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Marx on Force

“Force is the mid-wife of progress!” How completely this expression is misunderstood by many who use it! What Socialist Party speaker has not been confronted at some time or other by a callow youth or a bewhiskered old fogey who has either indignantly demanded to know why the S.P.G.B. has thrown the teaching of Marx overboard, or has condescendingly, not to say pityingly, “explained” that nothing can be done through Parliament. To most of our critics, “force” means almost anything but action for the capture and control of the State machine. It may mean the “general strike” or, as Daniel de Leon preferred to call it, the “general lock-out of the capitalist class." It may mean the blind, spontaneous upheaval of an unorganised mass or the deliberate insurrection of an armed minority. It may mean a combination of all these reactions to capitalist pressure; but nowhere does Marx indicate that it is to action on these lines that we must look for deliverance from our fetters.

Let us take a glance at the context of the pregnant phrase as Marx uses it. It occurs in the fifth paragraph of Chap. 31 of “Capital” (p. 776, Swan Sonnenschein edition), which reads as follows: —

    "The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain. Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England, at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part upon brute force, e.g., the colonial system; but they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power."

The chapter is entitled “The genesis of the industrial capitalist,” and is packed with examples of how the State, in the hands of the capitalist class, wiped out the old classes of feudal society at home (including the peasants and handicraftsmen) and also destroyed the social organisation of more primitive peoples in other parts of the world, in the quest for markets, raw materials and labour power. This was done partly by military and partly by economic measures; for the State, being “the concentrated and organised force of society,” can use either, as the need arises. It is itself an economic power, appropriating and expropriating by taxation, direct and otherwise, the incomes and means of livelihood of the small property owners whose existence stands in the way of capitalist development. At the same time it converts itself into a channel of investment by the huge loans it floats. The holder of State-bonds escapes the risks accompanying the various non-State forms of commercial, industrial or financial enterprise.

There need, therefore, be no confusion as to what Marx and Engels meant when they wrote of “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” at the end of the “Communist Manifesto.”

The authors state that, “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class.”

The State, in the eyes of Marx and Engels, is the supreme expression of force in society. In the hands of the master-class it checkmates every move on the part of the workers which might endanger the property rights of the masters. Let some of the workers seize what few arms they can and it meets their puny force with greater force. Let them indulge in a widespread strike, whether of the stop-in or the stay-out variety, and it mobilises this same force to ensure to the capitalist class the control of the food supplies and essential services.

Throughout the struggle between the workers and their masters the control of the State power decides upon which side victory lies. The capture of this power by the workers, consciously organised as a class for the purpose, is the essential first step towards their emancipation. To choose any other line is, in the words of Marx to the First International at the Hague, in 1872, “To renounce the things of this world.”

Eric Boden