Marx’s Political Writing

Two essays written by Marx in the 1850’s – The Class Struggles in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – show Marx using his historical materialist method to analyse the political situation. Both are included in “Surveys From Exile“, the second volume of collected of political writings now republished by Verso, which also includes a number of shorter articles on Britain, China, and the American Civil War.

In his work on economic theory Marx applies significant abstraction to simplify the analysis and make his thinking clear. In these articles, Marx is applying this method to real events and he therefore pays much more attention to the detail. Both the ‘Class Struggles’ and the ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’ unpick the historical situation in detail, demonstrating the flexibility of the theory when used as a framework rather than as a rigidly prescriptive structure.

For example, in his theory Marx tends to present society as consisting of just two classes in perfect opposition. However his analysis of the French second republic breaks the bourgeoisie into a number of fractions and outlines the fluctuating coalitions they form within the state. Of particular interest for the modern world is a section (“Surveys From Exile”, ed. David Fernbach, Pelican, p.108-112) on the influence of the ‘financial aristocracy’ of the bourgeoisie, demonstrating this approach in action.

In a country… where the volume of national production is disproportionately smaller than the size of the national debt, where government bonds form the most important object of speculation and the Bourse forms the chief market for the investment of capital which is intended to be turned to account unproductively, in such a country a countless mass of people from all bourgeois or semi-bourgeois classes inevitably have an interest in the national debt, stock market gambles, and finance. Do not all these subaltern interested parties find their natural supporters and commanders in the fraction which represents these interests on the broadest basis?

These essays are classically important for Marx’s thinking on the state. How classes, and fractions within classes, might compete for control of the state in pursuit of the overall interests of the class. In the Marx’s analysis this leads the the bourgeois royalists to back first the republic and eventually Bonaparte, despite being in principle support restoration, for example:

The financial aristocracy thus condemned the party of Order’s parliamentary struggle against the executive as a disturbance of order, and celebrated every victory of the President over it’s own supposed representatives as a victory of order.

(“Surveys From Exile”, ed. David Fernbach, Pelican, p.222. Italics in the original)

There are two final segments I want to point out. First one short section where Marx makes a start getting to grips with the survival of bourgeois government in mass democracies. In particular for modern politics on falling turnout.

This is in no wise apathy against politics in general, but against a species of politics, the result of which… can only consist in helping the Tories oust the Whigs, or the Whigs to conquer the Tories.

(“Surveys From Exile”, ed. David Fernbach, Pelican, p.276)

Where organised democracy can no longer deliver the change demanding, voters will turn to other means, it was pressure from outside the British parliament which forced the repeal of the Corn Laws:

In this pressure from without, in other means of influencing parliament than by voting, a great portion even of electors now believe. They consider the hitherto lawful mode of voting as an antiquated formality…

Second, From the ‘Letter to the Labour Parliament’ of 1854, a section on the drive of modern industry creating abundance as a condition for the transition to socialism. This is interesting in the context of modern writing on “post-capitalism” such as that by Paul Mason which indicates that this prediction may finally be realised.

… the working millions of Great Britain… have laid down the real basis of a new society – modern industry, which… make[s] general abundance possible.

… they have fulfilled the first condition of the emancipation of labour. They have now to realise its other condition. They have to free those wealth-producing powers… and subject them to the joint control of the producers.

(“Surveys From Exile”, ed. David Fernbach, Pelican, p.278)

I found these essays a stimulating antidote to Althusser’s formal structuralist Marxism. Marx is sharp and acerbic, using his theories flexibly to analyse political conflict, identify the underlying class struggle and economic configuration, and use this to provide insight on the policies and strategies of the various individuals and parties.

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