On the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto:
Revolution in Permanence as Marx's Organizing Idea
by Franklin Dmitryev
On its 150th anniversary, Karl Marx's *Communist Manifesto* (CM) is once
again the object of much attention. With hope or dread, with cynicism or
complacence, with disdain or despair, commentators recall the *Manifesto*'s
anticipation of capital's penetration of every moment of life, and of every
nook of the globe; its recurring economic crises and the suffering of large
numbers of working-class people.
But few turn seriously to the vision of the future embedded in the
*Manifesto*. Few grasp that Marx's concept of organization is totally
different from our century's Marxist parties-to-lead, Stalinist or
anti-Stalinist. This paper argues that these elements are key to spelling
out the kind of responsibility revolutionists must assume today if we are
ever to overcome the retrogression engulfing us.
I. Preparing for Revolution: A New Concept of Organization
The *Manifesto*'s underlying tidal force--Marx's philosophy of revolution in
permanence--has escaped the attention of all too many Marxists, who have
therefore floundered, adrift on the vast ocean separating the present from
the future, human society. We today have the advantage of knowing Marx's
philosophic moment of 1844, which laid the ground for all his future
development. The core of his 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts is Marx's
critical appropriation of Hegel's concept of absolute negativity. To Hegel,
self-development occurs through negation of the negation. To Marx that meant
that transcending this alienated reality takes not just the overthrow of the
old but the creation of the new, a process he had labeled "revolution in
Marx thus rejected what he called "vulgar communism," which stopped at first
negation with the goal of abolishing private property. The needed second
negation meant transforming human relations, and the relationship between
men and women showed just how deep the uprooting of existing society had to be.
Shortly afterward Marx presented his overall materialist conception of
history to Friedrich Engels, who enthusiastically agreed to work with him.
After having further clarified it through incisive critiques of various
contemporary radical thinkers, they formed a new international organization,
the Communist Correspondence Committees, to inform socialist movements about
each other's progress and to help them develop through "an exchange of ideas
and impartial criticism," as Marx put it (letter to Proudhon, 5 May 1846).
This organization's work, especially its pamphlets criticizing various
writers on communism, deepened their relationship with the League of the
Just, an organization with numerous worker-members, many of whom were
seeking an alternative to the utopian communism and conspiratorialism that
had pervaded it. Marx later wrote:
"In its place we proposed the scientific study of the economic structure of
bourgeois society as the only tenable theoretical foundation....it was not a
matter of putting some utopian system into effect, but of conscious
participation in the historical process revolutionizing society before our
very eyes" (*Herr Vogt*, MECW 17:79).
Marx's theoretical and organizational work led the League to invite in his
group and to call a Congress "where the critical views we had expressed
would be laid down in an open manifesto as the doctrine of the League," as
Marx wrote in *Herr Vogt* (MECW 17:80). Engels brought a first draft of a
theoretical program to the First Congress of the new organization, the
Communist League (CL), in June 1847, which Marx could not attend, and a
second draft to the Second Congress in November, which, after lengthy and
heated discussion, assigned Marx to write a manifesto. Marx finished writing
the CM at the end of January 1848, not long before the February Revolution
As an integral part of expressing a new philosophy of revolution, the CM
revealed a concept of organization quite different from any previously seen.
Some revolutionaries believed that a small group could organize an
insurrection, take power, and institute socialism by decree. Utopian
socialists wove plans from their heads for how society should be
reorganized, with no relationship to an actual mass movement. Both currents
existed in the CL.
Against both of those, the CM projects the revolutionary proletariat, its
self-activity and self-organization "into a class" (MECW 6:493), as the
revolutionary subject that can dig the grave of capitalism. The
Marxist-Humanist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya's *Marxism and Freedom* puts
it succinctly: "Marx's discovery--that the objective movement itself
produces the subjective force for its overthrow--transformed utopian
socialism into scientific socialism."
But this does not imply the spontaneist idea that the role of the
revolutionary organization is little more than to record and support the
voices and actions of the masses. Consider what Marx wrote at the beginning
of Part II of the CM, "Proletarians and Communists":
"The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class
parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the
proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their
own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement....The immediate
aim of the communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian
parties: formation of the proletariat into a class,
overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the
proletariat" (MECW 6:497-98).
If the aim of "overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political
power by the proletariat" is not what distinguishes the communists, then
The only distinction from other working-class parties is, according to Marx,
that the communists "bring to the front the common interests of the entire
proletariat," internationally, and that, "in the various stages of
development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie
has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of
the movement as a whole" (MECW 6:497). A few pages later, he spells this out
as, "The communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the
enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class, but in the
movement of the present, they also represent the future of the movement"
To Marx, steeped in the movement of negation of the negation, the future
means not just the immediate aim of overthrow but what happens after the
"If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by
the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a
revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by
force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these
conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class
antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its
own supremacy as a class.
