Issue 1, 2016

Between universalism and particularism: Marx’s conception of reformism in his late thought

Sina Talachian

There is an ongoing debate among those working in the Marxian tradition between strong universalists on the one side and those overly focused on the particular on the other. For example, in the field of Asian studies the former overemphasize the universal aspects of method and history – cutting across cultural boundaries – while the latter, subaltern, theorists tend to overemphasize the local and regional in their analyses (Chibber 2013: 26). In political philosophy and sociology universalists continue to stress the importance of universal categories like class, while those influenced by post-Marxism eschew them, considering them to be exemplars of a flawed, essentializing logic. Instead they emphasize the contingent in their analyses and point to the multifarious forms oppression and exploitation take which they believe cannot be captured by universal categories (Therborn 2008: 140-145). The debate strikes at the core of Marxist theory and method. By foregoing any sense of universality the Marxist project – with its distinct concepts, analytic tools and analyses – becomes mortally imperilled, while overemphasizing the universal endangers its explanatory power due to the overlooking or explicit discounting of the relevance of the local and variable (Chatterjee 2013: 73-74). In my view there is an alternative, contextualist approach possible, one which strikes a balance between the universal and particular without dismissing the importance of either. It is an approach which can be found in Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) late thought, which I aim to illuminate in this paper by explicating one specific, concrete expression of it: Marx’s late conception of reformism. It is not only an excellent illustration of the contextualist sensibility underlying Marx’s late thought, it also demonstrates that it was well-worked out theoretically rather than being a mere aberration. Moreover, it reveals how Marx sought to incorporate it within his already developed mature political theory, ensuring that it constituted a development from, rather than a break with, his earlier thought.

I will begin by explicating Marx’s various conceptions of reformism, with a focus on his late reformist turn, and then analyze the implications of this turn for his late thought so as to ascertain its place within it. After this analysis I will consider its implications for the two main schools of interpretation of Marx’s conception of reformism, the Leninist and humanist.  In so doing I will offer a reading of Marx’s late conception of reformism which, by putting into focus Marx’s reformist turn and exploring its relation to his broader political theory in his later thought, will lead to a novel and better understanding of both, while through its textual accuracy also reveal serious shortcomings in the secondary literature concerning the topic. Moreover, by elucidating the nature of the contextualist approach of Marx’s late thought, whereby he sought to strike the right balance between an overly universalizing and overly particularistic methodological and theoretical outlook, I hope to contribute to the ongoing debate between universalists and particularists by offering an example of an alternative which rejects the overemphasizing of either at the expense of the necessary and balanced unity of both.

Marx’s early conceptions of, and later turn toward, reformism

The varying conceptions of reformism Marx expressed throughout his life can be divided into three general phases. The early, pure reformist phase, limited in scope to the status quo of capitalist society, lasting until late 1843, early 1844; the second, absolutist revolutionary phase, characterized by a rejection of reformism; and finally the third phase marked by Marx’s turn toward reformism from 1870 onwards, characterized by a contextualist approach that saw both reform and revolution as a viable means of transition to communism, depending on the context (Lovell 2010: 51-60).[1] I will examine how exactly Marx perceived the nature of reformism in each of the three phases in turn, with a specific focus on the third.

Marx’s early conception of reformism

Before being drawn to revolutionary communism Marx wrote articles for the Rheinische Zeitung, containing penetrating social analyses of society’s ills such as poverty, and calling for reforms aimed at righting them. In an 1842 article typical of this early reformism he railed against the absurdities of a law that was to be introduced in the Rhine province concerning the thefts of wood. The poor, who had for centuries gathered wood unchallenged, would by the introduction of this law be considered criminals. Rather than punishing the poor who gather wood in order to survive, argued Marx, the state should ensure that there are no poor, the products of the ‘mere custom of civil society, a custom which has not found an appropriate place in the conscious organisation of the state’ (Marx 1976 [1842]: 235). This was to be done not by calling for a revolutionary transformation of society, but by appealing to the humanity and sense of justice of legislators.

In this early phase Marx was still very much under the influence of Hegel, who had posited a distinction between civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) and the state, with the former representing individual needs and self-interest and the latter representing a force which transcends the egoism of civil society and in its stead establishes norms which ensure true universality—the universal ruling over the particular. In this model the bureaucracy was considered to be the universal class, hence Marx’s appeals to them (Avineri 1967: 37). In 1843 he began to move away from this position, due in part to his increasing disillusionment with Hegelianism and its conservatism with respect to politics.

