A) A bit of history.

This is the second article urging anti-capitalists, to study Marx as a basis, for a critical understanding of the international revolutionary tradition associated with his name. It has become necessary because the term Marxism, has often been used to appropriate his name, but this use (or abuse) has too often served to neglect or distort, some of his essential analyses and ideas. The result of such neglect and distortion has led to many important views remaining half-forgotten or obscured by interpretation and misinterpretation.

For this reason it is often overlooked that the anti-capitalist and post-capitalist perspective, radiating from the tradition associated with Karl Marx, is not concerned simply with creating better conditions for the working class and the oppressed, but with the emancipation of the whole of humanity. This perspective argues that the development of previous civilisations, and capitalism in particular, has distorted the natural essence of human relations and for the mass of human beings has stunted their individual human development.

Whether as direct slaves, serfs, or wage-slaves, ordinary working people have, throughout recorded history, been subject to the exploitation and control of various ruling elites. The historic divisions caused by this socio-economic bifurcation, has created huge discrepancies in wealth and well-being between the owners or controllers of the predominant means of production and those employed to work them. The historic cleavage of societies into two extreme classes of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ has thus been the prevalent situation over huge periods of time and has produced an extended history of class struggles, stretching from antiquity to the present day.

Furthermore, due to these oppressive conditions, increasing numbers of people, over successive period’s, have also become alienated from the product of their own economic activity and from each other. How to overcome this seemingly eternal human alienation (also much debated by religions) became something of the historical riddle referenced in the title. Taking what at the time represented a radical and non-religious long view, encompassing the past as well as the future, Marx asked the following searching and revealing questions;

“1. What in the evolution of mankind is the meaning of this reduction of the greater part of mankind to abstract labour?” 2. What are the mistakes committed by the piecemeal reformers who either want to raise wages and in this way to improve the situation of the working class or regard equality of wages as the goal of social revolution.” (Marx. ‘1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts‘. Collected Works Vol. 3 p. 241.)

These two questions represent the two contrasting focal points of Marx’s concerns and serve to indicate the full scope of his research. Marx argued that only by the removal of oppressive and exploitative economic and social conditions along with being freed from want, would human beings be able to overcome their alienation as well as develop their full individual and collective humanity.

Marx concluded this could only be done by bringing the means of production under the direct control of the producers. Achieving this grass-roots relationship and democratic control of production could also allow rational and democratic decisions be made as to what is produced and in what quantities. Describing the alienating forms of work under capitalist production, Marx noted that the worker;

“…does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labour is not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour..” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Collected Works. Vol 3 p 274.)

This explains why when freed of the need for a wage or salary, work of the capitalist form – with a few exceptions – is shunned like the plague. In such circumstances most people absent themselves from wage or salary-slavery not in order to simply laze around, but choose alternative forms of activity, whether recreational, voluntary or DIY. From Marx’s revolutionary-humanist perspective the future solution to the relative poverty of working people was not to achieve full employment under an exploitative capitalist system, or any other, but to attain voluntary employment under a non-exploitative, self-governing post-capitalist system.

The propensity of capitalism for creating obscene wealth for a minority whilst creating poverty, slump, crisis, colonial expansion and predatory wars, on the other, had long been denounced by many commentators. Marx, however, recognised not only a moral objection (the exploitation, alienation and oppression at the heart of the capitalist system) but by analysing in detail the economic logic and internal mechanisms he successfully predicted periodic and catastrophic levels of crisis which would create political instability and social unrest.

The economic collapses and social dislocation in Europe and elsewhere during the 1930’s, did in fact trigger large-scale social and political unrest on an international scale. In the UK, the Triple Alliance, threatened a General Strike and in 1926 a failed one occurred. The period also saw the Spanish Civil War, uprisings in Chile, and other South American countries. Protests of Gandhi-led masses broke out in India and European Fascism took power in a number of countries. This period also convinced the capitalist class to introduce reforms along with Keynesian economics and the New Deal in the USA.

