G.V. Plekhanov

Socialism and the Political Struggle



But what is scientific socialism? Under that name we understand the communist teaching which began to take shape at the beginning of the forties out of utopian socialism under the strong influence of Hegelian philosophy on the one side, and of classical economics on the other; the teaching which first really explained the whole course of human cultural development, pitilessly shattered the bourgeois theoreticians’ sophisms and, “armed with all the knowledge of its age”, came out in defence of the proletariat. This teaching not only showed with complete clarity how unsound scientifically are the opponents of socialism, but pointing out the errors, it at the same time explained them historically and thus, as Haym once said of Hegel’s philosophy, “tied to its triumphal chariot every opinion it had defeated”. As Darwin enriched biology with his amazingly simple and yet strictly scientific theory of the origin of species, so also the founders of scientific socialism showed us in the development of the productive forces and their struggle against backward “social conditions of production” the great principle of the variation of species of social organisation. We hardly need to say whom we consider as the founders of this socialism. This merit belongs indisputably to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, whose doctrine stands in exactly the same relation to the modern revolutionary movement in civilised humanity as, in the words of one of them, advanced German philosophy stood in its time to the emancipation movement in Germany; it is its head, and the proletariat is its heart. But it goes without saying that the development of scientific socialism is not complete and can no more stop at the works of Engels and Marx than the theory of the origin of species could be considered as finally elaborated with the publication of the principal works of the English biologist. The establishment of the basic propositions of the new teaching must be followed by the detailed elaboration of questions pertaining to it, an elaboration which will supplement and complete the revolution carried out in science by the authors of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. [13] There is not a single branch of sociology which would not acquire a new and extraordinarily vast field of vision by adopting their philosophical and historical views. The beneficial influence of those views is already beginning to be felt in the fields of history, law and so-called primitive culture. But this philosophical and historical aspect of modern socialism is still too little known in Russia, and therefore we do not consider it superfluous to quote a few excerpts here, in order to acquaint our readers with it in Marx’s own words.

Incidentally, although scientific socialism traces its genealogy “from Kant and Hegel”, it is nevertheless the most deadly and resolute opponent of idealism. It drives it out of its last refuge – sociology – in which it was received with such delight by the positivists. Scientific socialism presupposes the “materialist conception of history”, i.e., it explains the spiritual history of humanity by the development of social relations (among other things under the influence of surrounding nature). From this point of view, as also from that of Vico, “the course of ideas corresponds to the course of things”, and not inversely. The principal cause of this or that make-up of social relations, this or that direction in their development, is the condition of the productive forces and the economic structure of society corresponding to them. “In the social production of their life,” says Marx, [14] “men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development Of their material productive forces. The sum-total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which rises a legal and political super-structure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.... Legal relations as well as forms of state are to be grasped neither from themselves nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life, the sum-total of which Hegel, following the example of the Englishmen and Frenchmen of the eighteenth century, combines under the name of ’civil society’, that, however, the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy.... At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.... No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.

“Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.”

It is now understandable why Marx and Engels reacted with such scornful derision to the “true socialists” in Germany at the end of the forties, who adopted a negative attitude to the German bourgeoisie’s struggle against absolutism, “preaching to the masses that they had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by this bourgeois movement”. The historical teaching of Marx and Engels is the genuine “algebra of the revolution”, as Herzen once called Hegel’s philosophy. That is why Marx and Engels sympathised with “every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things”; and for the same reason they warmly sympathised with the Russian movement, which made Russia, as they said, the vanguard of the revolution in Europe. But despite all their clarity and unambiguousness, Marx’s views gave occasion for many misunderstandings in the field of revolutionary theory and practice. Thus, it is often said in our country that the theories of scientific socialism, are inapplicable to Russia because they have their root in West European economic relations. To Marx’s teaching is attributed the absurd conclusion that Russia must go through exactly the same phases of historical and economic development as the West. Influenced by the conviction that this conclusion is inevitable, more than one Russian philosopher, familiar neither with Marx nor with the history of Western Europe, entered the lists against the author of Capital and accused him of narrow and stereotyped views. This, of course, was tilting at windmills. Our Don Quixotes did not understand that the history of West European relations was used by Marx only as the basis of the history of capitalist production, which emerged and developed precisely in that part of the world. Marx’s general philosophical and historical views stand in exactly the same relation to modern Western Europe as to Greece and Rome, India and Egypt. They embrace the entire cultural history of humanity and can be inapplicable to Russia only if they are generally untenable. It goes without saying that neither the author of Capital nor his famous friend and colleague lost sight of the economic peculiarities of any particular country; only in those peculiarities do they seek the explanation of all a country’s social, political and intellectual movements. That they do not ignore the significance of our village commune is revealed by the fact that as recently as January 1882 they did not consider it possible to make any decisive forecast concerning its destiny. In the preface to our translation of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (Geneva, 1882) they even say explicitly that under certain conditions the Russian village commune may “pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership”. These circumstances are, in their opinion, closely connected with the course of the revolutionary movement in the west of Europe and in Russia. “If the Russian revolution,” they say, “becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting-point for a communist development.” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, VIII.) It will hardly occur to a single Narodnik to deny that the solution of the village commune question depends on such a condition. Hardly anybody will assert that the oppression by the modern state is favourable to the development or even to the mere maintenance of the commune. And in exactly the same way hardly anyone who understands the significance of international relations in the economic life of modern civilised societies can deny that the development of the Russian village commune “into a higher form of communist common ownership” is closely linked with the destiny of the working-class movement in the West. It thus turns out that nothing in Marx’s views on Russia contradicts the most obvious reality, and the absurd prejudices concerning his extreme “Occidentalism” have not the slightest trace of reasonable foundation.

