Marx's theory of revolution
By Brian Becker
From a presentation at an Oct. 23 public forum on "The World
Economic Crisis and the Future of Marxism" in New Paltz,
We have taken on a dangerous assignment in commemorating
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on the 150th anniversary of the
publication of "The Communist Manifesto." Why? Because history
has a tendency to render great historical figures-especially
revolutionary fighters who were despised, ridiculed, and
repressed by their ruling classes while they lived-into
harmless icons after their death.
Karl Marx was hated and demonized by the ruling classes of
Europe because he was above all else a revolutionary. He
dedicated his life to revolution. A genius from the ranks of
the bourgeoisie, Marx and his family led a life of great
poverty and destitution so that he could devote all of his
energies to the movement for the liberation of the working
Marx brought forth a new theory of revolution. That's why he
was hated. And because so many workers from China to Russia to
Cuba to South Africa have upheld the banner of Marxism as they
overthrew oppressing classes, Marx and his theory of revolution
continue to be the focus of great hatred by the bosses,
bankers, landlords and land owners everywhere.
It's not easy to talk about revolution in the United States
because there is so little understanding of the concept. The
only historical event in the United States that is
characterized as a revolution was in fact not a revolution: the
The U.S. Revolution was not a social revolution because it
did not change the existing property forms. The slave owners
were still the slave owners after the revolution. In fact, they
led the revolution. And the slaves were still the slaves.
It was a political revolution in the sense that a new form
of government was created. The British colonial government was
replaced by a new coalition government of slave-owners and a
new merchant class or bourgeoisie.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson-the author of the Declaration of
Independence, the great spokesperson for liberty and
equality-owned 200 human beings as slave laborers. In addition,
between 1802 and 1803 he assisted Napoleon on the naval
blockade, sanctions and later invasion of Haiti in an attempt
to crush the great slave revolution that had abolished slavery
in the Western Hemisphere for the first time.
There has only been one real revolution in United States
history-what we know as the Civil War.
The Civil War was a genuine social revolution. The economic
power of the old slave-owning class-including its legal
property rights to own slaves-was crushed. Chattel slavery was
replaced with capitalist wage slavery.
The reason the Civil War was so bloody was that it was a
real revolution. It took a struggle of that magnitude to
dispossess the slave-owning classes of their property.
This was not simply a political revolution-a change in the
form of government. It was a social revolution because it
ushered in a profound readjustment in class rule.
The character of this momentous struggle should not obscure
the fact that the property-owning capitalists in the North
betrayed Black freedom within a decade. The Northern
industrialists restored the old slave owners to power-but as
partners in capitalist rule. And the former slave owners, in
turn, introduced the apartheid police state that dominated the
Southern part of this country for the following 100 years.
But chattel slavery had been ended for good.
Theory of revolution
What was Marx's theory of revolution?
In a letter he wrote to his friend and comrade Joseph
Wedemeyer on March 5, 1882, Marx described his contribution in
the most succinct possible way:
"No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of
classes in modern society, nor yet the struggle between them.
Long before me bourgeois historians had described the
historical development of this struggle of the classes, and
bourgeois economists had discovered the economic anatomy of
those classes. What I did that was new was to prove:
1) that the existence of the classes is only bound up with
particular historical phases in the development of
2) that the class struggle leads necessarily to the
dictatorship of the proletariat;
3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the
transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless
"The dictatorship of the proletariat." Those sound like
scary words. But Marx was not using the word dictatorship as a
pejorative. He used the word in a scientific sense.
Marx considered all class societies to be the dictatorship
of its dominant class. This is at the heart of Marx's analysis
of the state.
If Marx were alive today he would not conclude that the
United States is one nation, indivisible, with liberty and
justice for all. He would characterize it as a dictatorship of
the bourgeoisie. And his solution to the suffering brought
about by capitalism in the United States would be to replace
the iron-fisted rule of the bankers and bosses with the
dictatorship of the proletariat-the working class.
