Introduction: Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance

With some intense work over the last few weeks, this book will be complete by the weekend. It is called Friedrich Engels and the Foundations of Socialist Governance and will be published initially in Chinese as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Engels’s birth, which happens to be next year, 2020.

What follows is the introduction to the book.

This work began as a larger project on socialist governance. The study of Engels was to be its second chapter, after Marx and before Lenin. Stalin, Mao and others. However, as I began to write the chapter it became apparent that Engels has far more to offer than Marx’s relatively cryptic formulations. As I read further, particularly in relatively unstudied material of the 1880s, I began to realise it was Engels, rather than Marx, who provided the main groundwork for a historical and dialectical materialist theory of the state. More than the state, which he defines as a separated public power, for he also provides the basic philosophical principles for what may be called socialist governance. The result was a book in itself, focused on Engels. Indeed, so important is Engels on this matter that I have reversed the usual order of referring to ‘Marx and Engels’ to speak of ‘Engels and Marx’ when it comes to co-authored material. This is not to disparage Marx’s contribution, for it remains very important (Boer 2019) and much of the material that came from Engels’s pen arose from discussion between them over such matters. But when it comes to socialist governance, Marx left us with an unresolved contradiction, between the Paris commune and the dictatorship of the proletariat. He made some tentative moves to resolve the contradiction, but his energy was on other projects rather than the state as such. It fell to Engels to develop such a theory, especially when Marx’s energy had waned and after he died in 1883. This book is an effort to explicate this theory in light of all the relevant material.

Rather than leaving the question begging to the very end, let me state here what Engels proposes concerning socialist governance. It entails that public power (Gewalt – a term we will meet frequently) loses its political character and focuses on the administration of the stuff of life and conduct of the economy for the good of the whole community (Gemeinwesen). This means that such a public power stands in the midst of society, rather than separate from and opposed to it. Far from being simpler and local (as the Anarchists would have it), this approach is even more complex and detailed than anything we have seen before, so much so that it constitutes a whole new level of authority, sovereignty and power. This is not all, for in extensive research later in life, especially into the German ‘Mark’, Engels argued for a dialectical transformation, an Aufhebung to a whole new qualitative level of original or baseline communism and its democracy. These concise points require a significant amount of explanation and exegesis of Engels’s texts in order to show how he arrives at such formulations.

In a moment, I will offer an outline of the arguments of each of the four chapters of the book, but first a word on secondary literature. It is quite sparse, particularly work that focuses on Engels’s distinct contribution.[1] Most of the material available focuses on Marx, with either dismissals of Engels’s contribution or at most deploying Engels to fill in some gaps. Further, the works referenced here tend to be highly selective in the range of texts discussed, with the result that the conclusions reached are somewhat skewed. This is particularly so with the ‘dying away’ of the state, which is seen as either an expression of the core ‘anarchist’ position of Marxism itself (Kelsen 1949, 12; Tucker 1967); or somewhat of a fig leaf for ‘authoritarianism’ (Bloom 1946; Adamiak 1970); or as a dismantling of the structures of governance very soon after a proletarian revolution (Medalie 1959; Hunt 1984, 231-46). At times, the selection emphasises one feature at the expense of others – the most notable being a liking for the Paris commune and a down-playing of the proletarian dictatorship, let alone socialist Gewalt (Miliband 1965; 1991, 151; Avineri 1968, 202-20; Johnstone 1971; Balibar 1977, 58; Jessop 1978; Hunt 1984; Draper 1986, 175-306; Paolucci 2007, 233-37; Van Ree 2015, 77, 115; Ware 2019, 161-63). In other words, there is very little that engages with the important material Engels produced in the late 1870s and especially the 1880s. There are one or two exceptions, although now somewhat dated: the first is the work of Hal Draper, especially those relevant to the current study (Draper 1970, 1977, 1986, 1990). While Draper has worked with much of the relevant material and his work is helpful as a beginning point of research, like many others he focuses overwhelmingly on Marx and sidelines Engels. Further, his conclusions have a tendency to confirm his presuppositions and are not always so helpful. The second is Richard Hunt (Hunt 1984), whose exhaustive study does at least deal with some of the relevant texts by Engels, although not crucial ones such as ‘The Mark’ or ‘The Role of Force in History’. Yet, Hunt’s study is vitiated by an assumption found in much of the material mentioned above, namely, that subsequent historical experiences of socialism in power and the arduous task of constructing socialism somehow departed from what Engels and Marx had thought. This book should go at least part of the way to show how erroneous such an assumption is.

