André Reszler (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “Bakunin, Marx and the Aesthetic Heritage of Socialism,” in Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, No. 22, 1973, pp. 42-50.

[In the following essay, Reszler probes the origins of socialist aesthetic theory.]

The study of the socialist vision of art as revealed in the thoughts of Michael...

(The entire section contains 11803 words.)

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SOURCE: “Bakunin, Marx and the Aesthetic Heritage of Socialism,” in Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, No. 22, 1973, pp. 42-50.

[In the following essay, Reszler probes the origins of socialist aesthetic theory.]

The study of the socialist vision of art as revealed in the thoughts of Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx—philosophers whose lives and works have long since become the symbols of the schism in the revolutionary socialist movement—is founded on the existence of two distinct socialist aesthetics: the first is based on the anarchist cult of the limitless creativity of man; the second on the dialectic interpretation of artistic creations, or, better still, on the dogmas of historical or dialectic materialism.

The similarity between the anarchist and Marxist aesthetics is to be found at the level of two primary goals: to expose the social foundations of literary and artistic creation, and to define the revolutionary purpose of art. Beyond these goals—which they share with all past and present politically committed aesthetics—they are poles apart.

To define briefly the dual aesthetic order of socialism and to shed light upon the part played by socialism in the development of modern sensibility, such are the aims of this lecture. We will be concerned primarily with the fascinating fragments of two abortive undertakings: the writings of Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx on art and literature.

The anarchist aesthetic reflects the fertile pluralism of the different schools of libertarian thought. In its individualist manifestations, it exhorts the creative originality of the person; in its collectivist or communist forms, it reveres the creative power of the community or of the people. Within the framework of anti-dogmatic thought it embraces the aesthetic theories of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Jean Grave, etc., as well as the polemic writings of Richard Wagner, Leo Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde on art and socialism.

What is it, then, that gives coherence to this multi-directional, nostalgic and Utopian aesthetic? In the first place, a new anti-authoritarian feeling which fits in just as well with the anti-social message of a Max Stirner as it does with the collectivist credo of Peter Kropotkin. In order to shed light on the sociological origins of this new feeling, let us go back to William Godwin's diatribes against the kind of art which paralyzes the individual's creative gifts instead of leading to their absolute fulfillment: “Shall we have concerts of music?” asks the father of modern anarchism as he describes to his readers his reactions to the musical and theatrical events of the 1793 season in London. “The miserable state of mechanism of the majority of performers is so conspicuous as to be even at this day a topic of mortification and ridicule. … Shall we have theatrical exhibitions? This seems to include an absurd and vicious cooperation. It may be doubted whether men will hereafter come forward in any mode to repeat words and ideas not their own. It may be doubted whether any musical performance will habitually execute the compositions of others. … All formal repetition of other men's ideas seems to be a scheme for imprisoning for so long a time the operations of our own mind. It borders perhaps in this respect upon a breach of sincerity, which requires that we should give immediate utterance to every useful and valuable idea that occurs to our thoughts.”

The principal themes of the questions which, a century later, Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin will ask about art are already outlined in the above passage, taken from An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice ([London, 1793], pp. 846-847).

The first theme is the obsession with a dominating, absolutist art, closely modeled on the principle of authority, and bolstering the power of the Prince or Prelate. If it is the anarchist who launches the first full-scale attack of modern times on 2000 years of European culture, it is because he identifies “great art” and the “masterpiece” with the State and with private property; it is because he sees in the “artist of genius” a usurper who owes his uniqueness to the fact that the masses have been dispossessed of their creative potential for the benefit of an isolated individual.

The second theme is the presentiment of an art still to be born. It is this presentiment of a liberating art which allows the anarchist to resist the iconoclastic temptations common to all other heretics and to avoid the dangers of a purely destructive nihilism. The new art will be an experience before all else. Whether it be individualist or collective, it will be an art of the people, for the people, by the people and will arouse the creative artist lying dormant in each of us.

Hence to the art to which we are subjective, the anarchist opposes an art which we ourselves create. He asserts the primacy of the creative act over the created work; but beforehand he establishes the principle of creativity in all realms of human activity. Both artistic and social creations are parallel aspects of the notion of creative man.

The putting to death of the masterpiece, the abolition of the museum, the closing of the concert halls, that is his program. And also the promotion of spontaneous situational art (art en situation), the product of a particular time and place. Imagination and spontaneity have become the central values of man's aesthetic quest.

The anarchist tends to cast his glance far afield. Disregarding the contributions which a combative, propagandist art might bring, he looks towards the future which alone holds promise. Thus Proudhon notes in De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Eglise: “A new art is stirring, conceived in the entrails of the Revolution; I sense it, I foresee it, incapable though I am of giving a single example of it.” And whilst considering himself as the “poor, heartbroken man of the [his] time,” he establishes the mystical identity of future creation and the great “communal” art of past ages. For him the art of the Greek polis and the “anonymous” art of Medieval cathedrals, are the unattainable models of a federalist art designed according to his anarchist plans for social reconstruction. (Nostalgia for the unknown is the transposition of nostalgia for the Golden Age or the Paradise Lost in the realm of revolutionary hope.)

In his study of the succession of historical cultures, Proudhon stresses the disruptive elements (and consequently rejects the concept of progress in cultural matters.) But whilst staying clear of resolutely deterministic approaches to artistic phenomena, the anarchist perceives organic bonds between the destiny of art and the evolution of society.

Thus, according to Proudhon, all creative works depend on the vitality of a “transcendental” force. Until the French Revolution, literary and artistic creation was governed by Faith and, for a few decades, by Reason. But as soon as it triumphs, the Revolution is betrayed by the poets. The age of Counter-Revolution in literature has begun. Romanticism is devoid of any final goal. Since it possesses no transcending “support” or “condition,” art is nothing more than a “creation of fantasy freed of all social achievement.” It was Proudhon who was to indicate the anarchist ideal, revolutionary Reason as the foundation of a new culture.

The survival of culture depends not only on an active social ideal, but also on the corresponding cohesion in the social body. The decadence of bourgeois art is the result of the crisis of purpose in bourgeois society, and also the result of the dissolution of social bonds. The autonomy of art—art for art's sake—decisively confirms the victory of individualism.

The Marxist aesthetic is the work of several relatively late generations of Marxist theorists. Originating in the systematic study of Marx and Engels' writings on art and literature made by Georg Lukács and Mikhail Lifschitz in the early thirties, it thrived on the contributions made by several schools of Marxist literary criticism. It underwent the profound mutations of the Marxist and neo-Marxist ideologies and took part in the constant struggle between right-and left-wing orthodoxies and revisionisms. Appearing first in the writings of the founders of “scientific socialism”—who in fact sketched several theories of art—it pretended not to notice the failure of Marx and Engels to reconcile their determinist vision of culture with their personal tastes. It obtained the solidity and coherence of its vision only by the simplification of the original postulates of Marxian thought.

Let us try to describe in broad terms the path followed by Marxist thought on art, assuming that it were possible to ignore Lenin and his determination to make the literary élite subservient to his political vanguard, or again Trotsky who did not hesitate to assert that “art must make its own way and by its own means. The Marxist methods are not the same as the artistic” (Literature and Revolution [Ann Arbor, 1967], p. 218).

