Studies in Socialism/The Question of Method
THE QUESTION OF METHOD
The Socialist party is split into factions at the present time, and I might be accused of dreaming of a “mystic union” if I were to say that these divisions were really only superficial. I do not think that they are irreconcilable, but that they come from serious differences of opinion, or rather from serious misconceptions, in regard to the method to be pursued. It is the very development of our party, the growing power of our idea,—I must be this optimistic back-sliding,—that have created these differences of opinion by forcing us all to offer some solution to the question of method. How shall Socialism be realised? That is a problem we cannot evade; and to make vague and uncertain answers is to evade it. Or, on the other hand, if we bring forward in 1901 the answers of our predecessors and our masters of fifty years ago, we deceive ourselves.
There is one undoubted fact which transcends all others. This is that the proletariat is growing in numbers, in solidarity, and in self-consciousness. The wage-earning and the salaried classes, having increased in numbers and organised into groups, have now attained to an ideal. They no longer limit their hopes to the abolition of the worst faults of the present society; they now wish to create a social order founded on an altogether different principle. Instead of the régime of private and capitalistic ownership of property, under which it is possible for one part of mankind to lord it over the other part, they wish to institute a system of universal social co-operation which shall make of every man a legal partner. Their thought has broken away from bourgeois thought, their action from bourgeois action. They have their own organisation which they put at the service of their Communist ideal. This is a class organisation based on the growing power of the trades-unions and the workmen's co-operative societies, and the increasing share of strictly political power that they have obtained in the State or over the State. All Socialists agree to this general and elementary conception of the situation. They may assign different reasons for the growth of the proletariat, or rather they may lay different stress on the same reasons. They may magnify either the power of economic organisation or of political activity. But they all realise that by the necessary evolution of capital that is developed by modern industry, and by the corresponding action of the proletariat, this class has gained an indefinitely increasing power which is called upon to transform the very system of ownership itself.
Socialists differ also about the scope and form that the class action of the proletariat should take. Some think that it ought to be involved as little as possible in the conflicts of the social organisation it is to destroy, and that all its energy should be reserved for the final act by which society shall be liberated. Others hold that it ought to exercise its great human function from now on. At the Socialist Congress held recently at Vienna, Kaustky brought up the famous saying of Lassalle: "The Proletariat is the rock on which the Church of the future shall be built." And he added: "The Proletariat is not only that. It is also the rock against which, from now on, the reactionary forces will dash themselves and be broken." And for my part I say that it is not only a rock, in other words, a compact and motionless force of resistance; it is a vast force, united indeed, but active, which can mingle in all great movements without being dispersed, and which grows in strength and energy by its contact with the life of the whole. But all of us, no matter what scope or importance we assign to the class-activity of the proletariat, regard it as an autonomous power, which can co-operate with other powers, but is never absorbed by them, and always keeps its own special character for its separate and superior task.
To Marx belongs the merit, perhaps the only one of all attributed to him that has fully withstood the trying tests of criticism and of time, of having drawn together and unified the labour movement and the Socialist idea. In the first third of the nineteenth century labour struggled and fought against the crushing power of capital; but it was not conscious itself toward what end it was straining; it did not know that the true objective of its effort was the common ownership of property. And, on the other hand. Socialism did not know that the labour movement was the living form in which its spirit was embodied, the concrete practical force of which it stood in need. Marx was the most clearly convinced and the most powerful among those who put an end to the empiricism of the labour movement and the Utopianism of the Socialist thought, and this should always be remembered to his credit. By a crowning application of the Hegelian method, he united the Idea and the Fact, thought and history. He enriched the practical movement by the idea, and to the theory he added practice: he brought the Socialist thought into proletarian life, and proletarian life into Socialist thought. From that time on, Socialism and the proletariat became inseparable. Socialism can only realise its ideal through the victory of the proletariat, and the proletariat can only complete its being through the victory of Socialism,
To the ever more pressing question, "How shall Socialism be realised?" we must then give the preliminary answer, "By the growth of the proletariat to which it is inseparably joined." This is the first and essential answer; and whoever refuses to accept it wholly and in its true sense necessarily places himself outside of Socialist life and thought. And this answer, vague though it is, is not empty of meaning, because it implies the obligation of each one of us to be diligent in helping forward to our utmost the thought, the organisation, the activity, and the life of the labouring classes. Indeed, in a certain sense, this answer is the only sure one. For it is impossible for us to know with any certainty by exactly what means, in what manner, and at what moment, our political and social evolution will reach the Communist ideal. But what is certain is that the evolution is hastened, the forward movement vivified, enlarged, and deepened by everything that increases the intellectual, economic, and political power of the proletariat.