Capitalism, however, cannot be reformed on a permanent basis. The system generates enough power and influence to subvert, by-pass or remove any impediments to its pursuit of profit. In the 21st century, we can now add to capitalisms contradictory operations and tendencies, a fuller understanding of its impact upon the ecological balance of the planet. It is increasingly recognised that capitalist societies are already over-developed. Capitalism is in need of reigning in, rather than unleashing further. Capitalist societies are producing far too much and far too fast and in the process creating ecological destruction on the one hand and a debilitating form of commodity fetishism on the other.

B) More on the Riddle.

The problem (the riddle) to be solved was, and still is, when and how could the suffering majority population of societies effect a transition between the present capitalist system, which benefit’s only a minority and a future post-capitalist one which would benefit the vast majority. An allied question in the 19th century was also which class would take a lead in organising that transition when the opportunity arose. It was soon realised that it would be the working classes – those engaged directly in producing useful items and services – who would play the most pivotal part.

It had also become clear by the 19th century, that the capitalist class would not give up its control of the means of production voluntarily. Accordingly, it was generally accepted that a revolution against the power and privilege of the capitalist class would be necessary. Under the capitalist system, that meant that the working and oppressed classes would indeed be in the front line of that revolution.

However, revolutions cannot be simply be created at will. Few, (if any) actual revolutions, as distinct from some types of uprising, are undertaken for some clear vision of the future. The English revolution, for example, was prompted by opposition to, aristocratic tax demands. To some extent so was the North American. Opposition to the unlimited power of the French King kicked-started the French revolution and both the 1905 uprising and the1917 revolution in Russia were initially protests against the Czar’s war-mongering and the resulting socio-economic hardship. For protests or uprisings to become revolutions, the following elements need to come together.

First, an economic system, must have developed which through the maturing of its contradictions, is both insufferable yet capable of being transformed. Second, a class must have developed which can initiate and sustain civil opposition, uprisings and the subsequent revolutionary transformation. Third, the understanding of some of that class needs to be such that they recognise, at least to some degree, the requirement to go beyond the situation they find themselves in. Fourth, the dominant class must itself be severely weakened by divisions over how to solve the developing crisis as it unfolds. Fifth, any crisis which occurs must be of sufficient magnitude to weaken the traditional support it formerly had among the general population.

So this solved the ‘when’ part of the riddle of history. However, Marx also suggested that;

“..the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” (Marx. German Ideology. Coll. Wks Vol. 5 page 53.)

The revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system and the return of the means of social production into the control of the producers, would also end the class system. This is because the class system under capitalism is based upon the separation of the producers from the means of production. With production in the hands of the producers the age-long economic basis for classes would no longer exist. In the article, ‘The Poverty of Philosophy‘, Marx posed a rhetorical question (and answered it) about what follows a successful challenge to the capitalist system.

“Does this mean that after the fall of the old society there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No. The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of all classes…The working class in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.” (Marx ’The Poverty of Philosophy’ Collected Works Vol. 6 page 211-212.)

It is clear that from the context in which this point is made that the stress is on the doing away with the class of ‘worker‘, tied as it is to the fact of wage-labour. Marx was not advocating a form of economic equality where everyone, including a political elite, become wage or salary slaves for some abstract or even concrete future state formation. The state operating as the ultimate capitalist was not what Marx had in mind. We can see, that for Marx, there would be no state, no political parties, no class domination and no ‘workers‘, or ‘capitalists’, only citizens (organised in their ‘associations‘) who contribute to social and economic production.

This multi-dimensional understanding was what Marx considered allowed ‘the riddle of history’ to be ‘solved’ – at least – in theory! However, for a time, it was still not absolutely clear what means or ‘form’ of workers association, in practice, could be the instrument of ‘association’ and become a transitional substitute for the old civil power wielded by the state. In Marx’s opinion, a final and adequate answer to that question was delivered not by theoreticians but by the citizens of Paris.