The starting-point is indicated by Marx himself. Within the system whose laws he elaborates—whether it be the passionate sketches of his youth or the patient endeavors of his maturity and old age—art has ceased to be one of the highest creations of the human genius; the scholar in the reading-room of the British Museum who discovers in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound the very symbol of his struggle, is depreciating and devaluing art. It is not only kings and Saints who are dethroned, but also the artists, the “unavowed legislators of mankind.” (By affirming in his First Circle that “a great writer is basically a second government,” Solzhenitsyn is protesting the Marxist devaluation of art.)

What is art? The reflection, the mirror of reality—itself grasped through the deforming prism of a social class which holds a monopoly on culture; the product of the moment and of history which men of subsequent generations save from its temporality by integrating it into a world which is in the making. What is it that gives to art an eternal value in spite of its historicity? asks Marx in his Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy. How can one explain why Greek art and epics “still offer us an artistic joy, and why they are treated, in a way, like norms and unachievable models”? Great art reflects the social childhood of humanity. It is normal that man should return to this “childlike” art, just as an adult is pleased to return to the memories of his own childhood. Marx's explanation only convinces those who at all costs want to be convinced, and who discovered neither Greek art nor Greek epic before discovering Marx.

Henceforth, art will have a social, moral, educational—political—mission; it will have a message to deliver. Its value will be determined by the effectiveness of its action. (We may wonder if there are not certain tasks which can be better and more quickly accomplished by other means.)

Will socialism rejuvenate the aesthetic life of mankind? Will we witness the dawning of an autonomous socialist art? Marx and Engels appear not to have asked themselves that question.

There is no doubt that Lenin asked himself the question and strove to answer it. If, during his years in exile he was preoccupied solely with “Party literature”—“a part of the general cause of the proletariat, a small cog and a small screw in the social-democratic mechanism, one and indivisible”—on his return to revolutionary Russia he questioned himself about the art of the Revolution. Far from identifying it with the profusion of modernisms, in the historical succession of cultures, he put all the emphasis on the element of continuity. In a sentence which is not alien to Marx's philosophy of history—and which Marx probably would not have disowned—he asserts that one of the great strengths of Marxism stems from the fact that “far from casting out the most precious conquests of the bourgeois era, it has, on the contrary, assimilated by transformation all the fruits of a more than 2,000 year-old development of human thought and culture. On this basis and in this direction, only subsequent work, animated by (the practical experience of) the dictatorship of the proletariat … can be recognized as constituting the development of a truly proletarian culture.” A year earlier—in 1919—he had already stated that it is bourgeois culture which must be the basis for the building of a socialist society: “… we have no other materials.” And he added: “… we must take the culture which capitalism has left behind and build socialism with it. We must take the whole of science, techniques, all knowledge, art.”

So Lenin—and the Marxist—can very easily adapt to the European cultural tradition. While he denies the artist the status of privileged creator, of “Son-of-the-sun,” he is in no way opposed to the concept of “great art” or the “masterpiece.” And it is in the extension of the quest for Western art that he envisages the future of art under socialism. Far from perceiving a potential creative artist in each individual, State socialism fits into place the cogs of a State patronage which encourages the creation of a centralized, monolithic culture, and which only tolerates the creative freedom of the artist within a style, a language, or a network of centrally arranged conventions.

Any discussion of the autonomy of art becomes irrelevant. For all that really counts is the artist's assimilation of the teachings of history, together with the systematization and the corresponding hierarchization of all past creation in order that the very history of art should reflect the basic organicism of historical materialism.

Enslaved by an abstract vision of history, the Marxist vision of art produces an abstract and emaciated aesthetic of ideas. Ironically, it is not Marx, but Proudhon—the authoritarian Proudhon of On the Principle of Art and Its Social Purpose—who formulates its implacable logic: “In painting, no more and no less than in literature and in everything, the thought is always the main and dominant thing; … the question of the substance always outweighs that of the form, and … in all considerations of art, before judging from the point of view of taste, we must exhaust the question of the ideas” (Du Principe de l’art et de sa destination sociale [Paris, 1865], p. 50).

“Before judging from the point of view of taste”—but any thinker who falls into line with Proudhon's position runs the risk of endlessly examining the question of the ideas without ever beginning to discuss the taste. In order to show clearly that this risk is not simply theoretical, let us stop for a moment to consider what is called the “Sickingen debate,” the correspondence between Marx and Engels and Ferdinand Lassalle on the subject of Lassalle's historical drama; it is a debate in which many promoters of a Marxist science of art have already detected the starting point of a new Renaissance.

The arguments and counterarguments which make up the nucleus of the debate have only a remote connection with literature. They are centered on the choice of Sickingen—the Sickingen of history, the unfortunate knight of the Reformation movement and the peasant uprisings—and seek to establish whether the member of an historically condemned social class (the German knighthood) can or cannot become the symbol of the progressive forces of his age. (Marx's rare literary comments have all the appearance of being nothing but common courtesy; it is not Lassalle's poetic art which interests him. If Lassalle had been a painter and had depicted Sickingen dying in a huge historical fresco, Marx's comments would be no different.) [In 1931, the “Trotsky-Malraux debate” reproduced the themes of the “Sickingen debate.” In Les Conquérants the author of Literature and Revolution sees above all the “fictionalized chronicle of the Chinese Revolution in its first period, that of Canton” and thus a “source of political teachings of the highest order.” In his reply to Trotsky, Malraux emphasized that the “documentation of Les Conquérants conforms to the arguments which Trotsky advances; but only the documentation.”] The attitude of Georg Lukács is no less revealing. Throughout the study of some fifty pages which he devotes to the Sickingen debate, there is only one single reference to Lassalle's drama itself, and even that is in a footnote. Lukács proves—in spite of himself—through his study of a text, that as far as Marxist aesthetics is concerned, the idea is everything and the work itself is nothing.

One last point: unlike the anarchist aesthetic, the Marxist one is not based on a sensibility of its own—unless it be that of Marx solidly rooted in the cultural tradition of the German bourgeoisie, or that of Lenin fully steeped in the memory of the austere social criticism of Belinsky, Chernishevsky and the nineteenth-century school of Russian literary criticism. As we have seen, its methodology is entirely based on Reason—on the knowledge of the laws which govern the evolution of societies. In order to extract the social significance from the work of art, it starts by analyzing the economic, social and political conditions of the time. But beyond the socio-economic anecdote, the study of the relationship between the work and its material basis is its genuine field of investigation.

By rejecting the determinism of the sociological aesthetics, the libertarian aesthetic is presented in the form of a project which leaves the door wide open to the future. It is prospective, granting considerable autonomy to art. The Marxist aesthetic is essentially normative, historicizing, and tends to enclose the laws which govern creation within a more retrospective than prospective, more analytical than inventive system of interpretation.

These two aesthetics refer to two distinct plans for civilization, two distinct sensibilities. They are also inspired by two opposite social philosophies. In order to deduce the ideological and political components of the two socialist aesthetics, let us briefly examine the démarche of Bakunin and Marx with regard to art.