But this first answer, important and valid as it is, is not a sufficient one. Because the proletariat has already grown in numbers and force and because it has begun to make its power felt in the machinery of economics and politics, for that very reason the question arises, "What shall be the mechanism by which the coming victory shall be obtained?" In proportion as the proletarian power increases in self-consciousness it becomes embodied in definite forms; in universal suffrage, in trades-unions, co-operative societies, and the various branches of the public service in the democratic State And we cannot treat the power of the proletariat apart from the forms in which it has already organised itself, the machinery that it has already partially adapted to its own uses. We have, then, reached the time when it is no longer Utopian to try to find out with a certain amount of precision what method the growing Socialist idea will adopt to bring about its complete realisation. To ask this is not to separate ourselves from the life of the proletariat, by returning to the realm of Utopian conjecture; it is, on the contrary, to bind ourselves more closely to that life, to grow with it, to become more fixed in our ideas as it defines itself more and more clearly. For that life is no longer "the spirit moving over the face of the waters"; it is already incorporated in institutions, both economic and political (universal suffrage, democracy, trades-unions, co-operative societies), that have reached a definite stage of development and acquired a power and a policy; and it behooves us to know whether the Communism of the proletariat can be realised by these means, or whether, on the other hand, it can only be brought about by a decisive rupture with existing institutions.
To tell the truth, Socialists have always tried to foresee and predetermine the form and the historical setting of the ultimate triumph of Socialism. And the reason for our present disquiet, for the sense of uncertainty and unrest that oppresses our party, is that the needs of a new era, hardly formulated as yet, are still mingled in one confused mass with the partly outgrown theories of action bequeathed to us by our masters.
Marx and Blauqui both believed that the proletariat would seize the power by means of a revolution. But of the two, Marx's thought is much the more complex. His revolutionary method was many-sided, and it is therefore his conception that I wish particularly to discuss. It is the result of worn-out historical hypotheses, or of inexact economic hypotheses.
In the first place, Marx's mind was full of memories of the French Revolution, and of the other revolutions in France and Europe that were a prolongation of the first. The trait that all the revolutionary movements, from 1789 to 1796, and from 1830 to 1848, had in common was that they were revolutionary movements of bourgeois origin in which the working class joined and beyond which it wished to go. In all that long period the working class was not strong enough to attempt a revolution for its own benefit; neither was it strong enough to take the leadership of the revolution little by little according to the new legal means at his disposal. Two things, however, it could and did do. First, it tried its strength, and increased it, by joining in all the revolutionary movements; it took advantage of the dangers that the new order had to face, threatened as it was by all the reactionary elements, to become a power whose support was necessary to that order. In the second place, when it had grown in power and importance, when hope and ambition were stirring in the hearts of the proletariat, when the different revolutionary factions of the bourgeoisie were exhausted or discredited by their internal dissensions, the working class tried to take possession of the revolution and turn it to its own uses, by a sort of coup de surprise. Thus, in the French Revolution in 1793, the Parisian proletariat made itself felt in the Convention by means of the Commune, and sometimes even exercised a sort of dictatorship. Thus, a little later, Babeuf and his friends tried to seize the revolutionary power by a sudden and unexpected move for the benefit of the working class. Thus again after 1830 the French proletariat, after having played in the July Revolution the great part noted by Armand Carrel, tried to urge on the victorious bourgeoisie and by and by to outstrip it.
It was this rhythm of revolution that at first captured the imagination of Marx. Certainly he knew very well, when in November, 1847, he wrote the Communist Manifesto with Engels, that the proletariat had grown; he looked upon it as the true revolutionary power; and it was against the bourgeoisie that the Revolution was to be undertaken.
He writes: "The development of industry of which the middle class, without either premeditation or resistance, has become the agent, far from maintaining the workers in the isolated situation of competitors, has brought about their revolutionary solidarity by forcing them to become associates for a common end. Thus the growth of Modern Industry cuts at the very foundations of that system of production and appropriation of the products on which the bourgeoisie depends. The bourgeoisie is manufacturing as its chief product its own grave-diggers. Its ruin and the triumph of the proletariat are equally inevitable."
And again: "The immediate object of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: the organisation of the proletariat as a class, the overthrow of bourgeois supremacy, and the conquest of political power by the proletariat." And here again is a very definite statement: "We have followed the more or less veiled civil war raging within our present society to the point where that war will break out into open revolution, and where by the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie the proletariat will establish its dominion." It is, then, by a violent revolution against the middle class that the working class is to grasp the power and realise Communism. But at the same time it seems to Marx that the signal for the struggle is to come from the bourgeoisie itself, which has still to complete its own revolution. The bourgeoisie will strike at absolutism, or what there is left of it, at feudalism or its remnants; and when it has given the preliminary impetus, by setting free the forces that bring about crises, the proletariat, more powerful to-day than the Levellers of Lilburne in the English Revolution of 1648, or the proletarians of Chaumette in 1793, will take possession in a revolutionary manner of the bourgeois revolution. It will begin by fighting side by side with the bourgeoisie, but as soon as the latter becomes victorious, it will expropriate it of the fruits of victory.
"In Germany," Marx and Engels wrote in 1847, "the Communist party will fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it takes up its revolutionary rôle again; it will join with it in combating absolute monarchy, feudal squirearchy, and the petty bourgeoisie. But it will never cease for a single instant to rouse among the workers the clearest possible consciousness of the antagonism that exists between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and makes them enemies. The social and political conditions that will accompany the triumph of the bourgeoisie are so many weapons which the German workman will know how to turn against the bourgeoisie itself. After the downfall of the reactionary classes in Germany, the fight against the bourgeoisie must be begun without delay.
"On Germany especially the eyes of all Communists will be fixed, because Germany is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution, which will be carried out under conditions of general European civilisation and of proletarian development unknown either in the England of the seventeenth century or the France of the eighteenth. The bourgeois revolution, then, will necessarily be the immediate prelude to the proletarian revolution."
