MARX AND THE PERMANENT REVOLUTION – PART 3: The Class Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Hungarian revolutionary troops capture the bastion in Buda on May 21, 1849
Hungarian revolutionary troops capture the bastion in Buda on May 21, 1849

‘FEBRUARY 25, 1848, had granted the republic to France, June 25 thrust the revolution upon her. And revolution, after June, meant: overthrow of bourgeois society, whereas before February it had meant: overthrow of the form of government.’ So began the second part of Marx’s analysis of the crucial class struggles of 1848-50, which was first published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in early 1850.

A page before he had recalled: ‘The Paris proletariat was forced into the June insurrection by the bourgeoisie . . . and only its defeat convinced it of the truth that the slightest improvement in its position remains a utopia within the bourgeois republic . . .’

And afterwards: ‘In place of its demands, exuberant in form, but petty and even bourgeois still in content, the concession of which it wanted to wring from the February republic, there appeared the bold slogan of revolutionary struggle: Overthrow of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the working class! ’

But if any improvement for workers at all was utopian, what could there be in the objective situation that could possibly realise the dictatorship of the working class? What could make such a thing even thinkable?

Marx explained it as follows: ‘If the June insurrection raised the self-assurance of the bourgeoisie all over the Continent, and caused it to league itself openly with the feudal monarchy against the people, who was the first victim of the alliance? The Continental bourgeoisie itself. The June defeat prevented it from consolidating its rule and from bringing the people, half satisfied and half out of humour, to a standstill at the lowest stage of the bourgeois revolution.

‘. . . Thus the peoples who had begun the fight for their national independence were abandoned to the superior power of Russia, Austria and Prussia, but, at the same time, the fate of these national revolutions was made subject to the fate of the proletarian revolution, and they were robbed of their apparent autonomy, their independence of the great social revolution. The Hungarian shall not be free, nor the Pole, nor the Italian, as long as the worker remains a slave!

‘Finally, with the victories of the Holy Alliance, Europe has taken on a form in which every fresh proletarian upheaval in France directly involves a world war. The new French revolution is forced to leave its national soil . . . and conquer the European terrain . . .’

The reference to the ‘dictatorship of the working class’ doubtless recalls a real slogan of the Paris workers of June 1848. But clearly it also recapitulates the Manifesto’s insistence that ‘The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.’

These ideas had first taken coherent philosophical form in Marx’s and Engels’ writings as long ago as 1845, i.e., in The German Ideology. And we have already stressed that the significance of The German Ideology in the development of Marxism cannot be overestimated in its connection with the permanence of revolution. Even a cursory glance at the manner in which it made this point also makes clear that this had been bound up from the start with the recognition of the international interests of the working class.

As Marx and Engels put it: ‘In order to become an “unendurable” power, i.e., a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity “propertyless”, and moreover in contradiction to an existing world of wealth and culture; both these premises presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development.

‘And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which at the same time implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which on the one side produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the “propertyless” mass (universal competition), making each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally puts world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.

‘Without this, 1) communism could only exist as a local phenomenon; 2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence unendurable powers: they would have remained home-bred “conditions”, surrounded by superstition; and 3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.

‘Moreover the mass of workers who are nothing but workers . . . presupposes the world market. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as communism, its activity, can only have a “world-historical” existence. World-historical existence of individuals, i.e., existence of individuals which is directly linked up with world history.

‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality (will) have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the now existing premise.’ (The German Ideology was unpublished in Marx’s lifetime, and remains in note form; on this page Marx seems to have considered placing the last quoted paragraph either at the start or as the last paragraph but one – MD)

So while the Paris workers were consolidating their slogan ‘Dictatorship of the working class!’ in the aftermath of June 1848, while the demands of the rising national bourgeois across Europe were opposed by the alliance of the ‘despot of Europe’, England, with Russia and other reactionary powers, and while the rival rump royalist factions of France dreamt of an unrealisable new monarchy sustained by a ‘party of Order’, Marx was noticing that the rule of the French bourgeoisie – the state of siege, as he called it, later describing this as an ‘invention which has found periodic application in every successive crisis of the French Revolution’ – was also coming under ‘unexpected danger’ from elsewhere.