Michael Bakunin, the unchallenged leader of the anarchist movement from 1861, date of his return from his Siberian exile to Western Europe, until his death in 1876, was the theorist of a federalist reconstruction of society and also the poet of wonder and revolutionary fantasy. It is rather through his actions than through his theories that he expressed himself and became creative. He imbedded the social conflicts of his time in a world of dreams; and he gave to man's eternal myths and legends a new revolutionary meaning.

His aesthetic message is only partly connected with his social ideology—or with a sociological, organic vision of creation; while he happens to interpret the decadence of bourgeois culture, of Romanticism and aestheticism in terms of a revenge of the Reaction or the victory of individualism, what he expects from the revolutionary role of art can only be explained by the cult of revolutionary action.

“Our mission is destructive, not constructive,” remarks the prisoner of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in his Confession, which he addresses to the Tsar in order to justify his refusal to outline his vision of future society: “It will be for others to build, better than us, more intelligent and more fresh.” His refusal to elaborate a system of art is justified by the same refusal to think about the future in theoretical terms (Confession, Paris, 1931, p. 174).

Man cannot and should not stipulate to the men of ages to come what they should do; but how can he prevent himself from asking questions about the future? How can he stop himself from living for one moment in this fabulous future? The cult of the unknown, which the author of the Confession develops from this refusal, is already present in the description he gives of the 1848 Revolution. Revolution is the revelation of the unknown through action, or, to borrow his own terms, “a festival with no beginning and no end” and which invades the senses of the insurgent by its inexhaustible motley of new events, new objects, and “unexpected news” (p. 102. My italics).

The revolutionary Paris of February, 1848, offered him the intoxicating spectacle of the masses plunged into Dionysian joy and terror. The market place became a stage on which the actors could snatch secrets away from the unknown: “It was as if the whole universe had been turned upside-down; the unbelievable had become normal, the impossible possible, and the possible and the normal insane” (p. 103). Revolution, a game, a rite, a ceremony, brings together the two parallel dreams of his romantic soul turned towards both the social and the wondrous. It abolishes the barriers between the known and the unknown, the new and the old, the impossible and the possible—between the poetry and the banality of existence. (The revolutionary wears the mask of the madman and the clown in order to promote his cause. At the moment when his hopes vanished of ever making the scenario of the revolution live again, Bakunin wrote to Herzen: “I want to remain the impossible man that I am, as long as those who are presently ‘possible’ do not change.”)

In his Confession Bakunin reveals the hidden stimuli of his actions: “There has always been in my nature one essential defect: a love of extraordinary, unheard-of adventures, of enterprises which turn our eyes towards boundless horizons nobody can foresee.” He might have added that from his adolescence he had found his literary home in German Romantic literature—in E. T. A. Hoffmann's stories, in the romantic universe of Jean Paul—encircled only by the boundless horizons of the imaginary, and continually renewing the known and the unknown heritage of the time.

So Bakunin expected art to put him in contact with the future by way of the imaginary (known to revolutionaries and artists), and to become itself the link between man's mythical past—his wondrous childhood—and his future. (It is for this reason that he blamed Wagner's musical dramas—especially The Flying Dutchman from which the composer would play lengthy extracts for him—for only satisfying the needs of the “current corrupt society” and for using the materials of a condemned art to achieve an “art-work of the future.”)

If art has a revolutionary potential—and at no time in his life did he seem to doubt this—should it model itself on the methods and organization of revolutionary action? Reflect in its content and layout its subjection to a cause which is outside it? Far from it. The friend of Turgenev, of Wagner, this fleeting admirer of George Sand made not the slightest gesture to associate artists with his cause. Recalling this attitude on the eve of the Dresden uprising in 1849, Wagner notes in his autobiographical work, My Life: “He was no longer seeking intellectuals. What he wanted was energetic characters ready for action.”

And Bakunin ironically rejected the radical Wagner's revolutionary plans. Revolutionary art? If no action arises out of it? Yet even though he rejected the notion of a militant art, he called with all his might for an art which bears witness to the inalienable part of man and the times for sincerity and passion.

Bakunin's love for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was one of the great constants of his life. As an adolescent he discovered in it the nature of the passion which was soon to take hold of him. Later, when he believed that in the “universal conflagration” he foresaw, Beethoven's work may well disappear, he swore to “save” it with his life if need be. And a few days before his death, he confided to his friend Adolf Reichel, the musician: “All will disappear and the world will perish, but the Ninth Symphony will remain” (see E. H. Carr, Michael Bakunin [New York, 1961], p. 506).

The passion which this musical masterpiece awakened in him could seem to be somewhat surprising, coming as it does from an egalitarian mind. But if Bakunin liked to recall what he referred to as Voltaire's “profound word”: “There’s somebody who has more wit than the great geniuses, and that’s everybody,” he nevertheless saluted in the unique artist the opponent of future totalitarianisms and conformisms.

In God and the State, a famous text which was not made public until six years after his death, Bakunin speaks about the new threat which, according to him, is weighing heavily on the destiny of humanity; that of science and government by the savants. The science which has enabled man to progressively break free from his condition, he sees being replaced by a new immutable, impersonal, abstract and insensitive science, a veritable modern-day theology which tends to impoverish life and paralyze the movement of social forces. He perceives also the forming of a new aristocracy, a new class or caste—that of the savants—inhuman, cruel, oppressive, exploitive, and evil: Bakunin has in mind the disciples of the positivist August Comte as well as the “doctrinaire disciples of German communism,” the followers of Marx and Engels. If its ascendancy is not stopped, he maintains, this class will exert over the people a new despotism as savage as it is sterile. For science is not creative, it can only rule life.

Wishing to lead the “revolt of life against science,” or rather the revolt of life against the government of science, the great révolté asserts the supremacy of art over science: “Science cannot go outside the sphere of abstractions. In this respect it is infinitely inferior to art, which, in its turn, is peculiarly concerned also with general types and general situations, but which incarnates them by an artifice of its own in forms which, if they are not living in the sense of real life, nonetheless stir up in our imagination the memory and sentiment of life; art in a certain sense individualizes the types and situations which it conceives, by means of the individualities without flesh and bone, and consequently permanent and immortal, which it has the real power to create, it recalls to our minds the living, real individualities which appear and disappear under our eyes. Art, then, is, as it were, the return of abstraction to life; science, on the contrary, is the perpetual immolation of life, fugitive, temporary, but real, on the altar of eternal abstractions (God and the State [New York, 1971], pp. 56-57).

Art then has to accomplish a mission of the highest importance: to support the fight of man against the alienating forces of the modern world, by steering clear of the impoverishing determinisms of politics and the commercial spirit.

In God and the State, Bakunin presents Satan as the “eternal révolté, the first free-thinker and the liberator of the world.” He is himself the modest inheritor of Satan: the incarnation of anti-theological, anti-authoritarian thought. But at the same time he perceived in the authoritarian socialism of Marx the elements of a new theology. He fought God and Marx in the name of the same atheism. He clearly identified Marx with the principles of order and creation and he saw himself as the symbol of chaos and revolt.

