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John Molyneux

Marxism and the Party

1. Karl Marx: class and party

1. The class foundation

The foundation of all marxist approaches to the analysis of political parties is Marx’s theory of class struggle. For marxists the basic explanation for the existence of different and competing political parties is to be found in the economic structure of society. Political parties come into being, attract support and continue to function primarily as the representatives of class interests.

Naturally this idea, as is the case with many marxist principles, becomes a piece of nonsense if it is understood crudely and dogmatically. The thesis that political parties represent class interests does not mean that they necessarily do so in a straightforward one-to-one relationship. It does not mean that at all times one party represents the interests of one class; or that the interests of a class, in the historical sense, can be formulated simply in terms of immediate economic gain; or that the actions of every party can be explained merely by reference to the class on which it is based. In fact history provides numerous examples of every kind of class/party combination: of parties that begin by representing the interests of one class, but end up by serving the interests of another; of parties that attempt to serve the interests of two or even three classes at once; of parties that serve a section of a class against the interests of the class as a whole; of two or three small parties competing to become the undisputed representative of the same class, and so on.

Thus in Britain today we have three major political parties:

None of these examples refute the marxist thesis. Rather they confirm it, for all that is maintained is that the fundamental starting point for the analysis of political parties, as with politics in general, must be the class structure of the society concerned. The numerous complexities we have referred to arise from the fact that classes in society do not simply stand side by side with each other, but one on top of the other in a state of permanent and dynamic conflict, and that political parties play a major role in that conflict. A particular configuration of political parties reflects the relative stages of development reached by the different classes and the degree of hegemony attained by one class over the others, Thus when dealing with marxist theories of the party, and above all where Marx himself was concerned, one is concerned not with a narrow and separate theory of organisation, but always with the relationship between party and class. Parties are moments in the development of classes.

Marx wished to reveal the driving forces of history in order to facilitate the making of history. Thus for Marx classes are not simply static entities, but social groups which come into being through historical processes and pass through various stages of growth and maturity. Above all, classes define themselves through conflict. ‘Individuals form a class only insofar as they are engaged in a common struggle with another class.’ [1] In the course of the struggle classes acquire (or lose) cohesion, organisation, confidence and consciousness. Political parties are weapons in the struggle between classes.

In Marx’s analysis of capitalism ‘society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat’. [2] It was not that Marx believed that the categories of bourgeois and proletarian covered everyone in capitalist society – to have asserted such as an empirical fact in 1847 would have been absurd. Rather, his contention was that the conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat is inherent in and fundamental to the capitalist system. Under capitalism production takes place on the basis of the exploitation of wage and labour. Thus lodged in the heart of the capitalist economy is a permanent conflict of interest, and this basic conflict conditions every aspect of social life. As Marx puts it in Capital:

It is always the immediate relation of the owners of the conditions of production to immediate producers ... in which we find the final secret, the hidden basis of the whole construction of society, including the political patterns of sovereignty and dependence, in short, of a given specific form of governments. [3]

In the last analysis the various other classes or social strata can act only within the framework of alternatives provided by the two major classes. In the end they must side with one class or the other. Consequently, from a marxist standpoint, the basic criterion for the assessment of political parties is not simply on which class they are based, but where they stand in the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

But when one speaks of Marx’s theory of the party, the subject is not political parties in general, but the revolutionary party which has as its aim the overthrow of capitalism – specifically one is talking about Marx’s concept of a proletarian political party, because, of course, it was his view that ‘the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class ... The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.’ [4] The tradesman, the artisan, the small farmer, the peasant, are all undermined by the expansion of capitalism, but the proletariat is augmented. ‘In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed.’ [5] The scale of production increases and so workers are drawn together in larger and larger units. ‘With the development of industry the proletariat

not only increases in number, it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels its strength more.’ The proletariat therefore stands at the centre of the economic structure. Potentially it is the most powerful exploited class in history. This power gives the proletariat the capacity for self-emancipation, a capacity which is a vital element in Marx’s theory of revolution. [6] The second and equally important factor in Marx’s assessment of the proletariat is his view that the proletariat is the first class whose victory would result not in a new form of class society, but in the abolition of all classes. This view is based on the necessarily collective nature of the proletarian struggle. Odd exceptions apart, the individual Worker cannot approach his employer and ask for a wage increase with any chance of success; he is forced to combine with his fellows. The worker has no property in the means of production and he cannot obtain it as an individual, for modern industry cannot be divided up and parcelled out in millions of pieces. To capture the means of production the working class must do it collectively, through social ownership.

Marx’s insistence on the proletariat as the only revolutionary class and his reasons for it are well illustrated by his attitude to the other most obvious candidate for the title, the peasantry. In Marx’s day the peasantry formed the vast majority even in most European countries and were at least as poor and down-trodden as the proletariat. Moreover, there was a long tradition of violent peasant revolts. But Marx discounted all this because of the individual and fragmented nature of the peasant way of life.

The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse ... In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation, they do not form a class. They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. [7]

The capacity of the proletariat, as against the peasantry, for self-representation, and therefore self-emancipation, is crucial for its status as a revolutionary class and for its capacity to create a revolutionary party.

However, one should not confuse the potentiality of the proletariat to create its own party with empirical actuality. Marx was aware of the gap between the proletariat as a class ‘in itself’ and the proletariat as a class ‘for itself’ [8], and the long road of struggle that lies between the two. Nor did Marx fail to see the debilitating effects of competitive bourgeois society on the organisation and unity of the working class.

Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together. Hence it is a long time before these individuals can unite ... Hence every organised power standing over and against these isolated individuals, who live in relationships daily reproducing this isolation, can only be overcome after long struggles. [9]

He recognised also the power of bourgeois ideology.

The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. [10]

The formation of a workers’ political party was therefore necessary in order to combat these powerful tendencies towards fragmentation and to establish the independence of the proletariat as a class. Indeed Marx often suggests that the workers cannot be regarded as a class in the full sense of the word until they have created their own distinct party. Thus we find in The Communist Manifesto that ‘the organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset Again by the competition between the workers themselves’ [11], and in the decision of the London Conference (1871) of the First International that ‘the proletariat can act as a class only by constituting itself a distinct political party’. [12] This basic idea remained central to the theory and practice of both Marx and Engels from the mid-1840s to the end of their lives.

2. Communists and proletarians

This now brings us to the fundamental problem of the marxist theory of the party. Marxists believe that the class struggle is the motor of history and that ‘the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves’. [13] At the same time they wish to create a political party to represent the historical interests of the class as a whole. What then is to be the relationship between this party and the mass of the working class? Marx addressed himself to this problem in the section of The Communist Manifesto entitled Proletarians and Communists.

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties.

They have no interests separate and apart from the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. [14]

These few dense and brilliant paragraphs contain both the germ of the solution to the problem of the party/class relationship, and a series of broad guidelines which have shaped the practice of the marxist movement down to the present day. In the first place, absolutely ruled out is the conspiratorial view of the role of the party as a small band of adventurers acting on behalf of, but apart from, the class. Also ruled out is the authoritarian view of the party handing down orders from above to be obeyed by the essentially passive masses, and the purely propagandistic view of the sect merely preaching its doctrines until the rest of the world is won over. Firmly established is the concept of leadership won on the basis of performance in the class struggle in the service of the working class, and the principle of raising, within the everyday economic and political struggles of the workers, the overall aims of the movement. Foreshadowed in these lines are the marxist strategy of the united front [15], the policy of working within trade unions while recognising the limitations of trade unionism, and the defence of democratic rights while striving to go beyond bourgeois democracy.

But, for all its importance, Marx’s formulation contains definite limitations and lacunae. It is written at a high level of generality and nowhere deals specifically with the organisational form to be adopted by communists. Indeed it contains no clear indication of what is meant by a party. It is this original imprecision which lies behind the only proposition in the passage to have been clearly invalidated by subsequent events, namely that ‘Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties’. This makes sense as a general principle only if it is taken to be almost identical in meaning to the statement that ‘they have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole’. Nor is this vagueness in the use of the word ‘party’ an isolated case confined to The Communist Manifesto. Throughout his work Marx uses the term party in a variety of ways (Monty Johnstone has identified at least five major models [16]) to refer to such widely different phenomena as the extremely broad and loose Chartist movement, his own small group of associates and followers, and the general revolutionary cause. Thus Marx could write to Freiligrath that ‘the [Communist] League, like the Society of Seasons in Paris and a hundred other associates, was only an episode in the history of the party which grows everywhere spontaneously from the soil of modern society ... Under the term “party”, I understand party in the great historical sense of the word.’ [17] And he could write to Kugelmann that the Paris Commune was ‘the most glorious deed of our Party since the June insurrection in Paris [1848]’. [18]

Because of Marx’s vagueness on this point it is not possible to construct or reconstruct any single or systematic theory of the party from quotations taken out of their context. The only possible procedure is to examine the actual development of Marx’s political activity and to interpret his various comments on the question of the party in their historical context. [19] In doing this, one central fact has constantly to be borne in mind. Marx’s lack of a clear definition of the political party is neither accidental nor the product of laziness of thought. Rather, it reflects the fact that for a large part of Marx’s career political parties in the modern sense of the term did not yet exist, either for the bourgeoisie or for the proletariat. The modern mass party with its clearly defined membership, organisation and constitution is a recent phenomenon. It came into being primarily to meet the challenge of universal suffrage and fully developed bourgeois democracy, and it presupposed a substantial network of communications, mass media and literacy. Prior to this the modern political party was not required by the relatively primitive political system. All that was necessary were either loose and informal associations based on a network of local notables (usually landowners), or else small gatherings, in clubs and salons, of influential intellectuals. It is unreasonable to expect of Marx conceptions which go beyond the experience of his times. This is especially true as it is much harder to see ahead in the sphere of concrete forms of organisation than it is in the sphere of general economic and social development.

For the purpose of charting the evolution of Marx’s concept of the party his political life can conveniently be divided into four main periods: 1. 1847–1850, the period of the Communist League; 2. 1850–1864, the long interlude in the class struggle; 3. 1864–1872, the International Working Men’s Association; 4. 1873 onwards, the beginnings of mass social democracy.

