Marx And The Permanent Revolution

Marx and Engels in the printshop of the ‘Neue Rheinishe Zeitung’
Marx and Engels in the printshop of the ‘Neue Rheinishe Zeitung’


PART ONE: ‘Fraternity found its true unadulterated and prosaic expression in the war of Labour against capital’

AS French and European workers are once again striking and demonstrating in their millions, at the same time singing the Internationale under conditions where fellow workers across the continent and the world all face the same class onslaught, there can be no better time to recall Karl Marx’s class analysis of the events that took place, mainly in Paris, between the February revolution of 1848 and the reversion to the empire of 1851.

‘With the exception of only a few chapters’, began his account of the first of the events in The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850, ‘every more important part of the annals of the revolution from 1848 to 1849 carries the heading: Defeat of the Revolution!’

But he insisted: ‘What succumbed in these defeats was not the revolution. It was the pre-revolutionary traditional appendages, results of social relationships which had not yet come to the point of sharp class antagonisms – persons, illusions, conceptions, projects from which the revolutionary party before February was not free, from which it could be freed not by the victory of February, but only by a series of defeats.

‘In a word: the revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragi-comic achievements, but on the contrary by the creation of an opponent in combat with whom alone the party of insurrection ripened into a really revolutionary party.’

A few pages later he was already adding: ‘Just as the workers thought they would be able to emancipate themselves side by side with the bourgeoisie, so they thought they would be able to consummate a proletarian revolution within the national walls of France, side by side with the remaining bourgeois nations. But French relations of production are conditioned by the foreign trade of France, by her position on the world market and the laws thereof; how was France to break them without a European revolutionary war, which would strike back at the despot of the world market, England?’

Nothing quite like this class-based analysis of a conflict, still less a revolutionary conflict, had ever been written in history before – as in fact nothing like the 1848 events themselves had happened before. Marx was referring above all to the defeat of the June 1848 insurrection in France, when over 3,000 Parisian workers were slaughtered, with a further 15,000 deported overseas, by the forces of the Provisional Government established in apparent submission to the workers in February.

And mention of England underlines a second important point, also inseparable from the interests of classes and the way these condition all social life. Every English reader will know that the comparable revolutionary uprising in England had happened 140 years earlier – even though those differently momentous events are still presented to us not as a revolution, but as a rebellion and a civil war. Following the state execution of Charles I in 1649, eleven revolutionary years passed under the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and, briefly, his son Richard; after that monarchy was ‘restored’. But the world’s first extended period of bourgeois rule had to arrive, even if the bourgeoisie could no longer themselves agree on whether to sustain it; and in 1688/9 a combination of a crisis, an ‘interregnum’, and a piece of dynastic theatre, which the British establishment to this day call a ‘glorious revolution’, was set in motion in order to carry forward the development of productive forces to which the real revolution had already opened the door.

In France in 1789 the victory of the bourgeois revolution left it with even sharper contradictory problems to overcome, owing both to the rising strength in the cities of an industrial bourgeoisie whose interests challenged those of financiers and the banks, and to the predominance of the peasantry in the nation as a whole. Each distinct class needed the support of significant sections of others if a way forward was to be found. So after 1793, when Louis XVI was executed and universal suffrage introduced for the first time, consolidation of the bourgeois revolution quickly became impossible except by way of the grim work of Robespierre and the Jacobin rule of terror. Following Robespierre’s own execution, the retreat known as Thermidor – the name of the month in the new revolutionary calendar when retreat began – proceeded by way of the Directory, the Consulate and finally the imperial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. When – 22 years on – the restoration of the Bourbons came, it was cemented by the diktat of English guns at Waterloo.

The victory of February 1848 had clearly gone to the Paris workers; and subsequent risings broke out all across Europe. But in the new French ‘Provisional’ Government, which lasted only until May, they gained just two representatives – the worker Alexandre Martin, known as Albert, and the exclusively petty-bourgeois socialist Louis Blanc; a measure not of their contribution at all, but of how the ranks of the French bourgeoisie estimated the working class. The February revolution had briefly united workers, the petty-bourgeoisie and the bulk of the industrial bourgeoisie in overthrowing the Orleanist monarchy of Louis Phillipe, which had itself come to power via the July Revolution of 1830 declaring – as Marx memorably recalled: ‘From now on the bankers will rule!’