The antinomies God-Satan, creation-revolt, and order-anarchy are reflected in the attitudes of the two adversaries with regard to philosophical, social and aesthetic systems. For Marx revolution is thought, for Bakunin it is instinct. The former would seek out the laws of history: he is a creator of systems. For Bakunin, systems, by their rigid and unchangeable nature, stifle man's free creativity (man is not a creature but a creator). He said: “I am neither a philosopher nor a creator of systems, like Marx.” Moreover he somewhat boastfully added that if he did not conform to any system, it was because he was the true creator. It was the voice of life to which he listened, a voice which is “always richer than any doctrine.” He refused to put forward plans for the anarchist society. He did not wish to ruin the workers, like Marx, by “making theorists out of them.” And neither did he create a new aesthetic system; he left it to art, which is richer than any theory, to take care of its own destiny.

The archaeologist of aesthetic ideas who for the first time looks over the writings of Marx and Engels on art and literature cannot escape a strange, uneasy feeling. Whereas he perceives the harmonious and majestic plan of a building whose construction must have been abandoned, even the already completed parts of the architecture seem to have been built by different craftsmen in successive ages.

The architectural plan of the Marxian aesthetic fits into the laws of historical materialism which control the evolution of nature, society, philosophy and art. For Marx and Engels, to use Georg Lukács' terms, “Neither science as a whole nor its individual branches, nor art has an autonomous, immanent history, arising exclusively from a peculiar inner dialectic. Their development is determined by the movement of the history of social production as a whole” (“Marx and Engels on Aesthetics,” Writer and Critic [New York, 1970], p. 62).

The ruins of various origins represent the opinions of Marx and Engels about individual works—opinions which led them to contradict their philosophy of art and which they attempted to justify by the “laws of unequal development.” (How interesting it would be to read the remarks of Marx and Engels on a work by a Goethe, a Keats, or even a Balzac. Unfortunately, the only works about which they expressed an opinion are Les Mystères de Paris by Eugène Sue and Ferdinand Lassalle's ill-fated drama, Franz von Sickingen.) In order to describe the contradictions of the Marxist démarche, let us refer to L’Esthétique marxiste by Henri Arvon: “However limited the aesthetic thought of Marx and Engels may be in the few pages which they devote to art and literature, it nevertheless shows a triple face, without it being possible for us to distinguish in it any order of preference a priori; it goes from total dependence with regard to the social situation, to openly recognized autonomy, by way of protecting it with a view to social action” ([Paris, 1970], p. 14).

Among the three directions of Marx's aesthetic thought, just one has been retained by his successors: the deterministic vision of art and the interpretation of the work on the basis of the infra-structure/super-structure model. (Marx himself establishes the dependency of art, either with regard to the sum of factors which constitute the infra-structure, or with regard to certain economic factors mentioned by name—such as the law of demand or the division of labor. But he often places the work of art in a situation dependent on the social organization of society, and also on the conception of nature which prevails in society at a given moment, on mythology or popular fantasy, etc.)

The principal characteristic of the orthodox Marxist aesthetic is the formulation of the laws of a rigid determinism starting from Marx and Engels' fluid determinism. The watering-down of the laws of economico-social determinism, the modification or even the abolition of the infra-structure/super-structure model: this is what seems to me to characterize the aesthetic works of the Western world. But heresy sets in everywhere, and Marxist voices which recognize the uniqueness of art become more and more common.

The fate of the aesthetic heritage of Bakunin is more enigmatic. The militant aestheticism of God and the State has gone unnoticed, and its prophetic intuitions have remained practically unknown. But his ideas reappear in the wake of the anarchist renaissance of the last ten years, reinvented, reformulated by a generation of anarchists and anarchistically inclined artists.

Art is invention, creation, the work of the anarchist genius who creates in spite of all the intellectualisms or, to borrow the words of the Anarcho-syndicalist Edouard Berth, “both the child and the father of freedom.” For the contemporary anarchist John Cage, art will be the cradle of the regeneration of all society. He therefore urges his readers to become imbued with the spirit of the aesthetic phenomena of our time: “Consider (them) seriously, transpose them into the fields of economics, politics, abandoning the concepts of balance (of power or of money), into the important things as well as the trivial” (“Diary: How to Improve the World [You Will Make Only Matters Worse],” A Year From Monday [Middletown, 1970], p. 54).

Not more than a few weeks ago, on a special page in the Parisian daily Le Monde, entitled “Le Grand chambardement et la création,” the painter Georges Mathieu renewed the aesthetic ethos of the anarcho-Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. In a “decadent age like ours,” he says, “it is up to the artist to define the new aspirations of men who have gone astray. It is from his acts that will be born ‘a language coinciding in its profound and latent aspirations with the community’; in order to find the answers to the problems of our time, metaphysicians, sociologists, and futurologists will begin to listen to him.” In the same issue of Le Monde, Marshall McLuhan expresses the idea that “the artist shows us how to live without time; without him we would become robots. … The artist brings you into contact with the basic things in life” (July 16-17, 1972).

In conclusion, let us examine the role that the two contradictory-complementary visions of socialism have played in the modification of modern sensibility.

The anarchist aesthetic perceives in artistic and social creation two parallel paths to revolt. By inviting the artist to free himself from the weight of tradition, it has a liberating function (we think of the Symbolist poets and the Post-Impressionist painters of the end of the last century) and also a markedly creative function.

The Marxist aesthetic exerts its influence through an essentially critical function. It sets itself up as an opponent of bourgeois culture—of a class-culture based on the monopoly of culture—of the philosophy of individualism, of Angst and, above all, of an aesthetic culture devoid of any political achievement. It tirelessly reminds the writer and the artist of his social responsibility. It invites him to take part in the great social and philosophical debates of the time. It summons him to “come down into the arena,” to enlist under the banners of the Marxist parties.

Looking toward the future, toward the unknown, the anarchist aesthetic contributes mightily to the blossoming of modern art (even if it happens to attack it for its individualism and its irrationalism). Looking back to the past, in order to sift out its meaning for the present and future, the Marxist aesthetic is content to dictate the present. It allows the artist to pursue his unfinished work rather than directing him toward experimentation and adventure. Whereas it brings to many a writer a new “condition,” a new “transcendency”—a hope which permits him to overcome the difficulty of living and creating—its creative impetus is not equal to its critical impetus.

In conclusion—if I may be allowed to play with words and conclude a conclusion—I would personally like to exchange the role of the “scientific” observer with that of the poet in order to guard us against the invasion of the realm of creation by the so-called “scientific laws” of political aesthetics. Not in order to exclude all social meaning from the works of our time nor to deny any validity to these aesthetics, but in order to affirm that today the world has much more need of poets and painters than of critics and aestheticians; the poets have a greater need of a guarantee of their creative freedom than of a new “transcendency” which is not afraid to turn into tyranny.

Carl Boggs (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5893

SOURCE: “The Marxist Origins: From Theory to Politics,” in The Socialist Tradition: From Crisis to Decline, Routledge, 1995, pp. 23-56.

[In the following excerpt, Boggs traces the sources of socialism in Marxist thought.]

