Marxism and Democracy by Lucien Laurat 1940

Chapter One: The Marxism of Marx

Before examining the essential theses of Marxist doctrine we feel it necessary to explain, at least in general outline, the object of our examination. This, it appears to us, is all the more desirable because most of our contemporaries make no distinction between the original sum of ideas left to us by Marx and Engels, and the subsequent contributions of their followers. And — as we shall soon see — views very far removed indeed from those they actually held are often ascribed to the founders of scientific Socialism.

Most contemporary discussion of Marxism also suffers from a regrettable confusing of fundamental and auxiliary ideas. Predictions put forward with regard to the general development of capitalist society, and particular recommendations made at this or that moment by this or that Socialist group or party, have been placed on the same level. There are numerous supporters and enemies of Marxism who put forward some of the non-essential views of Marx in order to prove either the essential inviolability or the complete bankruptcy of the whole of his sociological edifice.

In our examination of the principal points of this edifice we propose to avoid all abstract controversy. The only satisfactory examination is a comparison with reality. For example, we could go on discussing till Doomsday the respective importance of the base and the superstructure in social development without ever coming to grips with the question proper. We are all the more willing to leave this to those who have a taste for extravagant discussions, seeing that Marx and Engels, particularly Engels, have expressed themselves very clearly on the point. However, should it become necessary to expose a false interpretation, we shall, of course, deal with such questions, but then with the sole object of clearing the ground.

No one need therefore be surprised at the absence in the following short summary of certain digressions interesting only to the fanatical pedant.

I: Historical Materialism

The whole doctrine of Marxism rests on the materialist conception of history, which regards productive relations and the class struggle conditioned by these relations as the determining basis of historical development. It was thanks to this that Socialism, from being utopian, became scientific. In founding Socialist aspirations on a rational economic law of social development, instead of justifying them on moral grounds valid at any time and in any place, Marx and Engels proclaimed Socialism an historical necessity. By that very fact they condemned all a priori constructions. Instead of the illusion of an immediate and complete creation of a new world as though by magic, they gave the youthful working class the conviction that capitalist society was advancing inevitably towards Socialism by virtue of its own inherent economic forces. [1]

The importance of historical materialism in the work of Marx is twofold. The materialist conception of history is at one and the same time the point of departure and the conclusion of Marxist doctrine.

It is the point of departure because it led Marx to devote his best efforts to the study of the laws and tendencies of capitalist economy. Karl Kautsky points this out very correctly in his monumental work on the materialist conception of history. [2]

It is the conclusion because, in order to obtain social and political guidance for the struggle of the working class from the study of economics, the methods of historical materialism must be applied.

As it is no part of our aim to give a complete picture of the materialist conception of history here, [3] we propose to confine ourselves to restating the authentic gist of that conception as against certain mechanistic and fatalistic distortions frequently met with. To repeat an image employed almost 10 years ago by Boris Souvarine in a letter to Trotsky, we must not conceive this theory as like a lift travelling vertically and directly upwards from the economic base to the ideological superstructure; not only on account of the reaction of the superstructure on the base, but still more because the ideas, legal and political institutions, etc, of a given epoch proceed from the economic base of that epoch and from the ideology of preceding epochs.

‘The tradition of all the dead generations’, declares Marx in his Eighteenth Brumaire, ‘weighs like an alp on the brain on the living.’ And Friedrich Engels, applying the method practically to explain the birth of modern Socialism, writes in his Anti-Dühring:

Like every new theory, it [Socialism] had at first to link itself on to the intellectual material which lay ready to its hand, however deep its roots lay in economic facts. [4]

This rapid review seems necessary to us because, as we shall see subsequently, ideas corresponding to material conditions long since past often survive or are reborn under certain historical conditions.

II: The Economic Doctrine of Marx

The economic analysis of Karl Marx has its origin in one of the most strongly contested ideas of our epoch: the labour theory of value propounded by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. We have already pointed out that we are confining ourselves in this book to a practical examination of Marxist theory, and we therefore do not propose to discuss the many objections raised against it. In his recent book, [5] Mr Sidney Hook declares very correctly that one can neither prove nor disprove a law of value by pure logic, but, at least, it is quite certain that the law of value on which Marx based his theories has proved an incomparable instrument of analysis. Thanks to it Marxist economic science has obtained results of an accuracy and foresight that no other economic doctrine can claim. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the theory of value as it has been handed down to us by Marx himself, and developed by a number of his followers, suffers from certain inadequacies. However, as the greater number of the attacks directed against it are characterised by a complete absence of scientific objectiveness, [6] many of them being wholly the result of partisan passion, they hardly merit refutation. The desire to destroy it at all costs and en bloc prevents these pseudo-savants from observing the parts which are really in need of clarification. At the same time, the religious orthodoxy displayed by certain ‘Marxists’ utterly lacking in all critical intelligence is another obstacle to this clarification. [7] And yet there is no lack of problems left unsolved by Marx. Let us take simply the question of productive and unproductive labour. In this connection the views expressed by Marx in Capital do not tally with those subsequently expressed in Theories of Surplus Value. Or again, the question of simple labour and complex labour, on the subject of which there are serious differences of opinion between Marx and Engels on the one hand, and Rudolf Hilferding and Otto Bauer [8] on the other, which have recently been dealt with from a new angle by the Austrian sociologist Julius Dickmann. [9] In this rapid sketch we do not propose to express any opinion which it would be impossible to set out fully within the framework of this book. All that we wish to point out here is that certain aspects of the labour theory of value stand in need of more detailed development, and that serious and disinterested criticism, even if it might be considered on the whole ill-founded, is capable of broadening our viewpoint and contributing towards a general clarification of our ideas. [10]

Such efforts towards clarification are infinitely more fruitful than those endless controversies in which the supporters of different theories indefatigably hurl at each other arguments which have been familiar for half a century. It is in its capacity to explain concrete phenomena that a theory shows its real value.

