Studies in Socialism/After Fifty Years

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V

AFTER FIFTY YEARS

 

When the revolution of 1848 had been crushed everywhere, in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Austria, and in Hungary, when the proletariat had been beaten by the bourgeoisie and the liberal bourgeoisie by the reaction, the Communist and working-class party, having lost the liberty of the press and the right to hold meetings, in other words all the legal means of gaining its ends, was forced to enter on subterranean methods and to organise itself in secret societies.

In this way a German Communist society was organised, whose central committee, in 1850, sat at London. Naturally, in these obscure and enthusiastic little societies, embittered as they were by defeat, hot for revenge, and unbalanced by the very absence of the steadying contact of ordinary life, puerile plans of conspiracy were abundant. Defeat, however, had not deprived Marx, who was a member of the central committee, of his lucidity and his large view of life in its complications and its evolution. He opposed childish plans and calmed ebullitions of excitement. But the day came when he had to break away. On the 15th of September, 1850, he resigned from the central committee of London. He insisted upon justifying this act of schism by a written declaration, inserted in the report of the committee, which ran as follows:

"The majority [i.e., his opponents] has substituted the dogmatic spirit for the critical, the idealistic interpretation of events for the materialistic. Simple will-power, instead of the true relations of things, has become the motive force of revolution. While we say to the working people: 'You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and wars between nations not only to change existing conditions but to change yourselves and make yourselves worthy of political power,' you, on the contrary, say, 'We ought to get power at once, or else give up the fight.' While we draw the attention of the German workman to the undeveloped state of the proletariat in Germany, you flatter the national spirit and the guild prejudices of the German artisans in the grossest manner, a method of procedure without doubt the more popular of the two. Just as the democrats made a sort of fetish of the words 'the people,' so you make one of the word 'proletariat.' Like them, you substitute revolutionary phrases for revolutionary evolution."

I repeat it: it is Marx who is speaking. Fifty years! the time that Marx gave the workmen, not indeed to install Communism, but to make themselves fit for political power, have just elapsed. What civil and international wars did Marx have in mind in 1850? What trials did he think the proletariat and Europe itself would have to pass through in order that the working class should reach its full political maturity?

Undoubtedly he included the struggle of Western Europe with Russia among the necessary external wars. Russia had just played the part of the great instrument of reaction in Europe, and it seemed to Marx that while the Imperial autocracy remained unbroken any revolution in Western Europe would be impossible. So when the Crimean war broke out he hailed it with rejoicing; in his letters on the Eastern Question he rails at and urges forward the Liberal Ministry in England, who were, according to him, too slow in beginning the fight. Russia was not crushed, and the European Social Revolution did not break out as a result of the Crimean war, as Marx, overtaken himself by that fever of impatience and illusion which in 1850 he had objected to in his colleagues of the London committee, had for a moment hoped. Nevertheless the Crimean war did shake the old system in Russia. In that direction the formidable obstacle that Marx feared is at least diminished if not destroyed. I think it extremely doubtful whether Russia could now interfere successfully as she did in 1848 and 1849 to crush a revolutionary movement, even if a Socialist revolution were to break out in all Western Europe, if the proletariat were for a moment master of the situation in Paris, Vienna, Rome, Berlin, and Brussels, as the democracy had been in 1848. I do not know whether the union of the Russian students and the Russian Socialist workmen will be strong enough to force a liberal constitution on the Imperial autocracy for a long time to come. But the autocracy, annoyed by all sorts of internal opposition and undoubtedly preoccupied in strengthening itself within, could not bring to bear on Europe the power that it had at its command a half-century ago.

