Revolutionary Lives

In first eighteen issues, Red Banner carried the Revolutionary Lives feature. Each article critically examined the life and work of a great socialist. Those covered were Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Friedrich Engels, John Maclean, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, William Morris, Victor Serge, György Lukács, Alexandra Kollontai, Karl Marx, Ernesto Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky. The individual articles can all be accessed on this website, but the entire series is also available as a PDF here:

Revolutionary Lives: Leon Trotsky (part three: 1929-1940)

Joe Conroy‘s look at Trotsky’s work concluded in Issue 18 in March 2004.

The last decade of Trotsky’s life was marked by unprecedented adversity. While fascism took over more of Europe, Stalin’s rule in the USSR grew steadily more brutal. It drove Trotsky from one place of exile to another—from Turkey to France to Norway to Mexico—hounding him with lies, abuse and violence. The fact that he held fast to his principles throughout is a tribute to his undying loyalty to the socialist cause.


Spain spent the 1930s in a continuous state of political crisis, culminating in Franco’s fascist coup in 1936. Much of the initial resistance consisted of workers and small farmers seizing factories and land from owners who sided with fascism. But the Communist party and others pushed for a ‘people’s front’ policy, in which all classes would put aside their differences and defend democracy. Working people would have to postpone hope of improving their situation in society and accept their inferior position until Franco was out of the way. Trotsky argued that such a strategy fatally weakened the struggle:

The demand not to transgress the bounds of bourgeois democracy signifies in practice not a defence of the democratic revolution but a repudiation of it.… The fighters of a revolutionary army must be clearly aware of the fact that they are fighting for their full social liberation and not for the reestablishment of the old (“democratic”) forms of exploitation.1

The rise of Hitler in Germany was made easier by the Communist Party’s refusal to fight alongside the Social Democrats against him. They maintained that the reformists were little better than the fascists at the end of the day. Trotsky didn’t deny the Social Democratic betrayals of the working class but, because a Nazi victory would crush all workers’ organisations without exception, it was possible and necessary for revolutionaries to form a united front with them. This would mean unity in action, but not hiding differences with each other: “we shall criticize each other with full freedom… But when the fascist wants to force a gag down our throats, we will repulse him together!”2

In both cases the policy pursued by Stalin and the Communist Parties under his control had contributed to fascist dictatorships coming to power. The internal workings of these parties, wrote Trotsky, prevented them from taking a real part in the workers’ struggles:

The German Communist Party was growing rapidly… But before the hour of test came, it was ravaged from within. The stifling of the interior life of the party, the wish to give orders instead of to convince, the zigzag policies, the appointment of leaders from the top, the system of lies and deception for the masses—all this demoralized the party to its marrow. When danger approached, the party was found to be a corpse.3

The parties had created a layer of members unable to think for themselves, fit only to obey orders from the leadership: “Whoever bows his head submissively before every command from above, is good for nothing as a revolutionary fighter!”4


The disastrous effects of Stalinism in Russia itself were also ruthlessly exposed by Trotsky’s pen. While Stalin claimed that a socialist society was under construction, if not already built, Trotsky pointed to the glaring inequalities between ordinary workers and the bureaucrats: “such socialism cannot but seem to the masses a new re-facing of capitalism, and they are not far wrong”. There existed a “whole stratum, which does not engage directly in productive labor, but administers, orders, commands, pardons and punishes”.

the Soviet government occupies in relation to the whole economic system the position which a capitalist occupies in relation to a single enterprise.…
The transfer of the factories to the state changed the situation of the worker only juridically. In reality, he is compelled to live in want and work a definite number of hours for a definite wage.… In the bureau­cracy he sees the manager, in the state, the employer.5

But he maintained that the USSR was different to capitalist societies. The land, the means of production, and foreign trade were in the hands of the state, and this defined “the nature of the Soviet Union as a proletarian state”. The bureaucracy, in so far as it maintained state ownership, “still remains a weapon of proletarian dictatorship”.6 For all its shortcomings, Russia “still remains a degenerated workers’ state”.7

Trotsky initially clung to the hope that Stalinist rule could be overcome peacefully, and only revised his view in 1933, when the Communist Parties signally failed to prevent Hitler coming to power. However, the revolution he revolution he then called for was one “confined within the limits of political revolution”, overthrowing the political rule of the bureaucracy but, in economic matters, going no further than “a series of very important reforms, but not another social revolution”.8 The USSR was “a damaged workers’ state… which still continues to run and which can be completely reconditioned with the replacement of some parts”.9

There is a clear contradiction between the reality of Stalinist society as Trotsky described it and the conclusion he drew from it. The state existing in Russia was no kind of a workers’ state at all, whatever qualifying adjective preceded the term. As workers in any nationalised company can testify, state ownership in itself doesn’t change the dynamics of capitalist exploitation. The economy belonged to the state, indeed, but the state belonged to a class of bureaucrats who played the role of capitalists. It is true, as Trotsky said, that they couldn’t pass their wealth on directly to their children, but in practice they could and did pass on their privileged lifestyle and social position. Overthrowing them would mean more than a “political revolution” with a democratisation of economic management systems, but rebuilding society anew from the ground up, starting with a fresh workers’ revolution.

Years before, in 1922, Trotsky had given a much clearer response to those who saw state ownership, rather than workers’ power, as the defining feature of socialism:

To this we Marxists replied that as long as political power remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie this socialization was not socialization at all and that it would not lead to socialism but only to state capitalism. To put it differently, the ownership of various factories, railways and so on by diverse capitalists would be superseded by an ownership of the totality of enterprises, railways and so on by the very same bourgeois firm, called the state. In the same measure as the bourgeoisie retains political power, it will, as a whole, continue to exploit the proletariat through the medium of state capitalism, just as an individual bourgeois exploits, by means of private ownership, “his own” workers. The term “state capitalism” was thus put forward, or at all events, employed polemically by revolutionary Marxists against the reformists, for the purpose of explaining and proving that genuine socialization begins only after the conquest of power by the working class.10

Just as Stalin’s failure to stop Hitler in 1933 caused Trotsky to abandon hope of reforming Stalinist Russia, so the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 led many of Trotsky’s followers to reject his definition of Russia as a workers’ state. Trotsky was having none of it—not least because he felt Stalin was on the brink of collapse anyway:

A totalitarian regime, whether of Stalinist or fascist type, by its very essence can only be a temporary transitional regime… incapable of perpetuating itself.… Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?11

Seeing a passing phenomenon where, in reality, an established society existed clearly led Trotsky to underestimate the stability of the regime.

Because Trotsky saw Stalinist Russia as a more progressive society than others, he adopted a stance of “Unconditional defence of the USSR” in time of war. Even when Stalin occupied eastern Poland on foot of his deal with Hitler, Trotsky welcomed his imposition of Russian property forms there: “the statification of property in the occupied territories is in itself a progressive measure… the Kremlin with its bureaucratic methods gave an impulse to the socialist revolution in Poland”.12 While he had previously written that “The bureaucracy which became a reactionary force in the USSR cannot play a revolutionary role in the world arena”,13 he now portrayed it overthrowing capitalism in eastern Europe. While he had previously written that “Only the working class can seize the forces of production from the stranglehold of the exploiters”,14 he now portrayed the Stalinist bureaucracy carrying out that task.

To the rule of Stalinist bureaucrats, Trotsky counterposed the demo­cratic rule of the working class:

the dictatorship of the proletariat by its very essence can and should be the supreme expression of workers’ democracy. In order to bring about a great social revolution, there must be for the proletariat a supreme manifestation of all its forces and all its capacities: the proletariat is organized democratically precisely in order to put an end to its enemies.… The heavy hand of dictatorship is directed against the class enemies: the foundation of the dictatorship is workers’ democracy.15

This would mean a range of different workers’ parties existing and criticising each other. While Trotsky glossed over the fact that he himself had justified one-party rule through the 1920s, his position now was a distinct advance. But in the heat of polemic he slid back towards the old position: “if the dictatorship of the proletariat means anything at all, then it means that the vanguard of the class is armed with the resources of the state in order to repel dangers, including those emanating from the backward layers of the proletariat itself”.16 Instead of the working class freely discussing the way forward while uniting to forcibly impose its will on the capitalists, this envisaged one “vanguard” section of the working class forcibly imposing its will on other sections—a far cry from pluralist workers’ democracy.


Trotsky believed that the struggle for socialism couldn’t do without him in this period: “now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word… There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method”.17 The same went for the Fourth International, founded in 1938 to organise his supporters worldwide. He wasn’t lacking in high hopes for it: “During the next ten years the program of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions”.18

But it was not to be. Uniting socialists in as much common activity as possible was quite right, but 1938 was no time for a conference of 21 socialists to be proclaiming a world party of socialist revolution, complete with a fully-fledged intercontinental structure of organisation. The First and Second Internationals had emerged from upward swings of the workers’ movement, and the Third came on the back of an actual socialist revolution. On the other hand, the Fourth had, as Trotsky put it, “arisen out of… the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history”.19 An all-out revolutionary offensive launched in the decade of Hitler, Franco and Stalin was never likely to make much headway.

One of the new International’s problems was Trotsky’s contention that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” The strike wave of 1936 in France, for instance, “revealed the wholehearted readiness of the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist system”, but their leaders “succeeded in canalizing and damming, at least temporarily, the revolutionary stream”.20 The events of 1936 were undoubt­edly impressive, but a working class that was really ready to overthrow capitalism would hardly turn around and go back to sleep at the word of any leaders. By reducing everything to bad leadership, Trotsky’s view gave the impression of workers chomping at the bit but powerless to see through their leaders: if different leaders were only provided, then the revolution could proceed. An earlier comment of his was nearer the mark: “The quality of the leadership is, of course, far from a matter of indifference for the outcome of the conflict, but it is not the only factor, and in the last analysis is not decisive.”21

Trotsky felt that socialists needed to have a programme of demands to present to workers. To take a typical example: “Against a bounding rise in prices… one can fight only under the slogan of a sliding scale of wages.”22 So, if inflation reaches 5%, wages should automatically go up 5%. But it is more common, if conditions are at all favourable, for workers to demand 10%—to try and use the opportunity to increase their real wages rather than running to stand still. The demand for a sliding wage scale has seldom, if ever, been put forward in actual struggle. Telling socialists that it was the “only” way to fight inflation could only encourage them to privilege their own ready-made programme at the expense of demands emerging from real workers’ struggles. Trotsky had proposed a more flexible method of inter­vention some years before, when he said that revolutionaries needed to develop “the capacity to put forward at the right moment sharp, specific fighting slogans that by themselves don’t derive from the ‘program’ but are dictated by the circumstances of the day”.23

The isolation of Trotsky’s followers bred an almost messianic convic­tion regarding their role as the one true revolutionaries. Trotsky made the absurd claim that “The advanced workers of all the world are already firmly convinced that the overthrow of Mussolini, Hitler, and their agents and imitators will occur only under the leadership of the Fourth International.”24 No other socialists came up to scratch: they were “the only genuinely revolutionary current which has never repudiated its banner, has not compromised with its enemies, and which alone represents the future”.25 Socialists in Spain who disagreed with Trotsky were informed by him that “Outside the line of the Fourth International there is only the line of Stalin-Caballero” (Largo Caballero was the Spanish prime minister).26 When the revolutionary Victor Serge begged to differ, Trotsky resorted to the kind of tactics the Stalinists had employed against himself: Serge was only “a disillusioned petty-bourgeois intellectual” aiming “to subdue Marxism… to paralyze the socialist revolution”, and the likes of him were “carriers of infection” in the movement.27 Trotsky’s point of view was often, though not always, correct; but unleashing his wrath on any socialist who thought differently was a recipe for severely narrowing the potential for agreement.

The communist future

Treating Leon Trotsky as a revolutionary oracle—as some have done, and still do—is never going to utilise his contributions to the cause he was devoted to. His ideas of socialist organisation in his later years were seriously flawed. His opposition to Stalinism was all the weaker for being conditional, picking out good aspects of the system to defend. But his stand against the Stalinist bureaucracy in unimaginably hard times was truly heroic. His fight to provide an alternative to its betrayals still remains relevant—above all, his understanding of permanent revolution, linking the fight against all oppression with the international socialist revolution.

Stalin never forgave Trotsky, and made considerable efforts to silence him. In Mexico, where Trotsky lived from 1937, Stalin’s supporters perse­cuted him endlessly in the press and even launched a gun attack on his home. A Stalinist agent managed to infiltrate the household and, one day, smashed a pickaxe into Trotsky’s skull. Trotsky struggled with him fiercely and tried to survive. But on 21 August 1940 Trotsky’s revolutionary life came to an end.

Six months earlier, in poor health and aware of the threat of assassin­ation, Trotsky had written a testament:

For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolution­ist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.
…Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.28


  1. Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39) (New York 1973), p 307, 320.
  2. Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York 1971), p 355.
  3. Leon Trotsky, Whither France? (London 1974), p 85.
  4. The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p 103.
  5. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York 1937), p 120, 138, 43, 241-2.
  6. Ibid, p 248-9.
  7. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York 1973), p 102.
  8. The Revolution Betrayed, p 288, 253.
  9. Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (London 1971), p 30.
  10. Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two (London 1974), p 245.
  11. In Defence of Marxism, p 16-17.
  12. Ibid, p 51, 23, 163.
  13. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 106.
  14. Whither France?, p 41.
  15. Ibid, p 91.
  16. Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours (New York 1973), p 59.
  17. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile 1935 (London 1958), p 54.
  18. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-9) (New York 1969), p 59.
  19. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 111.
  20. Ibid, p 73-4.
  21. The Revolution Betrayed, p 87.
  22. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 76.
  23. The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 143.
  24. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 102.
  25. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38) (New York 1970), p 160.
  26. The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), p 262.
  27. Their Morals and Ours, p 60-1, 66. For an indication of how little foundation Trotsky’s insults had, see Joe Conroy, ‘Revolutionary Lives: Victor Serge’, Red Banner 9.
  28. Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, p 139-40.

Revolutionary Lives: Leon Trotsky (part two: 1921-29)

Joe Conroy‘s look at Trotsky’s life and work continued in Issue 17 (November 2003).