Now for a synopsis of the content to come. The first chapter deals initially with Engels’s programmatic observations on hitherto existing states, which would set the subsequent agenda not only for Marxist studies of such states, but also the Weberian tradition (Weber’s definition of the state borrows heavily from Engels). Apart from noting the key features of this analysis, which involves the core idea of the state as a ‘separated public power’, the chapter focuses on Engels’s shifts between seeing such states state as semi-autonomous, as instruments of a particular class in power, or as shaped in their very nature by the class in question. Engels moves between these three overlapping approaches, depending on the point he seeks to make, but he tends in more detailed work to opt for the third: that the nature of the state is determined by the class in power. This position emerges particularly in a relatively ignored work, ‘The Role of Force in History’ (1887-1888). Here Engels offers an analysis of Bismarck in Germany that is a close companion to Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’ (1852), with the specific point that the bourgeoisie was able to shape the state in its image indirectly, even when it did not hold the reins of power. Even more important is the emergence of a core category, Gewalt. The word is difficult to translate; its semantic field includes the senses of force, power and violence, so I leave the word untranslated. This provides a rather new angle, not only on his proposal that hitherto existing states may be defined as a ‘separated public Gewalt’, that a ‘public Gewalt’ exists that is not so separated, and that it is necessary for the workers’ movement to exercise socialist Gewalt.

This point leads to the second chapter, concerning socialist Gewalt and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The key finding of this chapter is Engels’s emphasis on proletarian Gewalt, in both the revolutionary process and in the early stages of the construction of socialism when power is gained through a revolution. The concrete manifestation of this socialist Gewalt is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Engels (like Marx) defines carefully not as an individual dictatorship (as with Bakunin) or by a small band (Blanquist), but as a collective dictatorship by the majority, the workers. On this basis, Engels’s important contribution was to go beyond Marx in identifying the Paris commune with the proletarian dictatorship. The context was a struggle with the moderates of the increasingly large German Social Democratic Party, which tried to dispense with the dictatorship of the proletariat in its program and work within bourgeois democracy. In light of later tendencies in European communism to downplay the proletarian dictatorship and idealise the Paris commune (for example, with ‘Eurocommunism’ and the tendency among some European Marxists), Engels explicit argument that the commune was the exercise of the proletarian dictatorship, even that it did not go far enough in exercising such a dictatorship, is a timely warning. The chapter concludes by analysing Engels’s explicit usage of ‘socialist Gewalt’ itself, both before and after a revolution. Crucially, Engels points out that political power also has economic influence and potency (Potenz).

The third chapter focuses on the ‘dying away’ of the state, in contrast to its ‘abolition’ as promulgated by Bakunin and the Anarchists in the late 1860s and 1870s. Given the many misunderstandings that surround the idea of the ‘dying away’ of the state, this is the longest chapter in book since it analyses in significant detail all of the relevant material. It begins by studying the wider context in the 184os among German socialists, finding that while they spoke of the abolition (Abschaffung), annihilation (Vernichtung) and dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of private property, money and inheritance, they rarely, if ever, spoke of the state as such. Instead, they envisioned alternative structures, either of a new state or of a new form of social organisation. This is true even of Proudhon, who deeply influenced these early German socialists. There is one notable exception: Max Stirner in his liberal anarchist work, The Ego and Its Own (1845), urged that the state should be abolished and annihilated. Thus, only when Engels and Marx (and others like Moses Hess) engage with Stirner do they speak of the abolition of the state, finding Stirner’s proposals wanting since its focus on an act of pure will.

It is only in 1850 that Engels (and Marx) speak directly of the ‘abolition [Abschaffung]’ of the state for the first time. Notably, this is a critical response to what had become a popular slogan in all manner of circles, including bourgeois ones where such an ‘abolition’ entailed a bourgeois order in which they would be left alone to pursue their private gain. Crucially, this piece – which borrows the language of the slogan – identifies Stirner as the source and introduces the need for a delay in such an abolition. This delay is an early result of the method hammered out in the years before and expressed clearly for the first time in the manifesto of 1848: the primary concern should be socio-economic matters. Thus, a communist revolution would have these as its main task, while any ‘abolition’ of the state would follow as an outcome of such activity. This would be the position, refined and sharpened, that both Engels and Marx would hold in the struggle with Bakunin, who first formulated a somewhat coherent Anarchist position in the late 1860s and particularly in 1870s.

