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 Chapter  IV

The First Period : 1848 - 1871

Economic Boom

Marx’s Analysis of Capitalism

The 1848 Revolution

Marx and Engels During the 1848 Revolution

Other Revolutions in this Period

Formation of the International Workingmen’s Association

Fight against Wrong Trends in the First International

The Paris Commune and the First International


This period starts with what Marx called ‘the Continental Revolution’ of 1848, which covered practically the whole European continent with a wave of insurrectionary upheavals; it concludes with the defeat of the Paris Commune, the first dictatorship of the proletariat. The intervening years too experienced numerous wars and revolutionary struggles. It was thus what Lenin once referred to as ‘a period of storms and revolutions’. This was however also a period of continuous and sustained growth of industrial capitalism, which by the end of this period had become a genuine world economy.

Economic Boom

The period from the depression of 1846-48 up to the early 1870s was a period of continuous boom for capitalism, except for a short depression around 1857. Between 1850 and 1870 world coal output multiplied two and a half times and world iron output by four times. Total steam power which was one of the best indicators of economic expansion, multiplied by four and a half times rising from 4 million HP to about 18.5 million HP. As a characteristic of all capitalistic development, the growth was highly uneven. It converted many of the lesser industrialised areas of Europe into advanced industrial economies with large industry. A classical example was Germany. In 1850 its installed steam power at 40,000 HP was less than 10% of the British, but by 1870 it was 900,000 HP, almost the same as the British. It also left one of the earlier industrialised countries, France, far behind. Similar changes in the relative positions of the other main capitalist countries took place. The United States emerged as a major industrial power and Japan, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 embarked on the path of speedy capitalist growth.

This period also saw a lowering of tariff barriers and a tremendous increase in world trade by 260%. This was under a wave of economic liberalism, with a world-wide movement to remove all institutional barriers to free enterprise, free trade and free movement of factors of production. However this period also marks the end of liberal free enterprise capitalism. By the end of this period the development of free competition had reached its apex and particularly with the intense economic crisis of 1873, started the period of monopolies and cartels.

Marx’s Analysis of Capitalism

As free competition capitalism was advancing towards its limits, Marx spent a considerable of his time in these years to an in-depth analysis of capitalism and the elaboration of his critique of political economy begun in the 1844 Manuscripts. Always searching for new data and sources to refine his work, the critique remained incomplete. It was only published in 1939-41 as ‘Outline of a Critique of Political Economy’ (Grundrisse). It, among other things, contains Marx’s most important study of the problems of method in the social sciences. It contains the sketch and the plan of work for Capital.

Another important economic work of Marx which was published at this time was Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859). It represented, according to Engels, the "first coherent exposition of the Marxian theory of value, including the doctrine of money." The Preface to this work is one of Marx’s most-quoted texts, as it contains the most concise and general formulations of the materialist conception of history.

Marx’s monumental work of this period was however Capital, whose aim as he himself said was to "lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society." Its first volume, published in 1867, revealed the sources of exploitation by analysing the basic phenomena of the capitalist economy: commodities, exchange- and use-value, surplus value, capital wages and accumulation. Marx intended to finish the second and third volumes of Capital in a short time. The second was to analyse the circulation of capital and the market, while the third was to deal with the sharing of profit among different groups of exploiters, the origin of the average rate of profit, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and the transformation of surplus profit into ground rent. Parts of these volumes were written before the first was published, but although Marx continued working on them till 1878 they were not completed at the time of his death. The manuscripts, arranged and edited by Engels, were published in 1885 and 1894, while ‘Theories of Surplus Value’ was published by Kautsky as the fourth volume of Capital in 1905-10.

The 1848 Revolution

The 1848 Revolution which had tremendous historic impact, was launched at almost the same time as the publication of ‘The Communist Manifesto’. In France, the king was overthrown and the republic proclaimed under the pressure of the workers on 24th February. By 2nd March revolution had covered south-west Germany, by 4th March Cologne, by 6th March Bavaria, by 11th March Berlin, by 13th March Vienna and almost immediately Hungary, by 18th March Milan and therefore Italy. Within a matter of weeks no government was left standing in an area of Europe which is today covered by more than ten countries.