But there is another misunderstanding which directly concerns a question interesting us – the significance of political struggle in the reorganisation of social relations – and takes root in an erroneous understanding of Marx s view of the role of the economic factor in the human cultural development. This view has often been interpreted by many in the sense that the author of Capital attributes only the slightest importance to the political structure of society, considering it as a secondary detail not worth attention and which, far from being the aim, cannot even be a means of fruitful activity. Even now, one not infrequently meets “Marxists” who ignore the political tasks of socialism on these very grounds. Economic relations, they say, are the basis of all social organisation. Changes in these relations are the cause of all political reorganisation. In order to free itself from capitalist oppression, the working class must bear in mind not the effect, but the cause, not the political, but the economic organisation of society. Political organisation will not bring the workers nearer to their goal, since political enslavement will continue as long as their economic dependence on the propertied classes is not removed. The means of struggle which the workers use must be brought into line with the aim of the struggle. An economic revolution can be achieved only by struggle on economic ground.

With a certain amount of consistency, “Marxism” understood in that way should have changed the socialists’ views of the aims and the means of the social revolution and brought them back to Proudhon’s famous formula: “political revolution is the aim, economic revolution, the means”. In exactly the same way it should have brought the socialist-revolutionaries considerably nearer – at least in theory – to the followers of “conservative socialism” which so resolutely opposes independent political action on the part of the working class. Rodbertus, the last honest and intelligent representative of this socialism, was unable to agree with Lassalle precisely because that celebrated agitator endeavoured to advance the German workers along the path of independent political activity. Not Marx, but Rodbertus, not revolutionary, but conservative, monarchist socialism denies the significance of “political admixtures to the economic aims” of the working class. And the conservatives know full well why they do so; but those who wish to conciliate the revolutionary movement of the working class with the rejection of “politics”, those who attribute to Marx the practical tendencies of Proudhon or even of Rodbertus, show clearly that they do not understand the author of Capital or that they deliberately distort his teaching. We speak of deliberate distortion because a certain book by the Moscow Professor Ivanyukov is nothing but such a deliberate distortion of the consequences following from the basic propositions of scientific socialism. This book shows that our Russian police socialists are not averse to exploiting for their reactionary aims even a theory under whose banner the most revolutionary movement of our age is proceeding. This alone could make a detailed elucidation of modern socialism’s political programme indispensable. We will now begin that elucidation, without, however, entering into a controversy with Messrs. Ivanyukov, for it is sufficient to bring out the true sense of a given theory in order to refute deliberate distortions of it. And besides, we are far more interested here in those revolutionaries who, for all the sincerity of their aspirations, are still permeated, although perhaps unconsciously, with anarchist teachings and are therefore prepared to see in Marx’s works thoughts which are in place only in The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century. The criticism of the conclusions they draw from Marx’s philosophical and historical views will logically take us on to the question of the so-called seizure of power and will show us how far they are right who see in that act a crime against the idea of human liberty, and also those who, on the contrary, see it as the Alpha and the Omega of the whole social-revolutionary movement.

Let us first consider what the concepts of cause and effect signify when applied to social relations.

If we push a billiard ball with the hand or a cue, it is set in motion; if we strike steel against a flint, a spark appears. In each of these cases it is very easy to determine which phenomenon acts as the cause and which is the effect. But the task is easy only because it is extremely simple. If instead of two isolated phenomena we take a process in which several phenomena or even several series of phenomena are observed simultaneously, the matter is more complicated. Thus, the burning of a candle is, relatively speaking, a fairly complicated process as a result of which light and heat are produced. Hence it would seem that we run no risk of error if we call the heat given off by the flame one of the effects of this chemical process. That is, indeed, the case to a certain extent. But if we contrived in some way to deprive the flame of the heat which it gives off, the combustion would immediately cease, for the process we are considering cannot take place at the ordinary temperature. Therefore, it would also be right to a certain extent to say that heat is the cause of combustion. In order not to deviate from the truth in one direction or the other we should say that heat, while it is the effect of combustion at a particular moment, is its cause the moment following. This means that when we speak Of a combustion process lasting a certain time we must say that heat is both its effect and its cause, or, in other words, neither effect nor cause, but simply one of the phenomena arising from that process and constituting, in turn, a necessary condition for it. Let us take another example. Everybody, “even if he has not been trained in a seminary”, knows that what are called the vegetative processes of the human organism exert great influence on psychic phenomena. One mental disposition or other proves to be the effect of a particular physical condition of the organism. But once a certain mental disposition exists, the same vegetative processes are often influenced by it, and it thus becomes the cause of the particular changes in the physical condition of the organism. In order not to go wrong here in one direction or the other, we should say that the psychic phenomena and the vegetative life of the organism constitute two series of coexisting processes, each of which is influenced by the other. If a doctor were to ignore psychic influences on the grounds that man’s mental disposition is the effect of the physical condition of his organism, we would infer that schoolboy logic had made him unfit for rational medical practice.

