What Is Marxism?. Emile Burns 1939


In one of his early works Marx wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” To Marx this was the essential point of his whole view of the world – “Marxism” was not an academic science. but knowledge to be used by man in changing the world.

It was not enough to know that capitalism was only a passing phase, and that it must be succeeded by socialism; it was clear also that this would not happen by itself, as a result of purely economic changes. However many crises developed, however much suffering was caused by capitalism, there was no point at which capitalism would turn into socialism as water turns into ice when its temperature falls to 32 degrees Fahrenheit Humanity does not make the leap from one system of production to another except as the result of human action. And Marxism claims to provide the knowledge and the method which can guide human action to that end.

The broad outlines of the action that will end capitalism and open the way to socialism are already clear: Marx saw this as essentially the action of the working class, using “forcible means” against the force employed by the ruling class to prevent any change in its own economic and political privileges. But this general formula had to be filled in from the actual experience of the working class. From the revolutionary experiences of 1848 and 1871 Marx was able to draw certain conclusions about the character of the struggle and the form of government which the working class would establish after it had taken power. But the problem is far wider than that: it is the question of how the working class prepares for the final struggle.

Marx was continually working on this problem, not in an abstract way, but in the very practical form of taking part in building up the various types of working-class organisation en which he considered that all future action must depend. The famous Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848 was a manifesto of the Communist League, the organisation in which Marx was active for many years; the “International Working-men’s Association,” now known as the First International, was founded by his efforts in 1864. Marx was continually in touch with the British labour movement of his day, as well as with the various working-class movements in other countries.

But in those days only a tiny fraction of the working class was organised even in trade unions and co-operatives, and in no country was there a working-class political party of any size or influence.

Not only was this the case, but in many European countries the working class itself was hardly formed. Everywhere outside of Britain, capitalist industry was only in its early stages, and the rising capitalist class was still striving to establish itself against the survivals of feudal aristocracy. The setting up of working-class parties and the nature of their work had to be related to the stage of development reached in each country. All through the series of revolutions in 1848 Marx and his socialist colleagues were associated with the struggles against autocracy. Engels fought in the German democratic army against the forces of the King of Prussia.

Yet the Manifesto of the Communist Party, stressing the necessity of socialism and of a working-class revolution to win it, was published early in 1848. To those who see in Marxism a series of rigid dogmas, it may appear difficult to reconcile the theory of working-class revolution with participation in a democratic struggle in which the leading part was played by

capitalists and various sections of the “petty bourgeoisie” or middle classes. The aim of the struggle was not socialism, but some form of parliamentary democracy.

To Marx, however, the issue was quite clear. At that stage in the whole historical process the working class was quite unprepared to carry out its historical mission. It could only help the process forward by clearing the road along which it had to advance. And in order to do this it must ally itself with other sections of the people who were also interested in clearing the road of the feudal autocratic barriers. The next stage would come – more or less rapidly, in accordance with the degree of success against the feudal autocracy, the stage of capitalist development and the development of the working class itself. Therefore the immediate aim of working-class strategy must be to destroy autocracy and open up parliamentary democratic conditions which would help the workers to develop their organisations and their understanding of the final goal.

In the countries like Britain, where parliamentary democracy was already established, the immediate aims of the working class were different, but also of necessity were not the immediate taking of power, simply for the reason that the workers were not yet ready. In Britain there was not even a working-class political party; there were only small groups of socialists, and the workers in general were still closely associated with the Liberal Party. Therefore the immediate aim was the establishment of a working-class political party which would cut itself off from the Liberals and put forward a socialist programme, at the same time supporting every form of working-class struggle on the industrial, social and political field.

Marx regarded the formation of a working-class political party as the most important first step in the struggle for power against the capitalists. But is was not only a question of having a political organisation: it was equally important that the policy of the Party should be “Marxist” – that is, it must be based on the Marxist view of the world; it must be based on an understanding of the part played in history by class struggle; it must see every struggle as paving the way for the final struggle that would bring socialism.

