Just as the word ‘people’ has been given an aura of sanctity by the democrats, so you have done the same for the word ‘proletariat.’ — Karl Marx, “Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne”
The contradiction between theory and practice, and by extension the contradictions between intellectuals and workers, is one of the primary political problems in the history of Marxism. This is partly because communist politics is the result of the merger between the workers movement and Marxist theory. The workers movement existed before Marxism was even conceptualized, as the development of capitalism in England and France entailed class struggles between the ascending bourgeoisie and the mass of dispossessed laborers. As Friedrich Engels details in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, there were conceptions of socialism prior to Marxism. So while class struggle and socialism existed before Marxism, Marxists introduced a rigorous analysis of capitalism which could serve as the foundation for working class struggle. This merger of Marxist theory with the working class was conceptualized by Karl Kautsky, one of the founders of the German Socialist Party (SPD), and would become the basis of modern socialist organization.
In the merger of Marxist theory and working class struggle, theory is brought from outside the working class by intellectuals. After all, Marx was not a worker (even though he spent most of his life in both exile and semi-poverty), and his research was funded by the factory-owner’s son Engels. Other famous early Marxists like Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, and Lukács all came from bourgeois or petty-bourgeois backgrounds. The leadership in early communist parties was historically dominated by intellectuals from this type of background. The following contradiction emerges: revolutionary theory and party leadership are occupied by petty-bourgeois intellectuals who are supposed to represent the interests of the working class. While workers have their own form of organization with labor unions, and have historically composed a sizable portion of party membership, the bulk of Marxist political writings revolve around how to mediate this contradiction in political practice.
The positing of this contradiction between theory and practice persists today. Anyone involved in organizing will hear discourse about it, and I have often heard organizers and socialists bemoan the dominance of theory within leftist organizations. There is a frustration that organizations spend a lot of time discussing and debating theory, rather than engaging in practice. This conjures up images of Marxist micro-sects composed of students rehashing debates from the Comintern in a dorm room, or the students in Jean Luc Godard’s La Chinoise discussing imperialism and the Cultural Revolution without ever engaging in politics at the level of organization. In an article reflecting on the collapse of the Marxist Center, Renato Flores laments the dominance of theory in contemporary organizing: “there is an overabundance of leftists, with many roadmaps or toolkits which purportedly will achieve this universal emancipation, but without a movement to act on.” In other words, Flores thinks there is a surplus of political theories without any movement to intervene in.
As I have already mentioned, the dichotomy between theory and practice extends into a dichotomy between workers and intellectuals, another central category of Marxist theory. Intellectuals represent theory, considering they are the ones who produced and imported it into the class struggle, and workers represent practice, as they are the agents of the class struggle. And like the dichotomy between theory and practice, the workers and intellectuals couplet also persists in contemporary organizing. Organizers often think of themselves as intellectuals, despite the fact that many of them are workers too (in the sense that they sell their labor-power in exchange for a wage, and are thus subjected to the brutalities of the capitalist labor market). A good example comes from Sophia Burns, a former organizer and theorist whose conception of base-building gained popularity in both the Marxist Center and the contemporary left. She says, “US leftism has lost that awareness [of the distinction between workers and intellectuals]. To hear any faction of DSA (or Marxist Center) talk, K-12 teachers, college professors, and even professional athletes are proletarians. Instead of dedicating their lives to serving the masses, intellectual-class radicals would rather band together with each other and creatively redefine the proletariat to include themselves.” Neglecting the obvious fact that most teachers and professors are wage-laborers and are exploited, she concludes, “the way forward is to steadily and patiently gain experience with class struggle, gradually cultivate a base among the dispossessed.” Burns’ response to the struggles of establishing a communist politics in this conjuncture is to focus on organizing the most exploited sections of the working class. This is an obvious departure from typical Marxist politics which would seek to organize the most politically advanced sections of the working class. The reason for this departure is that there is today no mass base of workers like what existed for most of the 20th century. In order to combat disorganization, communists need to rebuild the base of communist politics through the establishment of labor and tenant unions, along with other forms of mass work.
While I share many critiques of the contemporary social democratic milieu, embodied by the DSA and Jacobin, I find Burns’ conception of class to be completely mystified with harmful effects in organizing. This logic results in the categories of an “us” (organizers) and “them” (real workers to be organized), which both creates a sense of guilt and burden for organizers, while undermining the initiative and capacity for the self-organization of the latter. I recently attended a talk by Robin D. G. Kelley, where he commented on the notion that white organizers feel compelled to lead the movement and organize the multiracial masses, which neglects the historical reality that revolutionary movements in the US have largely been led by black radicals. Instead of organizers feeling the need to organize the “dispossessed,” we need to start from the premise that the dispossessed (or masses, or “real” workers) are already organizing themselves. The historic insurrections of 2020 are evidence of this, as millions of people, including many who are exterior to the left, swarmed the streets and experimented with new forms of struggle. As Salar Mohandesi observes in his “Party as Articulator,” the left was largely unprepared for the uprisings and struggled to intervene. While Burns might view the failure of the left to support her argument, my disagreements are about why the left was unable to intervene. I don’t think it was necessarily caused by the failure of leftists to orient organization around the most dispossessed, but rather, a symptom of general disorganization. While the uprisings failed to result in any meaningful form of organization that could lay the groundwork for future struggles, a la the invention of the soviets in 1905, this takes us into new problems which I will touch on more in the concluding section of the essay. Regardless, this notion that workers and social groups are already organizing and experimenting displaces the initiative of organizers from organizing these communities to building connections with the organizational forms that these communities have already built.
