Critically Disjoint Consciousness

In February 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published The Communist Manifesto. Outlining a new socialism, the Manifesto saw the ascendant role of labor, soon to throw off the oppression of capital, itself doomed by economic realities. For seventy years and despite widespread attention, no lasting revolution established the promised "dictatorship of the proletariat." From the revolutions of 1848, to the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, to the controversial Erfurt Program of 1891, to the French syndicalists' failed general strike of 1906, to the dissolution of the Second International on the brink of First World War, the message of Marx has been embraced and applied, espoused and ignored, refuted and revamped.

After the dust settled from the 1848 uprisings, the critical test for the Marxists and the International came with the French insurrection at Paris, where the besieged city turned the "Imperialist war into class war," as V. I. Lenin called his own revolution forty years later, by a curious cooperation of socialists and latter-day Jacobins. The communards, with their short time in control, established a rule of law that in many ways reflected the Manifesto, and which Marx thoroughly praised. In the March elections to the National Assembly, all residents of the Republic were granted suffrage, electing officials by direct election and with the option of recall. The Commune's reform of education, the judiciary and civil service moved to free officials from undue influences, yet hold all fully accountable to the communards at large (8A:a, 260) Applying a progressive income tax, the Commune further carried strove to the social revolution of the Manifesto, a tide evident in an April 5, 1871 declaration by the Central Committee to the citizenry. This address drew parallels between the French Revolution of 1789, "the great days of sublime courage and heroism," and the Commune, engaged in "all-out war, a war between parasites and workers, exploiters and producers" (8A:b, 261).

Naturally, the leaders of the International were keenly interested in the events and results of the Paris Commune, a contemporary case study in massive social upheaval and the results of revolutionary class-consciousness. In an address to the General Council of the International Working Men's Association on May 30, 1871, soon after the bloody fall of the Commune, Marx undertook to explain the events of the Commune in the context of socialism. The communards had acted much as Marx envisioned the proletariat to seize power, first by "suppression of the standing army and the substitution for it of the armed people" (Marx, "The Civil War in France," 632). Similarly, Marx lauded the anti-religious movements to freedom, "anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the 'parson-power,' by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies" (632). Above all, however, Marx saw in the Commune the real actions of the oppressed proletariat, which "did not expect miracles from the Commune. It had no ready-made utopias to introduce by decree of the people," but rather would transform itself naturally, having been freed from the oppression of the capitalist (635). Marx then proceeded to glorify the martyrs of the Commune as the heroes of the international proletariat, finally reasserting the unavoidable roots of such resistance: "In order to stamp the International out, the Governments would have to stamp out the despotism of capital over labour – the condition of their own parasitical existence" (652).

During this time of definition for the socialist labor movement, and of the International in particular, Marx met significant opposition in the Russian anarchist socialist Mikhail Bakunin, who, concerned with the peasant-dominated populations of Eastern Europe, Russia, and France, felt that the Marxist mantra of "dictatorship of the proletariat" held an implication that the proletariat would form a new oppressor class, now turned against the backward peasantry. In his polemic Marxism, Freedom and the State, Bakunin attacked Marx's approach to the class conflict as one of German nationalism, through application of the German model of socialism, disregarding the particulars of various countries, by which a "Pan-German State" would be effected. While he saw that "that masses, without distinction of culture, religious beliefs, country and speech, had understood the language of the International when it spoke to them of their…slavery under the yoke of Capitalism," they did not understand the "authoritarian political program…in the name of their own salvation" (Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State, Ch. IV). His concerns centered very much on the position of the peasantry in a post-revolution world, a class that Marx considered petty bourgeois, since they often held small parcels of land. Marx eventually published a refutation of Bakunin's charges, after Bakunin released Statism and Anarchy in 1873. In that book, Bakunin attacked the basic concept of representative democracy, "the rule of the great masses of the people by a privileged minority…who, as soon as they become the rulers of the representatives of the people, will cease to be workers and will look down at the plain working masses" (Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy).

In his response, Marx systematically answered each critique, often with acerbic mockery. Bakunin's mistake, Marx says, is to judge the concepts of State and elections from the existing structure of class conflict, without which the processes make decisions without oppression. Tellingly, Marx notes that "the class domination of the workers over the resisting strata of the old world must last until the economic foundations of the existence of classes are destroyed"; implying that the peasantry must be expropriated and collectivized before joining in the proletariat (Marx, "After the Revolution," 547). Soon thereafter, the First International dissolved in the midst of the Bakunin/Marx schism.

Nearly twenty years later, socialism was frozen into the platform of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Erfurt Program. Written in 1891 by the Austrian socialist Karl Kautsky, the Program has little internal coherence, as it tries to balance traditional Marxist goals with less direct approaches to their realization. While the Program bears a preface that illustrates the internation class struggle and the necessity for a proletarian uprising, Kautsky quickly moves into the more comfortable language of political action— reform: "The working class cannot carry on its economic battles or develop its economic organization without political rights" (8B, 265) Of course, this is dependent on the viability of political power as a force for change, which Marx denies in the Manifesto, "Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another" (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 31). The remaining items of the Program offer little for traditional Marxists, only the usual equal treatment under the law and workplace reforms for safety.