The common factor in all the revolutions were that they were social revolutions of the labouring poor. In the cities it was the workers who composed the overwhelming majority of those who participated and died in the demonstrations and barricade-fighting. Wherever there was rural participation, as in south-west Germany, Italy and other places, it was the poor peasantry who came out in insurrection and to divide the great estates. This overwhelming participation of the poor however had the effect of frightening the moderate liberal sections and even some of the radical sections of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, afraid of being swept away in the social wave and losing even their bourgeois rights, decided quickly in most places to betray the revolution and make a compromise with feudal reaction. This led to the rapid failure of all the revolutions. With the exception of France, all the old rulers were restored to power, and the revolutionaries scattered into exile.

The turning point came in June 1848, when the revolutionary workers of Paris were forced into insurrection which was brutally crushed. The June insurrection, was, as Marx put it "the first great battle .... between the two classes that split modern society." For five days the unarmed workers fought the combined armed forces of the united bourgeoisie. 1500 died in the street fighting (as against only 370 in the February Revolution). The class hatred of the bourgeoisie was such that even after the suppression, 3000 more were massacred, and 12,000 were arrested and mostly sent to Algerian labour camps. After the workers were defeated, the sections of the bourgeoisie who participated in the revolution were one by one pushed out of power. On 2nd December 1851, Louis Bonaparte, a nephew of the earlier Napoleon, seized dictatorial power, and in 1852 got himself proclaimed as Emperor Napoleon III in which position he continued until his defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

The defeat of the French workers led to the bourgeoisie throughout Europe jumping into the arms of the reactionaries. The Austrian Emperor’s army took over Prague, with moderate bourgeois help, in June 1848, and then Vienna in October, after a battle that cost over 4000 lives. This was followed by the king of Prussia taking over Berlin and then other parts of Germany. This left parts of Italy and Hungary which were taken over in August 1849. All the reforms introduced by the revolutions were reversed. The only exception was the abolition of serfdom in the vast Austrian Habsburg Empire. This meant the abolition of serfdom throughout most of Europe, except Russia and Rumania where the abolition was accomplished in the 1860s.

Marx and Engels during the 1848 Revolution

After the February Revolution in Paris the Belgian government adopted repressive measures against the emigrant revolutionaries; Marx was expelled from Brussels and returned to Paris, where he worked for the German revolutionary cause on behalf of the Communist League. After the Vienna and Berlin revolutions in March many German émigrés moved from France to Germany. Marx and Engels established themselves in Cologne, where communist propaganda was most active, and from June onwards published a newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, with a programme entitled Demands of the Communist Party of Germany. These aims were not communistic as such, but radical-democratic and republican: they included the confiscation of large estates, free universal education, a progressive income tax, and the nationalisation of railways. The paper, of which Marx was chief editor, condemned the irresolute attitude of the bourgeoisie and advocated a united Germany under a republican constitution with direct and universal suffrage; it championed the oppressed national minorities, especially the Poles, and called for war with Russia as the mainstay of reaction in Europe.

The victory of reaction in Europe and the collapse of the revolution in Germany led to the closure of the paper in May 1849. Marx was expelled from Prussia and returned to Paris where a new revolutionary upsurge was still expected. However in the face of repression by the French government he was forced to shift to London in August, where he spent the rest of his life in exile. Engels settled in Manchester where he spent twenty years. Upon their entry into England, Marx and Engels set about reviving the Communist League. They drafted and distributed an address of the central committee which called for the setting up of an independent proletarian party independent of the petty bourgeois democrats (the republican bourgeoisie). It called for aiming at ‘permanent revolution’ which would enable the proletariat to eventually seize power. The Communist League however did not last long and was wound up in 1852.

Marx’s work during this period helped establish the founding principles of the proletariat’s revolutionary tactics. His series of articles written during this period was published as The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850. This along with his brilliant work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte written in 1851-52 was "Marx’s first attempt to explain a section of contemporary history by means of his materialist conception". On the basis of the practical experience of the mass revolutionary struggle, Marx developed the analysis and tactic of the proletariat. The confusing twists and turns in the events as they took place were clearly explained in class terms. He clearly showed how the proletariat was the real driving and decisive force in the revolutions which had put the bourgeoisie in power. He then showed how the bourgeoisie while turning against the workers had actually betrayed the revolution and proved incapable of rule. He exposed the ‘parliamentary cretinism’ of the petty bourgeois democrats where caught up in the illusions of their parliamentary speeches they ignored the realities of the class struggle. Of particular importance was Marx’s exposure of the true nature of the bourgeois state as an organ of capitalist class rule and his first use of the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Finally, Marx’s analysis of the role of the peasantry is crucial. While analysing how the adventurer Louis Bonaparte utilised the peasantry as his chief social support to establish his dictatorship, he pointed to the need of the peasantry being won over as an ally of the revolution. This all important formulation was further more clearly developed when Marx wrote to Engels in the context of Engel’s 1850 book The Peasant War in Germany regarding the historic German peasant uprising of 1525. Marx points out that the future of the proletarian revolution in Germany would depend on whether it won the support of the peasantry, what he called ‘a second edition of the Peasant War.