Thus we see that the proletarian revolution is to be grafted on to a victorious bourgeois revolution. Marx's mind, delicately ironical and even sarcastic in tone, amused itself with these tricks of thought. The idea that History was to make sport of the middle class by snatching the spoils of victory still warm from their hands, gave him a bitter sort of joy. But it was a scheme of revolution too complicated and contradictory. In the first place, if the proletariat is not strong enough to give the signal for the Revolution itself, if it is obliged to depend on the fortunate chances of the bourgeois revolution, how are we to be certain that it will have more strength to oppose to the victorious bourgeoisie than it had before the movement began? Two contingencies will arise. Either the bourgeoisie will be defeated in its attempt at revolt against the old world of feudalism and absolute power, and the proletariat will be overwhelmed long before it has had a chance to fight for its own hand; or else the bourgeoisie will succeed, it will abolish the arbitrary power of kings, do away with feudal property, break the shackles of the guild system, and will then throw itself with so much new life and enthusiasm into the new opportunities it has conquered for itself, that the proletariat will be utterly incapable of creating another and opposing movement. Even if it acts by violence and surprise, even if it tries to organise a "dictatorship" and to "conquer the democracy" by force, its real power cannot be artificially raised above the level where it was before the bourgeois revolution began.
Miguel was clear-sighted when he wrote to Marx in his famous letter of 1850, foreseeing a continuation of the Revolution: "The labour party may succeed against the upper middle-class and what remains of the feudal element, but it will be attacked in the flank by the democracy. We can perhaps give an anti-bourgeois tone to the Revolution for a little while, we can destroy the essential conditions of bourgeois production; but we can't possibly put down the small trades-people and shopkeeping class, the petty bourgeoisie. My motto is to secure all we can get. We ought to prevent the lower and middle class from forming any organisation for as long a time as possible after the first victory, and especially to oppose ourselves in serried ranks to the scheme of calling a constitutional assembly. Partial terrorism, local anarchy, must replace for us what we lack in bulk."
But a lack of bulk is not replaced in this fashion. It is perfectly certain that when a class is not historically ready, when it cannot act till those whom it aspires to replace have given the signal, and when its revolution, borrowing power from the movement of its enemy, cannot be called anything but a parasite revolution, it must continue the revolutionary movements permanently, and keep all the elements of society in continual agitation if it is to attain even a partial success. But this policy only results in giving time and opportunity to the reactionary element that will overwhelm proletariat and bourgeoisie together. These are the tactics to which the working class is condemned while it is still in the period of insufficient preparation. And if one of the characteristics of that Socialism which may be called Utopian is to have planned a course of action without depending on the power of labour itself and labour only, the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels is still to be counted as a production of that Utopian period. Robert Owen and Fourier counted on the good-will of the upper classes, while Marx and Engels awaited the happy fortune of a middle-class revolution, to accomplish their end. The propositions laid down in the Manifesto are not those of a class sure of itself, whose hour has struck at last; they are, on the contrary, the revolutionary expedients of an impatient and feeble class, that wishes to force forward by strategy the progress of events.
And even after this paradoxical effort, this proletarian distortion of the revolution, Marx does not foresee a complete victory of the proletariat and Communism; he looks for an extraordinary combination of Capitalist and Communist ownership, of violence to property and organisation of credit. Here is a singular fact: after having maintained that it is to the evolution of industry and the growth of the industrial proletariat that the revolutionary power owes its very existence, the Manifesto only plans as the first move of the victorious Communist Revolution, the expropriation of the income from land! In this Marx is less advanced than Babeuf, whose glory it is to have brought industrial, as well as agricultural, production within the scope of Communist action. His position is almost that of St. Just, who seems to have foreseen the possibility of the nation's absorbing the rent of farms. "We have seen above," says Marx, "that the first measure of the working class will be to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to capture the democratic régime.
"The proletariat will make use of its political supremacy to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all the means of production in the hands of the State, viz., the proletariat organised into a ruling class, and to increase as quickly as possible the total of productive forces of which use can be made.
"It is evident that this policy implies at the outset despotic inroads on the rights of private property and on the conditions of bourgeois production. Measures must be taken which will at first appear economically insufficient and cannot be regarded as permanent, but which, once the movement is under way, will lead to new measures, and be indispensable as a means of revolutionising the whole system of production. These measures, obviously, will be different in the different countries. Nevertheless the following will be generally applicable, at least in the most advanced countries: (1) Abolition of property in land; application of all rents of land to public purposes. (2) A heavy progressive or graduated income tax, (3) Abolition of all right of inheritance. (4) Confiscation of the goods of all rebels and those who have left the country, (5) Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State by means of a National Bank founded on State capital and with an exclusive monopoly. (6) Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State. (7) Extension of factories and means of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of fertile lands generally, in accordance with a common plan. (8) Obligatory labour for all; organisation of industrial armies, especially for agricultural purposes. (9) Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries, preparation of all measures looking toward the progressive disappearance of the distinction between town and country. (10) Free public education of all children; abolition of the present system of child labour in factories. Combination of education with industrial production, etc."
