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Notes on Class, Political Parties, and the Communist Party in Marx and Engels

Marx and Engels did not provide a theory of the organic political party. But this does not mean that we cannot find important elements on this subject in the thinking of the two revolutionaries.

Giacomo Turci

May 13, 2020
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In all of their writings, there is not a complete formulation of a “theory of a communist party” in the works of Marx and Engels. There is, however, an undeniable development of the features of a party theory, though it is rather scattered and often buried in pieces of controversy or historical-political analysis, such as Marx’s comments in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Marx’s positivist critics often controversially claim that Marx confined himself “to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts…for the cook-shops of the future.”1Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 2nd German ed., afterword, 12, Marxist Internet Archive.

But it should also be remembered that, contrary to the rather widespread conception of Marxism being elevated to a system, Engels himself claimed that “[Marx’s] way of viewing things is not a doctrine but a method. It does not provide ready-made dogmas, but criteria for further research and the method for this research. Using the method Marx developed to analyze his writings, we can identify several features of his conception of the political party.

In the Communist Manifesto, as well as in Class Struggles in France 1848–1850, the term “party” carries different meanings: this ambiguity (or wealth of meaning, as it were) must be adequately taken into account to avoid distorting or overstating the contradictory and fragmentary character of Marx’s elaboration on the subject.2Damiano Palano, Partito (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2013), 173.

The Marxologist Maximilien Rubel, discussing this ambiguity, indicates in Marx’s thought a double conception of the party: on the one hand as a sociological phenomenon — a structural, physiological phenomenon emerging from bourgeois society; and on the other, as an ethical phenomenon, “a sort of profession of faith and the illustration of the mission that the communists are obliged to carry out.”3Ibid., 174. Damiano Palano interprets this ambivalence as Marx’s desire to distinguish the party as an ephemeral phenomenon or historical category, “by which he alludes to parties that really move on political ground, from an ‘eminently historical sense’ of the term, used instead to refer to the cause of the proletariat’s affirmation.”4Ibid. Palano bases his interpretation on the following passage from a letter by Marx to Freiligrath:

I would point out d’abord that, after the ‘League’ had been disbanded at my behest in November 1852, I never belonged to any society again, whether secret or public; that the party, therefore, in this wholly ephemeral sense, ceased to exist for me 8 years ago. […] The ‘League’, like the société des saisons in Paris and a hundred other societies, was simply an episode in the history of a party that is everywhere springing up naturally out of the soil of modern society. […] By party, I meant the party in the broad historical sense.5Marx To Ferdinand Freiligrath, February 29, 1860, Marxists Internet Archive.

In Rubel’s view, it is possible to grasp essentially two planes of the “communist party” discourse in Marx’s work. It seems, however, that the two categories proposed by Rubel are derived from a superficial reading of the passages dedicated to the party. As a result, the formal presence of political forces, of organizations that intervene overall in the political life of civil society in various forms and with various methods is reduced to a sociological data point which flattens the analysis of these forces, making them either the party-political organization or the social class. 

On the contrary, Marx and Engels try to analyze the relationship between parties and social classes, doing so based on a dialectic certainly more complex than a mere linear relationship that would identify the perfect adhesion of each social class to its own political party. Their elucidation starts from a general rejection of determinism in the reading of the relationship between the economic moment and the other social spheres, a determinism that ironically took root among the “Marxists” already living during Marx’s time:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.6Engels to J. Bloch, September 21, 1890, Marxist Internet Archive.

Marx and Engels reject, therefore, the hypothesis that the mere economic situation, the mere objective interests of the different social classes immediately shape the distribution of theories and political parties on the basis of rigid socioeconomic categories. Specifically, with regard to the widespread use of the category of “petit-bourgeois” found in Marx’s and Engels’s writings, Marx clarifies the meaning and orientation with which he links certain parties to different social classes when he considers the claim that the theories and political solutions expressed by these parties reflect the material interests and practical problems of specific classes:

One must not get the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven and earth.7Our emphasis. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.8Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, chap. 3, “Defeat of Petty-Bourgeois Democracy,” Marxist Internet Archive.