The logic of an “us” and “them” in organizing is premised on a false notion that organizers are largely not working class, and reinforces the idea that organizers are somehow external to political movements. I still share many premises of base building, and agree on its strategic necessity in our conjuncture, but those who are unorganized are not external to organizers. Those who are unorganized may be our friends, neighbors, or coworkers – there are already existing relationships and shared interests based on class or politics. I do not believe that a hegemony of intellectuals/organizers over “real” workers and an emphasis on theory is the cause of our ills. This conception of politics stems out of the Marxist tradition, and while I think that the merger formula is historically true, in the sense that it is an accurate representation of the history of communist politics, I want to investigate whether it should still persist to describe the goals of contemporary communist politics. To do so, I will investigate the meaning and coherency of theory, practice, workers, and intellectuals within Marxism.
Theory and Practice
Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach are fundamental in the development of Marxist theory, and the second thesis lays out the dominant conception of theory and practice within Marxism. He says, “whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” In other words, there is a distinction between theory and practice, which has long been an opposition within philosophy, and the criterion of truth (or theory) can only be verified through practice. To frame this more concretely, if an individual makes an argument for how communists ought to intervene politically, whether tactically or strategically via organization, then the validity of this argument can only be determined based on how it plays out in practice. The last thesis, the eleventh, is the most famous. Marx says that, “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” While Marx wasn’t the first philosopher to emphasize a conception of philosophy oriented around practice, he is the most significant holder of this view.
It’s important to note that these theses were published posthumously as the appendix to Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. They should be taken with a grain of salt, especially since Marx does not elaborate on any of the theses, even if their themes can be found elsewhere throughout his work. Furthermore, Marx immediately switched his focus from philosophy to the critique of political economy after writing these theses, and neither Marx nor Engels would not write about philosophy again until the latter’s Anti-Duhring in 1877. Louis Althusser says,
This prophetic sentence produced no new philosophy immediately, at any rate, no new philosophical discourse, quite the contrary, it merely initiated a long philosophical silence… Here we have a strange situation indeed: a Thesis which seems to announce a revolution in philosophy – then a thirty-year long philosophical silence.
Althusser thus attributes the theses to Marx’s transition from a focus on philosophy to the critique of political economy that would begin after the Revolutions of 1848, culminating in Capital. Instead of producing a new philosophy of praxis, Marx turned towards the critique of political economy in order to develop a scientific conception of history and society.
Thus, in the dominant conception of theory and practice in Marxism, the two form a dialectical unity where practice takes primacy. As Mao Zedong says in On Contradiction, “in the contradiction between theory and practice, practice is the principal aspect.” This stems out of the materialist basis of Marxism, which can roughly be defined by the primacy of matter over thought. Since practice unfolds in the realm of matter, it takes primacy over theory, which is by definition a product of thought. However, Mao adds, “it must also be admitted that in certain conditions, such aspects as the relations of production, theory and the superstructure in turn manifest themselves in the principal and decisive role.” After all, as Lenin says, in order for there to be revolutionary practice, there needs to be revolutionary theory. The potential for inverting the primacy of either theory or practice is rooted in the dialectic of Marxism. Mao says, “when a task, no matter which, has to be performed, but there is as yet no guiding line, method, plan or policy, the principle and decisive thing is to decide on a guiding line, method, plan or policy.” Theory becomes primary when there is no existing plan, and practice becomes primary once a plan has been created.
The Merger Thesis and Communist Politics
As touched upon in the introduction, the fusion of the working class and socialist politics is a product of the external importation of theory into the working class. In other words, theory was brought into the working class from the outside by intellectuals, who are usually considered petty-bourgeois. The process of importing Marxist theory has always been difficult, and the bulk of Marxist political writings revolve around mediating this tension. Marxists have usually been self-conscious of this tension, and the dominant form of Marxism in the 20th century, Marxism-Leninism, is an attempted solution to this problem. In Lenin’s framework, the immediate task of communist organization is the construction of a vanguard party that will lead the proletariat in the revolution. Lenin’s vanguardism is premised on two key notions: 1) that the vanguard has developed the most advanced knowledge of the conjuncture, which places them in a privileged position to dictate strategy and tactics. The ability to decipher the conjuncture comes with the aid of revolutionary theory (Marxism); 2) the vanguard is necessary because the workers movement alone cannot spontaneously develop revolutionary theory on their own. The history of working class politics demonstrates that, for the most part, the limit of working class organization is trade-unionism. Since the working class movement in itself is insufficient for revolution, the vanguard party is necessary to drive the movement towards revolutionary ends. Thus, in the Leninist schema, the vanguard is largely composed of intellectuals who lead the great mass of workers. It does not take a prophet to see how the vanguard could cut themselves off from the rest of the workers and believe that they are above the class they are supposed to represent. Or from an anarchist perspective, the danger that the vanguard party ends up reproducing a hierarchical relationship for the working class, where they are yet again on the bottom.
Lenin and other Marxists tried to theorize mechanisms in which the working class can hold the party accountable. For one, a vanguard party is only possible if it is able to organize workers and demonstrate to them that their strategy is in their best interests. If the vanguard was unable to earn the trust of the workers, then they would be no vanguard at all. In the State and Revolution, Lenin lays out a model, largely inspired by Engels’ Origins of the Family, for how a revolutionary state would function. Since the state is by definition an alien force which stands above and separate from the people it governs, Lenin attempts to theorize mechanisms to prevent this from happening in the dictatorship of the proletariat. He turns, following Marx and Engels, to the Paris Commune. The Communards instituted mechanisms and policies to ensure that their government would not become bureaucratic, such as:
- The right to recall representatives – if the people were dissatisfied with an official or representative, they could motion to remove them from their post.
- Paying representatives similar wages to workers, which were far below the previous wages for government officials.
- The abolition of rent.
- Judges elected by the people themselves.
- The occupation and administration of factories by trade unions, along with the abolition of fines against workers.
- The use of empty houses for refugees.
- The organization of workers unions for women.
