Marx and Engels on the Proletarian Party

The Activist - Volume 8, Number 3, 1998
By Doug Lorimer

[This article is an edited version of a talk presented to a conference on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto sponsored by the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, held in Sydney January 3-7, 1998.]

Marx and Engels were not the first to develop and advance a vision of a classless society. As they themselves noted, earlier thinkers had developed "in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Utopian pictures of ideal social conditions; in the eighteenth, actual communistic theories... [in which] it was not simply class privileges that were to be abolished, but class distinctions themselves". (1) The great achievement of Marx and Engels was to discern the real historical process by which socialism could become a material reality. That is they created a scientific socialism. "To make a science of socialism", Engels pointed out in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, "it had first to be placed on a real basis". (2)

This "real basis" was the materialist conception of history, which demonstrated that socialism would not be brought about through the moral persuasion of all humanity to a vision of a classless society, but through the conquest of political power by a definite class, the proletariat. This was the central conclusion of the first work in which Marx and Engels elaborated the principles of the science of historical materialism – The German Ideology. Written between November 1845 and April 1846, this work, which was never published in Marx and Engels' lifetimes, pointed out that it is the contradiction between the development of humanity's productive forces and outdated forms of ownership of the productive forces that is the material basis of the change from one social system to another. It pointed out that this objective contradiction was the root cause of the class struggle between the wage-earning proletariat and their capitalist exploiters, a struggle that could only be resolved by a proletarian, communist revolution.

Earlier, in his 1845 Theses on Feuerbach, Marx had formulated the idea that through revolutionary practice human beings change not only their material circumstances but themselves. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels stressed that a qualitatively new social order can only be brought into being through a social revolution. The revolution is necessary, they wrote, "not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew". (3)

The first step in the communist social revolution, The German Ideology explained, was the conquest of political power by the proletariat. It formulated this idea thus: "Every class which is aiming at domination, even when its domination, as is the case with the proletariat, leads to the abolition of the old form of society in its entirety and of domination in general, must first conquer political power." (4)

While not formulated as such in The German Ideology, this conclusion defined the real task of socialists which, as Lenin put it in 1899, was "not to draw up plans for refashioning society, not to preach to the capitalists and their hangers-on about improving the lot of the workers, not to hatch conspiracies, but to organise the class struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate aim of which is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the organisation of a socialist society". (5)

In a letter written to a Danish socialist in 1889, Engels pointed out that "the proletariat cannot conquer political power, the only door to the new society, without violent revolution. For the proletariat to be strong enough to win on the decisive day it must – and Marx and I have advocated this ever since 1847 – form a separate party distinct from all others and opposed to them, a conscious class party". (6)

Formation of the Communist League

Having found themselves in 1844-45 in agreement on some basic principles of scientific socialism and having elaborated these in more detail through their joint work in 1845-46 in drafting The German Ideology, Marx and Engels set out in early 1846 to attempt, as Engels later put it, "to win over the European and in the first place the German proletariat". (7)

In early 1846, they set up the Brussels Communist Correspondence Committee, the aim of which was to establish literary contact with radical working-class and socialist leaders throughout Western Europe and to facilitate the dissemination of scientific socialist ideas among them. The committee's membership was made up of a small number of emigre Germans, included the former Breslau teacher Wilhelm Wolff and the former Prussian artillery officer Joseph Weydemeyer.

Marx and Engels sought to set up similar committees elsewhere, particularly in Germany. Through Wolff they established contact with communist-inclined intellectuals in Silesia, while Weydemeyer made efforts to establish communist correspondence committees in Westphalia and the Rhine province.

In charting a tactical line to be followed by the Communists in Germany, Marx and Engels advised them to support the bourgeois demands for a democratic Constitution, freedom of the press, assembly, etc., for if these demands were achieved "a new era will dawn for communist propaganda". (8) Consequently, the Communists had to take an active part in mass action against the feudal absolutist regimes in Germany and help the victory of bourgeois-democratic revolutions there so as to create more favourable conditions for the proletariat's struggle against the bourgeoisie. This was the tactical line that Marx and Engels and their associates later sought to implement during the 1848 revolutions in Germany.

Among those who received the lithographed circulars and pamphlets issued from Brussels were the leaders of the League of the Just – a secret society of emigre German artisans, mainly tailors, that had been formed in 1836.

Several years earlier both Marx and Engels had met leaders of the League in Paris and London, respectively, and had been invited by them to join the organisation. However at that time the League was heavily influenced by romantic and objectively reactionary petty-bourgeois views of instantaneously achieving a classless society through the introduction by a revolutionary government of an egalitarian distribution of consumer goods. This revolutionary government was not to come into existence through the taking of political power by a mass revolutionary movement of the workers, but – following the ideas of the French utopian communist August Blanqui – through a coup d'etat by a tight-knit, secret society of revolutionary conspirators. Rejecting both the aim and means then advocated by the League of the Just as contrary to proletarian socialism, Marx and Engels has refused to join it.

However, towards the end of 1846 there was a change in the ideological outlook of leading members of the League of the Just. They had become dissatisfied with the various utopian socialist schemes because they failed to provide answers to the practical problems of the working-class movement that they faced. At the same time, they began to see that the ideas of scientific socialism being propagandised from Brussels by Marx and Engels could set the working-class movement on the right course.