[2] By 1844 the appeals to the universal reason of the bureaucracy had turned into appeals for its dissolution by means of a social revolution, which Marx deemed capable of so changing the circumstances that social ills such as the above described would be alleviated.[3] Hegel’s distinction between the egoistic particularity of civil society and the altruistic universality of the state was denounced as a myth. In reality no such state as Hegel posits exists, and the identification of the bureaucracy as the universal class was flawed. Marx did not give up the notion of the universal class, however; he merely relocated it to the proletariat. In so doing, he also rejected the distinction between civil society and the state, instead proposing a model in which the proletariat, raised to the position of the ruling class, would, due to its nature as the true universal class, dissolve any kind of conflict in society at large. This would be the realization of a classless communist society. This view marked the beginning of the middle phase of Marx’s conception of reformism (Avineri 1968: 59).

The middle period

During the middle period Marx was advocating revolution as the primary means of transition toward a post-capitalist society, often doing so by formulating it as an absolute, universal principle and designating any deviation from it as reactionary. In this phase also, though, there are distinguishable degrees. From the beginning of the middle phase, that is, 1843-1844, up until the beginning of the 1848 Revolutions those who believed in reformism were not always denounced as reactionary, and a peaceful road to communism was not rejected on principle (Marx 1976 [1847]: 229). In the Principles of Communism, written in 1847 by Marx’s close co-thinker Frederick Engels (1820-1895) with the approval of Marx for the Communist League, those who believe in reform measures that are communistic in nature yet do not believe in the violent transition to a post-capitalist society are referred to as democratic socialists, whom ‘the communists will have to come to an understanding with’, even though they ‘are not yet sufficiently enlightened regarding the conditions of the emancipation of their class’ (Engels 1976 [1847]: 356-357). They are considered to be potential allies. In the same text the possibility of a peaceful transition to communism is acknowledged, though Engels hastens to add: ‘(…) the development of the proletariat is in nearly every civilised country forcibly suppressed, and (…) thus the opponents of the Communists are working with all their might towards a revolution. Should the oppressed proletariat in the end be goaded into a revolution, we Communists will then defend the cause of the proletarians by deed just as well as we do now by word’ (Engels 1976 [1847]: 350-351). This came to pass three years later in 1850, when the category of democratic socialists was transformed into ‘petty-bourgeois democrats’, who ‘wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible’ whereas communists aim to ‘make the revolution permanent, until (…) the proletariat has conquered state power’ (Marx and Engels 1976 [1850]: 282). The idea of a peaceful transition to communism all but disappeared from Marx’s writings.

What precipitated this shift toward revolutionary absolutism? It was due in part to the 1848 Revolutions and its aftermath. How Marx applied his materialist conception of history at this juncture clarifies the relation between the two. According to his materialist method of analysis, there were two kinds of conditions involved in allowing for a transition to communism, the objective and subjective. The objective conditions refer to factors related to the material environment – primarily the economic – which were considered a necessary but not sufficient condition for a communist transition. In order for such a transition to be effected, the subjective condition, which develops out of and is dialectically related to the objective, also had to be present.[4] This subjective factor refers to the state of the class struggle, which at an advanced stage involves the existence of a workers’ movement indicating the presence of a high degree of class consciousness among the proletariat, the universal agent of revolutionary transformation. In Marx’s estimation, in the period after 1850 up to 1870 the nature of these conditions were such that a peaceful transition to communism was impossible, for any movement toward the establishment of universal suffrage – the mechanism by which a peaceful transition would be possible – was effectively blocked in the immediate wake of the 1848 Revolutions.[5] Their crushing defeat and the emergence and entrenchment of autocratic regimes in the 1850’s and 1860’s dashed any hope for reformism (Hobsbawm 1995: 21-23). The only alternative that remained was revolution, and Marx was initially convinced, and later remained hopeful in the years following 1850, that the objective element was sufficiently developed to allow for the subjective element, the proletariat, to be sufficiently organized and class-conscious to take over state power in the major Continental nations via revolutionary means (Hollander 2010: 65).

Marx’s reformist turn

From 1870 onwards Marx began to systematically reassess his revolutionary absolutism and came to see the untenability of such a view in light of the failures and developments of the previous decades. The crux of his error lay not in his materialist method, he came to believe, but rather in his mistaken use of it with respect to his assessment of the existing objective and subjective conditions required for a transition to communism. The lack of organization on the part of the proletariat and its communist representatives, and the lack of development of the material conditions, i.e., the subjective and objective factors respectively, explained why the predicted proletarian revolution had not occurred. Moreover, developments in France, America and Russia made any kind of a priori, universal position regarding the transition period from capitalism to communism increasingly untenable as well. In the case of France and America suffrage and its progressive expansion was now on the immediate agenda, while with regard to Russia Marx began to appreciate the revolutionary potential of the peasant communes, as will be discussed in detail in the next section (Marx and Engels 1976 [1882]: 426-427). What also played a role, though more so for Engels who experienced these successes firsthand in the course of the 1880’s and 1890’s, was the spectacular growth of various socialist parties in Europe adhering to Marx’s vision of communism.[6]