"In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class
antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of
each is the condition for the free development of all" (MECW 6:505-06).
This passage, which Marx would quote two years later to distinguish his
tendency from all others (MECW 10:387), continues the break from vulgar
communism expressed in his 1844 Humanist Essays. Moreover, it not only marks
the division between Marx and Engels versus the utopians but the difference
between Marx's CM and Engels' two drafts of the program. Engels' first
draft, "Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith" (MECW 6:96-103), does not
go into what happens after the revolution beyond abolishing private property.
The second draft, "Principles of Communism," written after receipt of Marx's
critique of the first (Engels' letter of 23-24 November 1847 refers to a
letter from Marx which has not been found, and the 14 September 1847
circular of the CL Central Committee refers to a critique sent by Marx's
Brussels group), does contain a beautiful passage about
"the all-round development of the abilities of all the members of society
through doing away with the hitherto existing division of labor, through
industrial education, through change of activity, through the participation
of all in the enjoyments provided by all, through the merging of town and
country" (MECW 6:354).
But Engels presented it as if it were nearly automatic:
"[W]hen all capital, all production, and all exchange are concentrated in
the hands of the nation, private ownership will automatically have ceased to
exist, money will have become superfluous, and production will have so
increased and people will be so much changed that the last forms of the old
social relations will also be able to fall away.
"...through society's taking out of the hands of the private capitalists the
use of all the productive forces and means of communication as well as the
exchange and distribution of products and managing them according to a plan
corresponding to the means available and the needs of the whole of society,
all the evil consequences of the present running of large-scale industry
will be done away with....Thus society will produce enough products to be
able so to arrange distribution that the needs of all its members will be
satisfied. The division of society into various antagonistic classes will
thereby become superfluous" (MECW 6:351-53).
In contrast, the CM says that "the theory of the communists may be summed
up" as "abolition of private property" only in the sense that it means a
transformation of production relations involving abolition of class society
(MECW 6:498, 505-06). A world that has witnessed the brutality of
state-capitalism based on nationalized property and state planning can more
easily grasp the distinction that only Marx seems to have recognized in his
day, and the need to face the question of what happens after the revolution.
This is closely related to other differences between these texts. For one,
unlike Marx's 1844 critique of man/woman relations as showing how total the
uprooting of the old needs to be, Engels' first draft states, "We will only
interfere in the personal relationship between men and women or with the
family in general to the extent that the maintenance of the existing
institution would disturb the new social order" (MECW 6:102). This is not
much changed in his second draft, and both drafts imply that this type of
oppression "is rooted in private property and falls with it" (from second
draft, MECW 6:354). The CM, however, not only trumpets "Abolition of the
family!" but that "the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of
women as mere instruments of production" (MECW 6:501-02).
While unseparated from the CM's ruthless criticism of capitalism, the battle
of ideas is not confined to attacking bourgeois ideologues. Part III of the
CM criticizes all other socialist and communist tendencies; these negations
needed to be transcended themselves.
Engels' first draft had no such battle of ideas, and his second contained a
very short one, without the section Marx kept returning to in the next 30
years on "Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism."
Unlike the other socialisms critiqued in the CM, this was not depicted as
corresponding to an opposing class interest, but was directed at tendencies
within the workers' movement itself. They "correspond with the first
instinctive yearnings of [the proletariat] for a general reconstruction of
society" (MECW 6:515-16).
The original utopians created their "systems" at a time when the proletariat
was still undeveloped. They saw it only as a "suffering class" and "without
any historical initiative." That is why they substituted their own
personally contrived organizations of society for the "social action" and
"class organization" of the proletariat, and "reject all political,
especially revolutionary, action" (MECW 6:514-15).
But as the class struggle develops, the systems live on, and become
retrogressive: "although the originators of these systems were, in many
respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere
reactionary sects....in opposition to the progressive historical development
of the proletariat" (MECW 6:516).
Marx, therefore, would tread carefully in envisioning the future society,
avoiding "systems" and blueprints, without ever abandoning that vision as a
guiding principle in organization, action and theory.
II. Taking Organizational Responsibility for the Idea after the Revolution's
Defeat: Summing up the High Points and Battling Other Tendencies
The experience of the 1848 Revolutions--their high points as well as their
defeats--both proved the CM's conception and allowed Marx to make further
concretizations of his Humanist philosophy. To explore this we focus on the
year 1850, during whose course it became clear that the revolution's defeat
was not just a brief lull before a new revolutionary storm. Marx, in any
case, never took defeat as his ground; rather, his gaze was to the future.