3. The Communist League

In 1846 Marx and Engels had established Communist Correspondence Committees based on Brussels and maintaining links with Britain, France, and Germany. It was through these committees that they made contact with the League of the Just, an international secret society composed mainly of German artisans. By 1847 the League’s leaders had been won over, and Marx and Engels were invited to join. This they agreed to do on condition that the old conspiratorial forms of organisation be scrapped. The League of the Just then changed its name to The League of Communists and held a reorganisation congress in which Marx and Engels participated. The main points of the congress were the achievement of a ‘thoroughly democratic’ structure ‘with elective and always removable boards’ and the struggle against ‘all hankering after conspiracy’. [20] Marx and Engels fought for a turn towards open propaganda of communist ideas within the working class. We see therefore by 1847 the coming together of a number of key ideas for the marxist theory of the party. Firstly the need of the proletariat, wherever possible, for an international organisation. Secondly the link between the class struggle, the self-emancipation of the proletariat, and the need for an internally democratic organisation which openly proclaims its aims.

The League called itself, alternatively, an international body and the ‘Communist Party of Germany’, but in reality it was too weak to be either a forerunner of the First International or a genuine national party. Rather, with only 200–300 members [21], spread over several countries, it cannot be regarded as more than the embryo of a party, or, to borrow a term from Paris 1968, a ‘groupuscule’. Initially the strategy adopted was for Communists to work as far as possible inside already existing movements in the different countries. Thus in Britain Ernest Jones operated within the Chartists and in France the League’s members joined the Social Democrats of Ledru-Rollin and Louis Blanc. The weakness of the League was immediately shown up when it was plunged in the all-European upheaval of 1848. As Engels notes, ‘the few hundred League members vanished in the enormous mass that had been suddenly hurled into the movement’. [22] This is not to say that the League’s members had nothing to offer. On the contrary, as individuals they played an important part in the development of the revolution. As Stephen Born put it to Marx, ‘the League has ceased to exist and yet it exists everywhere’. [23]

Having no viable organisation as a base and a working class as yet small and politically immature combined with an extremely revolutionary situation, led Marx to depart somewhat from the main scheme set out in The Communist Manifesto. Instead of coming forward as the clear advocate of proletarian revolution and the representative of an independent working-class party, Marx was forced to act through the Neue Rheinische Zeitung as the extreme left-wing of radical democracy, working to push forward the bourgeois revolution to the point where the contradictions would open up beneath its feet.

Marx was aware of the problems inherent in his position and in April 1849, when German bourgeois radicalism had demonstrated its inability to carry forward the revolution, he and his associates, Wolff, Schapper and Becker, resigned from the Rhineland District Committee of the Democratic Associations. ‘In our opinion,’ they wrote, ‘the present form of organisation of the democratic associations embrace too many heterogeneous elements to make possible any useful activity in furtherance of its aim. In our opinion a closer association of workers’ organisations will be more useful because these organisations are composed of more homogeneous elements.’ [24] From this point on the struggle for the independent political organisation of the working class became central to the theory and practice of marxism.

The rapid collapse of the German revolution prevented the immediate practical realisation of this perspective, but in the autumn of 1849 Marx, now in exile in London, reconstituted the Central Committee of the Communist League and began its reorganisation in Germany, this time, of necessity, as a secret centralised party. In March 1850, in The Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (commonly known as The March Address) Marx summed up the experience of this period and the organisational lessons to be drawn from it:

At the same time the former firm organisation of the League was considerably slackened. A large part of the members who directly participated in the revolutionary movement believed the time for secret societies to have gone by and public activities alone sufficient. The individual circles and communities allowed their connections with the Central Committee to become loose and gradually dormant. Consequently, while the democratic party, the party of the petty bourgeoisie, organised itself more and more in Germany, the workers’ party lost its only firm foothold, remained organised at the most in separate localities for local purposes and in the general movement thus came completely under the domination and leadership of the petty bourgeois democrats. An end must be put to this state of affairs, the independence of the workers must be restored ...

Reorganisation can only be carried out by an emissary and the Central Committee considers it extremely important that the emissary should leave precisely at this moment when a new revolution is impending, when the workers’ party, therefore, must act in the most organised, most unanimous and most independent fashion possible if it is not to be exploited and taken in tow again by the bourgeoisie as in 1848. [25]

In some respects it is in The March Address that Marx makes his closest approach to Lenin’s concept of a vanguard party (though of course there are still major differences). The key to these organisational proposals is that they are the product of the most direct involvement in revolutionary action that Marx was ever to experience, and that they are designed as a guide to action in a situation in which it is assumed that ‘a new revolution is impending’. The plan to tighten the organisation of the League and strengthen its independence does not stand on its own as an isolated organisational device, but is an integral part of a perspective of dynamic revolutionary action in which the working class is to assume leadership in the democratic revolution and push it in a socialist direction.

Alongside the new official governments they must establish simultaneously their own workers’ governments, whether in the form of municipal committees and municipal councils or in the form of workers’ clubs or workers’ committees ... Arms and ammunition must not be surrendered on any pretext; any attempt at disarming must be frustrated, if necessary by force. Destruction of the influence of the bourgeois democrats on the workers, immediate independent and armed organisation of the workers and the enforcement of conditions as difficult and compromising as possible upon the inevitable momentary rule of the bourgeois democracy – these are the main points which the proletariat and hence the League must keep in view during and after the impending insurrection. [26]

Thus the similarity between Marx’s concept of the party at this point and Lenin’s fifty or more years later derives in large part from the parallels in their situation. It is no coincidence that it was from The March Address that Trotsky derived his theory of ‘permanent revolution’ and that it is from Marx and Engels’ writings of this period that Lenin most frequently quotes when looking for textual support for Bolshevik tactics in the two Russian Revolutions.

