Are revolutions still possible?



Marx and Engels and the anti-capitalist revolutions

“When after June the first great battle for power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie took place in Paris, when the very victory of their class shook the bourgeoisie of all countries to such an extent that it once again took refuge in the arms of monarchical reaction. feudal war that was barely about to be overthrown, we could have no doubt, in the circumstances of the time, that the great decisive struggle had begun, that it was necessary to fight it in a single long revolutionary period full of alternatives, but that it could only end for the definitive victory of the proletariat (…) History contradicted us, as well as everyone who thought in a similar way. It clearly demonstrated that the state of economic development on the continent was still very far from the maturity necessary for the suppression of capitalist production; demonstrated this by the economic revolution that, from 1848 onwards, took over the entire continent (…) making Germany an industrial country of the first order, all of this on a capitalist basis, which means that these bases still had, in 1848 , great expansion capacity” (Friedrich Engels. Introduction to Class struggles in France).

In 1895, Friedrich Engels admitted that the expectations he and Karl Marx had about France had been frustrated. The hypotheses he and Marx made about the dynamics of the revolutions in Paris, both in 1848 and 1871, were exaggerated. They concluded that anti-capitalist revolutions would be “majority revolutions”, but that would not make them any less difficult. It should not surprise us that the Marxist generations that inherited the defense of his legacy also made mistakes due to excessive optimism.

Revolutionaries are militants who are “in a hurry”. The commitment to the project of socialist transformation rests on “hope suspended in time”. The world we live in is too cruel for us to take refuge in “intelligent” skepticism. Let's leave pessimism for better days, said Frei Beto.

But let us state the issue: the Marxist elaboration that recognized, at a high degree of abstraction in the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the opening of an era of social revolution, that is, a more or less long period, in which objective conditions, in the sense of economic-social conditions, would be mature, in the most advanced countries, since the middle of the XNUMXth century, remains an inspiration for XNUMXst century socialists? In a word: are revolutions still possible?

One of the greatest dangers of Marxist inquiry is anachronism. It is not an uncommon mistake because it is very difficult to free ourselves from the ideas of our time. They dominate our minds, sometimes imperceptibly. We are led by them, like children on the beach who are dragged by the force of the tides, and discover themselves, surprised, very far from the place on the sand that should be their point of reference. They are an inescapable part of what defines us.

The articles by Karl Marx that Friedrich Engels brought together in 1895 under the title of Class struggles in France, and for whom he wrote the famous Introduction, which became known as his political testament, go beyond a historical interpretation, and delve into a theory about alienation, outlined in the Manuscripts and radicalized into The German Ideology about the limits of social consciousness. They problematize ideology as a concealment of a contradictory and inverted reality. In other words, as an imaginary representation of the real. In other words, it recognizes that the fighting classes make history, but they fight on a terrain defined by the limits that the ideologies of their time establish: they fight on a terrain of illusions.

The classic reference for the discussion on ideology and class consciousness is the work of György Lukács from 1922, which more for its virtues than for its limitations, was severely criticized, even by himself, with bitterness, as can be seen in this passage of the 1967 preface, as being a Hegelian ideologization of the proletariat, and therefore a concession to a “finalist” vision of history. Forty-five years later, under the impact of two more decades of relative passivity and social pact in the West, the old Lukács, would admit that perhaps his work of greatest theoretical significance was pregnant with a teleological vision of the proletariat's protagonism. Perhaps, on the other hand, the historical interval, for a definitive assessment, is still too short. Maybe not.[I]

Friedrich Engels confesses, in the “Introduction”, that the assessments he and Marx shared in the heat of the Paris Commune process in 1871 were not immune to the pressures of circumstances. But anachronism can, so to speak, go both ways. And it is so dangerous to displace ideas from the historical context in which they are inserted, which invariably diminishes the event, the process, the author or the work, divorced from the relationships that explain them, projecting onto the past a set of concerns of the present that are foreign to him, as well as the opposite. Being a Marxist is not repeating what the classics wrote. It’s about understanding how they thought.

The famous testament is an inflection in the indications that Marx, and Engels himself, had previously elaborated on the relations between historical times and the political times of the post-capitalist transition. The most valuable idea is the understanding of the socialist revolution as a majority revolution. These new reflections had as a reference the reality of the German party that had, for the first time, gained mass influence and became an objective element of grand politics. But they will not find themselves in it in advance, before la lettre, the programmatic discussions that twenty years later would irreversibly divide Marxism between reformists and revolutionaries. This line of interpretation has already been tested and its results are not convincing.

