Military history

Part III

Strategy from Below

Chapter 18

Marx and a Strategy for the Working Class

Philosophers have only interpreted the world... the point, however, is to change it.

—Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”

The last section had the United States puzzling out how to cope with irregular warfare, with the concept of decisive victory no longer seeming so relevant and a focus on intense local struggles taking center stage. As it sought to try to cope with terrorist atrocities and ambushes, the United States was aware that it was in a competition to obtain the acquiescence if not the active support of the ordinary people in whose name war was being waged. The armed forces were encouraged to reach out to these people, to find ways of talking to them, and to persuade them that they were truly on their side. These efforts, however, kept on coming up against barriers to comprehension set down by language and culture, as well as past actions, policies, and pronouncements that made the job of persuasion even harder. This question of how minds can be turned, especially in large numbers and in a shared direction, looms large in this section, because that has long been a preoccupation of radicals and revolutionaries determined to upend the existing structures of power on behalf of the masses—though the masses were reluctant participants, if not actively hostile to the whole endeavor.

This section looks at strategy from the perspective of the underdogs, or at least those claiming to act on their behalf, who faced a large gap between desired ends and available means. These were the people for whom strategy was most challenging. They had to mobilize support in ways that would not invite suppression. If suppression was likely, they needed to consider clandestine survival and even violent responses of their own. They asked whether all could be persuaded to rally around the same goals or whether compromise would be necessary, and if so how much would be acceptable. Radical groups with distant goals could find comfort in an isolated purity, while those who tasted success saw the value of accommodating the views of others. As they devised plans of campaign, the issues that dominated the military discourse—endurance and surprise, annihilation versus exhaustion, direct battle or indirect pressure—all made their appearance, often in forms that revealed their military origins.

Theories loom larger in this section, especially those which address the big questions of power and change in industrial societies. Radicals offered theories which described a better world and the historic forces that might make it happen; conservative theories explained why this new world might never materialize and how it might not be any better if it did, warning of the delusions of change and the likely emergence of new elites who would display the same traits as the old. Proponents of violence had theories about how it could be a source of personal as well as social liberation, sweeping away decrepit states whatever their notional strength, while advocates of nonviolence spoke not only of prudence but also the advantages of the moral high ground. Because of the fear the masses roused and the frustrations of those who felt that the masses should be more roused than they were, there were theories of consciousness (lots of them) bemoaning the malleability of belief, the suggestibility of crowds, the impact of propaganda, and the entrenched paradigms and narratives of domination.

Theories charted and also exemplified the processes of bureaucratization and rationalization, offering strategies of efficient design and implementation, explaining why even revolutionary politics required professionalization and sound organization. This became one of the touchstone issues of political life, especially on the left, for it posed sharply the issue of whether it was possible to avoid the bad habits of the powerful while staying effective. There were regular denunciations of the party apparatchiks atop disciplined organizations from those who believed this to be denying the authenticity of the human spirit. By and large, strong organization triumphed over the integrity of spontaneous action. We will nonetheless conclude with the management of presidential campaigns, in the mainstream rather than fringes of political life, but still drawing on theories of social change and political beliefs. Not only did politics become more professional, but so did theory. Occupying an important role in this story is the rise of the social sciences, yearning to be taken as seriously as the natural sciences, with findings of universal validity untainted by partisan interests. In this section and the next, we will see social science—though never wholly value free—represented at times as a source of public policy that, once accepted by an enlightened state, could render politics, and therefore strategy, unnecessary.

The Professional Revolutionaries

We start with would-be insurrectionists developing strategies to overturn the existing social order. This requires us to return almost to the starting point of the last section, for the development of professional revolutionaries was, along with the Napoleonic Wars, a consequence of the great French Revolution of 1789. Though this became the inspiration and benchmark for all revolutions that followed, it was not the result of a plot or the culmination of any deliberate strategy. It was a response to the rigidity and ineptitude of the ancien regime and shaped by the Enlightenment, a revolution in ideas and modes of thought. The actual events took everyone by surprise, including those who were propelled to its leadership. The Jacobin Club, which promoted the core ideas of citizenship and the rights of man, and then the terror, was formed just after the actual revolution. Initially moderate, it became increasingly radical in its program and methods. Then the revolution turned in on itself and fell in behind Napoleon. In both international and national affairs the theories of power, violence, and change inspired by this period exercised a continuing hold over revolutionary as well as military strategy.

