The REDSTAR2000 Papers

Listen to the worm of doubt, for it speaks truth. - Leftist Discussion

Reflections on Marx & Engels October 5, 2003 by RedStar2000

It is quite possible, you know, to be a "conservative" Marxist.

All that's required is some careful quotation of his ideas that most reflected the actual historical era in which he lived.

It was an era of bourgeois "democratic" revolutions, and you can find stuff in Marx that would be quite acceptable to many modern bourgeois politicians. You can also, for that matter, find a few lines here and there that, by contemporary standards, would be considered sexist, racist, anti-semitic, and pro-imperialist.

Aside from occasional embarrassment, is there anything really important about this sort of thing?

Only in one sense, I think. When people attempt to build up an image of a "conservative" Marx for their own conservative purposes.

Leninists and bourgois socialists are rather notorious for that sort of thing, of course.

Real Marxists emphasize the revolutionary totality of the work of Marx and Engels...and do our best to overcome our occasional embarrassment at the stuff that really belongs in the past.


Sometimes I heartily wish that Marx and Engels had been educated in England...thereby avoiding an enormous amount of German philosophical speculation, and lifting that burden from us as well.

Although the title of this thread refers to dialectical materialism, there's really nothing here about "dialectics" and, since I think Marxist theory can do without "dialectics" just fine, I'm happy to dispense with any discussion of it.

This seems to be the key paragraph in the essay...


The point under discussion is not whether men can be free if historical necessities exist, but rather whether very definite events such as communism can be both historically necessary, and objects of deliberation, criticism, and purposeful revolutionary action. And it seems quite obvious that they cannot be both. Either Stirner is right, and then every critical stance is meaningless; this is the starting point of Marx's historical determinism. Or else communism and the humanization of man is an ideal inviting men to action; and in this case Marx's attempt to translate his communist ideal into a historical necessity is self-defeating.

I think this distinction is a purely philosophical one and disappears in the real world.

Consider the world that we actually live in, where automobile ownership or at least use is considered an "ideal", something to "strive for".

You leave your vehicle parked in a lonely spot, unlocked, with the keys in the ignition.

It can be fairly said that it is "historically necessary" (or, to be more precise, highly probable) that the car will be stolen. The material conditions for stealing the car have arisen.

At the same time, there are people whose "ideal" is finding a car to steal in circumstances where no one is likely to see them. They look for opportunities to actualize their "ideal". They "strive" to make their ideal real. They actually steal your car.

The abstract "historical necessity" (based on material conditions) and the abstract "ideal" (a desired condition achieved by conscious effort) have merged into an actual historical event: some bastard stole your car!

I think Marxists would argue that such "mergers" take place in human societies constantly. Material conditions permit a certain range of human behavior; people make conscious choices within that range, based ultimately on perceived material advantage...though often cloaked in the garb of religious, political, or social "ideals".

The struggle for communism is where this kind of merger is itself conscious...people see that an "ideal" (a classless society) and a "historical necessity" (class society is no longer able to function) come together consciously: the result is proletarian revolution.

It must be remembered, of course, that this is the Marxist other words, it could be wrong as a matter of fact--history may not "work" the way Marx thought it did.

But, like most philosophical speculations, I don't think this one amounts to the real world.
First posted at RedGreenLeft on August 1, 2003


...I've found that Engels, even more than Marx, is quite the opposite of a federalist. With his and Marx's countless essays and polemics against the Anarchist, you would certainly get an idea.

Like it or not, Marx and especially Engels were centralists.

I think you misunderstand the central disagreements between Marx and the 19th century anarchists.

In my opinion, it was not a rather meaningless dispute between "centralism" and "federation". What was the First International but a federation?

What Marx and Engels opposed was "small group conspiracy" theories of revolution...something that Bakunin at least flirted with and other anarchists of that era definitely favored. Most of the left-wing of the Paris Commune were Blanqui-ists, that is, anarchists.

