The Strategy of the Social Revolution

The Strategy of the Social Revolution. Marx always regarded his philosophy as the guide to a successful proletarian revolution, and his career was divided between scholarship and socialist leadership. It would be hard to name any form of political, radicalism in Western Europe after Marx that was not in some way affected by his thought.


But there have been two great political movements both of which claimed to be the authentic version of Marxism and these are at once so similar and so puzzlingly different that their relation to Marx is an important part of understanding his philosophy These were, first, party socialism as it existed in Western Continental Europe down to World Warand, second, communism as it has existence the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The latter grew directly from the former, for Lenin was a leader of a Russian Marxian party, yet he was also the destroyer of the Second International or organization Marxian socialist parties. The enmity between communists and socialists became even more bitter than that between communists and middle class parties. The strategy of communist parties has been entirely different from that of the socialist parties.

For the latter, by 1914 had gained positions of considerable political power in several countries of Western Continental Europe, especially in Germany, and in general their power grew by attracting votes in free elections, after suffrage was extended to the working class.

Lenin’s party, on the contrary, never was and never aspired to be a popular party gaining its ends by mass support. Yet it is quite true that both party socialism and communism derived their different conceptions of strategy from Marx.

A fuller explanation of this seeming paradox must depend on the account of Lenin’s version of Marxism in the next chapter; here it is sufficient to point out that Marx himself suggested two difference lines of strategy either of which might be taken to be the appropriate implication of his philosophy.

In the first place it seems probable that Marx, perhaps about 1860, did in fact change his mind about the strategy of revolution, though he never said so explicitly in the Communist Manifesto (1848) he denied emphatically that communists form a political party; they are the most advanced and resolute section of the working class, and this expression is obviously the origin of Lenin’s description of his party as the vanguard of the proletariat. At this time Marx certainly believed both that a bourgeois revolution was imminent in Germany and also that it would probably be touched off by a socialist revolution in France.

Accordingly he could believe that an elite of dedicated revolutionists, with a definite program and a clear understanding of the historical necessity of social revolution, might successfully operate as a general staff for ail radical proletarian movements, such as, for ex ample, left-wing labor unions.

Apparently, however, he soon became convinced that these petty bourgeois radical organizations were too strong to be managed in this fashion, and with the failure of the revolutionary attempts of 1848, he concluded that a long period of preparation would be needed, while industrialism created in the workers an effective revolutionary class consciousness.

He still believed that the social revolution was inevitable, but he believed also, in line with his theory of social evolution, that a revolution could not be made until bourgeois society had developed the full potentialities of the capitalist system.

The strategy implied was twofold a socialist party must indeed press for bourgeois reforms that strengthen the working class but its main consideration must be to preserve its own ideological purity and its freedom of action. It must never involve itself in divided political responsibility by cooperating with middle class parties. This was conventionalized into standard strategy by the Marxian socialist parties refusal to accept cabinet posts in governments formed by coalitions with non-socialist parties.

Obviously, however, if this strategy succeeded, it was likely to defeat its original revolutionary purpose. It aims to build its power by attracting voters with reforms that are not intrinsically socialist; even the Manifesto had demanded a graduated income tax.

But the more a party succeeds in getting reforms through the ballot, the less reason there is for it to remain revolutionary. And this is indeed what tended to happen to successful Marxian socialist parties. In 1895 even Engels boasted that the German Social Democrats were succeeding better by legal than by illegal methods.

Socialist intellectuals, being philosophical Marxists, remained revolutionists in theory, and only a few revisionists, like Eduard Bernstein, became avowed evolutionists, but by the end of the nineteenth century a party like the German Social Democrats was little likely to stage a revolution.

In effect a communist society such as Marx imagined had become an ideal to be approximated by liberal political methods through an indefinitely long process. It was assumed that if a revolution ever did happen, it would retain all the democratic political gains that had been made in the meantime. By 1914 some such belief had become the ingrained conviction of Marxists in the socialist parties of Western Europe.

In the second place Marx tended to make a distinction between the strategy appropriate to a socialist party in a country with a ripening industrial economy and to one in a country with a relatively backward economy. Only the former could successfully lead a revolution, since the revolution must ultimately be produced by the evolving economy.

There was still the question what strategy socialist parties should follow in countries marginal to the main line of development. Marx tended to regard France as the natural leader of a revolution and to consider Germany as relatively backward, as indeed it was in his earlier life, but not by 1914. For obvious reasons Marx’s remarks on a Strategy in a backward country had special significance for Russian Marxists. Thus it happened that two documents which Marx himself ever published but which Engels printed after Marx died assumed an importance for Trotsky and Lenin such as they never had for German socialists.