The period after 1870 marks the beginning of Marx’s turn toward reformism. This did not mean a reversion to the first pure reformist phase. Rather, this novel conception of reformism was systematically worked out by Marx based on his mature method and political theory, the relationship between which will be discussed in detail in the next section. What exactly was the nature of Marx’s conception of reform in this third phase? While mentioning the possibility of England peacefully transitioning to communism in an 1871 interview he clarified the underlying reason for it: ‘Combinations among workmen cannot be absolutely identical in detail in Newcastle and in Barcelona, in London and in Berlin. In England, for instance, the way to show political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work’ (Marx 1976 [1871b]: 603). Similarly he said in his address to The Hague Congress of the First International a year later:

We do not assert that the attainment of [political supremacy of the workers] requires identical means. We know that one has to take into consideration the institutions, mores, and traditions of the different countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, like England and America and if I am familiar with your institutions, Holland, where labour may attain its goal by peaceful means. But if this is true we also must recognize that in most countries of the continent, violence must be the lever of revolution (Gerth 1958: 236).

The same sentiment was expressed on other occasions.[7] It is evident that from 1870 onward Marx believed certain objective and subjective conditions made a peaceful transition to communism possible, simply because the class struggle did not take the same form everywhere. Which conditions had to be fulfilled to allow for such a peaceful transition? The objective conditions that had to be met were the presence of suffrage, a sizeable proletarian class and of a democratic tradition and institutions. This requires a certain level of capitalist development, but it is not purely an economic matter for other elements, such as the institutional-political, also had to be present (Avineri 1968: 218). The subjective condition that had to be met was simply the presence of a workers’ or communist movement, regardless of size and strength.[8] The most important factor was the mechanism by which power was to be conquered peacefully—universal suffrage (Avineri 1976: 36-37). That is why from 1871 onward Marx believed these conditions definitely existed in England, America, and perhaps also the Netherlands, because there suffrage was being expanded to an ever greater extent, allowing workers hitherto excluded from the political process to take part in it in such a way as to allow the conquest of power by means of it (Hollander 2010: 70-71). This is also evident in Marx’s reassessment of the prospects for reformism in France. While in 1870 he contrasted it with the situation in England by arguing that in France ‘a hundred laws of repression and a mortal antagonism between classes seem to necessitate the violent solution of social war’ (Marx 1976 [1871b]: 603), by 1880 conditions had so changed with respect to suffrage that he now believed it was possible for the proletariat to transform it ‘from the instrument of deception which it has been hitherto into an instrument of emancipation’ (Marx 1976 [1880a]): 341). The viability of reformism is therefore inextricably linked to suffrage, and more generally to the strength of a democratic tradition, the existence of a sizeable proletarian class and of democratic institutions, and the positive prospects for their progressive expansion in a given nation.[9]

A crucial aspect of Marx’s late conception of reformism was, therefore, its contextualism. As previously noted, for Marx certain objective and subjective conditions dictated whether reform or revolution was to be pursued. Only a proper, materialist analysis of the specific context – the objective and subjective conditions of a specific nation – would determine the question of reform or revolution. As will be seen in the next section, the contextualist sensibility of Marx’s late conception of reformism was not a divergence from Marx’s otherwise rigidly scientistic, universalist method and theory, but merely one expression of an overall shift in his approach in his late thought (Shanin 1983: 31). 2. Implications of the reformist turn for Marx’s method and political theory, and interpretations thereof

There are several important conclusions to draw from Marx’s reformist turn for his broader political theory and the method underlying it, as well as the two main schools of interpretation of Marx’s conception of reformism, the Leninist and humanist. First I will discuss what it indicates with regard to his method, the materialist conception of history, and how exactly it is related to it so as to better understand both. Then I will go over the implications for his political theory, specifically his conception of the state and the transition period, and, finally, I will analyze how it affects the two main schools of interpretation of Marx’s conception of reformism.

The shift from Mechanism to Contextualism

Beginning with the methodological aspect, Marx’s turn toward reformism in his later life was part of a general shift toward sensitivity to contextuality in his later thought. It is key to understanding this novel approach in Marx’s later philosophy to be able to properly understand his late conception of reformism, for this was only one expression of a shift in his overall approach in his later life. In order to lay bare the exact nature of this shift it is helpful to make use of Hayden White’s work. In his detailed and influential analysis of argumentative strategies among the most important nineteenth-century historians and philosophers, White argues these are distinguishable in general tropes or categories, with the Mechanist and the Contextualist being two of them (White 1973: 16-18). Looking at the development in Marx’s method from his middle to late period through the lens of White’s concepts helps to elucidate its nature, for it displays a move from the Mechanist to the Contextualist, coinciding chronologically with the phases of Marx’s conception of reform in the middle and late period outlined in the previous section. In the writings of his middle period, from about 1843 to 1870, Marx generally displays Mechanist strategies of explanation, which ‘turns upon the search for the causal laws that determine the outcomes of processes discovered in the historical field’, while also searching for ‘the laws of historical process, when the term “laws” is construed in the sense of universal and invariant causal relationships’ (White 1973: 16-17). The methodology underlying this strategy – the kind of materialist conception of history Marx employed during this period – is characterized by a strong sense of universalism and economistic determinism (Shanin 1983: 4-5).