And so they had, by means of a royalist-cum-financiers’ regime as an alternative to the ‘legitimist’ Bourbons, and three ruthless suppressions of their former ‘allies’ the Parisian workers in later uprisings throughout the 1830s. February’s success had turned on the ability of the workers to mobilise a force of some 200,000 of their forces more powerfully and quickly than the would-be bourgeoisie were able to do. And it was chiefly by this means, in spite of the constitutional termination of feudalism a full fifty-five years earlier, that not only the debt-laden royal regime of the bankers, but with it monarchy as a direct form of rule in France, was at last overthrown.

Some of the subsequent developments are echoed even in today’s crisis, in the role and function in it of the Labour government of Gordon Brown. ‘Whereas the Revolution of 1789 began by shaking the feudal burdens off the peasants,’ Marx continued, ‘the Revolution of 1848 announced itself to the rural population by the imposition of a new tax, in order not to endanger capital and to keep its state machine going.

‘There was only one means by which the Provisional Government could set aside all these inconveniences and jerk the state out of its old rut – a declaration of state bankruptcy . . . By honouring the bills drawn on the state by the old bourgeois society, the Provisional Government succumbed to the latter. It had become the hard-pressed debtor of bourgeois society instead of confronting it as the pressing creditor that had to collect the revolutionary debts of many years . . . Credit became a condition of life for it, and the concessions to the proletariat, the promises made, became so many fetters which had to be struck off. The emancipation of the workers – even as a phrase – became an unbearable danger to the new republic, for it was a standing protest against the restoration of credit, which rests on undisturbed and untroubled recognition of the existing economic class relations. . .’

One success of the February revolution had been to force the National Guard out of Paris. So in its place the new government formed twenty-four 1,000-strong battalions of Mobile Guards, all consisting of youth under 20 judged suitable to follow whatever orders they were asked to for one and a half francs a day. This they represented to the workers as a proletarian guard. In addition they organised the equivalent of English workhouses – the ateliers – whose purpose was essentially to set worker against worker, and which Louis Blanc agreed to run. By these means a large section of the petty-bourgeoisie, always on or over the edge of bankruptcy, was wherever possible goaded into anti-working class hysteria. Then in March and April, when big street demonstrations of workers began again, these two most desperate of the classes could be pitted against one another. By that time the Provisional Government had demonstrated itself capable of mobilising 100,000 armed men to confront what the workers in February had merely threatened; and its promised general elections to the new National Assembly duly followed in early May.

Marx wrote: ‘On May 4 the National Assembly, the result of the direct general elections, convened. Universal suffrage did not possess the magical power which republicans of the old school had ascribed to it. They saw in the whole of France, at least in the majority of Frenchmen, citoyens with the same interests, the same understanding . . . Instead of their imaginary people, the elections brought the real people to the light of day, that is, representatives of the different classes into which it falls . . . But if universal suffrage was not the miracle-working magic wand for which the republican worthies had taken it, it possessed the incomparably higher merit of unchaining the class struggle . . .

‘In the National Assembly all France sat in judgment upon the Paris proletariat. The Assembly broke immediately with the social illusions of the February Revolution; it roundly proclaimed the bourgeois republic, nothing but the bourgeois republic. It at once excluded the representatives, Louis Blanc and Albert, from the Executive Commission appointed to it; it threw out the proposal for a special Labour Ministry, and received with acclamation the statement of the Minister Trélat: “Now it is only a matter of leading labour back to its old conditions.”

‘. . . The workers were left with no choice; they had to starve or take action. They answered on June 22 with the tremendous insurrection in which the first great battle was fought between the two classes that split modern society. It was a fight for the preservation or annihilation of the bourgeois order . . .

‘It is well-known how the workers, with unexampled bravery and ingenuity, without leaders, without a common plan, without means and, for the most part, lacking weapons, held in check for five days the army, the Mobile Guard, the Paris National Guard, and the National Guard that streamed in from the provinces. It is well-known how the bourgeoisie compensated itself for the mortal anguish it suffered by unheard-of brutality, massacring over 3,000 prisoners.’

