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A change of strategy

Marx’s texts from the 1850s onwards took a different approach to his previous work: different not only in their style but also their concepts and formats, but united by their object – capitalism – grasped from different angles and viewpoints.

2 May 2023

A change of strategy

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Following the defeat of the 1848 revolution, Marx’s political thinking, addressing all the concrete issues of the time, became all the more analytical and precise as study of the essential logic of capitalism came to dominate his agenda. From this standpoint, even though he remained politically active, we can say that from the 1850s, his thought became ever more immanent in his theoretical activity, while casting its net wider. Critical development became one of the main sites of active engagement in a period of relative decline of the revolutionary movement. This is the sense in which Marx described Capital as ‘the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie (landowners included)’, after having stated his wish to ‘deal the bourgeoisie a theoretical blow from which it will never recover’.

Another feature of the period, inseparable from the preceding one, is that after 1848 Marx was more than ever attentive to world history. Social and political struggles in France, in England, but also popular revolts in China and India, the American Civil War and slavery, national liberation movements in Ireland and Poland, populist mobilizations in Russia – these afforded opportunities to resume his strategic thinking and sometimes to rectify his previous analyses. Meanwhile, the critique of political economy sought to grasp the contradictions affecting the capitalist mode of production and bourgeois economic science in their complex logic. The profound unity of these two approaches is what all those commentators who stress the incoherence of Marx’s argument have not perceived – indeed, have not wished to perceive. According to them, it is torn between a descriptive and determinist approach, on the one hand, and a historical analysis doing justice to the free initiative of individuals on the other. The other obstacle to an understanding of Marx’s political and strategic thought is the standard reading of the Critique of the Gotha Programme, which purports to find in it the summary and last word of Marx’s strategic reflection on the subject of communism, reducing revolution to a scenario of two predefined phases.

We must, therefore, read in tandem the texts pertaining to the critique of political economy (principally Capital and the preparatory texts) and texts studying the recent conjuncture, which focus on world affairs, the Paris Commune and revolutionary prospects in Russia, highlighting the intertwining of economic conditions, social processes and political struggles. Marx’s texts in this period, different not only in their style but also their concepts and formats, prove to be profoundly united by their object – capitalism – grasped from different angles and viewpoints. They all contribute to one and the same critique in the theory – and in practice – of politics. In them, the term communism continues to refer above all to a political struggle and orientation, not to a societal project to be described in its forms and stages. Marx’s attention was focused on the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production and the space they opened up for revolutionary intervention, one of its conditions being precise knowledge of this dialectic, which nurtures awareness of the historical possibilities with which it is pregnant. His already old definition of science was refined, allocated the task of identifying laws and tendencies, but also countertendencies, which each open up their own field for collective action.

In short, what Marx now called the ‘critique of political economy’ renewed the initial project with a more coherent integration, in changed conditions, of the various lines of theoretical analysis, on the one hand, and revolutionary intervention on the other. After 1848, this project was reconstructed around a twofold imperative: in-depth analysis of the capitalist mode of production and an analysis of the political situation and redefinition of political intervention assimilating the defeat of 1848. The issue of reappropriation continued to flexibly unify all the others and invested from within research that sought to be a refection of its objective. Once again, communism was to be sought in the undertaking itself – something that in no way diminishes its goals but makes their constant reworking constitutive of their very definition. Given this, mediations are not to be sought in the production of a scenario in stages, but are inscribed in the depths of a process of transformation. For such an objective to acquire concrete scope, consciousness must be collective and organized as a social force. Marx would continue to come up against this fluctuating, problematic historical premise, like all those today who in the absence of any imminent revolutionary prospect regard radical social change as indispensable.

What needs to be reopened is the loop of a seemingly circular causality: the diffusion of revolutionary ideas, which is one of the parameters of popular mobilization, is also one of its consequences. Two consequences follow. On the one hand, critical work is always possible and necessary, even though its impact should not be overestimated. On the other, capitalist exploitation is inseparable from all the forms of domination that condition its reproduction, always striving to turn in on itself the logic of expropriation and alienation. Capital and the preparatory texts endeavour both to describe this logic and to overturn it, inaugurating a new kind of knowledge, inseparable from its active social and political dimensions, which it is urgent to explore afresh today. Three themes warrant in-depth treatment, having been broached by the theorists of the alternative studied above: the issue of labour and its capitalist appropriation; the question of democracy as conquest; and, finally, the requisite combination of forms of emancipation. These three topics all reveal communism to be an attempt at reappropriation, negation of the negation of a new kind, which remains charged with deploying its mediations in real history.

— excerpted from Communism and Strategy Rethinking Political Mediations by Isabelle Garo

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Communism and Strategy
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