But it was not, gratuitously, that we sought in his writings a point of support for today's controversies. The weight of the past, and the ideas of the past, govern the imagination of the present, and each generation has its own challenge of reinterpreting the memory of tradition, which is legitimate and necessary. However, every theoretical-political tradition, especially the Marxist one, should be “open”, in the sense that it is a work under construction, therefore, permanently in dispute. The use of arguments from authority, however, has its limits. But it would be naive to ignore that the temptation is great, because the presence of Marx or Engels, as allies or adversaries, enhances any exhibition. Historical knowledge is always and only knowledge of the past.[ii] 

Already in 1848, when the The Manifest, the topical theme of the revolution is inseparable from other evaluations, which guide the political thinking of Marx and Engels on strategic hypotheses. And about the times, tasks and social subjects of the revolution that are expected to be on the horizon. And, more interestingly, they foresee a revolutionary process in the form of two waves: because they work on the concept of epoch associated with that of stages, a sub-period within epochs, which corresponds to the overlapping of times determined by uneven economic-social development (delays historical factors imposed by the forces of social inertia); and also due to the diversity of paths of political evolution (the bourgeois hesitation or resistance in diving into the revolutionary path.

We find a reflection on the model of the great French revolution, the Jacobin formula, which would have revealed the existence of internal tendencies to the dynamics of the revolutionary process, which develops permanently, and which will be translated into the Message of 1850 to the League of Communists, in defense of the necessary uninterrupted radicalization of the democratic revolution into a proletarian revolution, that is, the perspective of permanent revolution.[iii]

“But these demands cannot satisfy the party of the proletariat in any way. While the petty bourgeois democrats want to conclude the revolution as quickly as possible (…) our interests and our tasks consist in making the revolution permanent until the domination of the more or less possessing classes is eliminated, until the proletariat conquers the Power of the State, until the association of proletarians develops, not only in one country, but in all the predominant countries of the world, in such proportions that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases, and until at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletariat. For us, it is not about reforming private property, but about abolishing it; It is not about alleviating class antagonisms, but about abolishing classes; It is not about improving the existing society, but about establishing a new one.”[iv]

There is, however, a controversy of historical interpretation regarding the expectations that Marx maintained when writing the message in relation to the role that the bourgeoisie could or could not play in the revolutionary process.[v] The reading that seems to be most widely documented and rigorous, in this as in other Marxological controversies, is that of Hal Draper:[vi] “The bourgeoisie refuses to “do its duty”. We saw how confidently Marx and Engels predicted that the bourgeoisie had no alternative but to carry out a political revolution that would put it in power and introduce a constitutional-liberal regime. We saw that they were fully aware of how timid this bourgeoisie was and how much they feared the threat from the proletariat behind them; but this still did not lead them to conclude that the bourgeoisie could refuse to carry out its historic task. He suggested to them that the initial task of the proletariat (or “the people”) could be to push the bourgeoisie from behind. But one way or another, the result would be “not what the bourgeoisie just wants, but rather what they must do. “It was only in the course of the revolution itself that they discovered that the bourgeoisie did not recognize “ought”.[vii]

In other words, at least during the years of the 1848 revolution, they nurtured two perspectives that were linked to each other: (a) the understanding that the fight against absolutism and for democracy could only triumph with revolutionary methods, that is, the need to a revolution for democracy, which is analyzed in the Message, especially for Germany, but the criterion was the same for France, as the anteroom of the proletarian revolution, that a program of struggle for two revolutions must be completed, or two waves of an uninterrupted process, although with an abbreviated interval between them; (b) the understanding that there is a historical challenge to be overcome: the construction of class political independence, a sine qua non condition, so that the radicalization mechanism that, roughly speaking, could be qualified as the “Jacobin formula”, does not result in a strangulation of the proletarian revolution, that is, in a new thermidor, and on the contrary, guarantee the continuous mobilization of workers for their demands and anticipate and shorten the interval between the two revolutions.

In the appreciation of Friedrich Engels that we present below, there are several elements that deserve attention. Firstly, an assessment of the dynamics of the revolution's permanence that is based on the premise that bourgeois revolutions were minority revolutions that needed, yes or yes, to mobilize the majorities for their project of conquering power, to ensure the defeat of ancient regime. But once victory was guaranteed, they got rid of their most radical leaders.

The exhaustion of the people's revolutionary energies, which after the phase of greatest enthusiasm, plunged into an interval of fatigue or depression allowed social stabilization. They managed to consolidate the vital achievements of the first moderate phase, and reverse the radical concessions of the second. Between the objective elements (historical necessity) and the subjective ones (the fatigue of popular mobilization, and the excesses of radicals), Friedrich Engels defines the first as decisive, and the second as “dust of history”, or “cries of betrayal or bad luck".

