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Communism in Europe

Marxism And European Socialism

If not all communists were Marxists by the 1880s, more strangely, hardly any Marxists actually called themselves communists at this time. Most mainstream socialists began to describe themselves as Marxists, but hardly any labeled themselves as "communists." From 1850 until his death in 1883, Marx himself never again felt the need to distinguish his notion of socialism as communist. This reflected the passing of a particular moment in the late 1840s but also the way in which socialism was developing. Though falsely welcomed, by Marx as well as many others, as the first genuinely "proletarian revolution," the horrific aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871 largely dealt a death blow to the idea of "spontaneous" insurrection as a path to socialism. There was also the realization that the vaguely defined working class would not automatically opt for socialism and that organization was required to win over workers to a cause previously espoused by small groups of intellectuals. Accordingly European socialists created permanent political bodies that could attract mass support and campaign for change. By the late 1880s the most influential model was provided by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), first formed in 1875. And by the 1890s social democrat movements had appeared in every major European country. Although formed on national lines—reflecting the consolidation of nation-states and of national economies in Europe—they also joined together in the Second International. This was formed in 1889, during a conference to celebrate and examine the achievements of the French Revolution of 1789, as a confederation of socialist parties. Every party was officially committed to a revolutionary Marxist analysis and theoretically to the notion that socialism would lead to a society without classes, private property, and the oppressive state. Whatever appearances might suggest, however, this did not represent the triumph of a communist version of socialism.

Marxist orthodoxy in the International was adapted for everyday purposes by a series of interpreters and popularizers, the most prominent of whom were Engels (until his death in 1895), August Bebel, G. V. Plekhanov, and Karl Kautsky. Indeed Kautsky's The Class Struggle was the bible for social democrat activity, though it is doubtful to what degree the rank and file of these movements was really aware of the nuances of even this version of Marxism. The analysis of capitalist society, the revolutionary mission of the proletariat, the role of class struggle in causing change, and the inevitable triumph of socialism were all there, as was the language of science in which the whole was couched. Also present was the "stages" view of historical and economic development, but here Marx's essentially economic analysis was qualified by a more practical political approach. The leading spokesmen of the Second International believed that not just a capitalist society but a liberal democratic ("bourgeois democratic") political system was required before real socialism could be achieved. Within such a system the workers' movement could develop and gain influence and eventually power. The state could be conquered by essentially peaceful means, using the growing numerical superiority of the working class, and the socialist stage could then be attempted. This downplayed the need for a seizure of power by force and reformulated the notion of a dictatorship of the proletariat. The aim was still a socialist revolution and eventually a communist society, but these were now longer-term aims that awaited a crisis of capitalism. The immediate priority was to organize politically and economically, to campaign for liberal democratic reforms, and to obtain immediate improvements in the lives of workers. The centrality of class struggle was further qualified by other issues. European imperialism and the threat of war became major preoccupations. In fact, the desire to prevent war through working-class solidarity across national boundaries became the major preoccupation of the Second International. And for the first time, equality between the sexes also became a significant issue for mainstream Marxists. Both August Bebel and Engels wrote tracts on the "woman question," and an increasing number of socialist-feminist women followed suit. In 1907 Clara Zetkin, the leading socialist-feminist of the SPD, organized the Socialist Women's International to campaign for working women's rights and female suffrage. However, insistence on the primacy of class over gender also divided social democrats. Some parties, led by the Austrians, rejected separate organizations for women and resisted the call for women to receive the vote. Many female activists, such as Rosa Luxemburg, also argued that revolution would automatically bring gender equality and that campaigns on women's issues were simply a diversion.

Small groups of dissenters within social democracy took different elements of Kautsky's ideas and pursued them to different conclusions. Revisionists within the SPD, particularly Eduard Bernstein, questioned the very possibility of revolution, let alone its inevitability in modern industrial capitalism, proposing as a consequence that socialists should abandon the rhetoric of a revolutionary transformation, accept the permanence of capitalism, seek legality, and participate in existing institutions with the aim of securing democracy and improvements for workers. Socialism would come through the success of capitalism, as a means to redistribute its products more fairly, rather than through its collapse. These were still radical aims for the time, and the growth of social democrat representation in western European countries with parliamentary institutions and a working-class franchise lent plausibility to this strategy. Even so, revisionism was rejected by the mainstream as a heresy and even more vigorously by other factions that took seriously the revolutionary rhetoric of social democracy. For them, socialists should make revolution a reality by taking more active immediate steps to take power and overturn capitalist society. What they really rejected was the deterministic idea that revolution would come about through a process of inevitable historical change; instead it had to be made by revolutionary activists. A variety of factions and leaders became associated with this more forceful approach, the best known being the German Spartacists led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and the Russian Bolsheviks headed by Vladimir Ilich Lenin. But none designated themselves as "Communists" or sought separation from social democracy. Even in Russia, where the social democrats divided into two separate Bolshevik and Menshevik factions in 1903, both groups maintained their adherence to the International, and the ideological differences between them were far less than they were later to be presented. What was distinctive was the Bolsheviks' approach to organization and revolutionary activity. Lenin believed that conventional parties, particularly in the conditions of the tsarist autocracy, were futile and that workers had to be led by a "revolutionary vanguard" of tightly organized revolutionary professionals—the conspiratorial and military overtones were striking and prophetic.

In 1902 Lenin published What Is To Be Done, in which he laid out his ideas relating to the role of the party and party organization in the revolutionary movement. Little read at the time, it was to become a founding work of Leninism, the most significant ideological expression of twentieth-century communism. But while social democracy remained united, it served to constrain these more radical and revolutionary voices on the fringe of European socialism.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to ConcupiscenceCommunism in Europe - Karl Marx And The Origins Of Modern Communism, Non-marxist Communism, Marxism And European Socialism