An extraordinary programme, in which are united the agrarian Communism of the eighteenth century and some of the elements of what we should call to-day the programme of St. Mandé. In the industrial world, Marx and Engels content themselves at first with the nationalisation of the railroads; they do not even suggest the nationalisation of the mines, which is accepted to-day even by the Radical-Socialist party. But the phenomenon that especially strikes me is not the chaos of the programme, with its mixture of agricultural Communism and industrial Capitalism. It is not the contradiction between the article that takes away the right of inheritance and thus deprives the new generations of personal property in industrial capital, and all the articles that allow private property to exist. History shows that different and even contradictory forms have often co-existed. For example, production according to the old guild system and capitalistic production functioned side by side for a long time; all the seventeenth and all the eighteenth centuries are made up of a mixture of the two, and free farm labour and serfdom also co-existed for a long time. And I am convinced that in the revolutionary evolution which is to lead us to Communism, we shall have for a long time the juxtaposition of collectivist property, and individualist property, of Communism and Capitalism. This is the fundamental law of great transformations. Marx and Engels had a perfect right to say in 1872 that they set no great store by their 1847 programme, and this confession was by no means a recantation. "This passage now requires modifications in several directions. The immense industrial progress of the last twenty-five years, the parallel advance of the working class organised as a party, have superannuated more than one passage of this programme." At the most one must be astonished that they did not in 1847 assign a more important rôle to industrial Communism.
But the really amazing thing is that they should have thought the proletariat strong enough to confiscate for its own advantage the bourgeois revolution, and to "capture the democracy " by a sudden stroke, and at the same time have supposed it incapable of fully establishing industrial Communism, even in the first flush of victory and in the most advanced countries. The most striking thing in the Manifesto is not the chaos of the programme, but the chaos of the method. By a stroke of physical force the proletariat will have established itself in power in the beginning; by a stroke of force it will have wrenched power from the revolutionary bourgeoisie. It will "capture the democracy"; the fact is, in other words, that it will suspend it, since it substitutes the dictatorial will of a single class for the freely consulted will of the majority of the citizens. And by force again, by the power of a dictator, it will commit its first "despotic infractions" of the rights of property that the Manifesto foresees.… But what does all this amount to? And supposing that the democracy is not ready for the Communist movement, will it not then take measures to annul the first dictatorial acts of the proletariat instead of carrying them out and extending their scope? But if, on the contrary, the democracy is prepared, if the proletariat can, by legal measures alone, induce it to develop the first revolutionary institutions in a communistic direction, we have in the legal conquest of the democracy the sovereign method of revolution. Every other method, I repeat, is nothing but the momentary expedient, possibly necessary for a moment, of a weak and ill-prepared class. And those modern Socialists who are still talking about "the impersonal dictatorship of the proletariat," or who expect a sudden seizure of power and the violation of democratic methods, are reverting to the time when the proletariat was still a feeble element, when it was reduced to adopt artificial means of obtaining a victory.
The tactics of the Manifesto consist in altering for the benefit of the proletariat the course of those movements that it lacked the strength to originate. These are the tactics of a bold force, increasing in strength but still subordinate, and as a matter of fact they have been instinctively employed by the working class in all the crises of democratic and bourgeois society. Marx had taken up the idea of the French Revolution and Babeuf. After 1830 the labour agitations of Paris and Lyons prolonged the middle-class revolution by a sort of confused proletarian affirmation. In 1848 the proletariat of Paris, Berlin, and Vienna tried, for a few audacious days, to divert the Revolution in the direction of Socialism. The famous saying of Blanqui, "We do not create a movement, we divert it," is the very expression of this policy. It is the working formula of Marx's Communist Manifesto, the watchword of a class that knows itself to be still in the minority, but feels that it is called to play a great part in the future. When, in 1870, the 4th of September was followed by the 31st of October, we have another example of the method of Marx and Blanqui. And the Commune itself, where the Socialist proletariat took such an increasingly active part that it tended to overshadow the lower middle-class democracy, was again an application of the tactics of the Manifesto—to graft the proletarian revolution on to the democratic and bourgeois revolution.
Thus, in a hundred and twenty years, the method of working-class revolution which Babeuf was the first to apply, which was given a formula by Marx and Blanqui, and which consisted in introducing the ideas of proletarian Communism under the cover of bourgeois revolutions, has been tried or proposed many times and under many forms. By this method the working class at several great historical crises has become conscious of its power and its destiny. By it, the proletariat has had an opportunity to test itself in a position of partial power. By it, the problem of property and Communism has been kept uninterruptedly before the public as a question of the day in practical European politics, according to the advice of the Manifesto: "In all these movements, the question that the Communists bring to the front as the essential point is that of property, even if the discussion of this question has not been fully developed at the time."
By following this policy, finally, the proletariat has taken an active part in affairs long before it had power enough to control them. But it was chimerical to hope that a proletarian Communism could be grafted on to the bourgeois revolution. It was chimerical to think that the revolutionary agitation of the bourgeoisie would give the proletariat the opportunity of making a permanently successful counter-stroke. As a matter of fact, these tactics have never had the desired issue. Sometimes the revolutionary bourgeoisie has failed, dragging the proletariat down with it. Sometimes the successful revolutionary bourgeoisie has had the strength to restrain and overpower the proletarian movement. And besides, even supposing that a proletarian movement had been suddenly imposed by surprise on agitations of another nature and another origin, what would have been the final result? The strictly proletarian movement would have quickly degenerated by a series of compromises into a movement purely democratic in character. The very utmost outcome of a victorious Commune would have been a radical Republic.
