We publish below one of the letters from Marx to Kugelman and some extracts of the preface of Lenin for the edition of the whole of these letters.
The letter of Marx is very short et deals with, in a concise way, a question that Lenin will develop while dissecting, clarifying the matter of Marx, extracting the very substance of it.
This question is at the very heart of the activity of a proletarian organisation since it is about the attitude of the communist vanguard vis-à-vis the activity of the working class , vis-à-vis the "historical initiative of the masses", according to Lenin's expression.
To assume its role as a vanguard doesn't consist only in giving orientations to the working class, in pointing out prospects and objectives for its struggles. It consists too – and, in some periods, it consists above all ! – in being on the look-out for the class, for its initiatives, for the solutions it "invents" in front of the problems and questions that the situation poses.
And when the class sets out an assault in unfavourable conditions that the communists had forecast and against which they had warned, the role and the function of the vanguard consists in being and staying resolutely by the side of the class, in engaging at the head of the movement without shying away but without hiding its criticisms on the taken action.
If the Bolshevik party has been totally right to do everything, in July 1917, so as to convince the workers not to engage in premature and precipitated insurrection, it would never have come to their mind to desert the battle, to withdraw itself on their balcony to denigrate the masses in fight. If they had not been implied in this battle lost in advance, never they would have been able to carry out the insurrection in October.
And it is a question neither of opposing the "bravado" to the "cowardice", nor to put face to face the "gallantry" and the "philistinism". It is much more simply a question of assuming its role as a vanguard and to fight the opportunism always threatening.
It is the lesson that Marx gives us and that Lenin illustrates in a brilliant way.
It is a lesson that the today opportunists should meditate seriously.
The Fraction, July 21, 2007
... How you can compare petty-bourgeois demonstrations a la 13 June, 1849, etc., with the present struggle in Paris is quite incomprehensible to me.
World history would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favorable chances. It would, on the other hand, be a very mystical nature, if "accidents" played no part. These accidents themselves fall naturally into the general course of development and are compensated again by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very dependent upon such "accidents", which included the "accident" of the character of those who at first stand at the head of the movement.
The decisive, unfavorable "accident" this time is by no means to be found in the general conditions of French society, but in the presence of the Prussians in France and their position right before Paris. Of this the Parisians were well aware. But of this, the bourgeois canaille of Versailles were also well aware. Precisely for that reason they presented the Parisians with the alternative of taking up the fight of succumbing without a struggle. In the latter case, the demoralization of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase with the struggle in paris. Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained.
Our purpose in issuing as a separate pamphlet the full collection of Marx’s letters to Kugelmann published in the German Social-Democratic weekly, Neue Zeit, is to acquaint the Russian public more closely with Marx and Marxism. As was to be expected, a good deal of space in Marx’s correspondence is devoted to personal matters. This is exceedingly valuable material for the biographer. But for the general public, and for the Russian working class in particular, those passages in the letters which contain theoretical and political material are infinitely more important. In the revolutionary period we are now passing through, it is particularly instructive for us to make a careful study of this material, which reveals Marx as a man who responded directly to all questions of the labour movement and world politics. The editors of Neue Zeit are quite right in saying that “we are elevated by an acquaintance with the personality of men whose thoughts and wills took shape in the period of great upheavals”. Such an acquaintance is doubly necessary to the Russian socialist in 1907, for it provides a wealth of very valuable material indicating the direct tasks confronting socialists in every revolution through which a country passes. Russia is experiencing a “great upheaval” at this very moment. In the present Russian revolution the Social-Democrat should more and more frequently pattern his policy after that of Marx in the comparatively stormy sixties.
We shall, therefore, permit ourselves to make only brief mention of those passages in Marx’s correspondence that are of particular importance from the theoretical standpoint, and shall deal in greater detail with his revolutionary policy as a representative of the proletariat.
Of outstanding interest as a contribution to a fuller and more profound understanding of Marxism is the letter of July 11, 1868 (p. 42, et seq.). In the form of a polemic against the vulgar economists, Marx in this letter very clearly expounds his conception of what is called the “labour” theory of value. Those very objections to Marx’s theory of value which naturally arise in the minds of the least trained readers of Capital and for this reason are most eagerly seized upon by the common or garden representatives of “professorial” bourgeois “science”, are here analysed by Marx briefly, simply, and with remarkable lucidity. Marx here shows the road he took and the road to be taken towards elucidation of the law of value. He teaches us his method, using the most common objections as illustrations. He makes clear the connection between such a purely (it would seem) theoretical and abstract question as the theory of value and “the interest of the ruling classes”, which must be “to perpetuate confusion”. It is only to be hoped that every one who begins to study Marx and read Capital will read and re-read this letter when studying the first and most difficult chapters of that book.