At all events everything that the Russian autocracy wished to prevent in 1848 has been accomplished, or very nearly so. Russia wished to keep Italy divided, subjugated under the yoke of the foreigner; she has freed herself from Austria and from the Papacy, And the working class is becoming one of the principal vital forces in the restored nation. Russia wished to prevent the establishment of the democracy in France, even under the Napoleonic form. Well, it is a republican democracy that is firmly planted in France, and that is henceforth invincible. The political and economic action of the organised working class there grows slowly but surely. In Belgium, the constitution inclines more and more toward democracy, and the proletariat almost grasps universal suffrage. In Germany, by one of those extraordinary ironical turns of history that bear witness to the invincible power of the democracy, we may say that Russia was unwittingly the instrument that helped forward universal suffrage and Socialism itself. Because Bismarck united Germany for the advantage of monarchical and absolutist Prussia, Russia twice seconded the designs of Bismarck by a complaisant neutrality, once in 1866 against Austria, once in 1870 against France. Well, after all, Bismarck could only bind the different German States together by the tie of universal suffrage; he was forced to make it the golden ring of the new Empire. Moreover, the working class in Germany, which could not become fully conscious of its unity, and therefore of its existence as a class, in a divided and broken-up Germany, has developed its great political activity over the vast area of a united Germany.

To sum up, the way democracy has grown in Western European States has defeated and still defeats all attempts at violent intervention by the powers of oppression. It is not by any sudden explosion that democracy takes possession of States, and Socialism takes possession of the democracy. The laws by which, from 1860 to 1885, England has obtained an almost universal suffrage are as far-reaching in their effect as revolutions, and yet no one except persons of a certain learning knows the exact date at which they were passed. It is like the silent budding of the trees in spring. The new rôle of the working class and the peasantry in the national and governmental life of Italy is also the peaceful equivalent of a revolution; it is another risorgimento. And the same is true of the many-sided growth of the French proletariat. Tsarism can harass and weaken all these movements. It can envelop governments by its diplomacy at once subtle and weighty, but it cannot check the irresistible tendency of nations toward complete democracy, and the irresistible growth of the working class within the democracies.

Thus the obstacle which, according to Marx, had to be done away with before the working class in Europe could be capable of assuming real political power, although not destroyed, has been either reduced or evaded. It has been reduced by the Crimean war, that forced Russian autocracy to be passive during many years, and that made the resurrection of the Italian nation possible four years after, in 1859. It has been evaded by the subtlety of history which disarmed Russia's mistrust—by introducing German democracy under the auspices of Prussian absolutism. The very ground on which it stands is mined by the growing power of the working class and Russian liberalism. Finally, it is evaded and reduced to naught by the continuity of democratic and Socialistic growth that is affirming itself everywhere in Europe without the crisis of war.

What other civil or foreign wars did Marx have in mind? Doubtless he was thinking of the wars that were to free Italy, and to unify Germany, which the weak Liberal bourgeoisie of the Frankfort Parliament had been unable to unite by the bonds of liberty.[1] Perhaps, too, he had adopted the idea of Engels, who, travelling in France after the days of June, 1848, wrote in his journal that Socialism would only triumph in France by means of a civil war of wage-earners against peasants. Happily this is not true. The Commune of 1871 was a heroic struggle of the republican and partly Socialistic workmen of Paris against the country people. But these country people were not the small peasant proprietors: they were the country squires, come out from their small country houses for the occasion. The democracy of small proprietors not only accepted the Republic but acclaimed it from the beginning. It did not take part in the battle against it. There is no bad feeling between the Socialist workman and the peasant. There will not be any. And we must see to it that no misunderstandings arise in the future, so that the rural democracy may come over gradually to Socialism as it has come over to the Republic.

At all events, the primary condition of working-class political action has been fulfilled in the fifty years that have passed; it has been effected by the trials of great civil or foreign wars, and still more by the slow and continuous pressure of events, by that magnificent revolutionary evolution that Marx heralded. This primary condition was the formation in all Europe of great autonomous nations, freed from Russian oppression and having attained or tending energetically toward the attainment of democracy and universal suffrage.

Now that that condition has been fulfilled, the working class in Europe, especially the working class in France, is in possession of the "tools and the workshop." It is no slight task to bring the proletariat from that point to the final completion of the work. To-day, as much as fifty years ago, we must guard against the revolutionary phrase and set ourselves to understand the deep meaning of revolutionary evolution in the new era.


  1. The Frankfort Congress was held after the Revolution of 1848.