By Pete Glover, reproduced from issue 2 of the journal
Marx and the State in 1848
Did Marx believe that a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was achievable? His earlier writings appear to answer this question in the negative. In November 1848, in ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’ he put it as bluntly as this: ‘…there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.’(Marx 1848) At first reading this looks unequivocal. To put the quote into context the article is describing the bloody aftermath of the victory of the counterrevolution in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The “old society” that Marx was referring to was the society of the feudal Habsburgs which had just re-established absolutist rule in Vienna over the bones of its citizens. The democratic aspirations of the Viennese were drowned in blood. The Austrian conflagration was just part of a series of popular uprisings against the iron grip of autocracy which had shaken the despotic political foundations of Europe. Capitalism, which some today mistakenly equate with democracy was, in 1848, able to co-exist and flourish under the domination of the “old society” of absolute Monarchs and tyrannies. Although capitalism had reached an advanced stage in many parts of Europe, democracy was either incredibly restricted by property qualification or non-existent. Despite the unstoppable march of capitalism as an economic system, the bourgeois of mid-nineteenth century Europe were nevertheless not the political masters of these growing European states. The levers of state power and state patronage were in the hands of Kings or Emperors (the exception was Britain). The capitalists were largely excluded from real political power. A very exclusive club of capitalist financiers, for instance the Rothschilds, were close to centres of autocratic power and were happy with the status quo. The biggest financiers didn’t want to upset the autocratic apple cart despite their lack of formal political power. Their purpose was to make money and if they could do that, what difference did it make how narrow the franchise was?
The revolutions of 1848
Why therefore did the revolutions of 1848 take place? Capitalists and capitalist political leaders did not lead the revolutions at all. They followed in their wake. The revolutions were led by the working class, artisans and peasants of Europe. The intellectuals, the middle class and the large part of the capitalist class who were excluded from access to European Imperial Courts were desperate to ease the choking absolutist restrictions on the political control of the state, which in any case was a hindrance to capitalist development and a huge drain on the resources of the middle classes. So complete was the vice-like grip of absolutism in France at the start of 1848 that only about 1% of the population had the vote. The laws of capitalism continue to operate under iron dictatorships. But there are advantages for capitalism if it is able to move towards the democratic republic, particularly in the management of popular unrest.
After the uprising of 1848, universal male suffrage was won in France. From this point onwards the idea of universal suffrage and sovereign Parliaments became a pan-European ideal even though an ideal that would not be realised for some time. The political representatives of capitalism and the middle class were dragged into revolution unwillingly but as soon as it seemed that political power would be distributed downwards towards the working class, they beat a hasty retreat and came to the rescue of the counter-revolutionary regimes. The franchise for workers meant hope of a socialist future, for capitalism it represented a means to diffuse discontent. The European revolutions of 1848 were defeated but the ideas behind them left in ineradicable mark. Marx wrote the article quoted above against the background of the untrammelled violence unleashed by unelected oligarchies and Monarchies against their own people. The governments of Europe hit back with horrific savagery against these popular revolutions. The article Marx wrote was a response to this barbarity and in this particular case the bombardment and massacres inflicted upon the citizens of Vienna by Imperial soldiers. The failure of the revolutions in Europe to sweep aside absolutism would have far reaching consequences in the 20th century as will be explained later in the article.
The danger in taking an isolated quote from Marx relating to the violent overthrow of autocracies is that it can be, and often is, removed from its context.
Marx and the violent overthrow of the State, 1870s
A later and more accurate assessment of Marx’s considered position in relation to violence and the overthrow of the state is not that difficult to find. Nearly twenty five years after the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” article, in an address to the Hague Congress of the International Workingman’s Association in September 1872, a workers’ audience heard Marx outline a completely different strategy.
‘We know that the institutions, customs and traditions in the different countries must be taken into account; we do not deny the existence of countries like America, England, and if I knew your institutions better I might add Holland, where the workers might achieve their aims by peaceful means. That being true we must also admit that in most countries on the continent it is force which must be the lever of our revolution; it is force which will have to be resorted to for a time in order to establish the rule of the workers.’(Marx, 1872)
The socialist revolution could, therefore, in Marx’s opinion take place without violence, at least in the countries of America, England and Holland.
Whereas Marx could foresee a peaceful transition in Britain and the United States, in contrast continental Europe was ferociously reactionary at that time. Marx was pointing out that under the democratic form of capitalist government such as the USA and Britain, a peaceful transition to socialism was possible. Paradoxically, in 1872 when Marx made this statement, Britain could not be described as being remotely democratic. After the Second reform Act of 1867, just five years before Marx’s speech, the electorate was still confined to just one in three men. Yet still Marx made this bold and remarkable statement. Even under conditions of a massively restricted franchise Marx considered a peaceful socialist transformation was possible. To further underline its significance, Marx made this statement just after the horrific massacre of Parisian workers by the French state in the wake of the establishment of the Paris Commune. If Marx wanted to warn the working class that a peaceful transformation was impossible or at least highly unlikely in countries like Britain, then surely this was the time and the place to do it. The gaze of Europe was on Marx when he made his address to the working class of Europe at the Hague Congress. This would have been the perfect opportunity for him to warn the new workers’ movement about any illusions they might have in a peaceful transformation to Socialism. But Marx chose not to call for the smashing of the state machine. Instead he made clear that a peaceful socialist revolution was a possibility.
Just before this, in April 1871, in a letter to Kugelmann, Marx made the same point about the different courses the European and British revolutions would take: ‘If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.’(Marx, 1871) (my emphasis)
Any hope of a peaceful transition to Socialism in continental Europe was out of the question. However, Britain was a different case. When Marx referred to “people’s revolutions” in Europe, he meant revolutions that would have involved “the people” and not necessarily “the workers”. By this, Marx meant the overwhelming majority of the European population who were at that time peasants or to a lesser extent artisans and therefore not by definition “working class”.
