Did Marx think that the transition from capitalism to socialism would be violent? Did he think it would be democratic?
So, you've decided to lead the revolution...
You must carefully select your tactics, in order to successfully overthrow capitalism. The title of this essay suggests that you must choose whether your movement should be a series of violent protests against the owners of capital, or a consolidation of political power within democratic and parliamentary institutions? It shall be shown in this essay that your choice of tactics goes much further than simply between violence or democracy. Your impatience with the capitalist mode of production has been inspired by a thorough knowledge of Marxist theory, and so the natural place to start to look for advice on revolutionary tactics is in the original works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. This essay will be your handbook for revolution.
Marx and Engels lay down their most succinct revolutionary instructions in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Concerning the question of the violence or non-violence of revolutionary tactics, they send mixed signals. This is shown by the following quotes.
'...the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, i.e. to win the battle of democracy' (1)
This implies that the proletariat will rise to power through democratic means, before dismantling the capitalist mode of production. Turning the page from this statement, we read that the proletariat may be:
'compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force(2) the old conditions of production...' (3)
Marx and Engels clearly suggest that the proletariat may resort to violence, if certain circumstances persist. Nowhere in their work do they say explicitly if you should prefer one tactic over the other. The impression Marx gives is that the actual features of the revolution itself may be contingent on the history and geography of the country in which the revolution is taking place. The vagueness reflects the fact that Marx was far more concerned to show the inevitability of the revolution, rather than predict the actual nature of the revolution when it finally comes about. The implications of this for you are explained below.
Marx points to several inherent 'contradictions' in capitalism, each of which contributes to its inevitable demise. Inevitable in the Saint-Simonian sense that capitalism 'sows the seed of its own destruction'. In a nutshell, Marx's thesis of the inevitability of the revolution is as follows. He shows that the nature of the capitalist mode of production is such that, as time goes by, there will be a falling rate of profit for the capitalist class as a whole. This will encourage the bourgeoisie to further centralise and concentrate capital, in an effort to retain this profit. These two factors, of centralisation and concentration lead to the increasing exploitation and alienation of the proletariat, and also their increasing socialisation. The nature of the workers' situation encourages collective action. The falling rate of profit causes more and more severe economic crises which hurt the proletariat the most. This spiralling situation will reach the stage where the workers can take no more, and rise up and remove the capitalist class from power, setting up socialism in the wake of the revolution.
Clearly, if you accept the basic assumptions Marx makes about the capitalist mode of production, then you must also accept that capitalism will eventually fall. This does not help you choose specific tactics, as the leader of the potential revolution. Although Marx shows that the revolution must eventually happen, he does not demonstrate how to predict when it will happen, nor what to do when it does. On several occasions during his own political career, Marx announced to the world that the socialist revolution had arrived. History has shown that these exclamations were premature. This experience shows us that Marx's own advice to the modern revolutionary is limited to saying, 'work it out for yourself'.
The group of political scholars and activists who formed the Second International were the first to attempt to 'work it out for themselves', and by doing so, tried to extend Marxism to include a coherent theory of mobilisation and revolution. Like you, they looked to Marx's work to provide a guide to how the war against oppression should be waged, and found only vague prescriptions for the tactics of the revolutionary leader.
On the most simplistic reading of Marx, the best thing you can do is to hope for, or even actively encourage, economic chaos. This is a kind of 'the worse, the better' school of Marxist thought, known as 'economism'. It believes that revolution is more likely as the conditions for the proletariat worsen. It is a very simplistic reading of Marx, based solely on the assertion that the contradictions of capitalism imply the revolution is inevitable. There is no role for a party under economism, as the revolution is brought on by economic, not political, factors. The economistic view clearly suggests that your revolution will be a violent uprising against capitalist oppression. It is important for you to note the simplicity of this view, and that it leaves several important questions unanswered, such as: How does the proletariat form a class consciousness? When does it realise the time is right for revolution? What are the links between the economic contradictions of capitalism, and the social revolt against them?
