The economic republicanism of early bourgeois socialism

January 31, 2014 in History, Theory by Thomas Chefsky

This article by JR is a commentary on “economic republicanism”, a political trend in the United States around the time of Lincoln. It intends to complement some writings from the Marxist Center about the democratic republic. Thomas’s recent article about the democratic republic for example lacks an explanation of the republican ideas of bourgeois socialism. Read the rest of this entry →

A small history of the democratic republic in the US

January 15, 2014 in History by Thomas Chefsky

Marx and Engels referred to the United States as a democratic republic even though the United States of America almost never called itself a genuine democracy before the Second World War. Even now, the popular usage of the word democracy in the US is contested. Were Marx and Engels wrong? And what does “democratic republic” mean? Read the rest of this entry →

by Geary

Is Engels’ “Conditions of the Working Class” still relevant today?

January 9, 2014 in History by Geary

Marx’s Razor contributes a helpful look at Engels’ Condition of the English Working Class and its lessons for today.


Friedrich Engels in 1839

It was in 1845 that Engels’ “Condition of the English Working Class” was published, and whilst it may not be applicable to Manchester today, parallels can certainly be drawn to modern China. Engels witnessed first hand the horrors of developing capitalism during his two year stay in Manchester as a student, whilst detailing them in order to write a book on what he had seen.

Young Friedrich was sent to Manchester by his parents in 1842, with the intent of ridding him of radical views. His father was a conservative textile manufacturer from the Rhineland, and was becoming increasingly worried by the circle of Young Hegelians Engels had been associating with in Berlin. Whilst the young Friedrich should have been obediently performing his military service, he was actually in the beer rooms and lecture halls of Berlin University where the philosophies of Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach and David Strauss were fiercely debated, and lots of beer was consumed! All of which led him to abandon his Protestantism for Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, prior to then associating with the “communist rabbi” Moses Hess. Hess taught the young Friedrich that capitalism was just as dehumanising a force as Christianity. So what did this “communist rabbi” suggest as a solution? Socialism: the abolition of private property and an end to alienation that resulted from the capitalist economy.

England would lead the march towards socialism, it would provide the tinder which would light the revolutionary fires of proletarian revolution. Why? Because England was where the industrial revolution had begun. The industrial revolution had left a colossal divide between rich and poor- between those who owned the means of production, and those who didn’t. England, being the first country to have a bourgeois and industrial revolution was where the proletariat was most advanced. Engels planned to utilise his two years in one of the main industrial cities of the country to collect the material evidence he needed to prove his political theories.

From 1842-1844, Engels lived a sort of double life- he worked during the day at the Ermen & Engels mill in Salford, before stepping foot into the squalid dwellings of the Manchester proletarians at night time.
“I forsook the company and the dinner-parties, the port-wine and champagne of the middle classes, and devoted my leisure-hours almost exclusively to intercourse with plain working men”, to put it in his own words. He visited the Owenite Halls of Science, conversed with Chartists, watched a brickmakers’ riot, and his Irish lover Mary Burns have him a tour of the city, showing him the human cost of capitalist society.

On the south-side of the city, very close to Oxford road, was the place where the majority of Manchester’s 40,000 Irish Immigrants resided; the area was aptly named “Little Ireland”. Burns’ fellow-countrymen were the most exploited, worst paid and cruelly treated of all the city’s residents. Engels describes it as follows: “The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity.”

The young Friedrich was relentless in his recording the “social war” (as he put it) waged by the bourgeoisie on the workers of the industrial city. Workplaces – mills, mines, factories, farms – all were home to horrific crimes. “Women made unfit for childbearing, children deformed, men enfeebled, limbs crushed, whole generations wrecked, afflicted with disease and infirmity, purely to fill the purses of the bourgeoisie.” Engels was furious at Manchester’s bourgeois: “I once went into Manchester with a bourgeois, and spoke to him of … the frightful condition of the working people’s quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: ‘And yet there is a great deal of money made here; good morning, sir.”

