between revolution and counter-revolution, and this leads to the kind of insecurity
and division that generates despotism rather than democracy.
The inevitability problem and the liberal tradition
Clearly, the notion of revolution as inevitable creates the problem of supporting
revolutions that generate authoritarian states, and the consequent abuse of human
rights. A scathing attitude towards morality can only aggravate the problem, but it
does not follow from this that all elements of Marxism are authoritarian in
orientation. Here the attitude towards liberalism is crucial. Not only did Marx begin
his political career as a liberal steeped in the ideals of the European Enlightenment,
but when he becomes a communist, he seeks to go beyond, rather than reject, liberal
The distinction between ‘transcending’ and ‘rejecting’ liberalism is crucial to the
argument. To transcend liberalism is to build upon its values and institutions: it is
to develop a theory and practice that extends freedom and equality more consistently
and comprehensively than liberalism is able to do. Socialism as a ‘post-liberalism’
seeks to turn liberal values into concrete realities so that those excluded by classical
liberalism – the workers, the poor, women, dependants – become free and equal, as
part of an historical process which has no grand culminating moment or climax.
Socialism as a ‘pre-liberalism’, on the other hand, negates liberal values by introducing
a system that imposes despotic controls upon the population at large (whatever its
claim to speak in the name of the workers), and it is well described in the Communist
Manifestoas a reactionary socialism because it hurls ‘traditional anathemas’ against
liberalism and representative government (Marx and Engels, 1967: 111).
The problem with Marxism is that it is an amalgam of pre-liberalism and post-
liberalism. It is post-liberal insofar as it stresses the need to build upon, rather than
reject, capitalist achievements. But while (conventionally defined) revolutions make
sense in situations in which legal rights to change society are blocked, in societies
that have, or are attempting to build, liberal institutions, revolutions lead to elitism,
despotism and a contempt for democracy. The notion of class war does not place
enough emphasis on the need to create and consolidate common interests to
campaign in a way that isolates those who oppose progress.
Again there is a tension here in Marx’s writings between his view that a classless
society will eliminate alienation for all, and his argument that the bourgeoisie are
the ‘enemy’ who must be overthrown. This leads to the privileging of the proletariat
as the agent of revolution, and hostility to all who are not proletarians.
The question of class and agency
Socialists are right when they see class as something that is negative; freedom for all,
as Marxism argues, is only possible in a classless society. Class privileges some at
the expense of others. In liberal societies it encourages an abstract approach to be
taken to equality and power so that formal equality coexists with the most horrendous
inequalities of power and material resources. Class is thus divisive, and it generates
the kind of antagonisms that require force (and therefore the state) to tackle them.
230 Part 2 Classical ideologies