‘No one,’ he wrote, ‘had fought more fanatically in the June days for the salvation of property and the restoration of credit than the Parisian petty-bourgeois . . . But behind the barricade stood the customers and the debtors; before it the shop’s creditors. And when the barricades were thrown down and the workers were crushed and the shopkeepers, drunk with victory, rushed back to their shops, they found the entrance barred by a saviour of property, an official agent of credit, who presented them with threatening notices: Overdue rent! Overdue bond! . . Doomed shop! Doomed shopkeeper!

‘Salvation of property! But the house in which they lived was not their property; the shop which they kept was not their property . . . Neither their business, nor the plate from which they ate, nor the bed on which they slept belonged to them any longer. It was precisely from them that this property had to be saved . . .’

By August and September, each class had begun to realign itself in response to the relative conditions of the others; and when an election for two new Paris National Assembly members took place, Prince Louis Bonaparte (nephew of Napoleon) was elected by the infuriated peasantry and petty-bourgeoisie, while the leading Communist Raspail, in prison after the June events, was elected by workers in defiance of the state of siege. ‘From all sides at once, therefore, open declaration of war against the Constituent National Assembly, against bourgeois republicanism,’ commented Marx. And it was just at that time that the Assembly made the inflammatory declaration that the ‘state of siege’ was to stay even after the constitution had been decided on and pronounced.

Of that constitution (of October 23) Marx said that its ‘fundamental contradiction . . . consists in the following: The classes whose social slavery the constitution is to perpetuate, proletariat, peasantry, petty-bourgeoisie, it puts in possession of political power through universal suffrage. And from the class whose . . . social power it sanctions, the bourgeoisie, it withdraws the political guarantees of this power. It forces the political rule of the bourgeoisie into democratic conditions, which at every moment help the hostile classes to victory and jeopardise the very foundations of bourgeois society. . .’ It isn’t hard to see, behind such a state of affairs, the semblance of restorationism.

Still unsure of its stability, therefore, the Assembly decreed that France must have a President, in the hope that its leader Cavaignac would be elected and cement its rule – but instead the post was won by Louis Bonaparte – representing peasant nostalgia for the era of Napoleon – by six million votes to just one million for Cavaignac. ‘December 10, 1848, was the day of the peasant insurrection . . ,’ Marx said of the result. ‘No more taxes, down with the rich, down with the republic, long live the Emperor! . . . December 10 was the coup d’etat of the peasants, which overthrew the existing government.’

Petty bourgeoisie and proletariat had voted as a bloc for Bonaparte, Marx explained, while the more advanced proletariat had put forward two candidates – Ledru-Rollin and Raspail, ‘the former of the democratic petty-bourgeoisie, the latter of the revolutionary proletariat. The votes for Raspail – the proletarians and their socialist spokesmen declared it loudly – were to be . . . the first act by which the proletariat, as an independent political party, declared its separation from the democratic party . . . Not only the republican bourgeois party, but also the democratic petty bourgeoisie and its Montagne [the party of Robespierre in 1793 – MD] were beaten on December 10.’

He added a few pages later: ‘The party of Order was formed just after the June days: only after December 10 had allowed it to cast off the coterie . . . of the bourgeois republicans, was the secret of its existence – the coalition of Orleanists and Legitimists into one party – disclosed.

‘The bourgeois class fell apart into two big factions, which had alternately maintained a monopoly of power [i.e., from 1815 to 1848 – MD] – the big landed proprietors under the restored monarchy, and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under the July monarchy . . . the nameless realm of the republic was the only one in which both factions could maintain with equal power the common class interest without giving up their mutual rivalry . . . Thus we find these royalists in the beginning believing in an immediate restoration, . . and finally confessing that they can endure each other only in the republic and postponing the restoration indefinitely.’

