33 minutes | Jun 4, 2020

4. Marx and Radical Democracy

The first socialists were not political. Groups like the followers of St. Simon were trying to block themselves away from the rest of society and create a utopia as an example to everyone else. At the same time you had radical democrats, many of whom remembered the French revolution as a kind of lost glory or lost opportunity. Marx was one of these radical Democrats. Some say that in the late 1840s he became a socialist, which they think means he stopped caring about individual rights, like the right to property, but started caring about collective rights, such as the rights of factory workers to the wealth they produced. I just got done providing for you a reading of Capital that is radically humanist, that emphasizes the importance of fighting against fetishized relationships between people. That means, at the very end of his career his philosophy was still Epicurian, meaning it was still a science at the service of human happiness, still ethically a humanism. So, how did his followers end up abandoning radical democracy? I’m going to argue that Lenin was still a radical democrat, but that Stalin was not. Still, what you don’t get from studying the ideas of these “great men” is how a certain society made them possible. After the dumbest revolution, France ended up with a restored monarchy, first Louis 18th was put on the throne by Napoleon, and then later by Louis Phillipe. Louis Phillipe had been one of the so-called progressive nobles and a part of the Jacobin club. When the terror broke out in 1793 LP fled France, living in Philadelphia for a while. When Napoleon took power in 1799 LP returned to Europe, and having never plotted against the revolution, returned to France in 1814 to reclaim what royal property hadn’t been sold off. Under Bonaparte a law was passed to return to the nobility some of their wealth. Did I mention the French revolution was dumb? I’ve mentioned it. Moving on… Following a rebellion against oppressive state measures in 1830, Louis Phillippe became the king, and he kept power by letting the bourgeoisie have a colonial adventure in Algeria. It’s under the rule of Louis Phillippe that Marx moves to Paris in 1843 to begin work at a radical newspaper. By that point Marx had gotten too radical to teach in Prussian universities or for the Prussian press, which suffered new suppression that year. If you’re looking for a moment when Marx turns away from enlightenment radicalism and democracy towards a socialism from above, this is probably that moment. I happen to think that in moving to a discussion of class Marx was recognizing that free individuals must come from free social settings, that you can’t be said to enjoy liberty if you are starving to death. We have talked about all this. What’s more, he must have felt acutely the political isolation of the radical enlightenment, and he seems to have been deeply motivated to make enlightenment ideals into a social reality, something to move the masses. What could be more democratic? To the point, Riazanov tells us Marx balked at joining the League of the Just, later the Communist League, in Paris until they came around to his way of thinking on these grounds: “He did not join this League because its programme was too greatly coloured with an idealistic and conspiratory spirit which could not appeal to Marx.” (64). Riazanov should know: he was the Bolshevik that founded the Marx-Engels Institute in Soviet Russia after 1917. Marx objected to idealism because he associated it with small conspiracies, and he knew this to be an undemocratic dead end. In his “Two Souls of Socialism,” Hal Draper gives us more details about this point, how Marx could only be a socialist in a group that was democratic: “Before they joined the group which became the Communist League (for which they were to write the Communist Manifesto), they stipulated that the organisation be changed from an elite conspiracy of the old type into an open propaganda group, that ‘everything conducive to superstitious authoritarianism be struck out of the rules,’ that the leading committee be elected by the whole membership as against the tradition of ‘decisions from above.’...In the socialist movement as it developed before Marx, nowhere did the line of the socialist idea intersect the line of democracy-from-below...Marx was the first socialist thinker and leader who came to socialism through the struggle for liberal democracy.” (Draper, Two Souls of Socialism, pp11-12, quoting Marx). It’s not clear where Draper gets his quotes from as he doesn’t cite them. But it’s very likely Marx did say such things, since we can cite Engels in this Confession of the Communist faith (question 14). Note how revolutionary action by the proletariat here is seen as the solution against the violence of the upper class in defence of oppression: “Question 14: Let me go back to the sixth question. As you wish to prepare for community of property by the enlightening and uniting of the proletariat, then you reject revolution? Answer: We are convinced not only of the uselessness but even of the harmfulness of all conspiracies. We are also aware that revolutions are not made deliberately and arbitrarily but that everywhere and at all times they are the necessary consequence of circumstances which are not in any way whatever dependent either on the will or on the leadership of individual parties or of whole classes. But we also see that the development of the proletariat in almost all countries of the world is forcibly repressed by the possessing classes and that thus a revolution is being forcibly worked for by the opponents of communism. If, in the end, the oppressed proletariat is thus driven into a revolution, then we will defend the cause of the proletariat just as well by our deeds as now by our words.” During the revolution, Marx advocated armed uprisings to protect democratic gains against legally enshrined feudal priviledges. The phrase he used for the resulting power arrangment was the “Dictatorship of the Democracy.” After the March revolution of 1848 a dual power existed in Prussia. This meant that there were democratic assemblies, a National Assembly, that vied for power with the older government. Marik: “The establishment of a Liberal cabinet had not come about because of the constitutional agitations but because of the March Revolution, which breached feudal legality. The real reason for Liberal objection to the establishment of democracy was not that it was to come through dictatorship, but rather, that this dictatorship would give power to the exploited people. In a subsequent article Marx wrote that the National Assembly: ‘only needed everywhere to counter dictatorially the reactionary encroachments by obsolete Government in order to win over public opinion, a power against which all bayonets and rifle butts would be ineffective.” (Marik, p.191) The attitude of Marx, though not always the attitude of so-called Marxists, was always to adjust one’s theory in the light of experience. After the defeat of the revolution of 1848 Marx did just that. Remarkably, he never gave up on radical Democracy. This is the period where he formulates his idea of “Permanent Revolution,” or the idea that the most vulnerable and oppressed could forge by democratic means a polity that would end class divisions. In the context of a Europe dominated by governments that allowed no meaningful political participation by the masses, the only realistic attitude for a democrat was revolutionary. Only by attacking material inequality could a democracy be established where some were not more capable or powerful than others. This is the fruition of a long meditation in Marx’s life on the nature of democracy, a period that saw the writing of the Communist Manifesto, a period where Marx, so the legend has it, becomes a Marxist. Soma Marik remarks: “Both the dominant strategy of proletarian independence and hegemony, and the subordinate tactics involving occasional collaboration with the bourgeoisie were tried out in the revolution of 1848 and both were modified in the light of experience. What emerged was the final version of the strategy of permanent revolution explained most elaborately in the “Address of the Central Authority to the Communist League” of March 1850…’While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible… It is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power… and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonism but the abolition of class.’” (Marx, cited in Marik, p141). Here Marx is addressing a society of revolutionaries. What do his words mean in context? Marik goes on to explain what actions went along with Marx’s permanent revolution line just prior to and just after his 1850 Address cited above. In the leadup to the events of 1848, Marx had to oppose multiple conspiracies within the radical democratic movement to general insurrection. Note in this passage how Marx feels the need for an armed working class at the moment when a democratic government is being threatened by an armed feudal reaction, and that in another context he argues against hasty action, preferring in Cologne to emphasize educational efforts, in each case the goal is to spread democratic governance and the enlightenment philosophy of equal rights for all. The thrust of Marx’s political project was to popularize and then defend from its enemies the widest possible democracy: the armed defense against reactionary count
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