But Marx never made a fetish of any particular organisational form or indeed of any particular party. As conditions changed so did his attitude. Consequently when, during the summer of 1850, it became clear that the perspective on which the organisational plans of the Address were based was false, and that there would be no early outbreak of the revolution, Marx rapidly abandoned his proposals. Almost inevitably this led to a split in the Central Committee of the League between those who recognised the ebb of the revolutionary wave and those who refused to face reality. The latter faction, led by Willich and Schapper, wished artificially to precipitate the revolution and became involved in all sorts of adventuristic émigré schemes, such as a plot for the armed invasion of Germany. This split effectively put an end to the Communist League as a meaningful organisation, and although an attempt was made to save it by transferring the Central Committee to Cologne, Marx soon resigned and shortly afterwards the League itself was dissolved.

4. The years of retreat

At this point Marx began a period of his life devoted, apart from the necessities of earning a living, almost entirely to his economic researches. He summed up his perspective for the coming years in the last issue of the Neue Rheinische Revue in November 1850.

In view of the general prosperity which now prevails and permits the productive forces of bourgeois society to develop as rapidly as is at all possible within the framework of bourgeois society, there can be no question of any real revolution ... A new revolution will be made possible only as the result of a new crisis, but it is just as certain as is the coming of the crisis itself. [27]

Émigré circles have always been notorious for their petty squabbles, scandals and internecine strife, therefore it was essential for Marx’s psychological survival and the success of his theoretical work that he withdrew from this debilitating milieu.

Marx and Engels greeted this rest from party politicking with heartfelt sighs of relief. ‘I am greatly pleased’, Marx wrote to Engels ‘by the public, authentic isolation in which we two, you and I, now find ourselves. It corresponds completely with our position and our principles.’ [28] To which Engels replied: ‘At last we have again – for the first time in a long while – an opportunity to show that we do not need any support from any party of any land whatever, and that our position is totally independent of such trash.’ [29] Franz Mehring warns against taking these off-hand and private remarks too seriously [30], but some commentators, notably Bertram D. Wolfe [31] and Shlomo Avineri [32], have sought to present them as being Marx’s ‘real’ views on the party. But this attempt involves taking these expressions of irritation out of both their overall historical context and their immediate context (i.e. that of private letters between close friends) [33] and setting them against statements that are clearly more weighed and considered and are written for public consumption. Taken literally, these and other comments by Marx and Engels could be held to imply opposition to all political activity, which is evidently ridiculous. Even during the fifties and sixties, when Marx was most deeply engrossed in Capital, he never completely withdrew from political life, continuing to contribute to the Chartist newspapers and keeping a watchful eye on Ernest Jones who, in 1857, he said should ‘form a party, for which he must go to the factory districts’. [34]

What then were the main factors involved in Marx’s 12 year absence from any political party? Firstly, there was, as already indicated, his view that bourgeois society had entered a prolonged period of stabilisation and expansion. Secondly there was the great importance he attached to his theoretical work. When approached by a German émigré in New York to revive the Communist League, Marx retorted ‘I am deeply convinced that my theoretical labours bring greater advantage to the working class than participation in organisations the time for which has passed.’ [35] Thirdly, there was the great gap which separated Marx’s conception of the revolutionary movement from that of the overwhelming majority of revolutionaries around at that time.

Since for Marx the driving force of history was the class struggle and his aim was the self emancipation of the working class, the function of a party was to lead and serve the proletariat in its battles and not to ‘set up any sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement’. The revolutionary movement of the mid-nineteenth century, however, was dominated by completely alien conceptions and traditions. The dominant trends of the time were either hangovers from the conspiratorial Jacobin tradition of the French Revolution, or came from petty-bourgeois Utopian socialists who believed in reconciling capital and labour on the basis of their own enlightened ideals. Both were equally elitist in their attitude to the working class, the former wishing to act behind the back of and on behalf of the class, the latter demanding that the class remain passive until all men of goodwill had been persuaded by the force of reason. Marx had long since rejected these positions and whilst he was prepared to do battle with them in the context of a living working-class movement, outside such a context, in tiny and irrelevant clubs and societies, he considered he would be wasting his time if he were to get involved with them in any way.

5. The First International – practice and theory

What finally drew Marx out of his self-imposed isolation was an invitation to the founding meeting of the International Working Men’s Association held at St Martin’s Hall on 26 September 1864. The International was neither founded by Marx nor marxist in inspiration. Rather it grew out of the general rise in the economic struggles of the European working class, and working-class interest in such international questions as support for the North in the American Civil War, the cause of Polish independence, and the unification of Italy, and one of its most important practical activities was preventing the use of immigrant labour to break strikes. The immediate initiative for the St Martin’s Hall meeting came from trade unionists in London and Paris. But it was precisely this authenticity and spontaneity which attracted Marx. I knew,’ he wrote to Engels, ‘that this time real “powers” were involved both on the London and Paris sides and therefore decided to waive my usual standing rule to decline any such invitations ... for a revival of the working classes is now evidently taking place.’ [36]

Inevitably these positive features had their negative side in extreme theoretical and political heterogeneity and confusion. Among those participating in the International were followers of Mazzini who were essentially Italian nationalists, French Proudhonists who wanted to reconcile capital and labour, Owenites like Weston [37] who opposed strikes, and secret societies, outwardly of masonic form, such as the Philadelphians. [38] In order to work with this amorphous body and steer it along the lines he wanted, Marx was obliged to operate with great tact and not a little deviousness. Having manoeuvred himself into the job of drawing up the International’s Rules, and managing to slip in his own Inaugural Address [39], a considerable amount of compromise was needed to avoid alienating the other participants.