To-day the predetermined form in which Marx, Engels, and Blanqui conceived of the proletarian revolution has been eliminated by history. In the first place, the proletariat in its increased strength has ceased to count on the favourable chance of a bourgeois revolution. By its own strength and in the name of its own ideas, it wishes to influence the democracy. It is not lying in wait for a bourgeois revolution in order to throw the bourgeoisie down from its revolution as one might throw a rider down so as to get possession of his horse. It has its own organisation and its own power. It has a growing economic power, through its trades-unions and co-operative societies. It has an indefinitely elastic legal power through universal suffrage and democratic institutions. It is not reduced to being an adventurous and violent parasite on bourgeois revolutions. It is methodically preparing, or better, it is methodically beginning its own revolution, by the gradual and legal conquest of the power of production and of the power of the State.
And indeed, if it were to wait for the opportunity of a middle-class revolution in order to strike its coup de force and institute a class dictatorship, it would wait in vain. The revolutionary period of the bourgeoisie is over. It is possible that in order to safeguard its economic interests and under the pressure of the working class, the middle class in Italy, Germany, and Belgium may be induced to extend the constitutional rights of the people, to claim full universal suffrage, real parliamentary government, and fne responsibility of ministers to Parliament. It is possible that the combined action of the democratic middle class and the working class will everywhere curtail the royal prerogative or the imperial autocracy to the point where monarchy has only a nominal existence. It is certain that the struggle for a complete democracy is not over in Europe, but in this struggle the bourgeoisie will have an insignificant part to play, such a part, for example, as it is now playing in Belgium.
Moreover, in all the constitutions of central and western Europe, there are already enough democratic elements for the transition to real democracy to be made without a revolutionary crisis. So that the proletarian revolution cannot, as Marx and Blanqui thought, take shelter behind bourgeois revolutions; it can no longer seize and twist to its advantage the revolutionary agitations of the middle class, because these agitations are over and done with. On open ground, on the large field of democratic legality and universal suffrage, the Socialist proletariat is now preparing, enlarging, and organising its revolution. To this methodical, direct, and legal revolutionary action Engels at the end of his life summoned the European proletariat in famous words which, in fact, relegated the Communist Manifesto to the past. Henceforward, middle-class revolutionary action being over, all violent means employed by the proletariat would result only in uniting all non-proletarian forces in an opposition coalition. And that is why I have always interpreted a general strike not as a means of violent action, but as one of the most gigantic means of legal pressure that the educated and organised proletariat can bring to bear for great and definite ends.
But if the historical hypothesis on which the revolutionary conception of the Communist Manifesto is based is as a matter of fact superannuated, if the proletariat can no longer count on the revolutionary movements of the bourgeoisie as a means of displaying its own revolutionary' power, if it can no longer erect its class dictatorship after a period of chaotic and violent democracy, can it at least expect its sudden installation in power as the result of an economic crash, a cataclysm of the capitalistic system, that has come at last face to face with the impossibility of living, and has suspended payment? That again was a revolutionary perspective opened by Marx. To establish the class dictatorship of the proletariat, he depended both on the revolutionary political ascendency of the bourgeoisie and on its economic downfall. Capitalism was one day to succumb of its own accord, under the increasingly intense and frequent action of the crises for which it was responsible, and the exhaustion of misery to which it would have reduced the exploited. It cannot be seriously doubted that this was the thought of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto:
"Hitherto, every form of society has been based, as we have already seen, on the antagonism of oppressed and oppressing classes. But that a class may be oppressed, certain conditions must be assured under which it can at least continue to drag on its slavish existence. Under the feudal yoke, the serf, in spite of his serfdom, did manage to raise himself to membership in the commune (or village organisation) and the member of the middle class managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern labourer, instead of bettering himself with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. The workman becomes a pauper, and pauperism increases even more rapidly than either population or wealth. It is therefore perfectly clear that the bourgeoisie is unfit to be any longer the ruling class in society and to impose its class conditions on society as a ruling law. It has become unfit to govern because it can no longer assure to its slaves the subsistence which allows them to continue their slave-existence. It cannot help letting them sink to the condition where it has to feed them, instead of being fed by them. Society can no longer live under the rule of this bourgeoisie; that is, the existence of this bourgeoisie is no longer compatible with the life of society."
When matters have got to this pass, when bourgeois and capitalistic exploitation have exceeded, if one may use the expression, the limit of the human tolerance of the exploited classes, an inevitable revolt, an irresistible rising of the people breaks out, and the civil war that is latent between the classes is finally put an end to by the "violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie."
This is a true statement of the thought of Marx and Engels at that date. I am aware that many writers and speakers try to throw a veil over the brutality of these statements. I am aware that subtle Marxist interpreters say that Marx and Bngels only meant to speak about a relative pauperisation. In the same way when theologians want to harmonise texts in the Bible with proved scientific truth, they say that the word "day" in Genesis means a geological period of several million years. I do not contradict them. Those are exegetical elegances and charities that make it possible to pass without pain from a dogma professed for many years to a better known truth. And since the "revolutionary" spirits have need of these manipulations, who would dream of thwarting them? Nevertheless if Marx had only meant to talk of a relative pauperisation, how would he have been able to conclude that capitalism would force its slaves down below the minimum living wage, and thus, by a series of irresistible reflexes, make it inevitable that the working class should bring on the destruction of the bourgeoisie?