The early years of the Russian revolution, for all their difficulties, engendered great hopes of human liberation. Trotsky was insistent that the emancipation of the most downtrodden was at the heart of socialism:

the revolution is, before and above all, the awakening of humanity, its onward march, and is marked with a growing respect for the personal dignity of every individual, with an ever-increasing concern for those who are weak. A revolution does not deserve its name if, with all its might and all the means at its disposal, it does not help the woman—twofold and threefold enslaved as she has been in the past—to get out on the road of individual and social progress. A revolution does not deserve its name if it does not take the greatest care possible of the children—the future race for whose benefit the revolution has been made.1

The working class had not taken power to hold on to it indefinitely, but to remove the need for it. “The liberating significance of the dictatorship of the proletariat consists in the fact that it is temporary—for a brief period only—that it is a means of clearing the road and of laying the foundations of a society without classes and of a culture based upon solidarity.”2 Such a culture would know no such thing as a state, people instead forming a voluntary social bond: “Just as people in a chorus sing harmoniously not because they are compelled to but because it is pleasant to them, so under communism the harmony of relationships will answer the personal needs of each and every individual.”3

Trotsky had always maintained that revolution could never survive in Russia alone, that socialism could only be victorious internationally. He spent much of his time encouraging and criticising the revolutionary groups that took shape across Europe following the first world war. Unless they succeeded in organising themselves effectively, clarifying their political activity and winning over a majority of the working class, great oppor­tunities would go to waste: “The most mature revolutionary situation without a revolutionary party of the necessary dimensions, without correct leadership, is just like a knife without a blade.”4

These revolutionaries had the support of only a minority of the workers, most of whom still supported the reformist politicians and union leaders. To win over the majority, socialists had to engage in joint activity with reformists on issues affecting the basic interests of the working class. Such united fronts would not mean that socialists would abandon their criticism of reformism. On the contrary, they would provide a chance to prove in practice that revolutionary politics made more sense:

We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment. It is precisely in the course of struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that we fight better than the others, that we see more clearly than the others, that we are more audacious and resolute.5

The young revolutionary parties also needed vibrant internal democracy and debate in order to develop: “Without a real freedom of party life, freedom of discussion, and freedom of establishing their course collectively, and by means of groupings, these parties will never become a decisive revolutionary force.”6 But through the 1920s, this became less and less the case. The decay originated with the increasing bureaucratisation of Russia’s Communist Party.

The party leadership gathered ever greater control in its hands, pushing aside and silencing those who disagreed with the line from above. It started “to drop ready-made decisions on the party’s head, decisions that have been discussed and arrived at in gatherings of the ruling faction which are kept secret from the party”.7 As a result, “the party was living, as it were, on two storeys: the upper storey, where things are decided, and the lower storey, where all you do is learn of the decisions”.8

The devastation Russia had suffered in the world war and the civil war had left the working class exhausted and atomised. In the absence of workers’ revolution elsewhere, the bureaucracy held power and started to dig itself in. Joseph Stalin became the predominant spokesperson for their interests, above all with the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’: even without international revolution, Russia could build a socialist society on its own. Trotsky fought tooth and nail against this blatant abandonment of Marxist internationalism: “Soviet Russia will be able to maintain herself and to develop only in the event of world revolution… only if it serves as the starting point and remains an integral part of the world revolution of the international proletariat”.9

The Stalinist policy unfolded with disastrous results in China, a country in the grip of imperialism and landlord rule. Revolution broke out there in 1925, but the Chinese Communist Party had been instructed by Moscow to join the middle-class nationalist Kuomintang party, and to support its leadership without criticism. The Kuomintang suppressed uprisings of workers and peasants, and massacred Communists. The Communist Party was then made to transfer its allegiance to a left-wing faction of the Kuomintang, which went on to treat them in similar fashion. The Chinese working class went down to a tragic defeat.

Stalin’s theory had decreed that the fight for socialism was not on the agenda in China, and had to wait until national independence was won. Trotsky countered that national liberation would be won as part of a struggle which also addressed the social and economic oppression of the working people:

Really to arouse the workers and peasants against imperialism is possible only by connecting their basic and most profound life interests with the cause of the country’s liberation.…
The victory over foreign imperialism can only be won by means of the toilers of town and country driving it out of China.… They cannot rise under the bare slogan of national liberation, but only in direct struggle against the big landlords, the military satraps, the usurers, the capitalist brigands.

The imperialists and landlords would be overthrown by “a revolution on whose banner the toilers and oppressed write plainly their own demands”.10

The catastrophe in China led Trotsky to extend the theory of permanent revolution, which until now he had only applied to Russia. In countries like China, he argued, oppressed by colonialism and economic backwardness, the capitalists couldn’t be relied upon to fight as they were usually them­selves linked to the oppressor. Therefore,

the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation… The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.… it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.11

Powerful and all as the bureaucracy now was, Trotsky believed that the working class was still in ultimate control of Russia. “If we did not believe that our state is a proletarian state, though with bureaucratic deformations… if we did not believe that our development was socialist… then, it need not be said, our place would not be in the ranks of a Communist Party.” The struggle against the bureaucracy “is a reformist struggle”, because “Power has not yet been torn from the hands of the proletariat.”12 If this were not the case, a different approach would follow:

If the party is a corpse, a new party must be built on a new spot, and the working class must be told about it openly.… if the dictatorship of the proletariat is liquidated, the banner of the second proletarian revolution must be unfurled. That is how we would act if the road of reform, for which we stand, proved hopeless.13

Although this is far clearer in hindsight than it was then, the road of reform was indeed hopeless by the time Trotsky wrote these words. The Stalinist bureaucracy was already too entrenched to be voted out of power at party conferences—conferences which were now no more than a rubber stamp for the bureaucracy’s policies. The opposition movement still had significant support in some sections of the working class: if, as some of its members proposed, it organised openly against Stalin as a new party for a new revolution, its chances of success would probably have been greater. Trotsky’s position prevailed, however, and the opposition resolved “to keep these differences within the confines of our continued work and our joint responsibility for the policy of the party”.14

He even agreed that no other party but the Communist Party should be allowed to exist: “the party has a monopoly in the political field, something absolutely necessary for the revolution”. Forming an opposition party was excluded in principle: “We will fight with all our power against the idea of two parties, because the dictatorship of the proletariat demands as its very core a single proletarian party.”15 Even the existence of factions within the party he ruled out of order: “I have never recognized freedom for groupings inside the party, nor do I now recognize it”.16 Trotsky’s commitment to the straitjacket of party unity reached a masochistic pitch in the following statement at a party conference:

Comrades, none of us wishes to be or can be right against the party. In the last instance the party is always right… I know that one ought not to be right against the party. One can be right only with the party and through the party because history has not created any other way for the realization of one’s rightness. The English have the saying ‘My country, right or wrong’. With much greater justification we can say: My party, right or wrong…17

So Trotsky yielded to party discipline. When the party ordered an end to debate, he obeyed and stayed silent. “We must not do anything at this moment”, he told his supporters:18 a recipe for sitting and waiting while the other side strengthened its position. When the bureaucracy decided to hush up Lenin’s deathbed advice to remove Stalin from power, Trotsky went along with the decision and even publicly denied that Lenin had said any such thing. When he did come out against the leadership, he formed alliances with people who proved untrustworthy and incapable of honest opposition. For the sake of such alliances he compromised on matters of principle. He even agreed to renounce his biggest contribution to Marxism, the theory of permanent revolution, which he announced to be irrelevant: “I myself regard it as a question which has long been consigned to the archives”.19

But the growing power of the bureaucracy did cause Trotsky to consider that counter-revolution could come in a new, unexpected way. Possibly, it “would not be carried out all at once, with one blow, but through successive shiftings, with the first shift occurring from the top down and to a large extent within one and the same party… a special from of counter-revolution carried out on the installment plan”.20 He drew a comparison with the French revolution: on 9th Thermidor (according to the revolutionary calendar) the conservatives pushed the radicals out of power.

It is less the danger of an open, full-fledged bourgeois counterrevolution than that of a Thermidor, that is, a partial counterrevolutionary shift or upheaval which, precisely because it was partial, could for a fairly long time continue to disguise itself in revolutionary forms, but which in essence would already have a decisively bourgeois character, so that a return from Thermidor to the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be effected through a new revolution.21

In the final years of the decade, the bureaucracy moved to decisively consolidate its power. Thousands of its opponents were arrested: Trotsky himself was expelled from the Communist Party in late 1927 and exiled to Kazakhstan in the outskirts of the USSR two months later. Forced collect­ivisation in the countryside expropriated millions of farmers, and accel­erated industrialisation drove workers to work harder for less. Whereas Trotsky had seen the bureaucracy as an unstable intermediate group balancing between the workers and the remaining property owners, instead it now came into its own, establishing firm bases for its independent power in society, politics and the economy.

Although some of his analysis had proved inaccurate, Trotsky—unlike many others—had no intention of giving in before the overwhelming power of Stalinism. When the secret police presented him with an order to cease his political activity, he threw the ultimatum back in their faces:

To demand from me that I renounce my political activity is to demand that I abjure the struggle which I have been conducting in the interests of the international working class, a struggle in which I have been unceasingly engaged for thirty-two years, during the whole of my conscious life.… Only a bureaucracy corrupt to its roots can demand such a renunciation. Only contemptible renegades can give such a promise.22

In January 1929 Trotsky was deported from the USSR altogether, and was never to return. But his fight against the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution was far from over.

part three


1    Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York 1973), p 53.

2    Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (Michigan 1960), p 194.

3    Problems of Everyday Life, p 176.

4    Leon Trotsky on Britain (New York 1973), p 162.

5    Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume Two (London 1974), p 96.

6    Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (London 1974), p 117.

7    Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27) (New York 1980), p 114-15.

8    Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) (New York 1975), p 69.

9    Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume One (London 1973), p 358.

10  Leon Trotsky on China (New York 1976), p 161, 207-8, 189.

11  Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London 1962), p 152, 154-5.

12  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 162-3, 489.

13  Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29) (New York 1981), p 300.

14  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 164.

15 Ibid, p 390, 394. These quotations are from the 1927 Platform of the Opposition, which was drafted collectively. Trotsky was its main author, however, and these quotations certainly reflect his own views. See, for instance: “We are the only party in the country, and in the period of the dictatorship it could not be otherwise.… the Communist Party is obliged to monopolize the direction of political life.” The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), p 78-9.     

16  Ibid, p 154.

17  Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Oxford 1959), p 139.

18  Quoted in ibid, p 201.

19  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p 145.

20  Ibid, p 260, 263.

21  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1928-29), p 139. 22

22 Quoted in Deutscher, p 468-9.

Revolutionary Lives: Leon Trotsky (part one: 1879-1921)

In Issue 16 (July 2003) Joe Conroy began an examination of Trotsky’s life and politics.

Lev Davidovich Bronstein was born in the Kherson province of the Ukraine on 26 October 1879 (7 November by the western calendar) to a family of well-off Jewish farmers. By his late teens he had become involved in a group of revolutionaries working to overthrow the rule of the Tsar over the Russian empire. Although initially resistant, he became an enthusiastic Marxist, involved in organising strikes in the region. This earned him arrest in 1898 and deportation to Siberia. In 1902 he managed to escape, writing the name of one of his prison guards in his false passport, a name that stuck to him: Trotsky.

Revolutionary organisation

He made his way to London, where many of Russia’s leading socialists were gathered in exile. Like most of them—most notably, Vladimir Lenin—Trotsky advocated a centralised organisation to unite the scattered circles of socialists across Russia in co-ordinated action. But the congress that was to establish such an organisation in 1903 led to a deep split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

Trotsky saw two very different conceptions of revolutionary organis­ation at issue: “In the one case we have a party which thinks for the proletariat, which substitutes itself politically for it, and in the other we have a party which politically educates and mobilises the proletariat”. The first conception, that of the Bolsheviks, would mean “the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee”.1 The relationship between a socialist party and the working class, he maintained, had to be a two-way street: “It is not only the party that leads the masses: the masses, in turn, sweep the party forward.”2 Defending a party’s revolutionary essence was a question of politics, not organisational rules: “I do not believe that you can put statutory exorcism on opportunism.”3

Trotsky’s arguments did go somewhat overboard. His doom-filled prophecies of Bolshevik dictatorship were not fulfilled in the ensuing years. And while rules couldn’t defeat reformism, they could play some part in defining the nature of socialist activity. But at the same time, he did have a point. The arguments of Lenin and the Bolsheviks did too often put the building of their own party ahead of the struggle of the workers, and what progress they made was often due to quietly ignoring these ideas in practice. Trotsky’s insistence on the centrality of the working class and its activity to any socialist project was a necessary corrective.

Permanent revolution

All these theories were put to the test of an actual revolution in 1905: when troops opened fire on a demonstration seeking reform from the Tsar, it set off a wave of strikes and rebellions. Trotsky returned to Russia to play a central role, being elected leader of the Council of Workers’ Deputies in the capital St Petersburg. Workers elected such councils, or ‘soviets’, in work­places all over the country, and they constituted a potential challenge to capitalist rule:

a freely elected parliament of the working class… the Soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo… the organized expression of the class will of the proletariat… the democratic representative body of the proletariat at a time of revolution… It constitutes authentic democracy, without a lower and an upper chamber, without a professional bureau­cracy, but with the voters’ right to recall their deputies at any moment.4

The phenomenon of workers’ councils confirmed Trotsky’s refusal to join either faction of Russian socialism, because he envisaged greater revolutionary possibilities than either of them. The Mensheviks held that, in an economically backward country like Russia, replacing Tsarist rule with parliamentary democracy was as far as the revolution could hope to go for the time being. The job of the working class, as a small minority of the population, was to encourage liberal capitalist politicians to oppose Tsar­ism. The Bolsheviks had no such faith in the liberals, and aimed for a government in which workers would share power with the peasantry. While this would make a clean sweep of Tsarism, socialist change would not be on the agenda.

Although the working class formed only a fraction of Russia’s popu­lation, Trotsky argued, it was concentrated in the decisive areas of industry, giving it a disproportionate political weight. The hesitancy and political cowardice of Russia’s capitalist class were matched by the revolutionary spirit of its young working class. In such conditions, “It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country.”5

Once in power, the working class would immediately set about getting rid of Tsarism and introducing democratic reforms, but this would inevit­ably bring it into conflict with capitalism. Legislation to limit the working day, for instance, would meet the opposition of capitalists closing down factories and locking out workers. The workers’ government would have no alternative but to take over their factories: “the very logic of its position will compel it to pass over to collectivist measures”. The workers would have to take economic as well as political control: “The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement.”6 The revolution would become permanent, moving directly from the overthrow of Tsarism to the overthrow of capitalism.