In November 1846, the executive committee of the League – among whose members were the shoemaker Heinrich Bauer, the watchmaker Joseph Moll and the typesetter Karl Schapper – issued a call for an international congress of communists to be held in London in May 1847. In January 1847, Moll was sent with official instructions to see Marx in Brussels and Engels in Paris and to arrange the terms on which the two men could join the League and participate in preparing the documents for the congress. They were promised full freedom of expression. Under such circumstances, Marx and Engels, who had been looking for a larger and more cohesive organisation to work in, decided to join. "After all, the fellows are a couple of hundred men strong", Engels had written to Marx in December 1846. (9)

In February 1847, the executive committee of the League sent out a second call, which reflected the impact upon the League's leaders of Moll's discussions with Marx and Engels. It held up the Chartist movement in Britain as an example to communists who, it noted, "we are sorry to say, do not yet form a party". (10) It postponed the congress from May to June to give more time for preparation. The agenda for the congress included a complete reorganisation of the League, the drawing up of new rules, consideration of a program, and a printed periodical.

Rules and structure of the Communist League

The congress was held from June 2-7, 1847. Marx was unable to attend because of lack of money. Engels, now a member of the organisation, came as a representative from the Paris branches, while Wolff came as a representative of its Brussels branches.

For all intents and purposes, the congress was a constituent one and inaugurated a totally new organisation, with new ideological principles and structure and a new name, the Bund der Kommunisten, or League of Communists. We are accustomed to call it the Communist League. It adopted as the basis of the League's program, which was to be finalised at its next congress, Engels' outline in the form of a revolutionary catechism, a form then popular among workers' societies and decided to circulate it for discussion among its local branches.

New rules were drafted with the direct participation of Engels and Wolff and these were also to be circulated for discussion by the local branches before being adopted by the next congress. In accordance with the agreement reached between Marx and Moll, the Communist League discarded all practices of a conspiratorial society, namely, the semi-mystical rituals of swearing in new members, the oath of allegiance, the petty regulation of duties, and the excessive concentration of all decision-making powers in the hands of unelected leadership bodies.

Under the new rules the highest decision-making body of the Communist League was the congress, made up of delegates elected by local organisations. A clause in the draft rules giving the local organisations the right to accept or reject congress decisions was subsequently deleted upon Marx's insistence. Between congresses, the executive organ of the organisation was the Central Authority, a committee of at least five members elected by the "circle" or district where the congress was seated. The members of the Central Authority were to be seated at the congress without a deciding vote.

The basic unit of the organisation was called the "community" and was to consist of at least three and at most twenty members. Each community was to elect two officers – a chairperson who presided over its meetings and a deputy chairperson who was responsible for the community's funds. Two or more communities would be grouped together as a "circle", the executive organ of which would consist of the elected officers of the communities comprising it and would be headed by an elected president. The various circles in a country or province were subordinated to a "leading circle", elected by the congress and responsible to the Central Authority.

The communities, circle authorities and the Central Authority were to meet at least once every fortnight. The members of the circle authorities and the Central Authority were to be elected for one year, and could be re-elected and recalled by their electors at any time. The Central Authority was empowered to issue calls for discussions among the entire League membership.

Prospective members who had acquainted themselves with the rules were to be admitted to the League with the consent of their local community. Regulations were also provided for expulsion of members who violated the conditions of membership, with expelled members only being readmitted upon the approval of the Central Authority on the proposal of the circle.

Members of the League were required to recognise the principles of the League, conduct a "way of life and activity which corresponds" (11) to the League's aim, subordinate their activity to the decisions of the League, observe public secrecy concerning internal League affairs, and not participate in anti-communist political associations and to inform the immediately superior authority of the League of their participation in any other political association. The latter requirement was written into the rules sometime later, once again on Marx's initiative, instead of the draft rules' initial sectarian ban on League members joining any other political association.

Marx later observed that: "This democratic constitution, utterly unfit for conspiratorial secret societies, was at any rate not incompatible with the tasks of a propaganda society." (12)

Fusion of democracy and centralism

If the rules of the Communist League seem very familiar to us 150 years after they were adopted that's because they constitute the basic elements of what we now call democratic centralism. That is, the electivity and recallability of the governing bodies went hand in hand with the principle of the subordination of lower bodies to higher ones.

Both the term and the organisational principle of democratic centralism are today widely but falsely assumed to have been invented early this century by Lenin's Bolshevik faction within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. However, as we can see from the rules of the Communist League, the idea of a combination of democracy, of majority rule, with centralised leadership as the basic principle of working-class political organisation was advocated by Marxists long before the term "democratic centralism" was used by the Bolsheviks. In fact, as Paul Le Blanc points out in his 1990 book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, the term itself was first coined by the Mensheviks in a November 1905 resolution on the organisation of the RSDLP. The Menshevik resolution stated:

"The RSDLP must be organised according to the principle of democratic centralism. All party members must take part in the election of party institutions. All party institutions are elected for a [specified] period, are subject to recall and obligated to account for their actions both periodically and at any time upon demand of the organisation which elected them. Decisions of the guiding collectives are binding on the members of those organisations of which the collective is the organ. Actions affecting the organisation as a whole (i.e. congresses, reorganisations) must be decided upon by all the members of the organisation. Decisions of lower-level organisations are not to be implemented if they contradict decisions of higher organisations." (13)

The term democratic centralism first appeared among the Bolsheviks in a December 1905 resolution "On Party Reorganisation" and was then used in a resolution on party organisation adopted by the RSDLP Unity Congress of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in April 1906.

Why, then, it may be asked, is the term and the principle it encapsulates widely associated as a uniquely "Leninist" idea? There are two basic reasons. The first is that from that time until the bureaucratic degeneration of the Bolshevik party in the mid 1920s only the Bolsheviks continued to adhere to this principle of organisation in both theory and practice. The second is that the term itself has come to be associated with the specific variant of democracy and centralism that the Bolsheviks adopted after 1912 when they constituted themselves as a revolutionary Marxist party separate from and opposed to the reformist Mensheviks.