It has been said, too, that Marx and Engels only wished to define the abstract tendency of capitalism and to give a picture of what bourgeois society would become by its own law if the organisation of labour did not by an inverse effort counteract the tendency of oppression and depression. And how, indeed, could Marx, who made the proletariat the essence and vital embodiment of Socialism, have failed to recognise and give value to proletarian action? But it seems as if, in the thought of Marx, this action, although in fact ensuring certain partial economic advantages to the proletariat, was chiefly important as a means of increasing its class consciousness by developing its sense of injury and of its own strength: "But with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. The different interests and varying conditions of life of the different grades of labour, within the ranks of the proletariat itself, are more and more equalised, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and reduces wages nearly everywhere to the same low level. The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers constantly more fluctuating. The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take on more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon the workers begin to form combinations (trades-unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provisions beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there the contest breaks out into riots.
"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry and place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, for the attainment of which the burghers of the Middle Ages with their miserable highways required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.
"This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it always rises up again, stronger, firmer, and mightier. It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the internal dissensions in the bourgeoisie. Thus the ten hours' bill in England was carried."
If I have reproduced this pleasant picture of the modern labour-movement, it is not with the object of discussing it in detail. It would be necessary to make many reservations on several points, especially that of the levelling of salaries. But I wished the reader to put to himself to some purpose the question I ask myself now: "How far did Marx admit that the economic and political organisation of the proletarians would check the tendency to pauperisation that is, according to him, the very law of capitalism?" I think the answer may fairly be, "In a very feeble measure." Undoubtedly the workmen grouped as a class and a party are able to gain certain partial advantages, thanks especially to the divisions in the owning class; but it appears that their union for the fight is the only important gain that they obtain from the fight itself. A general revolt is then the ultimate aim that is furthered by the gain in solidarity and the power of protest of the workmen. Their chances of conducting a revolutionary movement efficiently and of hastening the downfall of the bourgeoisie are thereby increased. But in fact, in the main conditions of their actual life, they suffer under the law of proletarian pauperisation, opposing to it a too feeble counterweight. Undoubtedly this very contradiction between the increasing misery endured by the proletariat, and the increasing power of claiming its rights and of decisive action that organisation was bringing about, seemed to Marx the special motive power of the approaching insurrection, the immediate force back of revolution. The concrete ameliorations obtained by the labour movement compensate imperfectly for the concrete depreciation of the labourer's standard of life under the law of capitalist production. In the conflict of tendencies acting upon the proletariat, the depressing tendency has the upper hand at present. It is this more than any other that controls the real situation of the working class.
And, since we are talking of tendencies, we may note that all the thought of Marx and Engels tended in this direction, I might almost say that Marx needed for his dialectic conception of modern history a proletariat infinitely impoverished and denuded. The proletariat, to fulfil its role of "the human factor" in the Hegelian dialectic of Marx, to represent truly the idea of essential humanity, ought to be so utterly despoiled of all social rights that the quality of humanity, infinitely distressed and wronged, alone persisted. How can one pretend to understand Marx without penetrating to the dialectic origin, the fundamental basis of this thought? His "Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Rights," which appeared in 1844 in the Franco-German Annals, is a conclusive document in this connection. "Where," he asks, "does the practical possibility of German emancipation lie? The answer is: It lies in the formation of a class bound by Radical chains; of a class of bourgeois society that shall not be a class of bourgeois society; of a State that shall be the dissolution of all States; of a sphere that shall have a character of universality by the universality of its suffering, and that lays claim to no one especial right because it is not one special injustice but injustice as a whole that is being wreaked upon it; that can appeal to no historic title to consideration, but only to the title of humanity; that is not in special opposition to this or that result, but in general opposition to all the principles of the German State; it consists finally in the formation of a sphere that can emancipate itself only by emancipating at the same time all the other spheres of society; a sphere that embodies the total degradation of Man and that can, in consequence, realise itself again only by the complete restoration of Man."
I am of course aware that Marx is speaking here of Germany and of the special conditions of her enfranchisement. I know that he recognised in the social classes in France a higher historic idealism; that according to him they have the habit of regarding themselves as the guardians of the general good, so that for entire emancipation to be effected in France, it would be enough that this idealist action should pass from the bourgeoisie, whose humanitarian mission is limited and counteracted by the cares of property, to the French proletariat, in whom the humanitarian mission can develop to its full and universal significance without any obstacle.
Yes, he is dealing with Germany and the German proletariat. But who does not realise that, in spite of ethnic and historical differences, the German proletariat is, in Marx's mind, the representative and, because of the completeness of its destitution, the typical proletariat?