Marx and Engels played a considerable part in shaping the policies of the political parties that were set up during their life-time. But apart from the short-lived Paris Commune, which itself was not led up to and directed by a single working-class party, the course of events did not make it possible for the workers in any country to pass beyond the early organising stages of their struggle against capitalism. It was not until the beginning of this century that the development of monopolies on a general scale, the emergence of the imperialist stage of capitalism described in Chapter IV., quickened the pace of working-class development and at the same time brought a new stage of imperialist rivalry and of class conflict.

This did not make Marxism “out-of-date.” But the fact that a new stage had been reached in the development of capitalism and of the relations between the capitalists and the workers meant that the strategy and tactics of the class struggle had to be developed further than Marx and Engels were able to do in the period in which they lived. This application of Marxism to the period of imperialism and revolution was carried out by Lenin.

It is not possible to give more than a few of the leading ideas developed by Lenin in this way; those which are perhaps of the widest interest at the present time are: the theory of the allies of the working class; parliamentary democracy; and the question of war.

It has already been shown that Marx had repeatedly stressed the point that the class which overthrows a former ruling class enters into action alongside of other sections of the people. In the case of the capitalist overthrow of the feudal autocracy, the capitalists were always supported by the peasantry, by the middle classes and by the working class so far as it had developed. What would be the nature of the alliance when the stage came for the overthrow of the capitalist class?

It would be contrary to the whole outlook of Marxism to think that any rigid formula could be found which would apply in any and every country, at any and every time. One of the most fundamental ideas of Marxism is the interdependence of things. The working class, like everything else in the world, is not living in a vacuum; there is a very definite and real world round it, including a particular grouping of other classes and sections of classes which varies from time to time and from country to country.

Take Russia, for example – Tsarist Russia, up to the March revolution of 1917. The numerically small working class was surrounded by a vast ocean of peasants and by other “middle” sections – shopkeepers, small traders, professional intelligentsia, etc. All of these wanted freedom from autocratic rule; the peasantry wanted more land. It was possible, therefore, for the “Bolshevik” (majority) section of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, led by Lenin, to form a general alliance with the whole of the peasantry, in spite of the fact that some were relatively rich and others poor. Their combined strength , the movement against Tsardom both in town and country, brought down the Tsar in the March revolution of 1917. A “Provisional Government” of capitalists was formed; at the same time a change took place in the relations between the workers and the peasants. The main enemy of the working class, and of the peasantry, had been Tsardom; but now the Tsar was gone. The main enemy of the working class, the enemy now barring the advance of the working class, was the Capitalist class represented by the Provisional Government. But not all the peasants regarded the capitalist class as its enemy. On the contrary, the richer peasants, the kulaks, who employed labour, traded and speculated, regarded the Provisional Government as its own. Therefore at that stage the working class could not ally itself with all the peasantry, but only with the poorer peasantry and the landless labourers. It was this alliance which carried through the November revolution of 1917 in town and country. But without the first alliance – the alliance with all the peasantry against the Tsar – the first revolution would have been impossible in March, 1917, and the stage of the November revolution would not have matured.

The general formula of an alliance of the working class with other sections against the main enemy, the class that is holding back the advance, always holds good; but in order to apply it in a particular country it is necessary to make an analysis of all the class forces in the country (in certain circumstances, in other countries as well, as in the case of Spain), to be clear on which section is the main enemy in the sense described. Once the main enemy is realised, it is then a question of what other sections, in addition to the working class, are also interested in clearing the road from the main enemy; and when this analysis has been made, it is possible to lay down a line of policy which will bring the widest possible sections of the people into action against the main enemy.

As we have seen, with the emergence of the monopoly stage of capitalism, economic (and therefore political) power has been more and more concentrated in the hands of small and very rich groups in each industrially developed country. This means not only that the conflict between these groups and the working class becomes more acute, but also that important differences develop within the capitalist class itself. It is perfectly true that the capitalist class has always had richer and less rich sections; but in the stage of world-wide monopolies the finance-capital group is divided from the mass of smaller capitalists by a great gulf. The interests of the finance-capital group in extending its monopoly hold, in conquering new territory, and in its dealings with the rival finance-capital groups in other countries (whether by dividing up markets, price-fixing agreements, or hostile tariffs and even war), come into direct conflict with the interests of the smaller capitalists. The smaller capitalists feel themselves threatened with being squeezed out of existence by the monopolies. On one issue after another – sometimes only as individuals, but sometimes also as whole sections – they come to regard the advance of the monopolists as the most immediate danger threatening them.