But the rule of the workers could not survive in isolation, least of all in a country as economically undeveloped as Russia. Their only hope would be for their revolution to inspire workers in other countries to follow their example and come to their aid. “The workers’ government will from the start be faced with the task of uniting its forces with those of the socialist proletariat of Western Europe. Only in this way will its temporary revolu­tionary hegemony become the prologue to a socialist dictatorship.”7

The workers could not hold power without the support of other exploited sections of the people, especially in Russia’s vast countryside:

The proletariat will find itself compelled to carry the class struggle into the villages and in this manner destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within compar­atively narrow limits. From the very first moment after its taking power, the proletariat will have to find support in the antagonisms between the village poor and village rich, between the agricultural proletariat and the agricultural bourgeoisie.

The revolutionary government should include representatives of the peasantry, but “the hegemony should belong to the working class”.8

Trotsky was right to insist that, rather than an alliance of equal partners, it would be a case of the peasantry following the lead of the workers. The position of the working class in the economy gave it a far greater collective strength, and its direct, immediate interest in carrying out socialist measures would give it the leading role in the revolution’s development. But he went too far in assigning only a passive role to the peasantry, asserting that “The proletariat in power will stand before the peasantry as the class which has emancipated it.9 Rural revolt would add an extra dimension of its own to the revolution. He was wrong, too, in assuming that they would inevitably turn against the workers at some stage, that “The primitiveness of the peasantry turns its hostile face towards the proletariat.”10 A successful revolution would bring the rural poor to see the advantages of socialism for themselves.

The revolution of 1905 didn’t realise the potential Trotsky saw in it. By the end of the year, the ruling class was beginning to regain the upper hand. The leaders of the St Petersburg workers’ council were arrested and sent to Siberia. Again, Trotsky escaped and went into exile for what proved a barren period for Russia’s socialists.

Workers’ revolution

Trotsky took a prominent part in the international socialist opposition to the first world war. Tsarist Russia’s involvement in the slaughter proved to be the last throw of the dice for the regime. Growing discontent erupted in revolution in February 1917 which replaced the Tsar with a provisional government. Shortly after 1905 Trotsky had forecast that “the first new wave of revolution will lead to the creation of Soviets all over the country”,11 and 1917 proved him right as workers’ councils mushroomed. In May he succeeded in getting back to St Petersburg.

His first port of call was the workers’ council, where he argued that the revolution’s next step should be “to transfer the whole power into the hands of the Soviets”.12 The Mezhrayontsy, a group of socialists Trotsky had been linked to for a couple of years, had been advocating such a policy since February. At Lenin’s prompting, the Bolsheviks too were now calling for the workers’ councils to take power, dropping their old position. “The Bol­sheviks de-bolshevised themselves”, commented Trotsky.13 The Mezh­raiontsy merged with the Bolsheviks and many of their leading fig­ures, including Trotsky, were elected to the party’s leadership.

After six weeks’ imprisonment at the hands of the government, Trotsky emerged in September to a situation where the call for a second, workers’ revolution was winning majority support among the working class. He was elected president of the capital’s workers’ council again, and organised the insurrection of 25 October that overthrew the provisional government and handed power to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets.

The workers’ council, foundation of the new government, was an “irreplaceable organization of working-class self-rule”, argued Trotsky.14 Delegates were elected by and responsible to a specific workplace, and so the councils truly reflected the workers’ will:

They depend directly on organic groups… there is the far more import­ant guarantee of the direct and immediate contact of the deputy with his electors. The member of the municipal council or zemstvo depends on an amorphous mass of electors who invest him with authority for one year, and then dissolve. The Soviet electors, on the other hand, remain in permanent contact with one another by the very conditions of their life and work; their deputy is always under their direct observation and may at any moment be given new instructions, and, if necessary, may be censured, recalled, and replaced by somebody else.15

As commissar for foreign affairs in the new workers’ government, Trotsky took prime responsibility for what he had long ago identified as the first necessity of a Russian revolution. “Our whole hope is that our revo­lution will kindle a European revolution”, he announced on taking up the post. “The Russian revolution will either cause a revolution in the West, or the capitalists of all countries will strangle our [revolution].”16 To this end, the Bolsheviks established the Communist International. “It has no aims or tasks separate and apart from those of the working class itself”, said Trotsky. It wanted to help establish, not “tiny sects, each of which wants to save the working class in its own manner”, but in each country “a genuine revolutionary organization, one that doesn’t tell the workers lies, doesn’t deceive them, doesn’t hide from them nor throw sand in their eyes, doesn’t betray them in the cloakrooms of parliamentarianism or of economic conciliationism but leads them unswervingly to the end”.17

Generalising from the Russian experience, he concluded that the heartlands of capitalism would likely be the toughest nuts for socialism to crack, while the system gave way at its weakest links:

The more powerful a country is capitalistically—all other conditions being equal—the greater is the inertia of “peaceful” class relations… Countries with a younger capitalist culture are the first to enter the path of civil war inasmuch as the unstable equilibrium of class forces is most easily disrupted precisely in these countries.… the task of initiating the revolution, as we have already seen, was not placed on an old proletariat with mighty political and trade union organizations, with massive tradit­ions of parliamentarianism and trade unionism, but upon the young proletariat of a backward country. History took the line of least resist­ance. The revolutionary epoch burst in through the most weakly barri­caded door.18

Whose dictatorship?

The class overthrown by the Russian revolution showed no signs of giving up without a struggle. Their resistance went on for years with the help of invading foreign armies, forcing the new-born workers’ republic to fight a war for its very existence. As commissar for war from 1918 Trotsky organised a Red Army from scratch that succeeded in beating back the forces trying to crush the revolution. Ruthless combat went hand in hand with humanitarian concern: “Let the hand be cut off of any Red Army man who lifts his knife on a prisoner of war, on the disarmed, the sick and wounded”, ran one of Trotsky’s orders.19

Violence in defence of the revolution was clearly justified in Trotsky’s eyes: “When a murderer raises his knife over a child, may one kill the murderer to save the child?” Renouncing violence would mean renouncing revolution itself. However, Trotsky tended to make an unfortunate necessity into a positive proposition:

the principle of the ‘sacredness of human life’ remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.… we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life’.… The man who recognizes the revolutionary historic importance of the very fact of the existence of the soviet system must also sanction the Red Terror.20

Recognising the necessity for a socialist revolution to terrorise its enemies is one thing: sanctioning every single use of terror is another. Regarding human life as sacred is not the sole preserve of Kantian priests and vegetarian Quakers. Socialists should only kill, or support killing, if and when it proves absolutely necessary. Even then, it is the exception to the rule, an evil to be tolerated and kept to a minimum, not a principle to be exalted.

Years before the revolution, Trotsky had insisted that the dictatorship of the proletariat “wouldn’t be the dictatorship of a little band of conspirators or a minority party, but of the immense majority… the political rule of the organised working class”. The multitude of problems faced by the workers in power could be solved only

by long ‘debates’, by way of a systematic struggle not only between the socialist and capitalist worlds, but also between many trends inside socialism… No ‘strong authoritative organisation’… will be able to suppress these trends and controversies… for it is only too clear that a proletariat capable of exercising its dictatorship over society will not tolerate any dictatorship over itself.21

The revolution’s early years came surprisingly close to this ideal. For a period the Bolsheviks shared governmental power with another left-wing party. Other parties and schools of thought took a full part in political debate. Within the Bolshevik party itself various factions contended openly. The isolation of the revolution and its need to fight for survival threatened this democracy, however. Very little opposition remained within the framework of the workers’ power, as parties colluded with or surrendered to those trying to bring back the old regime. Soviet Russia effectively ended up as a one-party state.

This situation could be explained, at least in part, by the desperate straits the revolution found itself in. Trotsky, though, chose to justify and praise it as a good thing in all circumstances:

The exclusive role of the Communist Party under the conditions of a victorious proletarian revolution is quite comprehensible.… The revolu­tionary supremacy of the proletariat pre-supposes within the proletariat itself the political supremacy of a party, with a clear programme of action and a faultless internal discipline.
The policy of coalitions contradicts internally the regime of the revolutionary dictatorship. We have in view, not coalitions with bour­geois parties, of which of course there can be no talk, but a coalition of communists with other ‘socialist’ organisations… In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental…22

He personally took a hand in ‘re-organising’ trade unions that disagreed with industrial directives from the government: “our state is a workers’ state… Hence the trade unions must teach the workers not to haggle and fight with their own state”.23 But if the workers had no say in how the state was run, how could it be a workers’ state? Those who raised such questions were shut up, with Trotsky’s full support:

They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the party, as it were, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictator­ship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy.… The party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship… The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy…24

A greater and greater distance was opening up between an exhausted, decimated, isolated working class and the state power that ruled in its name. Meanwhile Trotsky noted the advent of the “new Soviet bureaucrat” who was becoming increasingly powerful: “This is the genuine menace to the cause of communist revolution. These are the genuine accomplices of counter-revolution”.25 To his eternal credit, Trotsky was to fight a life-and-death battle against this bureaucracy. But that battle was severely weakened before it began by the excuses he himself made for state rule over the workers rather than workers’ rule over the state.

part two


  1. Leon Trotsky, Our Political Tasks (London, no date), p 72, 77.
  2. Leon Trotsky, 1905 (Harmondsworth, 1973), p 279.
  3. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 (London, 1989), p 44.
  4. 1905, p 235, 266, 268.
  5. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London, 1962), p 195.
  6. Ibid, p 232-3.
  7. 1905, p 333. It should be stressed that the dictatorship Trotsky has in mind here is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the undivided rule of the working class, as discussed further on.
  8. Results and Prospects, p 208, 202.
  9. Ibid, p 203.
  10. Ibid, p 209.
  11. The Age of Permanent Revolution: A Trotsky Anthology, edited by Isaac Deutscher (New York, 1964), p 56.
  12. Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Oxford, 1954), p 254.
  13. Quoted in Cliff, p 209.
  14. Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume one (London, 1973), p 51.
  15. The Essential Trotsky (London, 1963), p 47. Zemstvos were rural councils in Tsarist Russia.
  16. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The sword of the revolution 1917-1923 (London, 1990), p 21.
  17. The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume one, p 159, 94.
  18. Ibid, p 82, 84-6.
  19. Quoted in Deutscher, p 461.
  20. Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism (London, 1975), p 81-3.
  21. Quoted in Cliff, Towards October, p 42, 63.
  22. Terrorism and Communism, p 122-3. The Bolsheviks had renamed themselves the Communist Party in 1918.
  23. Quoted in Cliff, The sword of the revolution, p 165.
  24. Quoted in Deutscher, p 508-9.
  25. Quoted in ibid, p 427.

Revolutionary Lives: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (part two)

Joe Conroy‘s reassessment of Lenin’s life and work concluded in Issue 7 in July 2000.


Revolution broke out in Russia again in February 1917. Workers overthrew the Tsar, set up their own councils or soviets, and power was precariously balanced between them and a provisional government that failed to solve the most basic problems of the working people—ending the war, feeding the people, giving land to the peasants, and establishing a democratic system.

From exile in Switzerland Lenin called for the workers to take power through the soviets. Only they could satisfy the basic democratic demands, by breaking with capitalism. At the same time they would have to start bringing the capitalists under their control, implementing socialist measures. The schema of 1905 went out the window: Lenin understood that the fight for democracy and the fight for socialism could only succeed in combination. As he later wrote, looking back on the 1917 revolution:

We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a “by-product” of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities.… [Others] were incapable of under­standing this relation between the bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian-socialist revolutions. The first develops into the second. The second, in passing, solves the problems of the first. The second consoli­dates the work of the first.1

When Lenin returned to Russia in April his new position met with stiff resistance from the leadership of the Bolshevik party, most of whom wanted to stick to his former position. He replied: “The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have turned out differently; they are more original, more peculiar, more variegated than anyone expected.” The slogan of 1905 was now outdated.2

This kind of argument was a bit jesuitical, to say the least. Lenin’s old approach hadn’t been proved right in an unexpected way: it had been proved wrong in a very straightforward way. It hadn’t passed its sell-by date: it was no good to begin with. Lenin effectively dropped it, but the reorientation of the Bolshevik party would have been clearer and easier if he had openly admitted and corrected his mistake.

While in hiding from the forces of the provisional government during 1917 Lenin wrote The State and Revolution. Continuing his rediscovery of the original Marxist teaching on the state, he reiterated that the capitalist state was not a neutral force but an instrument to maintain class rule. The socialist revolution could not take over or reform this state: it had to get rid of it altogether. The working class would have to replace it with a new type of state, that wasn’t really a state at all, a temporary rule to defeat capitalist resistance. It would mean “Democracy for the vast majority of the people, and suppression by force, i.e., exclusion from democracy, of the exploiters and oppressors of the people”.3

As in the Paris Commune of 1871, workers would elect representatives who would be paid no more than a worker’s wage and could be replaced at any time. Armed force would be under the control of the working class, not the monopoly of an army separate from them. Bureaucracy would be swept away:

Under socialism much of “primitive” democracy will inevitably be re­vived, since, for the first time in the history of civilised society, the mass of the population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn. and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.4

Even this minimal state would go as soon as its work was done:

Only in communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists has been completely crushed, when the capitalists have disappeared, when there are no classes… Only then will a truly complete democracy become possible and be realised, a democracy without any exceptions whatever. And only then will democracy begin to wither away, owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims. They will become accustomed to observing them without force, without sub­ordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.5

The State and Revolution is very much a product of 1917: as the soviets of workers’ deputies sprang up and jostled for power, the potential for socialist society was there for Lenin to see as he wrote. He abandoned a planned chapter on the experience of the Russian revolution because “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of the revolution’ than to write about it.”6

As Lenin went through the experience of the revolution his abilities came into their own. From the early months when he called for the Bolsheviks to patiently explain the need for soviet power, through the times when he had to dampen the enthusiasm of those who wanted to take power before they had the support to keep it, to October when he fought for the Bolsheviks to organise an insurrection before it was too late—Lenin’s tactical skill shines through.

None of it would have been possible, though, without him mobilising rank-and-file Bolsheviks, and even workers outside the party, to put pressure on the conservative leadership. The Bolshevik party was itself revolutionised in 1917. It was as much a case of the working class winning the Bolshevik party as the other way round. While the party’s traditions played their role, without the discontinuity of its development during the revolution, its growth into a mass organisation alive with debate and activity, it would have got nowhere—and neither would Lenin’s influence over it.

The rise and fall of the revolution

On 25 October the provisional government was overthrown in the capital and a government based on the soviets, with Lenin at its head, took control. For workers in Russia and throughout the world the October revolution held the promise of real freedom. But even as it tentatively began to fulfil that promise, it came under an onslaught that ultimately proved too strong for it. Within a decade the workers of Russia were once again under the heel of a dictatorship. The death of the Russian revolution remains the greatest of socialism’s lost possibilities.