C) The solution – in practice.

During much of the 19th century, there was general agreement among a wide range of anti-capitalists about the nature of post-capitalist social forms. There was general agreement it should be made up of self-organising communities of producers. There was also agreement that the system of classes should be overturned and the fantastic differences in wealth abolished. Nevertheless, there were divisions among the radicals during the period of the 1st international and among its members.

The anarchist members of the 1st International Working Men’s organisation, for example, considered that politics itself was a hierarchical practice and could never deliver an equal society, no matter what the avowed rhetorical or ideological position of its members. They wanted nothing to do with political solutions or political forms of organisation. Marx and those around him at the time, although also accepting the one-sided, reactionary and elitist nature of politics, considered that in the period leading up to a revolutionary situation, workers would and should engage in political struggles to advance their wages and conditions.

Accordingly, around that time (a time of extreme aggression from the capitalist classes to those opposed to their system – which included deportations and judicial killings), those around Marx advocated the setting up of working class political parties to pursue – within the bourgeois political system – such reforms as the 8 hour day, health and safety issues, limitations in female and child labour exploitation, unemployment benefits and free education. Of course at that period the social conditions were extreme and of the 20 million inhabitants of the UK only a million had the vote, whilst trade union membership did not reach 2 million until 1900 – thirty years after the Paris Commune.

Therefore, for Marx, engagement with and involvement in bourgeois political forms (political parties and trade unions) were a means to improve the workers lot and to make them better equipped for the inevitable struggle against capital. However, the practical form of organisation which would assist the transformation of a revolutionary crisis into a popular revolution leading to the overthrow of capitalism, was not immediately clear to him nor to anyone else at the time it seems. The theory seemed clear, but the form of association was still obscured by generalisations and abstractions, usually along the line of ‘workers-government’ or ‘workers-state’. The unfolding struggle had not as yet revealed the solution.

However, for Marx, the formation of the Paris Commune in 1870 did. This worker-led initiative, had solved in practice the problem of what political form was suitable for a revolutionary transformation between capital and a post-capital form of society. After studying the Paris events, Marx argued that the ‘greatest measure of the commune was its own existence’. He noted that the solution was simple – as all great things. It provided ‘the rational medium’, ‘the political form of social emancipation’, it allowed the return of the powers usurped by the state to the ‘living forces’ of the ‘popular masses’.

This new creation by workers and ordinary citizens, would seem to have bridged an important gap between the anarchists and those workers organised around Marx. For here was a form, which during its development had included two types of anarchists, the Proudhonists and Blanquists among the activists. The Paris Commune, in practice, apart from electing revocable, short term delegates to any necessary positions – had no other political or governmental function.

Yet some of the anarchists of that period rejected Marx’s report (contained in ‘The Civil War in France’). They were not convinced by his re-assurances that the post-capitalist society, based upon the example of the Paris Commune, would not create a new ruling or governing class. Indeed, they accused him personally of authoritarian actions within the 1st International, and he certainly accused them of dogmatic ideology and sectarian splitting.

So the anarchists (in and out of the 1st International) continued to argue that politics would be the undoing of any proposed revolutionary developments which clung onto that fatally diseased form – even if it were workers that occupied these political positions. Bakunin, for example insisted that;

“..the election of people’s representatives and rulers of the state – is a lie, behind which is concealed, the despotism of the governing minority, and only the more dangerous in so far as it appears as expression of the so-called people’s will….They will no longer represent the people, but themselves…” (quoted by Marx from Bakunin’s ‘Statism and Anarchy.)

If we soberly consider the development of the Russian Revolution once it was in the hands of the Bolshevik Party and their so-called ‘workers state‘, it becomes clear that the Anarchists around Bakunin, in particular, were absolutely correct on the ease with which so-called ‘workers’ representatives, usually drawn from the most able, or the most devious, can become a new ruling elite. If we, therefore, insist that the Bolsheviks were carrying out Marx’s interpretation of the political form for a post-capitalist re-construction, then it would be correct to say – as others have done – that Marx’s position on this matter was fundamentally flawed.

