Karl Marx and worker power

Image: Alexey Wineman


Marx, obsessed with workers' power, is more current than ever in all workers' movements, women's movements, oppressed sectors and nationalities.


“On March 14th, at three minutes to a quarter in the afternoon, the greatest thinker of our days stopped thinking. We barely left him two minutes alone, and when we returned it was to find him sleeping softly in his armchair, but forever.”[1]. This is how Friedrich Engels expressed himself at the beginning of a brief speech he gave at Marx's grave. And 140 years have passed since the greatest thinker of all time ceased to exist!

Karl Marx, the man of science, who discovered the law of development of human history or historical materialism, who discovered the specific law that moves the current capitalist mode of production, surplus value, was first of all, in the words of Friedrich Engels “a revolutionary”.

Throughout his life, the engine of his existence was the struggle to conquer political power by the working class, by the proletariat. From the League of Communists, when he and Friedrich Engels made their theoretical and political “revolution” and inscribed the slogan “Proletarians of all countries unite”, to the First International, when it stamped the main objective of the working class was the “seizure of political power”, and then passing through the Paris Commune, the first heroic, but defeated, attempt at political power by working men and women, in all these moments, what animated Marx was this obsession with conquest of political power by the proletariat.

When the Chartist leaders unanimously invited him to be a delegate of honor at the opening session of the first “Workers' Parliament” in Manchester, England, in March 1854, Marx was unable to attend for various reasons of a material nature, but he exploded with joy and expressed this sentiment in an article, dated March 29th of this year New York Daily Tribune, where he said that: “the press would be forced to talk about the Workers' Parliament and, despite this indifference, some future historian would remember that in the year 1854, there were two parliaments in Manchester – a parliament of the rich and a parliament of the poor – but that men would only follow the parliament of workers and not the parliament of masters”.[2]

And for the Chartist newspaper, The People's Paper, on March 18, the enthusiasm was no less when he wrote: “The convening of this Parliament alone marks a new epoch in the history of the world. The news of this great event will awaken the hopes of the working class throughout Europe and America.”[3]

Marx's obsession with the conquest of political power by the English working class did not reach an echo among Chartist leaders, except in their left wing led by Ernest Jones (1819-1869), this friend of Marx and Engels, who is cited in more than thirty-six letters (out of 183), in the years 1852-53, exchanged between Marx and Engels or between Marx and his companions in the United States.[4] But, decidedly, the majority of Chartist leaders were against political combat and the mass movement.

Fifteen years later, with the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx's hopes for the installation of workers' power were rekindled. In the booklet The Civil War in France, Marx concluded that the Communards they were heroic and fought to the last man and woman to bring down the capitalist power of Versailles: it was the “Commune”, the workers’ power in Paris against the “assembly of vampires”[5] in Versailles. However, once again, the leaders disappointed, especially the Blanquists and anarchists (followers of Proudhon), who were the majority in the Commune. It was necessary to break the bourgeois state machine once and for all; it was necessary to expropriate the Bank of France that financed the capitalists; it was necessary to march from the beginning to Versailles and exterminate the enemy army… None of this was done. The leaders failed and the carnage on the Communards it was total. Friedrich Engels even wrote years later: “if you want to know what the dictatorship of the proletariat is, look at the Paris Commune”.

During his lifetime, Marx was unable to see his greatest desire fulfilled: the establishment of workers' power and the elimination of the bourgeoisie as the dominant social class. He had written with a flourish in the founding Manifesto of the First International in 1864 that the obligation of the proletariat “is to take political power”.


It took another thirty-four years after his death for his great dream to come true (but in an ephemeral way): in 1917, in October, for the first time in history, in a country of continental dimensions, the Russian working class, immensely minority in relation to the peasants, it took power and overthrew bourgeois-aristocratic domination, a tsarist dynasty that had dominated Russia for five centuries had been overthrown like a house of cards by the vigor of workers in revolution.

The era of world socialist revolution was inaugurated in history. The world bourgeoisie, which was fighting a World War among itself to divide the world, went into an uproar. This time those who were at the forefront of the revolution were political leaders, theorists, long-time activists and Marxists, who knew where they wanted to go: for Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian revolution was just a link in the world revolution, and they called for for Europe, America and Asia to rebel against their “masters”, capitalist bosses.

They knew that Russia alone would not be able to destroy world capitalism. Help from the West was needed. And it came: the German proletariat, one of the most numerous, one of the most politicized by years of social-democratic agitation, with the defeat of the German bourgeoisie in the war, brought down the empire in one fell swoop and handed power to the social-democratic leaders. Democrats. Workers' councils spread throughout Germany like wildfire; the workers had weapons in their hands.

