Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 3 May 2021



The change in strategy that Eduard Bernstein proposed and that was adopted enthusiastically by the German bourgeoisie in its backing of the integration of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) with the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1918 had already been presaged in Friedrich Engels’s 1895 Introduction to the re-edition of Marx’s The Class Struggles in France. Written shortly before his death, this Introduction can be regarded as a last testament on the part of Marx’s lifelong companion, and for that reason alone it received enormous attention in the workers’ movement leading up to the First World War. It is an important document for our purposes because it addresses several analytical themes that are essential to the schematization and periodization of our own study of the origin, formation and seizure of power of revolutionary movements in the totalitarian era between the World Wars. To be sure, Engels had intended his theses to be a mere change of the tactics to be adopted for the transition to communism; but they were never meant as a change of strategy because unlike his assistant Bernstein, whom he appointed as trustee of his intellectual estate, Engels unflinchingly held fast to the theoretical premises of the Marxist critique of capitalism.

In this astoundingly visionary short exposition, Engels owns up to “errors” that he, together with Marx, had committed in the assessment of the political preconditions required and the revolutionary tactics to be adopted for the successful transition to a communist society. Tersely summarized, these errors referred principally to the ability of a minority vanguard or leadership of the working population to lead the majority of the proletariat to a successful revolutionary insurrection, given the spread of capitalist enterprise and the rise of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic political force in control of powerful nation-states with their pervasive bureaucratic apparatus including sizeable standing armies capable of putting down any uprising with overwhelming force. In support of his critical revision, Engels could do no more than to point to the fate of the Paris Commune of 1871 – itself the subject of another Marxian piece on The Civil War in France where the errors of the earlier tract written in 1848 were repeated. As a remedy for these “errors”, Engels proposed a change of tactics toward a more “majoritarian” conquest of power by socialist workers’ parties given that the spread of parliamentary representation and of universal suffrage could not but lead to the gradual political supremacy of the proletariat and its eventual transformation of human society to socialism by either peaceful or, if compelled, revolutionary means.

The reason for us recalling this quite remarkable Introduction by Engels is once again that it presciently identified, with laudable perspicacity, the essential ingredients of the origin and formation of proto-totalitarian regimes in accordance with our thesis on “the primacy of economics” in the first phase – comprising the first two stages – of the historical evolution of these regimes. To repeat, these ingredients are: - (a) the spread of capitalist enterprise; (b) the rise of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic political force within integrated economic regions; (c) the formation of powerful nation-states with their pervasive bureaucratic apparatus to govern and administer these economic regions, including (d) sizeable standing armies capable of putting down any uprising with overwhelming force.

Yet, what Engels leaves out is what his summary of the developments he lists actively implies about the politico-economic evolution of class antagonism within advanced industrial capitalist industry and society. These are crucial omissions the analysis of which, had Engels adverted to them, would have greatly enhanced our understanding of the epochal upheavals that were to afflict Europe and the entire world shortly after his death in 1895 – the same year in which this Introduction was written.

The first major omission relates to Engels’s patent and perhaps ingenuous triumphalism concerning what he thought was the relentless and unstoppable rise of social democracy as a party-political force that would lead inexorably not just to the triumph of socialism in a particular nation, but indeed to its almost imminent triumph in all of Western Europe. In his fatidic forecast, Engels exhibited further “errors” to be added to those he had already conceded with regard to the development of capitalist bourgeois rule and the formation of nation-states with powerful anti-insurrectionary standing armies.

Essentially, Engels failed to recognize that, despite their expanding parliamentary institutions, the very bourgeois nation-states with their standing armies that Engels had identified as the primary reason for the suppression of the 1848 insurrections and the 1871 Paris Commune – these same nation-states could and would incite even more powerful nationalist movements able to defeat the progressive social-democratic proletarian parties and indeed to divide them along nationalistic lines, overriding thereby any “internationalist” solidarity then existing between European working-class and proletarian organizations, both party-political and syndicalist. In his Introduction Engels grossly overstates the ecumenical internationalist strength and solidarity of the European workers’ and proletarian movement whilst wholly neglecting the ability of bourgeois nation-states to instigate, organize and orchestrate nationalist movements capable of exploiting economic tensions between national bourgeoisies that could then erupt into open military conflict. Indeed, the Franco-Prussian War ought to have been foremost in his mind as a redoubtable omen of this quite open possibility.

Furthermore, and this is the second omission, Engels – and in this he had at least the partial excuse that Marx himself had never addressed specifically this essential aspect of capitalist industrial strategy as an aspect of class antagonism – entirely failed to grasp the implications of the tremendous transformation of the industrial capitalist labour process which was to form the basis of what became known as the Second Industrial Revolution – namely, the rapid rise of the “mass worker” (Ungelernt, unskilled) to replace the “artisanal worker” (Gelernt, skilled) exacerbated by the rapid expansion of Taylorism and then Fordism early in the twentieth century. Again, not just Engels, but Marx himself had failed to address in any real detail the importance of the class composition of the working class as the driving force of capitalist industry reflected in the labour process.

Two levels of omissions, then, one driving the other, representing the combined ability of the capitalist bourgeoisie to drive divisions within the global working class through what Marx himself called “the real subsumption of living labour” in the process of production, and therefrom of distribution itself through income policies. And then the ability of the capitalist bourgeoisies organized around existing nation-states as optimal currency areas with separate industrial and financial hinterlands, to sow and spread divisions between separate working classes and their party-political organizations in their external inter-national relations through the exasperation of nationalisms around trade and cultural conflicts.