In 1850, believing that a middle class revolution was about to break out and succeed in Germany, Marx wrote an Address for the Central Committee of the Communist League (for which the Manifesto had been written), advising the socialist minority about its strategy relative to this revolution.

A socialist party, he says, must Cooperate with middle-class revolutionists until the revolution succeeds. It must then turn against its allies; it must keep its own center of power intact; and though it cannot hope to make a successful socialist revolution, it must use every means of subversion and obstruction to prevent either business or government from becoming settled. It must set poor peas ants against rich peasants; it must aim to nationalize the land; and it  must force the revolutionary government as far as possible toward an attack on private property. In short, the battle cry of the proletarians must be The Revolution in Permanence.Thus in 1850 Marx supplied the concept of permanent revolution which Trotsky adopted and developed in 1906, and which laid down substantially the policy that Lenin followed in 1917 relative to the middle-class revolution in Russia.

Of much greater importance were Marx’s comments on the program produced by the Gotha Congress, which in 1875 brought about a combination of radical organizations in Germany that made the beginning of what proved to be an effective socialist party.

Marx’s comments were fragmentary and bitterly vituperative and were suppressed at the time in the interest of harmony, but they were directed to a state of affairs in Germany which, more than anything else that Marx wrote, was directly relevant to the state of affairs in Russia forty years later. As Marx said bluntly, The toiling people in Germany consist of peasants and not of proletarians. What the peasants consciously want is quite different from what they ought to want and hence what they really (or dialectically) do want.

In a society becoming more highly industrialized they are politically impotent for any constructive purpose, but by sheer weight of numbers they are a critical factor in the situation. Though they are incapable of leadership they can be steered and guided, and their discontent can be channeled into support of the proletarian minority, which alone can be the leader toward a genuine socialist revolution.

The objectives set by the Program that Marx was criticizing he condemned as not socialist at all, but merely those of any middle-class revolution suffrage and other popular political rights. These have a value in a pre-socialist society, but in relation to socialism they are merely pretty little gewgaws.

Marx’s hints for the control of a prevailingly peasant society by a proletarian vanguard pretty clearly suggested Lenin’s plan in 1905 for a Democratic-revolutionary Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry. Marx’s marginal notes on the Gotha Program contained also his most extended reference to the transition from a capitalist to a socialist society, though characteristically this is a reference rather than a description. The transition will take place in two stages.

The public ownership of the means of production will of itself abolish the appropriation of surplus value and will achieve the bourgeois profession of giving to workers the full value of what they produce. This, however, will still fall short of genuine communism, which must abolish the division of labor and increase the social product to permit the realization of the communist ideal. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. In the transition period between capitalism and communism the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. Quite obviously Marx’s notes on the Gotha Program, together with remarks made elsewhere, contain the germ of much that Lenin in 1917 put into his pamphlet, The State and Revolution.

Marx’s social philosophy, therefore, supported two conceptions of political strategy which proved in practice to be divergent. The one line, developed by Marxian party socialism, looked to the evolution of industrialism to produce a class-conscious proletariat which would grow in strength until it could take over a society already politically democratic.

Down to 1914 this seemed clearly the main line of Marxian strategy already in a fair way to succeed through the political organization of the working class in great popular parties such as the German Social Democrats. For this strategy political liberalism was the necessary antecedent, and the revolution would be the consummation of a long course of political and economic development and of popular education.

The other line, which after 1914 marked out the strategy of Leninism, harked back to the earlier stages of Marx’s thought, which took communism to be the ideal of an intellectual elite or of a proletarian minority submerged in a society prevailingly peasant and without liberal political rights. For this line revolution was a present reality and the antecedent of political and economic transformation.

It leaned heavily on Marx’s somewhat incidental remarks on the strategy appropriate to communist parties in backward societies. As far as their intentions were concerned, Russian Marxists had no thought of abandoning or changing the central principle of Marx’s social philosophy, namely, economic determinism, yet inevitably to the Western Marxist they seemed to be discarding it.

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Ideology and the Class Struggle of Dialectical Materialism
Marx’s Summary In Dialectical Materialism
Engels on Dialectic in Economic Determinism
Dialectical Materialism and Politics
Capitalism as an Institution
The Collapse of Capitalism

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