Lessons of the Defeated Revolutions

At the time Marx set foot on English soil (August 26, 1849) London, with a population of more than two millions, was the world’s largest city and the capital of a developed capitalist country, the “workshop” of the world. In the spring of 1848, the European revolution had also knocked on England’s door, when the Chartist movement called mass demonstrations for extension of basic democratic rights. But the movement suffered such a heavy defeat that its revolutionary force was extinguished for a long time.

Unlike the openly repressive Prussian regime, England was a parliamentary democracy with bourgeois rights and liberties. The Prussian Government often resorted to direct suppression of the revolutionary movement. In England, on the other hand, there was economic repression-people not to the liking of the ruling class were “separated” from sources of subsistence. Observing the operation of this powerful and elaborate machinery of suppression, Marx saw how superior it was to the antiquated monarchical organization of the Prussian state.

From the beginning of his émigré life in England Marx experienced first-hand the way the mechanism of bourgeois “democracy” worked. The doors of university chairs, publishing houses and editorial offices of newspapers and journals were all closed to him.


After the defeat of the European revolution, England, and especially London, became the centre for political emigrants, alongside Switzerland and the United States of America. At the same time as Marx, or a little later, the most active members of the Communist League also arrived. The London branch of the League became a gathering place for members of the German League who had emigrated. The legally operating Communist Workers’ Educational Association also awoke to new activity.

Marx saw himself confronted by a multitude of tasks. He, along with others, set up a new central bureau of the League. Its immediate task was support for the political refugees from Germany. Marx proposed to a general meeting of the Workers’ Educational Association that a committee be set up to help in this work. The meeting agreed and elected Marx as the Chairman of the committee. A number of members of the committee were also in dire straits, but they decided not to accept anything for them-selves from the solidarity fund. For Marx that was a self-evident expression of Communist morality. He himself struggled with the bitterest poverty during these months.

Marx at the same time as shielding the worker-refugees from hunger, exerted himself to bring the proletarian revolutionaries in exile together again, to strengthen the central bureau of the Communist League and the Communist Workers’ Educational Association and to re-establish connections with the League members who had remained in Germany. This was important, since the spokesmen of the petty-bourgeoie democrats among the emigrants were attempting to unite all the German refugees under their leadership and to get the workers to give up their independent class organizations.


In order to prevent this, Marx redoubled his efforts to reorganize the Communist League quickly and to explain to the worker-refugees the class tasks that confronted them. Like all the other League members, he, too, at that time still expected that the German revolution would break out again in the near future. In that event the working class would have to have a party that operated independently and that would prevent the majority of the proletariat from merely following in the rear of the petty bourgeoisie.

At the beginning of 1850, Marx began to invite the most active members of the League to his home in order to discuss theoretical questions with them. At about the same time, he gave a series of lectures on economic themes and the Communist Manifesto to the Communist Workers’ Educational Association, then made up mostly of German worker-refugees. Wilhelm Liebknecht, a young student refugee who had fought the counter-revolution in Baden with arms in hand and then fled to London via Switzerland, and who was soon to become a loyal pupil friend and comrade-in-arms of Marx and Engels, explained Marx’s method in the following words:

“He introduced a proposition as concisely as possible, and then explained it at greater length, always exerting the greatest care to avoid expressions that the workers could not understand. Then he asked for questions. If there were none, he proceeded to examine his hearers, and he did it with such pedagogical skill that no loophole, no misunderstanding escaped him.”


Marx devoted special attention in the first months of his London exile to the founding of a new Press organ. It was his aim to explain in it what lessons had emerged from the revolution for the future struggle, for the strategy and tactics of the proletariat. Such a journal was vital for the political orientation of the proletarian revolutionaries scattered all over the world; but bringing it into being was most difficult, especially in terms of the money required for its publication.

It was planned to bring it out under the now famous name, Neue Rheiniche Zeitung not as a daily newspaper, how ever, but as a periodical, a political-economic review. It was to be the organ of the Communist League and be distributed not only through bookshops but by League members as well, and in this manner to be drawn directly into the propaganda activities of the League.