In the Commune, the state was supposed to serve the people, rather than the people becoming subservient to the state. Lenin’s vision for the USSR, with the Commune as his model, never came to fruition as the party became the state in the USSR, subordinating every other form of organization to it. While Lenin advanced the maxim that CLR James would later adopt – “every cook can govern” – the party-state became hegemonic, both within the USSR and throughout socialist politics in general. Some explanation can be attributed to the Russian Civil War which immediately followed the 1917 Revolution, where the decimation of resources and morale forced the USSR to alter their course towards “war communism.” But regardless of why the USSR developed the way it did, the soviets played no role and workers’ self-governance was never actualized. Instead, the USSR became a representative welfare state.
Within the Marxist-Leninist framework, a proposed solution to the problems encountered by the USSR came in the form of Maoism and the Chinese Revolution. For Mao, the intellectuals (theory) need to be held accountable to the workers (practice). He says,
In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily ‘from the masses, to the masses’. This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action.
Revolutionaries using the mass line synthesize and clarify the ideas of the masses, and then test them through political practice to determine their correctness. The mass line is also supposed to counter the development of revisionism within the party. A good example of this critique, and the way it illuminated the mindset of Maoists, comes from Maoyuan Hongqi, a Chinese student who studied in East Germany in the 1960s. Hongqi is intensely critical of the East German university system, arguing that the universities are revisionist and betray the dictatorship of the proletariat. He says, “the party is stuffed with bourgeois intellectuals at the rank of Ph.D and professor. These people enjoy the highest honors in the party, have the most to say and control the leading positions in the universities at all levels. Bourgeois intellectuals dominate the universities and have a strict ranking system.” He goes on to list particular examples of university leadership abusing power and hostility towards workers, echoing the Maoist thesis that, since the communist party became the leader of the state, the hierarchy of rulers and ruled was reproduced. The mass line is an attempt to counter this process by ensuring that the communist party doesn’t lose sight of those they claim to serve.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) was the logical conclusion of Maoist politics. The same problems that formed in the USSR began to seep into China: bureaucracy, the gradual separation of rulers from ruled, and special privileges granted to party leadership. In his account of the GPCR, Allen Jordan says, “in a bid to confront these problems, Mao sought recourse to means external to Party formalism; to counter the ossification of the party-state he would wager a daring bet — an assault by mass mobilization.” The movement quickly spiraled into a chaotic and violent mass movement, where “workers, students and peasants organized, resisted and finally fought one another — for the ‘seizure of power’ — virtually everywhere.” At the heart of the GPCR was an attempt to revolutionize the communist party and society through means external to the party-state; an anomaly in the history of post-revolutionary socialist states. An important component of this revolution was the desire to overthrow the persisting bourgeois elements of Chinese society, primarily the university system and the authority of intellectuals. Intellectuals were eventually sent to the countryside to learn how to perform manual labor, while workers occupied the universities. Jordan concludes,
Mao was forced to set in motion a suppression of the mass movement he had called into being by means of the only pillar of the state still standing relatively untouched: the military… The GPCR left Chinese Communists at an impossible impasse: a standoff between the formal representations of communist revolution and the revolutionary energies upon which a revolution depends for its existence. Mao and the rebels pushed this to its absolute limits but found a dead end in the abyss of civil war.
Despite the vast potential of the GPCR, Mao chose to back the party-state in the name of order. We all know what happened in China after: Mao dies, Deng takes over, and China embarks on the capitalist road. We should resist an idealist view of history that sees Mao’s death as a pivot in the development of communism in China, considering these forces were already operative before the GPCR. The latter was a final attempt to change course, yet Mao was already cynical of the possibility that revisionism would take over amongst party leadership. We might be tempted to believe that if Mao pressed forward without abandoning the GPCR, then maybe things would have turned out differently. Yet, as Josh Messite counters,
Won’t the political leaders, comfortable bureaucrats, and high-ranking military officials of the Party-State always decide that it’s too soon for their power to wither away, and that all arguments to the contrary are “ultra-democracy” or “anarchism”? In what situation would a post-revolutionary Communist Party conclude that its best course of action is self-abolition, gracefully handing its power over to the autonomous mass organizations which strive to replace it?
The relationship between workers and intellectuals has been central to the history of communist politics, yet the contradiction remains unsolved and communists have yet to find a way to build a communist society. Paraphrasing Badiou, we may be unable to solve the problem because we are posing it in the wrong terms. I believe posing the problems of contemporary politics in terms of the contradiction between intellectuals/socialists and workers leads us into a closed circle. To be able to pose the problem in the right terms, and to lead us towards a solution, it is necessary to rethink how we conceptualize theory, practice, intellectuals, and the relationship between each of them. Luckily, there have already been attempts within the Marxist tradition to do so.
Theory is a Practice
In For Marx, Louis Althusser re-examines the seemingly dichotomous relationship between theory and practice, criticizing its vagueness. Aren’t there specific practices that do very different things? Isn’t theory itself a practice? How can theory be outside of practice while simultaneously being a practice itself? Thus, Althusser defines practice in general, following Marx, as
Any process of transformation of determinate given raw material into a determinate product, a transformation affected by a determinate human labour, using determinate means (of ‘production’)... This general definition of practice covers the possibility of particularity: there are different practices which are really distinct, even though they belong organically to the same complex totality.
Every kind of practice, whether technical (the production of goods with use-value), artistic, theoretical, political, and so on, all transform raw materials (both material and ideological) via human labor (agents) and means of transformation (machinery, theories, tools), into something new, whether that be a finished product, social relations, an artwork, etc. Instead of theory being this abstract concept that influences practice, and vice versa, theory is now a specific form of practice itself, which occupies a place in the social totality as well as a direct relation to political practice. Althusser says, “theory is a specific practice which acts on its own object and ends in its own product: a knowledge. Considered in itself, any theoretical work presupposes a given raw material and some means of production (the concepts of the ‘theory’ and the way they are used: the method).”