Other Revolutions in this Period

The 1848 European Revolution had global impact and even inspired an insurrection in Pernambuco in Brazil in the same year and a Colombian revolution in the early 1850s. The Spanish revolution of 1854-56 too can be seen in the same light. It too was however crushed after the bourgeoisie and the army officers who had first started the uprising later betrayed it to leave the workers to be isolated and defeated.

This period saw major struggles in the colonies and semi-colonies. The major ones were the Taiping peasant Revolution of China (1851-64), the First Indian War of Independence (1857-58), and the great Algerian uprising (1871). The Taiping Revolution was the largest such struggle and it covered 17 provinces where it attempted to establish a new society on the basis of ideas of Utopian agricultural socialism. It was finally crushed by an alliance of the Ching imperial troops with the Americans, British and French. The other struggles too were crushed by the colonialists, aided by local betrayers.

This was also the age of wars where after the relative calm since the Napoleonic wars (since 1815), the major capitalist powers again waged repeated war. In Europe there was : the Crimean War (1854-56) between Russia on one side and Britain, France and Turkey on the other resulting in 600,000 deaths, France, Savoy and the Italians against Austria (1858-59), Prussia and Austria against Denmark (1864), Prussia and Italy against Austria (1866), Prussia and the German states against France (1870-71). The major wars in the Americas were the American Civil War (1861-66) between the industrialised North and the agrarian South of the United States resulting in 630,000 deaths, and the war between Paraguay on one side and Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil on the other (1864-70) resulting in 330,000 deaths. The main cause for these wars was the process of capitalist expansion and the direct and indirect conflicts arising out of it. In many cases they completed the tasks of the unfinished bourgeois revolutions. In the American Civil War the unfinished task of independence from Britain was completed by the integration of the South states (which had continued to remain closely linked with the British Empire) into the new major industrial economy of the United States. The national tasks unfulfilled in the 1848 Revolution were completed in the European wars. The modern capitalist nation-states of Germany and Italy were thus established, Rumania came into existence at the end of the 1850s, and the Hungarian nation achieved autonomy within the Austrian Empire in1867. Poland and Ireland however could not come into existence despite national movements, and insurrections in 1863 and 1867 respectively.

Marx and Engels wrote extensively on all the above events. Marx in particular contributed regularly from 1852 to1862 to the New York Tribune where he analysed various events in Europe and Asia. Some of these articles were brought together in books. These articles laid bare the class forces in the wars and revolutionary events and raised appropriate demands from the standpoint of the proletariat. Thus was further developed the theory of the tactics of the proletariat.

Formation of the International Workingmen’s Association

There were strong internationalist trends within the workers movement, particularly in Britain and France, which contributed to the establishment of the International Workingmen’s Association or the First International. The formation itself took place in the context of a rising wave of proletarian and bourgeois national revolutionary struggles, after a long period of reaction that had followed the failure of the 1848 Revolution. Particularly in the wake of the 1857 Depression there was a strong strike movement of 1860-62 in England and other countries, which gave a boost to the trade unions and other workers organisations.

Organisational links were built up at joint demonstrations by British and French workers in 1863 to protest the suppression of the Polish insurrection by Russia and to demand independence for Poland. Talks at this time of the formation of an international led to the English worker representatives sending a formal ‘Address’ to the French workers regarding this. The reply of the French workers was presented at the meeting on 28th September 1864 which resulted in the formation of the International Workingmen’s Association. This meeting, which was attended by German, Italian and Polish émigrés besides the British and French, decided to have its headquarters in London, with the English labour journal, the Bee-hive, as its official organ. Marx who was present at the meeting was elected to its council and made corresponding secretary for Germany. It was he who drew up the Inaugural Address and Provisional Rules, the first programme and constitution of the First International.

