BY MARY-ALICE WATERS
Below we print excepts from the article "Communism and the Fight for a Popular Revolutionary Government: 1848 to Today," by Mary-Alice Waters published in the Marxist magazine New International no. 3. The article traces the political continuity of the fight for a popular revolutionary dictatorship over the last 150 years, beginning with the lessons incorporated in the 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Copyright (c) 1984 by 408 Printing and Publishing Corp. Reprinted with permission.
When the political foundations of the modern communist movement were laid, the storm clouds of the approaching 1848 revolutions in Europe were already visible to all classes. At a December 1847 congress in London, a small group of working-class revolutionists, mostly German artisans, founded a new international organization, the Communist League. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were assigned to draft its program, The Manifesto of the Communist Party. This document was published as the first of these revolutionary storm clouds burst over France.
The founding of the league was the product of a political battle waged by Marx, Engels, and their allies. For several years they had worked to win the most conscious working- class revolutionists involved in various secret, conspiratorial societies away from what Marx described as "a hodge-podge" of utopian communist doctrines. They fought to place the revolutionary workers' movement on a scientific, materialist basis. The fundamental dividing line in that conflict was the insistence by Marx and Engels that "it was not a matter of putting some utopian system into effect, but of conscious participation in the historical process revolutionising society before our very eyes."
The initial battle won, the new organization placed at the center of its program the strategic line of march of the working class toward political power. The change fought for by those who agreed with Marx and Engels was reflected in Article I of the "Rules of the Communist League." The original draft had retained the previous utopian framework. It said: "The League aims at the emancipation of humanity by spreading the theory of the community of property and its speediest possible introduction." The amended version proposed by Marx and Engels and adopted by the congress stated the historic sequence: "The aim of the League is the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of the old bourgeois society which rests on the antagonism of classes, and the foundation of a new society without classes and without private property."
The Manifesto adopted by the league explained that the immediate aim of the communists is the "formation of the proletariat into a class" - that is, the development of the proletariat's consciousness of itself as a hereditary social class whose relationship to capital is one of unalterable antagonism. It is a class with distinct interests, and with the capacity to organize itself not only to further its own collective interests, but also to act as a political force leading in alliance with all other exploited producers, thus advancing the interests of toiling humanity as a whole. The aim of communists, continues the Manifesto, is the "overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat."
Once the working class has conquered political power, has raised itself to the position of ruling class and won the "battle of democracy," the Manifesto proclaims, it will begin to organize the transition to a new social order. "The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible."
Of course, the Manifesto declares, "this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production." Partial measures, in the course of their development, "outstrip themselves," requiring deeper and deeper inroads upon the old social order "as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production."
Once these tasks are accomplished, the political power of the proletariat will have served its purpose and will begin withering away. "When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared," the Manifesto explains, "and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another."
"If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production," says the Manifesto, "then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class."
"The proletariat alone," explains the Manifesto, "is a really revolutionary class." All preceding ruling classes have been exploiting property-holders, and they have sought to reorganize society so as to protect and enhance their mode of appropriation of society's surplus product, that is, the particular way they exploit the working classes. But the workers have no property. "The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and fortify...."
This firmly historical view of the present, materialist basis, and revolutionary class perspectives was new to the proletarian vanguard. Yet, until it was conquered, there could be no advance. Only by understanding that class- divided humanity drives forward through the class struggle itself, regardless of humanity's consciousness (or ignorance) of the underlying economic forces at work; only by understanding that these forces lead inevitably to the social rule of the workers, could the fledgling workers' movement confidently chart a course toward political supremacy. To those who rejected the new communist movement's scientific understanding of history, in 1848 the perspective proclaimed by its Manifesto seemed preposterous.
"As for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them," Marx explained in an 1852 letter to his friend and comrade, Joseph Wedemeyer. "Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes.
"What I did that was new," Marx emphasized, "was 1. to
show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with
certain historical phases in the development of production;
2. that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship
of the proletariat; 3. that this dictatorship itself only
constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of
all classes and to a classless society."
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