From 1870 onward, a shift takes place from the Mechanist to the Contextualist argumentative strategy. As discussed in the previous chapter, this was partly precipitated by the increasing awareness of the untenability of the strongly universalistic nature of his earlier analyses by anomalies appearing, such as the case of England with regard to the question of reformism and Russia with regard to his more general sketch of historical development, which will be discussed in more detail below (Wada 1981: 139-140). White describes the Contextualist strategy as denoting ‘a theory of truth and explanation represent[ing] a “functional” conception of the meaning or significance of events discerned in the historical field,’ and goes on to say: ‘The informing presupposition of Contextualism is that events can be explained by being set within the “context” of their occurrence. Why they occurred as they did is to be explained by the revelation of the specific relationships they bore to other events occurring in their circumambient historical space’ (White 1973: 17-18). Marx’s method was now characterized by a weak universalism, sensitive to the contingent nature of many aspects of development and local variations—it now possessed a contextualist sensibility hitherto overshadowed by a strong universalism. However, it is important to note that the Mechanist and Contextualist strategies are not mutually exclusive for White, nor do I read them as such. There were earlier writings of Marx, such as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), which also displayed Contextualist strategies, and it would be wrong to suggest that Mechanist strategies were wholly absent from his later work. However, what is clearly discernable is a pronounced shift in his general method and theory from the Mechanist to the Contextualist in his late thought (Shanin 1981: 8-9).[10]

Marx’s reformist turn was but one expression of this contextualist sensibility, but it can be clearly seen in other aspects of his thought as well. Take his Capital for example. In the 1857  preface, the laws of historical development Marx purports to have discovered, which inevitably would lead all societies to undergo the same development as occurred in Western Europe, are presented as natural laws, as universal as the law of gravity (Balibar 2007: 110). This changed in his later thought. Whereas before Marx’s method and theory was universal in scope, explicating a road which every society, regardless of local variations, invariably and by necessity had to follow, he now came to criticize such an approach. In a letter written to a Russian paper in 1877 criticizing a Russian interpreter of Capital who ascribed such a strongly universalistic, supra-historical aspect to his method – in line with his own statements to this effect in the 1859 Preface – Marx now insisted one must be sensitive to the particular as well as to the universal, calling for a contextual approach.[11] Étienne Balibar notes the importance of this shift as well, contrasting it with the ‘economistic’ nature of his earlier thought. ‘There is no universal history, only singular historicities’ in his later thought, he argues (Balibar 2007: 110).[12] This is true, but only up to a point.

As the reformist turn showed, there always remained some level of universalism to his overall method and theory, namely the employment of the materialist conception of history as a means to ascertain the best course for the realization of communism. The aim and the method, imbued with a contextual sensibility, were the main constants to remain in the late Marx’s thought. But what exactly did these consist of? As discussed in the previous chapter with respect to reformism, a certain set of necessary objective and subjective conditions had to be met before it was deemed viable, such as the existence of strong democratic traditions and institutions, developed capitalism and the sizeable proletarian class that comes with it, the presence of a workers’ movement, etc. The method consisted of ascertaining whether these elements exist or not, with a particular focus on the economic factor as the main determining component regulating the other aspects. As for the aim, that always remained the realization of a classless, communist society. However, both of these remaining universal aspects of Marx’s thought were, as said, imbued with a contextual sensibility. Perhaps the best exemplification of how Marx employed this contextualist method can be seen in the Russian case.

There, despotism ruled over a nation that was highly underdeveloped economically. Marx linked the two, considering the political superstructure to be the natural outgrowth of the economic base. In his Mechanist period this not only invalidated the possibility of a peaceful transition to communism, but any transition to communism at all, simply because the universal class, the proletariat – and the economic conditions which lead to its creation and development – was not sufficiently present to allow for such a transition to take place (Avineri 1968: 59-60). Russia had to first undergo capitalist development before communism could even be on the agenda for the foreseeable future. But this mechanistic reading gave way to a contextualist analysis in his later writings. In a series of letters written to the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, Marx discusses the possibility of the peasant communes in Russia – which he considered to be communistic in nature – allowing it to skip the capitalist phase of development and move directly toward communism (Wada 1981: 145-146).[13]

Marx’s turn to reformism in his late thought is therefore not an aberration, nor did it have anything to do with a newly developed moral sensibility as some have argued (Linden 1988: 344). Rather, it was part of a more general methodological and theoretical shift in approach, from Mechanism – marked by a strong sense of universalism where the universal overshadowed the particular – to Contextualism, characterized by a weak sense of universalism, where there was a constant search for striking the right balance between the universal and the particular, giving the latter its due.