Expelled from Prussia and France in 1849, Marx landed in London, and threw
himself into the work of reconstituting the CL and publishing a
revolutionary newspaper, the *Neue Rheinische Zeitung.
Politisch-oekonomische Revue* (*NRZ Revue*). Its first three issues carried
a series of brilliant articles by Marx, titled "1848 to 1849," summing up
the two years of revolution through a detailed analysis of the dialectic of
events in France. (After Marx's death, Engels published them as part of a
book he titled "The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850.")
The turning point was not the February 1848 Revolution, which replaced
France's monarchy with a republic, but the second French revolution of 1848,
in June. It disclosed the lesson learned by the proletariat through 1848's
bitter experience, that first negation alone did not emancipate them from
exploitation and misery: "revolution, after June, meant: *overthrow of
bourgeois society*, whereas before February it had meant: *overthrow of the
form of government*."
That was not the lesson taken by most tendencies, since the June revolution
was defeated, with the massacre of over 3,000 workers, initiating a
"retrograde process." The defeat was commonly thought to mark the limits of
the possible. For some, overthrow of the form of government was the limit;
for others, the defeat proved the futility of revolution altogether.
In contrast, Marx's "1848 to 1849" projected that even a proletarian
revolution that spreads from France to England "finds here not its end but
its organizational beginning, is no short-lived revolution. The present
generation is like the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It has
not only a new world to conquer, it must go under in order to make room for
the people who are able to cope with a new world" (MECW 10:117). That is
how deep and total revolution in permanence must be: the creation of not
only a new society but a new man, a new woman, a new humanity.
The defeat of the workers brought to the fore the petty bourgeoisie, the
mass of people--small traders, artisans, shopkeepers--hovering between the
capitalist class proper and the wage-workers. Exploited by the bourgeoisie
yet living off property privileges, they were driven by material interests
to reform, or revolution within limits.
At the climax of "1848 to 1849," Marx returns to the CM's critique of
utopian socialism with certain new elements. Before 1848 it was part of the
workers' movements. But now the experience of 1848-49 had caused the petty
bourgeoisie to latch onto utopian socialism, just at the moment when the
latter had proved itself a hindrance to the proletariat's
self-emancipation--what Marx had shown *in theory* in the CM before the 1848
revolutions. The petty bourgeoisie latched onto it precisely because it
wants (knowingly or not) to use the revolution but to limit it, and halt it
at the stage of first negation:
"Since [the petty bourgeoisie] dreams of the peaceful achievement of its
socialism--allowing, perhaps, for a second February Revolution lasting a
brief day or so--the coming historical process naturally appears to it as an
*application of systems*....of *doctrinaire socialism*, which was the
theoretical expression of the proletariat only as long as it had not yet
developed further into a free historical movement of its own.
"Thus, while *utopia, doctrinaire socialism*... which puts the cerebrations
of the individual pedant in place of common, social production and, above
all, wishes away the necessities of the revolutionary class struggles by
petty tricks or great sentimental rhetoric--while this doctrinaire
socialism, which basically only idealizes present-day society...and seeks to
oppose its ideal to its reality, while this socialism is ceded by the
proletariat to the petty bourgeoisie, while the internal struggle between
the different socialist leaders reveals each so-called system to be the
pretentious adherence to one transitional position on the path to social
upheaval as opposed to another..." (MECW 10:126-27).
In 1850, the critique of utopian socialism now leads directly into the
declaration of revolution in permanence, spelled out as not stopping at any
transitional positions but continuing to the full conquest of power by the
proletariat, and seeing even that as only a "transit point to the *abolition
of class distinctions generally*." The negation of the negation is written
all over Marx's critique:
"[T]he *proletariat* increasingly organizes itself around *revolutionary
socialism*, around *communism*....This socialism is the *declaration of the
permanence of the revolution*, the *class dictatorship* of the proletariat
as the necessary transit point to the *abolition of class distinctions
generally*, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which
they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to
these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that
result from these social relations" (MECW 10:127).
Three months later, Marx directly linked this passage to the one quoted
above from the CM on abolition of classes, to refute any disconnection of
the projected class rule of the proletariat from the full concept of
Within days of writing the above, Marx, with Engels, wrote another document
centering on the philosophy of revolution in permanence, working it out as
strategy and tactics. The March 1850 Address to the CL was also a summation
of the two years of revolution, but, unlike "1848 to 1849," it was an
underground, directly organizational document.