Liberals and conservatives alike will howl: There is no
dictatorship in the United States. This is a democratic form of
Marx would agree. It's a democratic form of government-a
very limited form of democracy-resting on top of a state
apparatus that functions as the dictatorship of the rich, of
the capitalist ruling class.
For example, IBM made $5 billion in profits in 1995 and then
laid off more than 50,000 employees in order to use the profit
to replace those human jobs with new technologies.
Was this decision made by voting? Yes. The board of
directors of IBM voted to lay the workers off. The masses of
workers got to vote for the president of the United States. But
the bosses exercised a dictatorship over "their property, their
A one-sided use of force
How many poor people are in Congress? None.
How many poor people are judges? None.
How many rich people are on death row? None.
How many acts of police brutality are there against
millionaires and billionaires? None.
How many tenants are evicted from their homes because they
can no longer afford rent? Tens of thousands each week. How
many landlords are evicted from their homes because they rob
and cheat their tenants or refuse to make repairs? Again,
How many times in U.S. history have striking workers been
able to call the police and say, "Please come down here right
away, there are scabs crossing the picket line and stealing my
job. Please arrest them." That'll never happen.
The bosses, though, always call the police to protect the
strike breakers and the boss' "property."
This one-sided use of force, coercion and repression is
wielded only to satisfy the interests and needs of the
bourgeoisie. This is the law of the land.
Police, courts and prisons evict tenants, arrest strikers
and act as an occupation force against rebelling Black and
Latino communities in order to make sure that poor people don't
expropriate rich people.
This is all an exercise of dictatorship.
And this use of force in the interest of one class for its
domination and its profit extends to the realm of foreign
The people of the United States weren't asked to vote on
whether or not they wanted a Pentagon war against Vietnam or
Korea. They didn't vote for the 1965 invasion of the Dominican
Republic, 1983 bombing of Lebanon, 1983 invasion of Grenada,
1986 bombing of Libya's capital city, 1989 invasion of Panama
or 1991 slaughter in Iraq.
The people didn't vote on the 1993 "humanitarian" invasion
of Somalia in which the Pentagon estimates that it killed
The masses don't get to vote on invasions, or embargoes,
blockades, and sanctions.
The population of this country doesn't get to vote on
whether the United States should kill more than 1.5 million
Iraqis, a majority children and elderly, through hunger and
disease as the result of sanctions.
The decisions to use these levels of force and coercion are
reserved for the state apparatus that pursues a policy to
defend the global interests of U.S. capitalist corporations.
The policy in the Middle East is designed exclusively to serve
the interests of Exxon, Mobil, Texaco, not the workers in the
Power to the people!
Marx believed that this dictatorship of the bourgeoisie
takes a myriad of political forms: a democratic republican
form, military junta or fascist police state. In some cases
even a monarchy.
But beneath the form of government rests a system of
coercion and repression that serves and protects the interests
of the bourgeoisie.
Marx wanted to get rid of this dictatorship of the
bourgeoisie. He saw the need to replace it with a dictatorship
of the proletariat. And he saw this form of state as a
necessary transition to the abolition of all classes into a
Like the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the dictatorship
of the proletariat could assume a myriad of political forms. It
could be very democratic. That's the way the Soviet Union was
during Lenin's lifetime, and Cuba is today. Or it could be less
democratic-the way the Soviet Union became during the Stalin
But the dictatorship of the proletariat is in its essence
the use of state power to defend the interests of the working
class, the poor, the formerly oppressed.
It defends collective ownership of property as a right. It
defends the right to a job, the right to universal health
The dictatorship of workers and oppressed peoples is
required to make racism illegal and to use the state apparatus
to decisively eradicate racism. And to abolish anti-woman
violence, gay bashing and all other reactionary forms of
violence perpetrated against oppressed people.
The dictatorship of the proletariat will ensure that no
landlord will ever evict a tenant again. That no group of
capitalists can own all the property created by the collective
labor of the working class. And no boss can ever again exercise
the authority to lay off the workers.
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