Some of the least read and least remembered pages of Marx are those in which he takes on various other radical thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a litany of names that are now almost entirely obscure and forgotten: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and the like. Scanning these pages–and others like them, denouncing for instance the state of German philosophy at the time–the eye tends to glaze over, the mind wander. These are surely intellectual battles that belong in the past. However much Marxism is a minority option today, these other thinkers seem to have left still less trace on our contemporary debates. Where, after all, are the Fourierists and Owenites now?
Yet it’s surely worth reconstructing (what Pierre Bourdieu might call) the full field of positions occupied by the nineteenth-century Left, if only to bring out the stakes of what Marx says elsewhere, and to uncover the limits of what could and could not be said or thought at the time. Plucking Marx alone as the sole voice for radical change is to mangle and misunderstand his ideas as much as it means forgetting a wealth of other options that he chose not to take.
It is quite clear, for instance, that one distinguishing factor for Marx was the Communism in his view had to be revolutionary. To talk of “Revolutionary Communism” would be a tautology. Hence in the Manifesto of the Communist Party he and Engels criticize what they call “Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism”–represented here by Proudhon–for desiring “the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. [It wishes] for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” Or, in a second variant, they argue that “by changes in the material conditions of existence, this form of Socialism [. . .] by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be effected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations” (70). Of course, put like that, we might suspect that there are still a few Proudhonites (in all but name) lurking in contemporary politics. Indeed, in some sense they seem already to have succeeded, rhetorically at least, in their wish for “a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” Aren’t we all middle class now? And is it not the case that we endlessly see politics replaced by administration of one sort or another, from the Welfare State to the neoliberal technocracy that has all but replaced it?
The paradox, however, is that to be anti-revolutionary is also to be against the very same bourgeois order that the “Socialistic bourgeois” seek to uphold. For the “revolutionary and disintegrating elements” are essential components of modern capitalism, as Marx and Engels argue in an earlier (and rather more famous) section of the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production [. . .] and with them the whole relations of society. [. . .] All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (36, 27). Any attempt to mitigate the constant crises that are intrinsic to the capitalist order are reactionary at best, missing both the spirit of capitalism essence of Communism.
So what kinds of revolution do Marx and Engels endorse? The perhaps surprising answer at the end of the Manifesto is: any and all. “In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” (77). These very much include bourgeois revolutions, too, which is why “the Communists turn their attention to Germany,” precisely because (Marx and Engels argue) it is “on the eve” of just such a revolution that, in turn, “will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution” (76). So for all the now-obscure apparent splitting of hairs with Proudhonites and the like, it’s striking that the Manifesto is also surprisingly pragmatic as it tells us that Communists will work with a wide range of parties–in France, the Social Democrats; in Switzerland, the Radicals; and so on–despite acknowledging their flaws and limitations. For everything is in the service of the goal: “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. [. . .] Working Men of all Countries, Unite!” (77).