Other passages in the letters that are very interesting from the theoretical standpoint are those in which Marx passes judgement on various writers. When you read these opinions of Marx—vividly written, full of passion and revealing a profound interest in all the great ideological trends and in an analysis of them—you realise that you are listening to the words of a great thinker. Apart from the remarks on Dietzgen, made in passing, the comments on the Proudhonists (p. 17) deserve particular attention from the reader. The “brilliant” young bourgeois intellectuals who dash “into the thick of the proletariat” at times of social upheaval, and are incapable of acquiring the stand point of the working class or of carrying on persistent and serious work among the “rank and file” of the proletarian organisations, are depicted with remarkable vividness in a few strokes of the pen.
Take the comment on Dühring (p. 35), which, as it were, anticipates the contents of the famous Anti-Dühring written by Engels (in conjunction with Marx) nine years later. There is a Russian translation of this book by Zederbaum which, unfortunately, is not only guilty of omissions but is simply a poor translation, with mistakes. Here, too, we have the comment on Thünen, which likewise touches on Ricardo’s theory of rent. Marx had already, in 1868, emphatically rejected “Ricardo’s errors”, which he finally refuted in Volume III of Capital, published in 1894, but which to this very day are repeated by the revisionists— from our ultra-bourgeois and even “Black-Hundred” Mr. Bulgakov to the “almost orthodox” Maslov.
Interesting, too, is the comment on Büchner, with an appraisal of vulgar materialism and of the “superficial nonsense” copied from Lange (the usual source of “professorial” bourgeois philosophy!) (p. 48).
Let us pass to Marx’s revolutionary policy. There is among Social-Democrats in Russia a surprisingly widespread philistine conception of Marxism, according to which a revolutionary period, with its specific forms of struggle and its special proletarian tasks, is almost an anomaly, while a “constitution” and an “extreme opposition” are the rule. In no other country in the world at this moment is there such a profound revolutionary crisis as in Russia— and in no other country are there “Marxists” (belittlers and vulgarisers of Marxism) who take up such a sceptical and philistine attitude towards the revolution. From the fact that the revolution is bourgeois in content they draw the shallow conclusion that the bourgeoisie is the driving force of the revolution, that the tasks of the proletariat in this revolution are of an ancillary, not independent, character and that proletarian leadership of the revolution is impossible!
How excellently Marx, in his letters to Kugelmann, exposes this shallow interpretation of Marxism! Here is a letter dated April 6, 1866. At that time Marx had finished his principal work. He had given his final judgement on the German Revolution of 1848 fourteen years before this letter was written. He had himself, in 1850, renounced his socialist illusions that a socialist revolution was impending in 1848. And in 1866, when only just beginning to observe the growth of new political crises, he writes:
“Will our philistines [he is referring to the German bourgeois liberals] at last realise that without a revolution which removes the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns ... there must finally come another Thirty Years’ War...!” (pp. 13-14).
There is not a shadow of illusion here that the impending revolution (it took place from above, not from below as Marx had expected) would remove the bourgeoisie and capitalism, but a most clear and precise statement that it would remove only the Prussian and Austrian monarchies. And what faith in this bourgeois revolution! What revolutionary passion of a proletarian fighter who realises the vast significance the bourgeois revolution has for the progress of the socialist movement!
Noting “a very interesting” social movement three years later, on the eve of the downfall of the Napoleonic Empire in France, Marx says in a positive outburst of enthusiasm that “the Parisians are making a regular study of their recent revolutionary past, in order to prepare themselves for the business of the impending new revolution”. And describing the struggle of classes revealed in this study of the past, Marx concludes (p. 56): “And so the whole historical witches’ cauldron is bubbling. When will our country [Germany] be so far.”
