Critical assessments

Ernest Mandel

The Place of Marxism in History. 1986.

Chapter V: The proletarian transformation of revolutionary activity and organisation

The subsequent evolution of utopian socialism was influenced by three key figures who pioneered the transition from pre-proletarian philanthropy and propagandism to proletarian action properly speaking: the German Wilhelm Weitling and the French Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Auguste Blanqui. Proudhon stood in the direct lineage of utopian socialism; Weitling had some continuity with it, but was closer to the revolutionary tradition that grew out of the French and American revolutions. Of the three, Blanqui was the most closely identified with the revolutionary tradition.

The two great 18th century revolutions had produced a petty-bourgeois (Jacobin) and pre-proletarian far left embodied mainly by Sam Adams and Thomas Paine in America, and Gracchus Babeuf in France. This current had conceived a type of revolutionary organisation that would help to prolong political activism beyond the consolidation of the main revolutionary conquests.

The agitation of Tom Paine and his followers subsequently led to the creation of the London Corresponding Society, led by Thomas Hardy, and many similar associations in the rest of the British Isles, chief among which was the United Irishmen led by Wolfe Tone in Ireland. Whereas the LCS was strictly legal, the United Irishmen and other groups outside London organised as secret leagues. Nevertheless, they all shared a common framework in that their main demands were political-democratic (the conquest of universal suffrage for the LCS; universal suffrage and national emancipation for the United Irishmen). Their economic demands, although favourable to the toiling classes, did not go beyond a reform of bourgeois society.

By contrast, for the head of the Conspiracy of the Equals (Conspiration des Egaux), Gracchus Babeuf and for his comrades, the point was clearly the revolutionary conquest of power, not merely the conquest of democratic freedoms. Moreover, they set themselves certain collectivist goals that tended to satisfy the economic and social demands of the poorest and most exploited layers of the population, above all the pre-proletariat (semi-proletariat) and nascent proletariat. Nevertheless these revolutionary organisations emerged independently from the self-organisation of the wage earners properly speaking.

The Babouvists attempted to seize lower by a coup d’etat while the Thermidorian counter-revolution was in full swing, in 1797. They were crushed by repression. Babeuf himself was executed. One of the survivors of the Conspiracy of the Equals, Buonarotti strove to preserve the continuity of Babeuf’s revolutionary principles and projects in the Society of the Seasons (Société des Saisons). This league appeared in Paris around the time of the fall of the Bourbons, in the early 1830s; August Blanqui became its unchallenged leader.

Blanqui was the greatest French revolutionary of the 19th century. Possessed of unshakeable firmness, courage, honesty and conviction he embodied the aspirations and actions of the French, particularly the Parisian, proletariat. He tried repeatedly to seize power by a series of coups d’etat, was arrested many times – he spent over twenty years in jail – but succeeded in maintaining the continuity of his clandestine organisation. When the Paris Commune rose in March 1871, he was in jail in the territory controlled by the counter-revolutionary government of Thiers. Everyone, including Karl Marx, considered him the natural leader of the Commune, in which his followers formed a minority around Vaillant. The Paris-based revolutionary government proposed to Thiers that he be freed in exchange for the release of all the Commune’s hostages, including the archbishop of Paris. But Thiers refused, demonstrating the extent to which the French bourgeoisie feared the organisational and leadership capacities of the great revolutionary, and the impact his political gifts could have had on the outcome of the civil war. The Blanquist current ended up fusing with the Marxist current during the 1880s and 1890s, as part of the process of creation of a mass Socialist workers party in France. […]

The revolutionary Blanquist, Babouvist and German organisations represented an indispensable link in the chain that led from the bourgeois revolutions of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to the revolutionary proletarian action of the 19th and 20th centuries. Their main achievements were:

(1) The realisation of the need for political action for the conquest of power, a realisation that grew out of their understanding of the main lessons to be drawn from the bourgeois revolutions, and perhaps even all revolutions of history. These lessons were not learned by all. They were not widely understood among the adherents of socialism or accepted among the new wage-earning working class. Quite the contrary, apoliticism prevailed in both these milieus, either as a result of scepticism and disgust with traditional bourgeois and petty-bourgeois political action (“the workers always end up being tricked by politicians and politics”), or as a result of a lucid but incomplete balance sheet of contemporary revolutions. Indeed, as far as the working class was concerned, these revolutions had led to the substitution of one group of exploiters by another, and by no means to genuine emancipation. The utopian socialists and workers on the road to self-organisation therefore drew the conclusion, that political action was deceitful and useless: all efforts should be concentrated on economic emancipation. The type of organisation should be consonant with that goal.

By contrast Babeuf, Blanqui and Weitling had understood, albeit to different degrees, that political power played a key role in the consolidation of the exploitation imposed upon the proletarians and pre-proletarians. That is why they advocated political action of a new, proletarian revolutionary type, with a view to overthrowing the bourgeois state. They adapted their form of organisation to the goal they set.

(2) The advocacy of a revolutionary vanguard organisation. Starting from an acute awareness of the power and efficiency of the bourgeois repressive apparatus and counter-revolutionary potential of the bourgeoisie, Babeuf, Blanqui and Weitling were convinced that only a nucleus of deeply motivated, hardened and disciplined revolutionaries could overcome this powerful enemy. They believed the main lesson of the defeat of the “Fourth Estate” in the French revolution and aftermath of the 1830 revolution, was not the futility of popular revolutions allegedly doomed to defeat, but the inevitability of the defeat of the toiling classes if they rose against the rich without a iron leadership and organisation. They were convinced that, led by this sort of minority, well-prepared for its historical task, the toiling classes could triumph in future revolutionary confrontations. In this sense, Babeuf, and more particularly Blanqui, were obvious forerunners of the Leninist concept of “professional revolutionaries.”

(3) Defence of revolutionary tradition and continuity. As Thermidor, the Consulate and Empire followed the achievements of the great French revolution of 1789 to 1793, the popular masses and progressive intelligentsia of France and Europe displayed immense disappointment, a phenomenon comparable in some respects to the waves of disillusionment, scepticism and “reprivatisation” that developed after the defeats of the revolutions of 1848 to 1850, later when people realised the extent and meaning of the Thermidor that unfolded in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s, and still later when the hopes for revolution in Europe ebbed in 1975-76. Some of the most prominent intellectuals of the time who had been enthusiastic supporters of revolution, like the German philosopher Kant and the English poet Wordsworth, became reactionary opponents of revolution. There were some exceptions, however, like the English poet Shelley, who remained a convinced revolutionary.

This wave of ideological reaction generally caused a retreat towards purely legalistic and reformist (gradualistic) conceptions of action and organisation among the radical democrats involved in political activity and the wage earners involved in trade-union activity.

Against this wave of adaptation and capitulation to the ideology of the ruling class, the first pre-proletarian and proletarian revolutionary nuclei upheld the revolutionary tradition of the 18th century after submitting it to the most extensive critical review that revolutionaries of that time could undertake. This continuity made it much easier for new, purely proletarian traditions and conceptions to emerge on the basis of the revolution of 1848.

Nevertheless, alongside the merits of Babeuf, Blanqui and Weitling, the flaws of their revolutionary projects must be noted:

a. They conceived the struggle for political power as emanating essentially from a very small minority of society, and even of the popular classes. This necessarily imparted to the projected revolutionary action a violent and conspiratorial character, in which the “technique of the coup d’état” was more important than political mass action properly speaking. Since the ability of a small group of conspirators to eliminate in a single blow powerful repressive apparatuses like the French and Prussian states was quite limited, the struggle took on putschist and utopian features.

b. The revolutionary organisation suitable for this sort of political activity was necessarily clandestine and elitist, the product of a selection so severe that few individuals could endure it for a long time. The small nature of the organisation in turn intensified the putschist nature of the activism, and the tendency to neglect linking up with broad spontaneous mass movements, economic class struggles, etc.

