Socialist Worker

The working class is a force for change

In the first part of our new series on Permanent Revolution Esme Choonara looks at Karl Marx’s theory of revolution

Issue No. 2168

On the barricades in Paris during 1848

On the barricades in Paris during 1848


What forces can the working class trust? How should we fight for more democracy? Can we get rid of class society?

These are some of the questions that socialists have always grappled with – and Karl Marx was no exception.

It was his experience of the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 that led Marx to argue that workers must fight for a “permanent” – or ongoing – revolution.

In 1848 Europe was dominated by monarchies. Germany and Italy were still not unified states.

This old system – feudalism – was increasingly coming into conflict with the growing forces of capitalism.

The upcoming capitalist class of factory owners, businessmen and traders – what Marx called the bourgeoisie – were increasingly frustrated by the legal restrictions that hampered their advance.

Across Europe there were calls for change and greater freedom.

But this desire was not just limited to the capitalists. Workers – whose numbers were growing with the spread of industry – and poor peasants also had plenty to protest about.

Social conditions were miserable. Workers were crammed together in slums. There were food shortages and riots across much of Europe.

Revolution broke out in France in February 1848 when an uprising in Paris overthrew the monarchy of Louis Phillipe.

The wave of struggle quickly spread to Germany, Austria, Italy and Hungary.

Marx and his close collaborator Frederick Engels had been in exile and rushed back to Germany to get involved in the struggle.

They saw their role as being on the radical left of a broad movement for democracy.

Engels later explained that to stand aside from this movement would have been to reduce themselves to “a tiny sect” of “preachers in the wilderness”.

But the question was who to join forces with.

The idea that we might trust the capitalist class as allies may seem far fetched today, but in 1848 capitalism was still fighting to establish itself.

The revolutionaries, including Marx, believed that the capitalists would be at the forefront of fighting to get rid of the old feudal order. This is what had happened in the French Revolution of 1789.

But Marx also predicted that a capitalist revolution would be followed swiftly by a workers’ revolution.

In the event, the capitalists proved too cowardly to lead a decisive fight against the monarchy.

Again and again the capitalists’ fear of the workers outweighed their opposition to the old order.

This meant that they wasted the gains they made by striking shoddy deals with the old feudal powers.

Marx was scathing about the capitalists’ failure to defend even small advances.

As the revolutions progressed, the capitalists grouped around the banner of restoring “order”. They viciously attacked the working class forces.

The starkest example of this was the massacre of workers in Paris in June 1848. Marx called this the “first great battle between the two classes which divide modern society”.

In Germany the capitalists allowed the crown to regain the initiative and to crack down on the workers’ movement.

Across Europe a wave of repression in 1849 saw its leaders thrown in jail or driven into exile.

The capitalists were clearly no longer a revolutionary class.

Marx argued that the German capitalists in particular had developed “so sluggishly, so pusillanimously and so slowly” that by the time they came to fight against the old order they were too threatened by the workers’ movement to see it through.

This, Marx argued, had implications for what socialists should do.

In 1850 he and Engels drafted an address to the members of the Communist League – the socialist organisation they were involved in – which argued that workers needed to fight for independent political organisation.

They wrote that the workers’ “battle cry must be: the permanent revolution”.

Revolution, Marx argued, had to be permanent in two senses.

First, workers had to fight to push any revolutionary struggle to the point where they could take power and so abolish private property and class altogether.

Second, it had to be international – it had to spread until it was established everywhere.

These themes were to dominate debates as the centre of the struggle shifted eastwards, to revolutionary Russia.


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