We will see how this dialectic of causalities is inverted, when, in the same “Introduction”, Friedrich Engels refers to the new difficulties he foresees in the face of proletarian revolutions, majority revolutions: “After the first great success, the victorious minority used to split apart. : one of the halves was satisfied with the results obtained; the other wanted to go further, presenting new demands that, at least in part, corresponded to the real or apparent interest of the great mass of the people. These more radical demands were also imposed in certain cases, but often only for a moment; the more moderate party regained supremacy and the last achievements were once again lost in whole or in part; The defeated then shouted that there had been betrayal or blamed bad luck for the defeat. In reality, however, the facts almost always happened like this: the achievements of the first victory were only assured by the second victory of the more radical party; Once this was achieved, and therefore what was necessary achieved, for the moment, the radical elements left the scene and their successes followed them. All the revolutions of modern times, starting with the great English Revolution of the XNUMXth century, presented these characteristics that seemed inseparable from any revolutionary struggle. They also seemed applicable to the struggles of the proletariat for its emancipation.”[viii]

The first historical prognosis was not confirmed. The second half of the XNUMXth century demonstrated that revolution was not the first, nor, much less, the only path for the late bourgeoisies, with the exception of the civil war in the USA, which can be interpreted as the second American revolution, and the “transitions “late” found a historical path, “from above”, as in Italy and Germany, to open the way.

A balance of the mechanism of permanence within the revolutionary process prevailed, still inspired by the French model, but now with the vital questioning about the differences that could exist (as a speculation for the future) between a different dynamic in minority revolutions (the bourgeois) and majority (proletarian) revolutions: “A dominant minority was overthrown and another minority took the helm of the State into its hands and transformed public institutions according to its interests (…) However, if we abstract the concrete content of each case , the common form of all these revolutions was that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority provided its collaboration, it did so – consciously or unconsciously – at the service of a minority; but this one, whether put it that way or because of the passive and non-resistant attitude of the majority, appeared to represent the entire people.”[ix]

The conception of revolution in 1848-50 has at its center a thought that, at least in relation to the continent, outlines the perspective of a process of two political revolutions linked together, sequenced, uninterrupted, which is inspired by the dominant pattern in extremist circles of the mid of the last century, which, in turn, derived from the historical experience of the French model of 1789/93.

 At least in relation to the continent, because there are, in some passages, ambiguous or inconclusive formulations, which fueled the idea that Marx would not have ruled out the possibility, even if exceptional, of a peaceful and democratic transition to socialism, and which would indicate a distinct strategic hypothesis in relation to England and the USA, the so-called “English way”: a non-revolutionary strategy of historical transition, supported by the extension of democratic freedoms, the unrestricted expansion of the right to universal suffrage, and the conquest of political power, supported by the weight social status of the proletariat.

Ultimately, a reinterpretation of the terms of the relationship between democracy and revolution, in which the second would be subsumed in the first. The question in Marx seems, however, to be restricted to the possibility of achieving democracy, without resorting to the methods of revolution, which is evidently very different, from thinking about the transition to socialism without rupture.

What could certainly be said with a small margin of error is that: (a) unlike the continent, in countries such as England, the USA and the Netherlands, where the historical resistance of aristocratic social forces and absolutist political forces were minor or residual, Marx considered it reasonable to think, based on the experience of Chartism, about the conquest of democracy without a political revolution being necessarily indispensable, a hypothesis, in fact, that of exceptionality, confirmed by history, although curiously in an unexpected way, because in the USA, a revolution was finally necessary, as in Germany, which only overthrew the Bonapartist regime with the revolution of 1848;

(b) the hypothesis that the workers' party could win elections and become a majority political force in more developed countries, if electoral suffrage were extended without census restrictions, which would not fail to raise the problem of revolution, but it would necessarily redefine it in the field of tactics.

But only the astonishing capacity for historical anticipation, the rigor of the method that allows for visionary forecasts, together with a theoretical audacity, which is always alert to new developments in reality, can explain why Marx and Engels, in the mid-XNUMXth century, prefigured some of the elements that will be key to understanding the internal dynamics of the revolutions of the XNUMXth century. XX.

