Marx and Engels on the Revolutionary Party

August H. Nimtz


Engels began his brief remarks at Marx’s funeral in 1883 by describing his life-long political companion’s ‘scientific’ accomplishments. ‘But he looked upon science above all things as a grand historical lever, as a revolutionary power in the most eminent sense of the word … For he was indeed, what he called himself, a Revolutionist’. As his closest collaborator, Engels knew better than anyone about this indispensable dimension of Marx’s project. If it wasn’t enough, as the young Marx had concluded in 1845, to ‘interpret the world’ but also necessary ‘to change it’, then action and organization were essential. Yet nowhere did Marx lay out a set of clearly articulated principles for revolutionary organization. But if all of his organized political activities are examined – along with those of Engels after Marx’s death – this essay demonstrates it is possible to distill in broad outlines the norms that guided Marx’s approach to revolutionary organizing.

Almost fifty years ago, in the 1967 Socialist Register, Monty Johnstone performed an invaluable service in synthesizing for the first time – certainly in English – Marx and Engels’s views on the revolutionary party. But aside from materials Johnstone didn’t have access to when he published his still quite valuable essay (above all the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW), the most complete compilation of their writings in any language) it’s now easier to verify citations of their writings and, more importantly, to see the larger context in which the citations were originally written. Also, much has passed in real world politics since 1967, not least the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes after 1989, reigniting much-debated questions (which Johnstone didn’t address) about whether the actions of Lenin, let alone Stalin and his successors, were consistent with the views of Marx and Engels. For today’s activists, what are – the question Marx and Engels would have posed – the organizational lessons inspired by their example?

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