The Revolutions of 1848: The Communist Perspective Becomes Clearer

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As we saw in the last article, the Communist Manifesto was written in anticipation of an imminent revolutionary outbreak. In this expectation, it was not a voice crying in the wilderness:

" ... the consciousness of impending social revolution ... was, significantly enough, not confined to revolutionaries, who expressed it with the greatest elaboration, nor to the ruling classes, whose fear of the massed poor is never far below the surface in times of social change. The poor themselves felt it. The literate strata of the people expressed it. 'All well-informed people', wrote the American consul from Amsterdam during the hunger of 1847, reporting the sentiments of the German emigrants passing through Holland, 'express the belief that the present crisis is so deeply interwoven ill the events of the present period that "it" is but the commencement of that great Revolution, which they consider sooner or later is to dissolve the present constitution of things'" (E J Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1789-48).

Confident that huge social upheavals were about to take place, but aware that the nations of Europe were at various stages of historical development, the last section of the Communist Manifesto put forward certain tactical considerations for the intervention of the communist minority.

The general approach remained the same in all cases: "The communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but ill the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement ... the communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time."

More concretely, recognizing that the majority of countries in Europe had not yet even attained the stage of bourgeois democracy, that national independence and unification was still a central issue in countries such as Italy, Switzerland and Poland, the communists pledged to fight alongside the bourgeois democratic parties, and the parties of the radical petty bourgeoisie, against the vestiges of feudal stagnation and absolutism.

The tactic was spelled out in particular detail with regard to Germany:

"The communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilization, and with a much more developed proletariat, than that of England was in the seventeenth century, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution".

Thus: the tactic was support for the bourgeoisie in so far as it was carrying out the anti-feudal revolution, but always defending the autonomy of the proletariat, above all because the expectation was of "an immediately following proletarian revolution". How far did the events of 1848 vindicate these prognoses? And what lessons did Marx and his 'party' draw in the aftermath of the events?

The bourgeois revolution and the spectre of the proletariat

As we have said, Europe was at a number of different social and political levels in 1848. Only in Britain was capitalism fully developed and the working class a majority of the population. In France, the working class had acquired a considerable fund of political experience through its participation in a series of revolutionary uprisings since 1789. But this relative political maturity was almost completely restricted to the Parisian proletariat, and even in Paris large-scale industrial production was still at its early stages, which meant that the political fractions of the working class (Blanquists, Proudhonists, etc) tended to reflect the weight of obsolete artisanal prejudices and conceptions. As for the rest of Europe - Spain, Italy, Germany, the central and eastern regions - social and political conditions were still extremely backward. These areas were for the most part divided up into a mosaic of petty kingdoms and did not exist as centralized nation states. Feudal vestiges of all kinds hung heavy on society and the
structures of the state.

Thus, in the majority of countries, the completion of the bourgeois revolution was the first item on the agenda - sweeping away the old feudal remnants, establishing unified nation states, installing the political regime of bourgeois democracy. And yet many things had changed since the days of the 'classical' bourgeois revolution of 1789, introducing a series of complications and contradictions into the situation. For a start, the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 were provoked not so much by a 'feudal' crisis but by one of the great cyclical crises of youthful capitalism - the great depression of 1847, which, coming in the wake of a series of disastrous harvests, reduced the living standards of the' masses to an intolerable level. Secondly, it was above all the urban, proletarian or semi-proletarianised masses of Paris, Berlin, Vienna and other cities who led the uprisings against the old order. And as the Manifesto had pointed out, the proletariat had already become a much more distinct force than it had been in 1789; not only on the social level, but on the political level as well. The rise of the Chartist movement in Britain had confirmed this. But it was first and foremost the great rising of June 1848 in Paris which verified the reality of the proletariat as defined in the Manifesto: as an independent political force irrevocably opposed to the rule of capital.