Lenin, on the other hand, maintained that views expressed by Marx in the Kugelmann letter view were out of date. But more on this later.
In an Interview with Karl Marx, New York World, July 18, 1871 reprinted in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, August 12, 1871 by R. Landor entitled “Revolt of Labour Against Capital – the Two Faces of L’Internationale–Transformation of Society – Its Progress in the United States” Marx drew the same distinction between a peaceful revolution in Britain and a forcible overthrow of the state in Continental Europe:
‘In each part of the world, some special aspect of the problem presents itself, and the workmen there address themselves to its consideration in their own way. Combinations among workmen cannot be absolutely identical in detail in Newcastle and in Barcelona, in London and in Berlin. In England, for instance, the way to show political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work. In France, a hundred laws of repression and a mortal antagonism between classes seem to necessitate the violent solution of social war.’(Landor, 1871)
The same theme is each time present. Any hope of a peaceful transition to Socialism in continental Europe was out of the question due to the repressive political systems that dominated at that time. However, in Britain it was perfectly possible. In fact Marx specifically counter-poses peaceful agitation to insurrection as the road to political power.
Engels On The State
Engels too believed that it was entirely possible for a peaceful transformation to a socialist society to take place. In ‘A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891’, he wrote:
‘These are attempts to convince oneself and the party that “present-day society is developing towards socialism” without asking oneself whether it does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order and whether it will not have to burst this old shell by force, as a crab breaks its shell, and also whether in Germany, in addition, it will not have to smash the fetters of the still semi-absolutist, and moreover indescribably confused political order. One can conceive that the old society may develop peacefully into the new one in countries where the representatives of the people concentrate all power in their hands, where, if one has the support of the majority of the people, one can do as one sees fit in a constitutional way: in democratic republics such as France and the U.S.A., in monarchies such as Britain, where the imminent abdication of the dynasty in return for financial compensation is discussed in the press daily and where this dynasty is powerless against the people. But in Germany where the government is almost omnipotent and the Reichstag and all other representative bodies have no real power, to advocate such a thing in Germany, when, moreover, there is no need to do so, means removing the fig-leaf from absolutism and becoming oneself a screen for its nakedness.’ (Engels 1891)
Again, Engels points out that a peaceful revolution in Britain is quite likely. In Germany, however, due to its semi-absolutist political system it was out of the question. Although a form of universal male suffrage had been granted, Germany was still an autocracy and any prospect for the creation of a socialist society on the basis of a simple democratic mandate of the working class was a false and dangerous ideal.
Engels’ final word on the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism came in his introduction to Marx’s ‘The Class Struggles In France Introduction’ in 1895.
‘Does the reader now understand, why the ruling classes decidedly want to bring us to where the guns shoot and the sabres slash? Why they accuse us today of cowardice, because we do not betake ourselves without more ado into the street, where we are certain of defeat in advance? Why they so earnestly implore us to play for once the part of cannon fodder?…The irony of world history turns everything upside down. We, the “revolutionaries,” the “rebels”—we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolt. The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves. They cry despairingly with Odilon Barrot: la légalité notes tue, legality is the death of us; whereas we, under this legality, get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like eternal life. And if we are not so crazy as to let ourselves be driven into street fighting in order to please them, then nothing else is finally left for them but themselves to break through this legality so fatal to them.’ (Marx, 1850, Engels intro)
Here Engels makes an extremely valuable point that the ruling class would like to provoke the working class into violent methods of struggle. Engels was a supporter of much of the Parliamentary work of the German SPD and although he clearly underestimated the reformist nature of the SPD, he nevertheless saw education and propaganda activities to be the way forward.
Marx and Lenin; are they saying the same thing?
Although Marx and Engels moved the discussion from the barricade to the meeting hall, many Marxists have side-lined or overlooked Marx’s explicitly stated views. Instead they have used some of the works of Lenin to back up the mistaken argument that revolutionary methods are necessarily the same as violent methods. For example, Lenin saw the temporary state control over the war economies during the First World War, alongside state intervention in other areas, as a permanent tendency of capitalism. In common with many Socialists of the Second International, Lenin believed that this tendency was reaching some kind of end point. The growth of state control was not, however, an economic tendency within capitalism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the state did play a large role in many areas of the economy that are now privately owned such as housing and utilities. An inevitable tendency towards an Increase in state control was even recognized by stalwart defenders of reformism like Sidney Webb (the author of Clause 4 of Labour’s 1918 constitution). In his ‘Socialism in England’, Webb explained the rise of municipal socialism. ‘It is not only in matters of sanitation that this ‘Municipal Socialism” is progressing. Nearly half the consumers of the Kingdom already consume gas made by themselves as citizens collectively, in 168 different localities, as many as 14 local authorities obtained the power to borrow money to engage in the gas industry in a single year. Water supply is rapidly coming to be universally a matter of public provision, no fewer than 71 separate governing bodies obtaining loans for this purpose in the year 1885-86 alone. The prevailing tendency is for the municipalities to absorb also the tramway industry, 31 localities already owning their own lines, comprising a quarter of the mileage in the Kingdom.’ (Webb, 1890)
Although Lenin correctly criticized this form of piecemeal socialism, the consensus view across Socialist parties was a recognition of the increasing role of state control. The teleological sense of lawful inevitability towards this ultimate totality of state control was a common feature of those who read Marx, and even those who described themselves as socialists at that time (Darwin was an even more popular read in socialist study circles than Marx). But the growth of state-ownership in Europe in the early part of the 20th century was not evidence of a trend. Subsequent developments proved that this was not irreversible.