The ruling conservative elites met at the 1815 Congress of Vienna determined to prevent further outbreaks of revolutionary fervor and battlefield carnage. Some were prepared to permit greater democracy, but most were convinced that only paternalistic monarchies could maintain order. But this was a time of great social and economic upheaval. European societies seethed with discontent. Peasants despaired at the disruption to their traditional patterns of life; workers began to organize, sometimes tenuously and sometimes forcefully; the liberal middle classes railed against the barriers to their freedom, influence over affairs, and ability to make money; the ruling elites, drawn from the land-owning aristocracy, fretted about their hold on power. During the 1840s, economic recession and harvest failures combined to create a widespread view that this was a pre-revolutionary time, that something was about to break. It was time for those who yearned for revolution to make plans.

This was the epoch, as Mike Rapport has noted, that introduced the “professional revolutionary, who plotted tirelessly for the violent overthrow of the conservative order.”1 The professionals believed that revolutions were events that could be started deliberately and did not have to wait until unanticipated surges of popular feeling overwhelmed rotten state structures. Because of 1789, the idea of revolution was not a fantasy. There was no need to be cowed by claims of an established order divinely inspired and beyond human interference. What had happened once could happen again. The revolutionaries schemed and argued about how to turn popular demonstrations and discontent into a proper insurrection. Animated by a sense of huge possibility, they debated strategy and on occasion tried to turn their theories into practice.

Eventually many of these ideas became stale, as a result of both familiarity and futility. They became the slogans of distinct, and often sectarian, mass political organizations. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, however, they were fresh, fluid, and exciting, reflecting intellectual and political ferment. This was a time of innovation in radicalism. Political positions described in terms of “Left” and “Right” followed the seating arrangements in the chamber of the post-Revolution French Legislative Assembly. “Socialism,” referring to the need to address the “social question,” was first used in 1832, and “communism,” referring to a belief in complete equality and common ownership of land and property, entered the lexicon in 1839.

The theorists of revolution drew on the theorists of war. They embraced the same metaphors: they struggled, they attacked, and they fought. They looked for the insurrectionary equivalent of the decisive battle, a moment when it was clear who was going to come out on top. “Clausewitz’s emphasis on decisive action and on the tactical offensive even in the strategic defensive became,” according to Neumann and von Hagen, “the stock-in-trade of revolutionary strategy.”2 Power would have to be wrested from the ruling elites. That would require defeating the organized violence of the state. Preferably the army would capitulate in the face of just demands and the horror of being asked to fire on their own people, but if necessary they would have to be defeated in direct combat. Insurrections, therefore, were a form of battle and subject to similar rules. But in the face of superior firepower, numbers were all-important to the revolution. Somehow the broad mass of ordinary people, the poor and the dispossessed, peasants and workers, had to be mobilized and directed. They would fight not only to overcome their present misery but also for a new and better society, altogether more admirable and noble, righteous, harmonious, and prosperous.

So while the new class of professional revolutionaries might present themselves first as militants, organizers, and commanders, they also had to make their names as thinkers, articulating the inchoate aspirations of the masses, analyzing what had gone wrong and offering a vision of how all could be put right. The revolutionaries acquired their notoriety by the power of their ideas and their ability to spread them through newspapers, pamphlets, and books. Not surprisingly, the reconciliation of meager means to glorious but somewhat distant ends often required considerable intellectual gymnastics and heroics of belief. This led to rancorous disputes as to the relative merits of a range of impossible strategies. It was one thing to define a good society, quite another to explain how it would be the natural outcome of a great popular movement. It was one thing to develop an intellectually consistent narrative to explain how the revolution could work itself through to the desired outcome, quite another to follow its lines when the moment for revolution came. These great dramas would allow the revolutionaries a glimpse of everything they had been trying to achieve. The question was whether there would be anything more than a glimpse. They were unlikely to get many opportunities to find out.

Most of these professional revolutionaries were born well after 1789, in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Almost two centuries later, many still retain their reputations as defining figures of the left. At the extreme was Louis-Auguste Blanqui, an irrepressible French activist, imprisoned for much of his life, with a predilection for highly organized conspiracies. Though revolution would be undertaken on behalf of the masses their actual participation would neither be expected nor welcomed. He gave his name to “Blanquism,” which came to refer in leftist circles to the idea that revolution was best achieved through a putsch or coup d’état. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first to promote anarchy, which he defined in 1840 as “the absence of a master, of a sovereign.” He posed the question “What is property?” to which he famously answered “Theft.” Anarchism was later given a quite different tinge by the Russian Mikhail Bakunin, whose revolutionary convictions and ideas were still gestating during the 1840s. A more nationalist theme came with the Italian Giuseppe Mazzini, working to unify his fragmented country, which he wished to be republican and socialist. He insisted that patriotism was not incompatible with internationalism. In Hungary, Lajos Kossuth took a similar view as he led the struggle against Austrian domination.