When the most aggressive section of the finance-capital group turns to fascism, when it openly takes control of the whole political and economic organisation of the country, then the smaller capitalists and the middle classes become more conscious of the fact that the monopolists are their main immediate enemy. The pressure is greater; the political helplessness of the middle sections of the people is more obvious.

The fact that, for example in Germany, the smaller capitalists and the middle classes generally at first sided with the fascists, that is, with the monopoly capitalists, makes no difference to the economic analysis. It simply means, on the one hand, that the fascist propaganda, including the anti-Jewish propaganda, succeeded in concealing the main enemy of the smaller capitalists; and on the other hand, that it succeeded in doing this because the working-class movement was not united and was therefore unable to attack the main enemy in such a clear way that the smaller capitalists and middle classes would have been drawn in as allies.

In fact, however, in spite of repeated waves of anti-Jewish propaganda, it has become increasingly difficult for the German (and Italian) finance-capital groups to maintain the loyalty of the smaller capitalists and middle classes generally; the economic facts break through all pretence. And therefore once again, though at a desperately late stage, the alliance of the working class in the fascist countries with the smaller capitalists and middle classes has become possible and necessary, in order to defeat the main enemy.

The case of China can be taken to illustrate the Marxist analysis in relation to a country which is almost a colony. In 1926 the working-class movement, in alliance with the Kuomintang – the Chinese nationalist landowner and capitalist organisation – advanced north from Canton with the aim of unifying China against the foreign imperialists. In 1927 the Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership, broke the alliance, made terms with the foreigners, and turned against the working class. For practically ten years Chiang Kai-shek waged war on the workers and peasants in the “Red” areas. During this period the working class and revolutionary peasantry had no alternative but to fight for its existence. But when the Japanese attacked China, the Chinese working class and peasants, led by the Communist Party, which understood the Marxist approach to things, realised that a new situation had arisen. The main enemy was now neither the Chinese landowners and capitalists nor the British, American or French imperialist groups. The main enemy, the enemy who was most urgently threatening the advance of the working class, was the Japanese invader. Against that main enemy all sections of the Chinese people could be united. And that policy was applied, with very unexpected results for the Japanese. A non-Marxist approach to the situation would have maintained the hostility to Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang simply because they did not and could not represent working-class interests in general. But they could, and did, represent the particular working-class interest, which was also their own, of freeing China from the Japanese invader. This brings out the point that there cannot be any alliance except on issues on which the interests of the working class coincide with the interests of other sections. It is not a question of either the workers or their allies abandoning their special interests, or deceiving their partners in the alliance as to their real aims. That is the characteristic fascist approach. The essence of the class alliance is that for the time being, in the special circumstances, the interests of the allies are identical. It was this that brought the Spanish workers, peasants, middle classes and small capitalists and Nationalist sections into alliance against the big landowners and bankers and foreign invaders.

There is often considerable confusion about the “middle classes.” The term is popularly used as implying some vague kind of social status. But Marxism sees the middle class as an economic group – a class that does not get its living from employing workers to produce surplus value for it, or from producing surplus value for employers. It consists neither of capitalists nor of workers. It consists of independent people working for their own living. The typical peasant, working his holding for himself, belongs to this “middle” group. So does the working farmer in Britain. It does not make any difference whether in fact he employs one or two men, the point is that he works, and must work, because he cannot live on the labour of the few men he is able to employ. Exactly the same is true of the small shopkeeper or the very small employer of industrial labour in the towns. They are neither capitalists nor proletarians: they are in a “middle” group. And it is perfectly clear that although this group shades off into the capitalist class at one end, and into the working class at the other, its interests are quite distinct from the interests of the monopoly capitalists.

It is the same with the professional middle class – the doctors, architects, scientists, musicians, writers and so on. They are in any case not capitalists; in the main they are independent workers. Their interests, too, are quite distinct from those of the monopoly capitalists.

