Paul Foot

Marx’s real tradition

(March 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 129, March 1990.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2013.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE TUMULTUOUS revolts in Eastern Europe have divided socialists into two camps. In one camp there is gloom and introspection. In the other there is excitement and delight.

The two camps represent two different traditions, both calling themselves socialist. For much of the last hundred years or so, these two traditions have become entangled with one another. We had better disentangle them fast, for one tradition is now dead; the other lives. Unless they can free themselves fast, the living will be dragged down by the dead.

“Ever since the beginning of time” says a disembodied voice over a spinning globe at the start of Cecil B. de Mille’s Samson and Delilah, “man has striven to achieve a democratic state on earth.” That was probably putting it a little high (especially as the voice went on to assert; “such a man was Samson”), but there is something in it.

In all human history, which is the history of exploitation, there have been people who pined or fought for a day when exploitation would cease. Such people wrote Utopias in which men and women lived side by side in freedom, prosperity and peace.

Some of these Utopias were in heaven, some were on earth. Their instigators were benevolent men and women who saw themselves as parents leading bemused and discomforted children to a promised land. They were therefore, all of them, elitists, none more so than the French Utopian “socialists” of the early 19th century. They believed their own education, feeling and compassion would usher in the new society.

In England the word “socialism” was first popularised by such a man: Robert Owen. Owen detested the exploitation he saw all around him during the industrial revolution. He urged benevolent employers to set up dream factories in which the workers would get clothed, fed, educated and introduced to the fine arts.

He didn’t just say it; he did it. If you happen to be near Lanark in Scotland you can go and see the carefully kept result: Owen’s model mill in which most of his ideals were put into effect, without the slightest impact on exploitation in the West of Scotland or anywhere else.

New Lanark and all similar Utopias and charities were greeted by the young Karl Marx with the ferocious contempt for which he had a peculiar genius. Marx reckoned that for the first time in history it was possible to end exploitation once and for all. Up to that time, so little was produced that there wasn’t enough to share with everyone. If there was to be any progress, therefore, a surplus had to be creamed off by a ruling class.

After the advances of production in the Industrial Revolution there was enough to go round. It was possible to talk (as they started to do in Germany only from 1842, when Marx was 24) of “socialism”, a society where things are produced and distributed socially, to fit everyone’s needs, and in which it is considered a crime for one person to grow rich from the labour of another.

How could such a society come about? Was it inevitable because it was so obviously fair and decent? Were industrialists, landlords, bankers suddenly to be struck, as St Paul pretended he was on the road to Damascus, by a blinding light which would show them how monstrous their riches were in the midst of so much poverty?

FROM a very early age, Marx recognised the ruthlessness of class rule. He observed how the ruling class behaved like vampires. They sucked blood, which led them to be thirsty for more of it. They were as impervious as vampires to pleas for mercy.

They would relinquish their surplus, he concluded, only when it was siezed from them by the very class they robbed.

So the first reason why Marx reviled all collaborators with the capitalist system is that they made the abolition of that system and the creation of a socialist society more distant and difficult.

There was however a second reason, which was even more important to Marx and to his friend and collaborator, Frederick Engels. They were faced by an argument which we hear on all sides today. “The working class” they were told “are backward, ill-educated, racialist, dirty, mean. How can such a class create a new society free from exploitation and fear?”

Marx reacted angrily to such abuse. His descriptions, for instance, of the meetings of workers in Paris when he was first exiled there in the mid-1840s, are full of admiration. But he knew that exploiting society makes wretches of the exploited just as it makes monsters of the exploiters.

He knew that centuries of exploitation had left the masses full of, not to put too fine a point on it, shit. And this was the best reason of all for the revolution.

“This revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overturning it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

That was in the German Ideology, written in 1847, when Marx was 29; and the theme – the importance of the self-emancipation of the working class – goes on and on throughout all his writing. It is the very lynch-pin of Marxism.

When in 1864 he wrote the principles of the First International Working Men’s Association his very first clause said: “Considering that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves ...” This clause was written into the membership cards of every member of the International. Seven years after the formation of the International the workers of Paris rose, threw off the muck of ages, and set up their own administration entirely free from exploitation. Marx, in a fever of excitement and enthusiasm, wrote perhaps the most powerful political pamphlet in all history, insisting that the Commune’s greatest achievement was the self-emancipation of the working class:

“They have taken the actual management of the revolution into their own hands and found at the same time, in the case of success, the means to hold it in the hands of the people itself; displacing the state machinery of the ruling class by a governmental machinery of their own. This is their ineffable crime!”

The most consistent theme of all Marx’s writing is this zest for the potential of the working class in struggle. It goes back to the very earliest of Marx’s ideas, when as a young journalist he called himself an “extreme democrat”.

Vulgar Marxists of the bureaucratic school (“Marxists” whom Marx and Engels came to despise while they were alive) detect a “great shift” from Marx’s early idealistic journalism to his later scientific work. It is not a shift which Marx recognised. Rather, he noticed that he developed logically from a passionate belief in democracy to a passionate belief in communism.