And then there was Karl Marx, a man respected for his formidable intellect by his fellow revolutionaries, but actively disliked, not least for the scorn that he heaped on them. Born in 1818 in Trier in Prussia to a Jewish family converted to Christianity, Marx was supposed to become a lawyer. Instead, at university he became attracted to philosophy, especially to the radical group known as the Young Hegelians. They took the core themes of the great philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, particularly his celebration of reason and freedom, while rejecting his idea that history had reached a satisfactory conclusion in the contemporary Prussian state. Marx’s own break with the Young Hegelians came as he stressed the importance of looking at the material causes of historical change. Marx moved to France in 1843, where there was less censorship, and worked as a journalist. There he met his lifetime collaborator, Friedrich Engels, the son of a German industrialist, who was based in Manchester, a center of the industrial revolution. Engels had just published his own book, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 . They soon became partners. Engels provided Marx with financial support but also drafts for his articles, particularly on military history and theory, in which he had considerable expertise. They established their basic philosophy in The German Ideology (written in 1845—1846, although only first published in 1932), which denied the possibility of independent “morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness.” Their claim was avowedly materialist. “Life,” they insisted, “is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”3 In practice, as they would discover, the most perplexing problems for the revolutionary strategist could be found in the interplay between the two.

Marx’s role in the revolutionary sphere was comparable to Clausewitz’s in the military sphere. As Clausewitz provided a theory of war, Marx provided a theory of revolution, though not in quite so abstract a form. The actual influence of Clausewitz on Marx was slight. Engels read him more carefully, but not until the 1850s. If there was an influence it was because they were all operating in the same historicist tradition. In this respect, they shared— though not intimately—“historical and intellectual family ties.”4 Marx’s theory demonstrated the role of revolutions in the dynamics of historical change, a consequence of the class struggles that accompanied the changing forms of production. While the theory gave hope to revolutionaries, it was less helpful in telling them what to do. Unlike Clausewitz, who worked out his theory as a result of the experience of war, Marx developed his theory prior to his experience of revolution, and then at once found its application problematic.

Nonetheless, his extraordinarily powerful theory impressed even his opponents during his lifetime and continued to exercise a hold over the socialist imagination. Revolutionaries of the twentieth century almost invariably traced their strategies and political programs back to Marx. His writings ranged from serious journalism to deep philosophy. Some important pieces were not published during his lifetime. Scholars and activists alike have explored the meanings and implications of key passages, searching for guidance in his commentaries on dimly remembered events and otherwise obscure philosophers. Appropriate quotes from the master gave legitimacy to otherwise dubious proposals, while the potential for competing claims about what Marx “really meant” caused numerous splits among those claiming to carry his banner. The problem with the interpretation of Clausewitz was that he was revising his only major work when he died. The problem with the interpretation of Marx was that he completed many works without ever suggesting that he was revising anything.


Marx dismissed all the competing radical notions of the time. Religious imperatives, patriotic appeals, claims to civilized values and assertions of human rights, reactionary politics, and reformist gradualism were all illusions, reflecting either the crude interests of the current ruling class or the ideological residues of those that had gone before, leading the masses to rationalize their own enslavement. For Marx his theory was a vital weapon in itself, a source of confidence in the proletariat, a means of explaining to working people their potential and their destiny.

Strategy had to be grounded in class struggles. There was no point in trying to reconcile the irreconcilables through appeals to goodwill, justice, equality, or the boundless possibilities of the human will. The revolutionary process was about taking power according to prevailing economic and social conditions. Marx’s theory inclined toward economic determinism which could argue for waiting for the historical process to reach its inevitable conclusion. But Marx was an activist and anything but fatalistic. At all times his aim was to develop the power of the working class. He cast himself as a strategist for the proletariat and viewed other classes as potential allies or opponents according to their ability to help or hinder its onward march.

On the eve of the revolutionary year of 1848, Marx, not yet 30, was asserting himself as a political leader with a distinctive approach, evidently a cut above the pamphleteers of his time. His forceful writing, combining intellectual rigor with heavy sarcasm, took on acknowledged leaders of socialist thought, especially those of the dreamier sort, and gained converts to his more scientific approach. He was not, however, a natural leader. Instead, he lacked charisma and empathy, and he never gained a huge popular following.