To a considerable extent, these middle sections have economic interests which are identical with those of the working class. The small shopkeeper in the distressed areas very soon realises this. The professional worker does not prosper, but loses work, when social services are cut down. In the stage when monopoly capitalism is striving to spread fascism and war, the intellectual and political outlook of these middle sections receives heavy shocks, and it becomes much easier for them to understand that their interests are much closer to those of the workers than to those of the monopoly capitalists.

It is this real identity of interests which is the basis of the People’s Front, and which is made more and more obvious in the course of the struggle against the main enemy.

It is obvious that the transformation of these middle sections into conscious supporters of socialist society can only become general when the economic system is changed, when the allies of the working class begin to get their living a different way. But it is equally obvious that in the course of the allied struggle against the main enemy, an increasing number of the allies of the working class will become aware of the whole course of things – in short, will become Marxists. And this is of importance for the transformation of the sections to which they belong.

The Marxist approach to parliamentary democracy and working-class dictatorship is also based, not on abstract, “principles” of government, but on the stage reached in the development of the class struggle.

Reference has already been made to the stress laid by Marx on the necessity for the working class to fight for parliamentary democracy as against autocracy, and for the constant widening of democratic rights. But parliamentary democracy, like all other institutions, is not eternal; historically, in practically all countries it grew up to meet the needs of the rising capitalist class against feudal autocracies. In certain stages, it also helps the working class forward; but not in all stages. The Russian Marxists, for example, were in general associated with the demand for a Duma (the Russian parliament). But when at last, in the autumn of 1905, the Tsar announced that the first Duma would be called, they organised a boycott of it. Why? Because at that time the revolutionary tide was rising high. Acceptance of the Duma, the organisation of an election campaign and the fastening of attention on the parliamentary struggle would have damped down the mass struggle in the country, and made it easier for the Tsar to crush the revolutionary movement. Parliament in such circumstances meant holding back the advance of the working class, not helping it on.

On the other hand, when the revolutionary movement had been defeated, and the machinery of elections and parliament meant legal opportunities for working-class propaganda to steady the movement and begin to lead it forward again, the Russian Marxists participated in the later Dumas – and used them with great effect to prepare the workers for the next advance.

Then, again, in March, 1917, when the Tsar abdicated, and the Provisional Government was formed from the capitalist representatives in the Duma, the Russian Marxists did not support it, but demanded, “All power to the Soviets.” At that stage once again the parliamentary machinery could only hold back the further advance, which had to be made with the workers’ own organisation. And when after the November revolution of 1917 the Soviets really won all power, it was through them that the working class exercised its democracy for the common people and its dictatorship over the landlords and big capitalists and their supporters.

The same approach is made by Marxists at each stage: does parliament, at this moment in this particular country, help the working class forward (which means, help mankind forward) or does it serve only to hold back the advance? In Germany after the abdication of the Kaiser in 1918, for example, that question was necessarily raised. And the Marxists gave the answer: at this point in history, when the working class is in movement, when the former ruling class is in retreat, only Soviets can carry the struggle forward; the restoration of the Reichstag will mean the restoration of capitalist rule and the defeat of the working class. Unfortunately, the working class was mainly influenced not by Marxists, but by the Social Democrats, who had supported the Kaiser’s Government in the War. They put forward parliamentary democracy as a principle which was so to speak sacred, a principle to be applied at all times and in all circumstances. They succeeded in applying it; and the subsequent history of Germany is the penalty which the working class – not only in Germany – has had to pay for the false notions of the German working-class leaders.

All through the period after the War, when the ruling class in every country had been weakened and the working-class movement was growing stronger in organisation and activity, the Marxists stressed the reactionary part played by parliaments, their use by the ruling class to delay social advance and to sanction repressive measures against the workers. This was not because Marxists, were against democracy, but because they were for a fuller democracy – they wanted to “win the battle of democracy” by overthrowing capitalist rule and setting up soviets, working-class rule; they pointed out that in practice parliamentary democracy at that stage meant reactionary capitalist dictatorship.

