Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears. – Gramsci: Prison Notebooks
The socialist revolutionary strategy and tactics to be followed by Marxists in today’s world have gone abegging due to a variety of factors. First and foremost amongst these was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Eastern European socialism around the same time. Given that China had embarked on an embrace of capitalism since 1978 and the remaining socialist regimes in Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea had been forced to compromise at many levels since 1991 to survive, there remained no ‘model’ or centre to look to for inspiration and guidance for revolutionaries worldwide. On the other hand, the seeming victory of capitalism over socialism gave birth to theories of the (Hegelian) ‘end’ of history and the triumphalist capitalist slogan: “There is no alternative” (to neo-liberal globalised capitalism and bourgeois democracy).
That this historic defeat and turn of events should have persuaded many to abandon the struggle for socialism altogether or seek solace in a ‘safe’ social democratic stance should not come as a surprise. The efforts by those still adhering to revolutionary socialism to revive the movement in their own countries and the world, with a necessary return to international solidarity, have not borne fruit according to their hopes and wishes.
Every movement seeking to change the given world order has to have an archival memory in order to return to, and learn fresh lessons from, the past, in both theory and practice. For a movement such as revolutionary socialism, the issues surrounding the conquest of state power in order to wield it in the interests of the oppressed and for transforming state and society along socialist lines cannot be allowed to ossify in rigid adherence to the theoretical premises and practical strategy and tactics of past successful seizures of state power. Nor can the conceptual and practical ‘models’ of post-seizure-of-power attempts at such a transformation be allowed to become the ‘bible’ of the building of socialism for all times and all societies, irrespective of differing conditions.
Marxism’s philosophy of Dialectical and Historical Materialism inherently is premised on the foundation of a rigorous re-examination and critique of ideas and experience received from the past. Neither the founders of Marxism (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) nor their most brilliant followers (e.g. Lenin and Mao) were averse to such scientific rigour. Their methodology in this respect, however, has not fared well at the hands of their successors, many of whom, even when they continued to adhere to the philosophical, ideological, political and social frameworks of the masters, fell prey to dogmatism and rigidity.
It may be instructive therefore to attempt a journey through the history of the Marxist revolutionary socialist movement to refresh our memories and our ideas about how to change the world at the present conjuncture.
Marx and Engels’ entry into revolutionary socialist politics began in their Left Hegelian youth in the 1840s, and consisted largely, but not exclusively, of coming to terms with the legacy of western philosophy, subjecting it to a rigorous critique and thereby laying down the principles of their new school of thought, Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Journalism and authorship too was part of this period. The results of their studies, writings and political activism found Marx and Engels well prepared on the eve of the outbreak of revolutions in Europe in 1848 to publish the Communist Manifesto. In brief, penetrating strokes, the Communist Manifesto outlined the movement of history leading up to the era of revolutions in Europe, and outlined the future prospects for humanity at large in the bourgeois epoch. The promise of the 1848 revolutions did not bear fruit, however, and they were drowned in blood.
The activities of Marx and Engels brought them into the sights of governments on the Continent, leading eventually to the exile of Marx to London, England, while Engels was already working and living in Manchester. There Marx remained until his death in 1883. But this period, replete with the frustration of being physically unable to return to the Continent, nevertheless proved very productive in terms of Marx and Engels’ written output. This was the period when Marx’s Capital Volume I first saw the light of day (1867), laying bare the inner workings and laws of motion of the capitalist system. Despite bringing together the working class revolutionaries of most of the advanced capitalist countries to form the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) in 1864, Marx and Engels were frustrated by the failure of the movement to expand and deepen, setbacks that led eventually to the demise of the First International in 1876. Marx’s seminal lifelong work Capital saw Volumes II and III published posthumously in 1885 and 1894 respectively, thanks to the labours of his close friend and collaborator Engels.
Marx did not live to see the revolution he had predicted and struggled for in extremely difficult circumstances all his life, but his work laid the foundations for the worldwide socialist revolutionary movement that threatened the European bourgeoisie, not the least because of the stirring of the subject peoples of the world crushed under colonialism.