Tempered by this widely appealing and generally acceptable enumeration in the latter half of the Program, the SPD failed to effectively espouse Marxism. The "political battle" (8B, 265) is entirely dependent on the idea that the "class antagonisms" (Marx, Manifesto, 31) will be dissolved by reform. By demanding something short of the expropriation of the expropriators, Kautsky ensured the continued subservience and weakness of the proletariat. Half-measures amount to appeasement, by which reformers might comfortably hide in inaction. The effectiveness of the Erfurt Program is wholly predicated on the imminent end of capitalism, and so it only seeks to ameliorate the present condition of the proletariat.

Similarly trusting in the potential of political reform, the economist Eduard Bernstein published his own piece, Evolutionary Socialism, in 1899. Bernstein, on reevaluating the economic situation, determined that capitalism was not doomed to fall of its own design. From this, he tried to develop an approach to social betterment not predicated on the collapse of capitalism. He did not, however, consider the necessary approach to be revolution, but reform. The new goal of socialism is framed as "a more just distribution," without the ascendancy of the proletariat to power, but just to influence (8E, 274). Bernstein shirks from advocating strong unions, with worries that a union controlling an industry is no better than a corporation, perhaps drawn from past experiences with oligarchical unions. Stated another way, his new goal is that "the worker…moves from being a proletarian to being a citizen" (276). Without any justification, Bernstein remolds the socialist goal to be enfranchisement into democracy, with the implication that it would suffice to end the exploitation of the proletariat. Most shocking, he discards internationalism – the international class war, in opposition to capitalist globalism – to support the commercial interests of Germany in China (276). Indeed, it is difficult to see Bernstein as anything more than a capitalist with an eye toward workers' welfare. While Bernstein met resistance in the party, he continued to be involved in the SPD organization.

The fragmentation and dilution of the socialist labor movement eventually led to a distasterous strike in all of France, where the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) attempted a general strike, demanding the eight-hour day, with the thought that a shorter working day decreases the capitalist's profits, eventually forcing the collapse of the capitalist system, in grand Marxist fashion. Started on May 1, 1906, the strike was over by the end of the month, with few or no concessions from employers in most industries. In its aims, the CGT clearly understood the path they chose: "The conquest of the eight-hour day is a step on the road to human emancipation. This step crossed, we'll continue, strengthened by the struggle, our organizational work for new victories, until the complete abolition of wage labor" (8G, 282). The CGT, however, apparently had little staying power— by May 4, the mechanics' union had already compromised for nine hours a day. Worst of all, though, it became apparent that they had failed to educate the proletariat and instill class-consciousness; an automotive worker, speaking at a meeting, noted, "I deplore the attitude of those workers who have decreed a strike without engaging in preliminary negotiations with the employers…The leaders of the strike favor foreign competition" (8G, 283). Evidently, the worker had no concept of the Marxist interpretation of the situation, for there is no common ground between the employers and workers, as Marx explained in 1847: "The interests of capital conditions those of the workers, just as usurer and squanderer condition each other." (Marx, Foreign Labor and Capital, 210). Further, foreign competition is the worry of a capitalist; as an international class, the proletariat has no nation, only local and foreign oppressors.

Marx's vision for the workers' revolution was slowly emasculated, as the parties opted out of the nasty business of revolution, and eventually out of drastic change, in favor of today's dominant form, evolutionary socialism. At fault has been the misunderstanding of the potential in reform, by which the erstwhile revolutionary becomes convinced that the system will tolerate a complete reformation, in the literal sense of forming altogether anew. By this fundamental misappraisal, class-consciousness is no longer paired with revolution, but with instead satiating reforms.

  • Bakunin, Mikhail. Marxism, Freedom and the State. 1867-1872. Trans. K. J. Kenafick. Marxists Internet Archive. 2003. Marxists Internet Archive. 5 April 2003 .
  • Bakunin, Mikhail. Statism and Anarchy. 1873. Trans. Sam Dolgoff. Marxists Internet Archive. 2003. Marxists Internet Archive. 5 April 2003 .
  • Marx, Karl. "After the Revolution: Marx Debates Bakunin". 1875. The Marx and Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 542-548.
  • Marx, Karl. "The Civil War in France." 1871. The Marx and Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 618-652.
  • Marx, Karl. Wage Labour and Capital. 1847. The Marx and Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 203-217.
  • 8A: Edwards, Stewart, ed. Documents of Revolution: The Communards of Paris, 1871. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973.
    • a: "Statement of Principles of the Republican, Democratic, and Socialist Central Electoral Committee of the 11th Arrondisement of the City of Paris". 26 March 1871.
    • b: "Declaration by the Central Committee of the Paris National Guard". 5 April 1871.
  • 8B: Kautsky, Karl. "The Erfurt Program". 1891. "Not One Man, Not One Penny!" German Social Democracy, 1863-1914. Ed. Gary Steenson. Pittsburgh: U Pittsburgh, 1981.
  • 8E: Bernstein, Eduard. Evolutionary Socialism. 1899. Trans. Edith Harvey. London: Independent Labour Party, 1909.
  • 8G: Stearns, Peter, ed. The Impact of the Industrial Revolution. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.