Engels describes the city’s layout as a “planless, knotted chaos of houses”, yet he was all too aware of the unpleasant logic behind the city’s structure, which made sure the bourgeoisie never had to see what they had caused to happen. Manchester’s bourgeoisie lived in the “breezy heights” of Cheetham Hill and Broughton. They could travelalong Deansgate into town “without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left.” Engels understood that the city’s architectural design and layout – its streets, houses, factories, and warehouses – were expressions of social and political power. The class war between bourgeois and proletariat was clear to see in street design, transport system and planning process.

It was 1845 by the time the book was published in Leipzig- Engels wrote the book back at home in Barmen. The book’s initial reception was unenthusiastic, with a few grudging reviews in the bourgeois press. It was only published in England in 1892, with a preface from Engels attempting to save British socialism from the misdirection of the Fabians and William Morris.

This book is not just of historical interest, or a way to see how the co-founder of scientific socialism came to hold the views which he is famous for. With Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRIC countries, as they are known) experiencing just the kind of rapid economic growth that transformed British society in the 1800s – villages and towns turning into cities, peasants swapping fields for factories and becoming workers, and mass exploitation all to grind out higher GDP and increase profits – Engels’ book, to answer the title of this article, is immensely relevant. In what is one of the largest mass migrations of people in history, around 120 million Chinese peasants have, since 1980, moved from the countryside to the city, and to read accounts of contemporary urban China is to read Engels’ account of Victorian Manchester, only modernised and sino-fied. Cancer rates soar along polluted waterways; rivers are turned black by industrial waste; water is unsafe to drink; acid rain strips forests; approximately 300,000 die prematurely each year from air pollution; a generation of children is being brought up with high levels of lead poisoning. China, like Manchester in 1844, has the title “the workshop of the world”, and the special economic zone of Shanghai appears scarily similar to 1840s Manchester.

Compare Engels’ account of a spinning mill- “In the cotton and flax spinning mills there are many rooms in which the air is filled with fluff and dust … The usual consequences of inhaling factory dust are the spitting of blood, heavy, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughing and sleeplessness … Accidents occur to operatives who work in rooms crammed full of machinery”- with an account of a migrant worker in China 2000- “There is no fixed work schedule. A 12-hour workday is minimum. Our legs are always hurting. There is no place to sit on the shop floor. The machines do not stop during our lunch breaks. Three workers in a group will just take turns eating, one at a time … The shop floor is filled with thick dust. Our bodies become black working day and night indoors. When I get off from work and spit, it’s all black.”

The reader may think capitalism has progressed from the horrors of the industrial revolution which are described in Engels’ book, yet this is not the case. Capitalism, no matter what mask it puts on, creates the accumulation of massive wealth at one pole and the accumulation of poverty, despair and misery at the other pole. The social war Engels writes about has not ceased, but in the west it has become less obvious than work related deformations (which still occur in the BRIC countries). The austerity measures enforced by the western bourgeoisie assault the few gains of the proletariat, and the proletariat puts up little resistance. The social war has existed, both hidden and open, since the formation of classes and will continue for as long as classes exist. Players in the game change; victors become the defeated and the new victors take their place; old classes are transformed into new ones with the changing of the mode of production, but the social war continues. Yet, for the first time in history there are now only two camps which have a part to play in current society. Thus the social war is drawing to an end: either a destruction of the species, or of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat, after destroying or absorbing all other classes, will abolish itself as a class; the state has now completely withered away, having no class to control it; we now have socialism: the free association of equals, cooperative labour, and common property.

We are left with two choices- the proletariat can seize the means of production and begin it’s journey on the road to socialism, or capitalism’s destructive nature will destroy the earth, rendering it inhabitable; we are left with the choice of socialism or barbarism.

The Tower of Bebel (part 3 of 3)

October 31, 2013 in History, Party & Programme by Thomas Chefsky

While the Socialist International Congress in Brussels of 1891 was coming to a close, a small city nearby, famous for the development of its industries and socialist workers’ organisations, was preparing to welcome the delegates during their last days in Belgium. Proud as they were, the socialists from the city of Ghent did their best to promote their model of a socialist workers’ movement. A model that became an example for many abroad who thought the Liebknecht-Bebel model of social democracy in Germany was too revolutionary or would not last. These echoes of Belgium went as far as Russia.