c. Essentially clandestine organisational efforts and essentially insurrectional activities led these revolutionaries to a definitely elitist and authoritarian conception of the state that would emerge from a victory of the revolution. This new state would serve the people, would be for the people, but power would not be exercised directly by the people. (Weitling, who was more directly proletarian than Blanqui, was more cautious about the latter point). Here too, the link with the real emancipation movement of the wage earners was not, or was insufficiently established.

d. The revolutionaries of this lineage only defined the social and economic goals to be achieved by the revolution in vague (especially Blanqui) or utopian (in Weitling’s case) terms, because they lacked the adequate data and knowledge of economics and, more importantly, because they failed to develop an adequate analysis of the nature and contradictions of capitalism. In this regard, Babeuf, Blanqui and Weitling did not even reach the level of the utopian socialists and most daring post-Ricardian economists.

In the last analysis, these weaknesses and omissions of the first pre-proletarian and proletarian revolutionary nuclei can be explained by their social nature and the environment in which they developed. They were organisations emanating from the pre-industrial, artisanal and manufacturing proletariat, that were not yet able to generalise, and sometimes even understand, the actual industrial proletariat’s first experiences of mass struggle and organisation. In fact, they were striving to combine the petty-bourgeois Jacobin tradition of the great 18th century revolutions, with the organisational experience of the pre-industrial proletariat, not to draw conclusions from the first revolutionary experiences of the industrial proletariat itself.

Marx and Engels had to supersede these inadequacies in a systematic way and elaborate their own conceptions of proletarian revolutionary organisation and action. Drawing on the lessons of the revolutions of 1848 to 1850, they developed a distinctive conception of the proletarian revolution:

a. Revolutionary political action – that is the struggle for the conquest of power – was conceived as the product, in the main, of the activity of the broad masses of wage earners and their direct allies, but above all of the proletarians themselves. The economic potential of the wage earners was decisive (“Alle Räder stehen still, wenn dein starker Arm es will”: All the wheels stand still, when thine stronger arm so wills); their numerical increase to the point of becoming a majority of the nation was considered one of the essential preconditions for a lasting victory of the revolution.

b. For this reason, legal political organisation – the constitution of the proletariat as a political party independent of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeois democracy – was considered essential to revolutionary victory. The organisation of secret societies was discarded, except under conditions of extreme repression, and even then, it was restricted to maintaining continuity and was not to be an instrument for the seizure of power. Putschism was resolutely condemned.

c. The project of the self-organisation of the proletariat, at once to prepare for the exercise of power, to conquer power and to actually exercise it, was put forward as a priority. Elitism and authoritarianism were rejected along with the excessively “instrumental” conception of the state. Whereas Babeuf and Blanqui had favoured a strong state in the Jacobin tradition, Marx and Engels, under the influence of the revolution of 1848-1850, and especially of the Paris Commune, advocated the idea of the destruction of the state machine, and the dictatorship of the proletariat – a concept which Blanqui originated – as a state that began to wither away from birth.

d. Marx and Engels closely combined political emancipation (political revolution) with economic and social emancipation. As early as the Communist Manifesto, they linked the programme of the revolutionary seizure of power to a series of economic and social transformations intended to allow the producers to free themselves from the chains of the proletarian condition and enjoy the material conditions necessary for the exercise of power and for the development of all their individual capacities. Short of the achievement of these social and economic conditions, the advent of a genuine classless society would remain a utopia.

Marx’s and Engels’s ability to supersede the revolutionary conceptions of the first pre-industrial proletarian nuclei was not only the product of a broader revolutionary experience and deeper understanding of the dynamics of bourgeois society and conditions for the victory of socialism, that is of the advances achieved by historical materialism. It also and obviously corresponded to the class interests of the proletariat, whose own distinctive outlook it expressed.