This specific Leninist variant of democratic centralism included an organisational principle that was new in the history of the socialist movement, at least as it had developed in Europe from the 1890s. The new organisational principle was the prohibition of the right of minorities within the Bolshevik party to make public "pronouncements disruptive of the actions and decisions of the majority". Instead, as Lenin observed in a July 1914 report to a Brussels meeting of Russian socialists organised by the International Bureau of the Second International, "[t]he minority shall have the right to discuss before the whole Party, disagreements on programme, tactics and organisation in a discussion journal specifically published for the purpose". (14)

Another idea that is widely thought to be a uniquely Leninist interpretation of socialist party organisation is the notion that the Bolsheviks were the first Marxists to set limits on what views on policy were compatible with party membership. Thus in the previously cited report by Lenin he pointed out that there were a range of policy positions that would "not be tolerated in the ranks of the illegal RSDLP". (15) These included opposing the existence of the underground party organisation, advocacy of a legal workers' party in Russia at the time since this could only be a "tsarist-monarchist labour party", opposition to the slogans of a democratic republic and the confiscation of landed estates, and holding views on the question of oppressed nationalities at variance with the decisions of the 1903 congress of the RSDLP.

However, these decisions by the Bolsheviks to declare the advocacy of specific policy views incompatible with membership in a voluntary party organisation was not unprecedented in the Marxist movement. At its first congress in June 1847 the Communist League adopted a decision declaring that advocacy of sectarian-utopian dogmas was incompatible with membership of a proletarian organisation and it therefore expelled from its ranks all those holding such views.

Consolidation of League's proletarian ideological outlook

The first congress of the Communist League also decided to drop the old, petty-bourgeois democratic motto "All People Are Brethren!" and replace it with the new rallying cry put forward by Engels: "Proletarians of All Countries, Unite!"

Nevertheless, despite all the ideological advances registered at the first congress, there continued to be hang-overs of the League of the Just's petty-bourgeois outlook. Thus the draft rules declared that the League's aim was "the destruction of people's enslavement by the dissemination of the theory of the community of goods and its practical introduction as soon as possible." (16)

Considering the existing conditions in Germany and the obstacles encountered by emigrants in their political activity in countries with "liberal" regimes such as Belgium and France, the League had to remain a secret organisation, but Marx fought to ensure that it did not inherit the isolation and lack of contact with the masses of workers of its predecessor organisation. He believed that the League's secret organisation of vanguard workers should be surrounded and work within a network of open workers' societies, like the German Workers' Educational Society in London. The Communist League was either to establish contact with existing educational societies or set up new ones.

This idea was soon put into practice, with a German Workers' Educational Society being set up by the Communist League in Brussels at the end of August 1847. Its initial membership of 37 rose within a few months to almost 100. The Society organised libraries, lectures for workers on various subjects and social events. Marx later observed: "The League which stood behind the open workers' societies and directed them found in them its immediate field of activity for open propaganda while also replenishing and enlarging itself with their most capable members." (17)

As for the first congress's plans for a regular League periodical, only one issue appeared, in September 1847. Named Kommunistische Zeitschrift, its articles, most of which were written by Schapper, criticised utopian socialist ideas and elaborated the Communists' views on the tactical issues facing the workers' movement in Germany. Lack of funds prevented the publication of a second issue. By the end of 1847, however, the leaders of the Communist League in Brussels had managed to take over editorial control of an already existing twice-weekly emigrant newspaper, the Deutsche-Brusseler Zeitung. From then until the final issue appeared on February 27, 1848 this paper was the unofficial organ of the Communist League.

A further step in the ideological and organisational consolidation of the Communist League was its second congress, held in London from November 28 to December 8, 1847. This time both Marx and Engels were present. The program was the main point on the agenda. Marx and Engels had to use all their powers of persuasion over the course of the 10-day congress to convince the majority of the correctness of their views. But they won out. This was reflected in a change of Article 1 of the League's rules. The old aim of an idyllic "community of goods" was replaced by a new formulation. The new aim of the League was "The overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the domination of the proletariat, the abolition of bourgeois society based on class antagonisms and the establishment of a new society without classes and without private property." (18)

As a result of the debates, the congress gave Marx and Engels the responsibility of drafting a "detailed theoretical and practical party programme". (19) They accepted, and thus came to write the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

The Communist Manifesto and the party question

Completed in early February 1848, the Communist Manifesto as it is commonly referred to, set out in only the most general terms Marx and Engels' conception of a working-class party.

In section I of the manifesto they referred to the proletarian party as the "organisation of the proletarians into a class", which "compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself". (20) The immediately following reference to the legislative passage of the 10-hour workday bill in England makes it clear that Marx and Engels were simply describing the actual historical development of the first and, up to that time, only mass working-class political movement – the National Charter Association in England. Indeed, section 4 of the Communist Manifesto cites the Chartists in England and the Agrarian Reformers in the United States as specific examples of existing working-class parties.

The Chartist movement was a loose united front of pure trade unionists, fighters for the 10-hour work day, radical democrats and bourgeois philanthropists, which reached the zenith of its activity in 1842 and collapsed in 1848.

In his 1847 book The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx had described how in their struggle, first in trade unions, and then also by constituting "a large political party under the name of Chartists", the English workers had developed from an amorphous, fragmented "class in itself" into a nationally cohesive, combative "class for itself". (21) Such a concept flowed from Marx's view that "every struggle of class against class is a political struggle". (22) By this Marx did not meant that every struggle by small groups of workers against their employers was a political struggle. Rather, he meant that insofar as the workers organise to fight for their general, class interests they must struggle against the collective interests of the capitalist class, interests which are expressed through the use of state power. In the Marxist view, politics is the sphere in which class interests are fought out.