The modern concepts of democracy and socialism have their origins in the late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses of classical liberalism, utopianism, and early Marxism. As an outgrowth of the French and American Revolutions, along with the industrial and technological transformations sweeping Europe and North America, democracy and socialism symbolized a break with the past: the ancien régime, feudalism, Church hegemony, rigid social hierarchies. Yet the ideals and visions that grew out of this historic process—freedom, equality, community, rights—were scarcely the product of any emerging consensus. On the contrary, they became very much part of a contested terrain shaped by rival interests, ideologies, and movements that accompanied the great bourgeois revolutions, the popular upheavals of 1848, the Paris Commune and, finally, the rise of labor unions and parties in the 1870s. Within this profound shift of social and authority relations the fate of democracy and socialism was deeply, and seemingly forever, intertwined.

As Macpherson correctly suggests, even within the liberal tradition there was little consensus about the meaning of democracy, beyond the vague notion that governments should in some way rest upon a foundation of consent and obligation.1 Issues regarding social class, the state, legality, and modes of participation led to sharp debates. In its original phase, going back to the time of Locke, liberal democracy could be understood as simply one dimension of the capitalist revolution, with its emphasis on private property, market relations, and the strivings of homo economicus within civil society to achieve a full measure of citizenship. Clearly such market assumptions about human behavior and social development—restated in different ways by Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and James Mill—have permeated liberalism up to the present. The utilitarians, who viewed human beings as maximizers of (economic) self-interest, hoped to base democratic principles upon a foundation of classical political economy, which, in the end, could sustain only the most limited forms of popular influence. Madison and other early American liberals seemed to agree that the main idea of representative government was to promote a free market and guarantee property rights within an institutional framework that not only protected ordinary citizens from tyrannical rule but also insulated elites from the turbulence of mass action (or “mob rule”). The market oriented liberals always postulated an organic connection between capitalism and democracy.2

Other liberals, however, saw this relationship as far more problematic; their view of participation was more cultural and political than economic. Thus Rousseau, affirming the key importance of equality and community for realization of democracy, questioned whether a system grounded in private property and material expansion would ever be compatible with genuine democratic practice. Paine called for an ethic of political responsibility that celebrated militant popular action in the service of revolutionary change. Jefferson insisted that democracy be grounded less in fancy slogans and paeans to the capitalist market than in commitments to the economic independence of all citizens. And J. S. Mill, rejecting his father's narrow utilitarianism, argued for a broad, visionary conception of democracy that entailed cultural and intellectual—not just economic—development of human beings liberated from the dead weight of feudalism. For Mill and others, liberal politics was not to be reduced to the laws of capitalist production. Such views, although still confined to the parameters of liberal ideology, were more emancipatory insofar as they combined what Macpherson calls the “developmental” and “participatory” strains of the tradition.3 At the same time, with the notable exception of Rousseau, the market mechanism and class structure of capitalism remained unchallenged.

Of course, the utopian socialists, anarchists, and other radicals of the period had entirely different intentions: Their search for a genuine (egalitarian, communal) democracy forced them to reject the harsh realities of class society. If the fullest development of the human personality was an ultimate goal, then the capitalist division of labor, with its various hierarchies, would have to be eliminated to make room for more socialized modes of activity. Since liberalism failed to confront class and power divisions, it was regarded as little more than a deceitful sham. Most liberals adhered to the Enlightenment belief that a new era of democracy would arise from a confluence of factors: collapse of feudal authority, emergence of the market, diffusion of science and technology, and the accumulated effects of popular suffrage, rights, and freedoms. In contrast, the radicals proposed a deeper transformation of civil society leading to breakdown of the social division of labor as a true measure of democracy; liberal ideals appeared as mere abstractions when material conditions were left out of the equation. It was in this ideological context, and based upon these political sensibilities, that Marxism first established its roots in the 1860s and 1870s. Indeed, the whole theme of democracy was fully restated by Marx and Engels—a restatement that proposed, for the first time, a systematic convergence of the two epic projects: democracy and socialism.


Any discussion of Marxian politics inevitably starts with the ambitious, systematic critique of capitalism undertaken by Marx and Engels in the nineteenth century. The source of an entirely new, and increasingly complex, social division of labor, capitalism embodied not only a specific mode of production (a break with the feudal past) but an entirely new civilization in the making, with its own distinct culture, politics, laws, and ways of life. With the emergence of a new class system, pitting the ruling bourgeoisie against oppressed workers, the capitalist order was rooted in a logic of maximizing profits, exploitation, and, sooner or later, class polarization. Marx and Engels anticipated that this polarization would be hastened by explosive social contradictions of the system and worsening conditions of proletarian life: alienation, poverty, disempowerment. Driven by the imperatives of capital accumulation, the bourgeoisie would be unable to significantly ameliorate the conditions of polarization. The predictable result, as the Communist Manifesto affirmed confidently, would be proletarian revolutionary overthrow of capitalism leading to the abolition of classes and the eventual rise of socialism.4

Marx and Engels saw the bourgeoisie as a dynamic, predatory force bent on manipulating Enlightenment values of economic and scientific rationality in order to support its own interests. Progress meant the unleashing of human productive capacities on a new scale, tapping the potential for creativity, innovation, growth—and of course material self-aggrandizement. As capitalism brought new wealth and technology, it also brought enormous misery to workers and groups that were pushed to the margins of society. Despite its dynamic historical role—and its grandiose promises of freedom, democracy, and prosperity—the ruling class in fact blocked the potential for general human progress. From a classical Marxist standpoint, therefore, liberal-democratic claims resting upon a foundation of constitutions, laws, procedures, and formal rights were empty abstractions, since they flew in the face of harsh economic realities; the vast majority of workers and poor were excluded from the benefits of Adam Smith's “invisible hand,” the Hobbesian “social contract,” and Hegelian notions of a universal will.

As a theory of radical change based upon proletarian self-emancipation, early Marxism (if such a label makes sense) sought to assert its conceptual supremacy not only over liberalism but over (right) Hegelian philosophy, the utopians, and anarchism. Each of these rival theories lacked an adequate grounding in historical conditions and class forces. For Marx and Engels, there could be no unitary notion of democracy that ignored the social context of individual or group choices; capitalism by its very nature subverts participatory, collective alternatives. To be genuine, democracy would have to tap the depths of human self-activity within civil society, as part of an historic struggle to overcome burdensome scarcity and alienation. And such a process, of course, could only be the work of subordinate classes fighting to transcend their status as objectified entities and force a break with the logic of capitalist rationality.

In certain respects, Marx and Engels tended to equate democracy with mass struggles—for example, the European uprisings of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1870-71, temporary as these were. In a more profound sense, however, the unfolding of democracy was viewed as a transformative process requiring much more than constitutions and legal procedures. If capitalism brought exploitation and misery to the proletariat, the system would eventually also generate class consciousness among enough workers to produce a massive revolutionary force. Acting as an organized universal class, workers would fulfill their democratizing mission, transcending the distortions and illusions of liberal democracy at the same time.

The Marxian concept of the state must be understood in this context. In contrast to the liberal view of state power as more or less the expression of common, public, and universal values, Marx adopted a more dialectical theory: the state is a product of historical and social development, a manifestation of class formations and class struggle. As Marx and Engels put it in The German Ideology and elsewhere, the modern state in capitalist society is dominated by the bourgeoisie; indeed, its primary function is to reproduce the conditions of capital accumulation. A key element of bourgeois domination, the state operates as an ideological and repressive apparatus needed to sustain orderly and stable rule. From this standpoint, even the most liberal-democratic state perpetuates its existence as alienated power. Only by means of its transcendence and abolition, as proletarian social and political power begins to erode its oppressive and coercive functions within civil society, does the state lose this essential class character. So long as the state exists as a mechanism imposed on civil society, the very possibility of democracy—of generalized popular rule—is negated.