After endless preparations, the first issue of Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Politisch—Okonomische Revue appeared in Hamburg early in March 1850 in 2500 copies. The second issue followed in the same month. Four other numbers appeared during the same year.
The most important and most comprehensive articles came from Marx and Engels. It was in the review that Marx published his “Class Struggles in France 1848-50”, and Engels his “The German Movement for a Reich Constitution” and “The Peasant War in Germany.” However with the decline of the revolution the circulation of the journal met with great difficulties, book-dealers, for instance, refused to have anything to do with a revolutionary publication.

Marx held the view that even the most bitter setbacks, even the bloodiest defeats, have a positive side if the people learn from them. The immediate tasks of the Communist League, he believed were to study and generalize the lessons of the revolution, and to help the working masses understand the experiences of the two revolutionary years. He threw himself into this work along with Engels. At the end of March they laid the conclusions to which they had come before the League’s central bureau. The bureau approved the document, the “Address of the Central Bureau to the League of March 1850” and authorised one of its most responsible members, Heinrich Bauer, to go to Germany and transmit it to the Communists working there in illegality.

Marx and Engels could, with justifiable pride, say at the outset of the Address that in the revolutionary years, the League had proved itself in two ways: “….first, in that its members energetically took part in the movement in all places, that in the Press, on the barricades and on the battlefields, they stood in the front ranks of the only decidedly revolutionary class, the proletariat. The League further proved itself in that its conception of the movement…turned out to be the only correct one.” Thus, scientific Communism stood its first test, and this fact was of great importance for the ideological education of workers and for the further development of the Marxist theory.


But the revolution had not fulfilled its mission. Germany had been neither unified nor transformed into a democratic State. The responsibility for this defeat, Marx and Engels declared, lay with big bourgeoisie. Instead of leading the popular masses to the overthrow of feudal rule, it had aligned itself with the counter-revolution against its natural allies, the workers and peasants, only to have the rudder of State torn from its own hands in the end.

In a new revolution, this role would be taken over by the petty bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels wrote. They showed how petty bourgeoisie both during the revolution and in the emigration, had tried to make the proletariat into “an appendage of official bourgeois democracy.” Marx and his comrades vigorously repudiated the political amalgamation of the workers  with the petty bourgeoisie. They declared that the league must work with all its strength “to set up the independent secret and public organisaton of the workers’ party, alongside the official democrats, and to make every local League organization into the centre and heart of workers’ associations, in which the standpoint and the interests of the proletariat are discussed, independently of bourgeois influences.”

With this clear orientation, the fight was again unequivocally taken up against all the opportunist attempt to surrender the working class to the ruling classes.


From the letters coming in to the central bureau and from Heinrich Bauer, who had returned  to Germany, Marx found that the League organizations in Germany had consolidated themselves again Local organizations had been set up once more in a number of large cities. Especially significant was the fact that individual groups and individuals had succeeded in establishing their influence over the many still existing associations of workers, gymnasts, peasants and day-workers.

In June, on the basis of these developments, together with Engels put another Address to the League before the Central Bureau. It called upon the Communists of Germany to pay the closest attention to the legal organizations of the workers and peasants. Marx saw in this the logical continuation of the tactics pursued by him and his co-workers during the revolution of 1848-49, the further development of their battle for a national revolutionary workers’ party.

In the March Address, Marx explained and deepened his earlier view that the working class, in a future revolution, would have to transform the bourgeois –democratic revolution, step by step, into a proletarian-Socialist revolution. The petty bourgeoisie would do everything to leave the bourgeois system and the wage-slavery of the workers untouched. But it would be in the interests of the proletariat “to make the revolution permanent till all the smaller or larger owning classes, with more or less wealth, have been driven from power, and the State power is conquered by the proletariat.”

For that, however, the proletariat must arm itself and create its own organs of power, that is, revolutionary workers’ Governments; if necessary, alongside the bourgeois Government. That was the appeal Marx and Engels directed to the workers. Many decades later, in the preparation and carrying through of the Great October Socialist Revolution, this concept of the growth of the democratic revolution into the Socialist revolution, further developed by Lenin in terms of conditions in the 20th century, was to play a decisive role. But in the 19th century, this task was not yet on the agenda.

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