Socialists seek to go beyond liberalism, not regress from it
By Colin Foster
In September 1847, before they had even written the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels declared: “If a certain section of German socialists has continually blustered against the liberal bourgeoisie, and has done so, in a manner which has benefited nobody but the German governments… then the Communists have nothing in common with [them]”.
Marx and Engels rarely quoted their own earlier writings. They considered that article so important that they cited it again in 1865.
Breaking off collaboration with a socialist newspaper in Germany (launched in the tradition of Ferdinand Lassalle) because it hinted at an “alliance of the ‘proletariat’ with the ‘government’ against the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’…”, they referred to the 1847 article to explain why.
The explanation has weight again.
On 28 June, in an interview with the Financial Times, Russia’s autocratic president Vladimir Putin declared: “The liberal idea has become obsolete”.
He explained himself only by caricature: “This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected…
“They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles… This must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population”.
But Putin’s demagogy is gaining ground on the right. Thus Viktor Orban’s declarations, in Hungary, that he is for “illiberal democracy”. And the outcry against liberalism has been joined by many who think themselves on the left.
From the platform of the “Full Brexit” pressure group, RMT member Eddie Dempsey declared that “the working class” “hates the liberal left”, and is right to do so.
Many self-described leftists supported, or half-supported, Nigel Farage, whose story is that “the intellectuals, the liberal elites just don’t get it”, and must be countered by “British” “common sense”.
The Morning Star is vehement when denouncing “liberals”, but mild when (occasionally) criticising the likes of Putin, and enthusiastic for Xi Jinping’s regime in China
Marx started off in politics, before he became a revolutionary socialist, as a radical liberal democrat.
One of his earliest articles denounced a supposedly liberal reform of the Prussian government censorship for the inadequacy of its liberalism.
“Must the greatest riches of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am humorous, but the law bids me write seriously. I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom.
“Every drop of dew on which the sun shines glistens with an inexhaustible play of colours, but the spiritual sun, however many the persons and whatever the objects in which it is refracted, must produce only the official colour!
“The most essential form of the spirit is cheerfulness, light, but you make shadow the sole manifestation of the spirit; it must be clothed only in black, yet among flowers there are no black ones.
“The essence of the spirit is always truth itself but what do you make its essence? Modesty…”
In the Communist Manifesto itself, Marx explained how his revolutionary socialism sought to go beyond and push through liberalism, rather than fall behind it in deference to smothering “common sense” and the alleged advantages of demagogically “social” authoritarians.
“[When] the fight of the German … bourgeoisie against feudal aristocracy and absolute monarchy, in other words, the liberal movement, became more earnest… the opportunity was offered to ‘True’ Socialism [a socialist sect of the time]… of hurling the traditional anathemas against liberalism, against representative government, against bourgeois competition, bourgeois freedom of the press, bourgeois legislation, bourgeois liberty and equality, and of preaching to the masses that they had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by this bourgeois movement…”
But, declared Marx, those anathemas, to have socialist meaning, “presupposed the existence of modern bourgeois society, with … the political constitution adapted thereto”, when in fact in Germany then those political conditions were the first things that needed to be won.
“To the absolute governments, with their following of parsons, professors, country squires, and officials, [the ‘True’ Socialist criticism] served as a welcome scarecrow” against liberal reform.
In the 1847 article, further, Marx and Engels had explained: “The people, and in particular the communist section of the people, knows very well that the liberal bourgeoisie is only pursuing its own interests and that little reliance should be placed on its sympathy for the people…
“[But] the proletariat does not ask whether the welfare of the people is a matter of secondary or of primary importance to the bourgeoisie, or whether the bourgeoisie wishes to use proletarians as cannon fodder or not. The proletariat does not ask what the bourgeoisie merely wishes to do, but what it must do. It asks whether the present political system, the rule of the bureaucracy, or the one the liberals are striving for, the rule of the bourgeoisie, will offer it the means to achieve its own purposes”.
By contrast to bureaucratic rule, or to the system which Engels would later write might represent “the true religion of the bourgeoisie”, Bonapartism (the rule of a demagogic arbiter) — by contrast to those, bourgeois-liberal governance “does not only place quite new weapons in the hands of the proletariat for the struggle against the bourgeoisie, but… also secures for it a quite different status, the status of a recognised party”.
Our job is to build an authentic and politically independent working-class party, which uses the footholds and leveragepoints provided by liberalism, even bourgeois liberalism, against the bourgeoisie
- This article also appears on the Workers Liberty website