Social life is distinguished by still greater intricacy than the life of the individual organism. That is why the relativity of the concepts of cause and effect is more noticeable here. According to the teaching of classical economics, the size of wages is determined, on the average, by the level of the worker’s primary requirements. This means that a given size of wages is the effect of a given condition of the worker’s requirements. But these requirements, in turn, can grow only if there is a rise in wages, because otherwise there would not be sufficient cause to change their level. Consequently, a given size of wages is the cause of a given condition of the worker’s requirements. One cannot get out of this logical circle by means of the schoolboy categories of cause and effect. We shall fall into it at every step in our sociological considerations if we forget that “cause and effect are conceptions which only hold good in their application to individual cases; but as soon as we consider the individual cases in their general connection with the universe as a whole, they run into each other, and they become confounded when we contemplate that universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are eternally changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then, and vice versa”. (Frederick Engels.) [15]

Having made this reservation, let us endeavour to determine in what sense the causal connection between the economic relations and the political structure of a given society must be understood.

What does history teach us in this respect? It shows that whenever and wherever the process of economic development gave rise to a splitting of society into classes, the contradictions between the interests of those classes invariably led them to struggle for political domination. This struggle arose not only between the various strata of the dominating classes, but also between those classes, on the one hand, and the people, on the other, provided the latter was given conditions at all favourable to intellectual development. In the states of the ancient Orient we see the struggle between the soldiers and the priests; all the drama in the history of the ancient world is in the struggle between the aristocracy and the demos, the patricians and the plebeians; the Middle Ages bring forth the burghers, who strive to conquer political mastery within the bounds of their communes; finally, the present-day working class wages a political struggle against the bourgeoisie, which has achieved complete domination in the modern state. Always and everywhere, political power has been the lever by which a class, having achieved domination, has carried out the social upheaval necessary for its welfare and development. So as not to go too far afield, let us consider the history of the “third estate”, the class that can look with pride at its past, full of brilliant achievements in all branches of life and thought. It will hardly occur to anybody to reproach the bourgeoisie with lack of tact or ability to attain its aims by the most appropriate means. Nor will anybody deny that its strivings have always had a quite definite economic character. But that did not prevent it from following the path of political struggle and political gains. Now by arms, now by peace treaties, sometimes for the republican independence of its towns, sometimes for the strengthening of royal power, the rising bourgeoisie waged a hard, uninterrupted struggle against feudalism for whole centuries, and long before the French Revolution it could proudly draw its enemies’ attention to its successes. “The chances were different and the success varying in the great struggle of the burghers against the feudal lords,” the historian says, [16] “and not only was the sum of privileges wrested from them by force or obtained by agreement not the same everywhere, but even when the political forms were the same there were different degrees of liberty and independence for the towns.” Nevertheless, the sense of the movement was identical everywhere – it meant the beginning of the social emancipation of the third estate and the decline of the aristocracy, secular and ecclesiastical. [17] In general this movement brought the burghers “municipal independence, the right to elect all the local authorities, the exact fixing of duties”, guaranteed the rights of the individual inside the town communes, [18] gave the bourgeoisie a more elevated position in the estate-based states of the “ancien regime”, and finally, by a series of continuous gains, brought it to complete domination in modern society. Setting itself social and economic aims which were perfectly defined although they changed with time, and drawing means to continue the struggle from the advantages of the economic position which it had already attained, the bourgeoisie did not miss an opportunity of giving legal expression to the stages in economic progress which it had reached; on the contrary, it made just as skilful a use of each political gain for new conquests in the economic field. No further back than in the middle forties of this century the English Anti-Corn Law League, following Richard Cobden’s clever plan, aimed at increasing its political influence in the shires in order to secure the abolition of the “monopoly” it hated and which, apparently, was exclusively economic.

History is the greatest of dialecticians. If in the course of its progress, reason, as Mephistopheles says, is changed into irrationality and blessings become a plague, not less often in the historical process does an effect become a cause and a cause prove to be an effect. Arising from the economic relations of its time, the political might of the bourgeoisie in its turn served, and still serves, as an indispensable factor for the further development of those relations.

Now that the bourgeoisie is nearing the end of its historical role and that the proletariat is becoming the only representative of progressive strivings in society, we can observe a phenomenon similar to the one referred to above, but taking place in changed conditions. In all the advanced states of the civilised world, in Europe as well as America, the working class is entering the arena of political struggle and the more it is conscious of its economic tasks, the more resolutely it separates into a political party of its own. “As the existing political parties have always acted only in the interests of property-owners for the preservation of their economic privileges,” we read in the programme of the North American Socialist Workers’ Party, “the working class must organise into a big workers’ party to achieve political power in the state and gain economic independence; for the emancipation of the working class can be effected only by the workers themselves.” [19] The French Workers’ Party expresses itself in the same spirit and in complete agreement with the programme of German Social-Democracy, acknowledging that the proletariat must aspire to an economic revolution “by all means in its power, including universal franchise, thus transformed from a weapon of deceit, which it has been up to now, into a weapon of emancipation”. The Spanish Workers’ Party also strives to “conquer political power” in order to remove the obstacles in the way of the emancipation of the working class. [20]