However, a close and careful reading of Marx on this question establishes that the Bolshevik’s were not following Marx on this vitally important issue. For the Bolsheviks their political views and party organisation had not only to dominate, but dictate, and control everything – economically, socially and intellectually. If we trawl through Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Bukharin, Zinoviev etc., hierarchical, political domination clearly appears as a recurring given! On the other hand, for Marx after the Paris Commune, political forms were to be reduced to the democratic election of representatives, (were they are required, at ordinary levels of remuneration and subject to recall) to the communal bodies. For, as he argued;

“..as soon as the functions have ceased to be political ones, there exists 1) no governmental function, 2) the distribution of the general functions has become a business matter, that gives no one domination, 3) election has nothing of its present political character.” (Marx. Conspectus of Bukharin’s Statism and Anarchy‘.)

But who else apart from Marx, Engels and a few others was watching and listening, and prepared to consistently promote such a practice? Certainly not the Bolsheviks! The Bolshevik practice after the formation of the soviets, and the seizure of power by the workers, soldiers and peasant soviets, was one of elevating and perpetuating their own dictatorial political power over the soviets. They deliberately created a governmental and bureaucratic functional state out of members of (and directed by) their own political party. As Lenin robustly asserted a number of times, against certain internal and external critics of Bolshevik political domination at the time;

“Yes it is a dictatorship of one Party! This is what we stand for and shall not shift from that position.” (Lenin. Complete Works. Vol. 29 page 535.)

For Marx, the Paris Commune presented a glimpse into the future form of workers revolutionary struggle, brought about by the exceptional circumstances around the siege of Paris. Since those exceptional circumstances were not replicated elsewhere at the time, he continued to advocate reformist political activity for workers within capitalist countries to secure fundamental changes within the system in order to strengthen the workers movement. But this advocacy was a contextual, or historically specific consideration by him, not an abandonment of the achievements of the Paris workers and citizens.

Marx, therefore did not discard, either his earlier profound criticism of political forms in general, (see his Critical Marginal notes on an article by a Prussian.) or his advocacy of the commune type form of revolutionary association inspired by the Paris Commune. Indeed, continuing the argument with the anarchists and replying to their accusation directed against Marx and others of wishing a form of government over the workers, he replied among other similar points , ‘Non, mon cher‘ ;

“..the whole thing begins with the self-government of the commune….”.(Marx. Conspectus of Bukharin’s Statism and Anarchy‘.)

To sum up. For Marx, a workers and citizens associative self-government, based upon the Commune, was the ultimate form of defensive association, and in its continuance, the beginning of the revolutionary post-capitalist transformation. Self-government was to be the immediate lever of change, not a future result granted to them by a so-called worker-friendly government or a political party elite after a period of time. This crucial contribution by the Communards of Paris and written up by Marx in his report, was something the Bolsheviks had apparently, not seen, overlooked or chose to ignore.

That this form was epoch making and essentially correct, was confirmed by the workers of Russia in the 20th century when they created the workers and soldiers soviets. For these bottom up associations were also created by the masses and replicated the communal form on a wider and more comprehensive scale. Before, that is, they became, or were allowed to become, transformed by the Bolsheviks into subordinate mechanisms serving their own centralist, oligarchic and sectarian rule. So sadly, in Russia, China and elsewhere, the riddle of history, was not solved in practice. Also sadly, Marx’s name was used to create an ideology termed ’Marxism’ which justified the dominance of a political elite in charge of ‘the party’ and a totalitarian state.

Roy Ratcliffe (April 2012.)

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  1. John says:

    Great article. Perhaps the greatest riddle now is what proper communism actually looks like in practice.

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