Section 2 of the manifesto was devoted to answering the question "In what relations do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?" It gave the following answer: "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties". This was because they "have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole". They thus share the same "immediate aim" as "that of the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat". What distinguishes the Communists, the manifesto explained, was that "1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality" and "2. In the various stages of the development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole." (23)

Consequently, the manifesto states, the Communists in practice "are the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others". This is because the Communists "have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement." (24) This last point was a restatement of the view Marx had articulated a year earlier in his polemic against the French anarchist Pierre Proudhon, where he had described the socialists and communists as "the theoreticians of the proletarian class". (25)

It is important to recognise that in the manifesto statements about the relationship between Communists and the working class as a whole (i.e., that the Communists have no interests separate and apart from the proletariat as a whole and that they are the theoretical vanguard of the working class) are combined with statements about how the Communist League, a tiny cadres' organisation with a few hundred members spread throughout Western Europe, should relate to existing, far larger working-class political formations, such as the 40,000-member Chartist movement in England. That is, members of the Communist League, while retaining their own organisation, should join existing, larger working-class organisations and seek to win their members to the Communists' theoretical views.

It was through pursuing such a tactical orientation that Marx and Engels believed the tiny Communist League could be transformed into a mass Communist Party. Despite the fact that they called its program the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels recognised that the Communist League was only the germ or nucleus of the party they aspired to build.

Collapse of the Communist League

The Communist League itself collapsed in 1852 under the impact of the wave of reaction and repression that swept Europe in the aftermath of the failed bourgeois-democratic revolutions of 1848-49. In the intervening years the Communist League was wracked by a sharp factional struggle between Marx and Engels and their supporters, on the one hand, and Schapper and August Willich and their supporters on the other.

The factional struggle broke out in late 1850, when Marx and Engels came to the conclusion that the economic concessions granted by the absolutist monarchies in Germany had cleared the way for a prolonged expansion of capitalist production. Up until the middle of 1850 Marx and Engels believed that a new economic crisis like that of 1847 would come soon and that the new crisis would spark a new outbreak of revolutionary struggle in Europe. However, as they deepened their study of economics, they came to the conclusion that this forecast was unjustified.

They also abandoned their earlier expectations that a proletarian revolution was imminent in France and that under its impact a bourgeois revolution in Germany could be rapidly and easily transformed into a socialist one. This premature forecast had been based on an overestimation of the maturity of capitalism in Europe and of the development of the material conditions for a revolutionary transition to socialism. In a preface to Marx's 1850 work The Class Struggles in France, Engels wrote in 1895: "History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at the time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production." (26)

Flowing from their new assessment of the objective situation, Marx and Engels concluded that the main tasks of the Communist League for some time to come would be to preserve and gradually accumulate proletarian cadres, to give them a firm theoretical grounding, to strengthen their ties with any existing broader working-class organisations and to take every opportunity to propagate the scientific socialism.

The majority of the London members of the Communist League disagreed with this perspective. They denied the need for any material prerequisites for a proletarian, communist revolution, and argued that such a revolution could be accomplished in Germany alone through an effort of will by a handful of revolutionary militants.

The counterposed views were summed up as follows by Marx in a speech made at an extraordinary meeting of the League's Central Committee on September 15, 1850: "A German national point of view was substituted for the universal outlook of the Manifesto and the national feelings of the German artisans were pandered to. The materialist standpoint of the Manifesto has given way to idealism. The revolution is not seen as the product of realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will. Whereas we say to the workers: You have 15, 20, 50 years of [veiled] civil war to go through in order to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power, they say; We must take power at once or we may as well take to our beds." (27)

At the meeting it was agreed the League's Cologne District, where Marx and Engels' views enjoyed an overwhelming majority, should constitute the Central Committee. However the Schapper-Willich faction in the London district refused to abide by the Cologne Central Committee's decisions. When the London district adopted a decision to expel Marx and Engels and their supporters from the League and set up a rival Central Committee, the Cologne Central Committee expelled all the supporters of the Schapper-Willich faction from the League. This faction subsequently dwindled in numbers and disintegrated.

The split in the Communist League came on the eve of a wave of arrests across Germany, in which the police particularly targeted the followers of Marx and Engels. In a secret report written in April 1852, Berlin's chief of police wrote: "It can now rightly be said of the Marx-Engels party that it stands far above all the emigrants, agitators and central committees, because it is unquestionably the strongest in knowledge and ability. Marx himself is well-known personally, and everyone realises that he has more intellectual power in the tip of his finger than the rest of the crowd have in their heads." (28)

The arrests and subsequent conviction of the Communist League members in Germany destroyed the League as an organisation on the Continent. In London, its membership had been reduced to a mere handful as a result of the split there. At a meeting of the League's London district on November 17, 1852, a motion by Marx to dissolve the local organisation was adopted.

Advice on building an independent workers' party in the US

While the Communist League ceased to function as an organisation, in the following years Marx and Engels remained in regular contact with those of its former members who continued to identify with its aims and program, giving these comrades advice on how to build a revolutionary workers' party in the countries to which many of them emigrated after the defeat of the 1848 revolution.