The Address analysed briefly the economic and political situation and laid down that political action to conquer political power was the great duty of the working class. The Rules laid down that, the working class can act as a class only by establishing a distinct political party, opposed to all the old parties formed by the possessing classes. These documents contain the first development of the organisational principles of the working class party.

Fight against Wrong trends in the First International

On the basis of the above principles and the growing struggles of the working class the International spread to various countries. In the first few years sections were formed in various towns in France, Belgium, and Switzerland, besides Britain. In the wave of strikes after 1867 new sections were created in Spain, Italy, Holland, and Austria, while in Germany a social democratic party was formed by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, along with the Lassallists. This party, though it did not formally join the International was nevertheless close to Marx on the main issues. Thus the International grew rapidly in strength in the 1860s.

However a constant struggle had to be waged against various wrong trends contrary to the basic principles. As Marx himself once wrote, "The International was founded in order to replace the socialist or semi-socialist sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle.....The history of the International was a continual struggle of the General Council against the sects and against amateur experiments, which sought to assert themselves within the International against the real movement of the working class" (Quoted in Foster William Z., History of the Three Internationals, p. 45).

A principal example of such trends was Anarchism. One of its principal leaders was Bakunin, who saw his programme as an extension and development of Proudhon’s anarchist system. His main principles were: (a) the propagation of atheism; (b) the destruction of the state; (c ) the rejection of all political action, as the state can be destroyed by insurrection. Bakuninists thus clashed with Marxism on three very important questions: (a) the political struggle of the working class, since they counterposed it to the insurrection; (b) the proletarian dictatorship, since they predicted that the fall of capitalism would automatically destroy the state which would be replaced by a "free federation of persons, communes, districts, nations,"; (c ) the proletarian party, since they were opposed to any authority even in the realm of political organisation. The Bakuninist trend maintained a strong presence in the First International and many of the Congresses of the International were marked by intense debates between them and the Marxists. It finally led to the split in the International in the Hague Congress in 1872. The Bakuninists and other similar Anarchist trends could maintain some relevance in this period of numerous wars and revolutions because of the illusions they created of an immediate proletarian revolution. However from the 1870s onwards they declined organisationally and in mass influence and being a practical failure, disintegrated into various irrelevant sects.

Another struggle waged by Marxism in this period was against the Blanquist trend led by Blanqui, the important French worker leader who participated prominently both in the 1848 Revolution as well as the Paris Commune. This trend though agreeing with many Marxist principles relied mostly on conspiratorial methods. Through continuous struggle against its wrong understanding many of Blanquism’s best fighters were won over to the side of Marxism. Blanquism too died as an active political force after the Paris Commune.

A very important struggle however from the point of view of the future was against the opportunist trend of Lassalleism. It proposed a system of government-subsidised co-operatives, which would gradually replace capitalism. It wanted universal suffrage because that according to Lassalle would ensure 90% parliament seats for the worker who would then ensure subsidisation of his co-operatives. He even started opportunist links with the then German Chancellor, Bismarck, with the hope of getting his subsidies, for which Marx characterised him as a betrayer. The most dangerous aspect of Lassalleist opportunism was his total opposition to trade union struggles and strikes, which he theorised on the basis of his so-called ‘iron law of wages’. According to this the workers were unbreakably bound to the barest subsistence levels and any wage raises won by trade unions were supposed to be automatically cancelled out by increases in prices and living costs. Marx energetically opposed this petty bourgeois theory through a theoretical exposition of the relation between Wages, Price and Profit, which was the text of his report to the General Council of the First International in September 1865. While thoroughly exposing the false Lassalleist positions propounded by John Weston, a General Council member, he proposed that, "Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ [the working class] ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, abolition of the wages system!" 8

The Paris Commune and the First International

The First International was at the peak of its popular appeal at the time of the Franco-German war and the Paris Commune. Rising on a wave of strike struggles it had fostered a wide industrial and trade union movement led by its members and supporters. It regularly provided direction on political questions. When the Franco-German war broke out in July 1870 the General Council immediately brought out a document drafted by Marx which is an initial example of Marxist tactics in war. He called for international solidarity of workers putting the blame on the rulers of both France and Germany. While it was for Germany a defensive war because of the attack of the reactionary dictator Napoleon III, he warned the German workers of the danger of it becoming a war of conquest, and of the German government allying with the reactionary Russian Tsar. Among both German and French workers a spirit of internationalism prevailed and Liebknecht and Bebel voted in parliament against war credits and were jailed for it.