A lecturer more than an orator, argumentative rather than conciliatory, he preferred analysis to emotion. As so often on the left, the message of proletarian unity was combined with disdain for anything other than the course he advocated. He had no fear of splits. Better to have revolutionary clarity and vigor than an artificial accommodation with wrong-headed and muddled notions. Neither Marx nor Engels had any aptitude for coalition building at a personal level.

His first political association was with a traditional group of the left known as the League of the Just, which had all the clandestine affectations of a secret society. Marx and Engels, with the help of others, turned this into a more open association known as the Communist League in 1847, opening branches in Germany, France, and Switzerland. The former slogan “All Men are Brothers!” was replaced by “Proletarians of All Lands, United.” The two men sought and gained a commission to provide a definitive communist manifesto. After six intensive weeks of writing, largely by Marx, it was finished in February 1848. Its famous opening statement—“A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of communism”—was meant to be ironic. Communism was not a specter, a ghostly apparition, but a real power and now in the open, calling for the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” The particular list of demands, the sort with which political manifestos tend to be associated, was something of a rag-bag, put together in a great hurry as the publication deadline approached. Most important was the coherent presentation of the theory. “The history of all hitherto existing society,” the manifesto explained, “is the history of class struggles.” In the current epoch, class antagonism was being simplified “into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—bourgeoisie and proletariat.” The unique advantages of communists was that they were the most “advanced and resolute” with the clearest understanding of “the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.” This was not a strategy for a state, nation, party, or institution— and certainly not for an individual. Rather it was for a class, defined in terms of the relationship to the means of production.

During 1848, revolution spread like an epidemic across Europe, with the most important outbreaks in France, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. Although the contagion began in Sicily, it was France that led the way in the intensity and seriousness of its own uprising. After the fall of Napoleon, France had returned to a monarchy, supposedly constitutional. As Charles X sought to acquire real power in 1830, he provoked a successful popular revolt, giving further support to the view that this was the one country in Europe where taking to the streets invariably made a difference. Charles’s replacement, Louis Philippe, however, was not much better and maintained rule by a privileged elite. The barricades went up again in 1834, providing the backdrop for Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. This uprising was suppressed, but in February 1848, after soldiers had fired into a crowd and the mob converged on his palace, Louis Philippe abdicated and fled to England. Soon a provisional government proclaimed the Second French Republic, along with universal male suffrage and relief for the poor.

The revolution, however, soon suffered from both economic and political chaos as the wealthy fled, businesses closed down, and the members of the new government argued with each other. The French socialists were in their language and aspirations creatures of 1789, idealists rather than materialists, concerned with rights and justice rather than capitalism. In rural France, Paris was seen to be selfishly imposing new taxes to support a better city life. Soon demands were heard for more order. Conservatives gained control of the government and with the army began clearing out the barricades. The middle classes were content, but the working classes were left seething. By June, feeling abandoned, the workers of Paris once again put up the barricades. The government forces were ruthless and effective. For four days the workers fought, but in the end it was a massacre and they were defeated.

In Germany, the main arena for Marx and Engels during these heady months, the situation was complicated by the national question. Under the Congress of Vienna, with its stress on an orderly balances of power rather than disruptive self-determination, there was a loose German Federation, which brought together Austria, at its head, along with Prussia and 38 smaller states. To confuse matters further, the Hungarian territories were part of the Austrian Empire but not the German Confederation. The whole top-heavy arrangement, when combined with the authoritarian quality of the individual states, was designed to cause aggravation. The cause of German unity based on national sovereignty went hand in hand with demands for greater democracy.

The revolutions followed a general pattern. An upsurge of broadly based anger resulted in large demonstrations. Stones got thrown. Troops responded. Some demonstrators died. The anger swelled and barricades went up. Where streets were narrow and crowded, the barricades provided real barriers to state control though they were useless in wide thoroughfares and squares. Having lost control of the populated parts of their city centers, the authorities were caught between further bloodshed and political concessions. Divided among themselves, they made enough concessions to satisfy the crowds and then retired to regroup. At first, therefore, the revolutionaries had the “unity of purpose, across social and political divisions” and prevailed.5 But insurrection was not the end of the story. There might have been opportunities to create new state institutions, including armed forces, to protect the revolution and take it forward, but the uncertainties in the new situation instead created tensions between radicals and moderates. The middle classes wanted reform but were petrified of revolution and persistent disorder. The left overreached itself and played to middle-class fears. There were debates about whether demands went too far or not far enough. Meanwhile the monarchs and their governments rediscovered their ruthlessness and organized their forces. In often bloody battles, the radicals were defeated, their leaders were thrown into prison or escaped into exile, and the population was cowed. In France it was different because of the abdication of Louis Philippe. But it was the exception that proved the rule—in revolution as in war, the quality and cohesion of the contending coalitions made a critical difference.

