Duncan Hallas

Marx and politics

(January 1986)

Based on a talk at Marxism 85.
From Socialist Review, No.83, January 1986, pp.17-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ABOUT twelve years ago Ralph Miliband wrote a book called Marxism and Politics, which starts from the proposition that “what there is of theoretical exploration of politics in what may be called classical Marxism (starting with Marx himself) ... is mostly unsystematic and fragmentary, and often part of other work ... This absence of systematic political theorisation on the part of Marx, Engels and their most prominent successors means in effect that a Marxist politics has to be constructed or reconstructed from the mass of variegated and fragmentary material which forms the corpus of Marxism.”

It is true, of course, that Marx did not write a book called Politics. One reason, as Miliband recognises, is that for Marx “the history of all hitherto existing societies (and all contemporary ones) is the history of class struggles.” These struggles, like the classes themselves, are rooted in the mode of production of material life and cannot usefully be considered apart from it.

So Marx’s main concern, during his long enforced exile from active participation in the class struggle, was the analysis of the capitalist mode of production which appears (unfinished) in Capital.

All the same, this valid point can easily be overstressed. It is easy enough to discover what Marx believed about the major political issues of his time (for example, the revolutions of 1848, the regimes of Louis Bonaparte and Bismarck, the American Civil War, the Paris Commune and so on). It is not at all difficult, without much “construction and reconstruction”, to grasp his “theoretical explorations” of what were, for him, the key political issues – the nature of the state, revolution, colonialism etc.

Not surprisingly, Marx’s views – I mean the views of the post-1847 Marx – changed, developed over time, on some of these matters. Also his views at any given time on some questions have been regarded by various critics as inconsistent. Both these points require discussion.

First of all, however, two fundamental ideas must be grasped. One is that, for Marx, political ideas in any class society are mystified. Real conflicts of material interests are presented as conflicts about ideas, abstract principles.

Each class, insofar as it has become a coherent self-conscious entity, seeks “to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones” as Marx put it. Nor is this, typically, mere hypocrisy and cynicism, even in the case of ruling classes. Ideologies are intellectual constructions, often very complex ones, but they are also rooted in the material conditions of life of the group whose interests they serve. No end of hypocritical claptrap is churned out by the British bourgeois media but that does not mean that our ruling class doesn’t believe in its own ideology.

It follows that terms like ‘democracy’, ‘national self-determination’, ‘freedom’, ‘feminism’ and so on, tell us very little in and of themselves. It is necessary to ask, in each case, what is the real content, which class interests are involved and in what way?

The other basic point relates precisely to the notion of a class as a coherent self-conscious entity, a “class for itself”, in Marx’s words, as opposed to a “class in itself” – the mere raw material for a self-conscious class.

The transition from the latter to the former, which may or may not take place in particular cases, depends on material circumstances and specific events – not simply on “enlightenment”, arguments, propaganda and other desirable things.

To illustrate this point, consider Marx’s assessment of the French peasantry in the middle of the last century:

The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another ... Insofar as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local intercommunication between these small holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.

And, as it turned out, they did not. They proved (as Marx had predicted in 1851) incapable of independent political action. They, the big majority of the French people at the time, came to constitute a reservoir for reaction and then (from the l890s to the 1950s and later) for the ‘Radical’ and ‘Radical-Socialist’ parties – parties of small and not so small business, lawyers, freemasons and speculators who grew fat at their expense as well as at the expense of the workers.

But are the post-l8th century European peasantries a special case? Yes, of course. The point, however, is of general application. The formation (and decay) of class consciousness is an active, dynamic process which is not only a product of class struggle but which is conditioned by concrete material circumstances.

“The bourgeoisie itself,” Marx noted, “develops only gradually, splits according to the division of labour into various fractions ... The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class ...”