* Valerio Arcary is a retired professor of history at the IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo). []


[I] Lukács writes: “Both for its influence on its time and for its possible current relevance, there is one problem that is important above all (…) that of alienation, which was studied here, for the first time since Marx, as a central question of the revolution .(…) today it is not very difficult to see that he moves entirely in accordance with Hegel's spirit. Its ultimate philosophical foundation, mainly, is the identical subject-object that takes place in the historical process. It is true that in Hegel's thought the genesis of the identical subject-object is of a logical-philosophical nature, since the conquest of the supreme stage of the absolute Spirit in philosophy, with the retro-capture of estrangement or alienation, with the return of the self - consciousness for itself, is what realizes the identical subject-object. On the other hand, in History and class consciousness this process is assumed to be historical-social, and culminates in the fact that the proletariat, becoming an identical subject-object of history, carries out this stage in its class consciousness. With this it seems that Hegel was effectively put “on his feet”; It seems that the logical-metaphysical construction of Phenomenology of Spirit found an ontologically authentic realization in the being and consciousness of the proletariat, which, in turn, seems to give foundation to the historical mission of the proletariat to produce with its revolution the classless society, to complete the “prehistory” of humanity. But is subject-object identity really something more than a purely metaphysical construct? Is an identical subject-object really produced in a self-knowledge, however perfect and adequate it may be, and even if it is based on an adequate knowledge of the social world, that is, even if this self-knowledge occurs in the most consummate self-consciousness? All we have to do is ask the question precisely and we will be forced to respond negatively. For however much the content of knowledge refers to the knowing subject, the act of knowing does not thereby lose its alienated character”. LUKÁCS, Georgy. History and Class Consciousness. Barcelona, ​​Orbis, 1985, p. 20-21.

[ii] There was and still exists a dangerous simplification of what is understood as the indivisibility between theory and practice in Marxist thought, and which involves a reflection on praxis and time. Knowledge is by definition, as we know, a process. Among other things, saying that it is a process means respecting a series of “safety” criteria that make it possible to determine whether the subject has not imitated the object. One of these elementary criteria is the distance in relation to the object, above all, the distance in time. But it is undervalued. The possibility of knowledge of the past, by the very nature of its past reality, allows us to distance ourselves from the pressure of conflicts, and the representation that the actors immersed in the struggle constructed about themselves and their interests, which is always superior to attempts to analysis of the present. It's incredible how neglected this issue is. Perry Anderson's considerations are thus illuminating, for a Marxism that intends to overcome theoretical limits, without falling into symmetrical, that is, empiricist, vices: “If the correct designation of Marxism is historical materialism, it will have to be – above all – a theory of history. However, history is – par excellence – the past. Evidently, the present and the future are also historical, and it is to these that the traditional principles of the role of practice within Marxism involuntarily refer. But the past cannot be changed by any present practice. Its events will always be reinterpreted and its times rediscovered by subsequent generations: they cannot be altered, whatever the materialist conception that approaches them. Politically, the fate of living men and women – in the current and foreseeable future is immeasurably more important to a socialist than any other consideration. However, scientifically, the main domain of knowledge susceptible to investigation is the kingdom of the dead. The past, which cannot be corrected or destroyed, can be known with greater certainty than the present, whose actions have yet to be processed, and beyond. Thus, there will continue to be a disparity between knowledge and action, theory and practice, for any possible science of history. No responsible Marxism (…) can be reduced to “analysis of the current situation” (…) By definition, everything current soon passes.” (ANDERSON, Perry. Thoughts on Western Marxism. Lisboa, Afrontamento, 1976, p. 142).

[iii] As today the expression “permanent revolution” is irreversibly associated with the political tradition inspired by the thought of Léon Trotsky, some clarifications are essential to avoid confusion. The concept of “permanent revolution” was current in leftist circles at the end of the forties, and its origin, contrary to a recurring historical myth, was not Blanquist. More than a historical reference, it was a slogan in widespread use, and very widely accepted, beyond communist circles, even among some democrats, apparently as an inheritance from contemporary literature of the French revolution. Even so, its use was not just a literary resource at the end of the Message, because it was opposed to at least two other strategic conceptions: (a) that of the radical democrats (in France, the Ledru-Rollin group, closest heirs of the tradition Jacobin) who defended in some way a social republic for the future, but who were committed body and soul to the prospect that the liberal bourgeoisie would come to power through a revolution and consolidate the democratic republic for an entire historical period; (b) another was the position of those who denied the need or even the possibility of a bourgeois revolution, even in a first democratic phase of the revolutionary process, such as the Blanquists, and who defended the imminence, without mediation, of the communist revolution. Next we have the last paragraph of the Message: “But the maximum contribution to the final victory will be made by the German workers themselves, becoming aware of their class interests, occupying as soon as possible a position independent of party and preventing the hypocritical phrases of the Democrats petty bourgeoisie to take them away for even a moment from the task of organizing the party of the proletariat in complete independence. Its battle cry must be: permanent revolution.” (MARX, Karl and ENGELS, Friedrich. “Message from the central committee to the League of Communists” In: Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, p. 92).