The initial stance of Marx and Engels for Europe in general and Germany in particular, following the logic of the recently published Communist Manifesto, was that workers should support a democratic revolution in preparation for the struggle for socialism. The larger the coalition challenging the old order the more likely it was to be successful. With universal suffrage and freedom of speech, the working classes would be better able to organize their own revolution. At the very least, a move to the next historical stage— even if it took time to complete—would allow the working class to grow in numbers, consciousness, organization, and militancy.6 The risk was that the triumphant bourgeoisie would immediately move to suppress communist activity. To counter this, communists had to be constantly reminding the working class that even while working on a democratic revolution, relations with the bourgeoisie were bound to be hostile and antagonistic. Out of this came the idea of “permanent revolution,” suggesting that there would be no time to relax after stage one of the democratic revolution before moving on immediately to the proletarian stage two.

The speed of events excited them. France was the country where the revolutionary tradition was strong and class struggles were sharp and decisive. As the first news came from Paris in February, Engels exclaimed: “By this glorious revolution the French proletariat has again placed itself at the head of the European movement. All honor to the workers of Paris!”7 The subsequent disappointment was followed by more excitement with news of the June uprisings. Marx concluded that the great moment had come. “The insurrection [is] growing into the greatest revolution that has ever taken place,” he wrote, “into a revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.”8 Even the crushed uprising was judged to be a sort of advance. By exposing the harsh reality of class struggle, it would forge a more complete communist consciousness. Whereas February had been the “beautiful revolution, the revolution of universal sympathy,” June was “the ugly revolution, the repulsive revolution, because reality took the place of the phrase.” Marx was not unique among revolutionaries in assuming that failure would make the working class more ferocious and determined rather than despairing and fatalistic.

By this time Marx and Engels were in Cologne. This was an area Marx knew, with a relatively substantial working class and an intense political situation. He established, using a timely inheritance, a campaigning newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (New Rhenish Newspaper), to promote the radical cause. The paper began publication on June 1 and soon gained some six thousand subscribers. It reflected Marx’s belief that the proletariat was too small to move alone and so must unite with the peasants and lower middle classes (petit bourgeoisie) against the bourgeoisie. This unity was unlikely to be achieved by urging socialism on small property holders. So weeks after publishing the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels made comparatively tame demands—a standard democratic program of a unified republic and universal male suffrage with some additional measures to address social issues. The first rally Marx organized was in a rural area where he brought workers and peasants together.9

At the time the main workers’ organization was the Cologne Workers Council, with some eight thousand members. Its founder Andreas Gottschalk concentrated on improving social and working conditions rather than wider political action.10 He judged Marx too extreme in his ultimate goals yet too moderate in his method. He had little sympathy for an orderly progression through revolutionary stages and scant interest in a democratic revolution. Marx argued for support of democratic candidates in elections. The alternative was “to preach Communism in a small corner magazine and found a small sect instead of a large party of action.”11 Gottschalk was for boycotting elections and pushing at once for socialism.

When Gottschalk was arrested in July 1848, Marx and Engels took over the council and redirected it to support the democratic movement. This new stance was not particularly popular, especially when coupled with a request for dues from members. Membership declined sharply. The revolution was turning out to be hard work. The workers were not necessarily progressive. They might be concerned about social conditions and annoyed with big business, but they also yearned for preindustrial days of work and had no appetite for deep class conflict. This lack of revolutionary fervor depressed Marx. He later observed wryly that if German revolutionaries ever stormed a railway station, they would buy a platform ticket.12 He hoped that the news of the June events in Paris would galvanize the German revolution. Instead it was the counterrevolutionaries who were emboldened.