Implications for Marx’s political theory

I will now discuss the implications of the reformist turn for Marx’s broader political theory, specifically his view of the state and the transition period to communism. In order to ascertain the implications for his political theory of Marx’s reformist turn in his later life it is necessary to discuss his views of the state, for Marx’s varying conceptions of reformism are intimately bound up with his conception of the state, which in turn shapes his conception of the transition period. Marx considered the state, regardless of its specific form, as being an instrument of class rule – in capitalist society by the bourgeoisie – which had to be taken over by the proletariat in the course of the social revolution (Avineri 1968: 50).[14] In 1871 Marx adjusted his conception of the state due to the experience of the Paris Commune. He now believed ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’ (Marx 1976 [1871a]: 329), but thought rather that the state has to be destroyed, and in its stead a commune state created, which, as Engels remarked, ‘had ceased to be a state in the true sense of the term’ (Engels 1976 [1875]: 65).

This is an important change of view in relation to his reformist turn, for if the conquest of power was no longer possible by utilizing the already existing institutions of the state but rather required its destruction, then how could Marx possibly posit the possibility of a peaceful takeover of power and transition to communism? Lenin and his followers seized on this discrepancy to argue the untenability of viewing Marx as advocating any kind of peaceful transition, dismissing his later conception of reformism as the product of a momentary lapse of reason or purely motivated by tactical concerns, ensuring the safety of members of the First International (Lenin 1970 [1917]: 66-69). Both claims simply ignore the textual evidence to the contrary (Singh 1989: 18). It ignores the fact that Marx wrote in support of reformism outside that context as well, for example when referring to England where no persecution of members was taking place and after the First International had already disbanded (Marx 1976 [1880b]: 50-51). More importantly, it ignores Marx’s methodological shift to contextualism in his later writings, of which the reformist turn was but one expression. The opening up of Marx’s political and social philosophy in this respect in his late thought is crucial for understanding his novel conception of reform during this period.

How then does Marx’s late conception of reformism fit with his conception of the state in this late period of his political theory? The answer lies in the manner in which Marx in this period believed the takeover of power by the proletariat would take place in those nations he believed to be suitable for reform, and the subsequent actions it had to take to begin the transition to communism. He took on an integrationist approach to the question, believing that the bourgeois state in such societies could be taken over by the proletariat by democratic means, using the tool of suffrage, who would then institute policies that would cause its gradual disestablishment into a commune state along with other policies that would begin the transition to communism (Avineri 1976: 36-37). How exactly Marx believed this process to occur clearly comes to the fore in the list of demands and policies he formulated as necessary actions to be taken after the takeover of power and during the transition phase to communism.

Marx formulated these demands and policies in various stages throughout his life (Marx and Engels 1976 [1847-48]: 506). Of specific interest are the lists of demands he formulated in his later writings, after the reformist turn. Of these the electoral program he wrote for the French Workers’ Party in 1880 is most significant, as it shows how exactly he perceived his conception of reformism could be integrated into his theory of the commune state in a nation he considered to be ripe for a peaceful transition to communism.[15] After the conquest of power of the proletariat through the use of universal suffrage, the bourgeois aspect of the already existing state machinery was to be disestablished through the gradual taking away of authority from its various institutions, most importantly the army, police and their concomitant ‘material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion of all kinds’ (Engels 1976 [1884]: 271). Instead, the Commune was to have authority over its own police force and administration, while the standing army was to be disbanded and the working class armed (Marx 1976 [1880a]: 639). This last point is crucial because the army was considered to be central in Marx’s theory of the state, for the state’s authority rests on this force (Engels 1976 [1884]: 270-271). With the disestablishment of it and its transformation into a proletarian, Commune army, the bourgeois state would be transformed into a commune state—through gradual, peaceful rather than violent, revolutionary means. It is important to note that this analysis was not added to the program merely for propagandistic purposes, thought to be an unachievable aim that would draw support from workers for eventual revolutionary action. Jules Guesde, the leader of the French Workers’ Party for whom Marx wrote the program, did believe this.[16] This led to a sharp conflict with Marx from which originated the well-known phrase: ‘Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste (If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist).’[17] Moreover, it was not an isolated analysis, for the transition was thought to occur similarly in places like England (Avineri 1976: 36-37).

