Marxism and Pacifism: One Path Forward
By Matei Yourtee
The question of proletarian revolution includes the aspect of political struggle. Within the political struggle is the conflict between the revolutionary classes and the state. This interaction is often filled with violence brought against revolutionaries. The question then arises: are peaceable means preferable to the path of violent resistance? Pacifism or armed revolution?
There are a few concepts to deal with before the question of arming the proletariat for open conflict against the state can be addressed seriously. Those concepts are (1) the state, (2) the political aspect of class struggle, and (3) the military aspects of political struggle.
Let’s begin with the state. Lenin refers to a passage in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State when he describes the state as “[arising] when, where, and to the extent that the class antagonisms cannot be objectively reconciled. And conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” He goes on to say, “the state is an organ of domination of a definite class which cannot be reconciled with its antipode (the class opposed to it).”
From this, two starting points can be drawn: the existing class conflict between proletariat and bourgeoisie is irreconcilable, and the state is an organ of domination in the hands of the bourgeoisie.
Gramsci neatly paraphrased a maxim of Marx’s: “no social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement; (2) that a society does not set itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated…”
So as it relates to socialist revolution and the struggle to divert society from capitalism onto the path to communism, we can say the following: the conditions for socialist revolution have been incubated by the development of the capitalist system (of bourgeois society), and the liberal republic of the epoch provides an avenue for agitation and some degree of “ripening” of the workers to take power. The standing army of the same era forces populations at home and abroad to live face to face with an aspect of imperialist capitalism, namely the need to occupy territory abroad and the need to have a highly bureaucratized state able to mobilize large numbers of troops across a country and beyond its borders. Socialist revolution will not take power until the liberal republic, the capitalist mode of production, and the military and police apparatuses find no “room for further forward development.”
The question then comes to those solutions which have “been incubated” in the capitalist system as it’s been developed. This is where the conversation turns to the political aspects of class struggle.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels outline the priorities of communists in regards to other socialists. They write: “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”
If we take their words and pair them with Lenin’s summary of the state and Gramsci’s remarks on the tasks society sets for itself, we have to accept that violence is an inevitable circumstance of revolution and a tool at the disposal of those revolutionary elements.
If violence is a tool in the revolutionary arsenal, is its use warranted? The pacifist approach to revolution insists that violence is no form of organisation. The pacifist argument, which prizes peaceable means of negotiation over actual gains from those negotiations, has historically amounted to two things in the course of history: (1) an unreliable tendency among the revolutionaries, and (2) a capitulation, if not open coordination, with the reactionary elements within a revolutionary party.
It is not enough that the pacifist approach to revolutionary violence rests upon a completely unscientific conception of the state and the power it wields. The pacifist approach compels the adherent to move from simple protest of tactics to outright counterrevolutionary collaboration.
A principled approach to revolution does not court violence needlessly and does not romanticizeor glorify it. A principled revolutionary understands that it is a natural element of revolution to be dealt with both deftly and decisively. Violence is a defining characteristic of the political struggle.
The tasks of “overthrow of bourgeois supremacy” and “conquest of political power” by the proletariat push us from the realm of class struggle broadly to the discussion of the military aspects of political struggle.
To quote Gramsci again, “In fact every political struggle has a military substratum.” The struggle against the state is not just a struggle against the dominant class, against the economic mode of production, but against the armed apparatuses, namely the police and the standing army, that represent the most apparent manifestations of the state’s power.
The “conquest of political power” and the “overthrow of the bourgeoisie” can both be seen as military tasks. It can be said that they begin as political tasks and transition into military tasks as they are dealt with. The first task can even be thought of as entirely political if we disregard, for the moment, an inter-influence between politics and war. The second, however, is almost purely military. It not only encapsulates the defeat on the political field of the bourgeoisie, but also the smashing of its state machinery, the disarming and dispersing of its armed groups, and occupation of its sovereign territory.
We can go so far as to say that as of this moment, our struggle is relegated to politics: the competition between socialists organising to take scraps of power and capitalists organising to defend the power they’ve accumulated. Beyond a critical mass of political gains, the defence mechanism employed by the state is no longer weapons of politics, but weapons of war—after that moment when the inevitability of socialism’s political victory has been confirmed, and the legislative, parliamentary means of retaining power have been exhausted, the state employs the other means of retaining power: the police and army.
The truth about the proletariat of today is that they are as powerless now as ever. They are at the mercy of the state, of the free market, of any number of factors contributing to their fractured class nature. With that in mind, we have to bear in mind one last thing said by Gramsci: “The truth is that one cannot choose the form of war one wants, unless from the start one has a crushing superiority over the enemy.” Violence is not to be reviled as the immoral choices of immoral men. It is to be accepted as an obstacle between the oppressors and those who would be liberated. And it must be accepted as an obstacle that we surmount not by avoiding mingling with it, but by understanding how to use it as a tool more effectively than does the enemy.