As the German governments cracked down, Marx became more radical. From early 1849, he emphasized purely proletarian demands for a socialist republic. As 1850 began, he took heart from deteriorating economic conditions. His spring 1850 essay on “Class Struggles in France” raised the prospect of the proletariat imbued with a new revolutionary consciousness, matured by its defeats, and ready to accelerate the historical process. The events of the previous year meant that “different classes of French society had to count their epochs of development in weeks where they had previously counted them in half centuries.”13 The revolutionary process could create its own momentum, its ferocity shattering idealistic illusions and forging a sense of class interests and destiny in the face of the desperate measures of the ruling class. Prior to this time, Marx had backed demands for workers’ rights; now he mocked them for leaving capitalism in place.

His optimism was premature. The mood was against more uprisings and bloodshed. Caution prevailed. The European economy recovered and the revolutionary moment slipped away. Marx and Engels were left politically isolated, with time to reflect on their disappointment. Then it got even worse. In December Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the Emperor, managed to get himself elected as the first president of the new republic, on a vaguely progressive platform. As president, Bonaparte worked with the conservative assembly, but an impasse developed over his continuing interest in social reform. In November 1851, he mounted a coup d’état and a year later he abolished the Second Republic and established himself as emperor.

Engels remarked to Marx how Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état was a travesty of the Eighteenth Brumaire (the date in the French Revolutionary Calendar when the first Napoleon seized power in a coup). This was a re-enactment, “once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce.”1 4Marx picked up on this theme in one of his most brilliant and sardonic pieces of historical writing, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. The proletariat had allowed itself to be tempted by revolutionary activity and so ran “ahead of itself, positing solutions which under the circumstances, degree of education and relations could not be immediately realized.” It had lost its way, abandoned by the fearful petit bourgeoisie while the peasantry was still besotted with the Napoleonic legend. Only the conservatives acted on their true interests. Prior to the uprisings, Marx and Engels had recognized the fear of disorder as the wedge that might divide the revolutionary working classes from the rest. But having broken with old-style social democracy, Marx was now inclined to blame the failure on the leadership of the radical movements.

“Men make their own history,” he observed in a famous passage from the Eighteenth Brumaire, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” This was a profound though simple strategic insight. Individuals worked to shape their own destinies but their choices were conditioned by the situations in which they found themselves and the way that they thought about the situation. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” At the moment when men started to engage in revolution, “creating something that did not exist before,” they suffered from a failure of imagination, looking back rather than forward. They “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” The original French Revolution appeared first in the image of the Roman Republic and then the Roman Empire, while the Revolution of 1848 could only parody that of 1789. Somehow Marx urged the “social revolution of the nineteenth century” to find its “poetry” from the future rather than the past.

Marx himself was also guilty of this. As MacGuire notes, “it is difficult to escape the all-pervading influence of the French Revolution of 1789 on Marx’s thought.”15 It set a benchmark against which all else was judged: the drama of the storming of the Bastille, the subsequent revolutionary justice, and the readiness to rethink everything including the calendar and forms of greeting—to reconceive the world from the bottom up rather than the top down. This was both the prototype and archetype for a contemporary revolution. While trying to lead Cologne workers in 1848, Marx called the Jacobin Convention the “lighthouse of all revolutionary epochs.” During this period he constantly referred to the images and lessons of 1789, from the role of peasants to models of leadership and the likelihood of a European War. His strategy for the German revolution in 1848 was encapsulated by the phrase “the French Revolution radicalized.”16 The Eighteenth Brumaire itself depends on the comparison.

Marx was also trapped by a theoretical construct developed prior to the revolution that turned out, at first test, to be a poor guide to political practice. His theory offered a compelling narrative with which to address the proletariat and explain its true interests and historical role, on the ascendant and destined to outlast all others, but failed when considering the proletariat of 1848, small and politically immature, one class in a wider configuration, needing allies if it was to make any progress. There were four basic problems with his construct.

First, class had to be more than a social or economic category but an identity willingly accepted by its members. The proletariat had to be not just a class in itself, but also a self-aware political force, a class for itself. This was the problem of consciousness. The Manifesto referred to the eventual “moment of enthusiasm . . . in which this class fraternizes and fuses with society.” But would this class identity develop purely as a result of shared experiences and suffering, or depend on constant prompting by communists, or be forged, as at times Marx seemed to think in 1848, through the actual experience of revolution?

Second, consciousness-raising as a class required undermining the competing claims of nation and religion, yet for many workers there was no inconsistency with being a socialist, a patriot, and a Christian. Some of the most important revolutionary figures of the time, such as Mazzini and Kossuth, based their appeals first on nationalism. The cause of Polish emancipation from Russia was widely embraced, including by Marx. The Manifesto insisted on “the common interests of the proletariat independently of nationalism” but Marx was also well aware of national differences in terms of economic and political structures. Indeed he could generalize about national character in ways that would now be considered outrageous. Engels was even more prone to ethnic stereotypes.