In February 1848, the Parisian working class had been the main, social force behind the barricades in the uprising that had toppled the monarchy of Louis Philippe and installed the Republic. But within months the social antagonism between the proletariat and the 'democratic' bourgeoisie had become overt and acute, as it became apparent that the latter was able to do almost nothing to relieve the economic distress of the former. The proletariat's resistance was couched in the confused demand of the 'right to work' when the government closed the national workshops, which had given the workers a minimum of relief in the face of unemployment. Nevertheless, as Marx argued in The Class Struggles in France, written in 1850, behind this wretched slogan lay the beginnings of a movement for the suppression of private property. Certainly the bourgeoisie itself was aware of the danger; when the Parisian workers took to the barricades to defend the national workshops, the uprising was put down with the utmost ferocity. "It is well known how the workers, with unheard-of bravery and ingenuity, without leaders, without a common plan, without supplies, and for the most part lacking weapons, held in check the army, {he Mobile Guard, the Paris national Guard and the National Guard which streamed in from the provinces. It is well known how the bourgeoisie sought compensation for the mortal terror it had suffered in outrageous brutality, massacring over 3,000 prisoners" (Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1, 'The defeat of June 1848').

This uprising in fact confirmed the worst fears of the bourgeoisie throughout Europe and its outcome was to have a profound effect on the later development of the revolutionary movement. Traumatized by the specter of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie's nerve failed and it found itself unable to carry through its own revolution against the established order. This was amplified by material factors of course: in the countries dominated by absolutism, the bourgeoisie's political nervousness was also the result of its late economic and political development. In any case, the result was that, rather than calling on the energies of the masses in its battle against the feudal power, as it had done in 1789, the bourgeoisie more and more compromised with the reaction in order to contain the threat 'from below'. This compromise took various forms. In France it produced the strange anomaly of the second Bonaparte, who stepped into the breech of power because the bourgeoisie's 'democratic' mechanisms seemed only to open the door to the cold winds of social unrest and political instability. In Germany, it was incarnated in a particularly timid and spineless bourgeoisie, whose lack of resolve in the face of absolutist reaction was lambasted time and again by Marx, especially in the article published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung of 15 December 1848, 'The bourgeoisie and the counter revolution': "The German bourgeoisie had developed so sluggishly, so pusillanimously and so slowly, that it saw itself threateningly confronted by the proletariat, and all those sections of the population related to the proletariat in interests and ideas, at the very moment of its own threatening confrontation with feudalism and absolutism." This made it "irresolute against each of its opponents, taken individually, because it always saw the other one in front of it or to the rear,' inclined from the outset to treachery against the people and compromise with the crowned representative of the old society ... without faith in itself, without faith in the people, grumbling at those above, trembling before those below ... an accursed old man, who found himself condemned to lead and mislead the first youthful impulses of a robust people in his own senile interests - sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything - this was the nature of the Prussian bourgeoisie which found itself at the helm of the Prussian state after the March revolution. "

But though the bourgeoisie was in "mortal terror" of the proletariat, the latter was not mature enough, historically speaking, to assume political command of the revolutions. Already the powerful British working class was somewhat isolated from the events on the European mainland; and Chartism, despite the existence of a "physical force" tendency on its left wing, aimed above all at finding a place for the working class inside 'democratic', ie bourgeois, society. Above all, the British bourgeoisie was intelligent enough to find a way of gradually incorporating the demand for universal suffrage in such a way that, far from threatening the political reign of capital, as Marx himself had thought, it more and more became one of its mainstays. Besides, at the very time that continental Europe was in the midst of all its upheavals, British capitalism was already on the verge of a new phase of expansion. In France, although the working class had taken the greatest strides politically, it had been unable either to evade the traps of the bourgeoisie or, still less, put itself forward as the bearer of a new social project. The June 48 rising had to all intents and purposes been provoked by the bourgeoisie, and the communist aspirations contained within it were more implicit than explicit. As Marx put it in the Class Struggles in France ('The defeat of June 1848'): "The Paris proletariat was forced into the June insurrection by the bourgeoisie. This in itself sealed its fate. It was neither impelled by its immediate, avowed needs to fight for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by force, nor was it equal to this task. It had to be officially informed by the Moniteur that the time was past when the republic found itself obliged to show deference to its illusions; only its defeat convinced it of the truth that the smallest improvement in its position remains a utopia within the bourgeois republic, a utopia which becomes a crime as soon as it aspires to become reality ... ".

