What Marx really said

Issue: 110

Simon Basketter

A review of Hal Draper and E Haberkern, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume V: War and Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2005), $17.99

The attitudes the left take to imperialism are shaped more often than not by what they perceive to be the basis of Marxist theory. The latest volume of the important series of books by Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution,1 looks at Marx and Engels’ writings on the inter relationship between war and revolution. Importantly, he examines how misinterpretation has even led some socialists over the years to distort Marx’s ideas to be in favour of imperial war.

In 1848 a revolutionary wave erupted across Europe. It started in Par is in February, and swept across through Germany and the Hungarian-speaking cities of the Austrian Empire. The revolutions of 1848 were far more than a straightforward fight between classes. They cut through the ambitions of four great empires. It meant that war was directly linked to the revolutionary process.

Marx and Engels had no great illusions in the leaders of the revolution. They realised that the German bourgeoisie were trying to do, at most, what the French and English bourgeoisie had done in previous centuries to unify the country under an establishment geared towards the free development of capitalism. They didn’t think that this would lead directly to the liberation of the working class or the peasantry. Coming later to maturity, the emergent capitalists not only had to struggle against the autocracy above them, they also had to worry about a working class and peasantry below them.

The main concern of Marx and Engels was to act as the extreme left wing of the movement and, through organising from below, to push the movement as far as they could.

This raised the question of the Slav people’s struggle for liberation within the context of the competing European empires. Marx and Engels recognised that there could not be self-determination at the end of a struggle against the German Revolution orchestrated entirely by the Russian Empire. Therefore they differentiated themselves from those such as Bakunin, who wanted struggle by all the Slavs to be unified under the banner of pan-Slavism—which meant the subservience of the mass of Slavs to the one Slav nation that could at the time play no progressive role, the Russian autocracy.

In contrast to some later criticism of him, Engels does not blame the oppressed nations for their attitude towards the Germans. He points out that faced with a choice of joining with the Germans in revolution or fighting the Germans they would do the latter. This was borne out in reality. Draper provides a useful discussion on Roman Rosdolsky’s misuse of Engels’ use of the concept of the non-historic peoples as part of this debate.2

Marx and Engels, however, did have a tendency to see the development of capitalism leading to the suppression of nations and therefore their withering away. They have been proved wrong, but only by factors that arose later. The ability of backward nations to develop a coherent national liberation movement depended on the ability of a class such as the petty bourgeoisie to form political poles of attraction. This was a phenomenon that only developed at the end of the 19th century.

Engels’ later argument with others in the socialist movement over attitudes to a war in Europe shed a fascinating light on the way in which European capitalism was developing towards inter-imperialist rivalry at the end of the 19th century. Draper writes, ‘In the last years of his life Engels was concerned to work out a political response to the impending war danger. He effectively worked out an approach that revolutionary socialists had to reinvent during the course of the First World War because the leadership of the Social Democracy did their best to bury Engels’ politics after he himself was cremated’.3

It has frequently been argued that in his last years Engels endorsed the first signs of reformism as they emerged in the German SPD and the Second International of which it was a part. For Engels the problem was how socialist ideas were to break out of a left wing ghetto inhabited by a handful of committed workers and intellectuals.

He placed his hopes in the movements in Germany, where Marxists had succeeded in giving expression to the feelings of broad layers of workers and, through this, winning seats in parliament and making an impact on national politics. However, this did not mean that Engels had in any sense abandoned his own belief in the necessity of revolution.

Not that Engels was right in all of his arguments. He based his view of international events on an analysis which was right in the 1840s, but was no longer so half a century later—that Russia was the greatest threat to the progressive forces across Europe. It was a misanalysis that was to be used 20 years after his death to
justify support for imperialist war.

Engels himself went some way to recognising this: ‘I too have, since 1848, frequently made the statement that Russian Tsarism is the last bulwark and the greatest reserve army of European reaction. Nevertheless, much has changed in Russia in the last 20 years. The so-called emancipation of the peasantry has created a thoroughly revolutionary situation’.4

Draper argues that ‘Engels, perhaps earlier than anyone else, realised that the state system in Europe had dramatically changed as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. In this political response he was far ahead of his contemporaries and anticipated the anti-war left of the Second International, but he never sat down to think through what this change meant theoretically. He didn’t do what Lenin was to do in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. And that meant that when he was forced to defend his politics…he was at a disadvantage’.5

As a consequence of this disadvantage Draper provides a detailed account of how Engels protested strongly when editors of the German party paper Vorwärts, supposedly in order to avoid prosecution, cut out revolutionary language from his introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France.

It is certainly true that Engels insists on the importance of ‘slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity’. However, Engels wrote a bitter letter of protest to Karl Kautsky, then editor of the SPD paper, Neue Zeit: ‘To my astonishment I see today in Vorwärts an extract from my Introduction, printed without my knowledge and trimmed in such a way as to make me appear a peace-loving worshipper of legality at any price’.6

The book has been put together by Draper’s long time collaborator E Harberkern, and occasionally reads as a collection of extended notes (the arguments about Marx and Engels’ attitude to the American Civil War don’t quite gel with the rest of the book as a result). Draper’s tendency to give unequal weight to some arguments rather than others on the basis of document trails rather than on the their merits is also present. But overall it is a valuable addition to an already indispensable
collection of work.

1: Hal Draper and E Haberkern, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol 5 War and Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2005). The previous volumes are: The State and Bureaucracy (1979); The Politics of Social Classes (1986); The ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ (1986); Critique of Other Socialisms (1989) (all Monthly Review Press). Draper was better at understanding what Marx stood for than analysing where the world had got to. Further, Draper’s politics had one central flaw—he was clear about what the former Soviet regime was not, but he could not explain what it was. This volume is less marred by the consequences of this than Volume 3, and overall not quite as good as volumes 1 and 2. The relationship between Draper’s position in the Trotskyist movement and its effect on his work is discussed fully in Steve Wright, ‘Hal Draper’s Marxism’, in International Socialism 47 (Summer 1990), and in Derek Howl, ‘The Legacy of Hal Draper’, International Socialism 52 (Autumn 1991).
2: H Draper, ‘Rosdolsky v Rosdolsky’, special note on Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol 5, as above, p199.
3: As above, p187.
4: Engels to Salo Farber, 22 October 1885. quoted, as above, p169.
5: As above, pp185-186.
6: Engels to Karl Kautsky, 1 April 1895, Selected Correspondence (Moscow, 1975), p461.