Conceptualizing theory as a practice emphasizes that theory itself is never complete or finished. Althusser took inspiration from Gaston Bachelard, an influential mid century epistemologist, whose understanding of science and epistemology was premised on the concept of the problematic. A problematic entails the problems that a discipline poses, as well as the ways in which problems are posed as questions and then answered. The totality of the posing of questions, which is done through concepts, and the answers to the questions, which usually involves the production of new or modified concepts, comprises the problematic. For Bachelard, a science develops via ruptures in a problematic – when old concepts and questions are displaced and superseded by new ones. This view rejects the concept of a pure, complete science as a science is always producing new knowledge by struggling against ideological concepts, and by constructing new concepts. There is no linear development of science, as a science can have setbacks as well as progress. Althusser thinks of science, and Marxism as a science (the science of history and social formations), in Bachelardian terms.
Conceptualizing theory as a practice demands that Marxists are always seeking to produce new knowledge. After all, if a basic premise of dialectics is a constantly changing reality, then this demands that we continuously investigate and update our knowledge. In the field of politics, this would be a conjunctural approach, which refers to the balance of forces that form a given moment. Every Marxist is obligated to investigate their conjuncture in order to produce knowledge which can then be used to intervene in political practice. Theory cannot be dogmatically imposed and imported to understand a given conjuncture, as communists cannot uncritically rely on old tactics to intervene in the class struggles of today.
Gramsci on Intellectuals
While Althusser’s interventions conceptualized a new view of the relationship between theory, practice, and philosophy within Marxism, Gramsci’s theory of intellectuals provides a new way to think of their role within the social division of labor and politics. Hoare and Nowell Smith, the editors of the Prison Notebooks, say, “the central argument of Gramsci’s essay on the formation of the intellectuals is simple. The notion of ‘the intellectuals’ as a distinct social category independent of class is a myth. All men are potentially intellectuals in the sense of having an intellect and using it, but not all are intellectuals by social function.” There are two types of intellectuals:
- Traditional intellectuals, who typically reside in the university.
- Organic intellectuals, who are not defined by profession, and who emerge from a given class in the course of its development. Organic intellectuals are possible because of the potential for intellectual activity in each individual.
Gramsci is critical of attempts to produce a conception of intellectuals that focuses strictly on the nature of intellectual activities, rather than on the place of intellectual activity within the totality of the social formation. For example, workers are not characterized by the labor they perform, but by their function within the mode of production. He concludes, “all men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.” Gramsci notes that some groups of intellectuals have historically thought of themselves as independent and autonomous from other social groups. These are the “traditional” intellectuals, such as journalists, philosophers, and artists, but Gramsci demonstrates how the development of capitalism and the bourgeoisie produces that class’s own organic intellectuals, such as industrial technicians, economists, and lawyers. He concludes, “there are historically formed specialized categories for the exercise of the intellectual function… [and] one of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals.” The bourgeoisie clearly succeeded in this, as they have conquered the institutions of intellectual production (schools, universities, the press and media, etc), while also producing their own organic intellectuals. The school system is essential as it is the instrument that produces intellectuals, and Althusser would later argue that it is the dominant Ideological State Apparatus of the capitalist system.
The distinction between organic and traditional intellectuals creates problems, such as the relation of the intellectuals to political parties. While Gramsci observes throughout the Prison Notebooks that every individual is an intellectual, the division of labor in capitalist societies means that only a small group of people are recognized as intellectuals. As long as this division exists, intellectuals will assume revolutionary leadership because they have the organizational and theoretical skills to do so. “Yet at the same time, the role of political organizations would also be to cultivate mass “intellectualities… [which] reframes the question of political leadership.” Gramsci observes that the existence of ‘leaders’ and ‘led’ is a fundamental reality of politics, but “the question is whether leadership is oriented towards preserving this distinction for eternity, or generating “the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary.” Gramsci’s conception of intellectuals liberates us from an essentialist position where intellectuals possess a fixed nature and class orientation. Instead, all individuals are capable of becoming intellectuals, and intellectuals are spread throughout every class. Asad Haider concludes that Gramsci was “grappling, albeit in a hasty and triumphalist manner, with the tension between the underlying recognition that all people are intellectuals, and the conditions for politics in which those with the social function of intellectuals play a leadership role.”
Hoare and Nowell Smith argue that Gramsci’s conception of intellectuals is a critique of Kautsky, where “the relationship between workers and intellectuals in the Socialist movement [is posed] in formal and mechanistic terms, with the intellectuals — refugees from the bourgeois class — providing theory and ideology (and often leadership) for a mass base of non-intellectuals, i.e. workers.” They argue that Lenin opposes this conception in What is to be Done? and cite a quote where he calls for the obliteration of the division of labor between workers and intellectuals. They say that for Lenin, the Party fuses the workers and intellectuals into one, but I disagree with their analysis; I think Lenin clearly accepts the merger thesis and his conception of the party is designed to mediate the contradiction between the two. He accepts, like Kautsky, that this contradiction is a premise of organization. Even if Lenin and Kautsky have different positions on the relationship between workers and intellectuals and its mediation in politics, they are both thinking within the same logic. Regardless, Hoare and Nowell Smith say that Gramsci’s conception of intellectuals is based on Lenin’s: “the working class, like the bourgeoisie before it, is capable of developing from within its ranks its own organic intellectuals, and the function of the political party, whether mass or vanguard, is that of channeling the activity of these organic intellectuals and providing a link between the class and certain sections of the traditional intelligentsia.”
