Independent Power or Betrayal

By Edward P

The PEWG Newsletter has carried one recommendation with a brief synopsis for a classic socialist text every two weeks since its launch. We’ll be a running a regular series where authors discuss why you should read and what lessons you can take from one of these classic works. If there is a book, essay, speech, or poem that is meaningful to how you understand socialism, please submit it here!

From the last two bolded words in the marxists.org translation, this is the PERMANENT REVOLUTION speech in my mind, but it’s actual, more pedestrian title, is the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. You should give it a read! It’s pretty short and like Karl Marx’s more popularly targeted works easy to read minus words like bourgeoisie and proletariat (the capitalist class and the working class).

Historical Context

At the beginning of 1848, Europe was a ruled by by an interdependent set of reactionary governments. The old aristocracy that seemed to have been swept away by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquests had reasserted itself, and built an above ground set of alliances and a below ground spy network intended to prevent a repeat of 1792. Where the representative government existed, enfranchisement was severely limited. In France, there were only around 300,000 eligible voters out of a population of nearly 36 Million.

The rising middle-class, the small merchants, doctors, and lawyers, chafed under the repressive regimes and agitated for having a say in government. When they finally took to the streets, first in Paris on February 22, 1848 , they were joined by a new class of people, the industrial proletariat, a group of urban people either drawn to the cities by new factory work or forced off their farms by the recurrent famines of the 1840s. They were pioneers in a new way of living where one had to sell their labor to live, but the opportunity to do so was not always a given.

This alliance of urban middle and working-class toppled or destabilized the governments of Europe one by one through the early part of the year. In France, it brought in a new government including the socialist Louis Blanc and the working-class leader Alexandre Martin (nom de guerre: Albert). However the desires of workers for reforms to the economic system were stymied by their erstwhile allies. Across the continent, the revolutionary coalition came apart and the forces of reaction clawed back the liberal democratic gains.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were active participants in these revolutions as well. Marx used his recently received inheritance to buy weapons for workers in Brussels, and both Marx and Engels moved from Brussels to Cologne (with the prodding of the Belgian government), where they pamphletted in support of the revolutionaries. Engels served as an aide-de-camp to August Willich, (who has an interesting story in his own right; he’d later split with Marx over whether workers should rise up immediately, then go on to be a general in the Union army during the American Civil War) in an armed uprising against the Prussian government.

Marx delivered this speech in 1850 as the revolutionary energy of 1848 had fully given way to reaction and counter-revolution. He was chiefly interested in what lessons the League of Communists, for whom he and Engels had written the Communist Manifesto in 1847 but had played little role as an organization in the 1848 revolutions, could draw from the tumultuous year.

Betrayal and Class Interest

Marx believed the main lesson of 1848 was the betrayal of the working-class by the liberal bourgeoisie, the section of the capitalist class that was kept out of formal power by either a lack of franchise or lack of a feudal title.

It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured favourable conditions for itself.

The reimposition of the old order’s authority in Germany meant that another revolution was inevitable. Marx thought the revolutionary energy would come from another class, the petite bourgeoisie — meaning the shopkeepers, clerks, doctors, and small government functionaries. This was the class of people who agitated most for an expanded franchise in the 1848 revolutions. In France, they also made up the bulk of the National Guard — a militia whose participation early in the revolution toppled the monarchy, but who would then turn against the street protests when they demanded further reforms.

None of these classes — the liberal bourgeoisie, the petite bourgeoisie, and the workers — were powerful enough on their own to carry out their agenda. All had to act in concert with other classes to overcome the entrenched power of the state; though in the case of the proletariat it was a lack of consciousness and organization that stymied their power. In Marx’s conception, classes would only cooperate with each other to the point where they were able to achieve their ends, then turn back to the remnants of the old order; their gains and position secured.

The petite bourgeoisie — having failed to achieve their ends in the German revolutions — still looked to the working-class to bolster their strength for further revolution. Who would the workers look to in the next revolution? The petite bourgeoisie or themselves?

Institutions and Power

Institutions are never neutral. Political parties, companies, churches, schools, media outlets –  they are created out of the interests of certain classes or sections of classes and find their form and function based on the mode of production of production and the social relations that arise from it. Institutions built by the bourgeoisie serve their class interests — reproducing the social relationship, the wage laborers’ subordination to the holder of capital.

Take, for example, Northeastern University’s cooperation with ICE. Universities are institutions that make a pretense of neutrality — talking about academic freedom and the specialness of campus life, and, indeed, a Northeastern spokeswoman said, “Efforts to restrict which federal agencies a faculty member can approach for research funding are antithetical to academic freedom.” It is obviously ridiculous that any association with ICE could be neutral or a matter of academic freedom. The University aligns itself with a particularly brutal governmental institution because it is a capitalist institution and it is in the interests of capital to create an oppressed underclass of laborers.

Marx warned against the working-class being drawn into the institutions of other classes. He believed that ending capitalism, socializing property, and putting the productive forces of society toward the benefits of society were where the working class’s true interests lay. To accomplish these ends, workers had to build their own power independent from other classes.

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, and 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.

That isn’t to say they would be unable to, at times, make common cause with other classes. Democracy and basic freedoms that made open organizing possible did not exist in the German states in 1850. Marx felt that the workers could cooperate on narrow lines, “[the worker’s party] cooperates with [the petite bourgeoise’s party] against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position.” But that they must always maintain their independence and not be draw into the institutions of opposing classes, even in the face of appeals to unity of the democratic opposition:

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 the 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.

Workers, rather than being content with small wins whenever democracy was advanced or the power of capital curtailed, need to keep pushing for the victories to go further. One revolution in one aspect of society’s organization is not enough, they must keep the revolution going until they have won completely. Workers could only keep the revolutionary spirit going by being organized independently from other classes, building their own consciousness instead of taking it from capitalist institutions.

But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.

What Are We Building?

So what kind of institution are we building with our participation in the DSA? We are not yet organically of the working-class; we lack a base of support among working-class people such that we could claim to the speak for them. DSA isn’t yet a space for working-class people, as a class, to raise their consciousness and talk about their interests and positions.

We also lack independence from other class interests to establish a workers’ party. We should be very familiar with the calls for unity with petite bourgeoisie politicians and calls to work with the Democratic Party or other progressive groups rather than attempting to build our own institutions.

If we want to overcome these limitations, and really engage in a process of party building, we have to start by grounding our understanding of our situation in materialism. Recognizing that we are situated in a historical moment of class struggle, we have to examine what the class interests are at work in each task we pick up as an organization. We create a collective understanding of what these interests are, through study, rigorous debate, and democratic internal processes.

From there, we can move beyond our reflexive organizational alignment with progressive and liberal interests to establish independence as an organization. With a shared materialist understanding of these interests, what classes they seek to advance, we can understand how to engage with them strategically — when to ally with when they want to overthrow and oppose when they want to secure their position.

We should be building a working-class party. A party that advances only the interests of the working-class that is social revolution. We can’t simply decide to create this party wholecloth, but, by engaging in work that challenges the existing power of capital and by demonstrating a commitment to the interests of working-people above those of small business owners, labor bureaucrats, and other petite bourgeois elements that have historically made up the DSA, we can start the work of building “…a center and nucleus of workers’ associations.” Building independent, organized power should be criteria we evaluate our work by. Building a new workers party should be our end goal.

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