Critical assessments

Eduard Bernstein

The Preconditions of Socialism, ed. Henry Tudor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 36-41. [French translation: Eduard Bernstein, Socialisme théorique et social-démocratie pratique [Zur Geschichte und Theorie des Sozialismus], trans. Alexandre Cohen (Paris, 1900), pp. 47-63

[…] And this brings us first to a point so far only rarely discussed, namely, the original inner connection between Marxism and Blanquism and the dissolution of this bond.

(b) Marxism and Blanquism

[…] The most radical product of the great French Revolution had been the movement of Babeuf and the Equals. Their traditions were taken over by the secret revolutionary societies which came into being under Louis-Philippe and from which the Blanquist party later emerged. Their programme was the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat by means of violent expropriation. In the February Revolution of 1848, the club revolutionaries were called ‘Babouvists’ and the ‘Barbès party’ as often as they were called after the man who had in the meantime become their spiritual leader, Auguste Blanqui.

In Germany, Marx and Engels, working on the basis of the radical Hegelian dialectic, arrived at a doctrine very similar to Blanquism. The heirs of the bourgeoisie could only be their most radical counter- part, the proletarians, that intrinsic social product of the bourgeois economy. Following the nowadays unjustly despised socio-critical works of the socialists of the school of Owen, Fourier, and Saint- Simon, they based this on economic-materialistic arguments, but within materialism, by contrast, they argued in Hegelian fashion. The modern proletariat, which for the Saint-Simonians had already played the same role as the peasant had for the school of Rousseau in the previous century, was wholly idealised in their theory, especially as regards its historical potentialities, but also in its abilities and propensities. In this fashion, they arrived, despite their more thorough philosophical training, at the same political position as the Babouvist secret leaguers. Partial revolution is Utopian, only the proletarian revolution is still possible, argued Marx in the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher (see the essay, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law’). This position led directly to Blanquism.

In Germany, Blanquism is viewed only as the theory of secret leagues and the political putsch, as the doctrine of the launching of revolution by a small, purposeful party acting in accordance with well-laid plans. That view, however, stops short at externals and applies, at most, to certain epigones of Blanquism. Blanquism is more like the theory of a method; its method, on the other hand, is merely the outcome, the product of its deeper, underlying political theory. And this is quite simply the theory of the immeasurable creative power of revolutionary political force and its manifestation, revolutionary expropriation. The method is partly a matter of circumstances. Where there is no freedom of association and of the press, secret leagues are obviously appropriate; and where, in a revolutionary upheaval, the country is de facto governed by a central political authority, as was the case in France until 1848, a putsch, insofar as only certain experiences were taken into account, was less irrational than the Germans seem to think. To reject putschs does not therefore amount to liberating oneself from Blanquism. Nothing shows this more clearly than the study of the relevant writings by Marx and Engels from the time of the Communist League. Apart from the rejection of putschs, they are permeated throughout with what is, in the last analysis, a Blanquist or Babouvist spirit. In The Communist Manifesto, it is significant that of all socialist literature only the writings of Babeuf escape criticism; all that is said of them is that, in the great Revolution, they ‘expressed the demands of the proletariat’, in any case an anachronistic characterisation. The programme of revolutionary action in the Manifesto is Blanquist through and through. In The Class Struggles, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, and particularly in the circular to the Communist League, the Blanquists are presented as the proletarian party – ‘the really proletarian party’ says the circular of June 1850 — a designation in no way based on the social composition of this party but solely on its revolutionary character. The proletarian party of France, in 1848, was the workers grouped around the Luxemburg. The same consideration determines the party position on the warring factions within the Chartist camp. In the account of the course of events in France, in The Class Struggles and in Brumaire, the masterly analysis of the forces actually at work is interwoven with the already well developed legend of the Blanquists. But nowhere does the Blanquist spirit find such sharp and unconstrained expression as in the circular to the Communist League of March 1850 with its exact instructions as to how the Communists, in the imminent re-eruption of the Revolution, must draw on every possible resource to make this revolution ‘permanent’. All theoretical insight into the nature of the modern economy, all knowledge of the current state of the economic development of Germany, which was still far behind mat of France at the time — Marx wrote of it then mat ‘the struggle of the industrial worker against the industrial bourgeois is only a partial fact’ — all economic understanding vanishes to nothing before a programme so illusory it could have been set up by any run-of-the-mill club revolutionary. What Marx reproached Willich and Schapper for six months later — that instead of real conditions they made ‘mere will into the driving force of the revolution’ — was what he and Engels themselves proclaimed at that time. The requirements of modern economic life were totally disregarded, and the relative strengths of classes and their state of development were completely overlooked. Yet proletarian terrorism — which given the state of things in Germany could only manifest itself as such destructively and, therefore, from the first day when it was set to work in the specified fashion against bourgeois democracy its effect was inevitably politically and economically reactionary — was extolled as a miraculous force which was to propel the conditions of production to that level of development perceived as the precondition for the socialist transformation of society. […]

In the modern socialist movement, we can distinguish two main streams which appear at various times in various guises and often in opposition to one another. The one starts from the proposals for reform worked out by socialist thinkers and is in the main aimed at construction, the other derives its inspiration from popular revolutionary upheavals and is in the main aimed at destitution. According to the possibilities inherent in the conditions of the time, the former appears as Utopian, sectarian, peacefully evolutionary, the latter as conspiratorial, demagogic, terroristic. The closer we get to the present, the more clearly the slogans emerge, on the one side, as emancipation through economic organisation, and on the other, as emancipation through political expropriation. In earlier centuries, the first tendency was represented for the most part only by isolated thinkers and the latter by occasional popular movements. By the first half of this century, permanently active groups were established on both sides; on the one, the socialist sects as well as all manner of workers’ associations, and on the other, revolutionary societies of every kind. There was no lack of attempts to unite them, and the conflicts between them were not always absolute. So when The Communist Manifesto claimed that the Fourierists of France reacted against the reformers of the time, and the Owenites of England against the Chartists, that is only completely true of the extremes on either side. The majority of Owenites were entirely in favour of political reform — we need only call to mind men like Lloyd Jones — but they opposed the cult of force as promoted by the more radical Chartists — the ‘physical force men’ — and withdrew wherever the latter got the upper hand. Similarly with the supporters of Fourier in France.

Marx’s theory tried to combine the essentials of both streams. From the revolutionaries it took the conception of the workers’ struggle for emancipation as a political class struggle, and from the socialists it took the investigation into the economic and social pre-conditions for the emancipation of the workers. However, this combination was not a solution of the conflict but rather a compromise like the one Engels suggested to the English socialists in The Condition of the Working Class: the subordination of the specifically socialist element to the politically radical social-revolutionary element. And whatever further development Marx’s theory underwent later, it retained at bottom the character of this compromise, that is, of dualism. It is here we should seek the explanation for the fact that Marxism repeatedly and at frequent intervals appears in a different guise. These are not differences of a kind which, for any fighting party, are produced as changing circumstances require changing tactics; they are differences which appear spontaneously without any compelling external necessity, merely as the product of inner contradictions.

Marxism has superseded Blanquism in just one respect, namely, method. But in another respect, the overestimation of the creative power of revolutionary force for the socialist transformation of modern society, it has never completely freed itself from the Blanquist point of view. The corrections it has introduced — for instance, tighter centralisation of revolutionary power — concern form rather than substance. […]