Even though the contradiction between workers and intellectuals may have been central to communist politics at one point, changes in the mode of production over the course of the 20th century have produced complications. For one, every individual in industrialized, Western countries now receives a compulsory education up until their late teenage years. While this education entails capitalist indoctrination, individuals still gain basic literacy and intellectual functions. This is in contrast to the bulk of the 19th and 20th centuries, where education was typically reserved for the middle and upper classes. Militants in those times would often teach workers and peasants how to read and write in the history of communist politics. This isn’t completely necessary for contemporary communists, and the only practice comparable would be learning how to communicate with workers and tenants who speak foreign languages in the multicultural regions of most American urban areas. Even individuals engaged in intellectual labor, such as in universities, are now wage-laborers subjected to the brutality of the capitalist labor market. Many academics are adjuncts subjected to temporary employment, low wages, and virtually zero job security. Thus in contemporary society, most workers are more than capable of reading, writing, and grasping theory, especially since many workers are employed in intellectual positions. While intellectuals in many cases still exist in the traditional sense, the boundaries have been blurred.
Furthermore, while Marxism, and socialism more broadly, were novel forms of political thought in the late 19th century, they are both widely known today (even if not always correctly understood). With the development of the internet, which makes it possible for anyone to learn about anything at any time, workers may gravitate towards Marxism and other ideologies all on their own. This stands in stark contrast to the 19th and 20th centuries, where workers would be introduced to Marxism through the party. In Vivian Gornick’s Romance of American Communism, the members of the CPUSA she interviewed all encountered Marxism through the organization, and there was only one case of an individual discovering Marxism on their own. Contrast that to today, where many individuals do not join an organization until after they have encountered Marxism or other forms of leftist theory. This is a result of the state of affairs I have described, but also a symptom of disorganization. Obviously, Marxism and socialism are still in the minority throughout society and the working class, but the point is that they do not have to be externally imported into the working class. Since many intellectuals and organizers themselves are workers, the circulation of Marxism and communism wouldn’t happen external to the working class movement at large, if we can even speak of such a thing anymore. The dramatic shifts in the mode of production have completely displaced labor organization. While the 20th century was dominated by the form of unions, usually in “productive” industries like manufacturing, deindustrialization and neoliberalism have seen the rapid decline of this type of union. Now, the labor movement is spearheaded by workers in the service and transportation industries, even if there are still significant developments in manufacturing unions like Amazon. In the 21st century United States, the role of intellectuals in society, combined with the state of the labor movement, is vastly different from the political and labor movements of the late 19th century. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read and incorporate the ideas and strategies of figures like Lenin or Kautsky per se, but that we need to base our own political strategies on a concrete analysis of our own situation.
Communism as Self-Organization
The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves. — Karl Marx, “Rules and Administrative Regulations of the International Workingmen’s Association”
I do not think that the merger thesis ought to describe the goals of contemporary politics. The contradiction between workers and intellectuals was a historically specific contradiction which masks a greater one: the contradiction between leaders and led. Reading the history of communist politics as a contradiction between leaders and led helps illuminate some of the problems of socialist construction in the USSR, the cataclysmic event of the GPCR, and the class struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s in western social democracy. Understood in this way, we can interpret the difficulties experienced in the USSR and China as the result of the maintaining of the division of manual and intellectual labor, where the party is responsible for decision making and administration, while the workers are still subordinate in the labor process and politics. While a complete abolition of the division of manual and intellectual labor throughout a society is likely impossible, the immediate goal is to abolish the hierarchy between the two. In other words, manual labor should no longer be subordinate to external decision makers. Communists should emphasize a conception of politics that acknowledges the capacity of thought within all individuals, and seeks to lay the conditions for the abolition of the division of labor. This is not a novel argument, as there are already conceptions of this kind of politics within Marxism and in the broader scope of emancipatory politics. Both Marx and Lenin emphasized themes of the division of labor and worker self-governance, and Sylvain Lazarus, who exists in some way beyond the Marxist tradition, developed a conception of politics centered on this notion.
There is a tension in Lenin’s theoretical and political practice, where in some cases he advocates for or implements top-down structures, while in others he advocates for the abolition of any division between manual and intellectual labor. His relation to the soviets, both before 1917 and during the process of socialist construction, illustrates this tension. The soviets, or workers’ councils, were an innovation of the 1905 Revolution independent from the Bolshevik party. Lenin believed that the 1905 Revolution, spearheaded by the soviets, provided the model for how revolution in Russia might unfold, as illustrated in his writings in the period thereafter. In 1905, he says, “The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies or the party? I think that it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the party.” Lenin believed that while the soviets were to be the model for a revolution, they still needed the guidance of the party in order to successfully carry out an insurrection.
By 1917, following the February Revolution, Lenin advocated for the construction of dual power, which is the practice of creating new political organs to coexist alongside the provisional government. He says, “alongside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing — the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” Lenin compares the soviets to the Paris Commune of 1871, which served as the Bolsheviks’ model for proletarian self-governance. In October, he would elaborate on the important features of the soviets’ in six points:
- A new state apparatus, providing an armed force of workers and peasants. This is distinct from typical standing armies because they are bound up with the people, rather than divorced from them.
- Provide a bond with the people, unlike the previous state apparatus.
- Heeding inspiration from the Paris Commune, the personnel of the Soviet are elected and subject to recall.
- Provide close contact with all professions.
- Provide an organizational form for the vanguard of the workers, and “means of which the vanguard of the oppressed classes can elevate, train, educate, and lead the entire vast mass of these classes, which has up to now stood completely outside of political life and history.”
- A step towards “direct” democracy in comparison to bourgeois parliamentary systems.