In England, where, with the ending of the chartist movement, the struggle of the proletariat has been concentrated exclusively on the economic field, the political aspirations of the workers have begun to revive of late. Only a few years ago, the German economist Lujo Brentano noted with triumph in his book Das Arbeitsverhältniss, etc. the complete disappearance of the Social-Democratic trends in England, and philosophised profoundly and with true bourgeois self-satisfaction on the subject that “at present England again constitutes a single nation”, that “the English workers of our time again form part of the great Liberal Party” and do not strive to seize state power in order, by means of it, “to reorganise society in their own interests” (p.110). The recently published Manifesto of the British Democratic Federation shows that the bourgeois economist’s joy was somewhat premature. The Democratic Federation aims at causing the exploited to break away politically from the exploiters and calls from the first of these “nations” precisely to seize state power for the purpose of reconstructing society in the interests of the workers. “The time has come,” says the Manifesto, “when the mass of the people must necessarily take the management of matters which concern it in its own hands; at present, political and social power is the monopoly of people who live by the labour of their fellow-citizens. The landowners and capitalists who have control of the Upper House and have filled the Lower House aspire only to safeguard their own interests. Take your fate in your own hands, remove the rich parasites of these two groups and rely only on yourselves! “ The Manifesto demands “full franchise for all adult men and women” in the United Kingdom, and other political reforms which “would only show that the men and women of this country have become the masters at home” Then comes a list – representing the immediate demands of the British Democratic Federation – of measures necessary for the development of a “healthy, independent and soundly educated generation, ready to organise the labour of each for the good of all and to take control, ultimately, Of the entire social and political machine of the state, in which class differences and privileges will then cease to exist”.

Thus, the British proletariat, too, is again entering on the path which the workers of other civilised states entered upon long ago.

But, as the bourgeoisie not only fought the aristocracy on the basis of already existing political relations, but aspired to reshape those relations in its own interests, so also the proletariat does not restrict its political programme to the seizure of the modern state machine. The conviction is more and more spreading among its members that “every order of things which determines the relations of citizens to one another and governs their labour and property relations corresponds to a particular form of government which is at the same time the means of implementing and preserving that order”. [21] While the representative (monarchic or republican) system was the progeny of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat demands direct popular legislation as the only political form under which its social aspirations can be put into effect. This demand of the working class is among the first in the programme of Social-Democracy in all countries and is very closely related to all the other points in its programme. [22] In spite of Proudhon, the proletariat continues to see in the “political revolution” the most powerful means of achieving an economic revolution.

This testimony of history alone should incline us to think that the political tendencies of the various social classes are based on a correct practical instinct, and not on an erroneous theory. If, despite the complete dissimilarity in all other respects, all classes which wage a conscious struggle against their opponents begin at a definite stage in their development to strive to ensure for themselves political influence and later domination, it is clear that the political structure of society is a far from indifferent condition for their development. If, moreover, we see that not a single class which has achieved political domination has had cause to regret its interest in “politics”, but on the contrary, that each one of them attained the highest, the culminating point of its development only after it had acquired political domination, then we must admit that the political struggle is an instrument of social reconstruction whose effectiveness is proved by history. Every teaching which runs counter to this historical induction loses a considerable part of its power of conviction, and if modern socialism were in fact to condemn the political striving of the working class as inexpedient, that would be sufficient reason not to call it scientific.

Let us now check our induction by the deductive method, taking Marx’s philosophical and historical views as the premises for our conclusions.

Imagine a society in which a particular class is completely dominant. It secured this domination thanks to the advantages of its economic position which, according to our premises, open before it the path to all other successes in social life. In its capacity as the ruling class it naturally reshapes social organisation to provide the most favourable conditions for its own existence and carefully removes from it all that can in any way weaken its influence. “Those in power, the mighty, in every period,” Schäffle correctly notes, “are also the ones who create law and morality. They only apply the urge of self-preservation inherent in all when they exploit the consequences of their victory, install themselves as rulers at the top and endeavour to maintain domination hereditary as long as possible, as the means to a privileged situation and the exploitation and subjection of those who are not free.... There is hardly another section of positive law for which the dominating estates in every period have such great respect and for which they vindicate so much the character of ’eternal’ institutions or even ’sacred’ foundations of society as that which has consolidated and safeguards the right of their estate and the domination of their class.” [23] And as long as the dominating class is the vehicle of the most progressive social ideals, the system it has set up will satisfy all the demands of social development. But as soon as the economic history of a particular society brings forward new elements of a progressive movement, as soon as the “productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto”, the progressive role of the ruling class in question will be over. From a representative of progress it will become its sworn enemy and, of course, it will make use of the state machine for self-defence. In its hands political power will become the most powerful weapon of reaction. To free the road for the development of the productive forces of society it is necesSary to remove the property relations which hinder that development, i.e., as Marx says, to carry out a social revolution. But that is impossible as long as legislative power is in the hands of the old order, in other words, as long as it safeguards the interests of the ruling class. It is therefore not astonishing that innovators, i.e., representatives of the oppressed class or classes, will strive to wrest this terrible weapon out of the hands of their opponents and turn it against them. The very logic of things will bring them out on to the road of political struggle and seizure of state power, although they set themselves the task of an economic revolution. Lassalle uttered a profound truth when he said in the preface to his System of Acquired Rights: “...where juridical right as private right seems to become entirely detached from the political element, it is far more political than the political element, for there it is the social element”. [24]

