Socialist Worker

Marx was one hundred percent democratic

COLIN BARKER says that Marx was right to trust the workers

Issue No. 1867

GEORGE MONBIOT, in his recent book The Age of Consent, makes what is a common complaint against Marxism.

He suggests that Marx lost his faith in the ability of the working class to fight for change.

In his book, George writes that, 'to overcome this inconvenience, Marx effectively re-invokes, in the form of bourgeois communist idealogues such as himself, the guardian-philosophers.

'Rather than trust the faceless proletariat to make its own decisions, he appoints these guardians to 'represent and take care of the future' for them.'

By using the little word 'effectively' George implies that Marx didn't actually say this, but he secretly meant it.

But what did Marx actually say in The Communist Manifesto? Revolutionary socialists, he said, don't organise separately from, and don't have interests apart from those of the working class as a whole. They don't set up sectarian principles of their own to shape and mould the movement.

They're only distinguished from other workers' parties by two things. First, they bring out the common interests of the whole working class, independently of all nationality. Second, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

Marx's position is, in essence, that revolutionary socialists argue their case in the workers' movement. Nowhere does Marx even suggest he and his mates must or can substitute themselves for the actual decisions of workers.

He did think that, through their own experience, workers would come to see the necessity of revolution. But that doesn't make him a would-be dictator.

George writes that Marx wanted to abolish private property and centralise 'all instruments of production in the hands of the state'. George says that Marx granted communist governments a possibly unprecedented power over human life. Officials could decide everything. Marx devised the perfect conditions for totalitarian dictatorship.

George raises a question that many critics of Marx have raised-'Who guards the guards?' Remember, he says, that democratic systems contain safeguards, chiefly in the form of elections, designed to ensure that those who exercise power over society do it in its best interests. People ought to be able to dismiss their own governments.

Fine. But, although George doesn't mention it, Marx agreed with him on this 100 percent.

The edition of The Communist Manifesto which George quotes from has a preface, which refers to what Marx wrote about the Paris Commune of 1871.

What did Marx praise, at some length, about the Commune? That all its officials were elected and subject to recall. That they received workers' pay. It was, said Engels, the first example of 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'-and it was brilliantly democratic.

It is crucial to check up on Marx's actual words: 'The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, ie of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.'

How can the proletariat have 'political supremacy' and how can it be 'organised as the ruling class', except through the most far-reaching democracy? There's no other way that the majority in society can rule except democratically. That was actually Marx's political programme.

George's final suggestion is that Marx thought that with the triumph of the proletariat 'all conflict will come to an end, and everyone shall pursue, through 'the free development of each', 'the free development of all'.' But history, George argues, does not come to an end.

Two brief points. First, Marx looked forward to what he called 'the end of pre-history' and the beginning of humanity's real history, once it had shaken off class society.

That was what freeing up human development meant. In place of capitalist competition, he thought humankind would achieve new forms of mutual cooperation. That's not the same as the 'end of conflict'.

Second, while Marx nowhere suggested that history would come to an end, he certainly did think class conflict and exploitation could. That's what revolutionary socialists think.

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What Socialists Say
Sat 6 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1867
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