Finally, there is the issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx believed constituted the transition period from capitalism to communism. Leninist interpreters have argued that the establishment of a dictatorship is incompatible with a peaceful takeover of power, for if such a peaceful road were possible, no dictatorship would be required to obtain and maintain it during the transitional period (Lenin 1970 [1917]: 24-25). The error lies in the semantics of the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as used by Marx and as later distorted by Lenin and his followers. As Avineri notes, Marx used the phrase very rarely, and when he did, it was solely to denote ‘the class nature of political rule, not to the way in which any form of government is being carried out’ (1976: 38). For Marx, any form of political rule was dictatorial, making any state, regardless of form, a class dictatorship by default. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not refer to the form of the state, but merely to its class basis, which has no bearing on the possibility of a peaceful transition to such a state, which he clearly did believe was possible, as shown above. Therefore the aim of communism was not to simply replace the bourgeois state with the proletarian state, but to ensure the withering away of the state altogether. Lenin gave the term a new meaning, denoting dictatorial policies aimed at curbing rights Marx always remained in favor of and a specific, dictatorial form of government (Avineri 1976: 39).

So rather than his late conception of reformism being irreconcilable with the political theory of his late thought, Marx actively sought an integration of it by reformulating how he perceived the process of the conquest of power in those societies ripe for a peaceful transition to communism. The artificial dichotomy posed between the taking over of the state and the smashing of it is – like the dichotomy posed between reform and revolution – a product of Leninist interpretations of Marx, not of Marx’s political theory in his late thought.

Implications for interpretations of Marx’s conception of reformism

There are, broadly speaking, two schools of interpretation in the secondary literature concerning Marx’s conception of reformism which are on opposite sides of the falsely posed dichotomy between reform or revolution. There is the Leninist school of interpretation – of which Althusser was a prominent proponent – which views Marx’s mature political theory as always having been centered on the absolute rejection of a peaceful transition to communism and an embracing of a violent, revolutionary path to this end (Gilbert 1976: 10-11). Concomitantly it rejects the view that Marx’s late thought was characterized by a contextualist sensibility, instead perceiving it as strictly positivistic and mechanistic (Althusser 1969: 10-11). Key to this interpretation is a specific methodology of intellectual history which rejects any kind of eclectic appraisal of Marx’s thought which maintains that it did not consist of a singular essence remaining static throughout most of his life but instead underwent shifts and changes in focus, particularly in his earlier humanist writings and his later thought as explicated above (Kolakowski 1971: 115-116, 124). Instead, Althusser posited that Marx’s thought can be divided into two – the Young and Mature Marx – separated by an epistemological break. The Young Marx was still very much under the influence of Hegelian idealism, while the mature Marx was consistently scientific. Moreover, while the Young Marx was imbued with all kinds of false hopes about the potentials of reformism, the Mature Marx had left these illusions behind, rejecting any possibility for a peaceful transition to communism. Althusser and other Leninist interpreters universalize this version of Marx’s conception of reformism (Althusser 1969: 77).  The problem with such an interpretation is that it overlooks the complexity of Marx’s thought, which was clearly not as static and strongly universalistic as the Leninist interpreters claim, as evidenced, for example, by his reformist turn and the broader shift in methodology and theory of which it was a part, that occurred in his late thought as explicated in detail above (Smith 1989: 499).

The humanist school of interpretation, of which Avineri is a prominent proponent, takes the opposite view, considering Marx’s late political theory to be characterized by a strong adherence to reformism and a denial of the viability of a revolutionary transformation of society (Avineri 1976: 35). In terms of method humanist interpreters take a different approach as well. One cannot make a strict division between a Young and Mature Marx, they argue, for the two overlap in crucial respects. However, the Young, humanistic Marx eschewing determinism has to be seen as the core of Marx’s thought for it chronologically preceded his Mature, scientistic period and returned to prominence in his later thought (Althusser 1969: 56-57). While the humanists are more sensitive to the variations in Marx’s political theory and conceptions of reformism, they also follow the dichotomous approach of the Leninists by universalizing its humanistic, reformist aspects (Leogrande 1977: 129). Avineri denies that Marx continued to advocate a violent revolution as a means to transition to communism depending on the objective and subjective conditions. Instead, he argues, Marx believed a transition to communism to be impossible in these nations given their underdeveloped nature, for the presence of the requisite objective and social conditions for a proletarian conquest of power would make violent revolution superfluous (Avineri 1968: 217-218). This ignores Marx’s continued belief that a revolutionary transition to communism was not only possible but necessary in nations lacking certain objective and subjective conditions that would allow for a peaceful transition, such as the presence of suffrage and developed democratic traditions and institutions. More importantly, it ignores Marx’s belief in his late thought that even underdeveloped nations could make the transition to communism, as the Russian case clearly shows. By ignoring this crucial aspect of Marx’s late thought and the method that underlies it – its contextualist sensibility – Avineri and other humanists erroneously read a strong sense of economic determinism in him, believing that Marx only considered those nations sufficiently developed to allow for a peaceful transition to communism to be ready for it (Gilbert 1976: 15). The Leninists turn Marx into an ‘alchemist of revolution’ and the humanists turn him into a contemporary reformist social-democrat—while in fact he was neither.