Lenin repeated again and again that the workers’ revolution in Russia could only survive if it became part of an international socialist revolution. Only a few months after the revolution he said: “there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone”.7 He repeated the point years later:

It was clear to us that without the support of the international world revolution the victory of the proletarian revolution was impossible. Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought: Either revolution breaks out in the other countries, in the capitalistically more developed countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish.8

The Russian workers were holding on until workers took power in other countries: “We are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief.”9 Sacrifices would have to be made in the meantime, but “I repeat, our solution from all these difficulties is an all-Europe revolution”.10

In Russia itself, the strength of the revolution was that it was the crea­tion of the working class itself. In the first weeks of the revolution Lenin stressed that

Creative activity at the grass roots is the basic factor of the new public life.… Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach; living, creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.11

He drove the point home the following day in a proclamation:

Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of the state. Your Soviets are from now on the organs of state authority… Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.12

He insisted that “socialism cannot be introduced by a minority, a party. It can be introduced by tens of millions of people when they have learnt how to do everything themselves”.13

Lenin’s faith in international revolution was by no means misplaced. The end of the war saw a wave of revolutionary upheavals from one end of Europe to the other. But when none of these revolutions succeeded, the Russian workers were left high and dry.

Within Russia the working class suffered a serious decline. Hundreds of workers were killed in the civil war, as the world’s capitalists tried to strangle the revolution at birth, and in the famine and disease that followed. Thousands of others left the factories to work in the apparatuses of the state, the Red Army, and the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks had renamed themselves). Even more went back home to the countryside where the chance of eking out a living was slightly easier than in the devastated cities. The industrial working class, said Lenin, “owing to the war and the desperate poverty and ruin, has become declassed, i.e., dislodged from its class groove, and has ceased to be a proletariat.… the proletariat has disappeared.”14

Working-class democracy cannot survive where there is no working class; nor can it survive in a single isolated, beleaguered country. The soviet power rapidly declined to a one-party rule, a state that was not withering away but piling on the pounds—the opposite of what Lenin envisaged in The State and Revolution. The view that this was due to a lust for power on Lenin’s part cannot be supported: the situation arose in spite of his intentions, not because of them. Questions can and must be asked, however, about his reaction to it.

Lenin began to justify the divergence between the theory of workers’ power and the reality of Communist Party rule. He claimed that “the dictatorship of the working class is being implemented by the Bolshevik Party”.15 He bluntly characterised the situation: “The proletarian class equals the Russian Communist Party which equals the Soviet state. Don’t we agree on all this?”16 The theoretical excuse for party rule rather than class rule came later: “the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of that class… It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class.” This vanguard supremacy was necessary not only in the harsh conditions of Russia but “in all capitalist countries”.17

Lenin at the same time said that “ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it”.18 It would be closer to the truth to say that, by this stage, it was more of a bureaucratic state with a working-class twist to it, the socialist good intentions of the best Communists keeping some elements of socialism alive. Lenin cursed the bureaucracy of the state incessantly, but put the problem down to bureaucrats inherited from the Tsarist apparatus, who the Communist Party had to bring under control. All the time, the biggest danger lay in the bureaucratisation of the party itself, and increasing its power only added to the problem.

It was further worsened by the silencing of revolutionary opposition. The repression directed against the counter-revolution and those who went along with it was completely justified: no socialist revolution can roll over and allow the capitalists to organise resistance against it. But the re­pression of those who opposed the Communist Party while supporting soviet power cannot be excused, and in fact weakened the revolution by depriving it of the criticism it needed. The Communist Party itself, which had enjoyed a wide freedom of debate, became increasingly monolithic. “We will not permit arguments about deviations, we must put a stop to this”, Lenin told the party congress,19 and successfully proposed a ban on the right of members to organise against the leadership’s policies, with expulsion for those who disobeyed.

International revolution remained the only salvation for the ever weaker revolution in Russia. But this became a much rarer note in Lenin’s speeches and writings. By the end of 1920 he was saying that “today we can speak, not merely of a breathing-space, but of a real chance of a new and lengthy period of development”. A year later he asked:

Is the existence of a socialist republic in a capitalist environment at all conceivable? It seemed inconceivable from the political and military aspects. That it is possible both politically and militarily has now been proved; it is a fact.20

Lenin never ceased to hold out hope for world socialist revolution. He devoted a great deal of time and effort trying to foster it, by means of the Communist International. But he did begin to hedge his bets when that revolution seemed unlikely to appear.

The last fight

At the end of 1922 Lenin was struck down by illness and forced to take a back seat in the work of government. The distance gave him the chance to consider more thoughtfully what had become of the revolution. Battling against the party leadership’s attempts to withhold information from him (for the good of his health, supposedly) he began to realise just how profound the problem was.

He condemned the imperialist way that the Russian state and party bureaucracy treated the non-Russian nationalities. He proposed measures to counteract the growth of bureaucracy. He even tried to get Stalin removed from the power base he had built up for himself. Right to the end Lenin was fighting a rearguard action against the betrayal of the revolution.

But who would put these reforms into effect? The working class was in no fit state. Those in the Communist Party who would oppose the leadership faced marginalisation and exclusion, and Lenin’s personal prestige only went so far. In the circumstances, the anti-bureaucracy institutions Lenin proposed could only become bastions of bureaucracy themselves. His reforms seem more and more like shifting deckchairs around on the Titanic, when only international workers’ revolution could tow Russia away from the iceberg.

A stroke in March 1923 put an end to Lenin’s political career. He died on 21 January 1924.

At the Communist Party congress in 1920, some bright spark hit upon the idea of celebrating Lenin’s approaching fiftieth birthday. Lenin did all he could to stop it, but soon speakers were rising to laud the great leader of the world’s proletariat. He got out of the room as fast as his feet would carry him, and phoned up every couple of minutes to see if all this rubbish was over, so he could return.

Praise is the last thing Lenin needs. He fought to build an effective socialist organisation; for opposition to every kind of oppression; to raise revolution from the ruins of world war; to bring the 1917 revolution to victory; to spread that revolution worldwide. Lenin is praised even if we say nothing.

But it’s a poor tribute to say nothing about his mistakes. His own advice is better:

we must drop all empty phrase-mongering and immediately set to work to learn, to learn from mistakes, how best to organise the struggle. We must not conceal our mistakes from the enemy. Whoever is afraid of talking openly about mistakes is not a revolutionary. If, however, we openly say to the workers: “Yes, we have made mistakes”, it will pre­vent us from repeating those mistakes in the future…21

Lenin was wrong on many occasions, and was often unwilling to admit it. But “for the most part people’s shortcomings are bound up with their merits”, as he once noted himself.22 His faults were the faults of one dedicated to the socialist cause, and anyone who engages in real struggle is bound to make mistakes. Lenin’s faults, however, shouldn’t be overlooked or excused, but criticised and corrected, if his goal of making the world socialist is to be achieved.


1    ‘Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution’ (14 October 1921).

2    Letters on Tactics (April 1917).

3    Chapter V.

4    Chapter VI.

5    Chapter V.

6    Ibid, Postscript.

7    Speech at Communist Party congress, 7 March 1918.

8    Speech at Communist International congress, 5 July 1921.

9    ‘Letter to American Workers’ (20 August 1918).

10  Speech at Communist Party congress, 7 March 1918.

11  Speech at meeting of Central Executive Committee of the soviets, 4 November 1917.

12  ‘To the Population’.

13  Speech at Communist Party congress, 8 March 1918.

14  Speech at Political Education Departments congress, 17 October 1921.

15  August 1919: quoted in Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin (London 1975) p 269.

16  Note to Nikolai Bukharin, 11 October 1920: quoted in Louis Fischer, The Life of Lenin (New York 1965) p 492.

17  Speech to Communist Party activists, 30 December 1920.

18  Ibid.

19  8 March 1921.

20  Quoted in Liebman, p 370.

21  Speech to Communist International congress, 1 July 1921.

22  ‘A Single Economic Plan’ (22 February 1921).

Revolutionary Lives: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (part one)

Joe Conroy began a look at Lenin’s life and work in Issue 6 (March 2000).

November 1918: Lenin is engaged in a fierce polemic with an opponent. He tears his antagonist’s arguments to pieces, shreds the pieces some more, and heaps contempt on his foe. The archetypal Lenin, some would say, and not without reason: the dogged polemicist refusing to yield an inch. And yet, in the midst of all the flying accusations, Lenin points out that his anger isn’t caused by someone daring to disagree with his own answer to the question of the day. On the contrary: “Perhaps my answer is wrong”, he says. “Nothing would have been more welcome to us than a Marxist criticism of our analysis by an outsider.”1

This is precisely what Lenin has not got. Attacks upon him and his ideas have come in abundance. But there have been all too few attempts to judge him by the standards he himself set, to soberly examine how far his ideas can help in the liberation of the working class. The towering figure of twentieth-century socialism needs above all to be critically reviewed if his work is to play a part in the twenty first century.

On 10 April 1870—22 April by the western calendar—Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in Simbirsk in central Russia. He was the son of a schools inspector, and his upbringing was comfortable and apolitical. Politics forced itself upon his mind at the age of seventeen, however, when his older brother was executed for attempting to assassinate the Tsar. Later that year he took part in a student protest and was expelled from university.

It was still a few years before he got involved in the Russian socialist movement. When he did, he wasn’t long in earning himself a prominent place in the Marxist propaganda and agitation groups of St Petersburg. That wasn’t all he earned: he was sentenced to a year in prison in 1895, followed by deportation to Siberia. In 1900 he moved abroad, joining many other socialists forced to work beyond the clutches of the repressive Tsarist empire. Here he began using the pen name by which history knows him: Lenin.

Establishing a party

The most pressing task facing Russian socialists at the start of the twentieth century was uniting their scattered individual groups into a unified organisation. Some—nicknamed the ‘economists’—believed that this could best be achieved by limiting the role of socialists to practical support for the economic struggles of the working class. Lenin fought the idea tooth and nail.

The working class had a duty, he wrote, to fight against all oppression, not just their own.

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuinely political conscious­ness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases, without exception, of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected. Moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic [i.e., socialist], and not from any other point of view.…
The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be a trade-union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to respond to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression…2

The socialist party Lenin envisaged would consist not so much of workers, but “first and foremost and mainly of people who make revolu­tionary activity their profession”.3 In the conditions of Tsarist Russia, an open party of workers was obviously not on: it would have to be a secret underground organisation of revolutionary intellectuals. But Lenin resorted to some strange theoretical propositions in support of this idea.

“The history of all countries”, he wrote, “shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union conscious­ness”. Socialism, on the other hand, was a theory elaborated by intellectuals from the propertied classes. The working class couldn’t come to socialism under its own steam or through its own struggles: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without”. No good could come if the workers were left to their own devices, because “the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads precisely to its subordination to bourgeois ideology”, and the job of socialists was therefore “to combat spontaneity”.4

History, however, is full of examples of workers becoming socialist with little or no input from middle-class socialists, and even taking power on the odd occasion. It is true that most of the great socialist theorists up till now have been intellectuals from middle-class origins, but all of them, including Marx and Engels, learnt their socialism from the movements of the working class. And all of them realised that their theories could only have any effect if they guided the struggles of workers, rather than combating them.

Of course Lenin was arguing against people, middle-class socialist intellectuals, who saw their role as praising the efforts of the working class instead of helping them with their own understanding of socialist theory. He obviously exaggerated in his polemic with them. He later argued that “the Economists bent the stick in one direction. In order to straighten the stick it was necessary to bend it in the other direction, and that is what I did.”5

But if the metaphor has any meaning, it should be to remind us that a stick breaks when it is bent beyond a certain point. There is nothing wrong with putting heavy emphasis on the main task at hand. If Lenin had said that the spontaneous movements of the working class weren’t enough, and that socialist intellectuals should stop admiring the workers and get down to spreading their socialist ideas amongst them, then no one could argue. But opposing a wrong theory with another wrong theory didn’t help Lenin’s attempts to put together a coherent socialist party to fight against all oppression. If someone believes that 2+2=3, telling them that 2+2=5 isn’t correcting them, it’s adding another error to theirs.


At the beginning of 1905 the Tsarist edifice began to crack. The regime was engulfed by revolution as workers and the oppressed attacked, by demonstration, strike, and uprising. Lenin was able to return to Russia, but all talk of the impossibility of working-class socialism had to go out the window. “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic”, he wrote,6 and later recalled how the workers “became Social-Democratic as if by the wave of a hand”.7

His earlier arguments came back to haunt him as many of his comrades in the Bolshevik party insisted on maintaining a tightly knit organisation of professional revolutionaries, wary of the untamed actions of the workers. He was forced to retreat from some of his earlier positions—while never explicitly saying as much—as he called for the party to open itself up to the masses of workers who were revolutionised by the events of 1905. The freedoms won in the revolution meant that the party could be organised on a democratic basis, from the grassroots up instead of from the leadership down, with every right for members to disagree. It should be run on the principle “unity of action, freedom of discussion and criticism”, he wrote; “the proletariat does not recognise unity of action without freedom to discuss and criticize”.8

The Russian working class faced not just an ordinary capitalist government, but a dictatorship that suppressed the most basic of demo­cratic rights and presided over an economy that was still largely feudal. The revolution’s job, according to Lenin, was to overthrow this dictator­ship, but not the capitalist system. The changes to be won “do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule”, he wrote, claiming that “Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution now taking place”. The working class was not big enough or class-conscious enough in Russia to carry out a socialist revolution.9

Lenin was not advising the workers to follow in the train of the capitalists: they were so weak and cowardly that the workers would have to fight for democracy without them and even against them, and do so in their own interest: “We cannot get out of the bourgeois-democratic boundaries of the Russian revolution, but we can vastly extend these boundaries, and within these boundaries we can and must fight for the interests of the proletariat, for its immediate needs and for conditions that will make it possible to prepare its forces for the future complete victory.”10 He saw Russia’s democratic revolution sparking off socialist revolution in Europe, which the Russian workers would then join; and he built no brick wall between the two revolutions: “from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way.”11

But despite Lenin’s insistence on working-class independence, and his hope of moving as quickly as possible from one revolution to the other, he clearly saw two distinct and separate revolutions ahead: first overthrow Tsarism, and then overthrow capitalism. His scenario supposed that the Russian working class would go to the trouble of winning political power and then refuse to use that power to fight against their subjection to the capitalists. If the capitalists tried to sabotage this revolution by closing down factories and locking out workers, would the workers in the revolu­tionary government not be forced to take those factories over, to sub­ordinate the capitalist economy to the interests of the working people—and thereby undermine the foundations of capitalism? In practice the revolution would have to burst the banks of capitalism, to combine its ‘bourgeois-democratic’ work with socialist work. Socialists arguing for democracy first, socialism second would end up with neither; they would have to fight for both at the same time.

