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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Marx on the Suffrage

Marxism and Politics

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is indebted to Marx for his analysis of capitalism and in general his theory of history known as the materialist conception of history. With Marx, Socialism was put on a scientific basis.

Engels drew an important distinction between the earlier “Utopian Socialists” and Marx’s theories of capitalism and its place within human history:

These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value, we owe to Marx. With these two discoveries socialism became a science” (ANTI-DUHRING p. 39 Moscow 1978)

The SPGB also highlight the insistence Marx gave on the need for a socialist working class to gain control of the machinery of government including the armed forces. This political policy is reflected in the Party’s sixth clause:

That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic

It is one of the most important political processes for the working class to understand if there is to be a smooth transformation of production for profit to production for social use.

How to gain control of the machinery of government?

When Marx and Engels were young the working class did not have the vote. Revolution was by armed revolt. In fact Engels took part in the armed revolt during the 1848 revolution in Germany and nearly paid with this youthful action in Baden with his life.

In their early years Marx and Engels looked at armed revolt as a means of the socialist working class to gain control of the government. They erroneously thought that a trade depression would create the conditions for revolution through a process of the unemployed starving and forced into revolt.

Marx and Engels, for example, had revolutionary hopes for the economic crisis of 1857.

Engels wrote to Marx:

this time there’ll be a dies irae such as never been before: the whole of Europe’s industry in ruins, all markets overstocked …, all the propertied classes in the soup, complete bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie, war and profligacy to the nth degree( 27th September 1856 COLLECTED WORKS p 113-5).

And Marx replied:

What the most far-sighted politicians now are sure of is an enlarged edition not only of the crisis of 1847 but also of the revolutions of 1848…”(loc cit pp 113-5)

In an article in DIE PRESSE in 1861, Marx wrote that “the whole of England is shaking with fear in expectation of the greatest catastrophe that has ever threatened her” (loc cit p. 316). He thought that the Union blockade would increase the suffering of the working class in England, particularly the cotton spinners. “What then?” he asks.

There was no revolution. It became clear that economic crisis and trade depressions by themselves did not raise class consciousness and lead to a socialist revolution. By the end of their lives both Marx and Engels had changed their minds about armed rebellion.

This is what Marx said about the vote in Britain.

Writing in the NEW YORK TRIBUNE in 1852 about the Chartists and their demand for the vote, Marx wrote:

…Universal Suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population…The carrying of Universal Suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the continent” (Marx and Engels, ARTICLES ON BRITAIN, 1978 p.118).

In the INTRODUCTION TO THE CLASS STRUGGLES IN FRANCE, written in 1895, Engels had this to say:

The rebellion of the old style, the street fight behind barricades, which in 1848 gave the final decision, has become antiquated”.

And he went on to say:

The communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the struggle for the general franchise as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat,…” (SPGB edition of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO p. 79).

The capitalist left, like the SWP and the Revolutionary Marxist Group, who preach a childish politics, are still living in 1848 when they call for “workers’ militia” and to “disband the standing army”. The politics of the capitalist left is reactionary and conservative.

In contradistinction to the capitalist Left, the Socialist Party of Great Britain stands for using the vote to get control of parliament. We do not see parliamentary action as a “fetish” nor as a dead-end leading to a reformist politics. Rather, socialists see parliament as a evolutionary tool to enact common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all of society.

Where The Socialist Party of Great Britain departed from Marx and Engels.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is not slavish and uncritical followers of Marx. The socialist case against capitalism stand or falls on the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES set out by the founders of the Party in 1904.

While recognising the importance of Mar’s materialist conception of history, the labour theory of value and the political concept of the class struggle on two important issues the SPGB broke away from Marx and Engels.

The first point of departure was the idea of a lower phase of communism and, later on, the full phase of communism. Writing in 1875 in the Critique to the GOTHA PROGRAMME, Marx said that this lower phase was necessary because immediately after the conquest of political power the workers would not be mentally adjusted to the new system.

Marx believed that the workers would still not be emancipated from “the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labour”, they would still not have got free from “the antithesis between intellectual and physical labour” and would not yet have acquired the outlook of seeing “labour” as “is no longer just a means of keeping alive but has itself become a vital need” (THE GOTHA PROGRAMME from THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL AND AFTER, Penguin 1981 p. 347).

For The Socialist Party of Great Britain the task of getting the majority of workers to understand and accept the objectives of socialism will be completed before they take political power and establish Socialism, not afterwards.

The other issue is the idea of a Socialist Party having double aims; that is simultaneously holding a Socialist objective and an immediate set of demands or reforms of capitalism.

Marx and Engels did not explicitly object to the “dual aim” doctrine. They did not foresee that all the Social Democratic Parties who had this policy increasingly placed more and more emphasis on the immediate set of demands. Marx and Engels did not foresee that it is a policy for disaster. The Social Democratic Parties increasingly became reformist and forgot all about Socialism.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain did not make this mistake. Right from the SPGB’s inception the object for political action has been Socialism and only Socialism. This may have resulted in a slow growth but it is a socialist growth not a reformist one.

So, it is important to stress that a socialist majority understanding and actively desiring Socialism has to exist before Socialism is possible and that the Socialist Party must have the establishment of Socialism as its only directive.

From these two sound policies a socialist majority would be able to set in motion “the all-round development of individuals” to increase “the productive powers” to enable “all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly”. (GOTHA PROGRAMME p. 347)

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