For our own part we agree entirely with Karl Kautsky when he writes:

Up to the present there is no other tenable theory of value than the labour theory of value. Opposing theories of value which have been put forward apply to quite different phenomena, and not those which the labour theory of value sets out to explain. [11]

Let us examine the fundamentals of the economic doctrines of Karl Marx, which are based on the labour theory of value.

The total labour of a capitalist society presents itself in a given quantity of commodities distributed along the channels of circulation amongst the various economic categories. Part of this total labour is designed to replace the worn-out means of production (buildings, machinery, raw material and accessories). This is constant capital (c), and remains in the hands of the capitalist class. Another part, designed to remunerate the owners of labour power, variable capital (v), finds its way into the hands of the working class. And finally, the remaining part, surplus-value (s-v), representing the difference between the labour performed by the wage-working class and the value, much less, of its labour-power, returns in many different forms (employer’s profit, interest paid to the functionless capitalist, rent) to the various categories into which the capitalist class is divided, and to the owners of land.

Marx draws a distinction between certain secondary forms, which we shall discuss later on: ‘Wages of direction or superintendence’, which, whilst nominally forming a part of profit, are, in fact, a remuneration of the labour of the employer, and dividends. To this division of surplus-value amongst its various beneficiaries is added a further division into that part which they directly consume, and another part which they accumulate (or reinvest).

Having in this way laid bare the anatomy of capitalist economy, Marx proceeds to examine its workings and the changing relations to which it gives rise amongst the various categories mentioned. Competition forces each individual capitalist, ‘on pain of extinction’, to accelerate the process of accumulation, to increase the scale of production, and to make himself the champion of technical progress. From this continual revolution in the methods of production there result:

1: The increase of (c) in relation to (v) (a rise in the organic composition of capital), tending to the elimination of man by the machine, to ‘relative over-population’.

2: The reduction of (v) in relation to (s-v) (relative surplus-value) or, from another angle, ‘reduction of relative wages’, that is to say, a reduction of the share in the total product enjoyed by the working class, [12] one of the elements of relative over-production (but only one of the elements).

3: The reduction of s-v in relation to c + v (a fall in the rate of profit), modified by factors operating in the contrary direction, and leading to periodical upheavals, the crises, which have a further cause in the increase of that part of s-v which is accumulated, in relation to that part which is consumed.

The changing relations between the various sub-divisions of surplus value (employer’s profit, interest and rent) give rise to still further conflicts, though less fundamental than the preceding ones.

On the basis of the contradictions which we have pointed out, Marx then shows us the general tendencies of capitalist economy. We may sum up as follows:

1: The concentration and centralisation of capital, the ever-increasing preponderance of larger enterprises as against smaller ones, the progressive ‘socialisation’ [13] of the economic process, and the monopolisation of all the advantages of economic progress in the hands of fewer and fewer big capitalists.

2: An increase in the number of proletarians, that is to say, in the number of those who lack the means of production and thus the possibility of selling goods, and are therefore obliged to sell their labour-power in order to exist; a larger and larger majority of exploited workers is opposed to a decreasing minority of exploiting capitalists, and that majority is trained, united and organised by the very mechanism of capitalist production.

3: The aggravation of the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system, rendering its working more and more difficult, and giving rise to a situation in which the transformation of capitalist property into the property of associated producers will be brought about by the irresistible logic of facts.

The proletariat executes the judgement pronounced by private property against itself when it created the proletariat, just as the proletariat executes the judgement which it pronounces against itself when it produces riches for others and misery for itself. [14]

It is the action of the proletariat, its class struggle, which thus becomes the subjective and decisive factor of social evolution, operating on the material basis of capitalist automatism, its laws and its objective tendencies.

The origin of Marx’s economic analysis lies in historical materialism. The question of the proletariat as a subjective factor in social development, which arises from an economic analysis, leads us back to the materialist conception of history. How therefore does the evolution of capitalism react on the behaviour of the proletariat?

III: History Conscious of Itself

The views dealt with in the preceding passages represent an extraordinary piece of far-sighted historical anticipation. During the revolution of 1848 and immediately afterwards Marx and Engels still harboured the illusion that the revolution, which they considered the inevitable end of capitalism, was imminent, [15] but subsequently they soon realised that capitalism had by no means outlived its time, and that the proletariat was not yet ripe to enter into its inheritance. The following passage, dating from 1859, reads like an echo of abandoned illusions:

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have been matured in the womb of the old society. [16]

‘Historical necessity’, which was the basis of Socialism for Marx and Engels, has for its counterpart the historical limits indicated in the passage quoted, historical limits established by both material conditions and the degree of maturity of the human factor. It is the latter element which is so often neglected in our day by many of those who claim to be followers of Marx. And yet all their lives the actual founders of scientific Socialism never ceased to insist on the importance of this element. No one who has grasped the profound significance of historical materialism will find cause for surprise at this insistence.

Historical materialism permits human society to seize upon ‘the natural law of its own development’, although this knowledge at the same time forbids it to ‘clear by bold leaps’ or ‘remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development’. [17] Thanks to historical materialism, humanity can consciously accomplish its historic actions, whereas in the past it accomplished them instinctively and in ignorance of their real meaning. The history of the human race becomes conscious of itself. This conscious realisation obviously does not permit humanity to free itself from the natural and social laws to which it is subject, any more than a knowledge of physiology permits an individual to evade the process of growth to which he is subject from birth. But in becoming conscious of its own development society is aware of the path which it must traverse: it becomes free within the framework of those laws whose existence, action and necessary restraint it recognises. ‘Free will’, declared Engels, ‘is nothing but the capacity to come to a decision in full knowledge of all the facts.’ It consists in ‘that sovereignty over ourselves and over the outside world founded upon a knowledge of the essential laws of nature’. [18] That is what George Plekhanov meant when he wrote:

Sociology becomes a science only to the extent to which it arrives at an understanding of the human aims of social man as a necessary consequence of the social process, conditioned in the last resort by the march of human development. [19]

From the very beginning Marx never failed to stress the significance of this conception of history. Writing to Ruge in September 1843 he declares:

All we are doing is to show the world what it is really striving for; consciousness is something which it must acquire whether it likes it or not. The reform of consciousness consists only in showing the world its own consciousness, in awakening it from its dream of itself, in explaining to it its own actions... It will then be seen that for a long time it has possessed the dream of a thing of which to be really conscious is to enter into real possession. [20]

Contributing to a controversy in the Neue Rheinische Revue about the year 1850 Marx restates this idea more clearly:

It goes without saying that every great historical change in social conditions has been accompanied by a corresponding change in man’s opinions and ideas, including his religious conceptions. The difference between present and past upheavals lies precisely in the fact that now the secret of the historical process of change has at last been discovered, and that consequently instead of deifying this ‘exterior’ process, and making a new religion of it, man sheds religion altogether. [21]

It is in this that we see the greatest merit of Karl Marx. His historical materialism marks a clear distinction between the revolutions of the past and those still to come. Those of the past are characterised by the blind rush of mobs, ignorant of the part they are playing on the historical stage, a prey to illusions concerning even their own wishes and what it is possible for them to attain, and incapable of seeing in the womb of the dying society against which they are in revolt the shape of the new order destined to arise as a result of their action. The Socialist revolution, on the other hand, strong in its knowledge of the law of social development, can accomplish itself in full consciousness of what will replace capitalism in decline, but also in full consciousness of what this system cannot give before it has arrived at its full maturity. The method of Marx permits us to X-ray capitalist society and capitalist economy, and to distinguish the contours of the embryo developing in its womb. Henceforth humanity can make its own history in full knowledge of what it is doing.

In a letter written in 1882 by Friedrich Engels to Karl Kautsky on the Polish question, we find the following passage: ‘The real, not the illusory aims of a revolution are always realised after that revolution has taken place.’ [22] This remark refers to the revolution of 1848, a bourgeois revolution characterised by a spontaneous and blind upheaval, by an ignorance of what Engels calls its ‘real aims’. Thanks to historical materialism, social development is now, or ought to be, stripped of that duality of real and illusory aims. Formerly the objective aims of revolution, unknown to man, and man’s subjective aims, mocked by the actual course of development, were in perpetual contradiction. Now the subjective aims have ceased to be illusory, because the discovery of the laws of social development allows humanity to reconcile its subjective aims with these real aims, which are at last recognised. This identity of subjective and objective aims flows from that liberty defined by Engels as ‘that sovereignty over ourselves and over the outside world founded upon a knowledge of the essential laws of nature’.

This identity of subjective and objective aims merely in the minds of a few leaders is obviously not sufficient to ensure the Socialist transformation of society and its economic system. If historical materialism means for human history in general that history becomes conscious of itself, then to a still greater extent it must mean that the proletariat — according to Marx the essential factor in any Socialist transformation — must become conscious of its own situation, of capitalist evolution and of the real aims of that evolution.

‘The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves.’ This statement, the first article of the Statutes of the First International, often quoted but rarely commented upon, underlines what we have just said. The working people must emancipate themselves, but to be able to do so in the first place they must thoroughly familiarise themselves with the conditions of their struggle, and acquire that maturity without which all their efforts would be doomed to sterility. Marx and Engels always attached fundamental importance to this. From 1844 onwards Marx insisted upon it:

It is not a question of knowing what this or that proletarian, or even this or that proletariat as a whole, momentarily makes its aim. It is a question of knowing what the proletariat is and what it historically must do in accordance with the nature of its being. Its historical aim and action are laid down for it definitely and irrevocably in the very conditions of its own existence, and in the whole organisation of contemporary bourgeois society. [23]

In 1850, at the time of the split in the Communist League, Marx judged it necessary to tell the workers:

You will have to go through 15, 20, perhaps 50 years of civil and international wars, not merely in order to change conditions, but to change yourselves and make yourselves fit to take over political power. [24]

To the end of their days both Marx and Engels insisted on the absolute necessity of the intellectual development of the proletariat. The whole activity of the Second International, directly inspired by Engels in the years from 1889 to 1895, bears witness to this. Parallel with the development of capitalism the parties affiliated to the Second International worked vigorously to hasten the intellectual development of the subjective factor, the working class.

In his well-known preface written in March 1895 to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, Friedrich Engels boldly draws the lessons of historical evolution in the years from 1848 to 1895. After having stressed how many times Marx and himself had harboured illusions concerning the maturity of the situation and the tempo of development, he writes as follows on the defeat of the Paris Commune:

And once again, 20 years after the time described in this work of ours [1848 — LL], it was proved how impossible, even then, was this rule of the working class. On the one hand, France left Paris in the lurch, looked on whilst it bled from the bullets of MacMahon; on the other hand, the Commune was consumed in unfruitful strife between the two parties which divided it, the Blanquists (the majority), and the Proudhonists (the minority), neither of which knew what was to be done. [25]

Engels speaks here of the inadequacy of the subjective factor, which, in any case, corresponded to the immaturity of the objective conditions, trenchantly described by him in the same preface. We shall see later on by what means certain sections of the working-class movement, particularly Bolshevism, have sought to hasten artificially this process of subjective ripening, thereby doing violence to history. For the moment it is sufficient to keep well in mind that in the eyes of the two founders of scientific Socialism the maturity of the subjective factor was an indispensable condition for the establishment of the new order.

However, we must not imagine that Marx and Engels conceived this process of intellectual ripening as something to be arrived at mechanically on a school bench under the upraised cane of a ‘professional revolutionary’ (Lenin) or of a ‘technician of revolution’ (Max Eastman).