Communism, brought about by a working class in motion, was the most democratic society conceivable, since it came about through democratic action and it removed the most undemocratic aspect of all: economic exploitation of the many by the few. By as early as 1845, Frederick Engels was spelling this out in simple language:

“Democracy nowadays is communism ... Democracy has become the proletarian principle, the principle of the masses ... The proletarian parties are entirely right in inscribing the word ‘democracy’ on their banners.”

THE DEMOCRATIC inspiration and the belief in self-emancipation (which are part of the same thing) are the essentials of Marxism. Without them, all the carefully constructed economics, all the earnest philosophy wither on the vine.

The spirit of a revolt, the need for a class battle against exploitation – these are the antidotes to the determinism of which Marx was so often accused.

The famous statement that people make their own history but they do not make it as they choose is usually quoted by Marxists with the accent on everything after “but”. In fact, the emphasis in the sentence is that men and women determine what happens to them. The point that they have to work within historical circumstances laid down for them is made only to ensure that they fight more effectively.

Not long after Marx died (in 1883) a new threat arose to the fight which he believed would soon be won. Men calling themselves Marxists found themselves at the head of “great labour movements”, vast trade unions, socialist newspapers, socialist sporting societies.

Such men started to wonder whether all this talk of revolution wasn’t going over the top. They felt they might get to positions of power and influence through the newly-granted franchise, and that when they did so they could legislate for socialism without having to go through messy and probably bloody revolution.

Thus, at the end of the 1890s, Edward Bernstein, like countless others after him, proposed to the masses that their world could be improved gradually and peacefully. All they needed to do was vote in a secret ballot. For Bernstein (and for Karl Kautsky, though few noticed his backsliding at this stage) the idea of millions of workers emancipating themselves in the streets and factories was faintly distasteful, if not downright dangerous.

The works of these men (except on the fringes: Bernstein, perhaps, on Cromwell; Kautsky on Christianity) do not survive with any relevance today. What does survive is the furious reply delivered to Bernstein and company by the Polish-born revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg.

Her reply came in two parts: Social Reform or Revolution (1900) and The Mass Strike (1906). The common theme of both pamphlets, the element which lifts them above all other contemporary political writing and makes them so important today, is the “living political school”, “the pulsating flesh and blood”, the “foaming wave” of the working class in struggle.

Luxemburg fought like a tiger for Karl Marx’s central principle: that the workers can only be emancipated if they themselves overthrow capitalist society. She exulted in the 1905 Russian Revolution which in a few weeks knocked out an absolutism which had reigned unchecked (in spite of all sorts of benevolent reformers who tried to make it better) for centuries. She rejoiced from her prison cell at the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Russian revolutionary socialists more than anyone else in all history understood Marx’s insistence on self-emancipation. Where Marx had called for it and encouraged it, they carried it out.

Reactionary historians and commentators tell us that the tight discipline of the Bolshevik Party made it an undemocratic organisation dedicated to commanding the workers, not representing them. The truth is exactly the opposite. The Bolshevik Party won its soviet majorities in the spring and summer of 1917 precisely because it took its stand on the strength, confidence and potential of the Russian workers. In State and Revolution and The Proletarian Revolution And The Renegade Kautsky, Lenin fulminated against parliamentary democracy because it was not democratic enough. It left the capitalist machine intact. It removed working class representatives from the cooperative atmosphere of everyday life in factories, mills, mines and offices.

LENIN, in State and Revolution restated his belief in the “elective principle” as the cornerstone of any new socialist society. He repeated again and again in the months and years after October that the working class which had emancipated itself was the only hope for the Revolution. “I calculated’’ he said “solely and exclusively on the workers, soldiers and peasants being able to tackle better than the officials, better than the police, the practical and difficult problems of increasing the production of foodstuffs and their better distribution, the better provision of soldiers, etc. etc.”.

He told the First All Russian Congress of Soviets in January 1918:

“In introducing workers’ control we knew it would take some time before it spread to the whole of Russia, but we wanted to show that we recognised only one road – changes from below: we wanted the workers themselves to draw up, from below, the new principles of economic conditions.”

Lenin’s inspiration, if less flamboyant, was exactly the same as Marx’s and Luxemburg’s. Their socialism depended on the exploitative society being overthrown in struggle by the workers. Lenin realised, therefore, that without the revolutionary class of self-emancipated workers, the revolution would, in his own words, “perish”.

Perish it did, for precisely that reason. The self-emancipators, the small Russian working class, were annihilated in war and famine. By 1921 all that was left of them was the top layer, the bureaucracy of revolutionaries without the class which put it there.

The self-emancipators were replaced by workers from the countryside who had not emancipated themselves or anyone else. The revolution in Germany was defeated. In Britain it never started. Russia was isolated; its revolutionary inspiration snuffed out. The revolution was lost. Soviet democracy was replaced by state capitalist tyranny.