It was very difficult to frame the thing so that our view should appear in a form acceptable from the present standpoint of the workers’ movement. In a few weeks the same people will be holding meetings for the franchise with Bright and Cobden. It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old boldness of speech. It will be necessary to be fortiter in re, suaviter in modo. [40]

Marx’s method was to stress the class character of the movement and its internationalism, with emphasis on the then popular theme of self-emancipation [41], without being specific as to revolutionary aims or methods. Thus the Rules state that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’, and that ‘the economical emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means’, and that ‘the emancipation of labour is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists’. [42] But they do not mention collectivisation of the means of production, which would have upset the Proudhonists, or revolution, which would have frightened the English trade unionists. This strategy worked very well. The International avoided becoming, in Mehring’s phrase, ‘a small body with a large head’ [43], but at the same time Marx, by virtue of his superior overall view of the movement, gradually established his intellectual hegemony on the General Council. As the International grew in strength, benefiting particularly from the wave of strike struggles precipitated by the economic crisis of 1866-67, so Marx persuaded successive congresses to adopt progressively more socialist policies. The Congress of Lausanne (1867) passed the resolution: ‘The social emancipation of the workmen is inseparable from their political emancipation.’ [44] The Brussels Congress (1868) saw the defeat of the Proudhonists over the collective ownership of land, railways, mines and forests; and the London Conference (1871) decided to add to the Rules the statement that:

In its struggle against the collective power of the possessing classes the proletariat can act as a class only by constituting itself a distinct political party opposed to all the old parties formed by the possessing classes.

This constitution of the proletariat into a political party is indispensable to ensure the triumph of the Social Revolution and of its ultimate goal: the abolition of classes. [45]

But despite these advances the International remained an amalgam of too many divergent tendencies for it to become anything approaching an international communist party, nor did Marx ever attempt to impose such a conception on it. Rather he accepted that the International could be no more than a broad federation of workers’ organisations and parties in different countries and that it should ‘let every section freely shape its own theoretical programme’. [46]

This very looseness, which was the International’s strength in that it enabled Marx to hold together its various factions while at the same time providing general guidance, was also its weakness in that it made the International an easy target for infiltration by Mikhail Bakunin and his anarchist International Brotherhood, which, in the guise of the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, entered the International in 1868, and proved to be a major factor in its eventual collapse. Bakunin was a romantic adventurer and conspirator rather than a theorist, and the programme he put forward was naive and confused. He advocated the ‘equality of classes’, the immediate abolition of the state, the abolition of the right of inheritance as the principal demands of the movement, and above all complete abstention from politics. Marx viewed these ideas with contempt – ‘a hash superficially scraped together from the Right and from the Left ... this children’s primer ... the mess he has brewed from bits of Proudhon, Saint-Simon and others’ [47] – but did not deny the anarchists the right to argue their case within the International. It was a dispute, not about doctrine, but about the kind of organisation the International was to be, which lay at the root of the damaging conflict between Marx and Bakunin. Bakunin, exploiting the numerous tensions and divisions in the International, launched a campaign against the ‘authoritarianism’ of the General Council which was calculated to gather the various malcontents around it. But within the framework of this ‘anti-authoritarianism’ Bakunin sought to realise the unelected ‘collective and invisible dictatorship’ [48] of his own secret societies and conspiracies. The real issue was, as Monty Johnstone says, ‘whether the International should be run as a public democratic organisation in accordance with rules and policies laid down at its congresses or whether it should allow Bakunin to “paralyse its action by secret intrigue”, and federations and sections to refuse to accept congress decisions with which they disagreed.’ [49]

The activities of Bakunin assumed the importance they did because they intersected with the other major factor in the demise of the International, the Paris Commune. Marx’s passionate vindication of the Commune in The Civil War in France led to the identification of the International with the Commune, and hence to a massive ‘red scare’ and witch-hunt against the International throughout Europe. At the same time, this appearance of the social revolution in reality, and the consequent clarity with which political questions were posed, inevitably shattered the flimsy unity on which the International was based.

To deal with this situation Marx, at the London Conference, asked for and obtained increased powers for the General Council, but this in turn threw those who resented the ‘interference’ of the General Council into the camp of Bakunin’s anti-authoritarianism. By 1872 Marx, it is clear, had decided that the International had had its day (though he did not care to say so publicly). At the same time he was determined that it should not fall into the hands of conspirators, either Bakuninist or Blanquist, who would compromise the positive achievements of the International with pointless adventures. Marx achieved these aims at the Hague Congress by securing the expulsion of Bakunin (on a rather dubious basis) [50] and by having the seat of the International transferred to America where it passed away peacefully in 1876.

The International Working Men’s Association was undoubtedly the most important practical political work of Marx’s life. It gave a great impetus to the development of the movement everywhere. It created a much more widespread awareness of at least some of Marx’s basic principles than had ever existed before. Above all, it established the tradition of internationalism and of international organisation at the heart of the working-class socialist movement. These were great achievements, but it is also evident that the International contained the seeds of its disintegration in the basis of its foundation. From the point of view of assessing Marx’s concept of the party, it is necessary therefore to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the theoretical ideas which underlay his work during this period.