In November 1886, for example, Engels wrote to former Communist League member Friedrich Sorge, who was then living in the United States, giving him tactical advise on how to intervene in the US working-class movement. (29) Engels began his letter with a criticism of the sectarianism of the Socialist Labor Party, a tiny organisation set up in the US by emigre German supporters of the German reformist socialist Ferdinand Lassalle:

"The Germans", Engels wrote, "do not know how to use their theory as a lever to set the American masses in motion; most of them do not understand the theory themselves and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way as something that has got to be learned by heart and which will then satisfy all requirements without more ado. To them it is a credo and not a guide to action. What is more, they learn no English on principle. Hence the American masses had to seek out their own path and seem to have found it for the time being in the [Order of the] Knights of Labor, whose confused principles and ludicrous organisation seem to correspond to their own confusion". Observing that this large, but secret, workers' mutual aid society was a "real power, especially in New England and the West" of the USA, Engels advised the German communists living there "to join this organisation, to form within this still quite plastic mass a core of people who understand the movement and its aims and will therefore take over the leadership, at least of a section, when the inevitable, now impending break-up of the present `order' takes place".

The greatest weakness of the Knights of Labor, in Engels' opinion, was its refusal to organise the American workers for an independent political struggle. The most pressing task facing the working-class movement in the United States, Engels argued, was to organise the workers into a political party independent of the bourgeois politicians. Engels went on to note that the first step in this direction had been taken by the decision of the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions in New York City to run its own candidate for mayor. Despite the fact that the first program of this embryonic workers' party was described by Engels as "confused and extremely deficient", he advised the emigre German communists to join it. "The masses", he wrote, "must have time and opportunity to develop, and they have the opportunity to only when they have a movement of their own – no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement – in which they are driven further by their own mistakes and learn from their experience".

Engels urged the emigrant German veterans of the early Communist League to join this movement because it was "necessary that there should be a few people on our side who have a firm grasp of theory and well-tried tactics and who can also speak and write in English because for good historical reasons the Americans are worlds behind in all theoretical questions".

He pointed out that while the United States had been settled by people who "did not bring over any mediaeval institutions from Europe, they did bring over masses of mediaeval traditions, religion, English common (feudal) law, superstition, spiritualism – in short, every kind of imbecility which was not directly harmful to business and which is now serviceable for stupefying the masses".

In this context, Engels explained to Sorge: "If there are some theoretically lucid minds there who can tell [the American workers] the consequences of their own mistakes beforehand and make them understand that every movement which does not keep the destruction of the wage system constantly in view as the final goal is bound to go astray and fail – then much nonsense can be avoided and the process considerably shortened".

Engels added that: "The movement in America is at the same stage as it was in our country [that is, Germany] before 1848". Consequently, "the really intelligent people there will first have to play the part played by the Communist League among the workers' associations before 1848".

Opposing party unity with reformists

Marx and Engels gave quite different tactical advice to their supporters in Germany in the 1860s and '70s when it came to relating to working-class political organisations that were dominated by hardened class-collaborationists and were not based on a broad movement of radicalising workers.

When in 1863 Ferdinand Lassalle set up the General Association of German Workers, or ADAV, Marx and Engels initially responded warmly to this move. For a short time in 1864-65 they contributed to its journal. However, they soon became disillusioned with Lassalle's organisation, characterising it as a workers' "sect" rather than a workers' party. (30) What Marx and Engels meant by this was explained in a letter Marx wrote in October 1868 to ADAV president Johann Schweitzer, who had taken over the organisation after Lassalle's death in 1865. Referring to Lassalle, Marx wrote:

" everyone who maintains that he has a panacea for the sufferings of the masses in his pocket, he gave his agitation from the outset a religious and sectarian character. Every sect is in fact religious... [Lassalle] fell into the same mistake as Proudhon: instead of looking among the genuine elements of the class movement for the real basis of his agitation, he wanted to prescribe the course to be followed by this movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe...

"The sect sees its raison d'etre and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement." (31)

Marx and Engels saw the ADAV's attempt to restrict the "socialist" aims of the workers' movement to the reformist goal of establishing isolated cooperative factories funded by the bourgeois-monarchist government of Chancellor Wilhelm Bismarck; its personality cult around Lassalle; and its excessive centralisation of all decision-making authority in the hands of its officials, organisational practices that the ADAV tried to carry even into the trade unions it set up, as expressions of its sectarian character.

Marx advised his supporters in Germany to remain outside the ADAV and to build a separate organisation that could lay the basis for a national workers' party. A step toward this aim was achieved in 1867 when Wilhelm Liebknecht, a former member of the Communist League, and his younger associate, August Bebel, were elected to the North German parliament. As a result of their work over the next two years Liebknecht and Bebel were able to lay the basis for the launching of the Social-Democratic Workers' Party – the SAP – at a congress in Eisenach in August 1869. The new party was the result of a fusion between Liebknecht and Bebel and their supporters in the Union of German Workers' Educational Societies, on the one hand, and on the other, of oppositionists elements led by Wilhelm Bracke who had split away from the ADAV.

Fight for programmatic clarity

When, in 1875, a unity congress was arranged to be held at Gotha between the SAP and the Lassallean ADAV, Marx and Engels condemned the theoretical concessions the leaders of the SAP had made to the Lassalleans to effect this merger. In a letter accompanying his criticisms of the draft program the SAP leaders had agreed upon to adopt at the unity congress, Marx wrote: "Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes. If, therefore, it was not possible – and the conditions of the time did not permit it – to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy". (32)

In a letter to Bebel, Engels wrote that instead of making programmatic concessions to achieve a rapid organisational unification with the Lassalleans, the SAP should have responded to the Lassalleans' unity proposal with "extreme coolness and mistrust, and union made dependent on the extent to which they were willing to drop their sectarian slogans and their state aid and to accept in its essentials the Eisenach programme of 1869 or a revised version of it adapted to the present day". (33)

Commenting on the draft unity program, Engels wrote: "It is of such a character that if adopted Marx and I shall never be able to give our adherence to the new party established on this basis... In general, the official programme of a party is of less importance than what a party does. But a new programme is after all a banner raised publicly and the outside world judges the party by it. It should, therefore, on no account take a step backward, as this one does in comparison with the Eisenach programme." (34)

The warnings issued by Marx and Engels had little effect on those who organised the unification congress at Gotha in May 1875, which proclaimed the establishment of the United Socialist Workers' Party of Germany, the USAP.