An assembly in Ghent celibrating the 25th anniversary of the socialist co-op movement.

An assembly in Ghent celebrating the 25th anniversary of the socialist co-op movement.

“No one can be missed”, wrote Vooruit, Ghent’s socialist daily. For the next couple of days the paper would continuously appeal to the socialist artisans and artists to prepare for an excursion. Just 50 kilometres from Brussels, Belgium’s capital, nineteenth-century Ghent was a small industrial city dubbed “the Manchester on the continent” because it was the earliest industrialised city outside of Great-Britain. Because of that, it had a strong socialist workers’ movement. One that was about to show its strength to the international delegates who had gathered in Brussels for the first unified congress of what was to become the Second International.

On Tuesday, the second day of the international socialist congress, the Belgian social democratic leader Edward Anseele had announced the preparations for an excursion to Ghent. He reminded the congress of the Flemish Socialist Party, a forerunner of the Belgian Workers’ Party, a party modelled after the Germans which had its mainstay in Ghent. He told the delegates how this party had played an important role in the earliest attempts to refound the International after the collapse of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) in the 1870’s.

The German revolutionary Wilhelm Liebknecht remembered his visit to Ghent well. There he attended the international congress of 1877, an attempt of the Flemish socialists to salvage what was left of the social democratic (“Marxist”) and anarchist forces that had once made up the IWA. In his own words, Ghent was already in the 1870’s “the citadel of socialism”.

While all of the Ghent’s socialist gymnasts, musicians, propagandists, seamstresses and painters were preparing for the event, the representatives at the congress in Brussels are still debating the last issues of the day. The discussion on the First of May, international workers’ day, and on the adoption of a uniform name for the whole of the International, seemed to suggest that despite some disputes and differences of opinion, the Second International was one and indivisible.

Jean Volders, the Belgian who chairs the congress, announces that the congress has come to a conclusion. He reminds his guests that this is the first unified socialist congress in history and that “we leave this international assembly stronger, more united and with more solidarity than ever before”. Several speakers come to the front. In name of the Germans, August Bebel congratulates the congress with its greatness and dignity. Using that distinct cutting voice of his, he underlines the considerable significance of the assembly. He reminds his friends of the admirable spectacle given by the workers to the possessing classes and rulers, which forces them to recognize the power of the working class. This congress, he adds, is the most beautiful, the best he has ever seen.

After congratulating some of the individual attendees, Bebel shakes hands with Volders and hugs him amid  a loud and enthusiastic applausse from the floor. He really knew how to entertain his audience, it is true. Edward Anseele, standing among the Belgian representatives watches Bebel. This man, he must have thought, has to come and speak to the workers in Ghent. His city’s main socialist newspaper, Vooruit, wrote about Bebel one week later: “If only we could establish in the brains of every worker such a “Tower of Bebel” and build it further”. After everyone has spoken, Volders proposes to end the congress with the singing of the international revolutionary hymn: the Marseillaise.

“The Manchester on the continent, the capital of socialism”

By the end of the 19th century, the Belgian town of Ghent had build a whole socialist economy based on consumer co-operatives

By the end of the 19th century, the Belgian town of Ghent had build a whole socialist economy based on consumer co-operatives

On 23 Augusts 1891, at the start of a sultry Sunday morning in Ghent, a socialist tambourine and clarion band heads out to wake up the locals sometime before 9 a.m. Riders on white horses, former Internationalists who joined the IWA in the 1860’s, a brass band and so forth. At 9 a.m. all organisations and clubs of the socialist workers’ movement in Ghent gather near the market square in front of the building of their revered co-ops. From there a processions marches through the small industrial city towards the central station. In Brussels, meanwhile, a few hundred international and local guests from the congress prepare for their free trip to Ghent.