Thus, far from rapidly going over to a proletarian revolution, as the Manifesto had hoped, the movements of 1848 hardly even resulted in the bourgeoisie completing its own revolution.

The intervention of the Communist League

The 1848 revolutions provided the Communist League with a very early ordeal by fire. Seldom has a communist organization, so soon after its birth, been granted the somewhat doubtful reward of being plunged into the deep end of a gigantic revolutionary movement. Marx and Engels, having opted for political exile away from the stultifying Junker regime, returned to Germany to play the part in events to which their convictions necessarily guided them. Given the Communist League's total lack of direct experience in events of such a scale, it would be surprising if the work that the organization carried out during that phase - including the work of its most theoretically advanced elements - were free from errors, sometimes quite serious ones. But the basic question is not whether the Communist League made mistakes, but whether its overall intervention was consistent with the fundamental tasks it had set itself in its statement of political principles and tactics, the Communist Manifesto.

One of the most striking features of the CL' s intervention in the German revolution of 1848 is its opposition to facile revolutionary extremism. In the eyes of the bourgeoisie - or at least in its propaganda organs - the communists were the nec plus ultra of fanaticism and terrorism, fell agents of destructiveness and forced social leveling. Marx himself during this period was referred to as the 'Red Terror Doctor' and was constantly being accused of hatching devious plots to assassinate the Crowned Heads of Europe. In actual practice: the activity of the 'Marx party' in this period is noteworthy for its sobriety.

In the first place, during the early, heady days of the revolution, Marx publicly opposed the revolutionary romanticism of the 'legions' set up in France by expatriate revolutionaries and aimed at taking the revolution back to Germany at the point of a bayonet. Against this, Marx pointed out that the revolution was not primarily a military question but a social and political one; he also dryly pointed out that the 'democratic' French bourgeoisie was only too pleased to see these troublesome German revolutionaries march off to fight the feudal tyrants of Germany - and that they had not neglected to give the German authorities due warning of their approach. In the same vein, Marx came out against an isolated and ill-timed uprising in Cologne in the declining phase of the revolution, since this would have once again led the masses into the waiting arms of the reaction, who had taken explicit measures to provoke the rising.

On a more general political level, Marx also had to combat those communists who believed that the workers' revolution and the advent of communism were on the short-term agenda; who scorned the struggle for bourgeois political democracy and considered that communists should talk only of the conditions of the working class and the necessity for communism. In Cologne, where Marx spent most of the revolutionary period as the editor of the radical democratic paper the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the main proponent of this view was the good Dr Gotteschalk who considered himself a true man of the people and castigated Marx as no better than an armchair theorist, because he argued so stubbornly that Germany was not yet ripe for communism, that first the bourgeoisie would have to come to power and drag Germany out of its feudal backwardness; and that consequently the task of the communists was to support the bourgeoisie 'from the left' , participating in the popular movement to ensure that it continually pushed the bourgeoisie to go to the very limits of its opposition to the feudal order.

In practical organizational terms, this meant participating in the Democratic Unions that were set up to, as the name implies, bring together all those who were consistently and sincerely fighting against absolutism and for the establishment of bourgeois democratic political structures. But it can be said that, in reacting against the voluntarist excesses of those who wanted to skip the bourgeois democratic phase altogether, Marx went too far in the other direction and forgot some of the principles laid out in the Manifesto. In Cologne, Gotteschalk's tendency were in the majority of the League, and to counter their influence Marx at one point dissolved the League altogether. Politically: the NRZ went for a whole period without saying anything at all about the workers' conditions, and in particular about the need for the workers to guard their political autonomy in the face of all factions of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. This was hardly compatible with the notions of proletarian independence put forward in the Manifesto, and, as we shall see, Marx made a self-critique on this particular question in the first attempts to draw up a balance sheet of the Communist League's activity in the movement. But the basic point remains: what guided Marx in this period, as throughout his whole life, was the recognition that communism had to be more than a necessity in terms of fundamental human need: it also had to be a real possibility given the objective conditions reached by social and historical development. This debate was to reemerge in the League in the aftermath of the revolution as well.