Such is the lesson to be learned from Marx by the Russian Marxist intellectuals, who are debilitated by scepticism, dulled by pedantry, have a penchant for penitent speeches, rapidly tire of the revolution, and yearn, as for a holiday, for the interment of the revolution and its replacement by constitutional prose. From the theoretician and leader of the proletarians they should learn faith in the revolution, the ability to call on the working class to fight for its immediate revolutionary aims to the last, and a firmness of spirit which admits of no faint-hearted whimpering following temporary setbacks of the revolution.
The pedants of Marxism think that this is all ethical twaddle, romanticism, and lack of a sense of reality! No, gentlemen, this is the combination of revolutionary theory and revolutionary policy, without which Marxism becomes Brentanoism, Struvism and Sombartism. The Marxian doctrine has fused the theory and practice of the class struggle into one inseparable whole. And he is no Marxist who takes a theory that soberly states the objective situation and distorts it into a justification of the existing order and even goes to the length of trying to adapt himself as quickly as possible to every temporary decline in the revolution, to discard “revolutionary illusions” as quickly as possible, and to turn to “realistic” tinkering.
In times that were most peaceful, seemingly “idyllic”, as Marx expressed it, and “wretchedly stagnant” (as Neue Zeit put it), Marx was able to sense the approach of revolution and to rouse the proletariat to a consciousness of its advanced revolutionary tasks. Our Russian intellectuals, who vulgarise Marx in a philistine manner, in the most revolutionary times teach the proletariat a policy of passivity, of submissively “drifting with the current”, of timidly supporting the most unstable elements of the fashionable liberal party!
Marx’s assessment of the Commune crowns the letters to Kugelmann. And this assessment is particularly valuable when compared with the methods of the Russian Right-wing Social-Democrats. Plekhanov, who after December 1905 faint-heartedly exclaimed: “They should not have taken up arms”, had the modesty to compare himself to Marx. Marx, says he, also put the brakes on the revolution in 1870.
Yes, Marx also put the brakes on the revolution. But see what a gulf lies between Plekhanov and Marx, in Plekhanov’s own comparison!
In November 1905, a month before the first revolutionary wave in Russia had reached its climax, Plekhanov, far from emphatically warning the proletariat, spoke directly of the necessity to learn to use arms and to arm. Yet, when the struggle flared up a month later, Plekhanov, without making the slightest attempt to analyse its significance, its role in the general course of events and its connection with previous forms of struggle, hastened to play the part of a penitent intellectual and exclaimed: “They should not have taken up arms.”
In September 1870, six months before the Commune, Marx gave a direct warning to the French workers: insurrection would be an act of desperate folly, he said in the well-known Address of the International. He exposed in advance the nationalistic illusions of the possibility of a movement in the spirit of 1792. He was able to say, not after the event, but many months before: “Don’t take up arms.”
And how did he behave when this hopeless cause, as he himself had called it in September, began to take practical shape in March 1871? Did he use it (as Plekhanov did the December events) to “take a dig” at his enemies, the Proudhonists and Blanquists who were leading the Commune? Did he begin to scold like a schoolmistress, and say: “I told you so, I warned you; this is what comes of your romanticism, your revolutionary ravings”? Did he preach to the Communards, as Plekhanov did to the December fighters, the sermon of the smug philistine: “You should not have taken up arms”?
No. On April 12, 1871, Marx writes an enthusiastic letter to Kugelmann—a letter which we would like to see hung in the home of every Russian Social-Democrat and of every literate Russian worker.
In September 1870 Marx had called the insurrection an act of desperate folly; but in April 1871, when he saw the mass movement of the people, he watched it with the keen attention of a participant in great events marking a step forward in the historic revolutionary movement.
This is an attempt, he says, to smash the bureaucratic military machine, and not simply to transfer it to different hands. And he has words of the highest praise for the “heroic” Paris workers led by the Proudhonists and Blanquists. “What elasticity,” he writes, “what historical initiative, what a capacity for sacrifice in these Parisians! ... [p. 88]. History has no like example of a like greatness.
The historical initiative of the masses was what Marx prized above everything else. Ah, if only our Russian Social-Democrats would learn from Marx how to appreciate the historical initiative of the Russian workers and peasants in October and December 1905!
Compare the homage paid to the historical initiative of the masses by a profound thinker, who foresaw failure six months ahead—and the lifeless, soulless, pedantic: “They should not have taken up arms”! Are these not as far apart as heaven and earth?