For Bakunin, the state was the prime cause and foundation of all exploitation and oppression, whether political or economic. Thus, the first task of a revolutionary movement upon attaining power should be to abolish (Abschaffung) the state, as a willed and conscious act. Bakunin struggled to show why the state should have this foundational role, at times connecting its quasi-sacred status with the role of the Christian church. But for Engels and Marx, this approach simply did not make sense: in light of their approach, the state was a secondary phenomenon, arising from economic conditions and class struggle. Thus, a communist revolution would need to enact wide-sweeping changes to the means and relations of production before aspects of the superstructure, such as the state, could be addressed. In this context, we find an increasing emphasis that one of the final results of the process of constructing socialism, after other tasks had been achieved and the counter-revolution had been defeated, would be not the ‘abolition’ of the state, but its falling away, disappearance, going to sleep – the terms all appear in works of this time. Finally and as a way to sum up this position, Engels coined in the third edition of Anti-Dühring of 1894 the famous slogan: ‘the state is not abolished, it dies away’. The influence of this slogan is due to its appearance in the extracted material that appeared as ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, which was read and studied by all communists of the second and third generations.

The final chapter begins by addressing a contradiction that has arisen in light of the previous two chapters: between socialist Gewalt and the dying away of the of the state. The initial narrative of the former passing to the latter, which is part of Engels’s approach, addresses neither how authority and Gewalt would continue, nor the nature of governance in a communist society. Dealing with these questions is the focus on this chapter, although I undertake the task with an important caveat: Engels, and indeed Marx, never experienced the actual exercise of power after a communist revolution. They were fully aware of this reality, warning to such analysis can be undertaken only scientifically, only from actual experience. As Engels points out on a number of occasions, he and Marx were not in the business of creating utopian systems for the organisation of future of society.

The chapter has two main sections. The first part analyses a number of brief statements by Engels and Marx that may be collated as follows: public Gewalt loses its political character and becomes the administration of things and conduct of forces and relations of production, for the genuine good of society. The statements are notably brief, even formulaic, for the good reason that they had in their context no extensive data on the actual practice of socialist governance. There was, however, an abundance of information from another source: pre-state forms of social organisation that existed in many parts of the world. It was precisely to this source of information that Engels devoted considerable energy in the 1880s. Here he found complex and many-layered types of what he carefully called ‘social organisation’, which was not separated from but stood ‘in the midst of society’. They were not separated from society, not manifestations and means of class struggle, and thus did not constitute a state. Here, I seek to develop a terminology based on Engels, which speaks of the ‘enmeshed governance’ of ‘baseline communism’, with its attendant and indeed first form of human democracy. This is all very well, based as it was on the available historical anthropological material of the time, but what relevance does it have for the enmeshed governance of socialism, let alone communism? To answer this question, I focus on the remarkable work from 1882, ‘The Mark’. Here Engels outlines his research into this feature of German social life, from its earliest days to the present. The point – directed explicitly at peasant farmers – is that the communism of the future would entail a dialectical transformation (Aufhebung) of this baseline communism. Far from a hankering for the rural socialism of the European Middle Ages, or for an idealised ‘primitive communism’, or even for a secularised version of the religious return to Paradise, this dialectical transformation would both negate this baseline communism and transform its core features into a qualitatively different reality. Given that such a form of governance would stand in the midst of society, it cannot be called a ‘state’; indeed, we reach the limits of the language derived from the Western European tradition, for with this type of enmeshed governance it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of the separation of state and society.

The conclusion to the book outlines the way Engels’s contributions provide the philosophical basis for future developments of the historical reality of socialist governance. These insights include: the need for socialist Gewalt in constructing socialist society and economics; the dying away of the state – understood as a separated public Gewalt – as a secondary, long-term and gradual process; the development of de-politicised governance, which means that class struggle in no longer a feature of social and economic life, even if non-antagonistic contradictions persist; the enmeshment of governance within society, so that it is becomes increasingly impossible to distinguish between state and society or between state and economy. That this would entail new forms of governance is obvious, but at this point a question arises concerning continuity and discontinuity. On this matter it is important to strike a realistic balance: to suggest that Engels and indeed Marx foresaw, or perhaps should have foreseen, all of the developments in later efforts to construct socialism is simply unrealistic; to propose – as some of the literature mentioned earlier does – that later historical realities departed significantly from the original thoughts of the founders is even more extreme and simply not sustained by the evidence. Far better is a balanced approach. Thus, there is clearly significant continuity, much more than one might expect, between the initial philosophical foundations and the historical realities of socialism in power. At the same time, in the actual construction of socialism, from the Soviet Union to China, one would expect to face new problems for which new solutions were and are needed – albeit based on the initial principles and the method through which they were derived.. As Engels put it in 1890, ‘So-called “socialist society” is not, in my view, to be regarded as something that remains crystallised for all time, but rather being in process of constant change and transformation like all other social conditions’.

