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Presented by the Platypus Affiliated Society at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 24 October 2015

A teach-in on the revolutions of 1848 and the development of Marxism


Recommended preliminary readings

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, “Conclusion: Towards 1848”

Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital 1848-75, “Revolutionary Prelude: The Springtime of Peoples” (pp. 21-40)

Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History (1952)

Preliminary listening

1848: Year of Revolution (BBC Radio 4, January 19, 2012)

Some quotations

Rosa Luxemburg, “On the Spartacus programme” (1918)

“Great historical movements have been the determining causes of today’s deliberations. The time has arrived when the entire socialist programme of the proletariat has to be established upon a new foundation. We are faced with a position similar to that which was faced by Marx and Engels when they wrote the Communist Manifesto seventy years ago. . . . With a few trifling variations, [the formulations of the Manifesto] . . . are the tasks that confront us today. It is by such measures that we shall have to realize socialism. Between the day when the above programme [of the Manifesto] was formulated, and the present hour, there have intervened seventy years of capitalist development, and the historical evolutionary process has brought us back to the standpoint [of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto]. . . . The further evolution of capital has . . . resulted in this, that . . . it is our immediate objective to fulfill what Marx and Engels thought they would have to fulfill in the year 1848. But between that point of development, that beginning in the year 1848, and our own views and our immediate task, there lies the whole evolution, not only of capitalism, but in addition that of the socialist labor movement.”

Karl Kautsky, “A destroyer of vulgar Marxism” [critique of Karl Korsch, “Marxism and philosophy” (1923)] (1924)

“All theoreticians of communism delight in drawing on primitive Marxism, on the early works, which Marx and Engels wrote before they turned thirty, up until the revolution of 1848 and its aftermath of 1849 and 1850.”

Trotsky, Results and Prospects (1906), “1789 — 1848 — 1905”

“The year 1848 already differs tremendously from 1789. In comparison with the Great Revolution, the Prussian and Austrian Revolutions surprise one with their insignificant sweep. In one way they took place too early and in another too late. That gigantic exertion of strength which is necessary for bourgeois society to settle radically with the lords of the past can only be attained either by the power of a unanimous nation rising against feudal despotism, or by the mighty development of the class struggle within this nation striving to emancipate itself. In the first case, which was what happened in 1789-93, the national energy, compressed by the fierce resistance of the old order, was wholly expended in the struggle against reaction; in the second case, which has never yet occurred in history, and which we are considering merely as a possibility, the actual energy necessary for overcoming the dark forces of history is generated within the bourgeoisie nation by means of an ‘internecine’ class war. The severe internal friction, absorbing a great deal of energy and depriving the bourgeoisie of the possibility of playing the chief role, urges its antagonist the proletariat to the forefront, gives the proletariat ten years’ experience in a month, places it at the head of affairs, and hands it the tightly-drawn reins of power. This class, determined, knowing no doubts, imparts a mighty sweep to events.

“Revolution can be achieved either by a nation gathering itself together like a lion preparing to spring, or by a nation in the process of struggle becoming conclusively divided in order to free the best part of itself for the execution of those tasks which the nation as a whole is unable to carry out. These are two opposite sets of historical conditions, which in their pure form are, of course, possible only in logical contraposition.

“A middle course in this, as in so many cases, is worst of all, but it was this middle course that developed in 1848. . . .

“In 1848 a class was needed that would be able to take charge of events without and in spite of the bourgeoisie, a class which would not only be prepared to push the bourgeois forward by its pressure but also at the decisive moment to throw its political corpse out of the way. Neither the urban petty-bourgeoisie nor the peasants were able to do this. . . .

“The intellectual democrats lacked class power. One moment this group followed its elder sister, the liberal bourgeoisie, as a sort of political tail, at another it abandoned the liberal bourgeoisie at the critical instant in order to expose its own weakness. It confused itself in unsolved contradictions and carried this confusion around with it everywhere. . . .

“The proletariat was too weak, lacked organization, experience and knowledge. Capitalism had developed sufficiently to render necessary the abolition of the old feudal relations, but not sufficiently to bring forward the working class, the product of the new industrial relations, as a decisive political force. The antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, even within the national framework of Germany, had gone too far to allow the bourgeoisie fearlessly to take up the role of national hegemon, but not sufficiently to allow the working class to take up that role. The internal friction of the revolution, it is true, prepared the proletariat for political independence, but at the time it weakened energy and unity of action, caused a fruitless expenditure of effort, and compelled the revolution, after its first successes, to mark time tediously and then, under the blows of reaction, to retreat. . . .

“The proletariat, unorganized, without political experience and independent leadership, followed the students. At every critical moment the workers invariably offered the ‘gentlemen who worked with their heads’ the assistance of ‘those who worked with their hands’. The students at one moment summoned the workers to battle and at another moment themselves barred their way from the suburbs into the city. Sometimes, using their political authority and relying upon the arms of the Academic Legion, they forbade the workers to put forward their own independent demands. This was a classically clear form of benevolent revolutionary dictatorship over the proletariat.”

Marx, The Class Struggles in France 1848-50

“Just as the period of crisis began later [elsewhere] than in England, so also did prosperity. The process originated in England, which is the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos. [Elsewhere] the various phases of the cycle repeatedly experienced by bourgeois society assume a secondary and tertiary form. . . . Violent outbreaks naturally erupt sooner at the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, because in the latter the possibilities of accommodation are greater than in the former. On the other hand, the degree to which revolutions [elsewhere] affect England is at the same time the [barometer] that indicates to what extent these revolutions really put into question bourgeois life conditions, and to what extent they touch only their political formations. On this all the reactionary attempts to hold back bourgeois development will rebound just as much as will all the ethical indignation and all the enraptured proclamations of the democrats.”

Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck announced that: “The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”

Marx wrote of Bonaparte’s coup that: “Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatised as ‘socialism’. . . . Bourgeois fanatics for order are shot down on their balconies by mobs of drunken soldiers, their domestic sanctuaries profaned . . . in the name of property, of family . . . and of order. . . . Finally, the scum of bourgeois society forms . . . the ‘saviour of society’.”

On April 11, 2015, at the closing plenary of the 7th annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention in Chicago, Chris Cutrone of Platypus, Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Adolph Reed, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania), and Tom Riley of the Internationalist Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) spoke on the topic “What is a political party for the Left?”
Coda to “What is political party for Marxism? Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital: On Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy (2008),” Platypus Review 71 (November 2014). Originally published in abridged form as a letter in Weekly Worker 1035 (November 20, 2014).
Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary Strategy is a wide-ranging, comprehensive and very thorough treatment of the problem of revolutionary politics and the struggle for socialism. His focus is the question of political party and it is perhaps the most substantial attempt recently to address this problem.
Lenin stated, infamously perhaps, that Marxists aimed to overcome capitalism “on the basis of capitalism itself.” This was in the context of horrors of not only industrial exploitation but also and especially of war: WWI. Lenin was not, as
In the 1840s Karl Marx wrote that social revolution would involve "carrying out the thoughts of the past," in which "humanity begins no new work but consciously completes the old work". The role of revolutionary thought for Marx, in other words, involved drawing attention to how past revolutionary tasks were failing to be worked through in present political practice; of understanding the reasons why theory and practice had changed and, in turn, how this understanding could be advanced towards the (present) completion of the (old) revolution.