Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Karl Marx

A Brief Biographical Sketch With an Exposition of Marxism

Tactics of the Class Struggle of the Proletariat

After examining, as early as 1844-45, one of the main shortcomings in the earlier materialism—namely, its inability to understand the conditions or appreciate the importance of practical revolutionary activity—Marx, along with his theoretical work, devoted unremitting attention, throughout his lifetime, to the tactical problems of the proletariat’s class struggle. An immense amount of material bearing on this is contained in all the works of Marx, particularly in the four volumes of his correspondence with Engels, published in 1913. This material is still far from having been brought together, collected, examined and studied. We shall therefore have to confine ourselves here to the most general and brief remarks, emphasizing that Marx justly considered that, without this aspect, materialism is incomplete, onesided, and lifeless. The fundamental task of proletarian tactics was defined by Marx in strict conformity with all the postulates of his materialist-dialectical Weltanschauung [“world-view”]. Only an objective consideration of the sum total of the relations between absolutely all the classes in a given society, and consequently a consideration of the objective stage of development reached by that society and of the relations between it and other societies, can serve as a basis for the correct tactics of an advanced class. At the same time, all classes and all countries are regarded, not statistically, but dynamically —i.e., not in a state of immobility—but in motion (whose laws are determined by the economic conditions of existence of each class). Motion, in its turn, is regarded from the standpoint, not only of the past, but also of the future, and that not in the vulgar sense it is understood in by the “evolutionists”, who see only slow changes, but dialectically: “...in developments of such magnitude 20 years are no more than a day,“ Marx wrote to Engels, “thought later on there may come days in which 20 years are embodied” (Briefwechsel, Vol. 3, p. 127).[2]

At each stage of development, at each moment, proletarian tactics must take account of this objectively inevitable dialectics of human history, on the one hand, utilizing the periods of political stagnation or of sluggish, so-called “peaceful” development in order to develop the class-consciousness, strength and militancy of the advanced class, and, on the other hand, directing all the work of this utilization towards the “ultimate aim” of that class’s advance, towards creating in it the ability to find practical solutions for great tasks in the great days, in which “20 years are embodied”. Two of Marx’s arguments are of special importance in this connection: one of these is contained in The Poverty of Philosopy, and concerns the economic struggle and economic organizations of the proletariat; the other is contained in the Communist Manifesto and concerns the asks of the proletariat. The former runs as follows:

“Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance—combination.... Combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups ... and in face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them [i.e., the workers] than that of wages.... In this struggle—a veritable civil war—all the elements necessary for coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character. (Marx, The Poverty of Philosopy, 1847)

Here we have the programme and tactics of the economic struggle and of the trade union movement for several decades to come, for all the lengthy period in which the proletariat will prepare its forces for the “coming battle.” All this should be compared with numerous references by Marx and Engels to the example of the British labor movement, showing how industrial “property” leads to attempts “to buy the proletariat” (Briefwechsel, Vol. 1, p. 136).[3] to divert them from the struggle; how this prosperity in general “demoralizes the workers” (Vol. 2, p. 218); how the British proletariat becomes “bourgeoisified”—“this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie” Chartists (1866; Vol. 3, p. 305)[4]; how the British workers’ leaders are becoming a type midway between “a radical bourgeois and a worker” (in reference to Holyoak, Vol. 4, p. 209); how, owning to Britain’s monopoly, and as long as that monopoly lasts, “the British workingman will not budge” (Vol. 4, p. 433).[5] The tactics of the economic struggle, in connection with the general course (and outcome) of the working-class movement, are considered here from a remarkably broad, comprehensive, dialectical, and genuinely revolutionary standpoint.

The Communist Manifesto advanced a fundamental Marxist principle on the tactics of the political struggle:

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” That was why, in 1848, Marx supported the party of the “agrarian revolution” in Poland, “that party which brought about the Krakow insurrection in 1846.”[1]

In Germany, Marx, in 1848 and 1849, supported the extreme revolutionary democrats, and subsequently never retracted what he had then said about tactics. He regarded the German bourgeoisie as an element which was “inclined from the very beginning to betray the people” (only an alliance with the peasantry could have enabled the bourgeoisie to completely achieve its aims) “and compromise with the crowned representatives of the old society.” Here is Marx’s summing-up of the German bourgeois-democratic revolution—an analysis which, incidentally, is a sample of a materialism that examines society in motion, and, moreover, not only from the aspect of a motion that is backward:

“Without faith in itself, without faith in the people, grumbling at those above, trembling before those below ... intimidated by the world storm ... no energy in any respect, plagiarism in every respect ... without initiative ... an execrable old man who saw himself doomed to guide and deflect the first youthful impulses of a robust people in his own senile interests....” (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1848; see Literarischer Nachlass, Vol. 3, p. 212.)[6]

About 20 years later, Marx declared, in a letter to Engels (Briefwechsel, Vol. 3, p.224), that the Revolution of 1848 had failed because the bourgeoisie had preferred peace with slavery to the mere prospect of a fight for freedom. When the revolutionary period of 1848-49 ended, Marx opposed any attempt to play at revolution (his struggle against Schapper and Willich), and insisted on the ability to work in a new phase, which in a quasi-“peaceful” way was preparing new revolutions. The spirit in which Marx wanted this work to be conducted is to be seen in his appraisal of the situation in Germany in 1856, the darkest period of reaction: “The whole thing in Germany will depend on the possibility of backing the proletarian revolution by some second edition of the Peasant War” (Briefwechsel, Vol. 2, p. 108).[7] While the democratic (bourgeois) revolution in Germany was uncompleted, Marx focused every attention, in the tactics of the socialist proletariat, on developing the democratic energy of the peasantry. He held that Lassalle’s attitude was “objectively... a betrayal of the whole workers’ movement to Prussia” (Vol. 3, p.210), incidentally because Lassalle was tolerant of the Junkers and Prussian nationalism.

“In a predominantly agricultural country,” Engels wrote in 1865, in exchanging views with Marx on their forthcoming joint declaration in the press, “...it is dastardly to make an exclusive attack on the bourgeoisie in the name of the industrial proletariat but never to devote a word to the patriarchal exploitation of the rural proletariat under the lash of the great feudal aristocracy” (Vol. 3, p. 217).[8]

From 1864 to 1870, when the period of the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Germany was coming to an end, a period in which the Prussian and Austrian exploiting classes were struggling to complete that revolution in one way or another from above, Marx not only rebuked Lassalle, who was coquetting with Bismarck, but also corrected Liebknecht, who had “lapsed into Austrophilism” and a defense of particularism; Marx demanded revolutionary tactics which would combat with equal ruthlessness both Bismarck and the Austrophiles, tactics which would not be adapted to the “victor”—the Prussian Junkers—but would immediately renew the revolutionary struggle against him despite the conditions created by the Prussian military victories (Briefwechsel, Vol. 3, pp. 134, 136, 147, 179, 204, 210, 215, 418, 437, 440-41).

In the celebrated Address of the International of September 9 1870, Marx warned the French proletariat against an untimely uprising, but when an uprising nevertheless took place (1871), Marx enthusiastically hailed the revolutionary initiative of the masses, who were “storming heaven” (Marx’s letter to Kugelmann).

From the standpoint of Marx’s dialectical materialism, the defeat of revolutionary action in that situation, as in many other, was a lesser evil, in the general course and outcome of the proletarian struggle, than the abandonment of a position already occupied, than surrender without battle. Such a surrender would have demoralised the proletariat and weakened its militancy. While fully appreciating the use of legal means of struggle during periods of political stagnation and the domination of bourgeois legality, Marx, in 1877 and 1878, following the passage of the Anti-Socialist Law,[9] sharply condemned Most’s “revolutionary phrases”; no less sharply, if not more so, did he attack the opportunism that had for a time come over the official Social-Democratic Party, which did not at once display resoluteness, firmness, revolutionary spirit and the readiness to resort to an illegal struggle in response to the Anti-Socialist Law (Briefwechsel, Vol. 4, pp. 397, 404, 418, 422, 424; cf. also letters to Sorge).




[1] The reference is to the democratic uprising for national liberation in the Krakow Republic which in 1815 was placed under the joint control of Austria, Prussia and Russia. The rebels set up a National Government which issued a manifesto proclaiming abolition of feudal services and promising to give the peasants lands without redemption. In its other proclamations it announced the establishment of national workshops with higher wages and the introduction of equal rights for all citizens. Soon, however, the uprising was suppressed.—Ed.










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