Of the 175 international guests at the congress, 160 responded to the invitation of the Ghent social democrats to visit their city. An enormous success because in their wake follow another 350 socialists from the city of Brussels. But when the train from Brussels arrives around noon, thunder-clouds gather over the city. Those responsible for the proceedings of the festival look up, they stroke their heavy moustaches and look at each other worried: there’s a cloudburst coming.

In order to not to lose time, the local leaders of the Belgian Workers’ Party squeeze in between huge crowds of people to greet their esteemed guests on the tune of the Marseillaise with red banners all around them. Vooruit welcomes the internationalists in “the old revolutionary city, the cradle of freedom in Flanders”. It emphasises how the workers “have erected great buildings institutions that compelled their enemies to show respect”.

When the procession goes back to the market square, it goes through the luxurious quarters that the bourgeoisie had built for itself only a few years before. Now the socialists show them who’s about to rule in this place. A long row of local party members leads the socialist internationalists towards the cooperative buildings near the market square. The socialist newspapers marvelled at the enthusiasm displayed by the crowds.

Edward Anseele, as the local leader of the BWP, who had once tried to copy the ideas and accomplishments of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, serves his guests port and bonbons and invites Bebel to speak. “Never will we forget”, Bebel exclaims, “what we have felt, heard and seen in socialist Ghent. A city of which we have heard so many speak and of which we’ve read so much! If Ghent is the Belgian Manchester in terms of its industry, then it is also the capital of socialism. Without a doubt it stands at the head of the socialist movement.”

The guests are invited to a banquet in the same hall were the international revolutionaries of 1877 had once dined. Representatives from almost all countries that were represented at the congress give small speeches to celebrate the congress and the impressiveness of the socialist oeuvre they had seen in Ghent so far. At 4 p.m. the most important part of the excursion starts: a guided tour along the buildings of the Vooruit “empire”, a cooperative network so big it had its own textile factories, industrial bakeries, coal warehouses and shops.

The visitors are reminded of the Maison du Peuple in Brussels and are told about the gigantic bread factories of Joliment in the south of Belgium, the biggest producer of bread in the country – so the Belgian socialists claimed. Back then, there were already vague plans to build two “workers’ palaces”, one for the trade unions and the mutual aid societies, the other for the workers’ clubs such as socialist libraries, gymnasts, musicians, etc. The message of the excursion is clear: this city is ours and the Belgian model works. The visitors take note. “They couldn’t get enough of it”, boasts Vooruit the next day.

As the tour ends, the brass band guides the internationalists back to the train station. Not a moment too early. All the guests rush into the station under the loud noise of heavy raindrops clattering on the glass roof above the black locomotives. In the meantime the typesetters of Vooruit are already busy producing the next issue of the paper. “All foreigners [foreign guests] agreed to call Ghent the socialist capital of Belgium. We have to remain worthy of such fame, and have to strengthen it. To make this beacon in poor Flanders, this socialist Ghent, what it once was during the Middle Ages: not only the [socialist] capital of Flanders and Belgium, but of the [socialist] world International.”

Meanwhile, in Brussels, crowds with red flags and a band are awaiting the visitors at the station so they can escort them. At nightfall torches are added to the procession. On the tunes of the Marseillaise they enter the Maison du Peuple. There the crème de la crème of the late 19th century socialist workers’ movement exchanges their last regards. And “this”, the official report of the BWP wrote, “was the end of the congress”.

“Like children, the masses are allured only by results”

Anseele speaks at a rally in Ghent for general suffrage

Anseele speaks at a rally in Ghent for general suffrage

Though August Bebel was impressed by the economic and cultural patrimony of Belgian socialism in the 1890’s, he struggled with the idea that this could be regarded as a model for international social democracy. By the mid 1870’s, after the Gotha congress that had unified the German social democratic party, Bebel had mainly focused on building the party institutions. The pillars of the party were a democratic press, its political programme for taking political power through the overthrow of the empire and its branches while trade unions and cooperatives functioned mainly as auxiliaries.