It is by a Hegelian transposition of Christianity that Marx pictures the movement of modern emancipation. Just as the Christian God humbled himself to the lowest depth of suffering humanity in order to redeem humanity as a whole; just as the Saviour, to save mankind, had to lower himself to a degree of destitution bordering on animality, a situation beneath which no man could fall; just as this infinite abasement of God was the condition of the infinite elevation of man, so, in the dialectic of Marx, the proletariat, the modern Saviour, had to be stripped of all guaranties, deprived of every right, degraded to the depth of social and historic annihilation, in order that by raising itself it might raise all humanity. And just as the Man-God, to continue his mission, had to remain poor, suffering, and humiliated until the triumphal day of the resurrection—that single victory over death which has freed all humanity from the bonds of death for ever,—so the proletariat is only able to continue its mission in the logical scheme by bearing, until the final day of revolt—the revolutionary resurrection of humanity,—a cross whose weight is ever increasing, the essential capitalistic law of oppression and depression. Hence comes the evident difficulty that Marx experiences in accepting the idea of a partial raising of the proletariat. Hence a sort of joy he feels mixed with an element of dialectic mysticism, in summing up the crushing forces that weigh down the proletarians.
Marx was mistaken. It was not from absolute destitution that absolute liberation could come. Poor as the German proletariat was, it was not supremely poor. In the first place, the modern workman embodies henceforward all that part of humanity conquered by the abolition of primitive
savagery and barbarism, by the abolition of slavery and serfdom. Then, however feeble at that moment were the claims of the German proletariat to a place of historic importance, they were not entirely lacking. The history of this proletariat since the French Revolution had not been an utter blank. And especially by its sympathy for the emancipatory action of the French proletariat, the workmen of the Parisian section on the 14th of July, the 5th and 6th of October, and the 10th of August, it shared in the title to historical consideration won by the French proletariat; a title that had become universal in character, just as the Declaration of the Rights of Man was a universal symbol and as the fall of the Bastille was a universal deliverance. At the very moment when Marx was writing to the German proletariat words
of mystic abasement and mystic resurrection, the German proletarians, and Marx himself among them, were turning their eyes towards France, the great country where the honourable position of the proletariat in history was first realised. But is there anything strange in the fact that Marx, with his fundamental logical conception of history, should have given precedence to the tendency toward depression in capitalistic evolution? Is it astonishing that he should have written again in his Capital that "oppression, slavery, exploitation, and misery are increasing," and yet also have used the phrase, "the resistance of the labouring classes, continually growing in numbers and discipline, united and organised by the very mechanism of capitalistic production," here again balancing a force of depression that acts immediately and a force of resistance to oppression and of organisation that seems especially destined to prepare the future?
Engels, for his part, had so strict and rigid a conception of the inflexibility of the capitalist system, of its impotence to adapt itself to the least reform, that he made the gravest and most decisive mistakes in his interpretation of social movements. It is difficult to imagine grosser blunders than those that he committed on every page of his celebrated book on The Situation of the Working Classes in England. He saw everywhere inconsistencies, impossibilities, and insoluble contradictions, which could only be done away with by revolution. In 1845 he announced as imminent and absolutely inevitable in England, a labour and Communist revolution, which was to be the bloodiest in history. The poor would butcher the rich and burn their castles. No doubt was possible on that score. "It is nowhere easier to prophesy than in England, because here all social developments are extremely well-defined and acute. The revolution must come, it is already too late to propose a pacific solution." Strange conception of that England, always so expert in compromise and evolutionary changes! He carried his dogmatism in social questions to such a pitch that he ended by adopting toward the specific problems of the time the same tone as that of the most obstinate conservatives. All social and political progress under the present system seemed to him as impossible as it did to them. According to him the Chartists had got England into a corner whence the only issues were destruction on the one hand, or the complete Communist Revolution on the other. They demanded universal suffrage, but this was irreconcilable with monarchy; they demanded a ten-hour day, but this was irreconcilable with the emergencies of production under the capitalist system, and its effect, excellent indeed, would be to force England to adopt the new methods under the penalty of financial ruin. "The political-economy arguments of the manufacturers," wrote Engels, "that the ten-hour law would raise the cost of production, that English manufactures would not be able to compete successfully with foreign products, and that wages would necessarily fall, are partly true; but they prove only one thing, and that is that the industrial greatness of England can be maintained only by the barbarous treatment inflicted on the labourers, by the destruction of health, and the social, physical, and intellectual degradation of whole generations. Naturally, if the ten-hour bill were to become a legal measure, England would be immediately ruined; but because this law would necessarily involve others that would force her into a course of action diametrically opposed to that which she has pursued hitherto, the law would be a step in advance,"
What a spirit of mistrust he shows toward all partial reforms, what narrow limits he assigns to the forces of self-transformation innate in the industrial system! And when, fifty years afterwards, in 1892, Engels republished this book, he never dreamed for a moment of asking himself by what corruption of thought, by what systematic error, he had been led to such false ideas on the political and social movement in England. He preferred to view with complacency a work to which history had given the lie in almost every particular. It is then perfectly natural to suppose that Engels, with this fundamental conception of things, should have always inclined, as Marx did, to give precedence to the forces that in the capitalist system tend to lower the status of the workmen, over those forces that tend to raise it.
But it is not very important what interpretation we give to the obscure and uncertain thought of Marx and Engels on this subject. The essential thing is that no Socialist nowadays accepts the theory of the absolute pauperisation of the proletariat. All Socialists, indeed, some openly, others with infinite precautions, some with a mischievous Viennese good-nature, declare it to be untrue that, taken as a whole, the economic material condition of the proletariat is getting worse and worse. It must be conceded, after taking account of the tendency to sink and the tendency to rise, that in the immediate reality of life, the tendency to sink is not the stronger. Once this has been granted it is no longer possible to repeat after Marx and Engels that the capitalist system will perish because it does not ensure to those whom it exploits the minimum necessities of life. It follows from the same admission that it has also become puerile to expect that an economic cataclysm, menacing the proletariat in its very existence, will bring about, by the revolt of the instinct of self-preservation, the "violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie."
