MARX AND THE PERMANENT REVOLUTION PART TWO: ‘Wage labour and capital – and the right to revolution’

Defending the street barricades in 1848 (From a contemporary print)
Defending the street barricades in 1848 (From a contemporary print)

FREDERICK Engels was also thinking and writing at that time about the permanent revolution. This showed itself even as early as January 1849, when he wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung about the revolutionary battle that had erupted in Hungary against Austrian rule. Highly commending the national uprising ‘armed, organised and galvanised’ by Louis Kossuth, a Magyar nationalist and revolutionary, he noted its ‘mass movement, national manufacture of weapons, assignats, short shrift for anyone obstructing the revolutionary movement, the revolution in permanence – in brief all the chief characteristics of the glorious year 1793.’

It cannot be doubted, therefore, that permanent revolution was a regular subject of discussion at the time between Marx and Engels. No wonder. The two years 1848-50 were the period of their most directly revolutionary activity, as they gave themselves over to the cause of revolution in Germany

Engels fought at Elberfeld, Baden and Pfalz, while Marx was put on trial for his participation in Cologne. The German revolution had first to be a bourgeois revolution, as the Manifesto of the Communist Party had recently said, and not merely because Germany was still extremely undeveloped; for in fact at that time it was no nation at all, consisting of 39 separate states mostly headed by princes and under feudal or absolutist rule. After the French revolution of 1789-93 many of these states had been invaded and conquered by the troops of Napoleon, only to find themselves – in spite of their active resistance – almost as quickly back in the political thrall of Russia following his retreat. For the most part democratic as well as socialist ideas had their strongest following in the area to the west of the river Rhine that had been annexed to France since 1798 – and in which Marx had been born in 1818 at Trier, just three years after that French annexation ended.

It was not Germany, therefore, but the march of industry in the whole of Europe and the economically developed world that Marx and Engels had in mind in 1848, when writing so famously in the Manifesto: ‘The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part . . . wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. . .

‘It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.’

For Marx and Engels, the very nakedness and directness of this exploitation had now placed a historical turning-point for mankind in the hands of the working-class as a class. In the final passages of the Manifesto, in which the political standpoints of Communism towards opposition parties in the main countries of Europe are outlined, they state: ‘In Germany [the Communists] fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie.

‘But they never cease, for a single instant, to instil into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, in order that the German workers may straightaway use, as so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, the social and political conditions that the bourgeoisie must necessarily introduce along with its supremacy, and in order that, after the fall of the reactionary classes in Germany, the fight against the bourgeoisie itself may immediately begin.’

The Manifesto concludes: ‘The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation, and with a much more developed proletariat, than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.’

But since we have the benefit, over 150 years later, of hindsight, we should use it. When the first article of this series referred to the retreat of ‘Thermidor’ in France, we saw how in the context of 1793-4 it signified that the bourgeois character of the 1789 revolution eventually predominated over the revolutionary interests of the less privileged layers of society who had joined with it and also seen it as the way forward. In the case of the proletarian revolution, Marx is envisaging here how the working class imposes its interests on the less revolutionary classes in society.

That is how we have to understand the predominant development of the interests of the working class, relative to and in consideration of those of other classes, in the context of what Marx had called ‘permanent revolution’ – both as he himself insisted on it in March 1850, and as it was noted by Engels as present in France in 1793.

Before 1848, up to and including the time of his writing of the Manifesto, Marx’s political and philosophical analyses had been dominated by his scathing attention to Germany’s failure to develop itself as a nation in accordance with the revolutionary examples of England and France. As a student at Bonn and then Berlin university, he had found himself drawn most strongly to philosophy, and the work of the Kantians and above all of Hegel. This had been had been one key area in which Germans had surpassed the comparable achievements of the already established bourgeois states.

Marx had no illusions about the limits of this success. The Germans had had to ‘think what others had done’, was his summary of it as a national accomplishment, and his early allegiance to Feuerbach was an index of his determination to supersede the idealism of Hegel in particular by – in his own words – standing him on his head; or rather, on his feet. In 1843 he moved to Paris where, until he was thrown out of the country again by the government of Louis Phillipe, he studied at first hand what he recognised as the social sources of all philosophical developments, in the practices which had made theoretical advances possible. And when Engels first met Marx in Paris in 1844, following a period of correspondence in connection with Marx’s editorship of the Deutsche-Franzosische Jahrbuch, they had found themselves in full agreement on this along with almost everything else.

As the Manifesto explained: ‘The Socialist and Communist literature of France, a literature that originated under the pressure of a bourgeoisie in power, and that was the expression of the struggle against this power, was introduced into Germany at a time when the bourgeoisie, in that country, had just begun its contest with feudal absolutism.

‘German philosophers, would-be philosophers, and beaux esprits, eagerly seized on this literature, only forgetting that, when these writings immigrated from France into Germany, French social conditions had not immigrated along with them. In contact with German social conditions, this French literature lost all its immediate practical significance, and assumed a purely literary aspect.

‘Thus, to the German philosophers of the eighteenth century, the demands of the first French Revolution were nothing more than the demands of “Practical Reason” in general, and the utterance of the will of the revolutionary French bourgeoisie signified in their eyes the laws of pure Will, of Will as it was bound to be, of human Will generally. . .

‘It is well-known how the monks wrote silly lives of Catholic Saints over the manuscripts on which the classical works of ancient heathendom had been written. The German literati reversed this process with the profane French literature. For instance, beneath the French criticism of the economic functions of money, they wrote “Alienation of Humanity,” and beneath the French criticism of the bourgeois state they wrote “Dethronement of the Category of the General,” and so forth.

‘The French Socialist and Communist literature was thus completely emasculated.’