In the same article, Lenin responds to arguments made by other parties, many of which advocated for a coalition government with the bourgeoisie, on the Bolsheviks’ ability to effectively govern the revolutionary state. In response to these criticisms, Lenin advocates for the capacity of workers to self-govern, saying it is necessary to, “draw the working people, to draw the poor, into the daily work of state administration.” Lenin provides an example of the difference between how a capitalist state carries out an eviction versus a socialist state. Evictions under capitalism enforce the will of the bourgeoisie/state at the expense of working people, while evictions under socialism would enforce the rich to let others stay in their homes until new ones are built. Lenin adds,
We are not utopians. We know that an unskilled laborer or a cook cannot immediately get on with the job of state administration. In this we agree with the Cadets, with Breshkovskaya, and with Tsereteli. We differ, however, from these citizens in that we demand an immediate break with the prejudiced view that only the rich, or officials chosen from rich families, are capable of administering the state, of performing the ordinary, everyday work of administration. We demand that training in the work of state administration be conducted by class-conscious workers and soldiers and that this training be begun at once, i.e., that a beginning be made at once in training all the working people, all the poor, for this work.
Lenin exhibits a faith in the capacity of all people to think and make decisions, and believes this is how a worker-led society should operate. He concludes, “the chief thing now is to abandon the prejudiced bourgeois-intellectualist view that only special officials, who by their very social position are entirely dependent upon capital, can administer the state.”
As I covered earlier in the essay, the soviets did not become the base of socialist construction, having been hollowed out or destroyed by the early 1920s. The causes of this reversal are complex, as the USSR formed in the wake of a World War, an immediate counter-revolution and Civil War, and material isolation after the failure of socialist revolutions in Germany and Central Europe. The question of how and why the USSR developed the way it did remains a crucial question with which communists must grapple.
Workers’ inquiry, defined by the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the United States (led by CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya), Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, and Operaismo in Italy, is a form of political and theoretical practice based on the investigation of workers’ understandings of capitalist production/exploitation. The concept itself stems from Marx, who in 1880 was tasked with creating a survey that would be circulated amongst the French working class. Marx’s goal was to produce knowledge of the conditions of the working class that could be utilized in revolutionary intervention. In their article on the development of workers inquiry, Haider and Mohandesi say,
Marx had a high estimation of the autonomous activity of the working class. Not only would workers provide knowledge about the nature of capitalism, they would be the only ones who could overthrow it… workers’ inquiry, then, implied a certain connection between proletarian knowledge and proletarian politics. Socialists would begin by learning from the working class about its own material conditions. Only then would they be able to articulate strategies, compose theories, and draft programs. Inquiry would therefore be the necessary first step in articulating a historically appropriate socialist project.
The first to pick up on this practice were James and Dunayevskaya in the United States, where their Johnson-Forest Tendency emerged in opposition to the Trotskyist Workers Party (of which they were members). After splitting from the Trotskyists, they formed a newspaper (Correspondence) which would be controlled entirely by workers and feature workers’ writings. Haider and Mohandesi say, “the objective of the paper, then, was to make people realize the universality of their seemingly particular experiences, by providing a space where they could be disseminated.” Correspondence was a continuation of an earlier Johnson-Forest Tendency–published pamphlet, The American Worker, which began as a diary of a Detroit auto-worker, Phil Singer. James encouraged Singer to articulate his thoughts on workers’ frustrations in the workplace. The diary was paired with a theoretical essay by Grace Lee Boggs, another party member, and the latter “consciously drew on the concrete experiences documented in the first part in order to theorize the content of socialism in a world changed by automation, the assembly line, and semi-skilled labor.” The novelty of The American Worker was that it both documented the shifts within the mode of production from a worker embedded in the production process, while also laying the groundwork for a new political practice aimed at raising the consciousness of the other workers. Haider and Mohandesi explore the tensions in this project, mainly that the emphasis on a narrative account of working class life conflicts with Marx’s emphasis on producing a scientific account of the conditions of production. One worker’s account (or even multiple) may not be sufficient to produce this knowledge. Regardless, the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s experiments would inspire Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, and later Operaismo in Italy.
James would also pick up on Lenin’s maxim that every cook can govern in an article on the democracy of Ancient Greece. James says that in Ancient Greece, public officials were often chosen by selecting a random citizen. “The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out. Now the average CIO bureaucrat or Labor Member of Parliament in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested to him that any worker selected at random could do the work that he is doing, but that was precisely the guiding principle of Greek Democracy.” Of course, there’s a balance to be found between absolute democracy and some level of a division of labor. If every minute decision were to be debated by everyone, nothing would ever get done. James demonstrates that for specific things, like the military, specialists would be appointed but they were always held accountable to the people through the right to recall (just like the Commune). The fundamental question of politics is how to manage the contradiction between leaders and led. Do you do so by rotating leadership? By developing mechanisms where leaders are held accountable to the majority? Can this contradiction ever be overcome? Or is it just an inevitable facet of collective life?
Sylvain Lazarus, a long-time collaborator of Alain Badiou, was concerned with developing a conception of politics that is centered on every individuals’ capacity to think. He says, “people think is my founding statement,” which stands in stark opposition to the conception of politics premised on a division between manual and intellectual labor. Lazarus’s conception of politics makes a distinction between politics in interiority and politics in exteriority. Politics in exteriority are politics which define themself in relation to an external object (whether conceptual or empirical, such as the state). Politics in interiority is a politics at a distance from the state, which rejects a politics in exteriority. He says, “politics in interiority is a politics in subjectivity: Because the State-object is not its motivation or motor. Politico-statist logic is insufficient for capturing or understanding the capacity of the masses. Therefore, it is necessary to abandon referents given in terms of object, mainly: the State.” The statement that people think applies both to politics in interiority and politics in exteriority.
Politics in interiority exist in “modes,” and Lazarus argues that every mode of politics is specific to its own conjuncture; its categories cannot be effectively utilized outside of the conjuncture in which they were created. He elaborates on this more in “Lenin and the Party,” by arguing that the Leninist mode is defined by the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” while the Maoist mode is defined by “protracted people’s war.” These slogans were the guiding modes of subjectivity for these sequences. There are also places of politics that appear in each mode – for the Leninist, it is the party and the soviets. When these places disappear, so does the mode, which becomes saturated or exhausted. According to Lazarus, individuals in our conjuncture cannot effectively utilize the categories of the Leninist mode or the Maoist mode in the same way as their original conjunctures. Lazarus is basically taking a politics of the conjuncture to its logical extreme, saying “each political sequence in interiority is a singular phenomenon. As such, there is no universality of politics.” Politics in interiority are both sequential and rare – sequential in that they occur in sequences over time, and rare in that revolutionary or emancipatory politics do not occur often.