But a corollary to these failures concerning (a) the potential division and segmentation of the European working-class and proletarian movement along labour-process industrial policies affecting its class composition – skilled, unskilled, unemployed, petty-bourgeois -, and (b) the division within and between proletarian movements along nationalist lines dictated by the organic division of the capitalist class itself along economic regions governed by nation-states – as a corollary and consequence of these realities, Engels failed to perceive how the social-democratic political parties themselves would become entangled and enlisted by the national bourgeoisies by means of the existing nation-state institutions and bureaucracies in the administration of the tremendous processes of industrial re-organization vital to the transformation of capitalist industry broadly comprising what has come to be known as the Second Industrial Revolution!

What we are arguing here is that Engels in particular, and not necessarily Marx who never adverted to this insight, totally neglected the reality or even the possibility that political parties themselves, including working-class parties, to the degree that they had been allowed to be represented in European parliaments as a result of universal suffrage, had now become an extension of the bourgeois State, integrally and organically assimilated in its reproductive and leading function for capitalist social relations of production overall. The integral organicity of political parties as an extension of the capitalist absorption, assimilation and integration of class antagonism within the statal structures of bourgeois parliamentarianism as a system of political institutional control and neutralization of class conflict was clearly one of the further “errors” or omissions committed by Engels in his otherwise encomiable review of Marxian political theory in the Introduction of 1895.

Broadly described, then, we can now number various levels of failures and errors to be added to the ones already identified by Engels in his 1895 Introduction – failures and errors of analysis that, and this is most important, were equally committed not just by Marx and Engels themselves but indeed by the entirety of the European working-class and proletarian movements from the First to the Second Socialist International to the Third or Communist International under the aegis of the Bolshevist-Leninist Party of the Soviet Union. Despite the errors of historical and politico-economic analysis listed above, there remains a residuum of historico-materialist insight in the Engelsian overview of the historical tendency of capitalist societies. This residuum concerns first of all Engels’s correct identification of the early “errors” contained in the historical studies conducted by Marx and himself, in the sense that had it not been for Engels’s correct application of the historico-materialist method, he would not have been able to identify these “errors” so perceptively and perspicaciously. And second, though this may seem paradoxical, the very “error” contained in his excessively optimistic “internationalist” and “gradualist” assessment of the prospects of social democracy in Western Europe, which involved the failure to foresee the aggressive use on the part of “national” bourgeoisies and their state apparatus of “nationalist” movements founded on that “de-composition” of the labour process that would lead to growing and irreparable divisions within and between proletarian political organizations and movements throughout Europe – this very “error” implicated an emphasis on a supranational approach to the analysis of class antagonism in Europe that was fundamentally correct. In both cases – the correct identification of “errors”, and the adoption of an “internationalist” and “gradualist” approach to the strategy of the working class in Europe -, Engels saw right because he attempted to follow the historico-materialist thread that leads the political concentrate of the capitalist mode of production through its economic categories, from the valorization of capital via the production process to its realization in the circulation process, from the “formal subsumption of labour” to its “real subsumption” whereby capital seeks to transform the labour process as an antagonistic strategy to weaken the composition of the working class and subject it to capitalist command. 

Nevertheless, it is certainly true that Marx and Engels and the workers’ movement were unable to detect and attempt to forestall the countermeasures that bourgeois institutions and capitalist industry were already beginning to implement in the opposite direction, that is, the exasperation of chauvinist and nationalist conflicts fomented by means of the breakdown of working-class composition through industrial and income policies; and that this inability meant that this counter-revolutionary and reactionary strategy of the European bourgeoisie went entirely unanswered and unopposed by the workers’ movement in all its manifestations. We shall try to show how the failure on the part of Marx and Engels and of the entire European workers’ movement leading up to and including the Third International to develop an effective historico-materialist or Marxist political theory, and specifically a theory of the bourgeois State as a collective capitalist able to affect and direct the social stratification of society through its social policies, resulted in the inability of this movement to support existing liberal parliamentary institutions and to contrast and defeat totalitarianism.

These errors of analysis do not mean that the historico-materialist method which places the social relations of production well ahead of other broad “cultural” or “political” considerations was also erroneous or inappropriate or even inadequate, as most of the “cultural” and historicist interpretations of revolutionary movements and fascism are keen to suggest! In an effort to prove our thesis, our next task will be therefore to trace the evolution of capitalist enterprise from the concentration of workers under one factory roof, to the concentration of capitals and the formation of social capital by means of credit, finance and the average rate of profit. We shall demonstrate that it is the transformation or evolution or development of capitalist social relations of production that direct or determine corresponding developments in the political and cultural spheres, and not the other way round, as exponents of the historicist school so loudly propound.

These organic institutional features of capitalist command over living labour in the production and distribution processes need to be linked to the establishment of capitalist command over a determinate territorial hinterland related principally to the mobility of the labour force and the availability of other resources for production as well as “markets” for the sale of commodities. Control over this economic hinterland enables the formation of a bourgeois class and the erection of a state-form or nation-state equipped with a strong centralized bureaucracy and above all an imponent standing army to police the hinterland. It is the drawing of this nexus between economic hinterland, bourgeoisie, nation-state, and finally all the other “cultural” and ideological manifestations of the bourgeois capitalist State, from nationalism to racism and expansionism, that will help us identify the origins, formation and development of revolutionary movements that lead to totalitarian dictatorship.

The obvious aim of this tracing of complex politico-economic links is to establish a historical relation between the development of capitalist industry and the nation-state, and then between nation-state and nationalism leading to the extreme totalitarian deviations of revolutionary movements. Indeed, we may claim that the greatest failure of Marxism overall was to overlook if not completely ignore the problem of the “statality” of capital, that is, the precise political institutional methods through which the capitalist bourgeoisie governs and dominates the society of capital not as a coalition or “committee” (Marx) of private producers but as a State able to muster and summon all the resources available to a society.

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