Squabbling in exile

The 1905 revolution eventually went down to defeat, and by the end of 1907 Lenin was once more forced out of Russia. Not for the first time, defeated revolutionaries faced a period of crisis and dissension. “Life in exile and squabbling are inseparable”, Lenin wrote.12

One section of the socialists wanted to abandon underground work and restrict themselves to legal activity. This would mean an end to the socialist party, as Lenin argued, because socialism tailored to fit what Tsarism allowed would be no socialism at all. On the other hand, some argued that socialists should abandon legal activity altogether, taking no part in elections or the trade unions. This, as Lenin pointed out, would isolate socialists from the mass of the working class, giving up valuable platforms for socialist ideas. Even in Russia’s undemocratic excuse for a parliament the Bolsheviks put their handful of deputies to good use, although they were, to use Lenin’s phrase, “not a general staff… but rather a unit of trumpeters”.13

But Lenin’s method of putting these arguments generated more heat than light. His polemics in this period consist for the most part of an accumulation of accusations, of varying degrees of accuracy, liberally garnished with insults and name-calling. Those who went too far to the left were lumped together with those on the right under Lenin’s sledge­hammer, and those who tried for a rapprochement amongst socialists came off worst of all. The broad democracy that had blossomed in the party was cast aside as Lenin insisted on laying down a party line and making it prevail, by means of expulsion if necessary. While Lenin’s position was right against his opponents, his approach meant that his internal victories were Pyrrhic ones, leaving little of the vibrant Bolshevik party of 1905 standing.

War and renewal

The outbreak of world war in 1914 came as little surprise to Lenin, but he was taken aback by the betrayal of the socialist movement. In country after country labour parties and unions conveniently forgot their speeches about peace and international brotherhood, and mobilised workers to take part in a war to see which group of empires would exploit the world most. Lenin was one of the quickest off the mark organising opposition to the war both in Russia and internationally. He called on socialists to break with the traitors in the labour movement, and turn the war into a chance for revolution.

His break with the reformists was more than just an organisational one. The depth of their treachery led him to rethink and renew his socialism. Until now his understanding of Marxist philosophy went no further than a stubborn but rigid defence of orthodoxy; now he went back to the roots of Marxist dialectics, replacing the old fatalism with a new, dynamic view of the world. He unearthed the original Marxist teaching on the state in place of the distorted version then prevailing. He studied the new developments in the capitalist economy and their political implications.

Not least of these was the increased importance of the national question, and the duty of socialists to uphold nations’ right to indepen­dence. This gave the revolution a wider sweep than before:

The socialist revolution is not a single act, it is not a battle on one front, but a whole epoch of acute class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., on all questions of economics and politics, battles that can only end in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist revolution or of hiding, over­shadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practice full democracy, so the prole­tariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.14

So the revolution would be more complex and layered than previously imagined. It wouldn’t be that “one army lines up in one place and says, ‘We are for socialism’, and another somewhere else and says, ‘We are for imperialism’, and that will be a social revolution!”

Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.… The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be any­thing other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements.

Many of these elements would bring confused views with them, but their struggles would nevertheless attack capitalism. The job of socialists was “to unite and direct” the discordant upsurge, not to belittle it.15

Lenin also tried to come to grips with the basis of reformism. How come the leaders of labour parties and trade unions believed in receiving reforms from the capitalist system instead of overthrowing it? How come so many workers supported them? It arose, he concluded, from the super­profits available in modern capitalism: “The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists… makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie”.16 The upper layer of the working class, the labour aristocracy, was bought off.

Obviously, capitalists with higher profits can afford to concede higher wages to their workers, and this may well lead workers to support them. But why should this only apply to the better-off section of the working class, and not the class as a whole? And there are countless cases of better-paid workers opposing capitalism, even when their wages are paid out of imperialist profits. Lenin’s understanding of reformism was weak, which is hardly surprising when reformism—and indeed reforms—were all but non-existent in Russia.

part two


  1. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918).
  2. What is to be Done? (1902) chapters III, I.
  3. Ibid, chapter IV.
  4. Ibid, chapters II, III.
  5. Quoted in Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey 1990) p 63.
  6. ‘The Reorganisation of the Party’ (23 November 1905).
  7. ‘Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution’ (24 September 1908).
  8. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Building the Party: Lenin 1893-1914 (London 1986) p 269.
  9. Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905) chapters 6, 2.
  10. Ibid, chapter 6.
  11. ‘Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement’ (1 September 1905).
  12. Letter to Maxim Gorky, 11 April 1910.
  13. ‘Two Letters’ (13 November 1908).
  14. ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ (April 1916).
  15. ‘The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up’ (October 1916).
  16. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) chapter X.

Revolutionary Lives: John Maclean

Issue 5 (November 1999) featured a discussion of the great Scottish socialist by Maeve Connaughton.

John Maclean was born on 24 August 1879 in Pollokshaws, not far from Glasgow. His father, a potter, died less than nine years later, leaving his mother to struggle at a variety of jobs in order to rear four children. Thanks to her sacrifices John was able to stay on at school, and eventually train as a teacher.

His involvement with the socialist movement began in late 1902 or early 1903 when he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), being already a convinced Marxist. He soon became a central figure in Glasgow socialism, throwing himself into speaking at street meetings and writing for the left-wing press. He also began a class in Marxist economics which drew large numbers of workers, and socialist education remained a con­stant concern for Maclean. The capitalists had colleges and universities to turn out the type of human being their system required; the working class, he said,  needed “such education as will make revolutionists”.

Marxism was never a matter of repeating formulas, as far as Maclean was concerned, but of engaging with and understanding the world: “Marxians do not fall back upon what Marx said here or there, but apply his principles to each set of circumstances as it arises. ‘Thus spake Marx’ is not the Marxian but the anti-Marxian method.” Not that Marx’s words were unimportant, as he stressed at the end of one particular talk:

I want you to go home and read the works of Karl Marx. If you read one or two good books they will do more good for your head and heart than a library of rubbish. What we want in this country today is an edu­cated working class. The millennium, if it is to come, must come from an educated working class. Today you can be swayed by speeches and pamphlets. But the person who has studied Marx and applied him to literature, to life in all its phases, can see things as they really are.

Theory, though, had to develop in close connection with practice: “Fighting leads to new facts, thus to our new theory and thence to revolution.”

Maclean shared many of the shortcomings of the contemporary socialist movement, however. He tended to downplay strikes, seeing them as justi­fied defensive actions but with no part to play in achieving socialism. This changed after he visited Belfast at Jim Larkin’s invitation in 1907. The strikes there were a radical movement of unskilled workers, a far cry from the staid trade unionism of skilled tradesmen that he was used to in Glas­gow. When the British version of Larkinism spread a few years later in the ‘great unrest’ that preceded the world war, Maclean was fully involved.

One of the biggest faults of the socialism of this period, internationally as well as in Britain, was its misunderstanding of the state, a misunder­standing that Maclean too was guilty of. He accused those who said social­ism would come about by direct seizure of workplaces of denying “the naturalness of the state”; the state’s responsibilities had progressively ex­panded, and the job of socialists was “to carry forward this growth of the duties of the state until the social revolution has been accomplished”. He claimed that “the various states were the supreme representatives of associ­ated mankind.… these states must be captured by the workers.” There is nothing in the least natural about the existence of parliaments, police, prisons and the rest, of course; but it wasn’t until the Russian revolution that Maclean—and others—would grasp that such states had to be got rid of, not taken over.

Waging the class war

When war broke out in 1914, Maclean and his family were on holiday in the Highlands: his initial response was to write anti-war graffiti on any available wall. Back in Glasgow he began regular meetings in the city centre, arguing that the war was a crime born of capitalism’s desire for profit, and that British workers should stand together with German work­ers instead of going out to kill them. Many other socialists went to ground and retreated from their regular round of meetings, but Maclean always managed to draw a crowd and get a hearing.

Such a stand was not only extremely brave at the start of the war, but also extremely rare. Like most of its counterparts in Europe the leadership of the British Socialist Party (the BSP, as the SDF had become in 1911) capitulated, arguing that the war effort should be supported to defeat the evil of German militarism. “Our first business is to hate the British capital­ist system”, replied Maclean. Amidst all the patriotic slaughter, he wrote, “it is our business as socialists to develop ‘class patriotism’, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism”. The real enemies of German militarism were the German socialists, and the defence of capital­ist profit should be left to the capitalist class themselves.

The class war at home broke out in earnest in 1915. Attempts to raise rents in Glasgow led to a rent strike across the city; when munitions work­ers threatened to strike in support, the government restricted all rents to pre-war levels. In the munitions factories themselves workers faced a con­certed attack: unskilled workers were introduced, workers faced the pros­pect of conscription, and it was made illegal to strike or even to move to another factory. As government, employers and even union officials lined up in the attempt to smash militant trade unionism in Glasgow, the rank and file organised independently, and the Clyde Workers’ Committee was born.

In this situation revolutionary socialism got a ready audience, and Maclean steadily pushed the revolt of the Clydeside workers. The fight, he argued, should broaden out to involve all sections of the working class, and should take on the wider issues: opposition to the war, and to capitalism itself. “The only war that is worth waging is the Class War,” he wrote, “the workers against the world exploiters, until we have obtained industrial freedom.”

The authorities were not about to let such activity go unchecked. At the end of 1915 Maclean received five days’ imprisonment for making state­ments likely to prejudice recruiting, and was sacked from his job. He was arrested again the following February as the government moved to break the Clyde Workers’ Committee. This time the courts were not so lenient, and he was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. In prison he wasn’t allowed to read, write, or associate with others, and the harsh criminal reg­ime began to affect his health.

But the stand of Convict 2652 was drawing international attention. In Zürich Lenin instanced Maclean as a representative of the trend that had remained loyal to socialism. In June 1917 the first All-Russian Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, following the overthrow of Tsarism, sent greetings and solidarity to the political prisoner. In Britain a working-class campaign for Maclean’s release was gathering momentum. When the prime minister Lloyd George visited Glasgow to receive the freedom of the city, he was met by huge crowds, not to welcome him but to demand free­dom for John Maclean. The government backed down and let him go after serving just over a year.

He took up where he left off, never neglecting the task of socialist edu­cation: over 500 Glasgow workers enrolled for the classes he organised. The October revolution in Russia vindicated the revolutionary opponents of the war, and recognised Maclean’s own contribution. He was elected among the honorary presidents of the Congress of Soviets, and appointed consul for Soviet Russia in Glasgow. The important thing now was to emulate the Russian revolution in Britain—not to wait, like some social­ists, for capitalism to ‘inevitably’ fall apart: he insisted that “if capitalism is to be ‘sent west’ it will only be the result of the delivery of the greatest knock-out blow ever given, and that this blow must be given by a united, revolutionary working class”.

Maclean’s activity was again interrupted in April 1918 when he was arrested on a charge of sedition. He turned his trial the following month into a propaganda platform. When informed of his right to object to any of the respectable Glaswegians on the jury, he replied: “I object to the whole of them!” In his speech from the dock he proclaimed that no government would prevent him speaking and protesting. “I am not here, then, as the accused: I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.” In conclusion he threw down the gauntlet:

I am a Socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all. I am proud of my con­duct.… I have nothing to retract. I have nothing to be ashamed of. …my appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and only they, can bring about the time when the whole world will be one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a re-organisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world, and retain the world.

The jury didn’t even bother to retire before finding Maclean guilty on all counts, and the judge condemned him to five years’ penal servitude. As he was led away to the cells Maclean turned to his comrades in the public gallery and shouted: “Keep it going, boys! Keep it going!”

They did keep it going: demonstrations in Glasgow demanded Maclean’s release, and he was nominated as a candidate in the forth­coming general election. He refused to take prison food and was force-fed by the authorities. Following the end of the war the government found, for the second time, that he was more dangerous in prison than out, and rel­eased him in December. His ill-health left him unable to play a big part in his election campaign, but what campaigning he did focussed not on catching votes but on the class struggles that would follow the war. 7,000 voters agreed with him.

The Irish situation

At the same election Ireland voted for independence, and John Maclean supported the demand wholeheartedly. On a visit to Dublin in July 1919, however, he showed his ignorance. He was not the first or last British soc­ialist who needed putting right when he referred to Britain as ‘the main­land’. While correctly pointing out that “Irish Labour would not be free under a Sinn Fein Republic, but only under a Socialist, Workers’ Repub­lic”, at this stage he saw the fight for Irish independence as subordinate to the struggles of British workers—soldiers included: “I urged that Ireland alone could never gain her freedom, that her Republic depended on the re­volt and success of British Labour, and that therefore the Irish workers ought not to antagonise the soldiers of occupation in Ireland, but should try to win them over to the Irish point of view”.

He later came to understand that a defeat for the British in Ireland would mean “the beginning of the end of the British empire… British lab­our will consequently have an easier task in seizing political power”. He saw the Irish working class overtaking the British: indeed, he was unfortu­nately optimistic in his hope that they would “before the republic has really been started convert it into a socialist republic”.

Overcoming its apathy as regards British rule in Ireland was therefore paramount for the British working class. “This is more important than pro­testing against higher rents or the high cost of living. It is acquiescing and participating in the murder of a race rightly protesting its own right to rule itself.” Socialists who failed to recognise this much were no revolutionaries as far as Maclean was concerned:

The Irish situation, obviously, is the most revolutionary that has ever arisen in British history, but unfortunately lads who fancy themselves the only revolutionaries are too stupid or too obsessed with some little crotchet to see with sufficient clarity the tight corner the Irish are plac­ing Britain in.
The Irish Sinn Feiners, who make no profession of Socialism or Communism, and who are at best non-Socialists, are doing more to help Russia and the Revolution than all we professed Marxian Bolshe­viks in Britain…

He called for a general strike to force a British withdrawal from Ireland.

Marxism in Britain

In the aftermath of the war British socialists were busy trying to bring the various groups on the left together into a united revolutionary party able to organise for socialist revolution. But the process was flawed from the beg­inning. As in much of Europe, revolutionaries were in too much of a hurry to separate themselves, and were inspired more by the Russian example than by the workers’ movement in their own country.