Since for Marx the party was always considered in relationship to the working class, and the working class is defined basically by its economic situation, the key theoretical problem was the nature of the relationship between economics and politics, and specifically between the economic struggles of the working class and the development of its political consciousness and organisation. There are various texts of the period which show that, essentially, Marx held the view that political consciousness arises spontaneously from the economic circumstances and struggle of the workers. Thus in a speech to a delegation of German trade unionists in 1869 Marx said:

Trade unions are the schools of socialism. It is in trade unions that workers educate themselves and become socialists because under their very eyes and every day the struggle with capital is taking place ... The great mass of workers, whatever party they belong to, have at last understood that their material situation must become better. But once the worker’s material situation has become better, he can consecrate himself to the education of his children; his wife and children do not need to go to the factory; he himself can cultivate his mind more, look after his body better, and he becomes socialist without noticing it. [51]

While some of the more extreme statements here need not be taken too literally, Marx repeated essentially the same theoretical conception in a key passage in a letter to F. Bolte in 1871:

The political movement of the working class has as its ultimate object, of course, the conquest of political power for this class, and this naturally requires a previous organisation of the working class developed up to a certain point and arising from its economic struggles.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and tries to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory, or even a particular trade, to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law, is a political movement. And, in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a movement of the class, with the effect of enforcing its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general socially coercive force. [emphasis in the original] [52]

The strength of Marx’s conception lies in its materialism, its emphasis on learning through experience and struggle; its weakness lies in its economic determinism and optimistic evolutionism. History has demonstrated not only the process of development outlined by Marx, but also a wide range of counteracting forces serving to block the transition from trade-union consciousness to socialist consciousness. In particular the ability of economic gains, even including those won through struggle, to serve as palliatives, not stimulants, and the grip of bourgeois ideology on the proletariat, with its consequent ability to divide and fragment the movement, were both seriously underestimated by Marx. In 1890 Engels commented that ‘Marx and I are partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place, or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction’ [53], and the question of the development of socialist consciousness is one on which Marx was most guilty of overemphasising ‘the main principle’ at the expense of ‘other elements involved in the interaction’.

It was on this oversimplified and over-optimistic view of the transformation of the working class from a ‘class-in-itself’ into a ‘class-for-itself’ that Marx based his ideas on organisation and his activity in the International. For Marx the main problem was to establish a political organisation based on the idea of class struggle and involving wide layers of workers. This achieved, he believed the organisation would evolve in a revolutionary direction of its own accord.

There is, therefore, a strong element of fatalism in Marx’s attitude to the formation of the party. The struggle of ideas and tendencies within the working-class movement will sort itself out as the class tendencies of the workers assert themselves. The basic problem was that Marx failed to grasp the possibility of working-class political reformism (i.e. what we now call social democracy or labourism) taking a serious hold on the movement in such a way that it would not simply transform itself or make way for revolutionary action when its time was passed, but would constitute a major obstacle blocking the road to revolution. Because he did not see the danger, Marx also did not see the means of combating it – the creation of a relatively narrow and disciplined vanguard party.

6. Social democracy and the problem of reformism

From 1872 onwards Marx and Engels were never again directly involved in, or members of, any organisation or party, but they nonetheless regarded themselves as having ‘special status as representatives of international socialism’ [54], and in that capacity dispensed advice to socialists throughout the world. It was largely Engels who was active in this role, rather than Marx, whose health declined and who concentrated on his studies. But it seems reasonable, in this sphere at least, to regard Engels’ views as broadly representative of Marx’s.

The most important phenomenon of this period was the rise of social-democratic workers’ parties in a number of countries, especially in Germany. These organisations combined an openly socialist programme with a mass following in the working class. Observation of this development, combined with the experience of the International, seems to have led to a certain reappraisal, or at least a change of emphasis, in Marx and Engels’ views. Thus in 1873 we find Engels warning Bebel not ‘to be misled by the cry for “unity” ... a party proves itself victorious by splitting and being able to stand the split’ [55], and in 1874 predicting to Sorge that ‘the next International – after Marx’s writings have produced their effects for some years – will be directly Communist and will proclaim precisely our principles’. [56]

In Britain and the USA, where there were very strong working classes but the workers were politically subordinate to the ruling-class parties and the socialist currents were extremely weak, Marx and Engels continued with their old line of advocating the formation of a broad independent workers’ party without worrying about its programme or theoretical basis. Engels wrote a series of articles to this effect in The Labour Standard in 1881, arguing, in an anticipation of the way the Labour Party was to arise, that ‘at the side of, or above, the Unions of special trades there must spring up a general union, a political organisation of the working class as a whole’ [57], and in 1893 he urged all socialists to join the Independent Labour Party. In relation to America, Engels argued that:

The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained they will soon find the right direction ... To expect the Americans to start with the full consciousness of the theory worked out in older industrial countries is to expect the impossible ... A million or two working men’s votes next November for a bona fide working men’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform But anything that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the working men’s party – on no matter what platform – I should consider a great mistake. [58]

But where France and Germany were concerned, where the movement was much more advanced, Marx and Engels’ attitude was very different. Here they saw the possibility, for the first time, of the creation of substantial marxist parties in the shape of the Parti Ouvrier Français and the German SDAP, and so as to realise that possibility they paid particular attention to questions of theory and programme. Thus when in 1882 the French party split between the marxists led by Guesde and Lafargue and ‘possibilists’ led by Malon and Brousse (anarchists turned reformists), Engels welcomed the event as ‘inevitable’ and ‘a good thing’, maintaining that ‘the sham St Etienne party [the possibilists] is not only no workers’ party but no party whatever because in actual fact it has no programme’ [59], and commenting ‘it seems that every workers’ party of a big country can develop only through internal struggle, which accords with the laws of dialectical development in general’. [60] But above all it was in their dealings with German social democracy that Marx and Engels maintained the highest degree of theoretical rigour.