Although they believed that the maturing of the proletariat, conditioned by capitalist development, should proceed parallel with that development, they were not less convinced that the more enlightened section of the workers’ movement could hasten this process and save the working class from many useless defeats. They contended that the workers must arrive at their intellectual enfranchisement in the school of life, through experience of the social struggle. They energetically opposed all who, like Proudhon and Lassalle, ‘instead of seeking the real basis of their agitation in the vital elements of the working class want to dictate to the workers, according to some doctrinaire plan, the course they should follow’. [26] When, several years after the death of Marx, the workers of the United States entered upon mass action and grouped themselves in their own organisations, Engels vigorously denounced the activities of those German refugees who sought to impose ‘imported and not always correctly understood’ theories on the American workers. [27]

Our theory [declared Engels] is a theory of evolution and by no means a dogma to be learned by heart and recited mechanically. The less it is imposed on the Americans from without, the more they will understand it from their own experience, and the better they will assimilate it. [28]

If we have dwelt at some length upon this question of the consciousness and the maturity of the proletariat, and upon the place it occupies in the theoretical system of Marx and Engels, it is not only because in our day many Marxists neglect it completely, but also for the more important reason that without it only a fragmentary and vitiated idea can be formed of how the founders of scientific Socialism regarded the Socialist revolution.

IV: The Socialist Revolution

Capitalist evolution, characterised by the progressive intensification of all its inherent contradictions, leads, according to Marx and Engels, to a proletarian revolution. But while nothing could be clearer than the affirmations of the founders of scientific Socialism on all points connected with the general tendency of that evolution, their indications as to the form the Socialist revolution will take, and as to the shape of the new society to which it will give birth, are certainly lacking in precision.

However, just this lack of precision is one of the most important characteristics which distinguish scientific Socialism from utopian Socialism. There is no question here of hatching a new ready-made world out of abstract speculation. The task is rather to further those real evolutionary tendencies, foreseen in their general outline, but known in detail to scientific investigation only to the extent to which they are revealed in the course of actual social development. As early as 1846 Marx clearly described the difference between his doctrine and utopian Socialism:

So long as the proletariat is not sufficiently developed to constitute itself as a class, so long as, in consequence, the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie has not acquired a political character, and while the productive forces are not sufficiently developed in the bosom of the bourgeoisie to allow a perception of the material conditions necessary to the emancipation of the proletariat and the formation of a new society, so long these theorists are only utopians who, to obviate the distress of the oppressed classes, improvise systems and run after a regenerative science. But as history develops and with it the struggle of the proletariat becomes more clearly defined, they have no longer any need to seek for such a science in their own minds, they have only to give an account of what passes before their eyes, and to make themselves the instrument of it. [29]

It is in the course of capitalist development that the proletariat itself develops, that it constitutes itself as a class, that the resulting class struggle becomes a political struggle leading to the conquest of political power, itself a prelude to the transformation of capitalist property into the property of the associated workers. These general conceptions have so often been distorted at the hands of many of Marx’s followers that it seems to us necessary to restate briefly his real ideas. Seeing that certain sections of the Socialist movement now try to present Marx as an uncompromising upholder of violent methods, an advocate of a totalitarian dictatorship, and a supporter of collectivisation introduced at one fell swoop and without compensation, and seeing that they have ascribed to him a grossly distorted theory of the state, we feel it necessary to compare the real Marxism of Marx and Engels with the apocryphal Marxism of certain commentators.

The concluding paragraph of the Manifesto of the Communist Party reads: ‘The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.’ And in his Capital, referring to the birth of modern capitalism, Marx writes: ‘Force is the midwife of all old societies in labour. Force is itself an economic power.’

These are the two passages generally quoted to present Marx as an upholder at all costs of methods of violence, and to deny the name Marxist to whoever does not share this view. Two recent books are typical of this attitude: the one from the pen of Béracha, a critic of Marxism, and the other from Mr Sidney Hook, who proclaims himself a disciple of Marx. [30]

We must begin by defining our terms. The term violence usually evokes the idea of a struggle or combat, even of a pitched battle, in which recourse is had to force of arms, often against the law. But the term has also a less narrow and more general significance every time it is employed as a synonym of force, or power. If we accept the term in this larger sense we may logically say that all social order and all legality are founded on violence, that is to say on coercion. Incidentally, Rosa Luxemburg has dealt with this point excellently in her Die belgische Erfahrung. We must draw a clear distinction between what should be called latent violence, another way of expressing the peaceful pressure of conflicting social forces, and active violence, brutal violence, exercised only occasionally. The first is the permanent state of relations between social classes, whilst the second is characteristic only of those very brief episodes in the life of society when open war breaks out between the various classes. To make ourselves better understood let us take an example from international politics.

No one will deny that the peace enjoyed, if one may use the word, by Europe since the World War was founded on latent violence, on the fact that the force of those powers desirous of maintaining peace was sufficient to restrain the bellicose powers from plunging the world into active violence. In international as in social life, latent violence is the permanent state of relations, whilst active violence is an episode brought about by the upsetting of the normal balance between the opposing forces.

It is perfectly true that around the year 1848 Marx and Engels did not make this distinction between these two forms of violence, and they use the term without making any distinction between its two senses. That is easily understood: at that time the state of Europe was very far removed from democracy, and no change in the political and governmental regime designed to benefit the rising classes could be conceived of without recourse to active violence, and illegal violence into the bargain, because it was directed against established legality. In any case, anti-democratic legality cannot be modified except by illegality, because a new legality cannot be born organically out of the old and obsolete legality. [31] In a democratic regime, on the other hand, latent violence — in other words, the peaceful pressure of conflicting social forces — very often enables society to avoid the brutal outbreak of active violence. We propose to return to this question towards the end of our book.