However, through the most perfidious betrayal - yes, betrayal as a historical category, just as Spartacus was betrayed by mercenary traders and six thousand slaves were crucified by the hated Roman Empire or just as Joan of Arc was betrayed by the monarchy and the French Church, handing her over to be burned alive by the English – the social democratic leaders (just as they had done in 1914, when voting in favor of war credits with a single vote against by Karl Liebknechtt) decided to govern with the bourgeoisie in a crooked parliament, and gave the order to start a bloodbath against the workers, forcing them to disarm, and murdering the only hope for consistent leadership in Germany: Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.[6]

Alone and isolated, after three years of interbourgeois war and more than three years of civil war, and the premature death of Lenin in 1924, the enemies of the world revolution, the bureaucrats and careerists, took the power and destiny of the Revolution by storm. of October. Stalin and his clique won. It was necessary to expel and exile the “last brain”, the last exponent of the world revolution: Leon Trotsky. Yet another betrayal – here again, “betrayal” as a historical category. Stalin and his clique, a usurping bureaucracy, preferred to look after their “interests” rather than expand the world revolution. Thanks to the strength of the October revolution, the USSR remained a workers' state and world imperialism, the capitalist states, were unable to break it in the short and medium term.

With this bureaucracy at the head of the only workers' state in the world, what was seen was a historic series of betrayals: the bloodbath of the Chinese communists in 1927 due to Moscow's advice to ally with Chiang-Kai-Chek; the betrayal in Germany in the years 1930-1933, when it equated social democracy with the Nazis, preventing the united workers' front and enabling the triumphant rise of Hitler and his fascist band; the betrayal in the Spanish civil war, making a pact with the capitalists and disarming the workers' militias, the scandalous Non-aggression Pact with Hitler, in August 1939, a pact that would cost the lives of around 20 million Soviets by the end of the war, the destruction of 40 thousand hospitals and 84 thousand schools, among others and the dissolution of the Third International.

Once again the night of great betrayals prevailed after the war. Under the leadership of Stalin, the USSR renounces the destruction of capitalism throughout Western Europe, the USSR, the great victor of the inter-imperialist war. An order from Moscow was enough: the communists were the majority in the French Resistance, and not the crook General De Gaulle to whom Stalin handed over political power; equally in the Italian resistance and in Greece. With the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, the division of the world into areas of influence and the criminal division of Germany were sealed, when the USSR could, by law of war, have taken all of Germany.

And so, stepping on the embers of the most perfidious betrayal, the greatest in all of world history, capitalism survived for twenty years after World War II, to once again exploit workers all over the world. Once again Marx's dream, the establishment of a global socialist society, was postponed.


However, the economic boom of post-war capitalism was short-lived. Once again, Marx's theses on debacle from the bourgeoisie they sounded as loud as the trumpets of Jericho; once again the capitalist system entered a terminal crisis, a crisis that the Argentine Trotskyist Nahuel Moreno called a “chronic crisis”, since since then capitalism has never had new bouts of economic boom. On the contrary: since the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, with the Yom Kippur War and the Iranian revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Phalevi, respectively, crises have followed one after the other without mercy, this time relentlessly dragging the “States workers".

By no longer being able to guarantee its economic stability, with the crisis in product and labor prices, the USSR is also no longer able to secure its “satellites” in Eastern Europe. And it is there that the political storm, the political revolutions as Leon Trotsky called them, will begin. The flight of East Germans across the Hungarian border was the trigger, the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. In 1989 (from August to November) the greatest symbol of the “cold war”, the Yalta and Potsdam agreements fell: the “Berlin Wall”.

A revolution takes over Eastern Europe: one by one the Stalinist dictatorships came down like a “house of cards” – the most emblematic, the Romanian one, shot Caescescu and his wife. two years later, in 1991, after a division in the bureaucracy, led by Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet masses brought down the largest bureaucratic organization on the planet, the Soviet Communist Party. With the end of the Soviet empire, movements for self-determination of nationalities exploded like wildfire.

The USSR ceases to exist. And with it the theory of “socialism in one country”. As Marx said in The German Ideology, all this “old crap” of capitalism was quickly installed in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former USSR: unemployment, misery, hunger, prostitution, mafias, crime, to the point of generating a Putin, as the biggest leader of the mafias that made the largest privatization in history, liquidating all the achievements of the October revolution.

Now, mass movements would be independent at a global level, free from the Stalinist straitjacket, from the historical weight that the CP's had in all the countries where it existed...Capitalism had its victory in 1989, it managed to bring to itself a third of humanity that was under the influence of “real socialism”. But, the masses also brought themselves a relative triumph with these revolutions: they were now free to make independent movements and revolutions, without having a powerful brake on their struggles, as were communist parties around the world.

The fact is that, after thirty years of the fall of the “Berlin Wall”, we have not had any victorious revolution in the world, such as the Russian revolution of 1917. All the old and new leaders of the masses failed, they kept capitalist private property untouchable.