Lazarus argues that communism in the 20th century failed because it centered the state (politics in exteriority). This makes sense when you consider the bulk of political activity in the US, where communists dogmatically imported the codified Marxist-Leninist mode into their own conjuncture. Or in France and Italy, where the PCF and PCI centered electoral politics following World War II. Their economism or social democratic leaning was the product of a politics in exteriority. Politics in interiority is based on people’s capacity to think and engage in revolutionary activity, and this is essential because it is the foundation of revolutionary politics. Lazarus says, “the only argument in favor of the possibility of a rupture with the order of things is that the subjective exists, even if it is as adhesion to the order of things. If people think, then another subjectivation is possible.” Although a Marxist could argue that structural contradictions themselves are the basis of a rupture with the “order of things,”’ for Lazarus, the goal of emancipatory politics is emancipation itself, and not the seizure of state power or an exterior goal. Or to frame it another way, the goal of communist politics is communism – everything must orient around achieving that.
The examples in this section all advocate or argue for very different things in vastly different contexts. Lenin was advocating for workers’ self governance in the USSR during the period of socialist construction. James was arguing for workers autonomy in the context of building working class organization. And Lazarus was articulating a conception of politics premised on individuals’ capacity for thought. Despite the differences in these arguments, along with the differences in the politics and methodologies of each thinker, they all share a common theme: that communism is only meaningful and possible if it is driven by the workers and masses, rather than by representatives who stand above them. I insist on a distinction between Marxism and communism, where the former is a methodology and theory for analyzing social formations and their histories, which facilitates communist intervention in a political struggle. Marxism helps communists analyze a conjuncture and the various forces operating within it in order to intervene. Communism, on the other hand, is a politics premised on ethical principles, such as the relative equality of all individuals, the immorality of exploitation, and thus the immorality of a social formation built on both exploitation and oppression. Communism is a politics that seeks to establish a world without exploitation and oppression, and understands that a revolution will be necessary to establish the conditions for communism. Communism calls for the abolition of class, the state, private property, and the division of manual and intellectual labor. In this context, Lenin and James advance practical measures to move towards communism, and Lazarus articulates a conception of politics that shares the same premise.
Returning to where I started, I don’t think the problems of contemporary organizing today are rooted in some kind of imbalance in the relationship between theory and practice, which would need to be restored to equilibrium. I also don’t think the problems are reducible to some kind of contradiction between intellectuals (or activists) and real workers (or the masses). Rather, I believe the major problem of contemporary organizing, articulated by the Communist Caucus in, “Our Moment,” is widespread disorganization – the result of the destruction of the communist and labor movements of the 20th century. As Asad Haider observes in “On Depoliticization,” our conjuncture is defined by the defeat of the communist movement in the 20th century. The communist movement used to be defined by the institutions of the party and the union, and even if many of these parties and organizations are not desirable models for contemporary organization, there was an organizational infrastructure through which communists could intervene. These organizations were either destroyed or rendered obsolete towards the end of the 20th century, and we have nothing comparable today. This is both a positive and a negative – positive in the sense that we are free to build our own organizations, and negative in the sense that we are largely unable to meaningfully intervene in contemporary politics without organization. The goal for communists today is to rebuild working class and communist organization, and in a way that centers the self-organization of the working class and other oppressed groups. This will not be an easy task, as building organizations requires an abundance of time and energy, and poses many problems along the way (questions of recruitment, sustaining energy, adjusting tactics when necessary, navigating conflict, etc.). Regardless, only an organized communist movement can meaningfully intervene in the class struggles of tomorrow, and as long as capitalism exists, there will be crises which present the possibility for a rupture.
- Lars Lih, “VI Lenin and the Influence of Kautsky,” Weekly Worker UK, February 9, 2009.
- Louis Althusser outlines this thesis and its political effects in “Theory, Theoretical Practice, and Theoretical Formation,” in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, (London: Verson, 1990), 31-33. Alessandro Russo also observes this thesis in relation to Lenin’s What is to be Done? in Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 43-44.
- Guy Debord argues that the relationship of the party to the workers was one of representation in Society of the Spectacle. Debord argues that the results of this relationship were catastrophic, paving the way to bureaucracy, a maintaining of the division of manual and intellectual labor, and eventually leading to Stalinism and the development of the USSR into a form of state capitalism. I don’t entirely agree with Debord’s analysis of the USSR but I think his critique of representation points to a real problem within the history of Marxism.
- Renato Flores, “Marx Did Not Invent Socialism, He Observed It,” Cosmonaut Magazine, May 23, 2022.
- Sophia Burns, “For the Unity of Marxists, or the Unity of the Dispossessed?,” Cosmonaut Magazine, September 21, 2019.
- Burns, “For the Unity of Marxists, or the Unity of the Dispossessed?”
- Robin D.G. Kelley and Nyle Fort, “20 Years of Freedom Dreams,” Resist, (First Church Boston, September 16, 2022).
- WEB Du Bois argues in Black Reconstruction that the Civil War was the result of a general strike carried out by slaves, who then instituted a quasi-dictatorship of the proletariat in the South. Black communists would also play a significant role in the class struggles of the early 20th century, and composed a sizable portion of party membership in the CPUSA in the 1930s. Then of course, the most radical wing in the struggles of the 60s in the US was the Black Power movement, which split roughly into three camps: non-violent reformists (MLK and the Civil Rights movement), black nationalism (Malcolm X), and communists (The Black Panthers).