Napoleon III fell, as predicted by Marx, within six weeks, and a Republic was proclaimed. Marx immediately brought out another Address of the International, where he called for resolute opposition to the German war of conquest. He called on German workers and workers everywhere to press for honourable peace with France and recognition of the Republic. He analysed the French Republic as consisting of big bourgeois royalist and republican petty bourgeois sections, with the section representing the finance aristocracy and big bourgeoisie in the commanding position. He however opposed any attempt by the working class to overthrow the new government as an act of ‘desperate folly’ because the enemy was then at the doors of Paris.

However contrary to Marx’s proposal, the Bakuninists made various unsuccessful attempts at carrying out an uprising in different French cities. Blanqui too made preparations for insurrection. As the German siege of Paris continued, control moved into the hand of the National Guard composed mainly of workers. The Republican Thiers government then made an agreement to hand-over Paris to the Germans. When they tried to implement this by disarming the National Guard the masses of Paris revolted and established the Paris Commune from 18th March, 1871. The leadership of the Commune was in the hands of the Blanquists, though Blanqui himself was arrested the night before the uprising. Mass elections which were soon held formed a Council of 92 members which had a majority of Blanquists, a large group of Proudhonists and eighteen Marxists. Though Marx had been opposed to insurrection declared militant support to it as soon as it began. The Commune however could not stand up to the vast range of forces against it. All governments united to crush the Commune and the German government even quickly released its French prisoners-of-war to speed up the war effort to seize Paris. The Commune was finally conquered after five days of fierce fighting in which over one thousand army-men and innumerable Communards were killed. The cold-blooded massacre after the take-over was however much greater. Over 30,000 Communards were shot down and over 45,000 arrested, of whom many were executed, sentenced to prison or exile. The slaughter thus far exceeded even the killings after the June 1848 insurrection and proved what atrocities the bourgeoisie was capable of if the proletariat dared to attempt to seize power.

Though the Paris Commune was extremely short-lived it had tremendous historic significance which was brought out by Marx’s work, The Civil War in France written during the Commune but published just two days after its fall. Among its major political decisions were the separation of Church and State, abolishing of subsidies to the church, doing away with the standing army in favour of a people’s militia, election and control of all judges and magistrates, fixing an upper limit for the salaries for all functionaries and making them strictly responsible to the electorate, etc. Among the socio-economic measures were free and general education, abolition of night work in bakeries, cancellation of employer fines in workshops, closing of pawnshops, seizure of closed workshops which were to be run by workers’ co-operatives, relief to the unemployed, rationed dwellings and assistance to debtors. The Commune also committed certain mistakes which proved to be lessons to future generations of the working class.

The most important lessons stressed by the experience of the Commune were — contrary to the assertions of the Anarchists — the absolute need for a strong, clear-sighted and disciplined proletarian party for the success of the revolution, and the need to smash the bourgeois bureaucratic-military state machine in order to build the workers’ state. It also provided the first basic form of the new society as well as the first experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was as Lenin said, "the greatest example of the greatest proletarian movement of the nineteenth century."

Marx’s analysis of the Commune again helped to clear the confusion among the revolutionary forces in the aftermath of reaction immediately following the fall of the Commune. It helped the international proletariat to draw the correct lessons to inspire and direct the struggles ahead. As it had done throughout this period (1848-71), it again proved that it was the only correct working class ideology. At the beginning of this period Marxism by no means dominated and it was just one of the extremely numerous factions or trends of socialism. The stormy events of this period and the clarity of analysis provided regarding them by Marxism, had however proved that all forms of non-class socialism and non-class politics were sheer nonsense. They were thus relegated to the background and it was Marxism that provided the leadership. It was under Marxism’s leadership also that working class organisations and struggles grew during this period. Marxism advanced from its influence among revolutionary groups to fuse its links with the working class masses. Independent proletarian parties - the First International and the German Social-Democratic Party -were formed for the first time under Marxist leadership. Marxism now led a massive proletarian movement which had begun to challenge the bourgeoisie.


8. Marx, Wages, Price and Profit, p. 78.



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