Growth of the military
Lenin’s concept of Imperialism too affected his calculations for the prospects of a peaceful socialist revolution in Western Europe. He described the growth of colonialism, military spending, size of banks, centralisation and increasing state control that were taking place in the late 19th and early 20th century. He then used the overarching, abstract and therefore not very specific term of Imperialism to describe these processes. He maintained that representative democracy was under threat- although the opposite proved to be the case after the war with an extension of the franchise across Europe. ‘Imperialism–the era of bank capital, the era of gigantic capitalist monopolies, of the development of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism–has clearly shown an unprecedented growth in its bureaucratic and military apparatus in connection with the intensification of repressive measures against the proletariat both in the monarchical and in the freest, republican countries.’(Lenin, 1916)
History, again, didn’t bear out Lenin’s predictions in regard to the permanent formation of vast armed camps in Western Europe, however correct his analysis was of the Russian situation. Lenin overestimated the role of the military-bureaucratic apparatus in Western Europe, although not in Germany and the East. This bloated military apparatus is vital for the theory of Imperialism to exist. But although this was a feature of wartime Europe, armed forces have varied in size and their trend has been downwards in recent decades. For example defence spending in the United Kingdom fluctuated dramatically and showed no consistent trend in the last century. It was 6.5% of GDP during the Boer War and peaked at 46% in World War II. It declined from 10% during the Cold War to just over 2% today. This aspect of Lenin’s theory- the destruction of the semi-feudal apparatus- was certainly applicable to the military, absolutist monarchies of Austria and Russia and Germany, but the abstract nature of this theory failed to take into account the profoundly different institutions and history of Western Europe. What Lenin’s theory did predict, with great accuracy, was that the War would make capitalism extremely unstable and create enormous class tensions. That would lead to revolution in the shaky Eastern and Central European autocracies where there was no democratic outlet to diffuse class tensions during crises and where the capitalist class was tied to the autocracy. Although revolution in the West did not take place, at the time it was reasonable hypothesis to assume that revolutions in the West would follow in the wake of the Russian and German revolutions, given the revolutionary wave which swept across Europe. Lenin’s theory of Imperialism must, therefore, be seen in the context of the democratic revolution against absolutism in the East triggering socialist revolution against capitalism in the West.
Lenin and the aristocracy of Labour
Lenin’s theory that an aristocracy of labour had arisen as a consequence of the rise of Imperialism has consequences for the idea of the possibility of a peaceful socialist transition in Western Europe. Lenin explains the economic basis of this “aristocracy”:
‘Capital exports yield an income of eight to ten thousand million francs per annum, at pre-war prices and according to pre-war bourgeois statistics. Now, of course, they yield much more.
Obviously, out of such enormous super-profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And that is just what the capitalists of the “advanced” countries are doing: they are bribing them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert.
This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers, take the side of the bourgeoisie, the “Versaillese” against the “Communards”.’(Lenin, 1916)
There is no evidence that better paid and organised workers in the UK were less militant than those who were worse off, and there is no mechanism through which a transfer of super-profits to the better paid workers could be allocated. Just as important, to describe skilled, organised and relatively well paid engineers in the United Kingdom as “agents of the bourgeoisie” was a mischaracterisation of workers who would later participate in mass revolts of historic proportions like Red Clydeside in Scotland.
Earlier, in 1916, Lenin put a figure on the amount the upper layers of the working class were bribed: ‘The bourgeoisie of an imperialist “Great” Power can economically bribe the upper strata of “its” workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million.’(Lenin, 1916) That amounts to 10% of all profits. Lenin does however row back from this figure in “Imperialism” a year later. And after the First World War Lenin seems to have noticed this mistake and changed his position again.
What explains this faulty generalisation? Clearly the role of the leadership of the Socialist Parties was utterly reactionary. But to identify the leaders with the workers was a mistake. Because the leadership of the Socialist Parties across Europe adopted a pro-war position, this unfortunately provoked Lenin into criticizing a section of the working class in line with his mistaken ideas on Imperialism. He compares the “labour aristocracy” (whoever they are) to the “Versaillese”. This was wrong. The Versailles forces who shot down the Communards in France in 1871 were not well-paid proletarian “aristocrats”. They were from a peasant or an impoverished and lumpen background with the support of the middle class. The quote illustrates another weakness in Lenin’s analysis. It suggests that worker will be pitted against worker in a civil war, not that the struggle will be between the working class and capitalism. The aristocratic better-off workers would “inevitably” be foot-soldiers “in no small numbers” against the “militant” worse-off sections of the working class. This view was erroneous not just in hindsight but at the time he made those observations. The overall problem with Lenin’s analysis is that it is so abstract. Lenin may have been referring to the Trade Union and Labour leaders of Europe as Labour aristocrats, like the bloody Scheidemanns and Noskes of the SPD. But he does not make this at all clear. His imprecision makes it difficult to identify who Lenin was referring to. One reading of this could be that he is talking about a small number of bureaucrats. A more accurate reading, and the way I read it, is that Lenin is referring to a significant section of the better paid working class. This is a more realistic assumption as it costs little to bribe a few bureaucrats. It does not require the building of an empire to buy off Labour leaders. Lenin also seems to be referring to profits being transferred on a large scale and systematically. The abstract quality of this argument seems to have been a product of Lenin’s isolation in Switzerland.