Finally, a word on the approach to citations. In all possible cases the primary citation is to the original language text by Engels (and Marx where relevant). These are in German, French and Italian, mostly available in the standard collections (Gesamtausgabe and the Werke), but at times they are not, since neither collection is complete. Where necessary, I have found the original language source outside such collections. In most cases, I provide my own translation to highlight particular features of the text, or at least a modification of the standard English translation found in the Collected Works. At the same time and for ease of reference for readers, I provide a reference to the English version, even if the translation offered does not conform to this version.

[1] In this work, I do not engage with Chinese language material, for that is the main focus on another work called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

How to Deal with an Old Revolutionary: The Struggle over Engels’s 1895 Introduction to Marx’s ‘The Class Struggles in France’

A few months before Engels died a crucial struggle emerged in the communist movement. It had to do with Engels’s introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (Engels 1895 [1990], 1895 [2010]). Marx’s original text had been published as a series of articles in Neue Rheinische Zeitung over 1849-1850. In 1895 it was decided by the editorial board of the German Social-Democratic Party to gather the articles and publish them as a distinct book, so they approached Engels for advice and with a request to write an introduction. After some hesitation, Engels agreed, sending three articles that Marx had written and suggesting a fourth chapter that he had gathered from later material (some written by both Marx and Engels) to be entitled ‘The Abolition of Universal Suffrage in 1850’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-f, 444; 1895 [1973]-e, 410). The title of the whole work, by which it is now known, was also proposed by Engels. Soon afterwards, he also sent them the introduction.

This introduction includes a long assessment of the situation in the 1890s with regard to military action by insurgents, street fighting and barricades. With his long-standing military knowledge, Engels assesses the changing circumstances in terms of tactics, weaponry and perceptions of the public in response to revolutionaries. He also notes the rise of communist parties as electoral forces, urging caution and careful assessment of the new context before engaging in such actions. The risk of failure is even greater and the possibility of moral victory attained in earlier efforts has largely vanished. Yet he firmly holds to the need for revolutionary action in the future, which would have to carefully considered and revised: fewer skirmishes before a major revolution are more likely, but revolution is still required.

Before examining the fate of this introduction, let me set the context. It appeared at a time when the communist movement worldwide had made considerable progress. Political parties had established themselves and gained hundreds of thousands of members, especially in Germany, a situation that produced considerable debate over theory, policies and programs. The catch was that they now were able to operate largely within the structures of the bourgeois state and its form of democracy. Pressure grew to soften communism’s more radical edges, since some felt that these threatened the new-found legitimacy of the parties in question. The push for moderation was enhanced by the famous anti-socialist laws instigated by Bismarck from 1878 to 1890. Even though support for the German Social-Democratic Party grew during this period, questions arose. Should the party continue to advocate ‘illegal’ means, such as revolution and proletarian dictatorship? Or should it be content to work within the existing structures and pursue peaceful transition?