With his Marxist training, his stand against the war, and his opposition to reformism, no one was better qualified than John Maclean to play a leading role in a revolutionary party in Britain. Instead an assortment of recent converts and simple fly-by-nights came to assume leadership posi­tions. Maclean insisted that the best help British workers could give the Russian revolution was to develop a revolution of their own. The BSP lead­ership wanted a single-issue Hands Off Russia campaign, with Maclean abandoning all his other agitation to be the campaign’s paid full-timer. In­stead of winning unity on an honest theoretical and practical basis, the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was, to a large extent, characterised by organisational manoeuvre and liberal use of Russian subsidies. Maclean was effectively expelled from the BSP in 1920, and thus excluded from the Communist Party being formed.

Maclean was determined to put together a revolutionary organisation with its roots in the British working class, not an outfit operating on a Russian franchise. “We stand for the Marxian method applied to British conditions. The less Russians interfere in the internal affairs of other coun­tries at this juncture, the better for the cause of Revolution in those coun­tries.” For all his admiration for the Bolsheviks, he recognised that the tactics that proved successful in Russia couldn’t just be transferred to diff­erent situations: “I am not prepared to let Moscow dictate to Glasgow. The Communist Party has sold itself to Moscow, with disastrous results both to Russia and the British Revolutionary Movement.” Instead of getting to grips with the situation in Britain, “the Socialists are discussing whether Lenin can wink as well with the right eye as the left eye”.

A Scottish workers’ republic

Maclean gathered a small group of socialists who brought out a paper and engaged on a tireless round of campaigning, drawing hundreds of workers to their meetings. They called for a separate Scottish communist party to be formed, to fight for an independent Scottish workers’ republic.

Firstly, Maclean argued, breaking up the British empire could only help socialism: “Scottish separation is part of the process of England’s imperial disintegration and is a help towards the ultimate triumph of the workers of the world.” An independent Scotland would frustrate the war plans of the English ruling class. Secondly, he claimed that Scottish workers were more socialist than English workers: “The Social Revolution is possible sooner in Scotland than in England.” Thirdly, the demand for a Scottish republic could help in “utilising our latent Highland and Scottish sentiments and traditions” in the cause of socialism: “The Communism of the clans must be re-established on a modern basis.” And fourthly, “an entente between the Celts of Scotland and the Celts of Ireland” would be established, and Irish workers in Scotland would rally to the Scottish workers’ republic.

Maclean wildly overestimated the sense of Celtic solidarity between Irish and Scottish workers, and was to complain a couple of years later that Glasgow’s Irish community voted against him en masse. While Maclean’s work for socialism in the Highlands was outstanding, the clans’ common ownership of land was barely even a memory by this stage. While Clyde­side workers had indeed scaled heights of militancy during and after the war, any idea that Scotland as a whole was more ripe for revolution than the rest of Britain was untrue. Separation from England would, of course, have helped break up the British empire—but Scottish workers showed no inclination to go any further than home rule within Britain. Although it should have gone without saying that all socialists should uphold Scot­land’s right to separate from England if it so desired, Maclean was mis­taken to put separation forward as his central demand.

Espousing a Scottish road to socialism was a completely new departure for Maclean. Until now he had always insisted on the working class fight­ing together in an all-British context. Before the war he had gone so far as to describe the proposal for a Scottish parliament as “a retrograde step”. And even now, while advocating a separate organisation for Scottish soc­ialists, he still advocated a single organisation for all of Britain’s trade unionists.

The change in direction was undoubtedly influenced by Ireland. Maclean’s solidarity with the fight for Irish independence led him to attempt a Scottish imitation. His call for a Scottish communist party explic­itly cited the Irish precedent: “We in Scotland must not let ourselves play second fiddle to any organisation with headquarters in London, no more than we would ask Dublin to bend to the will of London.” The Scot­tish situation was very different from the Irish, however: any disadvantages that Scotland suffered within Britain paled beside the British imperial opp­ression of Ireland.

The main motivation for Maclean’s new policy must have been an attempt to break new ground after being pushed out of the embryonic CPGB. He quoted “The corruption of the London communists” as one just­ification for a separate Scottish party. His new-found, albeit deeply-felt, support for a Scottish socialist republic has to be seen in this context. Est­ablishing Scotland as a new theatre for revolutionary practice (an idea that other Scottish socialists were considering) would allow him to take part in establishing a real socialist party—revolutionary and in full sympathy with the Bolsheviks, but free of the sectarianism and Russophilia of the CPGB.

Maclean’s shift was never a retreat to Caledonian parochialism, how­ever, but an attempt to find a new path towards the internationalist vision he still remained loyal to:

When all empires are broken up and the workers by political control start to make land and wealth-producing property common property, when of the wealth produced all get sufficient to give them life abun­dantly with leisure and pleasure and education added thereunto, then all the independent workers’ republics will come together into one great League or Parliament of Communist Peoples, as a stage towards the time in the future when inter-marriage will wipe out all national differ­ences and the world will become one.

Bolshevik, communist, revolutionary, Marxist

Maclean and his supporters were to the fore in organising Glasgow’s un­employed—work which again attracted the authorities’ attention in April 1921 when Maclean was arrested for inciting sedition. At his trial the following month he denied that the revolution he called for meant uncon­trolled bloodshed. When the prosecutor asked him what exactly he did mean by revolution, Maclean held out one hand above the other, saying that they represented the two classes in society. Then he turned them around so that the lower hand was now on top. That, he said, was revolu­tion. He was sentenced to another three months in prison.

He was only out a couple of months before he was arrested again, for telling the unemployed to take food rather than starve. While in jail he stood as a revolutionary candidate in a local election, and easily beat the Labour candidate into third place. At his trial he was once again sent to prison, this time for twelve months. Yet again he was nominated for elec­tion while a prisoner, and doubled his vote. In the 1922 parliamentary election he stood, according to his election address, “as a Bolshevik, alias a Communist, alias a Revolutionist, alias a Marxian”. The 4,000 votes he got were obviously not due to watering down his politics!

In February 1923 Maclean formed the Scottish Workers’ Republican Party, an organisation which made up for its smallness by its activism. But at this stage his personal situation was desperate. Since being dismissed as a teacher he had lived on whatever was collected at his meetings, but now most of his listeners were unemployed and had nothing to give. He was subsisting on a diet of porridge, and the fact that he had spent half of the last seven years in prison had taken a terrible toll on his health.

That winter he stood in the general election, calling on the working class to end capitalist robbery by a revolution that would transfer the means of production to the community. But he didn’t live until polling day: he had to be carried from an election platform, and on 30 November 1923 John Maclean died of double pneumonia aged only 44. Three days later 10,000 people attended his funeral, remembering a life that was dedicated to the freedom of the working class in Scotland, in Britain, in all the world.

Revolutionary Lives: Karl Marx (part three)

Following on from part one and part two, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh concluded his look at Marx in Issue 14 (November 2002).

“public, authentic isolation”

Their first years in England were extremely tough for the Marx family: the squalor of a London slum claimed the lives of three of their children. Politically, Marx had little support either but, as he wrote to Engels, this didn’t bother him too much:

I very much like the public, authentic isolation in which we two, you and I, now find ourselves. It is precisely in line with our position and our principles. The system of mutual concessions, of half-measures tolerated for propriety’s sake, and the obligation publicly to accept one’s share of ridicule in the same party as all those asses—that’s over now.1

The idea of the party was bigger than any organisation, as far as he was concerned: at most, an organisation could embody that idea in a certain time and place. The defunct League of Communists, for instance, “like a hundred other societies, was only an episode in the history of the party, that naturally arises from the ground of modern society everywhere.… By party I mean the party in the great historical sense.”2

Marx was fascinated by the political system of his adopted country. Although Britain’s industrialists held sway economically, they seemed happy to leave the business of government in the hands of aristocrats. Why did they not attempt to overthrow the rule of the lords and ladies?

Because in every violent movement they are obliged to appeal to the working class. And if the aristocracy is their vanishing opponent, the working class is their arising enemy. They prefer to compromise with the vanishing opponent than to strengthen the arising enemy, to whom the future belongs…3

But while capitalism in Europe was becoming rotten, in the rest of the world it was advancing in leaps and bounds. This left Marx with what he himself called a “difficult question”: was a European socialist revolution “not bound to be crushed in this little corner, considering that in a far greater territory the movement of bourgeois society is still in the ascen­dant?”4 Marx’s interest widened, especially to India and British imperial­ism’s role there, where “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”5

Asia’s economic history had developed quite differently to Europe’s, leaving the continent vulnerable to invasion and plunder. Britain had destroyed India’s ancient civilisation, but many aspects of that civilisation, with its caste system and its stifling superstition, were far from idyllic.

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was activated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.6

Capitalism’s intervention in India would not improve the condition of the people, but it had laid down the economic foundation for their liberation. “Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?” The Indian people could only reap the rewards when the working class came to power in England, or when they themselves “shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke”.7

This all fitted into Marx’s understanding of how history works. “Individuals producing in society—hence socially determined individual production—is, of course, the point of departure”, he wrote.8 As people produce to meet their needs, they establish certain economic relations, which depend on how developed their economic resources are.

The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not people’s consciousness that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.9

The activity of human beings always takes place within a certain social and economic situation: “People make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances”.10

Marx traced the historical dispute between two claimants to the French throne to a difference in property relations: one represented the landowners’ interest, the other that of the big capitalists. But he didn’t deny that “old memories, personal enmities, fears and hopes, prejudices and illusions, sympathies and antipathies, convictions, articles of faith and principles” came into it too:

A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives these feelings, etc. through tradition and upbringing, may well imagine that they form the real determinants and the starting-point of his activity.

But just as we distinguish “between what a person thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does”, a similar distinction has to be made regarding people and parties in history, “between their conception of themselves and what they really are”.11

Dealing with France’s small business class, Marx insisted that it would be wrong to believe that it “explicitly sets out to assert its egoistic class interests. It rather believes that the particular conditions of its liberation are the only general conditions within which modern society can be saved”. Nor were its political representatives necessarily all small businessmen themselves:

They may well be poles apart from them in their education and their individual situation. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that their minds are restricted by the same barriers which the petty bourgeoisie fails to overcome in real life, and that they are therefore driven in theory to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social situation drive the latter in practice. This is the general relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class which they represent.12

When economic resources outgrow the relations in which people utilise them, wrote Marx, “Then begins an era of social revolution”, as people fight to establish a new social formation which will allow them to advance further. Getting rid of the capitalist formation would bring “The prehistory of human society” to an end.13 But then real human history would only just begin: “Proletarian revolutions… constantly engage in self-criticism”, always questioning and outstripping what they have achieved.14 The workers taking undisputed political power, “the dictatorship of the prole­tariat… itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society”.15 Such a society would put “the needs of the social individual” first: “disposable time will grow for all”, allowing people to fully develop their abilities. In a society like this,

what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities…? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?16

As Marx envisaged the potentialities open to a socialist society, he refused to narrow socialist politics down to organisational architecture. He further developed his view of history in this period, working out an understanding far more subtle than he is usually given credit for. He was prepared to accept variant versions of history, too: England’s peculiar political culture, Asia’s somewhat different historical trajectory, the contradiction between European stagnation and rising capitalism elsewhere. While correctly insisting on the double-edged nature of capitalism—destroying people’s lives but at the same time creating possibilities of a new life—Marx didn’t really allow for the way imperialism also held countries back economically; and the fight of the peoples of these countries against that seemed to come a poor second to the struggle of European workers with him.

Up to now, Marx’s time in England had been dominated by economic growth, capitalist confidence and a dark period for the workers’ movement. That was about to change, however.

“by the working classes themselves”

The early 1860s saw a revival of the working class movement inter­nationally after a decade of reaction. One of the results was the establish­ment of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) in London on 28 September 1864. Marx took a leading role in the association from the beginning, although many and varied political tendencies opposed to his own viewpoint were involved. Crucial here was the way Marx argued for his politics without laying down the law. As he wrote to Engels,

It was very difficult to frame the thing so that our view should appear in a form acceptable from the present standpoint of the workers’ move­ment.… It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old boldness of speech. It will be necessary to be fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [stronger in deed, gentler in style].17

He rejected the sectarian approach which would have stayed aloof from this movement because it failed to measure up to some preconceived yardstick: “The sect seeks its raison d’être and point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the class movement.”18

In the same way, those who dismissed the trade union movement, claiming that its efforts were fruitless and failed to end exploitation, got short shrift from Marx. By resisting the capitalists’ attempts to pay them less for more work, he argued, workers “fulfil only a duty to themselves and their race. They only set limits to the tyrannical usurpations of capital.” Trade union struggles defended the basic humanity of the workers, without which further progress would be impossible: “By cowardly giving way in their every-day conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.” At the same time, the unions should go beyond just negotiating with the bosses:

Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watch­word, “Abolition of the wages system!”… They fail generally from limit­ing themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class…19

His renewed political involvement gave Marx the impetus he needed to round off his economic studies, and he completed the first volume of his classic work Capital in 1867. What all commodities have in common, he wrote, is that they are the products of human labour, and a commodity’s value is determined by the amount of generalised labour-time needed to produce it in a given society. The commodity sold by workers—their ability to work—has the unique quality of producing a value greater than its own, and this surplus-value lawfully belongs to the capitalist who has hired the worker. This unpaid surplus labour of the workers is the source of capitalist profit.