For the moment we should like only to draw the attention of our readers to the fact that Marx and Engels subsequently modified their conception of violence, and that they did so in the light of historical experience. The progress of democracy in the second half of the nineteenth century was naturally not without influence on the development of their ideas. They began to realise that the conception of the proletarian revolution they formed in 1848 was cast too much in the mould of 1789. Franz Mehring, one of the founders of the Communist Party of Germany with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, a man whom no one could accuse of ‘reformism’, writes as follows in his biography of Karl Marx:

The Manifesto did not recognise the Factory Laws and trade-union organisations as stages in the proletarian struggle for emancipation... The Manifesto therefore regarded the reaction of the proletariat to the impoverishing tendencies of the capitalist mode of production too one-sidedly in the light of a political revolution. It based its conclusions on the English and French Revolutions... [32]

However, a quarter of a century after the publication of the Manifesto, that is, in 1872, we find Marx using quite different language. In his famous speech at Amsterdam on the morrow of the Hague Congress of the First International he declared:

We do not claim that the means necessary for bringing about this aim [the emancipation of labour — LL] will be the same everywhere. We know that we must take account of the institutions, customs and traditions of the various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such as the United States and Great Britain — and if I knew your institutions better I should perhaps add Holland — where the workers will be able to achieve their aims by peaceful means. But this is not the case in all countries. [33]

After the death of Marx, Engels expressed the same idea on a number of occasions, the last being in March 1895 in his famous preface to Marx’s Class Struggles in France. That preface is so well known that there is no need for us to dwell upon it at any length. In it Engels utters a warning against the illusions harboured by certain people with regard to the successful outcome of an armed insurrection. He affirms that capitalism fears the legal action of working-class parties much more than any illegal action, and that it fears their electoral success much more than it fears an armed insurrection. He stresses the importance of universal suffrage, ‘transformed from the means of deception which it has hitherto been, into an instrument of emancipation’, [34] and he declares:

The epoch of violent uprisings, of revolutions carried out by small minorities at the head of unenlightened masses [the italics are ours — LL] is past. Where it is a question of the complete transformation of the social organism the masses themselves must take a conscious part in the game, and understand the issues at stake and the cause for which they are fighting. We have learned this from the history of the last 50 years. However, in order that the masses shall understand what they have to do, long and patient work is necessary, and it is to this work that we are now addressing ourselves with a success which is driving our enemies to despair.

We shall have occasion to refer to this preface again and to draw conclusions from it applicable to our own day, but for the moment our only aim is to disentangle the real ideas of Marx and Engels from the incredible confusion caused by their commentators. From the quotations we have already given it follows: firstly, that the ideas of Marx and Engels changed and developed as they learned from historical experience; secondly, that it is false to present them as apostles of violent methods at all costs; and thirdly, that whoever ascribes ideas of non-violence à la Gandhi to them would be equally wrong. In the light of the experience gained in the course of their lives as militant Socialists they decided that under a democratic regime the workers would be able to achieve their aims by peaceful means, providing that capitalism did not itself destroy that democratic legality without which there could be no question of the successful adoption of peaceful means.

We can only be astounded at the frivolity with which Béracha deals with this question. After having quoted that passage of the Manifesto of the Communist Party which seems to favour violent methods, he writes:

This is the very basis of the opinions held by the founder of scientific Socialism. One could, of course, also gather passages favourable to the idea of a peaceful revolution from his many writings, but then one would land immediately in those sophistical subtleties which falsify the real thoughts of any author. [35]

What would Béracha say if we turned his argument round and based ourselves exclusively on quotations opposed to that idea? Why should his own interpretation be the only ‘true’ one, even in spite of what Marx and Engels themselves wrote? Would it not be better to record the fact that the opinion of Marx and Engels on this point leaves a considerable margin for unforeseen circumstances? It is very regrettable that in this way Béracha has greatly lessened the value of his book, which is otherwise well documented and full of interesting observations. [36]

Let us suppose the proletariat to be in power by one or the other of the two methods indicated by Marx. What would it do? According to most of our ordinary Marxists today it would establish the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. This formula, to which very little importance was attached by Marxists before the World War, has since been considered one of the main supports of the Marxist doctrine. Anti-Marxists like Béracha, are at one with Trotskyist and Stalinist Bolshevists in excommunicating from the Marxist pale whoever dares to express a doubt that this formula is really the cornerstone of the Marxist system. Nothing better characterises the confusion which has been created since 1917 than a comparison of two passages taken from two books written by Paul Louis and published within little more than a year of each other. At the beginning of 1931 he wrote: ‘Up to the outbreak of the World War it [the idea of proletarian dictatorship — LL] was the least discussed of all Marxist ideas. It was accepted as an axiom.’ [37] At the beginning of 1932 the same author wrote:

Up to the year 1917 it [the idea of proletarian dictatorship — LL] was very little known and attracted hardly any attention; no one went deeply into the matter, and what Socialist literature did mention the subject was practically negligible. [38]

It seems to us that this latter passage flatly contradicts the former contention that the formula was ‘accepted as an axiom’. [39] In a book published in 1934 entitled What Marx Really Meant, GDH Cole also expresses the opinion that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the cornerstone of Marxism, but he produces no other reference but the celebrated passage of 1875, with which we shall deal in due course. [40]

That is indeed a strange proceeding for an author who proposes to explain ‘what Marx really meant’.

Here again let us dot the i’s and cross the t’s. The phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is to be found in three places in the writings of Marx, and in two places in those of Engels. And even if there were ten or more references instead of five, we should still affirm one thing without fear of contradiction: neither Marx nor Engels ever fully explained what this phrase actually meant, but wherever the context is more explicit it is quite clear that for them this ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was synonymous — with democracy.