But with the advance of fascism – when the finance-capital groups began to turn to an open dictatorship – the defence of parliamentary democracy meant keeping the road open for the working class: protecting its organisations and the rights it had won. And therefore Marxists supported parliamentary democracy, and will always support it as against fascism; though a time may come when once again parliamentary democracy will be a brake on the advance of the working class, which will turn to soviets as the democratic form through which it can win socialism.

The Marxist approach to the question of war bears the same character: there can be no abstract general principle, applicable to all wars at all times. The only approach is: does this war help on or hold back the advance of the working class? Put in terms of war itself: does this war mean more war, or does it help to end the system that breeds war? It id clear that civil war, the struggle of the working class and its allies to overthrow the present ruling class, helps to end the system that breeds war; it is therefore just and necessary because the ruling class uses force to maintain itself in power. It should be equally clear that wars of liberation of subject peoples also help forward the working-class advance and weaken the ruling class therefore Marxists also regard them as just and necessary.

In the case of imperialist wars of conquest (such as fascist Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia or Albania) the conclusion is equally clear: such wars are unjust, throw back the working-class advance, strengthen the ruling class. To the extent that the working class in the imperialist country is organised and able to act, it can have only one attitude: to bring about defeat, if possible to use the war situation to overthrow the ruling class and take power. Precisely the same attitude applies to imperialist wars of conquest between two rival imperialist powers; the working class only helps to fasten new shackles on itself if it supports its ruling class in such wars. Its aim in both countries must be to bring about defeat, and if possible to the war situation to overthrow the ruling class and take power.

On the other hand, not every war in which an imperialist country is involved is necessarily a war of conquest. At the present historical stage particularly, when the immediate menace of wars of conquest comes from the fascist States, it cannot be a matter of indifference to the working class whether a democratic country is conquered by fascism or not. If, for example, Chamberlain had not succeeded in handing over Czechoslovakia to Germany; if Czechoslovakia had resisted; if France had stood by her pledge to help; and if, in spite of this, Germany had attacked Czechoslovakia (which, of course, would not have happened) the war would not have been an unjust war on the part of Czechoslovakia, France and the Soviet Union. The working class of Czechoslovakia and France would not have aimed at the defeat of their own country, but at the defeat of the fascist aggressor, for the defeat of Hitler in such a war would have meant the release of the German working class and an immense impetus to the working-class advance in every country.

Naturally – and this would be the case in any capitalist democratic country involved in war against fascist aggression – the working class would not have passively accepted the policy and methods of the French ruling class. It would have done its utmost to ensure the conduct of the war by a Government that really represented the people, that was really determined to defeat fascism. Therefore, side by side with support of the war, the working class would have resisted all efforts by its own ruling class to take advantage of the war to improve its position or to come to terms with the fascist enemy in order to save it from defeat. But the working class would, above all, strive to win the war, to defeat fascism, because victory would bring to an end the whole period of fascist repression and open the way for a rapid advance in every country.

Thus we see that on the question of allies, on the question of parliamentary democracy, and on the question of war – Marxism insists on an analysis of the actual situation and the relation of class forces as the necessary approach. No dogmas that apply everywhere, but a careful analysis and a policy determined by the one general principle: does this help or hinder the working-class advance at this particular stage, in these particular circumstances?

This approach, after all, is only the necessary scientific approach to all the facts of nature. Only those who do not accept man as a part of nature, who believe that he is in some sense independent of nature, subject to eternal moral principles that in some way are more valid than the facts of life, can find the Marxist approach to problems of action difficult to understand.

The laws of external nature do not operate in the abstract, regardless of all surrounding facts. Temperature, pressure, the influence of other objects, determine the actual operation of these laws. In the case of human society, with its enormous complexity and mass of mental as well as physical relationships, it would be totally unscientific to expect rigid universal laws, which would apply in all circumstances.

It is precisely this unscientific approach, the approach from the standpoint of universal dogmas, that brings disaster whereever it is applied in human society. Marxism frees men from dogmas which they had thought eternally valid but which are in fact only a reflection of the class interests of one time and place. And in freeing them from these dogmas, it points the way forward for human society as a whole, and provides the guiding lines for their own action.