Was liberal democracy, therefore, nothing but a sham, a false arrangement to deceive and tame the masses? Sometimes Marx and Engels appear to take this position—for example, in their famous reference in the Manifesto that “the state is nothing but the executive committee of the bourgeoisie”—but on the whole their critique was more modulated. On the one hand, the bourgeois state does rest upon various fictions: liberty and citizenship for all, the common good, universal ideals. And it does clearly embody the alienation of the mass of citizens from politics, which they experience as either coercive (governmental decisions) or inconsequential (popular input). Yet the actual evolution of states is obviously more complex, an outgrowth of powerful tensions between the particular and the universal, form and substance, domination and autonomy. In fact, unchallenged monolithic rule has been rare. It turns out that liberal democracy, with all of its flaws, does allow a modicum of space for class contestation. While capitalism needs bureaucratic and even coercive power to preserve its stability, where universal suffrage and other rights have been won the state constitutes a terrain upon which the masses can achieve limited but nevertheless empowering reforms.

Classical Marxism actually never formulated a coherent theory of the capitalist state. In general, Marx and Engels sought to ground their view of politics in the materialist conception of history or, more specifically, in the logic of capitalist development: this was basically the analysis contained in Marx's Capital and Engels's Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Pushed to extremes, this scheme tends to reduce state functions—indeed all politics—to underlying economic factors. But neither theorist was content with such a mechanistic formulation: class struggle was too explosive, and state power far too variable, for reductionism of this sort to make political sense.

What required analysis was the relationship between class and state power, especially under conditions of liberal democracy. Of course, the state typically served bourgeois interests in myriad ways—safeguarding the accumulation process, intervening at moments of crisis, legitimating the capitalist order, et cetera. Economic power was paramount, and the ruling class was able to establish the rules of politics in virtually every case. Still, that was hardly the end of the story: the state may possess varying degrees of autonomy (a phenomenon never fully explored by Marx), and thus is not simply and always a direct instrument of capitalist rule. Clearly the bourgeoisie utilizes democratic forms (elections and parliaments) as a technique of manipulation and control, insofar as they serve to mystify or conceal the real sources of (economic) power. But class power is never uniformly translated into state power, and liberalism in particular introduced a whole new range of mediating pressures and contradictions. For one thing, popular struggles give bourgeois-democratic forms new content by pushing those forms to new limits, reshaping in the process the contours of political activity and reconstituting the state as contested terrain.5 Neither Marx nor Engels, however, managed to theorize this problem very clearly—a lacuna that would later have far-reaching strategic implications.

If democracy in the discourse of classical Marxism suggested a critique and transcendence of both capitalism and liberalism, then the outlines of an alternative democracy should have been visible enough. In fact, Marx and Engels devoted little attention to this problem. Marx did take up the question of socialist democracy briefly, in The Civil War in France, where he analyzed the legacy of the ill-fated Paris Commune. In its valiant attempt to transform Paris into a popular democracy, the Commune seemed to Marx to represent the embryo of a new revolutionary order, despite its catastrophic tactical mistakes. On the one hand, by seizing power so boldly in the French capital, the proletariat acknowledged its “imperious duty” to render itself “the masters of its own destiny.” On the other, the inevitable collapse of communal power revealed a bitter truth: The working class could not simply conquer the ready-made state machinery (that is, the bourgeois state) and wield it to its own purposes.6

The Commune was set up as a working body comprised of various executive and legislative functions. Its key significance for Marx was the truly popular character of its governmental system: municipal councilors were chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of Paris, and all offices were revocable at short terms. The first decree of the Commune abolished the standing army and replaced it by the armed people; the police were stripped of their political power; church privileges were abrogated; public service was to be done at workers' wages; and every public servant, including magistrates and judges, were to be elected. In sum, all political initiatives were taken from the central government and put in the hands of the general electorate. The Commune, as Marx saw it, was a model of “self-government of the producers,” based upon mandat imperatif and held together by local assemblies. It was a true break with the past—an overthrow of centralized state power that had been a “parasitic excrescence on the nation.”7 Marx saw in the Commune a “thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive.”8 The first working-class-defined political system in history, “the Commune was … to serve as a lever for uprooting the economic foundations upon which rests the existence of classes and therefore class rule.”9 By taking matters into its own hands, by infringing upon the prerogatives of the “natural superiors,” the Commune demonstrated that the working class was the only force capable of transformative social action.

In reality, the Parisian coup never came close to being socialist, or the “glorious harbinger of a new society”—nor could it have done so. For one thing, the notion that the Commune was a proletarian affair was a myth; workers made up only a small minority of the movement and government, and they were not the leaders. For another, the political methods behind the conquest of power were far more Jacobin or Blanquist (that is, vanguardist) than Marx seemed willing to admit. The Commune, inspired by the efforts of Parisian radical intellectuals and cut off from the rest of France, was in part the product of romantic delusions of revolutionary change. Still, Marx's commentary on this episode reveals, more than elsewhere in his writings, a keen sense of the dialectical relationship between politics and economics and, in his vision of the future, an attachment to the ideal of local self-government that resembled Proudhon's quasi-anarchistic federalism more than anything else.

Marx's reflections on the Paris Commune pose yet another range of questions concerning the role of the state—in this case involving the relationship between socialism and democracy during the transitional process. Quite obviously, what happens during the transition from capitalism to socialism (or full communism in Marx's terms) will have an enormous bearing upon future social and authority relations. This is one reason why the issue of political strategy looms so large in the Marxist tradition. A major difficulty with classical Marxism, however, was the absence of any coherent basis of strategic thinking. Indeed, it is possible to locate at least “three tactics” in Marx, as Stanley Moore, argues10, but even this does not exhaust the complex debates that extend from Marx to those concerned with the challenges of twentieth-century politics.

At the most general level, Marx believed that capitalism would give rise to the conditions of its own supersession, owing to deep, intensifying contradictions that, in the end, could not be suppressed. The system was doomed on the basis of its own inherent developmental logic: capitalism laid the foundations of revolutionary change by virtue of its thoroughgoing transformation of social existence, with an exploitative mode of production giving way to more rational forms. The transition to socialism would require a gradual process during which the old order more or less exhausts its potential, exposing the heightened contradictions. This coincides with Marx's emphasis, in Capital and elsewhere, on the processes of accumulation and class formation in the long-term development of capitalist society. Here Marx looked mainly to the English model, with its gradual shift from feudalism to capitalism and the slow emergence, within civil society, of a majority proletariat prepared culturally and politically to seize the initiative.