[iv] MARX, Karl and ENGELS, Friedrich. “Message from the central committee to the Communist League” In: Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, p.86.

[v] It seems quite reasonable to conclude that the attitude of Marx and Engels regarding bourgeois protagonism in the democratic revolution was changing, and that the initial expectations, which were important, later gave way to profound pessimism. Brossat's very serious study moves in this direction and differentiates Germany from France: “It is clear, therefore, that Marx and Engels, during periods of revolutionary crisis, clearly understood the scheme of the transgrowth of the unfinished bourgeois revolution into revolution proletaria, is to decide, the recovery by the proletariat of the antorcha of revolutionary radicalism of the weakened hands of the bourgeoisie. But this scheme and practical perspectives that derive from this – absolute need for political and organizational independence of the working class, specific slogans, separate candidates for elections, autonomous armament, etc. – they are defined in terms of historical necessity, in relation to an indefinite and indefinite period, but not in relation to the actuality of this overcoming. Even though they accurately define the profile of the transgrowth of the bourgeois revolution into the proletarian revolution on the scale of the historical period, Marx and Engels are involved in the atoll of the revolution that is ending, and in this sense their permanentist conceptions constitute in essence an example of it art of anticipation. This is what teaches, on the other hand, the evolution of his actions in 1848. At the beginning of the revolution, as editors of the New Gaceta del Rin, he commanded the German proletariat to observe the greatest prudence, and he advised him to avoid everything he could break the “single front” with the bourgeoisie, which then, despite the French, was still capable, according to them, of playing a revolutionary role. The proletariat forms a united front with the bourgeoisie while the bourgeoisie plays a revolutionary role. Wherever the bourgeoisie is in power, the fight must be unleashed against it. In Germany, this fight cannot be started, but it still has to be started. The situation is very different in France and England.” (BROSSAT, Alain. At the origins of the permanent revolution: the political thinking of young Trotsky. Madrid, Siglo XXI, 1976, p.16)

[vi] As the topic is controversial, it is also worth checking the opinion of Michael Löwy who argues that when writing the Message, Marx no longer had expectations that the bourgeoisie could play a revolutionary role. The question is not irrelevant because it summarizes an appreciation of the time: “The central idea of ​​the Message is “permanently making the revolution” leading to the taking of power by the proletariat, throwing power, one after the other, to the possessing classes; This theme is not in contradiction with the Manifesto, which also suggests a continuity of the revolutionary process: the bourgeois revolution as an immediate prelude to a socialist revolution. The essential difference, in relation to 1848, is that now Marx does not say “ponerse alongside the bourgeoisie”, “when this takes a revolutionary act”, for the excellent reason that he does not believe that the bourgeoisie is capable of adopt a “revolutionary attitude”. (emphasis added) LÖWY, Michael. The theory of revolution in the young Marx. Buenos Aires, SIGLO XXI, 1972, p.233.

[vii] DRAPER, Hal. Karl Marx's theory of revolution. New york, Monthly review press, 1978. p. 219.

[viii] ENGELS, Friedrich. Introduction to “Class struggles in France”, also known as his “Political Testament of 95” In MARX and ENGELS. Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, p.97-8)

[ix] Engels, however, relativizes the balance, placing it within the framework of minority revolutions, and leaving it open that in majority revolutions, the mechanism of permanence could be different: “But history has also contradicted us, revealing that our point was an illusion. view of that time. It went even further: not only did it dispel our previous error, but it also completely subverted the conditions under which the proletariat must fight. The 1848 mode of struggle is now obsolete in every respect, and this is a point that deserves to be examined in more detail (…) All revolutions to date have been reduced to the overthrow of the dominance of a specific class and its replacement by another ; but, until now, all the ruling classes were only small minorities compared to the dominated mass of the people. This minority was always the group that had qualified for domination and was called to it by the conditions of economic development, which is precisely why, and only because of this, that, when the collapse occurred, the dominated majority either had a favorable participation to the minority or, at least he accepted it, peacefully.” ENGELS, Friedrich. “Introduction to The Class Struggle in France” In MARX and ENGELS. Selected Works. São Paulo, Alfa-Omega, vol.1, p. 97.

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