Lessons of the defeat: The necessity for proletarian autonomy

In many ways, the most important political contributions of the Communist League, apart of course from the Manifesto itself, are the documents written in the aftermath of the 1848 movements; the 'balance sheet' that the organization drew up concerning its own participation m the revolts. This is true even though the debates that these documents expressed or provoked were to lead to a fundamental split and to the actual dissolution of the organization.

In the circular of the CL's executive committee, published in March 1850, there is a critique - in fact a self-critique, since Marx himself wrote the piece - of the activities of the League within the revolutionary events. While the document affirms without hesitation that the general political prognoses of the League had been amply confirmed by events, and while its members had always been the most determined fighters in the revolutionary cause, the organizational weakening of the League - in effect, its dissolution during the early stages of the revolution in Germany - had gravely exposed the working class to the political domination of the petty bourgeois democrats: " ... the formerly strong organization of the League has been considerably weakened. A large number of members who were directly involved in the movement thought that the time for secret societies was over and that public action alone was sufficient. The individual districts and communes (the basic units of the League's organization) allowed their connections with the Central Committee to weaken and gradually become dormant. So, while the Democratic Party, the party of the petty bourgeoisie, has become more and more organized in Germany, the workers' party has lost its only firm foothold, remaining organized at best in individual localities for local purposes; within the general movement it has consequently come under the complete domination and leadership of the petty bourgeois democrats. This situation cannot be allowed to continue the independence of the workers must be restored". And there is no doubt that the most important element in this text is its clear defense of the necessity to fight for the fullest political and organizational independence of the working class, even during revolutions led by other social classes.

This was a necessity for two reasons.

First of all, if, as in Germany, the bourgeoisie proved itself incapable of accomplishing its own revolutionary tasks, the proletariat needed to act and organize independently in order to force the momentum of the revolution forward despite the reluctance and conservatism of the bourgeoisie: the model here was to some extent the first Paris Commune, the one in 1793 where the 'popular' masses had organized themselves in local assemblies or sections, centralized at the city level in the Commune, in order to push the Jacobin bourgeoisie to continue the impetus of the revolution.

At the same time, even if the most radical democratic elements came to power, they would be compelled by the logic of their position to turn on the workers and subject them to bourgeois order and discipline as soon as they became the new helmsmen of the state. This had been true in and after 1793, when the bourgeoisie began to discover more and more 'enemies on the left'; it had been demonstrated in blood by the June 1848 events in Paris; and in Marx's opinion it would happen again with the next round of the revolution in Germany. Marx predicted that following the failure of the liberal bourgeoisie, its inability to confront the absolutist power, the petty bourgeois democrats would be swept into the leadership of the next revolutionary government, but that they too would attempt forthwith to disarm and attack the working class. And for this very reason, the proletariat could only defend itself from such attacks by maintaining its class independence. This independence had three dimensions:

- The existence and action of a communist organization as the most advanced political fraction of the class:

"At the moment, while the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation; they extend the hand of friendship, and seek to found a great opposition party which will embrace all shades of democratic opinion; that is, they seek to ensnare workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail, while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented. Such unity would be to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose all its hard-won independent position and be reduced once more to a mere appendage of official bourgeois democracy. This unity must therefore be resisted in the most decisive manner. Instead of lowering themselves to the level of an applauding chorus, the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers' party, both secret and open, alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes a center and nucleus of workers' associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence":

- The maintenance of autonomous class demands, backed up by unitary organizations of the class, ie organs regrouping all workers as workers:

"During and after the struggle the workers must at every opportunity put forward their own demands against those of the bourgeois democrats. They must demand guarantees for the workers as soon as the democratic bourgeoisie sets about taking over the government. They must achieve these guarantees by force if necessary, and generally make sure that the new rulers commit themselves to all possible concessions and promises - the surest means of compromising them. They must check in every way and as far as it is possible the victory euphoria and enthusiasm for the new situation which follow every successful street battle, with a cool and cold-blooded analysis of the situation and with undisguised mistrust of the new government. Alongside the new official governments they must simultaneously establish their own revolutionary workers' government, either in the form of local executive committees and councils or through workers' clubs and committees, so that the bourgeois democratic governments not only immediately lose the support of the workers but find themselves from the very beginning supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers. In a word, from the very moment of victory, the workers' suspicion must be directed no longer against the defeated reactionary party but against their former ally, against the party which intends to exploit the common victory for itself".

- These organs must be armed; at no point must the proletariat be lured into surrendering its weapons to the official government:

"To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized. The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition, and the revival of the old-style citizens' militia, directed against the workers, must be opposed. Where the formation of this militia cannot be prevented, the workers must try to organize themselves independently as a proletarian guard, with elected leaders and with their own elected general staff; they must try to place themselves not under the orders of the state authority but of the revolutionary local councils set up by the workers. Where the workers are employed by the state, they must arm and organize themselves into special corps with elected leaders, or as a part of the proletarian guard. Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered, any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary".

These conclusions as to what class independence in a revolutionary situation practically entails, are important not so much as an immediate prescription for a type of revolution which was not really on the agenda any more, but as easily recognizable historical anticipations of the future - of the momentous revolutionary conflicts of 1871, 1905 and 1917, when the working class was to form its own organs of political combat and to present itself as a viable candidate for power. Here in the League's circular is the whole notion of dual power, a social situation in which the working class begins to gain such a degree of political and organizational autonomy that it poses a direct threat to the bourgeoisie's management of society; and, beyond the inherently unstable dual power situation, the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the seizure and exercising of political power by the organized working class. In the text of the League, it is apparent that the embryonic forms of this proletarian power arise outside of, and in opposition to, the official organs of the bourgeois state. They are (Marx is specifically referring to the workers' clubs here) "a union of the whole working class against the whole bourgeois class - the formation of a workers' state against the bourgeois state" (Class Struggles in France). Consequently, these lines already contain the seeds of the position that the taking of power by the working class involves not the seizure of the existing state apparatus, but its violent destruction by the workers' own organs of power. Only the seeds, because this position had by no means been clarified by decisive historic experience: although the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte makes explicit, if passing, reference to the need to destroy the state rather than take control of it ("All political revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it"), during the same period Marx was still convinced that the workers could come to power in some countries (eg Britain) through universal suffrage. The matter was treated with regard to particular national conditions rather than as a general problem of principle.

This question was not finally cleared up until the real historical movement of the proletariat had intervened decisively in the discussion: it was the Paris Commune which settled it. But we can already see the continuity between the conclusions drawn about the Commune - that proletarian political power requires the appearance of a new network of class organs, a centralized revolutionary 'state' which cannot live alongside the existing state machine. Marx's 'prophetic' insight is apparent here; but these predictions are not mere speculations. They are solidly based on the reality of past experience: the experience of the first Paris Commune, of the revolutionary clubs and sections of 1789-95, and above all of the June days in France 48, when the proletariat armed itself and rose up as a distinctive social force, but was crushed in no small measure because it was insufficiently armed politically. Regardless of all the historical limitations within which these texts of the League were written, the lessons they contain about the necessity for independent working class action and organization remain as essential as ever; without it, the working class will never come to power and communism will indeed be no more than a dream.

'Permanent revolution'; permanently unrealized

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that these calls for proletarian autonomy were framed in a particular historical perspective - that of the 'permanent revolution'.  