When Marx had spoken of the freeing of the revolutionary party, and of its ripening into a ‘really revolutionary party’, he had had something else in mind too. Along with Engels, and on behalf of the Communist League on whose behalf both of them had agreed jointly to prepare it a few months earlier, he had just completed the writing of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. That was in early 1848.

Later they recalled: ‘The Communist League, an international association of workers, which could of course be only a secret one at the time, commissioned the undersigned [i.e., Marx and Engels – MD], at the Congress held in London in November 1847, to draw up for publication a detailed, theoretical and practical programme of the Party. Such was the origin of the Manifesto, the manuscript of which travelled to London, to be printed, a few weeks before the February revolution . . . A French version first appeared in Paris shortly before the June insurrection of 1848 . . .’

From this it’s plain that Marx and Engels are, amongst other things, making clear that the Communists were now ready for the possibility of such a defeat, had an analysis which had in general foreseen such a contest and had something important to say to those looking to find the way forward through the course of it.

And for that to be so, that analysis must carry within it the idea that consciousness is determined by life; that historical circumstances in the last analysis are governed by class laws, and that in recognition of this events can be intervened in; that revolutionary theory can guide practice. All these ideas are inseparable from the philosophical advance completed in 1845-6 in The German Ideology and the better-known Theses on Feuerbach, where Marx famously insisted that ‘the question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory, but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness, of his thinking.’

The significance of The German Ideology in the development of Marxism cannot be overestimated. For only in the light of its recognition of the primacy of objective, material conditions of life as determinants of man’s consciousness, an understanding which has at the same time to be based on recognition of the dialectic not only in the class struggle but also in nature and in all self-moving matter, can the theoretically-guided practice necessary for the revolutionary party to successfully organise the replacement of capitalism permanently be made possible.

By as early as the beginning of 1845, according to Engels’ later testimony, Marx had fully worked out both his communist views and the basics of his dialectical materialist philosophy and method. Prior to that, i.e. even before the two met, both Marx and Engels were regularly urging these views to members of the League of the Just, a Europe-wide organisation banned in France after the workers’ uprising of 1839. One of its main leaders visited Engels in 1847 to ask them to join and win over the majority of its members to these communist views; and later that year the League of the Just became the Communist League.

The text of Class Struggles in France, written two years after 1848, also reproduces a part of what Marx, who during June was in Cologne writing for and editing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung newspaper, said about the events in their immediate aftermath.

‘The last official remnant of the February Revolution, the Executive Commission, has melted away, like an apparition, before the seriousness of events . . . Fraternité, the brotherhood of antagonistic classes, one of which exploits the other, this fraternité which in February was proclaimed and inscribed in large letters on the facades of Paris, on every prison and every barracks – this fraternity found its true, unadulterated and prosaic expression in civil war, civil war in its most terrible aspect, the war of labour against capital. This fraternity blazed in front of all the windows of Paris on the evening of June 25, when the Paris of the bourgeoisie held illuminations while the Paris of the proletariat was burning, bleeding, groaning in the throes of death. Brotherhood lasted only as long as there was a fraternity of interests between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.’

It was under the unprecedented conditions of those two years, and in that state of mind, that Marx first began to speak and write about the concept of permanent revolution. And by March 1850 he was telling the Central Committee of the Communist League:

‘If the German workers are not able to attain power and achieve their own class interests without completely going through a lengthy revolutionary development, they at least know for a certainty this time that the first act of this approaching revolutionary drama will coincide with the direct victory of their own class in France and will be very much accelerated by it.

‘But they themselves must do the utmost for their final victory by clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are, by taking up their position as an independent party as soon as possible and by not allowing themselves to be seduced for a single moment by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty-bourgoisie into refraining from the independent organisation of the party of the proletariat.

‘Their battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence.’

And just a month later the Central Committee had proceeded to organise the secret formation – incorporating left-wing Chartists from England and leading Blanquists from France in spite of Marx’s serious disagreements with both – of a World Society of Revolutionary Communists whose constitution began: ‘The aim of the association is the overthrow of all privileged classes and their subjugation to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will carry through the permanent revolution until the realisation of communism, the ultimate form of organisation of the human family.’