Sad to say, most socialists and communists throughout the world did not notice that it was lost at all. Almost imperceptibly, communists who had been brought up to believe that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class became idol-worshippers in the old Utopian tradition; falling at the feet of Stalin as the benevolent Father of Socialism.

In the name of Marxism, the very essence of Marxism, its democratic and self-emancipatory spirit, was at first forgotten, later ridiculed and condemned. Dictatorship over the proletariat was hailed as dictatorship of the proletariat. Murdering opponents was hailed as democratic discipline. Communism and democracy, synonymous for Engels, became exact opposites for Stalinists.

More predictably anti-communists made the same mistake. They said there was a direct line from Lenin to Stalin; that all revolutions somehow end in tyranny. The answer to them is a simple one.

For all his myriad fetishes, racism and pettiness, Stalin bent his dictatorship to one central purpose: to squeeze out of Russia every single surviving breath of the Revolution. He killed all his former Bolshevik colleagues – save Lenin who died early enough to be turned (against everything he had ever believed) into another icon. Revolutionary decrees were repealed and replaced with their opposites.

Factory control was replaced by one-man management; educational reform by educational reaction; internationalism by nationalism and racism; free abortions by rigid abortion controls. The death penalty for serious crimes, abolished by the revolution, was re-imposed. Privileges, domestic servants and all the paraphernalia of ruling class “superiority” were the order of the day.

All this was heralded throughout the world as socialism – though the essence of socialism, Lenin’s control from below, had been turned into its very opposite, control from above.

After the Second World War, the tragedy repeated itself, as Marx would have said, this time as farce. In the carve-up of the victorious powers, Russia swiped six countries in Eastern Europe. In none of these had the working class emancipated itself. Their emancipation, instead, was imposed by Russian bayonets.

Replicas of Stalin’s state capitalist tyranny were set up in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and East Germany. The workers played no part in any of these governments. They did not even have the right to vote them out, as their fellow workers had in much of the West. Resistance of any kind, especially resistance in the workplaces, was met with the most horrific repression. Uprisings in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany were put down by tanks.

The economies were bent and corrupted to the sustenance of Great Russian imperialism. Ruling class bureaucracies set themselves up in Stalin’s image.

The countries came to be known as “socialist countries”. Either their relationship with Russia, or their centralised “planned” economies or their stuffed-shirted socialist rhetoric convinced hundreds of thousands of socialists in other countries that, at root, they were socialist. The word caught on in the Eastern European countries themselves, but with a different result.

In those countries, where the workers knew that they were being dragooned and terrorised, socialism became a synonym for brutal dictatorship and exploitation. Socialism, the great emancipation, became the word for slavery. And the revolt against that tyranny, when it came, and when it was led, as it inevitably had to be, by the working class, turned first and most viciously against anything which called itself “socialist”.

NOW LARGE numbers of socialists, who spent much of their lives in some posture of obeisance to these “socialist countries” are fleeing the field.

Some of them are giving up all political commitment. Some, very few, place their faith in the “revolution from above” which they imagine has been set in motion, single-handedly by Mikhail Gorbachev. Others, probably the majority, have abandoned any talk of revolution, and now work for “reform from above” in the Labour Party and its equivalents.

The world in which we live is not in its essentials any different from the world which Marx described. It is still run on exploitative lines. A degenerate and cancerous capitalism still gnaws away at the lives of most of the world’s people. There is no sign that “reform from above” worries it even for a moment. It flicks aside the reformers with the same casual cynicism which Marx exposed.

The chief difference is that the working class, which still carries the hopes of change, is much bigger now than it was in Marx’s day. While sophisticated commentators insist that the working class is vanishing, it is growing by hundreds of thousands every year and by millions every decade. Russia herself now has sixty million exploited industrial workers: China over one hundred million and among the teeming, hungry masses of what was until recently known as the Third World, new robust organisations are arising, as Rosa Luxemburg predicted “like Venus from the foam”.

The events in Eastern Europe have proved like nothing else in the last 50 years that sudden volcanic social change does not happen when stockbrokers forecast it or academics work it out. It comes when the masses move, seek to emancipate themselves and in the process, in Marx’s famous phrase, “educate themselves, the educators”.

Dictators and bureaucracies can call themselves socialists for so long. In the end, the actions of the masses will sort them out, and start once more to reveal things as they are. An industrial economy which is “planned” in the interests of a militaristic and parasitic minority is not socialist. It is its opposite: state capitalist.

If state capitalism is being “conquered” by the masses emancipating themselves, then those same masses have blazed a path towards the conquering of all capitalism.

The urgent need for socialists is to kick the rotten corpse of state capitalism away from Rosa’s “living school” of self-emancipatory socialism; to assert as aggressively as ever the socialist tradition which started with Marx and Engels, and was taken on by Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and the Russian revolutionaries, and by a small band of socialists who knew all along that socialism and democracy are synonymous, that neither can ever exist without the other, and that both can only be achieved when the exploited masses use their irresistible power.

Last updated on 12.8.2013