Lenin and Hobson
The views of Rudolf Hilferding and Bukharin had a significant effect upon Lenin’s conception of Imperialism and the state. He took from them the false perception that Imperialism was a radically new phase of capitalist development. Lenin’s ideas were also significantly shaped by the economist J.A. Hobson. Hobson was an academic who wanted to reform the worst excesses of capitalism. A comparable contemporary example would be an economist like Yanis Varoufakis who wants to save capitalism from itself. Lenin expresses his debt to Hobson in the preface to ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ and writes: ‘The pamphlet here presented to the reader was written in the spring of 1916, in Zurich. In the conditions in which I was obliged to work there I naturally suffered somewhat from a shortage of French and English literature and from a serious dearth of Russian literature. However, I made use of the principal English work on imperialism, the book by J. A. Hobson, with all the care that, in my opinion, that work deserves.’(Lenin, 1916)
Hobson believed that the causes of Imperial expansion were explicable because of; ‘… periodic trade depressions due to an inability of producers to find adequate and profitable markets for what they can produce.’ (Hobson, 1902) Hobson’s socialism is replicated today in the journals of many Left groups who call themselves Marxist, particularly its emphasis on the state and militarism. ‘As one nation after another enters the machine economy and adopts advanced industrial methods, it becomes more difficult for its manufacturers, merchants and financiers to dispose profitably of their economic resources and they are tempted more and more to use their Governments in order to secure for their particular use some distant undeveloped country by annexation and protection.’(Hobson, 1902). Hobson’s theory of under-consumption- if workers were paid more it would solve the crises within capitalism- is omnipresent on the Left. This theme dominates Hobson as much as it does the discourse today: ‘…it is admitted by all business men that the growth of the powers of production in their country exceeds the growth in consumption, that more goods can be produced than can be sold for a profit…It is this economic condition of affairs that forms the taproot of Imperialism.’(Hobson, 1902)
Underconsumption and crisis theory
This concept of under-consumption (see Marxist world website for a fuller analysis of this) in Hobson partly explains crisis as a result of the excessive build-up of savings, because of rising inequality, leading to a lack of “profitable outlets” to invest in. ‘It is not industrial progress that demands the opening up of new markets and areas of investment, but mal-distribution of consuming power which prevents the absorption of commodities within the country. The over-saving which is the economic root of Imperialism is found by analysis to consist of rents, monopoly profits or other unearned or excessive elements of income which not being earned by labour of head or hand, have no legitimate raison d’etre.’(Hobson, 1902)
The analysis that capitalism cannot find avenues for profitable investment due to the restricted consumer power of the working class also found an echo in Lenin’s account of the rise of Imperialism. It is surprising that Lenin didn’t spot this in his own work as he frequently attacked precisely this type of ideological error in the work of others. Unfortunately in order to neatly fit reality into his theory of Imperialism, Lenin seems to have sacrificed some of his own basic assumptions. So we have this: “The need to export capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become “overripe” and (owing to the backward stage of agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital cannot find a field for “profitable” investment.”(Lenin 1916)
There is no single crisis theory to be found in Lenin’s works as much of his early theoretical work was focused initially on the development of capitalism in Russia. In his major early theoretical work, “The Development of Capitalism in Russia” written in 1899, just 18 years before the revolution, Lenin attacked the Narodnik assertion that Russia could avoid the growth of capitalism because of the strength of the village commune. They held that the commune could serve as the basis for a direct transition to communism. Lenin argued with the Narodniks that capitalist development was already producing class differentiation and the growth of capitalist industry. Lenin’s analysis, therefore, forecast and prepared for a bourgeois democratic revolution, not a socialist revolution.
‘As before, the aim of our struggle is to overthrow tsarism and bring about the conquest of power by the proletariat relying on the revolutionary sections of the peasantry and accomplishing the bourgeois-democratic revolution by means of the convening of a popular constituent assembly and the establishment of a democratic republic.’(Lenin, 1911)
The Narodnik economists, such as Vasily Vorontsov and Nikolai Danielson, took the position that capitalism was foreign to Russian soil. They saw no possibility for the development of a home market for capitalism. They also protested against efforts of the state to implant capitalism artificially in Russia. Until the revolution of 1917, Lenin even thought that an American solution of a free peasantry was possible to the crisis in the Russian countryside.
Lenin, therefore, had to contend with theories about capitalist development and the implication for class conflict within Russia rather than crisis theory, as outlined in Volume 3 of “Capital”. He often refers to the anarchy of production as a cause of crisis, in common with many Second International Marxists. The implications of the tendency for the rate of profit were not fully appreciated by Lenin, in common with many Second International Socialists. Lenin concentrated on the problems of illegal activity, agrarian relations and the development of capitalism. Imperialism seems to fit in specifically with problems of under-development.
Lenin and Technology
There is a pervasive view on the Left that Marx analysed a “chemically pure” laissez-faire capitalism of the 19th Century. This implies that Marx’s theory is somehow not able to adequately account for developments within modern capitalism. The view still persists that the 20th century produced a qualitatively different, higher phase of capitalism, called Imperialism (linked to the concept of Monopoly Capitalism). Lenin, it is argued by many, concretised Marx’s theory. This widely held viewpoint is exaggerated, yet it is frequently aimed at supporters of Marxist World who are accused of concentrating too much on the works of Marx.
Imperialism isn’t a special form of capitalism, which alters its laws. For example, the reduction in the number of multinationals is an important consequence of the centralisation of capital, just as Marx explained. Monopoly, oligopoly and the state play a role in the world economy. But this does not mean that they negate Marx’s Law of Value. Lenin also put forward idea that monopolisation prevents capitalism from innovating. This feeds into the idea that capitalism has become parasitic because it is incapable of further technological progress. He also used the phrase “parasitic capitalism” in this same sense. The same view, not uncommon even in bourgeois circles today, is best expressed by Robert J. Gordon in his book ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth.’ However, ideas such as these- which are found nowhere in Marx have found an echo within the Marxist Left even today. In ‘Socialism Today’ of May 2016, the Socialist Party General Secretary gave a glowing review to the conclusions found in this book. The article explains capitalist crisis in terms of a lack technical innovation: “…the seeds of the devastating economic crisis of 2007-08 were laid after 1975 and were reflected in the ‘depressionary’ tendencies manifested then: generally lower growth and a contraction in productive industries, particularly in manufacturing…”(Socialism Today, May 16) The seeds of crisis are explained a result of so-called depressionary tendencies, which are caused by a contraction in the manufacturing sector. This erroneous view is also found in Lenin:
‘Since monopoly prices are established, even temporarily, the motive cause of technical and, consequently, of all other progress, disappears to a certain extent and, further, the economic possibility arises of deliberately retarding technical progress.’(Lenin, 1916)
Lenin’s conclusion about the retardation of technical progress is, in reality, an argument that presupposes an end to the process of accumulation of capital. If the new “Imperialist” capitalism rules out technical change or progress, then it also rules out accumulation. Why else do capitalists innovate other than to reduce the socially necessary labour time for the production of commodities by investing in labour-saving machinery in order to undercut competitors to increase profits? Capital accumulation is technical change! However Lenin’s idea, expressed here although nowhere else outside of “Imperialism”, seems to assume a modern capitalism with little technical change and reliant on profits from colonies
This theory of Imperialism is linked closely to his explanation of the role state in wartime Europe. If capitalism was inevitably decaying, if the laws of competition were dying and as a consequence the state and capital were being forced together under the rule of a military clique, that would appear to contradict Marx’s theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as the underlying cause of capitalist crisis. Therefore, if one accepts this argument, the real underlying cause of crisis is one of warlike Imperialism and capitalist monopoly. Certainly, in the First World War this temporary merging of capital and state did take place and bureaucratic military machines dominated the whole continent. But the process did not continue.