At much the same time as this passage was written, furthermore, Marx had undertaken a significant development of his work begun in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844; in the form of a delivery of lectures to the German Workers’ Society in Brussels under the title Wage Labour and Capital.

They were obviously significantly updated when Marx published them in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung of April 1849, because he alludes in the very first paragraph to ‘the present class struggles and national struggles’ – a clear reference to the uprisings of 1848, which are then specifically mentioned in the second paragraph. So whatever was said in the earlier lectures had clearly been developed by later events; unprecedented events which in their turn had deepened Marx’s understanding of the conflict of labour against capital as he’d noted it at the time of the Paris massacres.

Marx began: ‘From various quarters we have been reproached with not having presented the economic relations which constitute the material foundation of the present class struggles and national struggles . . . Now, after our readers have seen the class struggle develop in colossal political forms in 1848, the time has come to deal more closely with the economic relations themselves on which the existence of the bourgeoisie and its class rule, as well as the slavery of the workers, are founded.

‘We shall present in three large sections: 1) the relation of wage labour to capital, the slavery of the worker, the domination of the capitalist; 2) the inevitable destruction of the middle bourgeois classes and the so-called peasant estate under the present system; 3) the commercial subjugation and exploitation of the bourgeois classes of the various European nations by the despot of the world market – England.’

Wage Labour and Capital was however never finished, and the part that was finished only begins to cover the issues of the proposed first section; nevertheless, two significant advances are immediately noticeable. First of all, Marx has detailed more clearly the distinction between wage labour and other forms of labour in exposing the capitalist conception of ‘free’ labour. The slave, he says, ‘is a commodity which can pass from the hand of one owner to another. The serf ‘does not receive a wage from the owner of the land; rather the owner of the land receives a tribute from him. . . The free labourer, on the other hand, sells himself and, indeed, sells himself piecemeal . . . The worker belongs neither to an owner nor to the land, but eight, ten, twelve, fifteen hours of his daily life belong to him who buys them. The worker leaves the capitalist to whom he hires himself whenever he likes, and the capitalist discharges him whenever he thinks fit . . . But the worker . . . cannot leave the whole class of purchasers, that is the capitalist class, without renouncing his existence.’

What does that signify if not the end of those ‘results of social relationships which had not yet come to the point of sharp class antagonisms’, i.e., the defeat only of the illusions of the Paris workers in June 1848, above all the illusion of ‘fraternity’ that characterised even the permanent overthrow, in February 1848, of the French monarchy? And Wage Labour and Capital is correspondingly much clearer too in its analysis of what capital is.

When, for example, Marx says in part 3 that ‘a cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton/It becomes capital only in certain relations/Torn from these relationships it is no more capital than gold in itself is money, or sugar the price of sugar’, it’s clear that such an analysis really does foreshadow what he was able to reveal more completely in Volume 3 of Capital itself; i.e., that ‘capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character.’

Finally, it is necessary to understand how Marx and Engels viewed the efforts of the German bourgeoisie in the revolution of 1848. It is put most succinctly in the passage translated by Vladimir Lenin in his July 1905 pamphlet Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, where he quotes Marx’s Neue Rheinische Zeitung analysis of July 29 1848 – i.e. four months after the uprising in Germany had begun. A later article in our series will comment further on Vladimir Lenin’s assessment of this.

Marx said: ‘The German Revolution of 1848 is only a parody of the French Revolution of 1789. On August 4 1789, three weeks after the storming of the Bastille, the French people triumphed in a single day over all feudal burdens . . . The French bourgeoisie of 1789 did not for a moment leave its allies, the peasants, in the lurch. It knew that its rule was grounded in the destruction of feudalism in the countryside, the creation of a free landowning peasant class.

‘The German bourgeoisie of 1848 is, without the least compunction, betraying the peasants, who are its most natural allies, the flesh of its flesh, and without whom it is powerless against the aristocracy.’

When, in November 1848, the resolution of the Prussian Berlin Assembly established by the revolution to refuse to pay taxes was annulled by the more timid all-German National Assembly in Frankfurt (at that time still just a small town), Marx called in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung for the non-payment of taxes, declaring ‘the payment of taxes is high treason.’ For this he was among those brought to trial following the victory of the counter-revolution; and his trial began in February 1849.

Marx took the same principled position. At the height of his speech in his defence, he told the jury: ‘The (National Assembly) deputy, Schneider, is in fact one of the accused in this trial. The question of the right of the National Assembly to resolve to refuse to pay taxes has therefore already been confirmed in practice by the people . . .

‘You will all concede, gentlemen, that you are not confronted here with a crime in the ordinary sense . . . in normal circumstances, the public power executes the existing laws; the criminal is he who breaks those laws or violently opposes the public power in its execution of those laws. In our case, one public power has broken the law, and the other public power, it is unimportant which one, has upheld it. A conflict between two state powers does not fall within the jurisdiction of either private law or criminal law.

‘The question as to who is in the right, the Crown or the National Assembly, is a historical question. All the juries, all the courts of Prussia, cannot decide this question. There is only one power which can decide it: history…

‘This was not a case of a conflict between two parties standing on the ground of one society, it was a conflict between two societies, a social conflict which had taken on a political form, it was the struggle of modern bourgeois society with the old feudal – bureaucratic society, the struggle between the society of free competition and the society of guild organisation, between the society of industry and the society of landownership, between the society of knowledge and the society of belief. . .

‘The Berlin National Assembly clearly abandoned itself to a gigantic illusion, it showed its failure to understand its own position and its own condition of existence, when it held an amicable understanding, a compromise with the Crown, to be possible, and endeavoured to put this into effect, both before and during the conflict . . .

‘If the Crown makes a counter-revolution, the people have the right to reply with a revolution.’

The jury acquitted Marx and all the accused, though in other trials many were jailed.