- The US based communist group Unity and Struggle produced an excellent analysis of the 2020 uprisings which can be found here.
- Salar Mohandesi, “Party as Articulator,” Viewpoint Magazine, September 2020.
- I think it makes more sense for communist organization to start out organically from these types of existing relationships, rather than by starting from trying to organize strangers via canvassing or other types of recruitment. It’s easier for communists to “sell” others on our politics if we have a pre-existing relationship because trust has already been built. The difficulty with organizing strangers is that there is no pre-existing relationship, and building that trust can take time. Of course, once an organization is large enough it is necessary to organize and canvas externally, and to build these types of relationships. My argument is that it is easier to begin building organization from organic relationships before branching out.
- Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” accessed from marxists.org.
- Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach.”
- Louis Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, (London: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 36.
- Althusser says, “The philosophical emptiness which followed the proclamation of Thesis XI was thus the fullness of a science, the fullness of the intense, arduous and protracted labour which put an unprecedented science on to the stocks, a science to which Marx was to devote all his life, down to the last drafts for Capital, which he was never able to complete. It is this scientific fullness which represents the first and most profound reason why, even if Thesis XI did prophetically announce an event which was to make its mark on philosophy, it could not give rise to a philosophy, or rather had to proclaim the radical suppression of all existing philosophy in order to give priority to the work needed for the theoretical gestation of Marx's scientific discovery” (ibid, 37).
- Mao Zedong, “On Contradiction,” in On Practice and Contradiction, (London: Verso, 2007), 91.
- Mao, “On Contradiction,” 91.
- Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done?, 1902, accessed from marxists.org.
- Mao, 92.
- This premise would be complicated throughout the 20th century, as the development of the soviets and council communist politics more broadly demonstrated that workers were capable of developing conceptions of politics that went beyond mere trade-unionism. Whether or not council communism was or can be an effective mode of organization is another question entirely.
- Asad Haider observes this in, “Pessimism of the Will,” Viewpoint Magazine, December 2019.
- The proceeding socialist revolutions all resulted in the formation of states, and even communist parties in Europe pivoted their strategies to become intertwined with capitalist states.
- Mao Zedong, "Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership" (Selected Works, Vol. III), 120.
- Maoyuan Hongqi, “The Black Façade of the Universities of German Revisionism,” ed. by Quinn Slobodian, Verso Blog, May 24, 2018.
- Allen Jordan, “Reading the Cultural Revolution,” Negation Magazine, May 2022.
- Jordan, “Reading the Cultural Revolution.”
- Alessandro Russo, a historian of the GPCR, quotes Mao in 1966 (the beginning of the GPCR), “Do you know when revisionism will likely occupy Beijing? Those who now support us will suddenly, as if by magic, become revisionists. This is the possibility I place first. . . . When those of our generation die, it is very likely that revisionism will come about… In short, we should have in mind two possibilities: the first is that there is a counterrevolutionary dictatorship, a counterrevolutionary restoration. Putting this probability as the first to take place, we are a bit worried. I too am sometimes distressed” (Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, 92).
- Josh Messite, “Who Needs A Party?” Negation Magazine, May 2022.
- In The Communist Hypothesis, Badiou says “the reason why we Maoists called the Parti Communiste Français and its satellites ‘revisionist’ is that we thought, in the same way that Lenin thought of the Social-Democrats Bernstein and Kautsky, that these organizations were turning the Marxist language they seemed to be using into its opposite. What we failed to see at the time was that it was the language itself that had to be transformed, but this time in an affirmative sense” (33). The failure of May ‘68 forced communists to re-evaluate the language in which they thought about politics, and they had to change this language in order to solve the problem.
- In Chapter 7 of Capital, Marx describes the labor process as “a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature's productions in a form adapted to his own wants… The elementary factors of the labour-process are (1), the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, (2) , the subject of that work, and (3), its instruments” (127).
- Louis Althusser, “On the Materialist Dialectic,” in For Marx, (London: Verso, 2010), 167.
- Althusser, “On the Materialist Dialectic,” 173.
- Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, Selections From the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci, (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 3.
- Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 9.
- Gramsci, 10.
- Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, (London: Verso, 2014).
- Haider, “Pessimism of the Will.”
- Hoare and Nowell Smith, Prison Notebooks, 3.
- Hoare and Nowell Smith, 4.
- I elaborate on Marx’s position in “What is Communism?” under the section on the division of labor.
- Vladimir Lenin, “Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies,” accessed from marxists.org, written November 2-4, 1905.
- Lenin, “The Dissolution of the Duma and the Tasks of the Proletariat” accessed from marxists.org, written July, 1906.
- Lenin, “The Dual Power,” accessed from marxists.org, written April 9, 1917.
- Vladimir Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” accessed from marxists.org, written October 1, 1917.
- Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?”
- Johnson and Forest were the respective pseudonyms adopted by James and Dunayevskaya.
- Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi, “Workers Inquiry: a Genealogy,” Viewpoint Magazine, September 27, 2013.
- Haider and Mohandesi, “Workers Inquiry.”
- Haider and Mohandesi.
- C.L.R. James, “Every Cook Can Govern,” in A New Notion, (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), 136-137.
- Sylvain Lazarus, “Can Politics Be Thought in Interiority?”, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Volume 12, no.1 (2016), 108.
- Lazarus, “Can Politics Be Thought in Interiority?”, 110.
- Lazarus, “Lenin and the Party,” in Lenin Reloaded, (Durham: Duke University, 2007), 267.
- Lazarus, “Can Politics Be Thought in Interiority?,” 113.
- Ibid, 119.
- Communist Caucus, “Our Moment: Disorganization as the Problem of our Time.”
- Asad Haider, “On Depoliticization,” Viewpoint Magazine, December 16, 2019.