Lenin at this time seems to have mistaken temporary appearances for essence. For example his view that the export of capital was a permanent feature of capitalism, which was a view expressed in ‘Imperialism The Highest Stage of Capitalism’ was also to mistake the particular for capitalism’s fundamental nature and to over-emphasise one aspect of capitalism. The idea that the big Imperial powers are universally and inevitably net exporters of surplus capital is also an overstatement. For example in 2008 the USA was the largest net importer of capital receiving 43% of all capital exported.(IMF, 2009)
Capitalism in the early part of the 20th century wasn’t heading inevitably towards decay, or a death agony or a permanent bureaucratic military machine or a merger of monopoly with state-capitalism.
In ‘State and Revolution’ Lenin writes: ‘The turn towards imperialism — meaning the complete domination of the trusts, the omnipotence of the big banks, a grand-scale colonial policy, and so forth — was only just beginning in France, and was even weaker in North America and in Germany. Since then “rivalry in conquest” has taken a gigantic stride, all the more because by the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century the world had been completely divided up among these “rivals in conquest”, i.e., among the predatory Great Powers. Since then, military and naval armaments have grown fantastically and the predatory war of 1914-17 for the domination of the world by Britain or Germany, for the division of the spoils, has brought the “swallowing” of all the forces of society by the rapacious state power close to complete catastrophe.’(Lenin, 1917) Again here it is hard not to see that Lenin saw the role of the state as somehow inevitably interlinked with a process of even more intensive colonialism, repression and the vast growth of armaments.
In fact the term “Imperialism” appears nowhere in Marx’s Capital and it hardly ever crops up in the rest of his work. What Lenin was trying to do was to understand a new phenomenon that grew rapidly from around 1900 culminated in World War and ended in the 20th century.
State and Revolution
Lenin wrote ‘State and Revolution’ in August 1917 when he was in hiding from the Kerensky government and in the middle of what was, up until then, the bloodiest conflict in world history.
As mentioned above, in ‘State and Revolution’ Lenin brought to the reader’s attention Marx’s distinction, made in his letter to Kugelmann, between the prospects for a peaceful transition in Britain and its impossibility on the continent. It is worth quoting at length.
‘On April 12, 1871, i.e., just at the time of the Commune, Marx wrote to Kugelmann:
“If you look up the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I declare that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it [Marx’s italics–the original is zerbrechen], and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting.” (Neue Zeit, Vol.XX, 1, 1901-02, p. 709.)
(The letters of Marx to Kugelmann have appeared in Russian in no less than two editions, one of which I edited and supplied with a preface.)
The words, “to smash the bureaucratic-military machine”, briefly express the principal lesson of Marxism regarding the tasks of the proletariat during a revolution in relation to the state. And this is the lesson that has been not only completely ignored, but positively distorted by the prevailing, Kautskyite, “interpretation” of Marxism!
As for Marx’s reference to The Eighteenth Brumaire, we have quoted the relevant passage in full above.
It is interesting to note, in particular, two points in the above-quoted argument of Marx. First, he restricts his conclusion to the Continent. This was understandable in 1871, when Britain was still the model of a purely capitalist country, but without a militarist clique and, to a considerable degree, without a bureaucracy. Marx therefore excluded Britain, where a revolution, even a people’s revolution, then seemed possible, and indeed was possible, without the precondition of destroying “ready-made state machinery”.(my emphasis- PG)
Today, in 1917, at the time of the first great imperialist war, this restriction made by Marx is no longer valid. Both Britain and America, the biggest and the last representatives — in the whole world — of Anglo-Saxon “liberty”, in the sense that they had no militarist cliques and bureaucracy, have completely sunk into the all-European filthy, bloody morass of bureaucratic-military institutions which subordinate everything to themselves, and suppress everything. Today, in Britain and America, too, “the precondition for every real people’s revolution” is the smashing, the destruction of the “ready-made state machinery” (made and brought up to the “European”, general imperialist, perfection in those countries in the years 1914-17).’(Lenin, 1917)
Lenin here describes Britain as “the model” of a purely capitalist country in 1871. But then he says that this “model” capitalism was no longer a valid description of British capitalism due to the growth of “military-bureaucratic institutions”. (Leaving aside the role of the US military in the 20th century as a separate discussion) the implication is that the purity of British capitalism somehow had become contaminated (by what isn’t made clear) since 1871. According to Lenin’s definition then, a peaceful transition to socialism was possible in 1871, when Britain was a so-called model capitalist country but not in 1914, when it became “military-bureaucratic”. Some unspecified force somehow changed the nature of British capitalism. This assessment was with hindsight specific to wartime Europe. But ‘State and Revolution’ remains a canonical text. Much of what Lenin says in this pamphlet is right. The bourgeoisie would be prepared to use any means, in particular extra-judicial violence, to defend its privileges and the system upon which those privileges rest. However, there has been an enormous extension of power of the working class since 1871, (plus the growth of the franchise) alongside a tremendous weakening of “military-bureaucratic” institutions. These developments make the possibility of a successful violent capitalist counter-offensive against a socialist transformation much less likely not more likely. Many on the Left separate off the Police, prison officers and soldiers and describe them as not being part of the working class, or being a special category of workers because of their repressive job descriptions. This is a totally false distinction. All of these workers have to sell their labour power in the market. Secondly, there are an awful lot of jobs in capitalist society that directly oppress workers and which are actually carried out by fellow workers. Many workers today are employed in extremely harsh supervisory functions. They have to monitor the amount of work other workers do every minute of every day. If the worker is not able to keep pace then they will certainly be forcibly removed from their job. Without supervisory workers to crack the whip then capitalism would collapse much more quickly than if the army was abolished. In fact capitalism could survive with no armed forces- and it does in countries like Iceland which has no standing army at all. But for capitalism to survive supervisory workers are essential. Similarly workers are essential for capitalism in debt repayment companies and in human resources bullying and sacking workers day in and day out. The point of a socialist revolution is for the working class to completely transform society from top to bottom to replace any jobs whose function is to oppress the working class and to avoid any possibility of a return of capitalist relations.