It is precisely the “smallness” of the radical-democratic parties’ theoretical horizon that makes them deserve the nickname, according to Marx and Engels, of “vulgar democrats,” in the sense of being superficial — firm on the appearance of political questions and the very meaning of democracy in modern bourgeois society. This character of theirs refers back to and is firmly rooted in the program of the petit bourgeois, in which the aims of these parties are summed up 

in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labor, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony.9Ibid.

It follows from this way of conceptualizing the party that, according to Marx and Engels, the social composition of a party, of its members, is not the sole determinant of its character or form. 

In this way it is possible for the two to speak of the historical development of the various particular organizations and in general of the party of the proletariat by referring to political activities and groups not directed only by members of the proletariat — indeed not even composed in majority by proletarians, given specific conditions that justify such a class hybridization. Those political organizations in the socialist field that offer original “recipes” for society, or that in any case claim that socialism affirms itself as such by virtue of its own goodness as an idea, as an “expression of absolute truth, reason, and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power”10Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, chap. 1, “The Development of Utopian Socialism,” Marxist Internet Archive. independently of the real political development of the proletariat itself, are called sects by Marx and Engels, even if they formally constitute real parties more or less densely populated by proletarians.11Marx and Engels, Il partito e l’Internazionale (Rome: Edizioni Rinascita, 1948), 209, 246–47.

Marx subsequently develops the role of the party, adding further elements with respect to his analysis of the degree to which the social composition of a political party informs the specific form of that party; in particular, he studies how not only on a theoretical level, but also on an empirical one (using the case of the French peasants and Louis Bonaparte), the political direction and representation of a given social class is not a spontaneous product of the class itself. In other words, not only is it not strictly necessary for the political personnel expressing the “objective” programmatic positions of a class to belong to that class, but the historical rise of a class in itself does not automatically bring with it an “internal” political leadership that comes fully formed; consequently the formation of an “organic” political leadership of a specific class is not an immediate, “spontaneous” product of the rise of that class, but is formed in the process of struggle and accumulated political experience. Given that, we can shed some light on the “strange” fact of political leadership which historically, at least for a period, is made up of members of classes different from the ones they lead.

Marx places great importance on the particular case of the small landowner class (as opposed to landowners and agrarian entrepreneurs with medium and large properties). He argues that this class is structurally incapable of constituting itself as an autonomous revolutionary subject; it is an economically (and therefore politically) weak class because of both the marginality of its members, both on an individual level and as a whole, and because of its dispersion and lack of internal relations and ties.

Bonaparte represented a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that, the small-holding peasants. (…) The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France’s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.12Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, chap. 7, Summary, Marxist Internet Archive.

Even on the economic level, in the age of the accumulation of capital and the progressive concentration of wealth in a few hands in all branches of the economy, “what leads the farmer today to ruin (…) is his own small plot of land, the distribution of the land.”13Ibid.

Therefore, even smallholder farmers are included in that enormous slice of the population that is in a subordinate and exploited role compared to the rising capitalist class, which progressively takes the place of the former feudal aristocratic owners:

The peasant’s small holding is now only the pretext that allows the capitalist to draw profits, interest, and rent from the soil, while leaving it to the agriculturist himself to see to it how he can extract his wages. (…) Therefore the interests of the peasants are no longer, as under Napoleon, in accord with, but are now in opposition to bourgeois interests, to capital. Hence they find their natural ally and leader in the urban proletariat, whose task it is to overthrow the bourgeois order.14Ibid.

First published on May 5, 2018 in Italian on La Voice delle Lotte.

Translation by the author.


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Giacomo Turci

Giacomo is a journalist from Rome and editor of our Italian sister site La Voce delle Lotte.

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