After the fall of the “Berlin Wall”, and the global disorder installed, without control, new leaders tried to fill the void left by Stalinism at a global level: Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and his successor the dictator Nicolas Maduro, Lula in Brazil, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Melenchon in France.

Everyone who came to power failed, “betrayed” the masses and their principles; with Hugo Chavez (and Maduro) and Lula, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua – the former Sandinista leader who overthrew Somoza in 1979, and now massacres and murders his people who take to the streets to protest; their countries and peoples remained as poor and miserable as before, because they once again applied the same recipes, with new names, “XNUMXst century socialism”, to try to reconcile the irreconcilable: the state economy with the private economy, “mixed companies”, etc. . Syriza in Greece, with Tsimpras, went further: in addition to not fulfilling its program of not paying the debt to the Troika, it did not accept the plebiscite, where the majority of the people said no to paying the debt. Those who did not govern quickly fail, like Podemos in Spain, which opposes the legitimate independence of the Catalan people.

Faced with the multiplication of mass struggles, the most reactionary sectors of the dominant classes, the “extreme right” tries to resolve the capitalist crisis in its own way, trying to break the backbone of the exploited, their unity as a single exploited, working people, dividing immigrants x natives, winning over part of the population for their reactionary speech; the best example was Donald Trump in the United States, but he has his allies in Europe and the rest of the world, such as the genocidal Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

But this is a law of history: either the revolutionaries take power and stop the madness of capitalism or the world will see the excrescence of bourgeois power, governing important countries in the world, imposing more sacrifices and wars on the working people, as we are seeing today in Vladimir Putin's murderous war in Ukraine.

One hundred and forty-one years after the death of Marx, an authentic revolutionary and communist, who never reconciled the interests of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, it is time for a new historical turn. When once again Vladimir Putin's war of prey in Ukraine, which is dragging all of Western imperialism into the war scenario (even if indirectly) and puts more and more war into perspective; when once again the economic crisis of capitalism, which has become chronic, now with the collapse of Silicon Valley's SVP bank, causes more layoffs and more suffering for workers and the masses around the world, it is high time to install a true “Workers' Parliament”, led by authentic and honest revolutionaries, who speak the truth to the masses, who say from the beginning that the exit of workers and poor people from the capitalist world is the distribution of wealth concentrated in the hands of a hundred capitalists and their companies, is the expropriation of the global, transnational, national bourgeoisie. It is high time to avoid the environmental catastrophe that capitalists are spreading across the planet.

Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan “Socialism or Barbarism” can be translated today into “socialism or Catastrophe”. Someone needs to stop the Wall Street bull! Only the proletariat, men and women, with their struggles and their revolutionary organization can do this. The examples of the general strikes in France against the pension reform, the struggle of Iranian women against the Islamic dictatorship of the Ayatollahs, the struggle of the Peruvian people against the repression of Dina Boluarte's government, the workers' strikes that are spreading across the United Kingdom, the heroic struggle of women and the Palestinian people against the Zionist State of Israel since October 7, 2023, which has already claimed more than 30 lives, are all manifestations of this workers' power.

We need to take power, we need an alternative and revolutionary direction to the most diverse bourgeois and petit-bourgeois variants, so opposed by Marx and Engels throughout their lives, especially the class conciliation or Broad Front governments, as we see today in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, which sow illusions and disbelief among the masses, which give space for the most extremist and rotten forms of the bourgeoisie, to refuse to expropriate this ruling class.

Marx, obsessed with workers' power, is more current than ever in all workers' movements, women's movements, oppressed sectors and nationalities, which all over the world face the bourgeoisie and its collaborating agents within the workers' movement. Marx deserved a new Russian Revolution, in its most legitimate authenticity.

 “Proletarians of all countries, Unite!”

*João Santiago is a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA).


[1] Friedrich Engels. Speech before Marx's grave. In: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Selected Works, Volume 2, São: Paulo, Editora Alfa-Omega, pp. 351-352.

[2] Karl Marx, Oeuvres Politique I. Éditions Gallimard: Paris, 1994. Le Mouvement Ouvrier en Anglaterre, pp. 736-760.

[3] Same, Oeuvres Politique I, pp. 754-755.

[4] Marx/Engels (1972). Correspondence, Tome III, Janvier 1852 jun 1853, Editions Sociales, Paris.

[5] Karl Marx, The Civil War in France. Edições Avante, 1983, p. 76.

[6] . On the German revolution, consult Sebastian Haffner, The German Revolution (1918-1919), ExpressãoPopular, 2018. The 2018 French edition translated from the German original with the title Allemagne, 1918: une révolution trahie, “Germany, 2018: a revolution betrayed”, Marseille, Agone, 2018.

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