The Manifesto had envisaged a rapid transition from the bourgeois to the proletarian revolution in Germany. As we have said, the actual experience of 1848 had convinced Marx and his tendency that the German bourgeoisie was congenitally unfit to make its own revolution; that in the next revolutionary outbreak, which the March 1850 circular still considered to be a short-term prospect, the petty bourgeois democrats, the' social democrats' as they were sometimes referred to at the time, would come to power. But this social stratum would also prove Itself incapable of carrying through a complete destruction of feudal relations, and would in any case be forced to attack and disarm the proletariat as soon as it assumed governmental office. The task of really achieving the bourgeois revolution would thus fall to the proletariat, but in doing so the latter would be compelled to forge ahead towards its own, communist revolution.

That this schema was inapplicable to the very backward conditions of Germany was, as we shall see, recognized by Marx soon afterwards, when he realized that European capitalism was still very much in its ascendant phase. This can also be recognized by leftist commentators and historians. But according to the latter, "the tactic of permanent revolution, although inapplicable in the Germany of 1850, remained as a valuable political legacy for the workers' movement. It was proposed by Trotsky for Russia in 1905, though Lenin still considered it premature to attempt to convert the bourgeois democratic revolution into a proletarian one. In 1917, however, in the context of the all-European crisis brought about by the World War, Lenin and the Bolshevik party were able to apply successfully the tactic of permanent revolution, leading the Russian revolution of that year forward from the overthrow of Tsarism to the overthrow of capital itself" (David Fernbach, introduction to The Revolutions of 1848, Penguin Marx Library, 1973).

In reality, the whole notion of permanent revolution was based on an insoluble conundrum: the idea that while the proletarian revolution was possible in some countries, other parts of the world still had (or have) unfinished bourgeois tasks or stages ahead of them. This was a genuine problem for Marx, but it was transcended by historical evolution itself, which demonstrated that capitalism could only pose the conditions for proletarian revolution on a world-wide scale. It was as a single, international system that capitalism entered its decadent phase, its "epoch of wars and revolutions" with the outbreak of the First World War. The task facing the Russian proletariat in 1917 was not the completion of any bourgeois stage but the seizure of political power as a first step towards the world proletarian revolution. Contrary to appearance, February 1917 was not a 'bourgeois revolution', or the accession to power of some intermediate social stratum. February 1917 was a proletarian revolt which all the forces of the bourgeoisie did everything they could to derail and destroy; what it proved, very rapidly, was that all factions of the bourgeoisie, far from being 'revolutionary', were totally wedded to imperialist war and counter-revolution, and that the petty bourgeoisie and other intermediate strata had no autonomous social or political program of their own, but were doomed to fall in behind one or other of the two historic classes in society.

When Lenin wrote the April Theses in 1917, he liquidated all the outmoded notions of some half way stage between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolution, all the vestiges of purely national conceptions of revolutionary change. The Theses effectively dispensed with the ambiguous concept of the permanent revolution and affirmed that the revolution of the working class is communist and international, or it is nothing.

Clarifying the communist perspective: the concept of capitalist decadence

The most important clarifications about the perspective of communism came through the debate that broke out in the League not long after the publication of this first post-revolutionary circular. It soon became clear to Marx and those close to him politically that the counter-revolution had triumphed all over Europe and that there was in fact no prospect of an imminent revolutionary struggle. What convinced him of this more than anything was not simply the political and military victories of the reaction but his recognition, based on painstaking economic research in his new conditions of exile in Britain, that capitalism was entering a new period of growth. As he wrote in the Class Struggles in France:

"In view of this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society are flourishing as exuberantly as they possibly can under bourgeois conditions, there can be no talk of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible at periods when the two factors, modern forces of production and bourgeois forms of production, come into conflict. The incessant squabbles in which the representatives of the continental Party of Order are now indulging and compromising one another are remote from providing any opportunity for a new revolution. On the contrary, they are only possible because conditions for the time being are so secure and - what the reaction does not know - so bourgeois. All attempts of the reaction to put a stop to bourgeois development will recoil upon themselves as certainly as all the moral indignation and enthusiastic proclamations of the democrats. A new revolution is only possible as the result of a new crisis. But it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself" (IV, 'The abolition of universal suffrage in 1850').