At first Marx and Engels intended to publicly dissociate themselves from the new party, but subsequently decided not to do so in view of the general public response to the new party's program. In a letter to Bebel on October 12, 1875, Engels wrote: "If the bourgeois press possessed a single person of critical mind, he would have taken this programme apart phrase by phrase, investigated the real content_of each phrase, demonstrated its nonsense with the utmost clarity, revealed its contradictions and economic howlers... and made the party look frightfully ridiculous. Instead of that the asinine bourgeois papers took this programme quite seriously, read into it what it does not contain and interpreted it communistically. The workers seem to be doing the same. It is this circumstance alone that made it possible for Marx and me not to dissociate ourselves publicly from such a programme. So long as our opponents and likewise the workers view this programme as embodying our intentions we can afford to keep quiet about it." (35)

Before too long Marx and Engels came to refer the USAP as "our party". (36) At the same time they repeatedly made clear to the leaders of the USAP their concerns about these leaders' conciliation of non-proletarian, petty-bourgeois ideological trends. The first serious example of this was the enthusiastic support that a number of university intellectuals in the USAP, led by Eduard Bernstein, gave at the time to the writings of Eugen Duhring.

An assistant professor at Berlin University, Duhring claimed in his lectures and numerous writings which flooded the book market after 1869 to be the architect of a new "universal science" that superseded Marxism. Bernstein and his associates sought to enshrine Duhringianism as the official theoretical doctrine of the German working-class movement. Conciliating this trend in the USAP, Bebel published a favourable comment on Duhring in the party's paper Volksstaat in March 1874. Liebknecht assured Engels that Duhring, even if a little muddled, was "totally honest and resolutely on our side". (37)

The vacillation of the German party leaders in the face of the ideological challenge mounted by Duhring to Marxism, led Engels, with Marx's support, to write and publish in 1878 his book Anti-Duhring. It contained a blistering attack on the eclectic mixture of primitive mechanical materialism and vulgar idealist evolutionism that Duhring had concocted from bourgeois positivist sociology and petty-bourgeois socialism. While Engels' polemical assault ideologically discredited Duhring within the German party, it did not cure the party's leaders of their tendency to make concessions to petty-bourgeois ideological trends.

The workers' party and petty-bourgeois opportunism

A new and far more serious manifestation of this problem emerged in 1879, after the conservative majority in the German parliament passed a law that banned all workers' societies, periodicals and campaigns involving the spread of socialist ideas. The adoption of the Anti-Socialist Law forced the party to create an illegal, underground structure and publications, and to conduct its public activities under a new name, the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, the SPD.

The conciliatory attitude of the German party leaders toward petty bourgeois ideological trends made itself felt in the discussion of the composition of the editorial board for a new central periodical to be printed abroad. Karl Hirsch, a central leader of the party, was to be appointed editor, but during negotiations with him it emerged that, apart from the editorial committee in Leipzig which was to include Bebel and Liebknecht, there was also to be a supervisory committee in Zurich, where the paper was to be published. Its members included Karl Hochberg, an avowed reformist, and two former followers of Eugen Duhring – Carl Schramm and Eduard Bernstein. This structure of the editorial board and the future paper's financial dependence on Hochberg – whom Marx had described in 1877 as a bourgeois "social-philanthropist" who had "bought his way" into the party (38) – gave the Zurich group a decisive say on the content of the paper.

Unwilling to act simply as a figure head Hirsch refused the invitation to become editor. Marx and Engels approved of Hirsch's attitude, and withdrew their offer to write for the paper. In a letter to Bebel on August 4, 1879, Engels resolutely declared, on behalf of Marx and himself, that they would have nothing to do with a party organ placed under the control of Hochberg.

At first, the German party leaders did not understand why Marx and Engels took this attitude and believed they were being unfair to Hochberg. However, fresh confirmation soon came that the two veteran communists in London had been right. In early September 1879, the first issue of a new journal edited by Hochberg, Schramm and Bernstein appeared in Zurich. It contained an article entitled "A Retrospective Survey of the Socialist Movement in Germany". In place of the authors' names there were three asterisks. It soon transpired that the article had been written by the Zurich trio.

This work was in a sense a manifesto of all the right-wing, opportunist elements in the German party. Marx denounced its authors as "counterrevolutionary windbags". (39)

The article condemned the whole of the German party's past revolutionary activity, including its support for the Paris Commune. The authors accused the party of bringing down upon itself the Anti-Socialist Law by failing to "display moderation". It condemned the party's fight against the bourgeoisie and suggested the need to attract the bourgeoisie into the party's ranks, and to fill its leading posts with bourgeois intellectuals, in view of the workers' inadequate education. It urged the party to follow the "path of legality", of reform.

