This quote is from the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in 1850. This came at a time when major anti-capitalist revolt had just taken place, but also when Marx saw the worker’s movement being co-opted by “petty-bourgeois democrats.” Joseph Moll had just been killed in the Revolution of 1848, one of the largest revolutionary conflicts in European history to date; the end to Austrian serfdom, as well as the end of the Danish and French Capetian monarchy, were both facilitated by the Revolution of 1848. Marx believed that a combination of worker inexperience (both in the context of organization and armed defense) and the influence of the German petty bourgeois were leading a true proletarian movement away from self-realization through an alliance with traditional authoritarian state powers.
Marx also believed that a revolution “will not take this peaceful course,” being sparked by the hands of workers or by counter-revolutionary feudalist violence. As such, an armed proletarian population, equipped and able to fight, was essential for the future worker’s movement. And, by and large, Marx called it all the way up through the 1940’s. The suppression of the Paris Commune, the suppression of syndicalists and minority Marxist, socialist and communist parties in the Spanish Revolution, all the way to the rise of fascism (and the collusion of state socialists) with Franco, Mussolini and Adolf Hitler: all validated Marx’s predictions on worker movements being co-opted by conventional statist interests.
To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized. The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition, and the revival of the old-style citizens’ militia, directed against the workers, must be opposed. Where the formation of this militia cannot be prevented, the workers must try to organize themselves independently as a proletarian guard, with elected leaders and with their own elected general staff; they must try to place themselves not under the orders of the state authority but of the revolutionary local councils set up by the workers. Where the workers are employed by the state, they must arm and organize themselves into special corps with elected leaders, or as a part of the proletarian guard. Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary. The destruction of the bourgeois democrats’ influence over the workers, and the enforcement of conditions which will compromise the rule of bourgeois democracy, which is for the moment inevitable, and make it as difficult as possible – these are the main points which the proletariat and therefore the League must keep in mind during and after the approaching uprising.
The Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League was not in response to monarchists, feudalists, or proto-fascists. Rather, it was in response to the threat from a democratic party in Germany that initially allied with Marx and the Communist League in the Revolution of 1848. Marx described his relationship with what he called the “petty bourgeois democratic party” so:
The relationship of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it cooperates with them against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position.
Just food for thought, particularly for European social democrats — the spiritual descendants of Marx’s “petty bourgeois democratic party” — as well as gun control “liberals” in the United States. And regardless of the many varied opinions on Marx, communism, capitalism, etc. there is a message here that can be applied to revolutionaries of all stripe: beware of alliances with statist authoritarians and political moderates.