The pivot on which the whole Belgian experience hinged, the key to understanding what they meant by their “programme of practical reforms”, was precisely the consumer co-operative. The Belgian historian Hendrik Defoort describes how the German Marxists had always counterpoised the political party and the programme of highly political demands to this Belgian model. Karl Kautsky kept referring back to the political goals of the Erfurt programme of 1891 while Bebel focused on the defence of the tactics of the SPD. Luxemburg, who was still new to the SPD, used the debate around the millennium to popularise revolutionism and she dismissed the potential of workers’ co-operatives on the basis of some of the conclusions Bebel had already drawn in the 1860’s.

But it wasn’t the excursion to Ghent which had sparked the debate. On the contrary, the initial push came from inside German social democracy. “The question of the capabilities of [cooperative and cultural] associations has hitherto been treated very curiously in the Marxist literature”, wrote Edward Bernstein in his notorious 1899 work Evolutionary Socialism. “If one leaves out of the question the literature of the ’sixties, one will find in it, with the exception of very general, mostly negative, observations, very little about the co-operative movement. The reasons for this negligence are not far to seek.”

As part of his initial series on the gradual growing into socialism of capitalism, the cooperative movement was given a prominent place by the German Marxist turned reformist Eduard Bernstein. It was this series which sparked the so called revisionism debate in Germany and the rest of Europe as well. Having described the reasons for the dismissal of the co-operative movement by German Marxists, he reminds his readers of the recent but relative success of this movement outside Germany.

“We can consider it as proven”, he writes, “that the co-operative society has shown itself to be an economic factor of importance, and if other countries are behind England in this, it has taken firm root in Germany, France, Belgium, etc., and gains ground more and more.” Such interventions by well-known socialists made it almost impossible for the Marxist leadership around Bebel to further ignore the issue. But that wasn’t all of it. The debate was not a strictly German one but spread rapidly to other sections of the International as well.

Just like Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, who had re-interpreted the programme of the French Workers’ Party they had produced with the help of Marx and Engels in 1880, the Belgians had cherished a reformist re-interpretation of the German socialist programme. It was a vision of the programme which had also inspired the so called “economistic” tendencies within Russian social democratic circles. In Lenin Rediscovered, historian Lars T. Lih describes how in 1902 the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich, in an article written for a German audience, had observed that “in the beginning of the movement the generally acknowledged model for Russian Social Democrats was German Social Democracy. In contrast, during the time of economism, the model that was set forth was that of the English trade unions and the Belgian party with its co-operatives”.

Another Russian, Prokopovich, saw in the Belgian party a genuine model. He quotes one [Louis] Bertrand who asks: “What is the reason for the success of the worker party up till now – the socialist ideal or our programme of practical reforms?” His answer is according to Prokopovich is reforms, since “the [socialist] ideal allures only the more enlightened and more intellectual part of the working class”. Lih found it most striking how Prokopovich summed up the general feeling of Belgian socialists: “The masses are like children: visual demonstration is what strikes them. Like children, the masses are allured only by immediate and current results – not by high, abstract ideals”.

Culminating in the so called revisionism debate around the millennium, Bebel considered this current within German social democracy defeated.  Yet the co-ops made quick headway, which urged some social democrats to rethink the strategic ideas behind their party programme. So in reality right wing leaders, notably those who came from the trade union movement, kept referring back to the British and Belgian experience. This reformist influence on social democratic strategy was also reflected on the international level by the attitude of the French leader Jean Jaurès towards government participation.


“It is impossible to begin to discuss this question because it has not yet matured.” At the closing of the 1891 international congress, Jean Volders had proposed to postpone the question of a uniform name for the whole of the Socialist International. Another congress, he said, would sometime in the future decide on it. The first ever unified congress of the Socialist International had ended in a mood of unity although still many issues had to be discussed. In the years after the congress, different sections, in so far as they represented competing ideas within the socialist workers’ movement, put forward or supported separate social democratic models.