Here Marx takes a critical look at how his organization had participated in
the revolutions. It begins with the double way the CL had "proved itself" in
those two years, in practice and in theory, the latter seen in the CM's
"conception of the movement." However, "the former firm organization of the
League was considerably slackened," resulting in the dominance of the petty
bourgeoisie over the general movement. "The independence of the workers must
be restored," requiring "the reorganization of the League" (MECW 10:277-78).
The Address goes into detail on the treacherous role the democratic petty
bourgeois can be expected to play in the next revolution.
As in "1848-49" the Address makes the theoretical point of *why* the petty
bourgeoisie is treacherous--its drive to limit the revolution to first
negation, if that:
"Far from desiring to transform the whole of society for the revolutionary
proletarians, the democratic petty bourgeois strive for a change in social
conditions by means of which the existing society will be made as tolerable
and comfortable as possible for them" (MECW 10:280).
Hence their various demands, although "very few of their members consider
these demands in their aggregate as a definite aim." Those few who do
"would believe that thereby they have put forward the utmost that can be
demanded from the revolution....While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to
bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible, and with the
achievement, at most, of the above demands, it is our interest and our task
to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes
have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has
conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one
country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far
that competition among the proletarians in these countries has ceased and
that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands
of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private
property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class
antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of the
existing society but the foundation of a new one" (MECW 10:280-81).
The 1850 Address goes on to make organizational-political conclusions for
three moments, before, during, and after the next revolutionary struggle.
All are worked out *in view of* the before, during, *and after* of not only
the next revolutionary struggle but the one anticipated after it, the
proletarian revolution, with both revolutionary moments seen as steps,
neither of them final, in the continuous revolutionary movement not merely
to proletarian rule but to the new, classless society.
What is elaborated for all three moments is the need for independent
organization of the workers' party all the way to establishing armed
revolutionary workers' governments as a dual power. The workers
"must do the utmost for their final victory by making it clear to themselves
what their class interests are, by taking up their position as an
independent party as soon as possible and by not allowing themselves to be
misled for a single moment by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic
petty bourgeois into refraining from the independent organization of the
proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence" (MECW
The proof that revolution in permanence wasn't just a phrase was, as
Dunayevskaya pointed out in *Rosa Luxemburg, Women's Liberation, and Marx's
Philosophy of Revolution*, "that in the constant search for revolutionary
allies the vision of the revolutions to come was in no way changed." That
is, Marx continued to project the vision of revolution as negation of the
negation in continuous transition to a classless society, and concretized it
for new situations. He continued to search for new allies (beginning with
the rural proletariat and then the peasantry), new pathways, new theoretical
bases for a total revolutionary uprooting and "foundation of a new" society.
In the period after the defeats of the revolutions, Europe was awash with
retrogressive tendencies. They were not conscious of, but recoiled
instinctively from, the difficult discipline of Marx's concept of
organization as being responsible to the historical movement, to which the
self-determination of the idea is as integral as is the spontaneity of the
masses in revolution.
Those who did not reject revolution altogether either sought to halt it at
the first step, or looked for shortcuts to revolution through practice
alone: state-sponsored schemes, stronger organization, greater determination
of will, coup plots. How Marx dealt with such retrogression speaks to our
age, when the failures of revolutions have become so ingrained in
consciousness that ideologues believe they can make the idea of revolution
Marx's *NRZ Revue* carried on the battle of ideas against other tendencies
in various forms, the most concentrated being the book reviews. These were
unsigned, and probably written by Marx and/or Engels. Each one revealed a
form of retrogression.
The review of books on the February Revolution by Adolphe Chenu and Lucien
de la Hodde critiques the conspiratorial approach to revolutionary
organization, today called Blanquism. Because their aim is immediate
overthrow, they short-circuit real revolutionary development and oppose the
theoretical preparation needed for revolution to get beyond first negation.
Of "professional conspirators" the review says:
"It is precisely their business to anticipate the process of revolutionary
development, to bring it aritifically to crisis-point, to launch a
revolution on the spur of the moment, without the conditions for a
revolution. For them the only condition for revolution is the adequate
preparation of their conspiracy....Occupied with such scheming, they have no
other purpose than the most immediate one of overthrowing the existing
government and have the profoundest contempt for the more theoretical
enlightenment of the proletariat about their class interests..." (MECW 10:318).