Four things immediately follow. First, there is a basic difference between a ruling class, which must, necessarily and as a condition of rule, have a high degree of class consciousness and solidarity, and the subordinate classes which typically and most of the time do not. Second, that this (ruling class) consciousness and solidarity requires not merely a near-monopoly of brute force, but also a set of institutions, be they special schools, army officer corps, clubs, parties etc but, above all, control of what Marx called “the means of mental production”.

Third, all these things rest upon the actual mode of production at a given time and that, since techniques of production are always in a process of change – once imperceptible, then slow, now very rapid – the mode of production comes into conflict with present, needs and potentialities, the class system is unstable.

Finally, the progressive class, at each stage, labours under enormous difficulties, not so much in overthrowing the existing ruling class but, above all, in constituting itself as a self-conscious force – the necessary preliminary.

FOR Marx, the modern working class was the agency for the overthrow of class society, ‘human emancipation’, made possible by capitalism because of the development of the productive forces. Politics, therefore is concerned with the growth and consciousness of the working class. What serves that end is progressive, what hinders it is reactionary.

The judgement obviously depends on circumstances, and therefore cannot be reduced to a set of slogans. The attitude of Marx and Engels to the national question is an excellent illustration of their method.

In 1848-49, as participants in the German revolution, they strongly supported the establishment of a united German bourgeois-democratic republic which would, they believed, facilitate industrialisation and the rapid growth of a class-conscious working class. German unity, on this basis, idvolved the destruction of the Austrian Empire (as well as the Prussian Kingdom and a large number of petty states).

The Austrian Empire, occupying a huge block of central Europe, contained Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats, Poles, Slovenes, Italians, Rornanians, Ukrainians and Slovaks.

Marx (and Engels) supported Italian, Polish and, above all, Hungarian national movements against Vienna. They opposed Slav nationalism (except Polish nationalism). So they were simultaneously supporting and opposing the right of national self-determination. For those who think in terms of abstract formal principles this seems a scandalous position and Marx has often been accused of German chauvinism and anti-Slav prejudice.

In fact Marx’s position was entirely consistent from a working class point of view. Self-determination is a pot that can contain many different brews. In the actual circumstances the emergence of an independent Hungary in 1848 was the biggest obstacle to the re-establishment of Hapsburg power after the dynasty had managed to regain power in Vienna. Therefore it was progressive.

It is as well to look at the argument critically. Hungary was not supported on social grounds, still less on sentimental ones. The national movement was not even bourgeois. It was the nobility that constituted the national movement, admittedly an exceptionally large nobility (8-10 percent of the population). Moreover “the lands of the crown of St Steven” – the territories claimed by the revolutionaries – were not even all ethnically Hungarian; less than half their population spoke Magyar.

The criterion was simply that the Austrian Emperor and the King of Prussia were twin pillars of reaction and behind them stood the Tsar – “the gendarme of Europe”. Movements which weakened these were to be supported.

Now Slav nationalism – Croat nationalism most importantly – was directed against Budapest, not Vienna. It was, objectively, a tool of Hapsburg reaction. Croat soldiers fought the Hungarian revolution at a time when the Emperor could not rely on German Austrian troops.

To summarise, the fate of the European (French, German) revolutions was the decisive consideration.

The fact that reaction – in desperate crisis – could use the language of rebellion and even appeal to genuine national (or quasi-national) feelings was not decisive. Nor were considerations of whether this or that group had, or had not, some formal ‘national’ characteristics. Marx would have had no difficulty in dismissing the ‘national’ claims of the Orange Order in Ireland.

On this point, it should be noted that Marx’s unwavering support for Irish nationalism was not at all due to sentimental consideration. It was because this nationalism was directed against the English ruling class and because that class used the Irish issue to divide its own workers and subordinate them to reactionary national prejudices. His famous statement “No nation which oppresses another can itself be free” was made with Ireland and the British workers in mind.

WHY have I spent a good deal of space on an issue which may be regarded as less than central? The point is to stress that Marx was never the prisoner of abstract principles. The working class and the workers’ movement, the cause of proletarian revolution, were always the central and decisive consideration for him. Which is not to say that his tactical assessments were always correct. It is the method that is important. Nowhere is this more clear than on the question of workers’ power itself and Marx’s changing perception of the means of realising it.