Capitalism’s whole purpose is “the greatest possible production of surplus-value, hence the greatest possible exploitation of labour-power by the capitalist”, a process that draws wealth into fewer and fewer hands, whose “limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company”. Not only does capitalism exploit and degrade the worker, “be his payment high or low”, it also “disturbs the metabolic interaction between humanity and the earth… undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker”.20

However, an inescapable feature of capitalist accumulation is that “with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mech­anism of the capitalist process of production”.21 It was this revolt of the workers, “united by combination and led by knowledge”,22 that could put an end to their oppression, not a benevolent attitude on the part of the ruling class: “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.23

This would involve overthrowing the state power, which had assumed “the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism”.24 In certain exceptional situations, Marx believed, “the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means”, but force would be necessary for the most part:25 “The working classes would have to conquer the right to emancipate themselves on the battlefield.”26

When the workers of Paris took power for a few months in 1871, Marx and the IWMA supported them to the full. Their revolution showed, wrote Marx, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. The workers began to dismantle the old state and take direct control of society. “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in parliament”, delegates could be called back by their electors at any time, and would only be paid a worker’s wage. The old army was got rid of, church and state were separated, government was to be decentralised, the support of the small farmers was sought, and the Parisian workers proclaimed solidarity with international struggles for freedom. The working class would have to establish such a power in all countries, “as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the exist­ence of classes, and therefore of class rule”.27 It was nothing more than a device to clear the way for “a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”.28

An absolutely essential part of the working class struggle was opposition to all types of oppression. Marx encouraged the support of English workers for the anti-slavery forces in the American civil war, hailing it as a recognition that “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.”29 In the same way he supported the renewed movement for Irish independence; but when the Fenians bombed a residential area of London, killing civilians, he had no time for such a “very stupid thing… One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow them­selves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy.”30

Nevertheless, it was “in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class” to support Irish independence.31 Firstly, it would unite the working class, overcoming racist divisions:

All English industrial and commercial centres now possess a working class split into two hostile camps: English proletarians and Irish prole­tarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and for this very reason he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland and thus strengthens their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker.… This antagonism is artificially sustained and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret which enables the capitalist class to maintain its power, as this class is perfectly aware.32

As well as dividing the working class, the British ruling class used their occupation of Ireland as an excuse to maintain a large army and an arsenal of repression—which could just as well be used at home: “A people which subjugates another people forges its own chains.”33

Defeating British imperialism in Ireland would be pivotal in the revolutionary process internationally:

To accelerate the social development in Europe, you must push on the catastrophe of official England. To do so, you must attack her in Ireland. That’s her weakest point. Ireland lost, the British “Empire” is gone, and the class war in England, till now somnolent and chronic, will assume acute forms.34

Marx once believed that Ireland would only be liberated by the working class coming to power in England, but “I have become more and more convinced—and it remains a matter of driving the point home to the English working class—that it can never do anything decisive here in England until it not only makes common cause with the Irish but actually takes the initiative in dissolving the Union”.35 For workers in England, solidarity with the demands of the oppressed Irish “is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation”.36

Marx’s activism in the IWMA was a model of how to stand for principled socialist politics without being in the least sectarian. His aim was to broaden and deepen the actual movement of the working class, rather than substituting for it. His economic researches, laying bear the roots of capital­ism, played a great part here. Learning from the revolutionary experience of Paris in 1871, he began to envisage the kind of working-class rule that would be needed to wipe out class society. His solidarity with the fight against slavery in the US, and against colonialism in Ireland, was based on the conviction that the working class can never win its own liberation without fully supporting the struggles of the oppressed.

The IWMA broke up in 1872 amidst internal faction fights, leaving Marx to pull back from the public stage again. But the rest of his life would still be dedicated to the socialist cause.

“the true realm of freedom”

Marx continued his work on Capital, without being able to put the finishing touches to it. His approach, he insisted, “includes in its positive under­standing of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inev­itable destruction”.37 The unfinished part of Capital looked at this process in the case of the capitalist system.

As it goes on, capitalists invest proportionately more in machinery, tech­nology and raw materials than they do in employing workers. While this increases the rate of surplus-value in their business, by the time their competitors catch up with them the overall return has fallen as a proportion of total investment. This tendency for the rate of profit to fall—which, of course, the capitalists try to counteract by various means—lies behind the periodic failure of large sections of the capitalist class to realise any profit: in other words, the economic crises to which the system is prone.

This didn’t mean that capitalism was going to disappear of its own accord: the working class would have to finish it off. But overthrowing the capitalist governments was not the end of the process. There would be a period of transition from capitalism to a fully socialist society, during which “the workers replace the dictatorship of the bourgeois class with their own revolutionary dictatorship”:38

so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformative process being forcibly hastened.

This rule of the working class would be only temporary, however, a rule that would make itself redundant:

the class rule of the workers over the strata of the old world whom they have been fighting can only exist as long as the economic basis of class existence is not destroyed.… With its complete victory [the working class’s] its own rule thus ends, as its class character has disappeared.39

Wherever a sizeable farming population existed, the working class in power would have to “take measures through which the peasant finds his condition immediately improved, so as to win him for the revolution; measures which will at least provide the possibility of easing the transition from private ownership of land to collective ownership, so that the peasant arrives at this of his own accord”.40 They would need to prove in practice that “the emancipation of the class of producers involves all humankind, without distinction of sex or race”.41

Marx explicitly denied that all societies were fated to travel the exact same path to socialism. In rural Russia, much of the land was still owned in common: would this have to be replaced by capitalist landownership, or could Russia move over directly towards a socialist society? Whether private property got the better of common property or the other way round “all depends on the historical environment in which the community finds itself”, answered Marx.42 If supported by a socialist revolution in western Europe, he believed, common ownership of land “may form a starting-point for a communist course of development” in Russia.43 But above all, each specific society and its historical development had to be studied in itself before its future possibilities could be understood; “but one will never arrive there by using as one’s master key a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being supra-historical”.44

Even when the remnants of capitalism were finally swept away, socialist society would still have challenges to face and overcome: “socialized humanity, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a natural way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature”.45

In a more advanced phase of communist society, when the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labour, and thereby the antithesis between intellectual and physical labour, have disappeared; when labour is no longer just a means of keeping alive but has itself become a vital need; when the all-round development of individuals has also increased their productive powers and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can society wholly cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right and inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!46

When it could be taken for granted that everyone’s basic needs were being satisfied, then “The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself” would unfold.47

Following Marx’s death on 14 March 1883 his comrade Friedrich Engels remarked that “Marx was above all else a revolutionist”. For forty years his life was dedicated to the overthrow of oppression and the liberation of humankind. Even many of Marx’s followers still don’t fully comprehend the thorough-going emancipation that he had as his political goal. It is only natural that generations of working people struggling for their freedom have turned to his ideas as a guide to action, and that the latest generation of revolutionaries is doing likewise. Karl Marx’s work, understood critically and applied in the ongoing fight against capitalism, represents the most powerful theoretical tool available to today’s socialists.


  1. 11 February 1851. Engels replied in kind two days later: “How can people like ourselves, who shun official positions like the plague, fit into a ‘party’?… what use to us is a ‘party’, i.e. a pack of asses who swear by us because they consider us their likes? I assure you we are losing nothing…” The Marx-Engels Corres­pondence (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1981) pp 24-5.
  2. Letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath, 29 February 1860: Werke (Dietz, Berlin 1956-62) volume 30, pp 490, 495.
  3. ‘The Chartists’: Surveys from Exile (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1973) pp 263-4. See also ‘The British Constitution’: ibid, p 282.
  4. Letter to Engels, 8 October 1858: Marx, Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress, Moscow 1975) p 104.
  5. ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’: Surveys from Exile, p 324.
  6. ‘The British Rule in India’: ibid, p 306-7.
  7. ‘The Future Results of the British Rule in India’, p 323.
  8. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Penguin 1973) p 83.
  9. ‘Preface (to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy)’: Early Writings (Penguin 1975) p 425.
  10. ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’: Surveys from Exile, p 146.
  11. Ibid, pp 173-4.
  12. Ibid, pp 176-7.
  13. ‘Preface (to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy)’, p 425-6.
  14. ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, p 150.
  15. Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 5 March 1852: Selected Correspondence, p 64.
  16. Grundrisse, pp 708, 488.
  17. 4 November 1864: Selected Correspondence, pp 139-40.
  18. Letter to Johann von Schweitzer, 13 October 1868: Karl Marx, The First International and After (Penguin 1974) p 155.
  19. Karl Marx, Wages, Price and Profit (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1975) pp 67, 77-9.
  20. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One (Penguin 1976) pp 449, 779, 799, 637-8.
  21. Ibid, p 929.
  22. ‘Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association’: The First International and After, p 81.
  23. ‘Provisional Rules’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 82.
  24. ‘The Civil War in France’: ibid, p 207.
  25. ‘Speech on the Hague Congress’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 324.
  26. ‘Speech on the Seventh Anniversary of the International’: ibid, p 272.
  27. ‘The Civil War in France’, pp 206, 210, 212.
  28. Capital, Volume One, p 739.
  29. Ibid, p 414.
  30. Letter to Engels, 14 December 1867: Marx, Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question (Progress 1978) p 159.
  31. Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869: The First International and After, p 166.
  32. Letter to Siegfried Meyer and August Vogt, 9 April 1870: ibid, p 169.
  33. ‘The General Council to the Federal Council of French Switzerland’ (of the IWMA): ibid, p 118.
  34. Letter to Paul and Laura Lafargue, 5 March 1870: Ireland and the Irish Question, p 404.
  35. Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, 29 November 1869: The First International and After, p 165. See letter to Engels, 10 December 1869, pp 166-7: “The lever must be applied in Ireland.”
  36. Letter to Meyer and Vogt, p 170.
  37. ‘Postface to the Second Edition’: Capital, Volume One, p 103.
  38. ‘Political Indifferentism’: The First International and After, p 328.
  39. ‘Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy’: ibid, pp 333, 337, 335.
  40. Ibid, p 334.
  41. ‘Introduction to the Programme of the French Workers’ Party’: ibid, p 376.
  42. ‘Letter on the Russian Village Community (1881)’: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Russian Menace to Europe (Allen and Unwin, London 1953) p 221.
  43. ‘The Communist Manifesto in Russian (1882)’: ibid, p 228. This preface to a Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto was written together with Engels.
  44. Letter to Otechestvenniye Zapiski, November 1877: Selected Correspondence, p 294.
  45. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume Three (Penguin 1981) p 959.
  46. ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’: The First International and After, p 347.
  47. Capital, Volume Three, p 959.

Revolutionary Lives: Karl Marx (part two)

Following on from part one, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh continued his examination of Marx in Issue 13 (July 2002).

“the proletariat as the decisive revolutionary force”

Revolution broke out in France in February 1848: the king was removed and a republic proclaimed. The new government informed Marx that his deporta­tion order no longer held and he was free to return to France. The same day, the Belgian government issued him with a deportation of their own and arrested him just to be on the safe side. He moved to Paris but, in March, revolution reached Germany too, where the monarchy was forced to concede civil rights and a national assembly. Marx hastened home to join in.

He saw the task of the working class as, above all else, completing the democratic revolution and finally ending feudal rule. To workers who felt there was nothing for them in this, he said: “it is better to suffer in the con­temporary bourgeois society, whose industry creates the means for the foundation of a new society, that will liberate you all, than to revert to a bygone society”.1 The League of Communists, an organisation Marx had taken a leading part in since 1847, was allowed to go under, and Marx opposed standing workers’ candidates against middle-class democrats: “the proletariat has not the right to isolate itself; however hard it may seem, it must reject anything that could separate it from its allies”.2

But he came to doubt whether the capitalist class would really fight against the old regime: “In the whole of history there is no more ignominious example of abjectness than that provided by the German bourgeoisie.”3 It had developed so late and so slowly “that it saw itself threateningly confronted by the proletariat, and all those sections of the urban population related to the proletariat in interests and ideas, at the very moment of its own threatening confrontation with feudalism and absolutism”. And so, “grumbling at those above, trembling before those below”, it preferred to stick with the devil it knew than risk a social upheaval. Marx gave up on them:

The history of the Prussian bourgeoisie demonstrates, as indeed does that of the whole German bourgeoisie from March to December, that a purely bourgeois revolution, along with the establishment of bourgeois hege­mony in the form of a constitutional monarchy, is impossible in Germany. What is possible is either the feudal and absolutist counter-revolution or the social-republican revolution.4

He eventually concluded that “every revolutionary upheaval, however remote from the class struggle its goal may appear to be, must fail until the revolu­tionary working class is victorious”.5

In the spring of 1849 Marx resigned from the broad association of demo­crats he had been active in, announcing that he would act within the workers’ organisations from now on. He also wrote a series of articles examining the capitalist’s exploitation of the worker:

his life-activity is for him only a means to enable him to exist. He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labour as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.… life begins for him where this activity ceases, at table, in the tavern, in bed. The twelve hours’ labour, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, drilling, etc., but as earnings, which bring him to the table, to the tavern, into bed.

When capital is growing, the worker’s wage may well go up, but the capi­talist’s profit will go up even more:

The share of capital relative to the share of labour has risen. The division of social wealth between capital and labour has become still more un­equal.… The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position. The social gulf that divides him from the capitalist has widened.

So, in times of boom as well as times of slump, “the interests of capital and the interests of wage labour are diametrically opposed”.6

But the German revolution soon breathed its last and the authorities re­gained the upper hand. The newspaper Marx was editing was banned, and he was officially notified that he had outstayed his welcome in Germany. After being arrested while trying to organise last-ditch resistance, he went back to France. But the counter-revolution was taking control there too, and he was given 24 hours to leave Paris. In August 1849 he settled in London.

He took advantage of what he believed would be only a temporary exile to retrace the progress of the 1848 revolution in France, its cockpit. The working class were a small minority in the country, he wrote, and had to win over small farmers, small business people, and other classes who were beaten down by capitalism: “The French workers could not move a step forward, nor cause the slightest disruption in the bourgeois order, until the course of the revolution had aroused the mass of the nation, the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie, located between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, against this order, against the rule of capital, and until it had forced them to join forces with their protagonists, the proletarians.” It was in the natural interest of the small farmers to join with the working class:

It is evident that their exploitation differs only in form from that of the industrial proletariat. The exploiter is the same: capital.… The peasant’s claim to property is the talisman with which capital has hitherto held him under its spell, the pretext on which it set him against the industrial proletariat. Only the fall of capital can raise the peasant, only an anti-capitalist, proletarian government can break his economic poverty and his social degradation.

And this was beginning to happen, wrote Marx: these in-between classes were “regrouping around the proletariat as the decisive revolutionary force”.7

The French workers also needed to internationalise their struggle. The liberation of their class, Marx wrote, “will not be accomplished within any national walls”. A workers’ France would have to face down its capitalist neighbours, a process that would only be victorious when it “carries the proletariat to the fore in the nation that dominates the world market, i.e. England”. While socialist revolution would be most difficult in England, and therefore unlikely to start there, it wouldn’t succeed until it finished there:

These violent convulsions must necessarily occur at the extremities of the bourgeois organism rather than at its heart, where the possibility of re­storing the balance is greater. On the other hand, the degree to which the continental revolutions have repercussions on England is also the ther­mometer by which one can measure how far they really challenge bour­geois conditions of life, rather than affecting only its political formations.8

In London, Marx and other German exiles revived the League of Communists. In a message from the central board to the members, himself and Engels reproached those who thought there was no need for the League during the revolution (omitting to mention that this most notably included themselves!). This lack of organisation had left the working class under the leadership of the middle-class democrats, and this had to end: “the independ­ence of the workers must be restored… the workers’ party must go into battle with the maximum degree of organization, unity and independence, so that it is not exploited and taken in tow by the bourgeoisie as in 1848”.9

The relationship of the working class to the middle-class democrats should be such that “it cooperates with them against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own posi­tion”. After all, the two classes had very different objects:

While the democratic petty bourgeoisie want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible… it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power… Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.