Marx and Engels were naturally outraged. In mid-September 1879 they drafted and sent off to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke and other leaders of the German party a circular letter in which they warned that if the new party organ became a mouthpiece for the three Zurichers "then nothing remains for us, much though we should regret it, but to publicly declare our opposition to it, and to publicly dissolve the bonds of the solidarity with which we have hitherto represented the German Party abroad". (40)

The circular letter was one of the most striking written attacks on opportunism within the socialist movement and of the conciliatory attitude to it. It summed up the position advocated by what it called the "three censors of Zurich" as follows: "The programme [of working-class struggle for socialism] is not to be given up but only postponed – for an indefinite period. One accepts it, though not really for oneself and one's own lifetime, but posthumously, as an heirloom to be handed down to one's children and grandchildren. In the meantime one devotes one's `whole strength and energy' to all sorts of trifles and the patching up of the capitalist order of society so as to produce at least the appearance of something happening without at the same time scaring the bourgeoisie... It is the representatives of the petty bourgeoisie who are here making themselves heard, full of anxiety that the proletariat, under the pressure of its revolutionary position, may `go too far'." (41)

In their circular letter to the leaders of the SPD, Marx and Engels stated that they found it "incomprehensible" that the party could "tolerate the authors of this article in its midst". These "gentlemen", they wrote, "are chockfull of bourgeois and petty bourgeois concepts. In such a petty bourgeois country as Germany these concepts certainly have their justification. But only outside the Social-Democratic Workers' Party. If these gentlemen constitute themselves into a Social-Democratic petty bourgeois party they are quite entitled to do so; one could then negotiate with them, form a bloc according to circumstances, etc. But in a workers' party they are an adulterating element. If reasons exist for tolerating them there for the moment it is our duty only to tolerate them, to allow them then no influence in the Party leadership and to remain aware that a break with them is only a matter of time. That time, moreover, seems to have come." (42)

The SPD leadership responded to Marx and Engels' letter by abandoning the plan to involve Hochberg, Schramm and Bernstein in the publication of their central organ. But they did not follow Marx and Engels advice to bring matters to a head by splitting with the right-wing opportunists. They continued to allow Bernstein and his associates to present their petty bourgeois reformist views in the party's central organ, the weekly Sozialdemokrat. When in early December 1879, the SPD leadership appointed Bernstein editor of the paper, Engels wrote to Bebel: "You continue to regard these people as Party comrades. We cannot do so... The points in question are points that can no longer be discussed in any proletarian party. To make them a subject of discussion within the party would be to put in question the whole of proletarian socialism." (43)

As a result of Marx and Engels' sharp attack on the Bernstein group, the reformists' views were rejected by the SPD at its first underground congress held in Switzerland in August 1880. After this rebuff, Bernstein appeared to abandon his reformist views. However, within a year of Engels' death in 1895, Bernstein again began to argue in favour of a reformist "revision" of Marxism. And again, while the SPD leaders formally condemned Bernstein's reformist class-collaborationist views, they refused to organisationally break with the growing opportunist trend within the party. In fact, after Engels' death, the new SPD leadership, headed by Karl Kautsky, developed a conception of the workers' party which rationalised the continued coexistence of proletarian revolutionists and petty-bourgeois reformists in the SPD. This was the Kautskyan doctrine of the "party of the whole class" under which the workers' party was to include all tendencies regarding themselves as socialists.

Kautsky himself had left a highly unfavourable impression on Marx when he visited Marx in 1881. On April 11, 1881 Marx wrote to his eldest daughter, Jenny: "When the sweet man first stood before me, the first question which I found myself uttering was: are you like your mother? Absolutely not, he assured me, and I privately congratulated his mother. He is mediocre, limited, conceited, a know-all, in a sense industrious, applies himself diligently to statistics, but to small purpose, by nature belongs to the philistine tribe, but for the rest is a respectable man in his own way". (44) In the first few months of their acquaintanceship, Engels also described Kautsky as a born pedant, who "instead of simplifying complex questions, complicates simple ones". (45)

These weaknesses in Kautsky's character played a definite part in his political evolution after Engels' death into becoming the theoretician of conciliation with the class-collaborationist reformists within the SPD and the international socialist movement – including providing "Marxist" justifications for the SPD government ministers' ordering of the bloody suppression of the Berlin workers' uprising in 1919 by the bourgeois army and right-wing death squads (the Freikorps).

The Kautskyan conception of the workers' party

Kautsky, like Marx and Engels, located the social basis of opportunism within the socialist movement as a product of two phenomena – bourgeois intellectuals who attached themselves to the movement but who did not free themselves from bourgeois prejudices and newly proletarianised workers who still retained the social psychology of their former petty-bourgeois mode of life. With the partial exception of Rosa Luxemburg, no socialist before 1914 located the main source of this opportunism in the conservatisation of the socially privileged trade union and parliamentary officials of the workers' parties themselves.

While she led the theoretical fight against opportunism inside the SPD, Luxemburg mistakenly believed that it would be spontaneously dispelled by an upsurge of militant class struggle. In a letter to the Dutch left-wing socialist Henriette Roland-Holst written in December 1904, Luxemburg wrote: "Opportunism is in any case a swamp plant, which develops rapidly and luxuriously in the stagnant waters of the movement; in a swift running stream it will die of itself." (46)

Consequently, Luxemburg failed to press the struggle to defend revolutionary socialism in the SPD toward an organisational break with the opportunists and the creation of a separate, centralised organisation of proletarian revolutionists. To the contrary, in 1904-05 Luxemburg argued for increased centralisation of the "all-inclusive" SPD.

In her 1904 article on "Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy" – in which she opposed Lenin's plan for a centralised party of professional revolutionaries in Russia because she feared that in the backward social conditions existing there such a party would become a tool of opportunist forces – she argued that in the more advanced social conditions of Germany "greater strictness in the application of the principle of centralisation and more severe discipline, specifically formulated in party by laws, may be an effective safeguard against the opportunist danger". (47) As the subsequent evolution of the SPD in Germany and Lenin's Bolshevik organisation in Russia was to demonstrate, greater party centralisation had a very different political dynamic in relation to opportunism in a party dominated by professional careerists than in one dominated by professional revolutionaries.