Cavaignac left office on December 20 1848, just a day after the National Assembly leaders had sought to rally themselves by voting down any amnesty for the 15,000 June insurgents marked for deportation. Shortly afterwards Louis Bonaparte removed these leaders from their posts. The Mobile Guard was then reorganised on monarchist lines, with half its personnel judged unfit and dismissed. The new regime also revitalised calls for the banning of the institutions where the revolutionary workers met, i.e., the workers’ clubs: no matter that ‘freedom of association’ had been guaranteed in the constitution. And by January, as Marx put it: ‘What place was there for a Constituent Assembly in a constituted republic? . . .

‘The scrambled eggs were unscrambled, the crystallisations of the revolutionary movement had again become fluid, the republic that was being fought for was once again the indefinite republic of the February days, the defining of which each party reserved to itself. For a moment the parties again took up their old February positions, without sharing the illusions of February.’

At this point a key drama moved from the background to the foreground – at issue were French relations with European revolution and counter-revolution, still raging across the Continent: in France by this time, however, the issue was a counter-revolutionary French intervention against a national uprising and its consequences in Civitavecchia in Italy.

In mid-November Cavaignac had sent a small battle fleet there ‘to protect the Pope’ from the nascent Roman republic and to ship him to France. Louis Bonaparte, coming into office just a few weeks afterwards, had quickly seized on Cavaignac’s initiative for his own ends, and was followed by the royalist factions whose motive was the same.

For the Montagne, Ledru-Rollin voiced opposition only when invading Austrian and Neapolitan forces jointly crushed the Italian republicans and threatened the invasion of France, allowing the intervention to clothe itself in a different justification – and a huge force of 14,000 was dispatched ‘in order to give support to peaceful negotiations with Austria concerning the integrity of Sardinian territory and the question of Rome.’ It was then that Rome was placed under bombardment by troops of French General Oudinot.

The stand in the name of the Montagne did boost Ledru-Rollin’s vote in the Legislative National Assembly elections in May, especially as he had by then also been able to establish an electoral alliance with the Socialists to create the social democratic party. But it was short-lived. The winners of the election were the party of Order, which saw off all opponents by a large majority. After that Ledru-Rollin attempted to stage what Marx dubbed a ‘purely parliamentary insurrection’, putting a motion to the new Assembly that the President be impeached for having countermanded the constitution and ordered the bombardment of Rome. No matter that that military action had in fact ‘attacked the liberty of foreign peoples’ and therefore countermanded the constitution; the motion was rejected by 377 votes to 8, so ending Ledru-Rollin’s career in any Assembly.

The same motion had been rejected earlier by the Constituent Assembly, on May 11, and was laid to rest by the Legislative National Assembly on June 12; at which point Ledru-Rollin ‘brought the Montagne onto the streets,’ as Marx said of it, ‘not to a street battle, however, but only to a street procession. It is enough to say,’ he went on, ‘that the Montagne was at the head of this movement to know the movement was defeated, and that June 1849 was a caricature, as ridiculous as it was repulsive, of June 1848 . . .

‘It was not the workers that were vanquished; it was the petty-bourgeoisie. . . June 1849 was not a bloody tragedy between wage labour and capital, but a prison-filling, lamentable play of debtors and creditors. The party of Order had won… The 13th of June breaks its [the petty-bourgeoisie’s] resistance, and makes the legislative dictatorship of the united royalists a fait accompli. The National Assembly is only a Committee of Public Safety of the party of Order.’ And the Constituent Assembly, which February had brought into being to rule in place of the last French monarch, was itself history.

As we know, these events led on to Bonaparte’s emergence in 1851 as the Emperor of France – through a series of disasters for the Montagne, for the republican bourgeoisie, and for universal suffrage, as depicted in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. (Brumaire was another revolutionary calendar month of historic significance, MD)

But The Class Struggles in France 1848-50 offers us something else, more essential to our theme: for it is the first real definition Marx gave of what he called the permanent revolution. Having rejected ‘utopia, doctrinaire socialism’, he tells us, the French working class ‘increasingly organises itself around revolutionary Socialism, around Communism . . . This Socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionising of all the ideas that result from these social relations.’