To return to the introduction.[1] Upon receiving the text for publication, the executive of the Social-Democratic party became decidedly anxious. They were torn between immense respect for Engels’s authority and their delicate political position in Germany. Not only were the anti-socialist laws still fresh in everyone’s memory and experience, but the Reichstag was also debating in the early months of 1895 yet another law aimed at preventing a ‘coup-d’état’. Thus, the editors were working at a feverish pace to complete all of the publications in case the law came into effect (Engels 1895 [2004]-a, 453), but they were also keen not to aggravate the situation. So they asked: would Engels please tone down the excessive revolutionary tenor of the piece so as not to incite the authorities? He was sent a copy-edited text in which all references to future revolutionary militancy were altered or excised. At times it was a phrase, at times a sentence and at times a whole paragraph. In his reply to Richard Fischer in March of 1895, Engels was clearly unhappy with the efforts to subscribe to absolute legality under any circumstances. Nothing can be gained, he writes, by ‘advocating complete abstention from force’; no person, no party would forfeit the right to resist ‘by force of arms [Waffen in der Hand]’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-e, 457; 1895 [1973]-d, 424). Yet, he understood the party’s position in Germany and so relented on some editorial changes but resisted five others that would have changed the meaning entirely. A couple of weeks later, he wrote to Kautsky that his text had suffered to some extent from the ‘apprehensive [umsturzvorlagenfurchtsamlichen] objections, inspired by the Subversion Bill, of our friends in Berlin’, but he also acknowledged that in light of circumstances he ‘could not but take account’ of these objections (Engels 1895 [2004]-c, 480; 1895 [1973]-b, 446). From the side of the editors, perhaps Bebel’s letter to Engels a few days later captures the tensions best: ‘We do not ask you to say something that you do not wish to say – or may not say – but we ask you not to say something which, if said at this time, would be embarrassing for us’ (Blumenberg 1965, 795).[2]

The story has further twists. Under Liebknecht’s guidance, the editors disregarded Engels’s reservations and pressed ahead with all of the changes they had made. They published selections from the introduction in the leading article of Vorwärts, number 76, on 30 March, 1895, under the title ‘Wie man heute Revolutionen macht’. The authorship was attributed to Engels. Upon receipt of the issue of Vorwärts, Engels was incensed. The next day he wrote to Kautsky: ‘I was amazed to see today in in the Vorwärts an excerpt from my “Introduction” that had been printed without my prior knowledge and tricked out in such a way as to present me as a peace-loving proponent [friedfertiger Anbete] of legality quand même’. He requested that the complete text should be published in Neue Zeit so that ‘this disgraceful impression [schmähliche Eindruck] may be erased’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-b, 486; 1895 [1973]-a, 452). And he promised to give Liebknecht and others involved a piece of his mind for disfiguring and ‘perverting [zu entstellen]’ his views.

Neither would eventuate. As for the letter to Liebknecht, perhaps it was the advancing throat cancer – from a life of enjoying tobacco and alcohol – that prevented him from castigating those involved. Perhaps the letter has been lost. As for the anticipated rectification in Neue Zeit, the journal published the introduction in the heavily edited form in numbers 27 and 28. And the book, The Class Struggles in France 1849-1850, appeared in the same year with the introduction in the form that the editors deemed fit. Only much later would the full original text be published.

What are we to make of this important moment? While Engels did not use ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in his introduction, Marx had deployed it for the first time in the very same text that was now being published in book form. Clearly, many were uncomfortable with the idea and its militancy. So we may resort to a betrayal narrative, in which the ‘revisionists’ – taking advantage of Engels’s failing health – betrayed the need for revolution for the sake of parliamentary reform.[3] Or we may follow the line of many at the time, who suggested that Engels had realised the need for peaceful parliamentary means within the structures of the bourgeois state (Hunt 2010, 238-39). Or we may invoke a line from Engels a few years earlier: ‘do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat [Das war die Diktatur des Proletariats]’ (Engels 1891 [1990]-b, 191; 1891 [2010]-a, 16). For some, the conflation of the commune and the dictatorship assists in softening the militant and violent import of the dictatorship in favour of comradely cooperation (Johnstone 1971; Balibar 1977, 58; Miliband 1991, 151; Van Ree 2015, 77, 115).

By contrast, I suggest that Engels may be the best guide here, as reflected in his observations to Paul Lafargue a couple of days after he became aware of what had happened. He accuses Liebknecht of playing a ‘fine trick [Streich]’ on him by taking from his introduction ‘everything that could serve his purpose in support of peaceful and anti-violent [Gewaltanwendung verwerfende] tactics at any price’, especially in light of the threat of new laws against the socialists. At this point, we can easily suggest that Engels had been betrayed, but then he writes: ‘I preach those tactics only for the Germany of today and even then with many reservations [mit erheblichen Vorbehalten]’. Despite his best instincts, Engels realises the need for such an approach in a particular situation. In certain circumstances, it is necessary to adapt for a time in order to advance the cause. Some may call this ‘opportunism’, but if so, it is a productive opportunism, a needed zigzag so that the project may continue. Liebknecht, Engels feels, lack this sense, seeing only black and white: ‘Shades don’t exit for him’ (Engels 1895 [2004]-d, 489-90; 1895 [1973]-c, 458). In other words, communism requires not one or the other, not revolution or reform, but appropriate tactics for specific circumstances. Engels’s legacy would come to fruition with subsequent communist leaders, especially those who actually experienced socialism in power such as Lenin, Mao, Deng and indeed Xi Jinping.

