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  • On the Aporias of Marxian PoliticsFrom Civil War to Class Struggle
  • Étienne Balibar (bio)
    Translated by Cory Browning

Before posing the problems of the reconstruction of the concept of politics in Marx, problems that are for the most part without univocal solution, I would like to indicate briefly what brought me to modify the title that I initially proposed—without radically altering the orientation and contents. The original title was “Marx and the Conquest of Democracy.” It alluded to a famous passage in the Manifesto, found at the end of chapter II, more precisely at the moment where Marx, after having presented and refuted a certain number of objections against communism raised by the bourgeoisie, starts to lay out the program of revolutionary measures leading from capitalism to a classless society. Parenthetically, we can take this classless society as an implicit definition of communism, in which, as the last sentence of the chapter states, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” [Manifesto 491]. Marx thus writes: “the first step in the revolution by the working class is the constitution of the proletariat into a ruling class, the conquest of democracy” [Manifesto 490; trans. modified]. The corresponding German expression, die Erkämpfung der Demokratie, could be glossed by saying that the first step is to come to democracy through combat or struggle; consequently, this means that the measures laid out in what follows have themselves a radically democratic character or that they are meant to give rise for the first time in history to a democracy in the absolute sense of the term. This expression, “the conquest of democracy,” belongs then among the formulations, less rare in Marx than one might think, that identify the revolutionary anticapitalist process with both a democratization (if need be, with a democratization of democracy itself, under the limited forms it has taken on until now) and with a destruction of the class structure and its juridical, political, and economic conditions.


The interpretation of this formula naturally requires that we examine its context, and it is here that the difficult problems arise, problems that are first and foremost semantic (or whose semantic dimension we can no longer neglect). This is certainly the case in the close association, underscored by the text, between the process of the conquest of democracy and the necessary use of revolutionary violence to transform that generator of class antagonism, the regime of property and production: [End Page 59]

The proletariat will use its political supremacy [politische Herrschaft] to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie. . . . Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production [vermittelst despotischer Eingriffe in das Eigentumsrecht und in die bürgerlichen Produktionsverhältnisse]. . . . Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another [die organisierte Gewalt einer Klasse zur Unterdrückung einer andern]. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organize itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by violence the old conditions of production [gewaltsam die alten Produktionsverhältnisse aufhebt] . . . it will destroy classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

[Manifesto 490–91; trans. modified]

Even if the word has not yet been uttered, we seem to be dealing here with at least a part of what Marx himself and at least some Marxists will call the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” We should also note here a textual problem that we will return to later: in order to found its conception of a dialectical “sublation” [Aufhebung] of antagonism that is triggered by the intensification of that very antagonism, a conception that follows the schema of the negation of the negation, the text in the original German depends on the double meaning, philosophical and political, of the word Gewalt (and of the derivative gewaltsam). It is a question simultaneously and successively of public power, in this case...


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