fight for parliamentary democracy against the various forms of autocratic government existing in Europe during the last century, and for the extension of democratic rights in countries where the autocracy had already been overthrown. At the same time, he considered that so long as the autocracy or the capitalist class remained in control of the State (in the meaning explained above) democracy is neither secure nor effective. It is only when the working class has succeeded in defeating and smashing the capitalist State machine that it can raise itself to the position of ruling class, and thereby “win the battle of democracy.” In other words, the people’s will can only prevail effectively when the armed barrier in its way – the capitalist State machine – has been destroyed.

But it is not enough to defeat and destroy the State machine of the former ruling class. It is necessary for the working class to set up its own State machine – its own centralised apparatus of force – in order to complete the defeat of the capitalist class and to defend the new system against attacks from within and from without.

Moreover, it is necessary for the working class to set up its own form of government, which differs in important respects from the form known in capitalist society, because its purpose is different. This became clear to Marx after the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871, the special features of which were that: it was “a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time;” its members could be replaced by their electors at any time; “from the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages;” magistrates and judges were elected, and their electors could replace them at any time. The old standing army was replaced by a “National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men.” The essence of these and other features of the Commune was to bring the governing apparatus and the machinery of force and repression nearer to the working class – to ensure its control which had in fact existed over the old machine. This new form of State was “winning the battle of democracy” – it was an enormous extension of the share taken by the common people in the actual control of their own lives.

Yet Engels, writing of the Paris Commune, said: “That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Is there any contradiction between the two statements about the Commune: that it was a great extension of democratic control as compared with parliamentary democracy under capitalism; on the other hand, that it was a working-class dictatorship? No. They simply express two aspects of the same thing. In order to carry out the will of the overwhelming majority of the people, a “new and really democratic State” was set up; but this could only carry out the people’s will by exercising a dictatorship, by using force against the minority who had been the class exercising its dictatorship and continued to use all means – from financial sabotage to armed resistance – against the people’s will.

The later experiences of working-class revolution confirmed the deductions which Marx and Engels had drawn from the experience of the Commune in 1871. in the 1905 revolution in Russia, councils composed of delegates from working-class bodies were set up to organise and carry on the fight against the Tsar; and again in the March revolution of 1917 similar “soviets” (the Russian word for “council”) were formed as soon as the revolutionary situation developed. Lenin saw that, with the great development of the working class since the Paris Commune, these delegate bodies drawn in the first place from the factories (but also, as the struggle extended, from the soldiers and the peasants), were the form in which the new working-class State would operate. The delegates were drawn directly from the workers, and could at any time be recalled by their electors; this meant that capitalist influences could play no part in decisions, and that therefore the real interests of the working class would be protected and advanced. At the same time, this could only be done by a dictatorship, resting on force, against the old ruling class, which used every means to undermine and destroy the new Soviet Government.

The real democracy of the working-class dictatorship was brought out by Marx in a passage in the Communist Manifesto of 1848: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

It is evident from what has been said above that Marx did not consider that the victory of the working-class revolution would at once end all class struggle. On the contrary, it merely marks a turning point in which the working class for the first time has the State apparatus on its side instead of against it. Lenin told the Congress of Soviets in January, 1918, an incident which illustrates this point. He was in a train, and there was a conversation going on which he could not understand. Then one of the men turned to him and said: “Do you know the curious thing this old woman said? She said: ‘Now there is no need to fear the man with the gun. I was in the woods one day and I met a man with a gun, and instead of taking the firewood I had collected from me, he helped me to collect more."’ The apparatus of force was no longer turned against the workers, but helped the workers; it would be turned only against those who tried to hold back the workers.

And such people, of course, continue to exist after the working class has taken power. The old ruling class, aided by the ruling class of other countries, gathers together such armed forces as it can raise, and carries on open warfare against the working-class State. The Paris Commune of 1871 was defeated in this way. The Germans released thousands of French prisoners taken in the war, and sent them to reinforce the French reactionaries at Versailles, outside Paris; and the reactionary army was able to take Paris from the Commune and carry out an appalling slaughter of those who had supported the Commune. Between 1918 and 1920, the Soviet Government in Russia had to face, not only armies of Tsarist supporters, but also invading armies of foreign powers – Britain, France and the United States included. History therefore confirms the conclusion made by Marx, the working class would have to maintain its State organisation for a long period after it has taken power, in order to defend itself and to ensure its control during the period when it is reorganising the system of production on to a socialist basis.

What exactly Marx meant by socialism and its higher stage, communism, is explained in the following chapter. But before leaving the subject of the class struggle and the State, Marx’s view of the final outcome of the process must be stated. Class struggle, and with it the setting up of a State apparatus to protect the interests of the ruling class, came out of the division of human society into classes whose interests clashed in production. Class struggle and the State continue through history as long as human society remains divided in classes. But when the working class takes power it does so in order to end the class divisions – to bring in a new form of production in which there is no longer any class living on the labour of another class; in other words, to bring about a classless society, in which all serve society as a whole. When this process has been completed (on a world scale), there will be no class conflict because there are no classes with separate interests, and therefore there will be no need of a State – an apparatus of force – to protect one set of interests against another. The State will “wither away” – in one sphere after another it will not be required, and such central machinery as exists will be for the organisation of production and distributed. As Engels put it: “Government over persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production.”