In practical life, of course, things are far from going as fast as one might suppose, judging a priori. Only gradually does the oppressed class become clear about the connection between its economic position and its political role in the state. For a long time it does not understand even its economic task to the full. The individuals composing it wage a hard struggle for their daily subsistence without even thinking which aspects of the social organisation they owe their wretched condition to. They try to avoid the blows aimed at them without asking where they come from or by whom, in the final analysis, they are aimed. As yet they have no class consciousness and there is no guiding idea in their struggle against individual oppressors. The oppressed class does not yet exist for itself; in time it will be the advanced class in society, but it is not yet becoming such. Facing the consciously organised power of the ruling class are separate individual strivings of isolated individuals or isolated groups of individuals. Even now, for example, we frequently enough meet a worker who hates the particularly intensive exploiter but does not yet suspect that the whole class of exploiters must be fought and the very possibility of exploitation of man by man removed.

Little by little, however, the process of generalisation takes effect, and the oppressed begin to be conscious of themselves as a class. But their understanding of the specific features of their class position still remains too one-sided: the springs and motive forces of the social mechanism as a whole are still hidden from their mind’s eye. The class of exploiters appears to them as the simple sum of individual employers, not connected by the threads of political organisation. At this stage of development it is not yet clear in the minds of the oppressed – any more than in Professor Lorenz von Stein’s – what connection exists between “society” and “state”. State power is presumed to stand above the antagonisms of the classes; its representatives appear to be the natural judges and conciliators of the hostile sides. The oppressed class has complete trust in them and is extremely surprised when its requests for help remain unanswered by them. Without dwelling on particular examples, we will merely note that such confusion of concepts was displayed even recently by the British workers, who waged quite an energetic struggle in the economic field and yet considered it possible to belong to one of the bourgeois political parties.

Only in the next and last stage of development does the oppressed class come to a thorough realisation of its position. It now realises the connection between society and state, and it does not appeal for the curbing of its exploiters to those who constitute the political organ of that exploitation. It knows that the state is a fortress serving as the bulwark and defence of its oppressors, a fortress which the oppressed can and must capture and reorganise for their own defence and which they cannot bypass, counting on its neutrality. Relying only on themselves, the oppressed begin to understand that “political self-help”, as Lange says, “is the most important of all forms of social self-help”. They then fight for political domination in order to help themselves by changing the existing social relations and adapting the social system to the conditions of their own development and welfare. Neither do they, of course, achieve domination immediately; they only gradually become a formidable power precluding all thought of resistance by their opponents. For a long time they fight only for concessions, demand only such reforms as would give them not domination, but merely the possibility to develop and mature for future domination; reforms which would satisfy the most urgent and immediate of their demands and extend, if only slightly, the sphere of their influence over the country’s social life. Only by going through the hard school of the struggle for separate little pieces of enemy territory does the oppressed class acquire the persistence, the daring, and the development necessary for the decisive battle. But once it has acquired those qualities it can look at its opponents as at a class finally condemned by history; it need have no doubt about its victory. What is called the revolution is only the last act in the long drama of revolutionary class struggle which becomes conscious only insofar as it becomes a political struggle. [25]

The question is now: would it be expedient for the socialists to hold the workers back from “politics” on the grounds that the Political structure of society is determined by its economic relations? Of course not! They would be depriving the workers of a fulcrum in their struggle, they would be depriving them of the possibility of concentrating their efforts and aiming their blows at the social organisation set up by the exploiters. Instead, the workers would have to wage guerrilla warfare against individual exploiters, or at most separate groups of those exploiters, who would always have on their side, the organised power of the state. This was the kind of mistake the Russian socialists from among the so-called intelligentsia made when they censured the Northern Union of Russian Workers (in No.4 of Zemlya i Volya) for having included certain political demands in its programme. The same mistake was repeated by Zerno when it recommended that the workers should wage the struggle on economic ground, fight for a shorter working day, higher wages, etc., that they should kill spies and particularly hated foremen and employers, but did not say a word about the political tasks of the Russian workers. This lack of synthesis in our socialists’ revolutionary views and programmes could not fail to have the most damaging effect on the results of their work. By preserving the political indifference of the workers as a most important sign of the radical nature of their economic demands, we gave indirect support to modern absolutism. Moreover, by cutting short our programmes at the very point where we should have summed up politically the social demands of the working class, we were diminishing the practical significance of those programmes in the eyes of the workers, who understood better than we did the utter futility of the divided struggle against individual exploiters. Fortunately, our working-class movement very soon outgrew this first phase of its development. The answer given by the Northern Union of Russian Workers to the editors of Zemlya i Volya (see No. 5 of that publication) showed that at least the members of the Union had understood earlier than our “intelligentsia” how inappropriate was this “political non-interference” of the working class.

