Socialist Worker

Why workers must liberate themselves

In the last column of this series, Bob Fotheringham looks at the influence of the French revolution

Issue No. 2042

For radicals of Karl Marx’s generation the French Revolution of 1789 was a source of inspiration which dominated their thinking.

The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution which swept away the French aristocracy and monarchy from power and allowed capitalism in France to fully develop.

To win the masses to their side, leaders of the revolution demanded that all those previously excluded from running the country (known collectively as “the third estate”) should have the major say in how France was governed.

The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, therefore, became the dominant principles of the French Revolution.

Once in power, however, the capitalist class of France was happy to let the mass of the population exist in poverty excluded from political power.

Many radicals continued to fight for the ideals of the French revolution.

When the political situation in Germany forced Marx to move to Paris in 1843 he was greatly influenced by these individuals.

Marx found in Paris an array of organisations which identified themselves as socialist or communist.

For the first time Marx also came across workers in large numbers along with working class organisation.

This had a profound effect on Marx’s thoughts. This was when he first called himself a communist.

News reached Marx of a rebellion by Silesian miners in Germany which was put down by force.

For Marx the miners’ revolt was dramatic proof of the dynamic role that workers can play in the process of revolution.

The socialists of Paris could roughly be split into two types.

There were those who hated French capitalism and the poverty and exploitation which it had brought with it.

They also recoiled from the methods used during the French Revolution to bring the capitalists to power – the terror and the violence.

For them socialism could only come about through education and reason. Marx called them utopian.

Other socialists or communists believed that change could only come through violent insurrection and revolution. This would allow them to impose “equality and fraternity” on society.

Both the utopian socialists and the revolutionary communists of Paris believed change would be brought about by an elite, working on behalf of the workers.

While Marx shared many of their criticisms of capitalism, he was the first socialist in history who went beyond their view of change and put forward the idea of working class self-emancipation.

For Marx the working class has a unique role to play.

First, by bringing about a technical revolution which massively raised the productivity of labour, and by collectivising the process of production, capitalism has created the material conditions which make socialism possible.

There is no longer any need for scarcity or hunger – everyone’s needs could be satisfied.

Second, the nature of production under capitalism and the exploitation at the heart of its economic base forces the working class to organise collectively.

Class struggle allows the organisation and ideas of workers to grow and develop and therefore makes them able to build a new collective society.

Third, because of their unique position in the process of production, the working class is the only force with the power to challenge the capitalist class.

Marx’s political ideas bring together his philosophy and economic theories to give an understanding of how capitalism works and how we can overthrow it.

It is not possible to bring about political change without changing an economic system that brings with it so much waste and destruction.

When Marx first analysed capitalism it only existed in a small corner of Europe. It now straddles the globe leaving no part of the world untouched.

To the ills which capitalism has brought us, we can now add the environmental destruction of the planet.

The great Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg once said the world has a choice – “socialism or barbarism”.

That choice remains as relevant today as it ever did.

The genius of Marx was to point to the one force capable of bringing about a new and better society – the modern working class.


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