Lenin's contribution to the Marxist conception of the workers' party

Lenin did not reject the Kautskyan conception of the workers' party until 1914-15, when the support given to their governments in the inter-imperialist world war by the leaders of the European social-democratic parties led him to recognise that these were no longer workers' parties, but "petty-bourgeois opportunist parties". (48) However, in practice, in the years before 1914, Lenin's approach to combating opportunism in the Russian labour movement had far more in common with the method and tactics that Marx and Engels had advocated than anyone in the SPD.

Lenin's approach centred on building a democratically centralised party of Marxist cadres oriented toward training the advanced workers – who were more likely to arise among more educated and therefore better off strata of the working class – to defend the interests of the class as a whole and not simply their own sectional interests. At the heart of this orientation was a systematic ideological struggle against petty-bourgeois opportunist trends within the Russian workers' movement – beginning with the struggle against "Economism" in 1894-1902 – and the organisational separation of the revolutionary proletarian elements from these trends. (49)

After 1914, Lenin provided the only Marxist explanation of the social roots of the system of class-collaborationist politics that had come to dominate the labour movement in all the advanced capitalist countries. In making this analysis, Lenin drew upon the explanation developed by Engels to account for the maturation of reformist tendencies in the English workers' movement into a consolidated system of open political collaboration between the trade unions and the English bourgeoisie in the second half of the 19th century.

Engels attributed this to the superprofits that the English capitalists derived from England's temporary monopoly of industrial production and colonies, a part of which they used to grant significant economic and political concessions to a "small, privileged, protected minority" of workers, who in turn became the social base for the conservatisation of the English trade unions. (50) Engels thought that this "aristocracy of labour" would disappear once England's industrial monopoly was broken by the advance of industrial capitalism in other countries.

While basing himself on Engels' analysis, Lenin showed that this social phenomenon had become a permanent feature within all the industrially developed capitalist countries in the new monopoly finance stage of capitalism that emerged in the late 1890s.

In the wake of the open expression of class-collaborationism by the leaderships of the social-democratic parties in Europe after the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Lenin developed a conception of the role and character of the workers' party that was needed to combat opportunism in the labour movement of the developed capitalist countries. This conception was based on a generalisation of the nature and orientation of the Bolshevik party in Russia – the only workers' party in Europe that succeeded in standing firm against the wave of national chauvinist hysteria that engulfed the European workers' movement at the outbreak of the first inter-imperialist world war.

Contrary to the assertions of bourgeois ideologues and many on the left today, Lenin's conception of the proletarian party was not a departure from the line of thinking of Marx and Engels on the party question. It was a development and enrichment of their line of thought, achieved through fidelity to the principles of Marxism first set out in the Communist Manifesto, but treating them as Marx and Engels intended – not as a dogma, good for all time and circumstance, but as a guide to revolutionary action.

Marx and Engels always emphasised that the test of any theory was in its practical results, or as Engels was fond of putting it, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating". The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 provided the supreme test of the validity of Marxist conception of the workers' party. It definitively demonstrated that a Bolshevik-type party is the only one that can do the job. That is why we in the Democratic Socialist Party are so firmly convinced that it is only this type of party that can enable the working class to realise its world-historical mission – to rid the world of the dead hand of capitalism and to take humanity into the communist future.


  1. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works (Moscow, 1970), Vol. 3, pp. 116-17.
  2. ibid., p. 126.
  3. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works (Moscow, 1981), Vol. 5, p. 53.
  4. ibid., p. 49.
  5. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow, 1977), Vol. 4, p. 211.
  6. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow, 1975), p. 386.
  7. Marx and Engels, Selected Works (Moscow, 1973), Vol. 3, p. 179.
  8. Quoted in P.N. Fedoseyev et. al., Karl Marx: A Biography (Moscow, 1977), p. 117.
  9. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 92.
  10. D. Struik, The Birth of the Communist Manifesto (New York, 1971), p. 57.
  11. See Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6, pp. 533-638.
  12. ibid., Vol. 17, p. 78.
  13. P. Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New Jersey, 1993), p. 128.
  14. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 519.
  15. ibid., p. 516.
  16. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 586.
  17. ibid., Vol. 17, p. 78-79.
  18. ibid., Vol. 6, p. 633.
  19. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 98.
  20. ibid., p. 117.
  21. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow, 1973), p. 150.
  22. ibid., p. 150.
  23. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, pp. 119-20.
  24. ibid., p. 120.
  25. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 109.
  26. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, pp. 191-92.
  27. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 10, p. 623. [check]
  28. Fedoseyev, op. cit., p. 264.
  29. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 373-76.
  30. ibid., p. 208.
  31. ibid., p. 201.
  32. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 11.
  33. ibid., p. 31.
  34. ibid., p. 35-36.
  35. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence., p. 280.
  36. ibid., p. 290.
  37. Fedoseyev, ibid., p. 580.
  38. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 290.
  39. ibid., p. 308.
  40. ibid., p. 307.
  41. ibid., pp. 304-05.
  42. ibid., p. 307.
  43. ibid., 310.
  44. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol.46, p. 81-82.
  45. Quoted in Fedoseyev, op. cit., p. 608.
  46. Quoted in C. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-1917 (Cambridge, 1955).
  47. Quoted in M-A.Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York, 1970), p. 128.
  48. Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 21, pp. 249.
  49. ibid., p. 331-338.
  50. ibid., Vol. 23, p. 113.