When exploring Marxist theory, I think it's very important to distinguish between the core discoveries and the effluvia of that historical era.

There are quite a few examples of the latter, from the trivial to the seemingly "significant".

For example, Marx referred to the "laws" of economic systems...because 19th century science was fascinated by "laws". We now understand that it is much more accurate to refer to "regularities", "probabilities", etc.

Marx and Engels came of age in a period when that pompous wind-bag Hegel was the most influential German philosopher...hence "dialectics", a form of "logic" no longer taken seriously by any thoughtful revolutionary.

They likewise were heavily influenced by the Hegelian fascination with the "strong state" as an "independent actor" in history. They realized quickly the real class nature of the state...and postulated its disappearance with the abolition of class society.

After the Paris Commune, they drew the important lesson that the working class must smash the old capitalist state machinery in its entirety.

What they did not explicitly address, unfortunately, was the actual structure of the proletarian "state" immediately following the proletarian revolution...possibly because they simply were unsure. All we have to "go on" is Engels' definitive statement that the Paris Commune "was the dictatorship of the proletariat".

In any event, this "blank page" has allowed any number of "interpreters" to step in and fill out the lacunae according to their own taste...Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, etc.

Though not as famous/infamous as those guys, I do it too; I argue that Marx and Engels would "most likely" have supported a decentralized proletarian regime with power directly exercised by the working class itself (no special party of self-appointed rulers). I think this conclusion logically follows from the totality of their outlook: "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves".

But even if it could really be definitively proven that, say, Lenin's version of Marx is more historically accurate than mine...I still think mine is better.

Why? Because if real power is not in the actual hands of the working class itself, then the whole communist project is meaningless.

There's just no damn point to swapping bosses.
First posted at Che-Lives on August 31, 2003


I am certain you have extensive life experience redstar2000. In which case I would think you would know that most people are sheep.

Well, as to the origins of "sheep-ness", the sheep-herder thinks it's genetic...and that's certainly bourgeois ideological trash. (The reformist agrees with him about that, I'm pretty sure.)

We certainly have a social order which heavily propagandizes the "virtue" of "sheep-like" behavior. Except for the most elite schools where ruling class kids are taught how to rule, the educational system emphasizes unthinking obedience to authority..."sheep behavior".

I think the real question is: is this kind of conditioning so deeply embedded in people that material events cannot overcome that childhood/adolescent conditioning?

If that were the case, then you'd be right; only a "charismatic leader"--a "better" authority--would be able to force the overthrow of the existing order.

What I assert is that historical events like the February 1917 revolution in Russia or the May 1968 General Strike in France prove that under certain material circumstances, huge numbers of workers spontaneously stop being "sheep" without shepherds of any kind to "lead" them.

There are not many "iron laws" of history, but one of them certainly is what has happened can happen.


Regardless, we value the masses over everything and our goal is to improve the lives of working people and create a society founded on working-class ideals.

It's always "nice" to have good intentions, to be well-meaning, etc. Every charity says that or something like that.

But that has nothing to do with Marxism or proletarian revolution or communism. These ideas are not about "helping people"--they are rather about an entire enslaved class rising up and smashing those chains (all of them!).

It is not a matter of someone "converting sheep into wolves" through "inspired leadership" or "correct ideas"--it is a historical process shaped by changes in material reality that destroys the "sheep-like" mentality throughout the class.

In periods of reaction (like this one), most people do behave "as if they were sheep" and it's easy to leap to the conclusion that this behavior reflects their "essential nature" or even that it's "genetic".

What I argue is that in revolutionary periods, yesterday's "sheep" rather suddenly becomes today's "wolf"...and would do so if Marx had never lived and if there were no conscious communists at all. Material reality would create them!

