The final book in the three volume collection of Marx’s ‘political’ writings “The First International and After” covers the later period from the First International onward. It contains pamphlets and articles written for the International, letters and a range of other short documents and journalistic work. They show Marx grappling with the tactical issues of the day, many of which remain relevant, in particular on the relationship of different ‘progressive’ groupings in the state and politics.
The English Trades Unions formed a significant part of the International, and yet in the “Inaugural Address” Marx is clear that it is not sufficient to simply pursue the short term interest of the working class within the existing system through improvements in working hours and wages. These are ‘economic’ goals which are important, but should be subordinate to the movement’s longer term goals.
To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.
(Marx 2010, p.80).
In other words revolution – a fundamental change to the system – remains the overarching goal of any genuine movement of the left. Marx makes a similar point from a different angle when discussing the co-operative movement in the “Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress”. Co-operative production allows workers to begin developing economic mechanisms which undermine the root of capitalism.
We recommend to the working men to embark in cooperative production rather than in cooperative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.
(Marx 2010, p.90)
In other words overturning the system is the key aim of the working class movement, and that requires both economic and political action with a focus on the long term.
This isn’t the whole story though. Later in the same “Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress” Marx proposes a specific programme starting with a demand for limitations on the working day. So Marx is maintaining both a general overall strategy (the importance of political revolution as the ultimate goal) along with a specific tactical programme for immediate action (improving the lives of workers through ‘economic’ measures).
The “Prussian Military Question” similarly focuses on the tactical position of the German workers, whether to support the bourgeois parties in opposition to the aristocratic and feudal state over the issue of changes to military service.
It is in the interests of the workers, therefore, to support the bourgeoisie in its struggle against all reactionary elements, on condition that it remain true to itself.
(Marx 2010, p.144)
The workers can form tactical alliances to pursue short term goals, but must retain a focus on its long term interest – the overthrow of capitalism itself.
Marx indicates a similar dual role for Trades Unions as part of the movement. Rather than viewing Trades Unions as focused primarily on the economic or ‘tactical’ and working within the existing system, Marx points out that they fight both the immediate struggle and have a role in preparing the ground for fundamental change.
If the trades unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule.
(Marx 2010, p.91)
However at present, the unions are “too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital” (Marx 2010, p.91).
It is interesting for thinking about this combination of short term and long term goals for the movement that Marx characterises England as being ready economically for revolution, but needing a truly revolutionary movement to take advantage of it (something it hasn’t managed to do in the years since either).
The English have all that is needed materially for social revolution. What they lack is the sense of generalization and revolutionary passion.
(Marx 2010, p.116)
This implies that Marx certainly did not believe that the revolution would happen ‘naturally’ as working class consciousness developed. In other words there is no historically determined inevitability to the revolution, ‘reformism’ is a blind alley. In pursuing short term goals, the left must keep the long term vision in mind, still something that it seems to struggle with (in Britain at least) where working within the system too often seems to have led to a failure to pursue substantive change.
Marx, Karl The First International and After (Verso, London, 2010)