Marx largely avoided strategic discussions, on the grounds that the precise conditions of transitional politics could never be predicted; the revolutionary overthrow of state power would be the final act in a long historical drama. Where the English model held sway, the main agenda of socialists would be to build a strong, independent, majoritarian working-class movement by means of education, union and party organizing, and the incessant struggle for reforms—as Marx advocated in the Manifesto. The proletariat can become a new dominant force only where, as a majority, it effectively advances democratic struggles in both civil society and the state. Where revolution is the work of a small Jacobin elite it is inevitably a false revolution imposed upon a civil society not yet ready for socialist transformation. Only when increasing misery, class polarization, and anti-capitalist consciousness pose an imminent threat to the system does a revolutionary overthrow make sense. Implicit in Marx's general outlook was a strategic flexibility allowing for socialist participation in the bourgeois state, incrementally and peacefully—at least up to the moment of a fundamental shift in power relations. But the nature of that shift itself was never defined. Presumably it would not be engineered by a Jacobin vanguard, for that would subvert the claim of a broad proletarian movement struggling democratically to transform civil society.

By the 1880s and 1890s, with the rise of strong parliaments, universal suffrage, and mass parties in Europe, Marx and Engels came to endorse, without much equivocation, participation in the bourgeois state as a viable instrument of class struggle. Engels's co-authorship of the Erfurt Program for German Social Democracy in 1891 solidified this strategic turn, even as it retained the familiar critique of liberal democracy as a sham11; Engels understood, as before, the bourgeois state to be a form of alienated politics where people are able to exercise little real control over their lives. Early Marxism adhered to the idea that winning power ultimately meant the overthrow of capitalism, which was simultaneously an economic and political fact: It meant nothing less than the full expression of proletarian self-activity.

Electoral politics, of course, had enormous tactical utility: It could help to educate, organize, and mobilize workers for change; it could secure meaningful reforms. And it could even bring some measure of institutional power. Marx and Engels understood fully that winning elections would never be tantamount to winning class power, but they did believe—from all indications—that it could pave the way by empowering the disenfranchised majority. Yet if universal suffrage offered the proletariat new opportunities, there were serious limits and pitfalls. Could an insurgent movement or party resist the compelling logic of parliamentarism? As Marx cogently observed in The Civil War in France, the proletariat could not simply hope to conquer the existing state machinery as a stepping stone to revolution; instead, its goal must be to create entirely new state forms consonant with a socialist mode of production. More than that, the ultimate vision would necessitate a radical abolition of politics—a transcendence of coercive state power in any form—made possible by the emergence of a classless society. If class divisions gave rise to the state forms as an instrument of domination, then the shift toward a classless society was something akin to a “withering away of the state”—the precise features of which neither Marx nor Engels ever specified. Genuine socialist democracy was premised on a complete dismantling of the state system including, presumably, the various accoutrements of liberal democracy. After a necessary transitional period, popular socialist initiatives would create the foundations of local self-government consistent with the “free association of producers.” Participation in the bourgeois state was apparently meant to be tactical, in the sense that liberal forms were not expected to carry into the revolutionary future.


For Marx and Engels, the ideal of socialism meant public ownership of the means of production, abolition of inequality and exploitation, breakdown of the old social divisions—and democracy. It is hard to doubt the democratic sensibilities and intentions of classical Marxism: if capitalism signified oligarchy and domination by its very logic, then socialism was inherently democratic, since the state was no longer a coercive domain of professional bureaucrats, the military, and the police. Inspired by the Paris Commune uprising and the growth of labor movements in Europe, Marx and Engels were strongly optimistic about the future.

This optimism, however, was never informed by any clear articulation of either political strategy or post-capitalist revolutionary forms that were expected to define the new egalitarian order. Although this is understandable in the context of classical Marxism, which focused on the dynamics of capitalist development, it did lend ambiguity and confusion to later Marxist struggles around issues related to democracy. As noted above, Marx's only extended discussion of a post-revolutionary state was contained in his account of the Commune in The Civil War in France, where he referred to the radical democratization of public life in glowing terms, citing its break with the oppressive past: the end of coercion and terror, deprofessionalization of administrative tasks, establishment of a peoples' militia, opening up of free expression, and so on. It was an enviable model, but the Commune was eventually turned into a debacle when the French Army crushed it, killing about 14,000 citizens and deporting another 10,000 in the process. What was patiently built over several months was brutally destroyed in only a few days, with little effective resistance. Unfortunately, the larger political implications of this disaster—and its relevance to Marx's overall theoretical structure—never received much attention. Nor did such analysis enter into Marx's deliberations elsewhere. Thus, from the standpoint of classical Marxism, a truly viable and democratic politics of class struggle remained shrouded in ambiguity.

Marx's overwhelming emphasis on economics, on the dynamics of capitalist development, left the precise institutions of political power that were to shape the larger process of social transformation unaddressed. What is the relationship between social and state power? What popular agencies of change were to engineer the revolution? What were the mechanisms of proletarian consciousness formation? Of organizational leadership? Of strategic intervention? Even more relevant to the issue of democracy: How was the bourgeois state to be reconstituted or, if necessary, overthrown? What were the structures of democratic participation, both during the transition and in the post-revolutionary setting? On these vital questions classical Marxism was virtually silent or so vague that it was impossible to draw firm political conclusions.

The familiar dilemmas concerning strategies for winning state power clearly illustrate this problem. For example, we have seen how the general theoretical outlook of classical Marxism—visible in the Grundrisse and Capital—supported the idea of a majoritarian revolution grounded in workers' self-activity and the gradual (but fundamental) transformation of civil society. State power would be confronted at the very end of a long historical process, which, however, was never clearly outlined. Stanley Moore refers to this model as the “majority revolution.”12 Marx's abiding fear of Jacobinism was evident in this outlook. Yet, as Moore correctly argues, the Marx-Engels inclination between 1844 and 1850 was something altogether different: in their writings of that period, they assigned the decisive role to a small cadre of dedicated elites who would carry out an insurrectionary overthrow of bourgeois power, a strategy influenced by the French radicals (Babeuf, Blanqui) and the vanguardist Communist League. According to this vision, sometimes referred to as “permanent revolution,” the proletariat would seize the initiative from the capitalists as part of a continuous transformative process defined by radical leaders. Moore's term for this model is “minority revolution.”13 Finally, there was the strategic view, apparently favored by Marx and Engels beginning in the 1870s, that a gradual reformism carried out within the institutions of bourgeois democracy could lead to socialism in advanced countries (for example, the U.S. and Holland) where liberalism was deeply entrenched. New opportunities provided by universal suffrage, along with the growth of trade unions and mass parties, might allow for a relatively peaceful, evolutionary transitional process. Moore calls this approach the “competing systems” strategy.14 In later years the Marxian classics were cited in support of each political choice—Kautsky's “orthodoxy,” Lenin's vanguardism, and Eduard Bernstein's reformism. It can further be argued, based in part upon Marx's understanding of the Paris Commune, that a fourth tendency associated with radical insurgency and workers self-management (later pursued by syndicalists and council communists) might be located in the Marx-Engels texts.

In no instance, however, did the classics elaborate the foundations of a democratic socialism: this absence of a political theory of the transitional process was one of the most striking features of early Marxism, with profound consequences for twentieth century socialist politics. Beyond vague notions of popular control that were expected to supersede class-based systems of state power, no framework of a post-capitalist democracy was ever suggested. This predicament goes to the very core of Marx's theoretical vision, for it dramatizes a lack of concrete political mediations linking long-range goals and immediate popular struggles.