After 1870 Marx became convinced that a peaceful transition to communism was possible as long as certain objective and subjective conditions were present. The required objective conditions were the existence of a strong proletarian class, which assumes a high degree of capitalist development, and the existence of a strong democratic tradition and political institutions, denoted in part by suffrage and its possible expansion by peaceful agitation and organization on the part of the organized proletariat. The subjective condition was the presence of an organized workers’ or communist movement. These conditions being present, any agitation for a revolution would not only be unnecessary, but even counterproductive and foolish. Nevertheless, this conception of reformism did not displace Marx’s conviction that a revolutionary path to communism was not only possible but a necessity in nations lacking these conditions (Singh 1989: 18).

However, Marx’s reformist turn was not an isolated aberration from an otherwise static methodology and political theory. Rather, it was precipitated by a shift in his overall approach in his late thought, characterized by the abandoning of a strong emphasis on the universal with its ignoring of the particular. Instead he sought to strike the right balance between the two by retaining certain universal concepts (e.g., emphasizing the economic factor in analyses and belief in the necessity of communism) while also giving the local and the contingent their due. Moreover, instead of ignoring possible conflicts with his earlier views regarding the nature of the state and the transition period to communism, Marx actively sought to integrate his novel conception of reformism within his broader political theory. The dichotomous approach regarding the question of reform or revolution, read into Marx by both Leninist and humanist interpreters, was by this point alien to Marx’s method and theory (Shanin 1983: 6-8 and Balibar 2007: 110). This reading of Marx’s reformist turn not only  accurately reflects the textual evidence but also, more importantly, fits the more general shift that took place in Marx’s thought during his later life.

But what value does Marx’s later conception of reformism have for Marxists today, if any? After all, his predictions about a peaceful transition to communism have been proven wrong by history, and while the revolutionary alternative has also not fared well, does this not point to its obsolescence? The valuable lesson to learn from Marx’s reformist turn lies in its relation to Marx’s more general method and political theory in his late thought of which it was only one manifestation.[18] His move away from dogmatism and scientism toward a contextualist approach eschewing strongly universalizing analyses which neglect or discount local variations and contingencies, is a methodological approach that those working in the Marxian tradition today would do well to heed in order to avoid the kind of universalizing logic that still plagues much of the tradition (Chatterjee 2013: 73-74), while preserving universal concepts and categories like class which provide contemporary Marxism with much of its analytic value and explanatory power (Chibber 2013: XI-XII).


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[1] By communism I refer to Marx’s general usage of the term denoting the first stage of communist society, which the Second International tradition often referred to as socialism. The ‘higher phase’ of communism refers to when the state which still exists in some form in the first phase – also referred to as the dictatorship of the proletariat – has ‘withered away’ (Lenin 1970 [1917]: 109-114).

[2] Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) marked the beginning of the break with Hegel’s political philosophy. While already paying attention to these factors in his earlier articles, Marx now focused on private property and capitalism as the main source of contradiction in political relations in modern society and the state, which would soon lead him to embrace communism (Teeple 1984: 96-97).

[3] ‘But socialism cannot be realised without revolution. It needs this political act insofar as it needs destruction and dissolution’ (Marx 1976 [1844]): 203, 206).

[4] Being dialectically related to in this context means that it is not only acted upon by the

objective conditions, but also acts upon these conditions in turn, i.e., there is a reciprocal relationship between the two, although the objective is considered to be fundamental, giving rise to the subjective. After all, without capitalist relations of production there would be no proletariat to engage in class struggle and possess class consciousness to begin with. Shlomo Avineri aptly expresses the relationship between the two in Marx’s method as follows: ‘(...) it tries to focus on the juncture where the objective economic conditions coalesce with the subjective element of will as expressed in class consciousness’ (1976: 41).

[5] The only exception to this revolutionary absolutism, which precipitated the substantive contextualism of Marx’s method in his later life, was his view of England. There the situation with respect to the objective and subjective conditions for the transition to communism was different entirely, for there the objective and subjective conditions for reform clearly were present. In terms of material conditions, capitalism was highly developed there, making the proletariat the majority class. With regard to the subjective factor there was the proletarian Chartist movement. Hence Marx wrote in 1852: ‘The carrying of Universal Suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honored with that name on the Continent. Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class’ (Marx 1976 [1852]: 336-337).

[6] Formed in 1875 through a union between two socialist parties (Hollander 2010: 72-73).

