Marx’s philosophy and the *necessity* of violent politics

Last week in my Contemporary European Philosophy class we discussed Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto. marx_terror_quote-150px1One 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. marx-chair-150pxEven 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.”

engels-marxFurther, 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.marx-cropped

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:

marxists-circle“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.

10 thoughts on “Marx’s philosophy and the *necessity* of violent politics

  • February 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Many readers will be familiar with this quote but it bears repeating in this context. Those confident of their logic do not typically feel the need to undermine it with subterfuges like polylogism.

    “Marxism is a revolutionary doctrine. It expressly declares that the design of the prime mover will be accomplished by civil war… The liquidation of all dissenters will establish the undisputed supremacy of the absolute eternal values. This formula for the solution of conflicts of value judgments is certainly not new. It is a device known and practiced from time immemorial. Kill the infidels! Burn the heretics! What is new is merely the fact that today it is sold to the public under the label of ‘science.’”
    – Ludwig von Mises, ‘Theory and History’, p. 51

  • February 20, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    You seemed to have ignored that Marx observed that violence was very much required in the previous transitions too. Monarchy to feudalism, feudalism to capitalism

  • February 21, 2013 at 7:33 am

    It’s an issue of focus, Bharath: the post’s question is why Marx believed violence was necessary for his preferred system. Whether other systems embody necessary violence is an interesting question, but it is not on topic.

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  • January 26, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    Sort of what used to be liberals now called Obama’s Demonrats? Followers of MSNBC.

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  • May 16, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    People of privilege like to have their cake and eat it too. Only the bourgeoisie could feel so entitled that they would be the proponent and demographical enemy of something at the same time. Marxism has never existed in practice. In the end, it is peasants with rifles who determine what exactly Marxism is. What you get at best is Animal Farm, which is the reality of Marxism as opposed to some utopian fairy tale. It also causes brain drain. Why can’t people see that the “dissenters” are quite frequently your most talented, driven, and useful people? The only realistic equality Marxism could create is most everyone having not much of anything. This is why a peasant majority is so crucial to any Marxist movement, such as the Pol Pot model, which was basically force everyone to be peasants regardless of talent, intelligence, education, or motivation. It doesn’t work. It will never work. If you are an educated, successful American Marxist, remind yourself that a Marxist soldier would define you by what you have to “redistribute” as opposed to any bullshit coming out of your mouth. The working class interpretation of Marx is little more than a license to murder and steal from anybody who has substantially more than you. Read Animal Farm and get over this Marxist folly.

  • June 14, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    You attack the one percenters and the leader of the huge corporations as the problem. Please tell me why almost all one percenters and huge corporation leaders are in the cult of Liberalism? Why do the super rich and the freeloaders all fight for Socialism and full on hatred of Freedom. Socialism has NEVER worked anywhere EVER. Now you worthless piles of human excrement are publicly advocating the murder of the middle class? I guess the middle class need to consider a preemptive strike to preserve our lives and posterity.

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