Such an imposing void cannot be attributed to historical contingency, ambiguities in the texts, or flaws in strategic reasoning. The problem runs much deeper: the theory lacked from the outset any systematic political foundations, and thus any articulation of uniquely socialist forms of authority that would supersede the old forms of domination.15 This void within early Marxism has several explanations, the first and most obvious being that Marx and Engels (along with many subsequent theorists) thought that communism on a world scale would arise organically and also quite rapidly. Issues of power, democracy, and strategy were never regarded as pressing or urgent insofar as the flow of history would somehow “resolve” them without the need for political formulas and strategic blueprints (which, in any case, were seen as “utopian”). Marx apparently believed that socialist transformation would resemble the transition from feudalism to capitalism (roughly following the English model), at least to the extent that changes in civil society would necessarily precede, and anticipate, the actual transfer of political power—but he never conceptualized this process in relation to the problem of strategy.16

A second—and tightly connected—source of difficulty is that Marx's most significant opus, Capital, was largely a critique of political economy, a theory of the workings of the capitalist system that in many respects remained confined to the very historical paradigm it sought to transcend. The framework, imposing in its brilliance, nonetheless tends to undercut creative political vision since its categories (wage, price, profits) were so thoroughly imbued with bourgeois categories. Moreover, although Marx himself never reduced politics to an “underlying” economic structure, he did supply Engels and the orthodox Marxists of the Second International with a theoretical arsenal sufficient to sustain their own devaluation of politics.

The rigid materialism and scientific objectivism of these early Marxists collapsed the role of political strategy—indeed, every aspect of human subjective intervention—into an all-engulfing apparatus of production that constituted the driving force of history. Their imputed laws or mechanics of capitalist development undermined the need for a conscious, well conceived scheme of transition grounded in the ongoing struggle for a democratic socialist order. The familiar scenario of crisis and breakdown of the capitalist economy amounted to a fatalistic, even metaphysical, conception of history, which propelled Marxism toward the most naive, almost apolitical, faith in progress made possible by the fullest expansion of market forces. If capitalism was expected to disintegrate from its own internal contradictions (the falling rate of profit, crises of overproduction, immiseration of the proletariat), then the transitional phase, however defined, was never really viewed as problematic. The ends and means of revolution were understood as immanent in the logic of capitalism itself, more or less automatic responses that rendered superfluous any concerted effort to build new social and authority relations through all stages of historical change. Engels and Plekhanov, even more than Marx, insisted that the real objective was a new system of production, an entirely new material base upon which a rational, egalitarian order could be constructed. The notion of defining in advance the actual character of socialist transformation was ridiculed as an exercise in abstract speculation; after all, change was seen as a process born more out of dialectical “necessity” than of conscious political intervention.

Yet another element of this predicament stems from Marx's ontological view of history—and with it his understanding of how human identities are forged—as shaped by material processes: laws of economic motion, labor process, class relations, and so forth. These were clearly central features to any socialist outlook, but Marx allowed them to obliterate other aspects of the social totality, including divisions (and identities) forged around race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion—and politics. An otherwise dialectical theory ignored the rich and complex interplay between material factors and these multiple divisions embedded deeply in human history. It also ignored the powerful role of ideology and culture in shaping or mediating class and power relations, and in molding personality structures at least partly independent of economic forces.17 The guiding assumption that a rational, socialized economy controlled by the proletariat would naturally generate transformations elsewhere was consonant with a one-dimensional (and profoundly undemocratic) politics.

The limits of classical Marxism became all the more obvious by the 1890s, when theory entered into the sphere of movements, parties, and, later, governments. Abstract concepts like “dictatorship of the proletariat” and “withering away of the state”—even the conquest of power itself—were scarcely useful in the day-to-day political battles that consumed Marxian socialists. The very ideal of socialism was quite often deferred to a remote (and typically indecipherable) future. Meanwhile, with no socialist political theory to guide them, European trade unions and labor parties found themselves engulfed by, and often attached to, liberal-democratic institutions, virtually by default. The result was that prevailing (bourgeois) definitions of power and democracy quickly became the operational code of social democratic elites in practice. In both its orthodox (Kautsky) and reformist (Bernstein) variants, social democracy appeared as the culmination of the bourgeois revolution precisely to the extent it integrated the proletariat into the liberal-democratic public sphere. In overcoming this impasse, the Leninist vanguard model set out to “smash” the bourgeois state and seize power on behalf of the workers and peasants, establishing a centralized proletarian “dictatorship” that, by its very raison d’être, would represent the (imputed) democratic interests of the masses. But, aside from its glib references to the soviets, which in Russia were eventually colonized by the party-state, vanguardism suffered the same fate as social democracy: absence of a democratic-socialist theory and strategy.

Not that such outcomes could be attributed to a theoretical void in the classical texts alone. It would be unrealistic to expect a full-blown theory of the capitalist state or democratic self-management from socialists whose formative concepts were developed in the mid-nineteenth century. The point is not so much that the work of Marx and Engels was unfinished (especially as it applied to the state), but rather that their major contributions preceded the era of parliamentary democracy and mass socialist parties. Engels lived long enough to witness the origins of German social democracy as a mass-based electoral party, but the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) was only in its infancy when he died in 1895, thus ruling out the possibility of his reflective historical analysis and judgment. Neither Marx nor Engels had any real experience with liberal forms, and, moreover, there is little in their writings that anticipates the great transformations of the modern state system. This left the door wide open for subsequent theorists and movements to articulate political strategies more or less de novo in the fluid and explosive period between 1895 and the mid-1920s, as they struggled to come to grips with the legacy of classical Marxism in the context of new political challenges. …


  1. Macpherson, Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, chs. 1-4.

  2. Bowles and Gintis, Capitalism and Democracy, chs. 1-2.

  3. Macpherson, Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, chs. 3 and 5.

  4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), pp. 331-62.

  5. On Marx's theory of the state, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), and Martin Carnoy, The State and Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), ch. 2.

  6. Marx, “The Civil War in France,” in Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 552.

  7. Ibid., p. 555.

  8. Ibid., p. 557.

  9. Ibid., p. 557.

  10. Stanley Moore, Three Tactics: The Background in Marx (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1963).

  11. Engels clearly endorsed electoral politics in a pamphlet published just before his death in March 1895 in which he wrote, “With the successful utilization of universal suffrage … an entirely new method of proletarian struggle came into operation, and this method quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer the working class still further opportunities to fight these very state institutions.” See “The Tactics of Social Democracy,” in Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 416.

  12. See Moore, Three Tactics, pp. 37-61.

  13. Ibid., pp. 11-33.

  14. Ibid., pp. 65-96.

  15. I have developed this point further in “Revolutionary Process, Marxist Strategy, and the Dilemma of Political Power,” Theory and Society 4, no. 3 (fall 1977): pp. 364-71.

  16. This was the essence of Antonio Gramsci's later critique in “The Revolution Against Capital” contained in Gramsci: Selections from Political Writings, ed. Quintin Hoare (New York: International Publishers, 1977), pp. 34-37.

  17. See Roger S. Gottlieb, Marxism: Origins, Betrayal, Rebirth (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 51.

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Representative Works


Criticism: French Socialism