Thus, the two hypotheses, one historic and the other economic, from which, according to the ideas of the Communist Manifesto, the sudden proletarian revolution would inevitably result, are proved to be equally untenable. In the political world there will be no bourgeois revolution on which the revolutionary proletariat can mount and ride to victory, and in the economic world no cataclysm which will set up in a single day the class domination of the Communist proletariat, and a new system of production on the ruins of overthrown capitalism. These hypotheses have not, however, been altogether vain. If the proletariat has been unable to seize the control of a single one of the bourgeois revolutions, it has nevertheless in a hundred and twenty years forced its way into all the agitations of the revolutionary bourgeoisie; and it will continue to profit by the inevitable internal conflicts of the bourgeoisie. If there has not been a complete and revolutionary reaction of the instinct of self-preservation under the pressure of a complete capitalist catastrophe, there have nevertheless been innumerable crises, that, showing as they do the essential disorder of capitalist production, have naturally incited the proletarians to prepare a new order. But they commit a serious error who expect the letter of the prophecy to be fulfilled, who look for the sudden downfall of capitalism, and the sudden accession of the proletariat to power as the result either of a great political collapse of bourgeois society, or a great economic collapse of bourgeois production.
It is not by an unexpected counter-stroke of political agitation that the proletariat will gain supreme power, but by the methodical and legal organisation of its own forces under the law of the democracy and universal suffrage. It is not by the collapse of the capitalistic bourgeoisie, but by the growth of the proletariat, that the Communist order will gradually install itself in our society. Whoever accepts these truths, which have now become necessary, will soon understand the precise and certain methods of social transformation and progressive organisation which they entail. Those who do not completely accept them and those who do not take the decisive result of the proletarian movements of a century very seriously; those who revert to the Communist Manifesto so obviously superannuated by the course of events, or who mix remnants of old thought that no longer contain any truth with the direct and true thoughts suggested by present reality, all such Socialists condemn themselves to a life of chaos.
But I could justify these general affirmations in detail only by the minute analysis of the present tendencies of French Socialism and International Socialism. I could make out the case for the method I have sketched here only by specific applications and by the exposition of a programme of "revolutionary evolution." This I shall attempt in a more systematic work and one more carefully planned than these fragmentary studies, which I now offer by request to those fair-minded readers who are anxious to obtain in these difficult questions even a modest beginning of light.
- Written in 1901. The party was reunited in 1905. See Introduction.
- Kaustky is one of the leading Marxists, and editor of Die neue Zeit, the official review of the German party.
- The Republic of Gambetta was proclaimed on the 4th of September, the day after the news of the Emperor's defeat at Sedan reached Paris. On the 31st of October an attempt at proletarian revolution was made, but the insurrectionists had control of the Hôtel de Ville for a few hours only.
- I have used the English translation of the Communist Manifesto authorised by Engels and published as a tract by the Social Democratic Federation. In a few minor instances I have altered the phraseology when clearness seemed to demand it.—Translator.
- It may be of interest to quote here Bebel's remarks on this subject at the Lübeck Congress in 1901. He is answering the attack of Dr. David, whose arguments are
practically those of Jaurès.
"The Communist Manifesto has been appealed to. I affirm that already in 1872, Engels, in concert with Karl Marx, declared that they wished to republish it only as a historical document. Whoever has studied the works of Marx and Engels in detail can have no doubt that they never set up the Theory of Increasing Misery in the sense explained by David. If anything is characteristic, and refutes large passages in Bernstein's Presuppositions of Socialism, it is the passage from Capital, prefixed as a motto to Bernstein's book, in which Karl Marx describes the Ten Hours' Bill as the victory of a principle. Marx took the view that by organisation the working class can counteract the depressing tendencies of capital, and if by the strength of their organisation they succeeded in inciting the State to take such steps, then it was not merely a great moral advance, but the victory of a new principle. Even a man like Lassalle, who took so decidedly the standpoint of the Brazen Law of Wages,—even he gives no occasion for his being invoked as a witness on behalf of a false conception of the Theory of Increasing Misery. In his Open Letter in Reply he says: 'People tell you workers you are to-day in quite a different position from that of three or four hundred years ago. No doubt you are better off than the Botokudiens or than cannibal savages.' 'Every human satisfaction,' he says further on, 'depends always on the relation of the means of satisfaction to what the custom of the period demands as bare necessities for existence, or, which is the same thing, upon the excess of the means of satisfaction over the lowest limit of what the custom of the period demands as bare necessaries for existence.' 'If you then compare,' he suggests further, 'what the rich class has to-day with what the working class has to-day, the gap between the working class and the rich class to-day is evidently greater than ever before.' That is the pith of the Theory of Increasing Misery."—Modern Socialism, edited by R. C. K. Ensor.
- The 14th of July, 1789, is the date of the fall of the Bastille; on the 5th and 6th of October, 1789, the people of Paris, led by the hungry women, forced the King to return from Versailles; on the 10th of August, 1792, the Tuileries were taken.