Why Lenin revised or misunderstood Marx
The reasons for Lenin’s conclusions in 1917 are straightforward. Nobody has a crystal ball. Capitalism appeared to be in its death agony during the First World War. The fabric of capitalist society itself seemed to be crumbling irrevocably. To suppose that capitalism could withstand another world war less than a generation later would have been unimaginable to Lenin-and a generation after that the fact the major European powers would unite into a capitalist European Union would have been similarly inconceivable. Lenin’s assessment in 1917 of the immediate prospects for European capitalism turned out to be wrong and capitalism survived. Who was to know? His prediction, like all predictions, was conditional. However, was the source of Lenin’s misconceptions simply his estimation of the horrors of the First World War alone? Bukharin who was on the Left Wing of the Bolsheviks appears to have changed Lenin’s view.
In 1915, Bukharin wrote a short work entitled ‘Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State’. Although unpublished it seems to have had a major influence on Lenin.
Bukharin’s view is extremely revealing: ‘As one aspect of imperialist policy, which in turn results from the specific structure of finance capitalism, militarism plays an enormous role in such budgetary increases. But we are not speaking simply of militarism in the narrow sense of the word. A further cause is the growing interference of the power of the state in every realm of social life, beginning with production and ending with the highest forms of ideological creativity. The pre-imperialist period was that of liberalism, which was the political expression of industrial capitalism and was characterized by non-intervention on the part of state power. The formula of laissez-faire was a symbol of faith within the leading circles of the bourgeoisie, who left everything to the “free play of economic forces.” Our own time, by contrast, is characterized by exactly the opposite tendency, the logical limit of which is state capitalism, or the inclusion of absolutely everything within the sphere of state regulation.’(Bukharin, 1915)
Bukharin equates finance capital with militarism and state intervention but goes much further and also tries to rewrite Marx ‘…the individual private enterprise disappears as the cell of the capitalist organism…’(Bukharin, 1915)
Whereas Marx explained that the centralisation of capitals created larger and larger firms, Bukharin distorts this characteristic and claims that the laws of capitalism were being superseded. This would consequently mean: ‘a system of collective capitalism is created, which to a certain extent is opposed to the entire structure of capitalism in its earlier forms. The separate capitalist disappears: he becomes a Verbandskapitalist, a member of an organization; he no longer competes, but instead cooperates with his “compatriots”’(Bukharin, 1915).
Certainly the rise of joint-stock companies and cartels and the strength of banks were a new phenomenon (not unobserved by Marx). But the idea that the capitalist “no longer competes” is completely wrong. Nevertheless, Bukharin’s confused mixing up the role of the state with the elimination of competition had an effect upon Lenin. Lenin’s debt to Bukharin is revealed in footnote 1 of the article by Bukharin, where he explains: ‘When I arrived in Russia from America, I saw Nadezhda Konstantinovna (this was at our illegal Sixth Congress, when V. I. was in hiding); and her first words were as follows: “V.I. asked me to tell you that he no longer has any disagreements with you on the question of the state.”(Bukharin, 1915) Dealing with this question Ilich came to the same conclusions regarding the “explosion,” but he developed this theme and his subsequent teaching concerning the dictatorship so fully as to constitute an entire epoch in the development of theoretical thought in this area. – N.B.’(Bukharin, 1915)
Lenin no longer had any disagreements with Bukharin because he had adopted his position.
In his preface to ‘State and Revolution’, Lenin explains: ‘The question of the state is now acquiring particular importance both in theory and in practical politics. The imperialist war has immensely accelerated and intensified the process of transformation of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism. The monstrous oppression of the working people by the state, which is merging more and more with the all-powerful capitalist associations, is becoming increasingly monstrous. The advanced countries – we mean their hinterland – are becoming military convict prisons for the workers.’ (Lenin, 1917)
Compare this with Bukharin’s 1915 formulation: ‘In the upper stratum of society a vile military clique is inevitably growing in strength, resulting in brutal drilling and bloody repression of the proletariat.’(Bukharin, 1915)
Capitalism has no absolute need of significant military force to enforce the laws of capitalism. Furthermore capital wasn’t set upon an unalterable historical process transforming capitalism into state monopoly capitalism, nor after the war did capital become more and more integrated into the military machine.