Indeed, I think this is obvious when you ask yourself why are there conscious communists at all? If it were just a matter of "natural born leaders" or "supermen" with an odd inclination towards altruism--"be nice to the sheep...they're so cute"--there would be no need for communist ideas or advocates of communism to exist at all. The minority of sheep-herders would gravitate towards positions of authority in the existing system and then use their power to "be nice" Robert Owen, for example.

No, communist consciousness originated in capitalist material reality. Those who came to the ideas first, did so by chance. There is nothing "special" about communists now...except that we are "early" for the festivities. And that is also a matter of chance.

What we have done is "do-able" by anyone of normal intelligence who is persuaded by the events in their life to actually think about their situation in class society.

"Sheep-ness" is a temporal illusion; the "inner wolf" will prevail.
First posted at Che-Lives on September 18, 2003


Do you believe in the Marxist notion of establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat RS?

Sounds like I'm being queried by an archbishop: do you believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son?

Well, here is what the fuss is about...


Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

This is Marx himself speaking, in a pamphlet that was not even published until some years after his death.

And you have the famous Engels quote from the early 1890's saying flatly that the Paris Commune was the "dictatorship of the proletariat". ("Dictatorship of the artisans" would have been more historically accurate.)

And that's it.

What kind of wine would you like to fill that empty bottle with?

When we speak of a "state", we mean an organ that claims a monopoly of "legitimate" violence. Thus, any political authority that is directly controlled by the working class which successfully asserts a claim to a monopoly of "legitimate" violence is a "dictatorship of the proletariat".

Once you have met that fundamental requirement, you may proceed as you wish and shape the content of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" according to your desires.

There's nothing in Marx or Engels that says it "must" look like the USSR or German Social Democracy or Barcelona under the anarcho-syndicalists or anything else in particular. The only absolute requirement is that the working class must actually run the show.

This would be a rather difficult requirement for the reformist to he doesn't think there is a working class any more. How could you have a dictatorship of the proletariat if the proletariat "doesn't exist?"

That has to be at least as difficult as determining the precise origins of "the Holy Spirit"!
First posted at Che-Lives on September 18, 2003

Whenever we study the works and ideas of Marx and Engels, it's very important to distinguish between their genuine discoveries and the effluvia that reflects the era in which they lived.

Not to do so is to degrade their work to the level of scripture.


We have seen above that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.

This paragraph is still quoted in order to insert parliamentary cretinism into the Marxist paradigm...even though Marx and Engels both subsequently made it explicit that the lesson of the Paris Commune made it necessary to revise the Manifesto. The working class will not "win an election" and "take over" the bourgeois state apparatus; the working class will rise up and smash the old bourgeois state machinery.

Why is that paragraph in the Manifesto? Because, at that time, bourgeois democracy was (or seemed to be) "progressive" in contrast to the semi-feudal autocracies and despotisms that mostly characterized the world of the 1840s.

Whatever relevance that paragraph once had, it is now of only historical interest.


The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

This is more of the same thing; it makes Marx and Engels sound like proper German or Austrian Social-Democrats c.1912 complete with suits and ties. "Wrest by degree?" "Centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state"? (A bourgeois democratic state, remember?)

There was a joke that went the rounds before World War I: "In the German Revolution, no one will step on the grass if there is a notice forbidding it." A bit cruel, perhaps, but not without historical justification.

If you wish, you could say that the German Social Democrats and their Leninist descendants were/are being "true to Marx in their fashion"...the Marx of 1847!

And when you look at the "10 points" of the Manifesto, you can see for yourself how obsolete this portion of the document really is. To me, it makes post-capitalist society sound rather like the new Prussian state railway system of that era...perhaps that was the "model" of "rational progress" that they had in mind.

Or, perhaps more likely, they simply reflected a wide-spread German sentiment of that era...that Germany was weak and backward because Germany was not a centralized state but rather divided up into more than 100 (I think) petty kingdoms, duchies, etc. Thus, to be "decentralized" was to be "weak and reactionary"--to be "centralized" was to be "strong and progressive".