Here is the first reference, dated 1850:

... the proletariat rallies more and more round revolutionary Socialism, round Communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself found the name of Blanqui. This Socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the inevitable transit point to the abolition of class differences generally... [41]

Writing on 5 March 1852 to his friend Weydemeyer, Marx declares:

What I did that was new [from a theoretical standpoint — LL] was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with the particular, historic phases in the development of production; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. [42]

And finally there remains the best-known passage of all, that of 1875:

Between capitalist and Communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. [43]

Engels uses this phrase twice in 1891. The first time on 18 March in his preface to Marx’s Civil War in France, in which he writes:

The German Philistine invariably falls into a holy terror at the words, dictatorship of the proletariat. Do you want to know, gentlemen, what that dictatorship really means? Take a look at the Commune of Paris. That is the dictatorship of the proletariat.

And on 29 May 1891, in the criticism we have already mentioned of the draft programme of German Social-Democracy, he writes as follows:

If anything is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. Precisely this is the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown.

What general conclusions may justly be drawn from these passages?

First of all that the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ when used for the first time in 1850 is seen to be associated with the name of Blanqui. This was a period in which Marx himself was still under the influence of certain Blanquist and Jacobin conceptions pointed out earlier by us in this work. However, even in this period the dictatorship envisaged by Marx was never opposed in his mind to the principle of democracy. The Manifesto of the Communist Party declares two or three years earlier: ‘The first stage in the working-class revolution is the constitution of the proletariat as the ruling class, the conquest of democracy.’

This attachment to democracy — and this is our second conclusion — will be met with again later. When Engels saw the model of a proletarian dictatorship in the Paris Commune, he identified the dictatorship with a democratic constitution, as he did on 20 May 1891 in the passage we have just quoted. It follows from this that for Marx and Engels the formula in question is nothing but a paraphrase for the exercise of political power by the working class. By what means other than through democracy could the working class possibly exercise political power? The proletariat is a collective body and not an individual. Before its will can be made known and before it can prevail, the shape of that will must be forged, and how can a collective will be forged into shape except in freedom under a democracy? Collective property, the aim of Socialism, is inconceivable without democracy, for it cannot be collective until the collective body is free to determine the use to which it shall be put.

Nothing could be clearer than the passages we have quoted. Those who set up the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ against democracy have no right to call themselves Marxists. They have, of course, a perfect right to believe in dictatorship and to reject democracy. We do not propose to question that right at all, but only their right to invoke the authority of Marx and Engels, for whom the term ‘proletarian dictatorship’ was synonymous with democracy. It is an open question whether it is expedient in our day to retain this ‘ambiguous’ term — as Charles Longuet called it — which was originally employed to describe a democratic regime. However, we shall discuss this point later. For the moment, before going any further, it is essential to restate the authentic ideas of Marx and Engels as against the distorted interpretations of some of their followers and many of their adversaries.

Closely allied to the question of democracy and political power is the Marxist conception of the state, or, to be more exact, Engels’ conception of the state, which was, in any case, approved by Marx.

According to Engels:

... it [the state — LL] is as a rule the state of the most powerful economic class that by force of its economic supremacy becomes also the ruling political class, and thus acquires new means of subduing and exploiting the oppressed masses. [44]

Engels says ‘as a rule’, because he admits that under certain circumstances ‘the struggling classes balance each other so nearly that the public power gains a certain degree of independence by posing as the mediator between them’. [45] Apart, however, from these exceptional cases, the state, even a democratic state, was, in the eyes of the founders of scientific Socialism, the instrument par excellence of capitalist class domination, and this conception is absolutely in line with historical materialism: a political superstructure erected on a capitalist economic base is necessarily impregnated by all that emanates from that base. [46] However, when Lenin tries to demonstrate in his book State and Revolution, [47] on the strength of a single phrase taken from a letter written by Marx to Kugelmann on 12 April 1871, that the proletarian revolution must smash the machinery of the capitalist state in order to set up the proletarian state, we are faced with an interpretation of Marx which can only be described as a distortion. [48]

On this, as on many other occasions, Lenin accepts the form for the content, and thinks it possible to change the content by smashing the old form. In reality the state can never become a useful instrument in the service of the workers except to that extent to which the economic basis of the state is changed from a capitalist to a Socialist one. This is quite clear from the end of the second chapter of the Manifesto. Lenin would have been better advised to attack Marx’s real ideas quite frankly rather than try to foist his own apocryphal viewpoint upon Marx.

This now brings us to the problem of socialisation. The accession of the proletariat to power is not an aim in itself, but a means of bringing about the emancipation of labour by the establishment of collective property. We have already pointed out that Marx and Engels left us with only vague references, and that they did so precisely because they had a horror of all utopian schemes. But vague as these indications are, they are nevertheless clear enough to enable us to recognise that what is palmed off on us in our day as ‘Marxism’ has nothing whatever to do with the authentic ideas of Marx and Engels.

Those who claim that the founders of scientific Socialism preached nationalisation [49] have only the Manifesto of the Communist Party, published in 1847, to turn to for support, which proposes to ‘centralise all the instruments of production in the hands of the state’. However, the Manifesto predates the first volume of Capital by 20 years. And still later Marx and Engels expressed themselves with even greater circumspection on this point. Compare, for example, Chapter 27 of Volume 3, of Capital with the Manifesto of the Communist Party. In a preface dated 24 June 1872 to a new edition of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels declare that no excessive importance should be attached to the revolutionary measures about which we have just spoken.

Marx’s name is again invoked by certain would-be Marxists who claim that socialisation should be immediate and complete and extend to the entire economic system at once. In the first place these would-be Marxists forget that Marx envisaged only the collectivisation of capitalist property, and not the property of those who themselves possess and use their own instruments of labour. These people seem to forget, too, that even in the heroic days of their youth, on the eve of 1848, Marx and Engels repudiated such an absurd conception. The draft of the Manifesto drawn up by Engels says clearly that ‘the suppression of private property is not possible at one blow’, that the proletarian revolution ‘will be able to transform contemporary society only by degrees’. And a little later in the same draft we find him proposing to compel ‘such employers as still exist to pay the same high wages as the state’. [50] It is profoundly depressing to have to insist on such things, because whoever has even an elementary knowledge of the complex mechanism of contemporary economic life would regard as madness the suggestion that collectivisation might be introduced completely from one day to the next, and even the enemies of Marxism have never called Marx and Engels lunatics.