The pull to the practical idea was also manifested in a swarm of new
organizations characterized by totally unprincipled combination. One was
called the Central Committee of European Democracy. Its manifesto argued
that the revolutions had failed because the organization of revolutionary
power was weakened by the many divergent theoretical systems, to which they
"the people in motion, it is the instinct of the masses...it is
action....The hand-clasp of a worker in one of these historic moments which
inaugurate an epoch will teach us more about the organization of the future
than could be taught today by the cold and unfeeling travail of the
intellect..." (quoted in MECW 10:529).
An article by Marx and Engels ("Review: May to October" in *NRZ Revue* No.
5/6, 1850) hit back in a way that distinguished revolution in permanence
from organization based on first negation only:
"In their view indeed revolution consists merely in the overthrow of the
existing government; once this aim has been achieved, '*the* victory' has
been won. Movement, development and struggle then cease, and...there begins
the golden age of the European republic and of slumber declared in
permanence. These gentlemen also abhor thinking, unfeeling thinking, just as
they do development and struggle....The people shall have no thought for the
morrow and must strike all ideas from its mind; come the great day of
decision, and it will be electrified by mere contact, and the riddle of the
future will be solved by a miracle" (MECW 10:530-31, translation modified).
A few months after the March 1850 Address was written, Marx's economic
studies led him to conclude that a new economic crisis, which he had counted
on to revive the revolution, was not imminent. Far from giving up on
revolution, however, it meant to Marx only a greater concentration on
preparation for the next one, both organizationally and theoretically,
through the labor of constantly elaborating the philosophy of revolution in
There had always been differences within the CL, but now the objective
atmosphere of political retrogression forced them out into the open. Pulled
by the practical idea, the faction led by August Willich and Karl Schapper
caused a split. Determined to have revolution immediately, yet absent the
proletariat's self-activity, they would substitute their own activity, seize
power, and institute communism by force. In order to seize power, they would
join with whatever "revolutionary" movement seemed to be going on, even
though it was the self-limiting movement of the democratic petty
bourgeoisie, which the March 1850 Address had warned about.
The explanation for this retrogression is found in Hegel's Third Attitude to
Objectivity, which, Dunayevskaya writes in *Philosophy and Revolution*,
"would always recur *when*, in the process of battling contradiction, the
Subject becomes impatient with the seemingly endless stages of negation it
must suffer through, and therefore, instead, slides backward into Intuition."
Marx did not slide backward, because what he was driven by was not the pull
of the practical idea but organizational responsibility for the Idea of
Freedom, his vision of revolution in permanence. While Willich claimed, as
Marx wrote in *Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne*, that
"the schisms were caused solely by personal disagreements" (MECW 11:402,
410), Marx "laid bare the differences in principle which lay behind the
clash of personalities" (MECW 10:626-27), as he said at the meeting where
the split occurred. He proceeded to do just that:
"A German national standpoint was substituted for the universal outlook of
the CM....The revolution is seen [by the W-S faction] not as the product of
realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will. Whereas
we say to the workers: You have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through
in order not only to alter the situation but to alter yourselves and make
yourselves fit for the exercise of power, it is said: We must take power at
once, or else we may as well take to our beds" (MECW 10:626; see also Marx's
rewrite in MECW 11:402-03).
The Willich-Schapper faction did not seriously address the issues of
principle, but instead indulged in personal attacks, calling Marx
"reactionary" and trying to paint him as engaged in theory only, falsely
claiming that it was only their faction, and not Marx's, that worked with
the masses (MECW 10:627-28). That was all they could do, because principle
was what they were fleeing from--organizational responsibility for
principle. Schapper's answer made clear that he was totally separating
organization from philosophy:
"The people who represent the party in principle part company with those who
organize the proletariat....In France the workers will come to power and
thereby we in Germany too. Were this not the case I would indeed take to my
bed....There should be two leagues, one for those who work with the pen and
one for those who work in other ways" (MECW 10:627-28).
It was Marx, however, who was able to keep deepening the ground for
revolution for the next 30 years in both theory and practice, precisely
because he was not separating the two. However, Marx's opponents split the
League and behaved so recklessly as to make it easier for the Prussian
police to uncover and destroy what was left.
The *Communist Manifesto* was not Marx's last word. Nor did either his
organizational experiences or the development of his concept of organization
come to an end when the Communist League dissolved in 1852. Most crucial
were his activity in the First International and his *Critique of the Gotha
Program*. But the crises of our age's revolutionary movements demand a new
look at that concept of organization, as Marx articulated it in the
*Manifesto* and practiced it in the League years--if, that is, we keep in
view the realities of our day, as well as what we know of Marx as a whole.
A note on references:
For the reader's convenience, I have included references to the
English-language Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) in the text.
Occasionally there are serious deficiencies in the translation; in one
instance, as noted, I have modified the translation.