The following is a paper I wrote in 1998
for a Western Civilization
class at Grinnell College
All citations refer to the Grinnell College
(c) 2002 Martin Kretzmann
The influence of Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto on the development of the European socialist labor movement from 1870 to 1914 was in one sense great and in another minute. On the one hand, the trade unions based strikes on his predictions, demanding a shorter working day and thus attempting to undermine the capitalist system. On the other hand, almost no widespread acceptance of his revolutionary ideas arose, rather, gradual and democratic means were felt to be sufficient to bring about social change. The socialists at this time, often felt that their long term goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat would be best achieved not through violent revolution as Marx advised, but through working within to change the existing political order, making small steps such as decreasing the length of the working day.
The C.G.T, which coordinated France's socialist trade unions, in 1904 organized a nation-wide strike in support of decreasing the workday from the ten-hour average to eight. It was thought, as Marx proposed, that a shorter workday would eat into the capitalists' profits while enhancing the quality of life of the workers. A group of cabinetmakers, upon hearing their employers' protest against the strike, "[realized] that this protest can only be the emanation of capitalists avid for huge profits, [and replied] with scorn to [this] provocation...declar[ing] that they will continue their struggle until complete victory" (9H 314). This attitude reflects the Marxian idea that the proletariat would realize its exploitation at the hands of the bourgeois in the pursuit of profits.
It cannot be said that these striking workers were revolutionaries. Their demands encompassed a very small spectrum of political and social life. They were not revolting against the existing governmental structure nor insisting on a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Eduard Bernstein spoke of the trade unions: saying that "they are the democratic element in industry. Their tendency is to destroy the absolutism of capital, and to procure for the worker a direct influence in the management of an industry" (9E 302). That the trade unions are democratic shows us that the trend was not toward a violent overthrow of the existing order, but toward a gradual increase in political power and influence. Bernstein further professes that "social democracy cannot further the progression of democracy better than by taking its stand unreservedly on the theory of democracy-on the ground of universal suffrage with all the consequences resulting therefrom to its tactics" (9E 302). He is directly contradicting Marx's desire for a violent overthrow of the capitalists, as there is no need for the "'dictatorship of the proletariat ' at a time when...representatives of social democracy have placed themselves practically in the arena of Parliamentary work" (9E 302).
These thoughts, of undermining capitalism, while at the same time refraining from violent revolution are reflected in the Erfurt program of the German Social Democratic Party (9D). Their ultimate goal, their philosophy, is laid out in generally Marxian terms, but their immediate plan for action calls for more constraint: a gradual social revolution. The first half of the program is basically a summation of the Communist Manifesto, while the second half attempts to apply some practical demands that would bring about the achievement of this goal. Such are the strikes of the French workers striving toward this goal while remaining within the bounds of democratic process and nonviolent methods. The general, most far reaching and widespread consensus is, therefore, that Marx's ideology for the achievement of a socialist state and the abolition of Communism as a goal should be maintained, but that his proposed methods for bringing about the realization of that goal are not in the best interests of the proletariat. This approach is a middle of the road approach, as it arose out of compromise. It could appeal to both dedicated Marxists as well as non-Marxists. The both halves having the belief in the ultimate attainment of a socialist state, with differing views on how the formation of this state should come about: a compromise between radicals and incrementalists.
The argument that the Paris Commune demonstrates that there was in fact a strong Marxian revolutionary movement is invalid. The violent actions of the Paris Commune do not support this argument. There are several reasons why this claim is invalid. First, the Commune was comprised mainly of national guardsmen and therefore not necessarily representative of widespread thought. Second, it was short lived, indicating either a nonsympathy with their cause or a distaste for their methods. Third, most of the Communards had never even read Marx, indicating that if he did hold any influence that it was second hand. Fourth, an uprising calling for ceased oppression or exploitation of the economically or socially disadvantaged is not necessarily a Marxist uprising; the October Days, for example, show a great desire to end the hunger of the people though it can hardly be called a Marxist event. Since we cannot determine conclusively through this documentary record that Marx influenced the Communards, we cannot include them in judgement for this case. In any case, their actions and methods did not become widespread.
Returning to the argument at hand, we see the less favored method of revolution was replaced by the more moderate, and democratic, method of slowly gaining power through elections and petitions. So Marx's revolutionary attitude fell into general disfavor. The major political parties, trade unions and workers, however, still called for the abolition of capitalism; this facet of Marxism was alive and well.