[7] For example, in 1880 he wrote in a letter: ‘If you say that you do not share the views of my party for England I can only reply that that party considers an English revolution not necessary, but – according to historic precedents – possible. If the unavoidable evolution turns into a revolution, it would not only be the fault of the ruling classes, but also of the working class. Every pacific concession of the former has been wrung from them by ‘pressure from without’. Their action kept pace with that pressure and if the latter has more and more weakened, it is only because the English working class know not how to wield their power and use their liberties, both of which they possess legally’ (Marx 1976 [1880b]: 50).

[8] In the 1880 letter Marx states that England is ripe for a peaceful transition even though he also notes the weakness of the workers’ movement there during the same period (Marx 1976 [1880b]: 50-51).

[9] Engels would expand on this reformist turn of Marx by including Germany in the list of nations ripe for a peaceful transition to communism through election of the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, SAPD). This led some interpreters to mistakenly believe Engels broke from Marx’s revolutionary stance during this late period, but as has been shown, the same conception of reformism was already present in Marx’s later writings. There is therefore continuity rather than a break between the two thinkers in this respect (Hollander 2011: 219).

[10] In his own analysis of Marx in Metahistory, White identifies a tension between the two strategies running through his writings – constituting his dialectical method – but fails to take into account this shift, nor does he distinguish between which of the two tended to predominate in a given period (White 1973: 285-286, 310, 328). Rather, Marx’s thought is referred to in the singular, which leads one to believe White falls victim to what Quentin Skinner has described as the Mythology of Coherence, the assumption that there is some kind of coherence to be found in the works of a thinker that has to be brought out by interpretation (Skinner 1969: 16). It is therefore not surprising that Marx’s late thought is not discussed at all in White’s analysis.

[11] ‘But this is too little for my critic. It is absolutely necessary for him to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of general development, imposed by fate on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they are placed, in order to eventually attain this economic formation which, with a tremendous leap of the productive forces of social labour, assures the most integral development of every individual producer. But I beg his pardon. This does me too much honour, and yet puts me to shame at the same time. (...) events strikingly analogous, but occurring in different historical milieu [referring to the developments in Ancient Rome and America], led to quite disparate results. By studying each of these evolutions on its own, and then comparing them, one will easily discover the key to the phenomenon, but it will never be arrived at by employing the all-purpose formula of a general historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical’(Marx 1976 [1877]: 201-202).

[12] Balibar goes on to argue that Marx’s anti-universalist shift in his later life contradicted much of his earlier philosophy, which he never set out to resolve. It is undoubtedly true that the more contextually attuned and open nature of Marx’s later writings contrasts rather sharply with the positivistic certainty imbuing his earlier work, but this should not perturb interpreters, as it did not perturb Marx himself. The search for a balance between the universal and the particular which Marx began in earnest in his later writings (it would be wrong to view it as being solely or even primarily focused on the particular) should rather be seen as being intrinsic to Marx’s mature method and theory, indicating a development from, rather than break with, his earlier thought (Shanin 1983: 5-6).

[13] The same sentiment was expressed in the 1883 preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto: ‘(...) can the Russian obshchina [village community],  a form of primeval common ownership of land, even if greatly undermined, pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership? Or must it, conversely, first pass through the same process of dissolution as constitutes the historical development of the West? The only answer possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development’ (Marx and Engels 1976 [1882]: 427).

[14] Marx also postulated the existence of a Bonapartist type of state, ‘a form of regime in capitalist society in which the executive part of the state, under the rule of one individual, achieves dictatorial power over all other parts of the state, and over society. Bonapartism thus constitutes an extreme manifestation of what, in recent Marxist writing on the state, has been called its “relative autonomy”’. But this has no significance for the present discussion (Bottomore 2001: 55).

[15] It was written after Marx’s critique of the Gotha program in 1875, which he criticized for being overly reformist. Moreover, Engels later suggested the program of the French Workers’ Party to be considered by the German SAPD in their Erfurt program of 1891 which was meant to replace the Gotha program, referring to it as ‘a masterpiece of cogent argumentation rarely encountered’ (Engels 1975 [1881]: 312).

[16] Guesde hoped the failure of the program would ‘free the proletariat of its last reformist illusions and convince it of the impossibility of avoiding a workers’ 89’ (Moss 1980: 107).

[17] According to Engels, Marx said this to his son-in-law Lafargue in reference to his disagreement with Guesde and other leaders of the French Workers’ Party (Engels 1976 [1882]: p. 357).

[18] Georg Lukács’ formulated this sentiment best: ‘Orthodox Marxism (...) does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method’ (Lukács 1971 [1923]: 1).


Sina Talachian

Sina Talachian is a PhD student in History at Cambridge University. His main interests are 19th and 20th century European intellectual history, philosophy of history and political and social philosophy, in particular of the Marxian, critical theory variety.