This internal debate on the strategy and tactics of social democracy only ended during and after the First World War when the Marxist wing of most parties finally crumbled and many genuine revolutionaries left their respective parties to found the Third “Communist” International in the early twenties. Many of those who had witnessed the debates of the Brussels congress were then already dead or had lost their positions as social democratic leaders because of old age. Unity of politics was not a given in the International. Until his death in 1913, Bebel was preoccupied with the question of both taking political power independently and the class-unity of the workers’ movement. The SPD eventually ended up in 1918 with bourgeois strings attached to the party and a break-up with the radical wing.

The many debates waged within international social democracy indeed represented a Babylonial tower. Not only the languages that people spoke, but also the differences of opinion in terms of strategy and tactics have defined this feature of the socialism of the Second International. Back in 1891, the name Tower of Bebel was not just a conservative joke. It was indeed Bebel who, through his German delegation, influenced many of the debates on that congress. The Belgian reaction, to use his fame to put forward their own model against the ideas of the German Marxists does not contradict this. It is a genuine expression of the complexity of the socialist workers’ movement back in its heydays.


  1. Newsclippings of the 1891 International Socialist Congress, from The Times
  2. International socialist workers’ congress held at Brussel, Belgian report from 1893
  3. Articles and reports from the 1891 Congress, from Vooruit (Belgian socialist newspaper)
  4. Lenin Rediscovered. WITBD? in context, by Lars T. Lih.
  5. Werklieden, bemint uw profijt, by Hendrik Defoort.
  6. Evolutionary Socialism, by Eduard Bernstein

The Tower of Bebel (part 2 of 3)

September 4, 2013 in History, Party & Programme by Thomas Chefsky

Thomas continues with his three-part on Bebel and the congress of 1891 in Brussels.

Socialists can do nothing to stop the war, they can only use it to spread socialist awareness.

Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel (1889). A life-long struggle against capitalist wars and the general strike tactic.

This is the second part of a three-part series on the influence of August Bebel and of German social democracy in general on the proceedings of the international socialist congress of 1891 1. We left off on Wednesday morning August 19, with the vote on protective labour legislation. This important debate featured a speech by German party leader August Bebel, who reaffirmed the unity within the German party and who defended the general Marxist attitude towards labour legislation. After a short discussion on the Jewish question had resolved that the Jewish worker cannot liberate himself when he does not struggle together with the international proletariat, the congress moved on to the more contentious issues of international organisation and tactics. In part three I will use the last days of the congress to discuss the existence of conflicting social democratic models within the Socialist International. Read the rest of this entry →

  1. I’ve used three sources for the proceedings of the Brussels congress of 1891. (They are listed below.) One source is made up of articles from the Times. Though this source omits certain parts of the debates and is focused on British speakers and British affairs, it is a fairly honest report. The other two are Belgian sources and it occurred to me that one is more cautious than the other when it comes to describing what was meant or even said. The official Belgian report  from 1893, it seems to me, is more conservative than the report from the Flemish (Ghent) socialist paper Vooruit. When it comes to quoting, Vooruit seems to be more precise. According to the official report for example, the resolution on strike action advised the workers not to go on strike without any assurance of success. However, the Ghent report writes about local strikes being insufficient because “the workers’ question is one and international, and can only be solved through international means”. Comparison was needed, hence the use of three sources.

The Tower of Bebel (part 1 of 3)

August 13, 2013 in History, Party & Programme by Thomas Chefsky

Thomas is delving into the early history of the modern workers movement and one of its giants: August Bebel who today died exactly 100 years ago.


 A giant of the workers movement

The launch of this site marks the 100th aniversary of August Bebel’s death. Bebel was the leader of the German social democratic party from its inception until his death in 1913. By using Bebel as a guide, I delve into the proceedings of the second congress of the Socialist International of 1891. This article about the attitude of both Bebel and the Second International towards labour legislation is the first of a three-part series. Part two will conclude the congress while part three will tell you more about the propagation of a Belgian social democratic model and how came into conflict with Bebel’s social democracy. Read the rest of this entry →