Last week in my Contemporary European Philosophy class we discussed Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto. One question we raised toward the end was why Marx and Engels rejected achieving socialism by democratic and reformist methods. Why the insistence upon violent revolution?
Here’s Marx in an 1848 newspaper article: “there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.”
One set of reasons we considered in class was about impatience with political change in a democracy or republic. To be successful in those systems, socialists must first get organized. But that will take time, and they will lose elections. Finally, they’ll win some elections, but still be a minority in the lower legislative chamber. After more time, they’ll get a majority in the lower chamber, but legislation will be vetoed by the upper chamber. Eventually the socialists may also get a majority in the upper chamber, but their bills will be vetoed by the president and/or the judiciary. At the same time, the education and journalism establishments will be against socialism or become reformist slowly. Even if socialists overcome all of the above obstacles, the rich bourgeoisie will bribe whomever to stay in power. Or they’ll use the police and military to suppress threats. Who has the patience to endure all of that?
But for Marxism there is stronger philosophical reason that rules out democratic reformism: environmental determinism. Marx holds that except as a malleable potential, there is no human nature — “the human essence has no true reality,” wrote the early Marx. Consequently, humans are plastic and shaped by their circumstances. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their lives,” Marx wrote, “but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
The word “social” is important in that quotation: the determining circumstances are fundamentally social. Marx sees individuals as vehicles of collectives and not as autonomous individuals: “Activity and mind are social in their content as well as in their origin; they are a social activity and social mind.” And again: the individual “exists in reality as the representation and the real mind of social existence.”
Further, it is their economic circumstances that are the fundamental social-environmental forces. In Marx’s words, for example: “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.”
So Marxism is committed to collective, economic determinism. Anyone’s belief system is a necessary consequence of their economic social being. What we think is true, reasonable, and good is determined by the economic circumstances in which we are raised.
What of the capitalist economic system in particular? Marx holds that capitalism divides people into polarized economic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Members of the two classes are born and raised in fundamentally different and opposed economic circumstances. “In proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the laborer must grow worse. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery at the opposite pole.” This set of economic circumstances combined with environmental determinism means that the bourgeoisie are conditioned to one set of truths about what’s reasonable and good while the proletariat are conditioned to an opposite set of truths about what’s reasonable and good.
Given their conditioning, there is no way for individuals of different classes to communicate effectively with each other, to understand the other’s position, to change the other’s mind. Each side has been molded to embody an opposed set of beliefs.
It follows that for Marxism the democratic process is a pointless sham. Democracy presupposes the effectiveness of reason — that individuals can observe, think, and judge for themselves, that they can learn from experience, be open to argument, and change their minds. Marxism, however, rules that out on epistemological principle: knowledge is conditioning, not rational judgment.
In final consequence, it follows that when differently-conditioned individuals meet, the conflict can be resolved only by force. Socialists cannot argue capitalists into socialism. They cannot objectively present reasons or appeal to reason. They can only take over by violence and remove their social enemies. As Engels put it longingly in 1849:
“The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward” (“The Magyar Struggle”).
That’s also a big part of the explanation for the post-Marx-and-Engels socialist tradition of violence: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Guzmán, Hobsbawm, and the rest of that long, long, list. Often, philosophy drives politics.
“The Crisis of Socialism” [pdf]. Chapter Five of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.