All that is very well, some readers may say, but your arguments are not to the point. We do not deny, they may argue, that it would be useful for the working class to gain political influence and take state power in its own hands; we only maintain that at present that is impossible for many reasons. Your reference to the history of the bourgeoisie proves nothing, for the position of the proletariat in bourgeois society is nothing like that of the third estate in the states of the “ancien regime”! Even Marx admits the difference and formulates it as follows in the Manifesto of the Communist Party: “The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the commune, just as the petty bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth in bourgeois countries.” There is nothing surprising in the fact that every progressive step made by the bourgeoisie in the domain of production and exchange was accompanied by the “corresponding political conquests”; everybody knows that improvement in the material welfare of any particular class is accompanied by the growth of its political influence. But the very fact that the political gains of the bourgeoisie presupposed an increase in its wealth makes us abandon any hopes in the political movements of the working class. Falling deeper and deeper into “pauperism”, the workers apparently must lose even the little influence which they won in the struggle for the interests of the bourgeoisie, “fighting the enemies of their enemies – the remnants of absolute monarchy, the landowners, the non-industrial bourgeois”, and so on. The political struggle of the working class is purposeless because it is doomed to failure by virtue of the economic position of the workers.

For all its inner untenability, this objection seems at first glance so decisive as not to be passed over in silence. It is the last argument of those supporters of the theory of political non-interference who consider themselves followers of Marx. [26] Therefore, if it is disposed of, the theory of non-interference falls away altogether and the political tasks of modern socialism stand out in their true light.

The working class’s share in the national product is constantly diminishing – there is not a shade of doubt about that. The working class is becoming poorer not only relatively, but absolutely too; its income, far from increasing in the same progression as those of other classes in society, is falling; the real wages of the modern proletarian (the quantity of consumer goods falling to his share) are less than the worker’s pay was five hundred years ago – this has been proved by the studies of Rogers, Du Chatelet and others. [27] But it by no means follows from this that the economic conditions are at present less favourable to the political movement of the working class than they were in the fourteenth century. We have already said that in thus appraising the economic conditions in a particular country one must take into account not only the distribution of the national income, but mainly the organisation of production and the mode of exchange of products. The strength of the rising bourgeoisie lay not so much in its wealth as in the social and economic progress of which it was once the vehicle. It was not the increase in its income that impelled it to take the path of revolutionary struggle and guaranteed the growth of its political influence; it was the contradiction between the productive forces it brought into existence and the conditions under which the production and exchange of products took place in feudal society. Having once become the representative of progressive demands in that society, the bourgeoisie rallied all the dissatisfied elements under its banner and led them to fight against a regime which the overwhelming majority of the people hated. Not money, but the immaturity of the working class gave the bourgeoisie the leading role in that emancipation movement. Its wealth and its already fairly high social position were naturally indispensable for the fulfilment of this role; but what was that indispensability determined by? First of all by the fact that the bourgeoisie could not destroy the old order without assistance from the lower strata of the population. In this its wealth helped it by giving it influence over the masses which were to fight for its domination. Had the bourgeoisie not been rich it would have had no influence, and without influence over the people it would not have defeated the aristocracy; for the bourgeoisie was strong not of itself, but by virtue of the power which it had already mastered and which it commanded thanks to its capital. The question now arises, is it possible for the proletariat to have such influence over another class of the population, and does it need such influence to be victorious? It is enough to ask the question and we hear a resolute “No!” from everybody who understands the present position of the working class. It is impossible for the proletariat to influence lower classes in the way the bourgeoisie once influenced it, for the simple reason that there are no classes below it; the proletariat itself is the very lowest economic group in modern society. Nor is there any need for it to aim at such influence, because it is at the same time the most numerous section in society, because precisely the proletariat, with other sections of the working population, has always been the agent whose intervention has decided political issues. We say the most numerous class because all “the other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore ... conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat, they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat”.

Formerly the working class was victorious under the command of the bourgeoisie, and it only naively wondered at the strange fact that nearly all the difficulties in the struggle fell to its lot while nearly all the advantages and honours of victory went to its ally. Now it is not satisfied with this auxiliary role and it turns against the bourgeoisie the very strength which once secured the latter’s victory. But that strength is now much greater. It has grown and is continuing to grow in the same measure as the concentration of capital and the spread of large-scale production. Besides, it has grown in the same measure as the political experience of the working class, which the bourgeoisie itself brought into the social arena. Can there be any doubt that the proletariat, which, when led by the bourgeoisie, was once strong enough to destroy feudal absolutism, will in time be strong enough to smash the political domination of the bourgeoisie on its own initiative? The bourgeoisie was able to defeat feudalism only thanks to its wealth, the proletariat will defeat the bourgeoisie for the very reason that its lot – “pauperism” – is becoming the lot of an ever-increasing portion of modern society.

But in the history of its development the bourgeoisie received from its wealth another and indeed extremely “productive service”, as its economists would say. It received knowledge and became the most advanced and educated section of society at that time. Can the proletariat acquire that knowledge, can it be at the Same time the poorest and the most advanced of all classes in society? Without this condition political domination is out of the question for the proletariat, for without knowledge there is no strength.