Bibliography

Balibar, Etienne. 1977. On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. London: NLB.

Bernstein, Eduard. 1899. Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie. Stuttgart: Dietz Nachfolger.

———. 1993. The Preconditions of Socialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blumenberg, Werner. 1965. August Bebels Briefwechsel mit Friedrich Engels. The Hague: Mouton.

Engels, Friedrich. 1895 [1973]-a. ‘Engels an Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 1.April 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 452. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-b. ‘Engels an Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 25.März 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 446-48. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-c. ‘Engels an Paul Lafargue in Le Perreux, London, 3April 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 454-58. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-d. ‘Engels an Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 8.März 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 424-26. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1973]-e. ‘Engels an Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 13.Febr. 1895’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 39, 410. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1895 [1990]. ‘Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France‘. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 27, 506-24. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-a. ‘Engels to Eduard Vaillant in Paris, London, 5 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 453-55. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-b. ‘Engels to Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 1 April 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 486. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-c. ‘Engels to Karl Kautsky in Stuttgart, London, 25 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 480-83. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-d. ‘Engels to Paul Lafargue at Le Perreux, London, 3 April 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 487-90. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-e. ‘Engels to Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 8 March 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 457-59. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2004]-f. ‘Engels to Richard Fischer in Berlin, London, 13 February 1895’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 50, 444-45. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

———. 1895 [2010]. ‘Einleitung (1895) zu Karl Marx’s “Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850″‘. In Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe, Vol. I.32, 330-51. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Hunt, Tristram. 2010. Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. New York: Picador.

Johnstone, Monty. 1971. ‘The Paris Commune and Marx’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. The Massachusetts Review 12 (3):447-62.

Kautsky, Karl. 1899. Bernstein und das sozialdemokratische Programm: Eine Antikritik. Stuttgart: Dietz.

Lenin, V.I. 1918 [1965]. ‘The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’. In Collected Works, Vol. 28, 227-325. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Miliband, Ralph. 1991. ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. In A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, 151-52. Oxford: Blackwell.

Möser, Sandy. 1990. ‘Zur Weiterentwicklung der Revolutionstheorie in Friedrich Engels’ “Einleitung zu Karl Marx’ ‘Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850′” und zur unmittelbaren Wirkung dieser Arbeit’. Beiträge zue Marx-Engels-Forschung 139:139-44.

Tudor, Henry, and J.M. Tudor. 1988. Marxism and Social Democracy: The Revisionist Debate, 1896-1898 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Ree, Erik. 2015. Boundaries of Utopia – Imagining Communism from Plato to Stalin. London: Routledge.

[1] For a useful overview of the events, see Möser (1990).

[2] Translation mine.

[3] But who are the revisionists? Is Liebknecht one of them? Engels obviously thought so in 1895, with his efforts to water down the militant emphasis upon which he and Marx had always insisted. Yet Liebknecht would become part of the Spartacus League, being a leader of the Spartacist Uprising on 1919 in which he (and Rosa Luxemburg) were murdered. How about Kautsky? Lenin identified Kautsky as a ‘renegade’ due to his advocacy of the ballot box and decrying of the Russian Revolution (Lenin 1918 [1965]). Was is Bernstein (1993, 1899) with his advocacy of peaceful transition once the bourgeoisie saw the benefits of socialism. Now Kautsky becomes a radical, for he opposed Bernstein as the chief theoretician of the second generation (Kautsky 1899; Tudor and Tudor 1988).

Towards a more dialectical understanding of modes of production

I realise that the question of socialist exploitation may seem like an oxymoron, since socialism is supposed to abolish exploitation of one person or group by another. But I am interested in whether socialist exploitation is possible and perhaps necessary at certain times. The question arises from my examination of Ernst Bloch’s synchronicity of non-synchronicity, which I will not relate now, except to point out that it is exacerbated after a socialist revolution. It may provide the conditions for such a revolution – thereby providing a philosophical understanding of why socialist revolutions happened first in economically ‘backward’ places – but it also explains the profound dislocations of socialism in a context of emergent capitalism. I dealt with this issue at some length in a recent lecture at Fudan University in Shanghai, so the section that follows comes from that lecture.