Third, despite the Manifesto’s claims of a developing polarization the class structure in 1848 was extremely complex. It contained groups who might be historically doomed but for the moment were very much alive. They made possible a wide range of political configurations and outcomes. Marx assumed that “the small manufacturers, merchants and rentiers, the handicraftsmen and the peasants, all these classes fall into the proletariat.”17 But these groups did not necessarily identify with the urban working classes and had their own interests. The petit bourgeoisie were exasperating to Engels: “invariably full of bluster and loud protestations, at times even extreme as far as talking goes” but “faint-hearted, cautious and calculating” in the face of danger and then “aghast, alarmed and wavering” when matters became serious.18 The peasants were particularly hard to call. Were they as nostalgic as the aristocrats for the old feudal order that was now slipping away, or were they being radicalized by new forms of rural ownership? The tension was evident in the Manifesto which presented the peasantry as reactionary and obsolete but then called for an alliance between workers and peasants in Germany. The artisans, petit bourgeoisie, shop-keepers, and landlords were also all present in significant numbers and with their own political views. Even the working classes in 1848 were a mixed grouping, far more likely to be found in small workshops than large factories, and so viewing mechanization as part of the problem rather than a mark of progress, as a source of further misery more than a necessary stage in economic development. After the failed revolutions Marx blamed the degenerate lumpenproletariat for providing the militia to defeat the June uprising (although actually the mobile guard’s social composition was representative of the wider working class).

Fourth, the greatest confusion came from the Manifesto’s presumption that a bourgeois revolution must precede the proletarian. This would create the conditions for the growth of the proletariat and their consciousness of their capacity to take control of industrial society. But that was some way down the line. The immediate strategic implication was to urge the working classes to back the middle classes in their revolution. For the bourgeoisie, the course was clear. They could subvert and circumvent the established order through their entrepreneurial creativity. Eventually political affairs would catch up and find space for this dynamic class. There might be gain in this for the proletariat in the form of greater democracy. The promise, however, was not of opportunities for an evolutionary working-class advance but, if the theory was correct, further exploitation and immiseration. As Gottschalk put it when accusing Marx of finding the misery of the workers and the hunger of the poor a matter of only “scientific and doctrinaire interest,” why should the “men of the proletariat” make a revolution and spill their blood, to “escape the hell of the Middle Ages by precipitating ourselves voluntarily into the purgatory of decrepit capitalist rule in order to arrive at the cloudy heaven of your Communist Credo.”19

The Strategy of Insurrection

After the economic distress, so eagerly anticipated in 1849, failed to materialize, Marx and Engels judged that uprisings were unlikely to succeed so long as the army remained loyal to the state. If one did succeed, possibly in France, then it could only survive if it triggered a response elsewhere and, most importantly, could put together a coalition of revolutionary countries to defeat the armies of the reactionaries. As Marx settled down to study political economy, Engels concentrated on military affairs in an effort to assess the potential balance of forces between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary countries. His approach was unsentimental and mechanical. “The more I mug up on war, the greater my contempt for heroism—a fatuous expression, heroism, and never heard on the lips of a proper soldier.”20 Engels doubted that a single country could reproduce Napoleon’s early successes. The modern art of war, based on mobility and mass, was now “universally known.” Indeed the French were no longer the “pre-eminent bearers” of this tradition. His conclusion was not encouraging. Superiority in strategy and tactics, Engels concluded, would not necessarily favor the revolution. A proletarian revolution would have its own military expression and give rise to new methods of warfare, reflecting the elimination of class distinctions. But this was likely, Engels assumed, to intensify rather than diminish the mass character and mobility of armies and was, at any rate, many years away. In the first instance, when it came to defending the revolution from internal enemies, the bulk of the army would still need to come from “the mob and the peasants.” In such a case, the revolution would adopt the means and methods of modern warfare. And so “the big battalions [would] win.” Marx respected Engels for his military knowledge but was far less inclined to stress the military factor over others. This became apparent during the American Civil War. Although both were frustrated with the North, Marx was always more confident that its superior material strength would win out in the end, while Engels worried about the Confederacy’s superior mastery of military arts. In the summer of 1862, Engels was convinced that “it is all up,” but Marx disagreed, observing that “you let yourself be swayed a little too much by the military aspect of things.”21