We have already said that the bourgeoisie itself began the political education of the proletariat. It took care of the education of the proletariat as much as this was necessary for the struggle against its own enemies. It shattered the proletariat’s religious beliefs whenever this was required to weaken the political significance of the clergy; it broadened the proletariat’s legal outlook wherever it needed to oppose “natural” law to the written law of the estate-based state. Now the economic question is on the agenda and political economy now plays – as a very clever German [28] said – just as important a role as natural law played in the eighteenth century. Will the bourgeoisie agree to be the working class’s leader in the investigation of the relations between labour and capital, that question of questions of the whole of social economy? It is reluctant to take upon itself even that role, advantageous as it is to itself, because merely to raise that question means to threaten the bourgeoisie’s domination. But can it fulfil that role, if only in the way it once did in regard to religion and law? No, it cannot. Blinded by their class interests, its representatives in science lost long ago all ability to investigate social questions objectively, scientifically. Therein lies the whole secret of the present decay of bourgeois economics. Ricardo was the last economist who, though still a bourgeois in heart and soul, was intelligent enough to understand the diametrical opposition of interests between labour and capital. Sismondi was the last bourgeois economist who had enough feeling to deplore that antagonism sincerely. After them, the general theoretical studies of bourgeois economists in the main lost all scientific significance. To convince oneself of this it is sufficient to recall the history of political economy since Ricardo and to look through the works of Bastiat, Carey, Leroy-Beaulieu or the modern Katheder Sozialisten. From peaceful and objective thinkers the bourgeois economists have become militant guardians and watchdogs of capital who devote all their efforts to reconstructing the very edifice of science for the purpose of war. But in spite of these warlike exertions, they continually retreat and leave in their enemies’ hands the scientific territory over which they once had uncontrolled sway. Nowadays people who display no “demagogic” strivings whatever try to assure us that the workers are “better able than any Smith or Faucher to master the most abstract concepts” in the science of economics. Such was the opinion, for instance, of a man who has the highest authority among German economists but who, for his part, had the deepest scorn for them. “We look upon the workers as children,” this man added, “whereas they are already head and shoulders above us." [29]

But is there no exaggeration in what he says? Can the working class understand “abstract” questions of social economics and socialism at least as well as, if not better than, people who have spent years and years on their education?

What are the principles of modern scientific socialism founded on? Are they the concoctions of some leisurely benefactor of humanity, or are they the summing up of those very phenomena which we all come up against, one way or another, in our daily life, the explanation of the very laws which determine our participation in the production, the exchange, or simply the distribution of products? Whoever answers this question will agree that the working class has many chances of understanding correctly the “most abstract” laws of social economics and of mastering the most abstract principles of scientific socialism. The difficulty in understanding the laws of some particular science is caused by incomplete knowledge of the data underlying those laws. Wherever it is only a question of everyday phenomena in which the scientific law only generalises facts that everybody knows, people in the practical field not only understand perfectly the theoretical principles, they can sometimes even teach the theoreticians themselves. Ask the farmer about the influence that the distance to the market has on the price of his products or the effect the fertility of the soil has on the size of the land rent. Ask the manufacturer how the expansion of the market influences the cheapening of production. Or ask the worker where the employer gets his profits from.... You will see that all these people know Ricardo, although they have never even seen the cover of his works. Yet these questions are reputed to be very intricate and “abstract”, whole seas of ink have been used upon them and such a tremendous number of volumes have been written about them that they are enough to terrify you when you begin to study economics. The same in each and every part of social economics. Take the theory of exchange value. You can explain to the worker in a couple of words what it is determined by and how but many of Messrs. the bourgeois economists are still unwilling or unable to understand this perfectly simple theory, and in their disputes about it they fall into gross errors of logic for which no teacher of arithmetic would hesitate to give an elementary school pupil a bad mark. That is why we think that the writer we quoted was correct and that the only understanding audience today on urgent social problems is one of proletarians or of people who have adopted the proletarian stand point. Once the fundamental principles of social economics are mastered, the understanding of scientific socialism no longer presents any difficulty: here too the worker will only follow the directions of his practical experience. This aspect of the question was magnificently explained by Marx. “By heralding the dissolution of the hitherto existing world order,” we read in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, “the proletariat merely proclaims the secret of its own existence, for it is the factual dissolution of that world order. By demanding the negation of private property, the proletariat merely raises to the rank of a principle of society what society has raised to the rank of its principle, what is already embodied in it as the negative result of society without its own participation.” [30] So we see that the proletariat needs no material wealth to attain to an understanding of the conditions of its emancipation. Its pauperism, determined not by the poverty of the barbarism of society, but by defects in the social organisation – this pauperism, far from making the understanding of these conditions more difficult, makes it easier.

The laws governing the distribution of products in capitalist society are extremely unfavourable to the working class. But the organisation of production and the form of exchange characteristic of capitalism provide for the first time both the objective and the subjective possibility for the emancipation of the working people. Capitalism broadens the worker’s outlook and removes all the prejudices he inherited from the old society; it impels him to fight and at the same time ensures his victory by increasing his numbers and putting at his disposal the economic possibility of organising the kingdom of labour. Technical progress increases man’s power over nature and raises labour productivity to such a degree that the necessity of labour cannot become a hindrance, but, on the contrary, will be an indispensable condition for the all-round development of the members of socialist society. At the same time, the socialisation of production characteristic of capitalism paves the way for the conversion of its instruments and products into common property. The joint-stock company, the highest form of organisation for industrial enterprises at the present time, excludes the capitalists from any active role in the economic life of society and turns them into drones whose disappearance cannot cause the slightest disorganisation in the course of that life. “If the energetic race of major-demos once succeeded without difficulty in deposing a royal dynasty which had grown indolent,” the conservative Rodbertus says, “why should a living and energetic organisation of workers (the staff of companies is composed of qualified workers), why should not such an organisation in time remove owners who have become mere rentiers? ... And yet capital cannot turn off this road! Having outlived its period of prosperity, capital is becoming its own grave-digger!

