Rethinking Marx’s Grand Strategy

Of the three men Marx, Bakunin and Lassalle, it might be helpful to think of their differences in terms of grand strategic thinking. Each of the three had a unique grand strategic idea.

Lassalle’s is probably easiest to describe as it is this way by Wikipedia:

“Lassalle considered the state as an independent entity, an instrument of justice essential for the achievement of the socialist program.”

This attitude toward the existing state is in marked contrast with that of both Bakunin and Marx. Despite their differences with Lassalle, however, Bakunin and Marx had entirely different strategic views of the existing state. Bakunin is generally held to have rejected any involvement with, or action in relation to, the existing state.

A Proudhonist in outlook, Bakunin’s view can likely be characterized this way in a quote from Graham:

“[Pretending] to establish order among men, [states] arrange them forthwith in hostile camps, and as their only occupation is to produce servitude at home, their art lies in maintaining war abroad, war in fact and war in prospect.” Governments arouse and manipulate nationalist feelings, such that the “oppression of peoples and their mutual hatred are two correlative, inseparable facts, which reproduce each other, and which cannot come to an end except simultaneously, by the destruction of their common cause, government.”

In the Proudhonist theory of the state, government was the “common cause” of social conflict and divisions; for Marx, it was the reverse: the state was not the cause of social divisions, but a product of those social divisions. As long as society remained divided by classes, classes would give rise to states that, essentially, were only dictatorships of one class over another:

“But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms. “

Three thinkers, three different views of the state, three different grand strategies.

Lassalle’s grand strategy is likely the easiest to understand: The working class should aim to gain control of the state through universal suffrage. It would then use the existing state to implement radical reforms in the form of a comprehensive practical program.

For Bakunin’s grand strategy, the working class should aim for the immediate abolition of the state. Since the state was itself the common cause of social conflict and divisions, abolition of the state was the common remedy.

Marx’s grand strategy is likely the least understood and most often misstated. Like Bakunin, Marx believed the working class should aim for the abolition of the existing state. However, in Marx’s opinion, the state was a product of class society and could not be completely abolished until class society was. In the best scenario, the working class could put an end to existing state and replace this state with its own association.

According to Marx, initially, the association would retain features of the old state it replaced in that it would still be an instrument of class repression. The working class would employ its association to repress its class enemies, with all the brutality this implies. But the state power would also be used to speed up the development of the productive forces by concentrating under its control all instruments of production. This latter effort would eventually result in abolition of social conflict and divisions; making possible the final abolition of the state.

This greatly complicates reducing Marx’s ideas to a bumper sticker. With Lassalle, it is easy to state his objective: Seize the state. With Bakunin, it is also easy to state his objective: Abolish the state. With Marx, it is nuanced: Abolish the existing state, replace it with our association, develop the productive forces and eventually the state will go away.

Try putting that on a bumper sticker.

While Lassalle wanted to seize the existing state, Marx wanted to abolish it. But while Bakunin also wanted to abolish the existing state, he argued that nothing should replace it, while Marx argued for an association.

Marx’s grand strategy after Marx

Here is where it start to get complicated; and where I think Marxists lose the thread of Marx’s thinking. Certainly Marx’s differences with Bakunin are fundamental: Marx thinks the state is a product of social conflict while Bakunin thinks the state is the cause of social conflict. However Marx’s differences with Bakunin is based on the actual material state of society. Which is to say, Marx thought the state had to be abolished, but did not think it could be abolished on the basis of then existing economic reality.

Marx’s differences with Bakunin, although resulting from a different analysis of the relation between class society and the state, had to change as society itself changed. If in 1874 the state could not be abolished because class society could not be abolished, this was by no means a permanent feature of society; rather, whether the state could be abolished was determined by the actual state of development of the productive forces.

It was possible that with the development of the productive forces of society, in theory at least, we could one day get to the point where both class society and the state could be immediately abolished in one and the same stroke. Development of the productive forces was the only way to put an end to classes and class society — and thus the only way to be finally rid of the state.

But — and this is what many Marxists miss — development of the productive forces is exactly what capital does. It is entirely possible that capital could develop the productive forces to such an extent that the simultaneous abolition of both class society and the state could be accomplished.

Marxists, however, have dropped the thread of Marx’s argument on this score. Ask a Marxist today and they will insist that there has to be a more or less extended period of time — the duration of which is never quite defined — where wage slavery has been abolished, but society is not ready for full communism. There is in fact nothing in Marx’s theory of the state that says this must be true.

To give this a practical example: Suppose in Marx’s day, the period of socialism would have lasted –say — 140 years, would it still be 140 years in the 1930s? Would it still be 140 years today — almost 140 years after Marx’s death? Does the proletariat get time served off its sentence of hard labor? In another 140 years from now, will it still take another 140 years?

Ask a Marxist this question and watch them gaze dully into the middle distance.

Marxists who, today, still reproach anarchists for seeking the immediate overthrow of the state in its entirety don’t have a leg to stand on; not because Bakunin was right in his dispute with Marx, but because it has been 134 years since that dispute played out.

Our grand strategy as communists today cannot look like Marx’s in 1848. To try to make it look the same would be to deny history itself. What sort of historical materialism is it that denies history?