Rather than be lulled by calls for an all-embracing opposition party, the workers should organise a party of their own, forcing the middle class to its political limits and beyond. When they formed new governments, the working class “must simultaneously establish their own revolutionary workers’ governments” to put the new rulers under pressure from day one. Even where they have no chance of winning, workers’ candidates should stand in elections “to preserve their independence, to gauge their own strength and to bring their revolutionary position and party standpoint to public attention”. The working class must at all times understand and put forward their own interests, without being misled by the middle class. “Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.”10

But Marx’s observations from the vantage point of London soon led him to conclude that revolution was far from imminent, due to the sustained growth capitalism was undergoing: “While this general prosperity lasts… there can be no question of a real revolution.”11 It was not a popular opinion with some of his comrades, who still saw it as a question of now or never—“We must come to power immediately or we might as well go to sleep” was how Marx characterised them. He foresaw a prolonged period of patient preparation before socialist revolution would be on again:

We tell the workers: If you want to change conditions and make your­selves capable of government, you will have to undergo fifteen, twenty or fifty years of civil war.… We are devoted to a party which would do best not to assume power just now.… Our party can only become the govern­ment when conditions allow its views to be put into practice.12

The League of Communists was wound down and soon disappeared alto­gether. But however long the night might be, Marx insisted that the dawn would come too: “A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself.13

Marx’s activity in the German revolution was initially constrained by his abandoning in practice of the strategy he had previously advanced: fighting feudalism alongside the capitalist class while holding to a working-class position within the fight. He eventually realised that the capitalists weren’t about to put up any real fight, and returned to the need for independent workers’ action, winning the support of other oppressed groups and engaging in permanent revolution that would defeat feudal rule on the way to socialist transformation. The international nature of the revolutionary process also became clearer to him. But when he saw that revolution had fallen off the agenda for the time being, he had the courage to say so, without attempting to keep empty political vessels afloat. In a revolutionary career of some forty years, Marx spent a total of five as a member of a revolutionary party—and allowed his membership to lapse during a revolution! So much for those who see Marxism as being all about party building.

The following years were to be years of exile, bitterness and political frustration for Marx: surviving them would require real revolutionary commitment.

This article will be continued in the next issue of Red Banner.


  1. ‘Montesquieu LVI’: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung 1848-49 (Progress, Moscow 1972) pp 227-8.
  2. Quoted in David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (Macmillan, London 1973) p 202.
  3. ‘The Victory of the Counter-Revolution in Vienna’: The Revolutions of 1848 (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1973) p 174.
  4. ‘The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution’: ibid, pp 193-4, 212.
  5. Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1978), p 16.
  6. Ibid, pp 19-20, 38, 40-1. Ó Cathasaigh, ‘Marx agus roinnt an bhodaigh’, Red Banner 5, discusses further Marx’s idea of the relative worsening of the workers’ position, illustrating the process in late twentieth-century Ireland.
  7. ‘The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850’: Karl Marx, Surveys from Exile (Penguin 1973) pp 46-7, 117, 121.
  8. Ibid, pp 112, 131.
  9. ‘Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850)’: The Revolutions of 1848, p 320.
  10. Ibid, pp 322-4, 326-7, 330.
  11. ‘The Class Struggles in France’, p 131.
  12. ‘Minutes of the Central Committee Meeting of 15 September 1850’: The Revolu­tions of 1848, pp 341, 343.
  13. ‘The Class Struggles in France’, p 131.

Revolutionary Lives: Karl Marx (part one)

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh started an examination of Marx’s work in Issue 12 in March 2002.

“This much is certain: I am no Marxist.” This much-quoted remark of Marx himself, often treated as a piece of throwaway irony, actually addresses something wrong with the political theory shaped under his name. All too often, the gap between this ‘Marxism’ and the theory and practice of Karl Marx himself has gaped wide, sometimes reaching frightening proportions. Now, as new chapters of revolutionary activity are being written, is the time to reclaim Marx’s own thought in all its creativity and richness.

“the complete restoration of humanity to itself”

On the morning of 5 May 1818 in Trier, western Germany, Karl Heinrich Marx was born, son of a lawyer with liberal sympathies. Karl’s years in college saw him get involved in the philosophical controversies of the day, but his hopes for an academic career were dashed when the government cracked down on radical professors. He turned to journalism, becoming editor of a liberal newspaper whose criticism of the government led to its suppression. Its crime was to have exposed poverty and championed the rights of the poor. Far from preaching socialist revolution, Marx had stubbornly refused to print left-wing propaganda, maintaining that commu­nism was only a meaningless dogma until it was studied properly.

Marx’s approach to changing things was different: “we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old”. This meant taking part in political battles, but

This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctri­naire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with the true campaign-slogans. Instead we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not.

Far from dictating what to do and how to do it, Marx saw himself as merely helping the fighters to understand the nature of their fight: “the self-clarifi­cation (critical philosophy) of the struggles and wishes of the age”.1 This theoretical understanding was as necessary for these struggles as practical combat: “material force must be overthrown by material force. But theory becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses.”2

In contemporary Germany, wrote Marx, all classes of the population lacked the political courage to properly challenge the autocratic govern­ment, and so “It is not radical revolution or universal human emancipation which is a utopian dream for Germany; it is the partial, merely political revolution, the revolution which leaves the pillars of the building standing.” Such a radical revolution could only be carried through by

a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere which has a universal character because of its universal suffering and which lays claim to no particular right because the wrong it suffers is not a particular wrong but wrong in general; a sphere of society which can no longer lay claim to a historical title, but merely to a human one, which does not stand in one-sided opposition to the consequences but in all-sided opposition to the premises of the German political system; and finally a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from—and thereby emancipating—all the other spheres of society, which is, in a word, the total loss of humanity and which can therefore redeem itself only through the total redemption of humanity. This dis­solution of society as a particular class is the proletariat.3

Marx had come to the realisation that the working class had the potential to end human oppression. But the role he saw for that class was, to some extent, still a passive one, providing the brawn of the revolution rather than the brain: “philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat… The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat.”4 The German working class was tiny, and only just taking its first political steps, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that Marx failed at first to grasp its full possibilities. But this was to change. Marx had by now moved to Paris, exchanging a stifling political atmosphere for the centre of working-class socialism. He was greatly impressed by the Parisian workers he met at socialist meetings, and he now got down to studying the relationship of workers to capitalism at its heart.

The basis of work under capitalism, he concluded, was

that the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer.… The exter­nalization of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

In the nature of human beings, our work is the way we express ourselves, an activity that affirms our humanity. But capitalist labour is the reverse of that, a process that alienates us from our work, making it a hateful thing forced upon us to survive, that ultimately cheapens rather than enriches us, that underlies a servile relationship to a master: “Life itself appears only as a means of life.”5

The alienation of labour confirmed for Marx the role of the working class in ending oppression:

It further follows from the relation of estranged labour to private prop­erty that the emancipation of society from private property, etc., from servitude, is expressed in the political form of the emancipation of the workers. This is not because it is a question only of their emancipation, but because in their emancipation is contained universal human emanci­pation. The reason for this universality is that the whole of human ser­vitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production…

Any socialist proposal that failed to remove this servitude was no good as far as Marx was concerned. A general wage rise for all workers, for instance, would mean “nothing more than better pay for slaves and would not mean an increase in human significance or dignity for either the worker or the labour”. Even paying the same wage to everyone would just drag everyone down to the worker’s level, meaning that “the category of worker is not abolished but extended to all”, with “the community as universal capitalist”. The kind of communism Marx envisaged went much deeper: “the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for people; it is the complete restoration of humanity to itself as a social, i.e. human, being” And even this was only a means to a higher end: “Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism is not as such the goal of human development”.6

By far the most important political contact Marx made in Paris was Friedrich Engels, another German socialist. From 1844 on, the two men formed a steadfast comradeship that lasted through all the ups and downs of Marx’s life.7 Marx’s political activity proved too much for the French government, which deported him in 1845. An arrest warrant awaited him back in Germany, so he settled in Brussels, working mostly among the German emigrants in Belgium.

By bringing the modern working class into existence, Marx wrote, capitalism had created “its own grave-diggers”, the class with the power to overthrow it.8 Socialists saw the working class playing this part “not at all… because they regard the proletarians as gods”, but because they couldn’t put an end to their own suffering without ending the suffering of society as a whole—even if most workers had not yet realised that fact:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will histori­cally be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today. There is no need to explain here that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task…9

Far from being gods, the working class would have to prove itself capable of fulfilling its task by undergoing a revolution:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist conscious­ness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of people on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

Such a revolution would have to be international—“communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and simulta­neously”—and based on economic abundance, otherwise only generalised poverty would result, “and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old shit would necessarily be restored”.10

The first step of the socialist revolution, wrote Marx, would “raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class”,11 but “it is victorious only by abolishing itself”,12 by rapidly creating the conditions where no class rules because no class exists: “The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of all classes”.13 Communist society would then take shape, “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”,14 where a person would not be boxed into a single form of alienated labour for life, but would be enabled “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, with­out ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic”.15

Socialists should never, wrote Marx, “set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement”,16 because “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be estab­lished, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself”, but “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.17 Instead of invent­ing systems for running the world, socialists had essentially “only to take note of what is happening before their eyes and to become its mouth­piece”.18 The only difference between socialists and the rest of the working class was that socialists

always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advan­tage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.… The Commu­nists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.19

While the point was always to change the world rather than just interpret it,20 to lead people into battle without a solid theoretical understanding of things was dishonest: “Ignorance never yet helped anybody!”21

At the basis of Marx’s theory was an understanding of how history proceeds. As people produce, he argued, they create certain relations with each other, but these relations are limited by the productive capacities available to them. In modern society, certain classes own the means of producing things, and other classes don’t. This class structure in the econ­omy is reflected in the legal and political systems, and in the various ideo­logies that exist. When the means of producing outgrow the limits of the prevailing class structure, the contradiction leads to a period of revolution in which new economic and social relations can be established.

But Marx never saw successful revolution as a guaranteed outcome of such periods: the class struggle could result “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”.22 While “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”, they don’t go unchallenged: “The existence of revolutionary ideas in a particular period presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class”. Far from denying that people think for themselves, Marx was concerned to situate their thinking in social reality: “People are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc., that is, real, active people, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these”.23

Marx deliberately distanced himself from traditional materialist philo­sophy because it saw the world only in terms of things, “not as sensuous human activity, practice”, and failed to “grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity”. It was so busy insisting that people are defined by their social circumstances that it forgot “that circumstances are changed by people” as well: the only way to understand this was “as revolutionary practice”.24 People act within a certain mode of producing, but “the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself”. People were therefore “the authors and actors of their own drama”.25

He was not at all dismissive of the fight to end feudal rule in Germany and establish parliamentary democracy. Indeed he explicitly stated that the working class had to “fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way” against landlordism.26 But the matter wouldn’t end there: “They can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a condition of the workers’ revolution. But they cannot for a moment regard it as their final aim.”27 So socialists should

never cease, for a single moment, to instil into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bour­geoisie and proletariat, in order that the German workers may straight­way use, as so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, the social and political conditions that the bourgeoisie must necessarily introduce along with its supremacy, and in order that, after the fall of the reactionary classes in Germany, the fight against the bourgeoisie itself may immediately begin.

Numerically small as the German working class was, the influence of international commerce had given it a greater weight in society, and so, Marx believed, “the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”.28

What drove Marx politically from the very first was a commitment to the total emancipation of human beings, to a society where people could live and work together in freedom. Versions of socialism which imagined handing the workers their freedom from the heights of the state, or crafting a more ‘humane’ version of capitalism, held no attraction for him. Far from the caricature usually made of it by friend and foe alike, his view of history was all about comprehending and promoting the conscious activity of people changing their world. He became a partisan of the class struggle of the workers, not through some romantic idealisation of the proletariat, but because that struggle held the key to liberating humanity. Socialist revolu­tion was necessary but not inevitable, and he saw the possibility of it failing through international isolation or inadequate material foundation. The role of socialists was a modest, even humble, one for Marx, suggesting clarifi­cation rather than lecturing, being involved in struggles rather than deriding them from outside.

Where a small working class existed, but capitalism had not won full political supremacy, Marx envisioned the workers pushing the capitalist revolution forward, and then pushing immediately to a revolution of their own. 1848 brought the opportunity to put this concept to the test in Germany.

Part two >


  1. ‘Letters from the Franco-German Yearbooks’: Karl Marx, Early Writings (Penguin, Harmondsworth 1975) pp 207-9.
  2. ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’: ibid, p 251.
  3. Ibid, pp 253, 256.
  4. Ibid, p 257.
  5. ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’: ibid, pp 324, 328.
  6. Ibid, pp 332-3, 346-8, 358. Here and elsewhere the translation has been modified where the word Mensch (person) has been translated as “man”.
  7. For an account and assessment of Engels’s politics and his political relationship with Marx, see Joe Conroy, ‘Revolutionary Lives: Friedrich Engels’, Red Banner 3-4.
  8. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’: Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848 (Penguin 1973) p 79. The Manifesto was, of course, a joint effort with Engels, although Marx composed the final text. Ó Cathasaigh, ‘The Communist Mani­festo: Birthday honours’, Red Banner 3, discusses the Manifesto more fully.
  9. Marx, Engels, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (Progress, Moscow 1975) pp 44-5. This particular section of the book was written by Marx.
  10. Marx, Engels, The German Ideology (Progress 1976) pp 60, 57, 54. This work was written jointly by Marx and Engels. The translation has been modified here: you don’t need to be a German scholar to know that Scheiße does not mean “filthy business”!
  11. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 86.
  12. The Holy Family, p 44.
  13. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1978) p 169.
  14. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 87.
  15. The German Ideology, p 53.
  16. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 79.
  17. The German Ideology, p 57.
  18. The Poverty of Philosophy, p 120.
  19. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, pp 79-80, 97.
  20. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” ‘Concerning Feuerbach’: Early Writings, p 423.
  21. Marx’s parting shot in an argument with the German socialist Wilhelm Weitling, who thought his hundreds of loyal followers counted for more than “criticism and armchair analysis”: quoted in David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (Macmillan, London 1973) p 157.
  22. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 68.
  23. The German Ideology, pp 67-8, 42.
  24. ‘Concerning Feuerbach’, pp 421-2.
  25. The Poverty of Philosophy, pp 169, 109.
  26. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, pp 97-8.
  27. ‘Die moralisierende Kritik und die kritisierende Moral’: Marx, Engels, Werke (Dietz, Berlin 1956-64) volume 4, p 352.
  28. ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, p 98. See also The German Ideology, p 83.