The question of the synchronicity of non-synchronicity leads to the question of modes of production. I speak here of what is called the ‘narrative’ of modes of production: tribal society and hunter-gatherer existence are replaced by slavery, or perhaps by the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, which are in turn replaced by feudalism, which is replaced by capitalism, which is then overcome by socialism and communism. Each mode of production is both enabled by internal contradictions (which are thereby constitutive contradictions), but those same contradictions lead to its undoing. Thus, a subsequent mode of production overcomes those contradictions only to produce new ones that are simultaneously constitutive and disabling.

By contrast, I would like to pick up some new developments in Marxist theory (first suggested to me by Ken Surin), which challenge this narrative of successive modes of production. Instead of a narrative succession, determined by patterns of contradictions, this new approach – with seeds in Marx’s thought – argue that each new mode of production absorbs all those that have come before (this is really a different and perhaps more sophisticated form of dialectical understanding). Thus, we find that the earlier contradictions are now included within the new mode of production, creating multiple contradictions that remain unresolved. At the same time, the functions of those earlier modes of production are altered, so that they work within the new mode of production. I have found this approach very helpful in a recently completed study of the economies of ancient Southwest Asia, but here I would like to give the example of capitalism.

Capitalism may have its dynamics of financialised markets, with stock exchanges devising ever new ways to generate money from money (Marx’s ultimate formula for capitalism, M-M’). Large financial hubs provide the foci of such activities, such as New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. It may also have its bulk commodities production, where labour is cheap and for which shipping provides the means of moving about large amounts of ‘junk’ – as a ship’s engineer once said to me. At the same time, capitalism also includes forms of feudalism, with landlords (or oligarchs as they are called in Russia, or warlords in Africa and the Middle East) and indentured labourers. Further afield we find types of slavery, especially child slavery, in the production of goods for capitalist markets. We do not need to consider the slave states of the southern USA as the only example of such slavery within capitalism. Yet further afield, in areas of South America, the Pacific, Africa or Asia, there exist hunter-gatherer and tribal societies, who produce cultural trinkets for tourists who may happen to visit such areas. And it is also quiet feasible for socialism – in one or more countries – to be part of a global capitalist system. Indeed, it is perhaps necessary for socialist countries in a dominantly capitalist world to engage with capitalist countries in order to survive, if not thrive. The Soviet Union was the first but by no means the last to do so.

But now it becomes interesting, for the question is whether socialism and communism too may operate in this way. The usual understanding of socialism is a system diametrically opposed to capitalism, or indeed to any other mode of production. The ownership of the means of production passes from capitalists to workers and farmers. But is it possible that socialism may absorb all of the previous modes of production at yet a higher level of complexity. This suggestion has both significant potential, yet also profound dangers. Indeed, within socialist theory we find the argument that communism unleashes the forces of production hindered by capitalism. That is, capitalism fetters and binds the real potential of such forces. Yet, if they are unleashed – as happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s – they must make use of capitalist mechanisms, refining them even further: technological innovation, modes of management and organisation for production, industrialised techniques, forms of agriculture and so on.

But what about other modes of production? Here lie the dangers. At a theoretical level, is it possible for feudal, slave-based, tribal and hunter-gatherer modes of production also to find altered roles in within a socialist framework? For example, in the border areas of Soviet Union, traditional landlord-style social and economic systems still functioned, although the government did its best to replace and modernise them. More significantly, with the massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s, the majority enthusiastically embraced the stunning changes taking place – think of Stakhanovism and the desire emulation the high achievers. However, many were not so enthusiastic, either dragging their feet or actively opposing the process. In this context, the labour camps played a significant role, especially in Siberia. To be sure, they were designed for rehabilitating the people sent to the labour camps, but they also functioned as a reshaped form of labour slavery. And in the areas of northern Russia, above the Arctic Circle, the native peoples still lived in forms of hunter-gatherer and tribal existence. All of this took place during the construction of socialism.

However, the Soviet Union was one state – a large one, it is true, which had the resources for its own internal development. The situation would change once again if socialism were the dominant global form of social and economic life. How would the earlier modes of production be reshaped in such a context? Indeed, how would a minority of capitalist countries relate to the majority of socialist ones? And would a dominant socialist framework alter the patterns of exploitation found within those modes of production, or would new forms of exploitation arise in order to enable socialism? I raise this proposal as a genuine question, although I have not yet thought through how it might work.