He had, from an early stage, been enormously impressed by the Chartist movement in Britain. Why? Because it was the first example of mass working class political action on a national scale – and in the most advanced capitalist country at that.

It was not, of course, the actual demands of Chartism (they were purely political, without any explicit social demands) that excited him. It was the fact of big-scale working class self-activity and organisation; and the first much more than the second. For Marx undoubtedly underestimated both the importance and the built-in problems of working class organisation. Not surprisingly so. Large and stable workers’ organisations scarcely existed anywhere during most of his lifetime. Yet there is more to it than that.

Marx had a deep contempt for what he called “utopian schemes”, for attempts to force workers’ struggles into pre-determined moulds. He once wrote (quite late in life): “One step forward of the real movement is worth a hundred perfect programmes.”

This was not, it need hardly be said, contempt for theory. It is a question of what theory is. “Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power ... of his thinking in practice,” he had written in 1845. There is, to use a much abused term, a dialectical relationship between theory and practice. Theory develops on the basis of practice; practice is shaped by theory, both are modified, sometimes profoundly, by events, by experiences.

Now there was very little real experience of the formation of working class consciousness in struggle when Marx became a Marxist. Innumerable struggles, yes. Generalisation, no. Therefore Marx was open minded about the problem. Some things he was certain of Neither the utopian ‘communities’ of Owen, Fourier etc., nor the Jacobin conspiratorial voluntarism of Blanqui, were the way forward. They were, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, “infantile disorders” (which, however, recur quite frequently during capitalism’s senility). But the course of “the real movement” was far from predictable from general theory (historical materialism). Marx’s approach was, to a degree, experimental.

He thought (and indeed wrote) that in the specific conditions of Britain in the 1850s universal suffrage, if achieved, must lead to worker’s power. Therefore, out of a Chartist type movement (notwithstanding its limitations) the mainstream of revolutionary development would come. This was not parliamentary cretinism (a term which either he or Engels – the priority is disputed – had invented in 1848). Rather a confidence that a mass workers’ movement which could overthrow the political establishment of the day (based on property qualifications) would not, could not, stop short of the social transformation.

Possibly he was right. The matter was not tested. The ruling classes kept control and then conceded extension of the vote by dribs and drabs. Indeed their analysis of the situation was not so different (from the opposite standpoint) from that of Marx.

THE experience, although actual universal suffrage was not conceded till long after his death, caused a shift in Marx’s approach (the famous ‘labour aristocracy’ theory of the conservatism of the British working class). The method remained.

In the 1860’s the emergence of the First International, a ‘real movement’, albeit with all manner of defects, drew Marx away from the British Museum and Capital. Yet the twin problem of ‘formal democracy’ and conservative workers’ organisation were not solved theoretically, and could not have been by Marx, given his essentially scientific method.

Lenin’s solutions could only arise on the basis of the experience of the ‘real movement’, which grew enormously after Marx’s death in 1883. Those solutions too are conditioned by time and place. They represent a significant advance on Marx – on the basis of Marx’s own method.

That method remains indispensable. For Lenin’s formulae, no less than Marx’s, are specific responses to concrete circumstances, not timeless truths. Of course some things are much more permanent. Marx’s early grasp of the indispensability of revolution, not only to overthrow the bourgeoisie but to make the working class fit to rule, to complete its transformation to a class for itself, Lenin’s emphasis on the necessity for a revolutionary party, a “party of a new type” as the means through which the working class can rise to the level of self-rule and so on.

Yet there can be no substitute for concrete, materialist, analysis of each new phase of development. That understanding is the greatest single debt we owe to Marx. A Marxist politics in Miliband’s sense of a systematic formal treatise will be possible only in retrospect, after the victory of the proletarian revolution internationally.


Last updated on 9.11.2003