Lenin observed, or thought he observed that the world war had intensified a process of the transformation of “monopoly” capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism. First of all capitalism was not becoming monopolistic in the sense that competition was disappearing. Lenin believed that competition was turning into its opposite. Again this prediction turned out to be wrong. The laws of capitalism are enforced through the mechanism of competition. No transformation of the laws of competition has taken place. Marx explains what these laws are in Chapter 12 of Capital: ‘The law of the determination of value by labour-time, a law which brings under its sway the individual capitalist who applies the new method of production, by compelling him to sell his goods under their social value, this same law, acting as a coercive law of competition, forces his competitors to adopt the new method.’(Marx, 1867)
Marx therefore explains that the law of the determination of value by labour-time acts as a coercive law of competition.
In ‘Imperialism’, Lenin seems to misunderstand this law:
‘…capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development, when certain of its fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites, when the features of the epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system had taken shape and revealed themselves in all spheres. Economically, the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly. Free competition is the basic feature of capitalism, and of commodity production generally; monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes…’(Lenin, 1916)
It is hard to see how Marx and Lenin’s position in 1916-1917 can be reconciled. On an issue as fundamental, and empirically provable, as whether or not competition was still fundamental to capitalism, Lenin misinterpreted Marx. By 1920 Lenin, however, had also abandoned this concept of Monopoly which is a theme that will be discussed later.
Differences between Marx and Lenin
Back to the question of the state directly: Lenin appears to make an unequivocal case for violent revolution: ‘The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution.”
“By educating the workers’ party, Marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat, capable of assuming power and leading the whole people to socialism, of directing and organizing the new system, of being the teacher, the guide, the leader of all the working and exploited people in organizing their social life without the bourgeoisie and against the bourgeoisie.’(Lenin, 1917)
Lenin here is talking about the working class, a minority in the Russian Empire, leading the vast masses of the peasantry. The revolution in Russia would not erupt, in this scenario, along the same lines foreseen by Marx and Engels. The classic case of socialist transformation expected that the working class would become the majority and the numbers of peasants would be either insignificant or non-existent. The problems confronting a revolution in a largely agrarian society would clearly be different. Even in France in 1871, the working class was a minority of the overall population which was still rural. When Lenin wrote ‘State and Revolution’ in 1917, the working class could not lead a government without the support of the vast rural population and the aim of the revolution wasn’t socialism. The aim was to take the democratic revolution as far as it could possibly travel in order to trigger the “orthodox” socialist revolution in Europe
In ‘State and Revolution’ Lenin describes how Marx’s work, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ represented ‘…a tremendous step forward compared with the Communist Manifesto.” Lenin describes how this work explains the processes that enabled; “…(t)he centralized state power that is peculiar to bourgeois society came into being in the period of the fall of absolutism. Two institutions most characteristic of this state machine are the bureaucracy and the standing army….The bureaucracy and the standing army are a “parasite” on the body of bourgeois society–a parasite created by the internal antagonisms which rend that society, but a parasite which “chokes” all its vital pores.’(Lenin, 1917)
He goes on: ‘The development, perfection, and strengthening of the bureaucratic and military apparatus proceeded during all the numerous bourgeois revolutions which Europe has witnessed since the fall of feudalism. In particular, it is the petty bourgeois who are attracted to the side of the big bourgeoisie and are largely subordinated to them through this apparatus, which provides the upper sections of the peasants, small artisans, tradesmen, and the like with comparatively comfortable, quiet, and respectable jobs raising the holders above the people. Consider what happened in Russia during the six months following February 27, 1917. The official posts which formerly were given by preference to the Black Hundreds have now become the spoils of the Cadets, Mensheviks, and Social-Revolutionaries. Nobody has really thought of introducing any serious reforms. Every effort has been made to put them off “until the Constituent Assembly meets”, and to steadily put off its convocation until after the war! But there has been no delay, no waiting for the Constituent Assembly, in the matter of dividing the spoils of getting the lucrative jobs of ministers, deputy ministers, governors-general, etc., etc.! The game of combinations that has been played in forming the government has been, in essence, only an expression of this division and redivision of the “spoils”, which has been going on above and below, throughout the country, in every department of central and local government. The six months between February 27 and August 27, 1917, can be summed up, objectively summed up beyond all dispute, as follows: reforms shelved, distribution of official jobs accomplished and “mistakes” in the distribution corrected by a few redistributions.’(Lenin, 1917)
Lenin is making an argument specific to the Russian February Revolution. He is saying is that the state and the “bureaucracy” is a monstrous parasite on society as it was in Russia in 1917 and different to the model capitalism of Britain in the 1870s.
Where Marx and Lenin agree
However in other works in Lenin, after the publication of ‘State and Revolution’, and after the publication of ‘The Proletarian Revolution and the renegade Kautsky’, (where Lenin attacks Kautsky’s idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat), it is absolutely clear that Lenin saw not just that a peaceful socialist transformation was likely, but had actually taken place in Hungary! Even though Lenin was being over optimistic about the leadership and prospects of the Hungarian revolution, it is still interesting to note that he explained it as a perfect example of a peaceful transformation.
‘The Hungarian proletarian revolution is helping even the blind to see. The form of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat in Hungary is altogether different from that in Russia—voluntary resignation of the bourgeois government, instantaneous restoration of working-class unity, socialist unity on a communist programme.’ (my emphasis)(Lenin, 1919a)
This was not just an isolated remark. In an extraordinary speech at the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution in 1919, Lenin goes much further than Marx and states that the path of a socialist revolution could even involve the voluntary abdication of the capitalist class. At the Eighth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.), Lenin makes this incredible statement that has been overlooked by most of the Marxist Left:
‘Comrades, the news received today gives us a picture of the Hungarian Revolution. We learn from today’s news that the Allied powers have presented a brutal ultimatum to Hungary demanding free passage for their troops. The bourgeois government, seeing that the Allied powers wanted to move their troops through Hungary, seeing that Hungary would be subjected to the frightful sufferings of a new war—this government of bourgeois compromisers voluntarily resigned, voluntarily opened negotiations with the Communists, our Hungarian comrades, who were in prison, and voluntarily admitted that there was no way out of the situation except by transferring power to the working people… At the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918, the only words with which the bourgeoisie and many of their followers described our revolution were “violence” and “usurpation”…But if such absurdities could be uttered in the past, they have now been silenced by what has occurred in Hungary. Even the bourgeoisie has realised that there can be no government authority except that of the Soviets. The bourgeoisie of a more cultured country sees more clearly than our bourgeoisie did on the eve of October 25 that the country is perishing, that trials of increasing severity are being imposed on the people, and that, therefore, political power must be transferred to the Soviets, that the workers and peasants of Hungary, the new, Soviet, proletarian democracy must save her.’ (my emphasis)(Lenin, 1919b)
Lenin goes as far as to say that the capitalist class voluntarily transferred power to Soviet proletarian democracy as they realised no other course was possible.