” Why, we ask, in our turn, should not the same organisation of workers which will be in a position “to remove owners who have become mere rentiers” – why should not such an organisation be in a position to seize state power and thus achieve political domination? For the former presumes the latter: only such an organisation can “remove” the owners as can overcome their political resistance.

But that is not all: there are other social phenomena which also increase the probability of the proletariat’s political victory.

“... Entire sections of the ruling classes are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat, or are at least threatened in their conditions of existence. These also supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress.

“Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the process of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.”

There is a very remarkable legend among the Negroes of North Guinea. “One day,” it says, “God summoned the two sons of the first human couple. One of them was white, the other dark-skinned. Placing before them a heap of gold and a book, God ordered the dark-skinned brother, as being the elder, to choose one of the two. He chose the gold, so the younger brother received the book. An unknown force immediately transported the younger one with the book to a cold, distant country. But thanks to his book he became learned, terrifying and strong. As for the elder brother, he remained in his native country and lived long enough to see how superior science is to wealth.”

The bourgeoisie once had both knowledge and wealth. Unlike the dark-skinned brother in the Negro legend, it obtained possession of both gold and book, because history, the god of human societies, does not recognise the right of classes which are under age, and commits them to the guardianship of their elder brothers. But the time came when the working class, slighted by history, grew out of childhood and the bourgeoisie had to share with it. The bourgeoisie kept the gold, while the younger brother received the “book”, thanks to which, despite the darkness and cold of his cellars, he has now become “strong and terrifying”. Little by little, scientific socialism is ousting the bourgeois theories from the pages of this magic book, and soon the proletariat will read in the book how they can gain material sufficiency. Then they will throw off the shameful yoke of capitalism and show the bourgeoisie “how superior science is to wealth”.


[13] [Note to the 1905 edition.] Later, Messrs. the “critics of Marx” reproached us, the “orthodox”, of revolting against every attempt to develop Marx’s views further. The reader sees that I showed no tendency to such a revolt. But it goes without saying that, as a pupil of Marx who understands the great significance of his theory, I had to revolt against every attempt to replace some propositions of Marxism by old, long obsolete bourgeois “dogmas”. And I fulfilled that obligation to the best of my ability.

[14] See Zur Kritik der politischen Oekon., Vorwort, S.IV-VI.

[15] See Herrn Eugen Dühring’s Umwälz. der Wissensch., S.6.

[16] See Essai sur l’histoire du Tiers Etat, par. Aug. Thierry, pp.33-34.

[17] The supporters of feudalism understood full well the aims of the burghers and the connection between their political and their economic demands. “Commune is a new and detestable word,” said Guibert, abbe de Nogent, “and here is what it means: those who have to pay tithes pay only once a year to their lord the rent they owe him. If they commit some offence, they are quit for the payment of a fine fixed by law, and as for the money levies usually made from serfs, they are entirely exempt from them.” Laurent, La féodalité et l’église, p.546.

[18] The Statute of Liege established the principle of the inviolability of the home in the following forceful expression: “The poor man is king in his home.” Laurent, ibid., p.548.

[19] Von Studnitz, Nordamerikanische Arbeitsverhältnisse, S.353.

[20] We quote this from B. Melon’s Le nouveau parti, t.I, p.15.

[21] See Sozialdemokratische Abhandlungen, von M. Rittinghausen, drittes Heft, Uber die Nothwendigkeit der direkten Gesetzgebung durch das Volk, S.3.

[22] See the programmes of the German and the North American Workers parties. The Manifesto of the British Democratic Federation also demands “direct voting on all important questions”.

[23] See Schäffle, Bau und Leben des sozialen Körpers, B.III, S.91 und 102.

[24] See Das System der erworbenen Rechte, Leipzig, 1880, erster Theil, Vorrede, S.VII.

[25] [Note to the 1905 edition.] These lines were written 15 years before Bernstein came forward as a “critic” of Marx. Let the reader judge for himself whether the “critic” and his numerous fellow-thinkers are right when they reproach us, the “orthodox” with understanding the revolution of the proletariat as a simple and almost instantaneous “catastrophe”.

[26] [Note to the 1905 edition.] This will seem paradoxical, but in actual fact the theory of political non-interference of the working class was formulated by Bakunin as a conclusion from the materialist explanation of history. Bakunin, who was an ardent supporter of this explanation, reasoned as follows: if the political system of every given society is based on its economy, then political revolution is unnecessary, it will itself be the result of the economic revolution. This man, once a pupil of Hegel and who, it seems, should have refined his logic, just could not understand that not only every particular ready-made political system is a result of economics, but so is every new political movement which, springing from the given economic relations, serves in turn as a necessary instrument for their reconstruction. All the most serious objections of the anarchists against the Social-Democrats are still founded on this misunderstanding.

[27] [Note to the 1905 edition.] This concerns the “theory of impoverishment” which caused such a stir at the heyday of Bernsteinians. On this subject, see my Criticism of Our Critics, in Nos.2 and 3 of Zarya.

[28] [Note to the 1905 edition.] i.e., Rodbertus.

[29] [Note to the 1905 edition.] I again mean Rodbertus.

[30] See Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1. und 2. Lieferung, S.81-85.


Last updated on 7.10.2003