By 1885 when the Second International was set up/revived, the movement of the working class had become an important fact of life throughout the developed capitalist countries. However, despite their growth, the various parties that constituted the Second International drifted incrementally into economism and class reductionism. Let us explicate these tendencies.
The Marxism of the Second International is important because it was the first systematic application of the scientific socialist theories of Marx and Engels to party doctrine and practice, corresponding to the perceived needs and demands of a mass workers’ movement in Europe. Marxism was treated by the leading lights of the Second International as an all-encompassing theoretical system whose basic theses enabled the whole of history and all political and philosophical wisdom to be concentrated into a few short formulae. As a result, the fundamental need for further theoretical progress was generally replaced by a complacency in which improvisation on old themes was preferred or existing doctrines endlessly popularised rather than push forward into the unknown.
This is certainly not to say that there was no progress in Marxist theory in the era of the Second International. But this particular systematisation of Marxism had grave repercussions for the revolutionary goals to which the movement was dedicated. From its inception in 1889 until 1914, the Second International was characterised by a growing divergence between its official discourse and its practical activity (trade union, parliamentary), as leaders and activists in each area tried to grapple with the growth of imperialism, militarism and the threat of world war. Ultimately, Socialists were unsuccessful in both domains because the articulating principles of Social Democratic theory and practice – economism and class reductionism – failed to provide the means with which to grasp the nature and dynamic of capitalist transformations and the requirements of socialist activity. The final capitulation of Social Democracy on the eve of WWI is directly traceable to this failure.
The Second International saw socialist revolution as the necessary and irreversible consequence of the economic structure of capitalism. The ‘natural’ unfolding of basic economic laws – increasing concentration and centralisation of capital, overproduction crises, and the general proletarianisation of the population – was seen as creating all the requisite conditions for socialism. Capitalism’s collapse was seen as inevitable given its internal contradictions while socialist practice would help to facilitate a preordained inevitability. Social Democracy perceived society according to the base-superstructure metaphor, viewing politics and ideology as expressions of the essence of society – economics.
Social Democracy adhered to a class reductionist theory of politics and ideology. Social Democrats treated all politics and ideology as class specific: each structure, practice and discourse and their various component elements was said to have a class character. The socialist movement was thus defined as the political and ideological expression of the working class, in opposition to bourgeois parties and their ideologies. This view may have helped the Social Democratic parties to gain support amongst the working class, but it oversimplified the mediated and complex relationship between the material base of society and the ideas that permeate it and ignored the need to forge alliances with other classes in society, notably the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie.
Since the outcome of the development of capitalism was perceived to be already known, Marxists of the Second international did not feel any need for a specific socialist theory of politics or of conjunctural analysis. The laws of history, working with iron necessity toward inevitable results, would take care of everything. At the turn of the century, the gap between socialist perspectives and the forward rush of capitalist development, economically and politically, was increasingly obvious, manifesting itself within the Second International in a number of unresolved disputes over strategy and tactics, goals and means.
All of these disputes foreshadowed but cannot compare with the decisive break in socialist politics provoked by WWI, the collapse of the Second International, and the Bolshevik Revolution. The theory and practice of the Bolshevik leadership represented a fundamental break with the Marxism of the Second International on a whole number of basic questions. Some of these differences signalled a return to positions put forward by Marx and Engels in an earlier period, but quietly dropped by classical Social Democracy. Leninism, however, was much more importantly an extension or expansion of Marxism into a number of hitherto underdeveloped areas, most importantly, politics.
In truth it can be confidently asserted that Leninism for the first time consciously put politics in its essential, central place in Marxist thought and practice. Not just any politics, but revolutionary politics. Leninism succeeded in accomplishing an immense transformation of socialist activity under the difficult conditions of Tsarist Russia where a small proletariat could not hope to make revolution without the support of the peasant majority. These specific conditions of the Russian social formation and the revolutionary transformation of Marxism that Bolshevism wrought contained the potential for a conscious rupture with both economism and class reductionism; in short, a potential for carrying the struggle against the articulating principles of classical Social Democracy through to the end.
(To be continued)