Consequently, the task facing the Communist League was not the immediate preparation for revolution, but above all to grasp theoretically the objective historic situation, the real destiny of capital and thus the real bases for a communist revolution.

This perspective met with fierce opposition from the more immediatist elements in the party, the Willich-Schapper tendency who, in the fateful meeting of the CL's Central Committee in September 1850, claimed that the argument was between those "who organize in the proletariat" (ie, themselves, the real worker-communists) and "those whose influences derive from their pens" (ie Marx and his armchair theorists). The real issue was posed by Marx in his reply:

"During our last debate in particular, on the question of 'The position of the German proletariat in the next revolution', views were expressed by members of the minority of the Central Committee which directly contradict our second-to-last circular, and even the Manifesto. A national German approach has replaced the universal conception of the Manifesto, flattering the national sentiments of the German artisans. The will, rather than the actual conditions, was stressed as the chief factor in the revolution. We tell the workers: if you want to change conditions and make yourselves capable of government, you will have to undergo fifteen, twenty or fifty years of civil war. Now they are told: we must come to power immediately or we might as well go to sleep" (Minutes of the CC meeting, published in The Revolutions of 1848).

This debate resulted in the effective dissolution of the League. Marx proposed that its HQ be moved to Cologne and that the two tendencies work in separate local sections. The organization continued to exist until after the notorious Cologne Communist trial of 1852, but it was more and more a purely formal existence. The followers of Willich-Schapper got themselves increasingly involved in crack-brained plots and conspiracies aimed at unleashing the proletarian storm. Marx, Engels and a few others withdrew more and more from the activities of the organization (except when they came to the defense of their imprisoned comrades in Cologne) and devoted themselves to the main task of the hour - elaborating a more profound understanding of the workings and weaknesses of the capitalist mode of production.

This was the first clear demonstration of the fact that a proletarian party could not exist as such in a period of reaction and defeat; that in such periods revolutionaries can only work as a fraction. But the non-existence of an organized fraction around Marx and Engels in the ensuing period was not a strength; it expressed the immaturity of the proletariat's political movement, of the concept of the party itself (see the series 'The Fraction-Party relationship in the marxist tradition', IRs nos. 59, 61, 64, 65, in particular 'From Marx to the Second International', IR 64).

Nonetheless, the debate with the Willich-Schapper tendency has left us with an enduring legacy: the clear affirmation by the 'Marx tendency' that revolution could only come about when the "modern forces of production" had entered into conflict with "the bourgeois forms of production"; when capitalism had become a fetter on the development of the productive forces, a decadent social system. This was the essential reply to all those who, divorcing it from its objective historical conditions, reduced the communist revolution to a simple question of will. And it is a reply that has had to be repeated over and over again in the workers' movement - against the Bakuninists in the First International, who showed the same lack of interest in the question of material conditions, and made the revolution dependent on the flair and enthusiasm of the masses (and of their self-proclaimed secret vanguard); or against Bakunin's latter-day descendants in today's proletarian political milieu - groups like the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste and Wildcat, who, starting by rejecting the marxist conception of the decadence of capitalism, end up rejecting all notions of historical progress and claim that communism has been possible since capitalism began, or even since the very dawn of class society.

It is true that the debate in 1850 did not finally clarify this question of decadence; there is room in Marx's words about the "next revolution coming out of the next crisis" for concluding that Marx saw the revolutionary possibility emerging not so much out of a period in which-bourgeois relations have become a permanent fetter on the productive forces, but out of one of the cyclical and temporary crises which punctuated capitalism's life throughout the 19th century. Some currents within the proletarian movement - in particular the Bordigists - have tried to remain consistent with Marx's critique of voluntarism while rejecting the notion of a permanent crisis of the capitalist mode of production, the notion of decadence. But although the concept of decadence could not be fully clarified until capitalism really entered its decadent phase, it is our contention that those who defend this notion are the real heirs of Marx's method. This will be one of the elements we will examine in the next article in this series, when we consider Marx's theoretical work in the period following the dissolution of the League from the angle most relevant to this series: as a key to understanding the necessity and possibility of communism.



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