And like a participant in the mass struggle, to which he reacted with all his characteristic ardour and passion, Marx, then living in exile in London, set to work to criticise the immediate steps of the “recklessly brave” Parisians who were “ready to storm heaven”.
Ah, how our present “realist” wiseacres among the Marxists, who in 1906-07 are deriding revolutionary romanticism in Russia, would have sneered at Marx at the time! How people would have scoffed at a materialist, an economist, an enemy of utopias, who pays homage to an “attempt” to storm heaven! What tears, condescending smiles or commiseration these “men in mufflers” would have bestowed upon him for his rebel tendencies, utopianism, etc., etc., and for his appreciation of a heaven-storming movement!
But Marx was not inspired with the wisdom of the small fry who are afraid to discuss the technique of the higher forms of revolutionary struggle. It is precisely the technical problems of the insurrection that he discussed. De fence or attack?—he asked, as if the military operations were taking place just outside London. And he decided that it must certainly be attack: “They should have marched at once on Versailles...”.
This was written in April 1871, a few weeks before the great and bloody May....
“They should have marched at once on Versailles”— the insurgents should, those who had begun the “act of desperate folly” (September 1870) of storming heaven.
“They should not have taken up arms” in December 1905 in order to oppose by force the first attempts to take away the liberties that had been won....
Yes, Plekhanov had good reason to compare himself to Marx!
“Second mistake,” Marx said, continuing his technical criticism: “The Central Committee” (the military command— note this—the reference is to the Central Committee of the National Guard) “surrendered its power too soon...”.
Marx knew how to warn the leaders against a premature rising. But his attitude towards the heaven-storming proletariat was that of a practical adviser, of a participant in the struggle of the masses, who were raising the whole movement to a higher level in spite of the false theories and mistakes of Blanqui and Proudhon.
“However that may be,” he wrote, “the present rising in Paris—even if it be crushed by the wolves, swine, and vile curs of the old society—is the most glorious deed of our Party since the June insurrection....”
And, without concealing from the proletariat a single mistake of the Commune, Marx dedicated to this heroic deed a work which to this very day serves as the best guide in the fight for “heaven” and as a frightful bugbear to the liberal and radical “swine”.
Plekhanov dedicated to the December events a “work” which has become practically the bible of the Cadets.
Yes, Plekhanov had good reason to compare himself to Marx.
Kugelmann apparently replied to Marx expressing certain doubts, referring to the hopelessness of the struggle and to realism as opposed to romanticism—at any rate, he compared the Commune, an insurrection, to the peaceful demonstration in Paris on June 13, 1849.
Marx immediately (April 17, 1871) severely lectured Kugelmann.
“World history,” he wrote, “would indeed be very easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only on condition of infallibly favourable chances.”
In September 1870, Marx called the insurrection an act of desperate folly. But, when the masses rose, Marx wanted to march with them, to learn with them in the process of the struggle, and not to give them bureaucratic admonitions. He realised that to attempt in advance to calculate the chances with complete accuracy would be quackery or hope less pedantry. What he valued above everything else was that the working class heroically and self-sacrificingly took the initiative in making world history. Marx regarded world history from the standpoint of those who make it without being in a position to calculate the chances infallibly beforehand, and not from the standpoint of an intellectual philistine who moralises: “It was easy to foresee ... they should not have taken up...”.
Marx was also able to appreciate that there are moments in history when a desperate struggle of the masses, even for a hopeless cause, is essential for the further schooling of these masses and their training for the next struggle.
Such a statement of the question is quite incomprehensible and even alien in principle to our present-day quasi-Marxists, who like to take the name of Marx in vain, to borrow only his estimate of the past, and not his ability to make the future. Plekhanov did not even think of it when be set out after December 1905 “to put the brakes on”.
But it is precisely this question that Marx raised, with out in the least forgetting that he himself in September 1870 regarded insurrection as an act of desperate folly.
“... The bourgeois canaille of Versailles,” he wrote, presented the Parisians with the alternative of either taking up the fight or succumbing without a struggle. The demoralisation of the working class in the latter case would have been a far greater misfortune than the succumbing of any number of ’leaders’.”
And with this we shall conclude our brief review of the lessons in a policy worthy of the proletariat which Marx teaches in his letters to Kugelmann.
The working class of Russia has already proved once, and will prove again more than once, that it is capable of “storming heaven”.
February 5, 1907
Internal Fraction of ICC - Communist Bulletin (Nš 40)