This was Lenin’s considered view, not an isolated remark. Again in a wireless communication, Lenin explains: ‘The bourgeoisie voluntarily surrendered power to the Communists of Hungary. The bourgeoisie demonstrated to the whole world that when a grave crisis supervenes, when the nation is in danger, the bourgeoisie is unable to govern.’ (Lenin, 1919c)Lenin therefore considers that capitalists can hand over power to the workers directly.
In 1920, Lenin seems also to have abandoned his theory that monopoly capitalism meant the end of competition. In a direct attack on Bukharin, for whom Imperialism was the supreme enemy Lenin returns to the conventional view that Imperialism does not overcome the coercive laws of competition.
‘Nowhere in the world has monopoly capitalism existed in a whole series of branches without free competition, nor will it exist. To write of such a system is to write of a system which is false and removed from reality. If Marx said of manufacture that it was a superstructure on mass small production, imperialism and finance capitalism are a superstructure on the old capitalism. If its top is destroyed, the old capitalism is exposed. To maintain that there is such a thing as integral imperialism without the old capitalism is merely making the wish father to the thought… And if we had an integral imperialism before us, which had entirely altered capitalism, our task would have been a hundred thousand times easier. It would have resulted in a system in which everything would be subordinated to finance capital alone. It would then only have remained to remove the top and to transfer what remained to the proletariat. That would have been extremely agreeable, but it is not so in reality. In reality the development is such that we have to act in an entirely different way. Imperialism is a superstructure on capitalism.’(Lenin, 1919d)
These views of Lenin seem to contradict some of his earlier statements, but actually fit in with the argument put forward earlier that Lenin’s predictions of violent overthrow were related to the specific nature of the slaughter of World War, the brutality of the Tsarist regime and the failure of official Marxism to oppose the war. Lenin changed his view on Imperialism and saw, after all his words on the forcible smashing of the state, the higher cultural level of Hungary as a guarantor of a peaceful Socialist Revolution.
Given the complete capitulation of Social Democracy before the war machines of Europe, it was vital to dispel the inaccuracies that persisted about the nature of the state in the writings of Kautsky and the 2nd International Socialists. But the book was influenced also by the political make-up of European states at that time. It wasn’t a complete theory of capitalism but an immediate assessment of what was happening in Europe and also a description of the high point of colonialism. It was also influenced by the writing of ultra-Lefts like Bukharin on Imperialism and the state. ‘State and Revolution’ must be read in conjunction with Marx’s writings, not just Capital but Marx’s entire work with the International Workingmen’s Association. It is clear that Marx and Engels did argue that a peaceful socialist transformation was possible. Context is everything. Describing a possibility is not the same as making a prediction or saying that such a thing will definitely happen. There is always the possibility that even in advanced capitalist countries the ruling class will try, with force of arms, to oppose the will of the working class majority. What this article sets out is the focus and main task for Marxists. The main focus is about patient explanation of the ideas of Marx to as wide an audience as possible. This doesn’t mean that Marxists can expect capitalism to go gently into that long good night. Marxists should expect every eventuality. Waving pretend machine guns in the air under red flags and the icons of the former Soviet Union does not make one a Marxist. Only reading Marx does that. That’s the main purpose of Marxist World: to bring an understanding of Marx’s ideas to a wider audience.
Bukharin. 1915. ‘Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1915/state.htm
Engels. 1891 . ‘A Critique of the draft Social Democratic programme of 1891 ’. https://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm
Hobson, J.A. 1 902. Imperialism
IMF. April 2009. ‘Global Financial Stability Report, Responding to the Financial Crisis and Measuring Systemic Risk’
Lenin. March 1911 . ‘The “Peasant Reform” and the Proletarian-Peasant Revolution’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1911/mar/19.htm
Lenin. 1916. Imperialism: the Highest Stage of capitalism. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/191 6/imp-hsc/
Lenin. 1917. State and Revolution. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/191 7/staterev/
Lenin. 1 919a. ‘Greetings to the Hungarian Workers’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1 91 9/may/27.htm
Lenin. 1 919b. ‘Eighth Congress of the RCP (B), Speech Closing the Congress’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1 919/rcp8th/09.htm
Lenin. 1 919c. ‘Communication on The Wireless, Negotiations with Bela Kun’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/mar/x05.htm
Lenin. 1 919d. ‘Eighth Congress of the RCP(B), Report on the Party Programme’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/191 9/rcp8th/03.htm
Marx. 1848. ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’
Marx. 1850. Class Struggles in France. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/intro.htm
Marx. 1867. Capital Volume I, Chapter 12. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch12.htm
Marx. 1871 . ‘Interview with R Landor’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/bio/media/marx/71_07_1 8.htm
Marx. 1871 . ‘Letter to Kugelmann’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1 871/letters/71_04_1 2.htm
Marx. 1872. ‘La Liberté Speech’. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/09/08.htm
Taaffe, P. 2016. ‘Capitalism: A failing system’. Socialism Today Issue 198. http://www.socialismtoday.org/198/capitalism.html
Webb. 1890. Socialism in England