But there is no need for us to take such ancient prejudices seriously...much less be bound by them as an "article of faith".

We are not, after all, "old believers"...we are revolutionaries.
First posted at Che-Lives on September 21, 2003


Clear it from your head that socialism has anything to do with rehabilitating criminals, being nice to animals, good treatment of the environment, welfare payments, better football teams, or a cary-shary. touchy-feely society.

Since no one has a crystal ball in good working order, this is just as "legitimate" a view of post-capitalist society as any other.

And yet it doesn't sound all that appealing, does it?

In fact, it sort of sounds like now...only without capitalists. A genuine improvement, no question about it, but still...

Granted that much quasi-religious nonsense has been written to the effect of "communism will be like Heaven" the proper response one of diminishing our vision to the level of universal membership of the Board of Directors of Socialism, Inc.?

Are there not many changes that we would like to see in a new society? And is not a profound change in the relations of production a good time to press for those changes?

History suggests that in revolutionary periods, many changes that are not directly "economic" or "political" in the usual sense of those words are nevertheless proposed and in some cases implemented. The revolutionary critique of a passing social order extends, willy-nilly, to most or all of its characteristics.

There are certainly people who regard these kinds of developments as a "distraction" from the "main task".

I think that to be a mistaken view, primarily because revolutionary changes reinforce one another and actually serve to draw more people into the entire revolutionary the joy of many and the dismay of some.


Marx has much to answer for here. Having devised a way to achieve equality of opportunity and so bring dignity to millions who did not have it, he then confused the issue by waxing lyrical about what, in his view, such a situation would ultimately result in.

One way to look at it, I suppose...though I doubt the phrase "equality of opportunity" with its contemporary connotations (the "equal opportunity" to get rich) would have appealed to him.

Is there something inherently "wrong" about "waxing lyrical" about post-capitalist society? Should we "reign in" our imaginations and concentrate on the "grubby details" of "how to make Socialism, Inc. actually work"? You know, the new "socialist market" and all that.

To some extent, I suppose it's a matter of personality. Just as there are those who cannot see a supercomputer as anything more than a glorified bookkeeping machine, there are those who cannot see a new society as anything but an improved machine for doing what the old society used to do, only doing it better.

There have always been people who took pride in their "practicality" or "level-headedness" or "tough-mindedness". No "flights of fancy" for these folks; when the first airplane flew, they went out and bought more railroad stock.

Marx and Engels were rather different; though they could be "hard-nosed realists" when circumstances dictated that approach, they never lost the idea of a qualitatively superior form of human society. They "waxed lyrical" because they had a "greater vision" of humanity freed from the bondage of wage-slavery.

They understood that class society diminishes us...makes us less than we could otherwise be.

There is a quote that illustrates this. I don't remember the exact words, but it was along these lines: The abolition of class society marks the end of pre-history and the beginning of truly human history.

If this be a "fault" in Marx, it is one that I enthusiastically endorse.

Or, as the French Situationists used to say...

First posted at Che-Lives on September 22, 2003

Are you under the impression that they never wrote anything after 1848?

Try this...


...the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production.

Anti-Dühring by Frederick Engels, 1877,
Part III: Socialism--Theoretical

That's communism that Fred is talking about there.

I find it revealing that it is precisely the most archaic section of the Communist Manifesto--the part that most clearly betrays the era in which it was written--that is the part that you enjoy quoting over and over again.

Planning to "wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie", are you? Let's not forget that "heavy progressive income tax"...first introduced in the U.S. by that great "Marxist" Woodrow Wilson, or was it that fat "Marxist" that was president before him?

"A central bank with an exclusive monopoly"? I think every developed capitalist country has one of those now.

This would be a trivial discussion were it not for your real motives: you emphasize the least progressive and most archaic views of Marx and Engels to support your own archaic "Socialism, Inc." with their revolutionary image.

Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that if we had Marx and Engels on this board right now, that they would "back you up"...that is, they would say without equivocation "yes, we really meant all along that there would have to be an extended period of time between the proletarian revolution and the establishment of communism".

Would you feel "vindicated"? Would you puff yourself up and say "I knew it! I was right and redstar was wrong!!!"?

Not so fast. Because they might then follow by saying "of course, that conclusion was based on the material conditions prevailing in the 19th century."

It was, you know...based on the material conditions of the 19th century, that is.

It seems to me that the closest you Leninists approach Marx is when you appropriate his "least revolutionary" conclusions.

The really "heavy" stuff--about communism and all that--is "not to your taste".
First posted at Che-Lives on September 26, 2003


Have you ever read Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme?

If you have, can you avoid seeing Charlie Marx as part of the group you call "state-capitalists Lenin&such"?

As it happens, I have read the Critique of the Gotha Programme recently (it's quite short, by the way).

Here and elsewhere, there are scattered and somewhat ambiguous remarks concerning the transition from capitalism to communism, some of which could be read as a precursor to Lenin and the USSR...the formal nationalization of the economy, for example.

On the other hand, there's this...


It is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free.

or this...


"Elementary education by the state" is altogether objectionable...Particularly, indeed, in the Prusso-German Empire (and one should not take refuge in the rotten subterfuge that one is speaking of a "state of the future"; we have seen how matters stand in this respect) the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people.

Those do not sound as if they were written by a "proto-Leninist", do they?

Certainly there is nothing in Marx or Engels that I've ever run across that would suggest the "need" for a "vanguard party" of "professional revolutionaries" to act as "a general staff of the proletariat".

On the contrary, Marx and Engels were rather contemptuous of "small group conspiracies" seeking to "lead" the proletarian revolution. They thought that real revolutions were made by classes.

I think Charlie & Fred were right about that...and much else.
First posted at Urban75 on September 27, 2003

Let's imagine for a moment that we had Marx and Engels on this board right now.

And suppose they said. "Yes, we always expected there would be an extended period of transition between capitalism and communism characterized by a strong state, a nationalized economy, wage-labor, etc."

It seems to me that they would then add something to the effect of "We based that assumption, of course, on the material conditions prevailing in the second half of the 19th century in the most advanced capitalist countries."

Obviously, things are much more highly developed now than then...and will likely be even more developed by the time proletarian revolution actually "makes sense" to the working class.

Marx and Engels were being "realistic" in arguments with their anarchist contemporaries. But the more highly developed capitalism becomes, the more the two views converge...that is, the greater the probability of the successful transition directly from capitalism to communism.

Neither communists nor anarchists expect an "instantaneous" change, of course. That's just Leninist rhetoric. There will be a transition period...lasting a few years, perhaps a decade at most.

The point is that there will be no "political/economic center of gravity"--no new "proto-state" with a "monopoly of violence". Indeed, considering the increasingly despotic character of late capitalism, people are likely to be adamantly opposed to such an idea even if they never heard of Marx or Bakunin.

The Leninists follow Lenin closely in "falling back" on the "defense" of the revolution against foreign aggression from hostile capitalist powers. It's a plausible excuse...but, in fact, the Leninists were already consolidating their dictatorship over the proletariat before the civil war and the invasions began.

As to the future, it looks to me a concern of very low probability. By the time there are proletarian revolutions in France and Germany (for example), world capitalism will be in very bad shape...and probably unable to mount any effective resistance to those proto-communist societies.

Keep in mind the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom have thus far been unable to conquer Iraq. Or Afghanistan. In the coming decades, capitalism and its ability to mount effective military interventions in other countries will decline.

So where does that leave us? We could mindlessly seek to replicate the Bolshevik strategy and hope that things would work out better...or we could fight for what we really want--communism.

Seems like a pretty straightforward choice to me.
First posted at Urban75 on September 28, 2003
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