When in 1875 the SDAP united with the Lassallean ADAV to form the German Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (SAPD, later SPD), Marx and Engels opposed this move as ‘precipitate on our part’ [61] and involving theoretical concessions. Marx immediately subjected the unification programme to a devastating critique [62], exposing not only the reactionary implications of Lassallean formulations such as the ‘iron law of wages’, ‘equal rights to the undiminished proceeds of labour’ and ‘producers’ cooperatives with state aid’, but also taking up the whole question of the class nature of the state in opposition to the call for a ‘free people’s state’, condemning the programme for its lack of internationalism, and complaining that ‘there is nothing in its political demands beyond the old and generally familiar democratic litany: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular justice, a people’s army, etc.’ [63] In 1877 Engels, to preserve the hegemony of marxism in the German movement, undertook the huge Anti-Dühring project, and in 1879 Marx and Engels dispatched a Circular Letter to party leaders protesting in the strongest possible terms at the emergence within the party of non-proletarian tendencies which rejected the class struggle and hence the class nature of the party, and ‘openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois’. [64] Also in 1879 they objected to ‘Liebknecht’s untimely weakness in the Reichstag’ [65] in the face of Bismarck’s anti-socialist law, and to the opportunistic support of Bismarck’s protectionist tariff policy by the SAPD parliamentary group, in response to which Marx declared ‘they are already so much affected by parliamentary idiotism that they think they are above criticism’. [66]

But this continuous stream of criticism should not deceive. It reflected not hostility to German social democracy but Marx and Engels’ exceptional interest in ‘and concern for the organisation which they repeatedly refer to as ‘our party’. Despite their vehement attacks on every open manifestation of reformism and capitulation to bourgeois democracy, Marx and Engels remained attached to the German party by ‘bonds of solidarity’ [67] and so, with their blessing, it became for the rest of the world the model of a marxist party. What Marx and Engels failed to grasp was that the main danger lay not in what the party said, but in what it did, in what it essentially was. This problem was highlighted a few years later in the so-called ‘revisionist debate’ when Bernstein demanded that the party adopt an openly reformist stance. In a very perceptive letter the Bavarian socialist, Ignaz Auer, wrote to Bernstein: ‘My dear Ede, one doesn’t formally decide to do what you ask, one doesn’t say it, one does it. Our whole activity – even under the shameful anti-socialist law – was the activity of a social-democratic reforming party. A party which reckons with the masses simply cannot be anything else.’ [68] The root of the problem lay in the conception of the relationship between the party and the working class, a conception which neither Marx nor Engels ever clearly challenged; i.e. that of a broad party steadily and smoothly expanding, organising within ever wider sections of the proletariat, until at last it embraced the overwhelming majority.

As Chris Harman has written: ‘What is central for the social democrat is that the party represents the class.’ [69] If the party represents the class, then it must contain within it the different tendencies existing within the class, and Marx and Engels, though they strove for the dominance of marxism, accepted this. Thus Engels wrote in 1890: ‘The party is so big that absolute freedom of debate inside it is a necessity ... The greatest party in the land cannot exist without all shades of opinion in it making themselves fully felt.’ [70] If the party represents the class during a period of capitalist expansion and stability in which the mass of the working class is reformist, then the party must be reformist too, even if it does not openly admit it. But reformist workers and reformist political leaders are not at all the same thing. The consciousness of the average worker is a mixture of many often contradictory elements and so under the stimulus of his material needs, his direct involvement in the struggle, and dramatic changes in the political situation, it is possible for his consciousness to change very rapidly. The consciousness of the leader, however, is much more definitely formed and coherent (it is this which makes him a leader) and therefore much more resistant to change; moreover the leader is not subject to the same material pressures as the worker, but rather is likely to have carved out for himself a position of privilege (e.g. as MP or trade-union leader). The consequence is that the relationship of representing the working class in its reformist phase turns into opposing and betraying it in its revolutionary phase. To be with the class in a revolutionary situation the party has to be somewhat ahead of it in the pre-revolutionary period. The party does not cease to represent the interests of the class as a whole, but to do this it has to restrict its membership to those for whom the interests of the class as a whole predominate over individual, sectional, national or immediate advantage, i.e. to revolutionaries. That Marx never fully developed or articulated this idea, really the essential starting point for a theory of the revolutionary party, is rooted in what we called earlier the ‘optimistic evolutionism’ of his view of the growth of working-class political consciousness, which he saw as rising relatively smoothly and evenly, roughly in proportion to the development of capitalism. That Marx did not progress beyond this view is not, however, surprising, or something for which he can be blamed. For the greater part of Marx’s life the problem of reformism had not emerged as in any way a major threat; the main tasks were overcoming the petty bourgeois, sectarian, conspiratorial and Utopian socialist traditions of revolutionary organisation inherited from the French Revolution, and establishing the political independence of the proletariat. Marx’s contribution to the achievement of these tasks by the proletariat in most European countries was immense. If in the course of the struggle he ‘bent-the-stick’ in the direction of economic determinism, then this is perfectly understandable. But it is also necessary to understand that in the sphere of his theory of the party, the legacy of Marx’s work, whatever its positive achievements, was something that had in time to be overcome by the marxist movement if capitalism was to be overthrown.


1. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, cited in R. Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, London 1959, p. 14.

2. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Moscow 1957, p. 48.

3. Marx, Capital, Vol. III, cited in Dahrendorf, op. cit., p. 13.

4. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, op. cit., p. 66.

5. ibid., p. 58.

6. See Hal Draper, The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels, Socialist Register, 1972.

7. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, New York 1963, pp. 123–24.

8. See Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow 1966, p. 150.

9. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, London 1965, p. 78fn.

10. ibid., p. 61.

11. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, op. cit., p. 64.

12. Cited in D. McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, London 1971, p. 177.

13. Provisional Rules of the First International, in D. Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The First International and After, London 1974, p. 82.

14. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, op. cit., p. 72.

15. Trotsky was to refer to this passage when arguing his case for a united front against fascism in Germany. See Chapter 5 below.

16. Monty Johnstone, Marx and Engels and the Concept of the Party, Socialist Register, 1967, p. 122.

17. Marx to Freiligrath (1860), cited in D. McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, op. cit., p. 169.

18. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1965, p. 263.

19. This seems to me to be generally the most desirable procedure, even if it were not, as is the case with Marx, the only possible one.

20. Engels, On the History of the Communist League, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow 1962, p. 348.

21. The figure is taken from Monty Johnstone, op. cit.

22. Engels, Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, op. cit., p. 330.

23. Cited in Franz Mehring, Karl Marx, London 1966, p. 155.

24. Cited in ibid., pp. 185–86.

25. Marx, The March Address, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, op. cit., pp. 106–107.

26. ibid., p. 112.

27. Cited in Franz Mehring, op. cit., pp. 207–208.

28. Marx to Engels, 11 February 1851, cited in Bertram D. Wolfe, Marxism: 100 Years in the Life of a Doctrine, London 1967, p. 196.

29. Engels to Marx, 13 February 1851, cited in ibid., p. 196.

30. Franz Mehring, op. cit., p. 209.

31. Bertram D. Wolfe, op. cit., p. 209.

32. Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge 1969, p. 255.

33. Even a cursory glance at the Marx-Engels correspondence reveals that because of their deep bond of friendship and understanding they use all sorts of rash and outrageous expressions which they would have never dreamt of uttering in public statements.

34. Marx to Engels, 25 November 1857, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 99.

35. Cited in Bertram D. Wolfe, op. cit., p. 200.

36. Marx to Engels, 4 November 1864, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 146.

37. It was in answer to Citizen Weston that Marx wrote his famous pamphlet Wages, Price and Profit.

38. See Boris I. Nicolaevsky, Secret Societies and the First International, in Milorad Drachovitch (ed.), The Revolutionary Internationals 1863–1943, London 1966.

39. Marx to Engels, 4 November 1864, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 148.

40. ibid., p. 149.

41. See Hal Draper, op. cit.

42. Provisional Rules of the First International, in D. Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The First International and After, op. cit., p. 82.

43. Cited in ibid., p. 269.

44. ibid.

45. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, op. cit., p. 388.

46. Cited in Monty Johnstone, op. cit., p. 131.

47. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Moscow 1972, p. 56.

48. Bakunin to Richard, 1 April 1870, cited in Monty Johnstone, op. cit., p. 134.

49. Monty Johnstone, op. cit., p. 134.

50. Marx obtained Bakunin’s expulsion, not on a political basis, but by implicating him in the activities of the deluded Russian conspirator, Nechayev, and by charging him with swindling Marx in connection with 300 roubles for the translation of Capital.

51. Cited in D.McLellan, op. cit., pp. 175–76.

52. Marx to Bolte, 23 November 1871, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., pp. 270–71.

53. Engels to Bloch, 21–22 September 1890, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 418.

54. Engels to Bernstein, 27 February–1 March 1883, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 358.

55. Engels to Bebel, 21 June 1873, ibid., pp. 283–85.

56. Engels to Sorge, 12–17 September 1874, ibid., p. 289.

57. Engels, Trades Unions II, The Labour Standard, 4 June 1881, in W.O. Henderson (ed.), Engels’ Selected Writings, London 1967, p. 109.

58. Engels to F.K. Wischnewstzky, 28 December 1886, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., pp. 398–99.

59. Engels to Bernstein, 20 October 1882, ibid., p. 352.

60. ibid., p. 353.

61. Engels to Bebel, 12 October 1875, ibid., p. 298.

62. Critique of the Gotha Programme, in D. Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The First International and After, op. cit.

63. ibid., p. 355.

64. Marx and Engels to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke and others, 17–18 September 1879, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p. 327.

65. Engels to Becker, 1 July 1879, ibid., p. 328.

66. Marx to Sorge, 19 September 1879, ibid., p. 328.

67. Marx and Engels to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke and others, ibid., p. 327.

68. Cited in James Joll, The Second International, London 1968, p. 94.

69. Chris Harman, Party and Class, in Duncan Hallas et al., Party and Class, London (n.d.), p. 50.

70. Engels to Sorge, 9 August 1890, cited in Monty Johnstone, op. cit., p. 157.

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