In arguing against the economistic viewpoint, while maintaining that the revolution will be violent, V. I. Lenin provides you with one possible set of tactics for a radical revolution. The most important point Lenin deals with is the formation of the proletarian class consciousness, required for solidarity and collective mass action. He argues that in order to form a coherent class consciousness within the proletariat, you must form a 'party vanguard'. In doing so, you ensure that the proletariat are not 'duped' into accepting anything less than a socialist revolution. The party is required because, on their own, workers are unable to create a 'socialist class consciousness' - it must be 'brought to them from without'(4). The closest they can aspire to without your guidance is a 'trade-unionist consciousness', which will not lead to socialism. Lenin points out that the need for intellectual leadership of the revolution arises from the fact that the socialist movement arose independent of the trade-union movement - one from the university, the other from the shop-floor. He argues that the proletariat must be kept away from the 'trade-union' ideology, because to follow simple trade-union policy is to subordinate the proletariat in bourgeois ideology. Trade-unionist approaches to worker's groups may lead to workers thinking only of their own material needs, and coming to compromise deals over wages etc.(5) In forming the party vanguard, you are opposing the ideology of the ruling class, and therefore your group is far less likely to operate within the boundaries defined by the apparatus of the state. By following the example of Lenin and his work, your revolution is going to be violent.
Your party may decide to ignore the advice of Lenin, and follow a non-violent, reformist approach. Different sets of reformist tactics are suggested by Kautsky, Luxemburg and Bernstein. The view that the party is required to create class consciousness is also consistent with a non-violent, reformist revolution. Karl Kautsky argues that by working within the democratic system, the party helps to form proletarian class consciousness, and gains experience of administration. He says,
'the task of social-democracy is to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task.' (6)
He further argues that the more experience your party has, the less violent the revolution will eventually be. The reforms undertaken by you within the administration are not a substitute for revolution, but preparation for it. Rosa Luxemburg provides a more specific aim for the worker's party in politics. She claims that you should only pursue reform which will give political power to the proletariat. Luxemburg reminds worker's leaders of the final aim of socialism, so that you do not get drawn into the net of a bourgeois political system. She says that,
'The movement as an end in itself, unrelated to the ultimate goal, is nothing to me; the ultimate goal is everything.' (7)
Hers is the most radical version of the reformist school. Her above statement was a direct reply to Eduard Bernstein's statement that '[the goal of socialism], whatever it may be, is nothing to me, the movement is everything'8. By stating this, Bernstein puts forward the clear belief that the revolution is to be a gradual process, and that the role of the worker's party is to follow reform inside mainstream politics. He shows his views even clearer in this quote,
'There can be more socialism in a good factory law than in the nationalisation of a whole group of factories.' (9)
Actual political reform, for Bernstein, is the process of the socialist revolution.
The three reformists mentioned above, although they disagreed amongst themselves on the exact role of the party within politics, all agree on the point that your role as the leader of the proletariat is to involve yourself in the democratic political process. What you do within that process is the area of disagreement. Acting as a reformist rather than a revolutionary, you may choose to follow any one of these three examples, each with different results: The hopeful, gradual reform process of Bernstein; the stealthy and subtle seizing of power prescribed by Luxemburg; or the gaining experience of leadership, and fostering of class consciousness of Kautsky.
The members of the Second International helped form the fledgling socialist movement. They did not, however, have the added problem of explaining and overcoming the dismal track record of socialist movements in the twentieth century. Before deciding whether your tactics will be violent or non-violent, you must first be confident that revolution is still possible. Since Marx's death there has been a century of opportunity for such a revolution, and yet there has been next to no tendency for any sort of collective worker's action. Bourgeois opponents of Marxism have seized the opportunity to argue that the basic assumptions of Marx are wrong, and that his predictions of the collapse of capitalism are unfounded. In order to sustain your hopes of revolution, the following question must be answered: How can this poor performance be explained without giving up on Marxist doctrine as a whole?