In June 1851, Engels wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer, a former military officer and close friend who later that year emigrated to the United States, explaining that he needed the “elementary knowledge . . . necessary to enable me to understand and correctly evaluate historical facts of a military nature.” This included maps and manuals. He asked for an opinion of Clausewitz and also of “Monsieur Jomini, of whom the French make such a fuss?”22 He read Clausewitz but found Jomini more reliable. In 1853, again writing to Weydemeyer, Engels described Prussian military literature as “positively the worst there is,” noting in particular that “despite many fine things, I can’t really bring myself to like that natural genius, Clausewitz.”23By 1857, he had warmed to Clausewitz despite his “strange way of philosophizing,” noting with approval Clausewitz’s suggestion that fighting is to war what cash payment is to trade.24

The interest in military matters also reflected the split which ended the short life of the Communist League. This came in 1850 as a result of Marx’s doubts about the imminence of revolution. The opposition was led by August von Willich, a former military officer described by Engels as a “brave, coldblooded, skilful soldier” though a “boring ideologist.”25 In London, where the émigrés now congregated, Willich was more popular among exiles, sharing tavern life and optimistic talk of returning to liberate Germany. He presented himself as an impatient man of action compared to the elitist and patronizing “literary characters” like Marx and Engels. Whereas they seemed more interested in reading than revolution, confining their work to education and propaganda, and were prepared to support a democratic push, Willich’s followers had no interest in supporting bourgeois elements to power but aimed immediately for supreme power. Preparations for revolutionary war began, with drills, shooting practice, and a hierarchical, military-style organization.

Marx was always hostile to the view, most associated with Blanqui, that revolution was a matter of will and military skill as much as material conditions. There was no point urging people to fight against hopeless odds.26 “While we say to the workers, you have fifteen or twenty of fifty years of civil and national wars to go through, not just to alter conditions but to alter yourselves and qualify for political power,” Marx explained to Willich, “you on the contrary say: we must obtain power at once or we might as well lay ourselves down to sleep.”27 In September 1851, Marx wrote to Engels, reporting comments by Willich’s colleague Gustav Techow on the lessons of the events of 1849.28 According to Techow, revolution could not work if confined to a single faction or even nation. It had to become general. Barricades could only signal popular resistance and test a government. Far more important was organization for proper war, which required a disciplined army: “This alone makes an offensive possible and it is only in the offensive that victory lies.” National constituent assemblies could not take responsibility because of their internal divisions, arguing about matters that could only be truly decided after victory and foolishly expecting an army to be democratic. Enthusiastic volunteers would stand little chance against disciplined and well-fed soldiers. The revolutionary army would need compulsion, “Iron rigor of discipline.” In Engels’s dismissive assessment, Techow was postponing the struggle between different classes and perspectives until after the war. A military dictator would suppress internal politics. Yet Techow had no idea about how to recruit such a large army.29 A revolution in 1852 would be stuck on the defensive, confined to “empty proclamations” or doomed military expeditions.

In September 1952, Engels looked back to the Frankfurt-based German National Assembly from May 1849, which—with leftists and democrats largely in charge—had effectively challenged the three largest states of Austria, Prussia, and Bavaria. There was a strong movement for mass action, including insurrections in Dresden and Baden (in which Engels and Willich participated). The National Assembly might have called upon people to take up arms in its support. Instead it allowed the insurrections to be suppressed. These events prompted Engels to observe:

Now, insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them.

Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendancy which the first successful rising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, DE L'AUDACE, DE L'AUDACE, ENCORE DE L'AUDACE!30

The message was that once a revolutionary process had begun, it had to be sustained. It needed momentum and to stay on the offensive. Hesitate and all would be lost. The initial uprising would not be sufficient. The fight would have to be seen through to the complete defeat of the counterrevolution, which, of course, could require full-scale war with reactionary countries. Engels accepted the full logic of the war of annihilation, should the military course be chosen.

The question this raised, however, was what to do if this course led to certain defeat. If revolutionary strategy was a matter for cool calculation, this would argue for prudence and patience. But if revolutionary strategy was a matter of temperament, reflecting a deep commitment to transformational change as a matter of urgency, restraint could feel unbearable. Either way, as we shall see in the next chapter, radical politics could be intensely frustrating, either living with injustice while waiting for a moment when change might become possible, or else striking out against injustice even when the cause was hopeless.

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