Those who claim that the principles of Marxism demand that socialisation should be introduced without compensation for the former owners of property violate both the letter and the spirit of the doctrines of those whom they regard as their teachers. By careful reference to the text one cannot even say that Marx and Engels left the question open, though it may have remained so in their minds. However, although passages may be found in their writings where they admit the possibility of compensation, we do not know of one single reference where they formally reject it. Engels envisages the possibility of compensation in 1847 in the draft of the Manifesto to which we have just referred. And later on Marx was even of the opinion that the compensation of English landed proprietors would be preferable to a civil war, as less costly. [51]

We must apologise for having devoted so much space to what might perhaps be considered ‘flogging a dead horse’. We were certainly not moved by any love for such exercises. On the contrary, we very much regret having to waste so much of our time on the matter. However, there comes a point when even the most placid temperament rebels against the endless repetition of the same old untruths. In the end one’s patience breaks down at the sight of people claiming to be Marxists in much the same way as the nudists claim to be followers of the theories of Wegener, and by reading criticisms of Marx which should obviously have been addressed to other quarters, and finally by the daily distortion of a doctrine which most of its supporters and adversaries are content to know by hearsay.

What has happened to Marx’s teachings is that which happened to the teachings of Darwin: the public summed it up in the phrase, as simple as it is false, ‘Man descends from monkey’. However, whilst this misunderstanding of Darwin’s teachings does no harm to anyone, the misunderstanding of Marx, who is worshipped by great numbers of people who know nothing about his teachings, is fraught with truly disastrous consequences.

For these reasons we feel it necessary to present the real ideas of Marx to our readers before proceeding to an examination of those ideas in the light of contemporary reality.


1. The two founders of scientific Socialism always declined the honour of having been the first to discover the materialist conception of history. As early as 1845 Friedrich Engels recognised the merit of the historians of the Bourbon restoration ‘from Thierry to Guizot, Mignet and Thiers’ (Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der deutschen klassischen Philosophie). And in a letter to Weydemeyer (5 March 1852) Marx declares: ‘Long before me bourgeois historians had described... the economic anatomy of the classes.’ (The Correspondence of Marx and Engels (Martin Lawrence, London, 1934), p 57) However, this did not prove sufficient to prevent M René Gonnard in his Histoire des doctrines économiques (Nouvelle librairie nationale, Paris, 1921-22) from calling Marx a plagiarist on several occasions. We are not tempted to accuse M Gonnard of having plagiarised Marx, for the simple reason that he does not appear to have read him, and the chapter of his book in which he deals with Marx and Marxism reveals no more than an acquaintance with the well-known and incomplete résumé of M Gabriel Deville. Apart from that M Gonnard limits himself to criticising Marx by way of the writings of all possible and impossible anti-Marxists without once taking the trouble to consult the original sources. As a result, his ‘critical’ attack is not a weighty one.

2. Karl Kautsky, Die materialistische Geschichtsauffassung, Volume 1 (Dietz, Berlin, 1927), p 11.

3. There is no lack of good books setting out the essence of the theory; for instance, René Michaud, Du Capitalisme au Socialisme (Éditions du Nouveau Prométhée, Paris, 1934); Jos Diner-Denes, Karl Marx (Éditions du Parti SFIO, Paris, 1933); Max Beer, The History of Socialism, Volume 5 [that is, Social Struggles and Modern Socialism (Parsons, London, 1925) — MIA]; George Plekhanov, Fundamental Questions of Marxism (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1937).

4. Friedrich Engels, Herr Eugen Dühring’s ‘Revolution in Science’ (Anti-Dühring) (translated by Emile Burns, Martin Lawrence, London, 1934), p 23.

5. Sidney Hook, Towards an Understanding of Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation (Gollancz, London, 1933).

6. This is very natural because the very point at issue is the key to the comprehension of social antagonisms.

7. A striking example of the absence of this critical spirit (not to speak of the level, if such it can be called, and of the tone of the polemic) is offered by the diatribe of L Rudas against Professor Antonio Graziadei in the review Unter dem Banner des Marxismus, Volume 1, nos 3-4.

8. Marx’s views are expressed in Capital and in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; Engels’ in Anti-Dühring; Hilferding’s in Boehm-Bawerk’s Marx-Critique; and Otto Bauer’s in his study on skilled labour under capitalism published in Die Neue Zeit, 1905-06.

9. Julius Dickmann, Der Arbeitsbegriff bei Marx (Bureau Erebe, Vienna, 1932).

10. This seems to us to be the case with the recent book of Professor Antonio Graziadei, Le Capital et la Valeur: critique des théories de Marx (Ed R Pichon and R Durand Auzias, Rouge, Lausanne, 1936).

11. Karl Kautsky, Die proletarische Revolution und ihr Programm (Dietz, Berlin, 1922).

12. We shall ask ourselves in vain how Louis Vallon in his Socialisme expérimentale (Centre polytechnicien d'études économiques, Paris, 1936) comes to assert that according to Marx the relation S-V divided by V remains constant. In reality Marx says exactly the opposite.

13. We use the term here in the same sense in which it was used by Marx in his Capital, that is to say, the employment in an increasingly collective fashion of those means of production which do not lend themselves to individual exploitation, and not in the sense of collectivisation deliberately carried out by the community.

14. Karl Marx, The Holy Family, Chapter 4.

15. On this subject Chapter 15 of the biography of Karl Marx by B Nikolaievsky and O Maenchen-Helfen, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter (Methuen, London, 1936), is of considerable interest.

16. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (translated by IN Stone, Kegan Paul, London, 1909). The following passage written by Marx in a polemic waged in 1847, is also interesting: ‘Men do not build themselves a new world with “earthly goods” according to vulgar superstition, but with the historical achievements of the old world which is about to go under. In the course of evolution they must begin by themselves producing the material conditions for a new society, and no effort of the human mind can or will release them from this necessity.’

17. Karl Marx, Capital, Preface to the First Edition.

18. Friedrich Engels, Herr Eugen Dühring’s ‘Revolution in Science’ (Anti-Dühring) (translated by Emile Burns, Martin Lawrence, London, 1934).

19. George Plekhanov, Fundamental Questions of Marxism (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1937, the italics are ours — LL).

20. Karl Marx, Nachlass, Volume 1 (published by Franz Mehring, Dietz, Stuttgart, 1923), pp 382-83.

21. Karl Marx, Nachlass, Volume 1 (published by Franz Mehring, Dietz, Stuttgart, 1923), p 402, the italics are ours.

22. Quoted by Karl Kautsky in his Rosa Luxemburg und der Bolschewismus, p 8.

23. Karl Marx, The Holy Family, Chapter 4, the italics are ours — LL.

24. Karl Marx, Enthüllungen über den Kommunistenprozess zu Köln (Neu-England-Zeitung, Basle and Boston, 1853).

25. Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France (Martin Lawrence, London, 1933), p 18.

26. Karl Marx in a letter to Schweitzer in 1868.

27. Engels in a letter to Mme Vishnevetski, 28 December 1886.

28. Engels in a letter to Mme Vishnevetski, 27 January 1887.

29. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (translated by Harry Quelch, Twentieth Century Press, London, 1900, the italics are ours).

30. Sammy Béracha, Le Marxisme après Marx (Rivière, Paris, 1937); Sidney Hook, Towards an Understanding of Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation (Gollancz, London, 1933).

31. This is even confirmed by the text of the Manifesto of the Communist Party itself: ‘The first stage in the working-class revolution is the constitution of the proletariat as the ruling class, the conquest of democracy.’

32. Franz Mehring, Karl Marx (translated by Edward Fitzgerald, John Lane, London, 1936, the italics are ours — LL).

33. In 1891 in a criticism of the draft programme of German Social-Democracy Engels returns to this idea and writes: ‘It is conceivable that the old society may be peaceably transformed into the new in those countries where the representation of the people concentrates all power in itself and is able to do whatever is necessary in a constitutional manner as soon as a majority of the people is behind it. This is the case in democratic republics such as the United States and France, and in monarchies such as Great Britain, where the press daily discusses the fate of the monarchical institution and where that institution is impotent against the popular will.’

34. The formula used in the programme of the Guesdist party.

35. Sammy Béracha, Le Marxisme après Marx (Rivière, Paris, 1937), p 69.

36. In his book Towards an Understanding of Marx (Gollancz, London, 1933) Mr Sidney Hook even goes a step further and declares peremptorily: ‘The Marxist contention is that the costs of social revolution are far less than the costs of chronic evils of poverty, unemployment, moral degradation and war, which are immanent in capitalism.’ Mr Hook would surely be greatly embarrassed if he were asked to produce the least reference in support of his thesis. Obviously, in certain circumstances such a thesis might be put forward, but for all that it would be neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. Unfortunately Marx is dead and no longer able to protest against the stupidities ascribed to him or committed in his name. It is not difficult to see what Marx had in mind when making his famous observation that he, at least, was no ‘Marxist’.

37. Paul Louis, Les idées essentielle du socialisme (Rivière, Paris, 1931), p 107. As far as the ‘axiomatic’ acceptance of this formula is concerned, it is sufficient to point out that with the exception of Russian Social-Democracy none of the bigger parties of the Second International even mentioned it in its programme.

38. Paul Louis, La révolution sociale (Librairie Valois, Paris, 1932), p 177.

39. In order to obtain some idea of how little attention was paid before 1917 to this ‘axiom’ all we need do is to read Charles Longuet’s preface to Marx’s Civil War in France, in which he declares that the dictatorship of the proletariat is ‘an ambiguous formula, altogether too simple’, and continues: ‘Today no Marxist worthy of the name has the right — and, I hope, no intention — to attribute the idea to the authors of the Manifesto of the Communist Party of substituting the despotism of the workers for the domination of the capitalist class...’ In the eyes of Longuet this idea is ‘archaic and erroneous’. The preface in question is dated 2 December 1900. Let us add that Charles Longuet was not a follower of Jaurès but of Jules Guesde. This is enough to show us what was thought of this ‘axiom’ in the Marxist section of the working-class movement before the World War.

40. GDH Cole, What Marx Really Meant (Gollancz, London, 1934), pp 179-86.

41. Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France, Chapter 3.

42. The Correspondence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Martin Lawrence, London, 1934), p 57.

43. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (Martin Lawrence, London, 1933), p 28.

44. Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (translated by Ernest Untermann, Charles H Kerr, Chicago, 1902), p 208.

45. Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (translated by Ernest Untermann, Charles H Kerr, Chicago, 1902), p 209.

46. Which does not prevent the non-privileged classes from exercising an influence which is at times very considerable upon the state under a democratic regime, as we show in our book Économie dirigée et socialisation (Édition de L'Églantine, Paris, 1934), pp 50-55.

47. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, State and Revolution (Allen and Unwin, London, 1919).

48. Marx was not referring to the state machinery as such, but to those bureaucratic and military excrescences it had inherited from the Empire. On this subject we must refer our readers to its illuminating treatment by Jules Martov in his book Le bolchevisme mondiale (Nouveau Prométhée, Paris, 1934), Chapter 3, which absolves us from further insistence on the point.

49. The actual term used by Laurat is ‘étatisation’, for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent — Translator.

50. The italics are ours. There again, M Sammy Béracha foists ideas upon Marx and Engels which they never held.

51. Referred to after the death of Marx by Engels in one of his publications. Rosa Luxemburg also refers to it in her Reform or Revolution?.