In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx stresses that the exact tactics of the proletariat will have to vary from country to country, depending on each individual situation. This element of historical and geographical contingency goes some way to explaining the lack of tendency towards revolution. There are numerous modern studies arguing why a particular developed nation is unsuited for socialist revolution(10). It is clear that the form a movement takes is contingent on the exact situation present during its emergence(11). It could be the case that no proletarian leader has yet had the combination of correct tactics and the conducive circumstances for a class consciousness to be formed and therefore launch a successful challenge to the dominant class. You must remember the initial interpretation of Marx which says you must 'work it out for yourself'. As a socialist leader it is of utmost importance that you craft your revolutionary tactics to fit within the context in which your movement exists.
Crafting your movement to overcome the particular problems faced in your country will mean tackling the ideological dominance of the capitalist class. Marx describes ideology as the features of the capitalist mode of production which conceal the exploitation inherent in the system. Your task, therefore, is to expose these contradictions, thus undermining this ideological dominance. These ideas were taken further by Antonio Gramsci, and continues in the work of Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas. All these scholars agree that the ruling class creates and reproduces an ideology which ensures that the capitalist mode of production can survive, in spite of its contradictory nature. The dominant ideology, in its extreme, creates a 'culture of acceptance'. Capitalist culture and society appears in such a way that the contradictions of the economic structure are concealed. Part of your battle against exploitation must take place on this 'ideological level'. This may sound too scholarly and ephemeral to concern a revolutionary such as yourself, but is in fact the most important aspect of your revolution. Ideology influences the way we think and act - people 'act consciously though ideology, but ideology itself is unconscious' (12). On the ideological battlefield, there is a 'war of position', for dominance in society. This will most likely be a gradual, non-violent process which, if successful, will create pressure for the political systems and institutions of society to change.
By surveying the trends in Marxist thought, your task as a revolutionary becomes clear. From the initial reading of Marx, it would seem that your task is easy - the proletariat will naturally become restless and militant, and the only thing you have to do is adapt your tactics to fit the national situation. This leaves the choice between violence and non-violence open to contingent factors of history and geography. The decline of worker's movements and communist parties within democratic systems suggests that there is more to simply trying to 'change the system from inside'. The modern work on ideology, following Lenin, Gramsci and Lukacs, shows that by operating within the system defined by the ruling class, you subject yourself to their ideology. The simple reformism of the Second International did not place enough emphasis on the ideological battle. The key to winning the class struggle, therefore, is to overcome the ideological dominance of the capitalist class.
Your main task, therefore, is to wage this ideological battle. This involves trying to change the very culture to accept that the capitalist mode of production needs to be replaced. To change culture is truly ambitious, but it is the only way to ensure the end of the capitalist mode of production. This can be tackled on two fronts. First, examine closely the processes of cultural reproduction (i.e. the education system, the mass media, the family, and even language), and bring into the open any form of class dominance or repression in these systems. This is a form of very gradual reform. Secondly, when any form of worker dispute or sudden collective action takes place, ensure that it is shown that the root cause of the underlying problems is the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. These will be, on the whole, non-violent tactics, and provide a good framework for your new movement.
Marx himself never supplies a simple list of instructions to the revolutionary, nor does he predict whether the revolution will be violent or non-violent. Nor is such a list possible. By following the development of his ideas, it is, however, possible to form a relatively solid answer to the original question. A true Marxist revolution should be non-violent. In the process of examining this question, you have been provided with an overview of your role as a modern revolutionary. Your task is not an easy one, so heed the advice of over a century of unsuccessful socialism.
- Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, p. 58.
- emphasis added.
- ibid. p 59-60.
- V. I. Lenin, What is to be done?, p. 98.
- for more, see Z. Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy.
- Quoted in E. Bernstein, Neue Zeit, 1901-2.
- R. Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution?
- E. Bernstein, Die Neue Zeit, vol. 16.
- see The English Working Class, by T. Nairn, and Why the U.S. Working Class is different, by M. Davis.
- see McAdam, McCarthy and Zald, Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements.
- see L. Althusser, Marxism and Humanism in his For Marx.