Marx (in Marx Later Political Writings) poses the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. Where he does not discuss this analogy explicitly, it nonetheless serves as a foundational concept for his various descriptions, critiques, polemics, and predictions. Looking back, we can now access a century and a half of history in our examination of whether, or to what extent, the analogy holds up. But how much evidence was there to support the analogy’s validity during Marx’s time? Marx fancied his analysis scientific, but to what extent is his analogy a scientific theory or hypothesis, as opposed to an article of faith attached to a political agenda (dressed up in propagandistic signifiers of scientific thinking)? Might greater scrutiny of the analogy have opened up pivotal questions concerning how the particular content of a political system could alter the form—hence the “inevitability”—of revolution (e.g. from feudalism to capitalism vs. from capitalism to communism)?
Perhaps because of his deterministic theory/belief, Marx is able to maintain a long-haul optimism in the wake of the crushing defeat of the Paris Commune — even trumpeting the episode as the “glorious harbinger of a new society.” However, despite the inevitable eventuality of a dictatorship of the proletariat followed by communism that Marx’s structural determinism suggests, these essays still brim with an engrossing sense of subjective agency. Marx did not advocate waiting passively for underlying economic forces to accomplish the predestined. Indeed, most of his writing (in this collection) speaks to contingencies, especially in his polemical detailing of the incompetencies of opponents and allies alike. The details of particular actions and missteps, and their history-altering consequences, are of great concern to him.
However, he declines to take the next step to view such contingencies as potential opportunities for contestation within the bourgeois state. Indeed, he is hostile toward any workers party’s attempt to do so. Marx’s foundational assumption of the inevitability and ripeness of a proletariat revolution is precisely what causes him to dismiss the prospect of contesting power and policy within the bourgeois state. If his foundational assumption were correct, then the logic of his opposition to making—and fighting for—demands on the bourgeois state would make some sense. Why toil for table scraps if you know you’ll soon control the feast? Here he shares the logic of the Christian believer who resigns herself to suffering here-and-now because of her confidence in the promise of a glorious hereafter.
Another problem here is Marx’s treatment of the categories bourgeoisie and proletariat as neatly bounded things. At times he describes complexities and contradictions within each, but he mistakenly believes that as more people are proletarianized, their conditions will become increasingly similar and they will logically recognize their structural commonality and begin to act self-consciously as a united class. It turns out that capitalism often achieves the opposite: a continuum of stratification within “the proletariat” and between classes, a popular orientation toward upward mobility, and fragmentation of class identity.
If classes were to become neatly bounded things, one might reasonably regard the question of which one controls the state as either/or: bourgeoisie or proletariat. The bourgeoisie, for example, controls the state and acts in its own exclusive class interests. If a neatly bounded category is in control of the state, then that control is impenetrable. It must be overthrown completely. The idea of a challenger political force (with challenger class interests) gaining a foothold cannot be entertained.
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